National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA History Division
NASA's Origins and the Dawn of the Space Age (Upcoming Monograph 10)

NASA 40th Anniversary Banner 1958-1998

NASA's Origins and the Dawn of the Space Age

by David S. F. Portree

1. Sputnik Night: October 4-5, 1957

Sputnik lifted off from Soviet Central Asia at 10:26 p.m. Moscow time on Friday, October 4, 1957. At 1:22 a.m. the next morning, Radio Moscow announced that the Earth had a new, Soviet-made moon. By then the 83.6-kilogram (184.3-pound) aluminum alloy sphere had twice passed unnoticed over the United States, where it was then mid-afternoon on October 4.

One of the first Americans to learn of the launch was Dr. Lloyd Berkner, the geophysicist who, in 1950, had suggested that the time was ripe for an international program of global geophysical research. Berkner's suggestion grew into the 18-month International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58.(1) He soon became coordinator for IGY rocket and satellite plans.

At about 6:15 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on October 4, 1957, Berkner was at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a reception wrapping up the week-long IGY Rockets and Satellites Conference. The news from Moscow came by telephone to Walter Sullivan, senior science correspondent for the New York Times, and made its way to Berkner, who called for quiet and announced: "I have just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement." (2)

Half a world away, in Barcelona, many delegates to the 8th International Astronautical Congress had gone to their hotel rooms, after a busy day of presentations, by the time the news broke. Some, like British author Arthur C. Clarke, first learned of Sputnik when they were awakened by reporters seeking authoritative comment on the Soviet achievement.(3) The aerospace industry magazine Aviation Week reported that the Barcelona Congress became an impromptu international forum for "much animated informal discussion about what the U.S. could do to recoup some of its scientific prestige. Manned space flight or hitting the moon were the two most common suggestions, but even those were tinged with doubt that there still existed an American lead in these categories." The magazine quoted an unnamed U.S. military official at the Congress as saying "if it weighs 18 pounds they're ahead of us - if it weighs 180 pounds, I'm scared!" An unnamed European delegate, the magazine also reported, pointed to the 23 U.S. and five Soviet papers at the Congress and pointedly concluded that "Americans talk about [spaceflight] and the Russians do it."(4)

Over the next few weeks the Sputnik launch emerged as a watershed in the history of the cold war. The twelve-month period beginning with Sputnik's launch ended with the birth of the U.S. civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The agency's creation was a product of post-Sputnik fears, but was shaped also by cautious Eisenhower administration space policies established in the early 1950s, soon after launching a satellite first emerged as a serious possibility.

2. Korolev & freedom of space: February 14, 1954-October 4, 1957

The space programs of the cold war adversaries formed a symbiotic relationship - a race which spurred the other forward - several years before Sputnik. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, much new information on the prehistory of the Soviet space program became available. (5)

One man dominated Soviet space engineering in the 1950s and 1960s. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev headed a Soviet amateur rocketry organization in the 1930s and survived Joseph Stalin's forced labor camps to build missiles in the 1940s and 1950s. On May 20, 1954, the Soviet government ordered Korolev's design bureau, OKB-1, to develop the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. On May 26, Korolev dispatched to the Soviet government the Report on an Artificial Satellite of the Earth, authored by his old friend Mikhail Klavdiyevich Tikhonravov. He pointed out that the R-7 missile could be used as a satellite launcher and included written materials from the U.S. demonstrating American interest in satellite launches.(6)

Work towards U.S. satellites occurred on several levels in the early 1950s. Civilian interest centered on the possibility of launching science satellites during the IGY. At the same time, the military carried out several reconnaissance satellite studies. The major issue affecting the timing of subsequent U.S. satellite launches apparently emerged as early as June 1952 in the Beacon Hill Report, authored by a 15-person study group convening at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report pointed out that military satellites would orbit over Soviet territory, and could thus be considered a violation of national sovereignty. For this reason, the report stated, their deployment would have to be authorized at the U.S. presidential level. (7)

On February 14, 1955, the Technological Capabilities Panel ("the Surprise Attack Panel") issued its report, Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack, in which it reiterated the Beacon Hill group's contention and suggested a solution. The Panel advised that a small science satellite should be launched as early as possible to establish the principle of "freedom of space" for military satellites that would follow.(8) Eisenhower's advisers adopted the principle of "freedom of space" soon thereafter.(9)

By this time discussion of a science satellite was well advanced in U.S. scientific circles. This culminated in a U.S.-sponsored initiative prompting the international ruling body of the IGY to call for science satellite launches during the IGY. The resolution was adopted in Rome on October 4, 1954.

The Rome resolution pulled back the hammer on the starter's gun in the satellite race. It helped ensure that Korolev's preliminary satellite work did not languish, and it led to creation of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Coordination and Control of Work in the Field of Organization and Accomplishment of Interplanetary Communications, the first organization within the Soviet Academy of Sciences devoted to spaceflight.(10) The organization, existence of which was announced on April 16, 1955, was chaired by Academician Leonid Sedov.

A month before Sedov's announcement, on March 14, 1955, the U.S. National Committee for the IGY had issued a report declaring feasible a U.S. science satellite launch during the IGY. It submitted the report to the National Science Foundation, which took it to President Eisenhower. On May 18, 1955, the U.S. IGY committee formally approved the satellite project. The National Security Council (NSC) considered the project on May 20, 1955, and issued a draft policy statement (NSC 5520). On May 26, 1955, the National Security Council formally approved U.S. government participation in the U.S. IGY science satellite project. The NSC's unstated aims were to establish the principle of "freedom of space" and to accrue for the U.S. the prestige benefits of launching the first satellite. The IGY science satellite program was not to interfere with high-priority missile programs.(11) On May 27, Eisenhower approved the plan. On July 29, 1955, Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, announced that the U.S. would launch a science satellite during the IGY.

Without realizing it, Eisenhower fired the starter's gun in the race to launch an Earth satellite. News of the announcement reached the 6th International Astronautical Congress in Copenhagen on August 2, 1955, where Academician Sedov was in attendance. That same day, Sedov held a press conference at the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen, at which he announced that "the realization of the [Soviet] satellite project can be expected in the near future."(12)

On August 30, 1955, Korolev presented to the Soviet government's Military-Industrial Commission a new satellite report completed two weeks earlier by Tikhonravov. On the basis of the report the Commission approved using the R-7 ICBM to launch a 1.5-ton satellite-this over opposition from Soviet missile men, who worried that the satellite effort would interfere with ballistic missile development. Later that day, Korolev told representatives of the Soviet Academy of Sciences that he could launch the first in a series of IGY science satellites in April-June 1954, before the IGY started. The Academy representatives approved the project. Work on the satellite's scientific program began immediately, but the Soviet Council of Ministers did not issue its formal decree authorizing the program (No. 149-88ss) until January 30, 1956.(13) The satellite was designated Object-D.

The following month Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev visited OKB-1 to see the R-7 missile. Korolev made the most of the opportunity. He displayed an Object-D mockup and described U.S. satellite plans. Krushchev expressed concern that the satellite program might interfere with missile work, but accepted Korolev's assurances to the contrary and endorsed the program.(14)

One of Korolev's selling points was that the R-7 ICBM was well along in development. It therefore stood a good chance of launching the first satellite because the U.S. had elected to build an entirely new rocket for its satellite effort. The Soviet engineer's assessment was not far off the mark.

On August 3, 1955, the Stewart Committee had approved the Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard plan for an IGY science satellite. This Committee was chaired by Homer Stewart of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology, and was made up of eight members appointed by the Department of Defense and the branch services. The Committee chose Vanguard from a field of three rival projects - the Air Force "World Series" plan, which envisioned launching a satellite weighing about 2500 kilograms (about 5000 pounds) on an Atlas missile with an upper stage; the Army's Project Orbiter, which proposed to launch a 5-pound, poorly instrumented satellite on a Redstone missile with a Loki upper stage; and Vanguard, which had going for it an impressive suite of science instruments but which required development of a new rocket based partly on the Viking sounding rocket. The Air Force plan was eliminated because it might interfere with missile development. The Stewart Committee had difficulty choosing between the Army and NRL plans. The Army booster clearly won out over the Vanguard rocket, which existed only on paper, while the NRL satellite's impressive instrument complement was in keeping with the scientific spirit of the IGY. For a time the Committee considered launching the NRL satellite on the Army booster, but its members worried that interservice rivalry might delay the satellite past the IGY.(15) By some accounts the final vote could have gone for either Orbiter or Vanguard, and may in fact have been decided in the end by the absence of one member due to illness.(16)

The Vanguard program was officially started on September 9, 1955, with a plan to build six vehicles. Of these, one was expected to reach orbit. The program had a budget of $20 million and an 18-month timetable leading to first orbital launch. The Object-D program began officially on February 25, 1956, with satellite assembly beginning on March 5, and launch targeted for the spring of 1957.(17) Both the U.S. and Soviet programs immediately fell behind schedule.

On September 14, 1956, Korolev addressed the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to plead for additional support in meeting the target launch date. He complained that subcontractors were not making required deliveries. Korolev had become anxious when he received a report--mistaken, as it turned out--that a September 1956 missile test at Cape Canaveral had been a failed satellite launch attempt.

In addition, the R-7 engine modified for satellite launches was not performing at the thrust level expected. Korolev drove himself and his staff mercilessly to solve the problem, but finally had to change his plans. On January 5, 1957, he formally proposed reducing the weight of the first Soviet satellite to improve its chances of being first in space. He cited the supposed failed U.S. satellite launch and his belief that the U.S. could try again in early 1957. In fact, Korolev proposed two "simple satellites." PS-1 and PS-2, as they were known, would each weigh about 100 kilograms (220-pound). The Soviet Council of Ministers approved the change on February 15, 1957.(18)

Korolev need not have driven himself and his staff so hard, for in the U.S. Vanguard also had problems. Between September 1955 and April 1957, The program's cost shot up from $20 million to $110 million. On May 3, 1957, the Bureau of the Budget sent an urgent memorandum on the overruns to President Eisenhower. He placed the issue on the agenda of the May 10 National Security Council meeting.

John Hagen, Vanguard program director, and Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences, may have felt buoyed by the successful second Vanguard test launch on May 1. TV-1, as it was known, tested a rocket consisting of a liquid-fueled Vanguard first stage (a modified Viking sounding rocket) and a prototype solid-fueled Vanguard third stage. Hagen attempted to justify the program on the basis of its expected scientific return, and Bronk appealed to Eisenhower's vision of the future, declaring that the first satellite launch would mark the start of a new historical epoch. But the President would have none of that--he kept the discussion focused on Vanguard's escalating cost. Eisenhower complained that the scientists had "gold-plated" their instruments and produced plans for satellites larger and more elaborate than those he had approved. The act of launching the satellite was what would create prestige, not the instruments it carried, he said. ("Freedom of space" was not directly mentioned, though NSC directive 5520 was.) Eisenhower grudgingly admitted that the U.S. had little choice but to continue the costly program because it had publicly announced that it would launch a satellite, but he insisted that the total cost be held to $110 million. The President stated that, while six Vanguards were being built, there was no reason to suppose that all six would be launched. The Vanguard program might end as soon as it succeeded in placing a satellite in orbit. There was little hint of urgency.(19)

The IGY began on July 1, 1957, and a few days later, on July 5, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported to Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles that a Soviet satellite launch might occur as early as the birthday anniversary of Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovskii on September 17. This intelligence apparently excited little interest among members of the administration who learned of it.(20) Korolev might have been gratified at the time to know that the CIA supposed that he might launch a satellite as early as September, for his R-7 rocket was having trouble. By the end of July it failed three times in succession. Finally, on August 21, 1957, the missile flew successfully for the first time. The flight was announced to the world on August 27, but many in the U.S. were skeptical that the Soviets had accomplished theworld's first ICBM test. A second, less publicized, test on September 7 was also successful.

The September 17 target date had to slip, however. On September 20, the State Commission for the PS-1 satellite authorized an October 6 launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan. Fearful that the U.S. might launch its satellite during the September 30-October 5 IGY Rockets and Satellites Conference in Washington, Korolev advanced PS-1's launch to October 4.(21) The R-7 rocket modified for launching PS-1 was placed on the pad on October 3. Fueling began at 5:45 a.m., Baikonur time the next day, and the rocket lifted off 16 hours later. Six minutes after liftoff, PS-1--soon re-named Sputnik--ejected from its expended carrier rocket to became a second moon of Earth. A new age of exploration was under way.

3. One Small Ball in the Air: October 4, 1957-November 3, 1957

On Friday, October 4, 1957, U.S. domestic news was dominated by Eisenhower's decision to send troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce civil rights legislation integrating the schools. When Americans heard about Sputnik, some stepped outside to look for the racing spot of light moving across the crisp autumn sky. Others stayed inside to tune in the premiere of a comedy television program called "Leave it to Beaver."

The Eisenhower administration viewed the Soviet satellite less as a military threat than as a boost to its behind-the-scenes efforts to establish the principle of "freedom of space" ahead of eventual military reconnaissance satellite launches. Sputnik overflew international boundaries yet aroused no diplomatic protests. Four days after Sputnik's launch, on October 8, Donald Quarles summed up a discussion he had with Eisenhower - "the Russians have. . .done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space. . .The President then looked ahead. . . and asked about a reconnaissance [satellite] vehicle."(22)

That same day, in response to mounting public alarm, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent White House Press Secretary Hagerty a memorandum on the Soviet satellite. Dulles called the Sputnik launch "an event of considerable technical and scientific importance," but hastened to add that its "importance should not be exaggerated. . .the value of the satellite to mankind will for a long time be highly problematical." Furthermore, the Secretary asserted, "the United States. . .has not neglected this field. It already has a capability to utilize outer space for missiles and it is expected to launch an earth satellite during the present geophysical year in accordance with a program that has been under orderly development over the past two years." (23)

The furor over Sputnik's launch took several days to build as opinion-makers struggled to interpret the event in the wider context of U.S. national security. Dulles' comments became the basis for the Eisenhower administration's response to the Soviet satellite. The day after Hagerty received the memorandum, on October 9, 1957, Eisenhower faced the press for the first time since the launch. Seeking to calm Congress and the public, he assured reporters that Sputnik contained "no additional threat to the United States," adding that "from what [the Soviets] say, they have put one small ball in the air." When asked how his administration could have let the Soviets be first in space, Eisenhower said that "no one ever suggested to me. . .a race except, of course, more than once we would say, well, there is going to be a great psychological advantage in world politics to putting the thing up, but. . .in view of the real scientific character of our development, there didn't seem to be a reason for just trying to grow hysterical about it." He added that he had provided the U.S. satellite and missile efforts with funds "to the limit of my ability. . .and that is all I can do." (24)

Eisenhower's greatest error in the Sputnik crisis was his failure to appreciate the psychological dimension of launching the first satellite. Far from being about science solely, Sputnik came to be about the way Americans saw themselves. Many saw Sputnik as confirmation that the Soviets had an operational intercontinental ballistic missile, a feat the U.S., supposedly the technological leader of the world, could not yet match.(25) The administration's efforts to quell fears immediately backfired. Many interpreted Eisenhower's statements as evidence that he was out of touch. NASA Historian Roger Launius has summed up the (unfair) popular appraisal of Eisenhower at the time: "A smiling incompetent. . .a 'do-nothing,' golf-playing president mismanaging events. . ."(26) His comments looked weak placed beside the alarmist statements emanating from Congress. Typical of these were comments by Democratic Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, chair of the Armed Services Committee: "We now know beyond a doubt that the Russians have the ultimate weapon - a long-range missile capable of delivering atomic and hydrogen explosives across continents and oceans. . ." (27)

Many criticized Eisenhower for pinching pennies and making ill-informed decisions without free debate at the expense of national technological leadership and security. As Aviation Week Editor-in-Chief Robert Hotz stated in the first of a series of scathing post-Sputnik editorials:

We believe that the people of this country have a right to know the facts about the relative positions of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in this technological race which is perhaps the most significant event of our times. They have the right to find out why a nation with our vastly superior scientific, economic, and military potential is being at the very least equaled and perhaps surpassed by a country that less than two decades ago couldn't even play in the same scientific ball park. They also have the right to make decisions as to whether they want their government to maintain our current leadership of the free world regardless of the cost in dollars and sweat. . .They are not decisions to be made arbitrarily by a clique of leaders in an ivory tower or on a golf course.(28)

On the day Eisenhower faced the media, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson received his first post-Sputnik briefing from the Pentagon. Johnson was entertaining friends at his ranch near Austin, Texas when the Sputnik news broke. "In the Open West you learn to live closely with the sky," he wrote later of the night of October 4. "It is part of your life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien."(29) In addition to an alien sky over the Texas hill country, Johnson saw in Sputnik an issue important to the nation which could advance his career and party. According to Johnson aide Glen Wilson, Johnson launched plans that very night for a public investigation into the state of U.S. satellite and missile programs in the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee, which he chaired.(30)

Eisenhower publicly downplayed concerns over Sputnik, but behind the scenes he took modest steps to counter the Soviet propaganda victory. On October 8 he had asked outgoing Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson to order the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, to ready a Jupiter-C rocket to launch a satellite. Not until November 8, however, did the command reach the Redstone Arsenal and become public.(31) ABMA received authorization from the Army for two launch attempts. Project Vanguard transferred a science instrument - James Van Allen's radiation detector - from one of the later planned Vanguard satellites to the ABMA effort.

By then the Eisenhower administration had twice as many reasons for launching a U.S. satellite as soon as possible. On November 3, 1957, Korolev's team had launched Sputnik 2. The satellite, which included 508 kilograms (1118 pounds) of payload, was a hastily prepared combination of the PS-2 satellite and a life support capsule for a dog originally designed for brief sounding rocket flights. On board was a canine passenger named Laika.

4. The Birth of NASA: November 3, 1957-October 1, 1958

Eisenhower spoke on television on November 7 as Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 orbited the Earth. He displayed a missile nosecone recovered after a sub-orbital flight on a Jupiter-C rocket a few days before. Eisenhower's prepared statement focused on improving science and technology education, and announced theappointment of Dr. James Killian, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president, as his Special Assistant for Science and Technology. Killian's appointment was interpreted in Congress as a determination to put a civilian spin on the growing debate over the future course of U.S. space exploration. (32) Eisenhower confirmed this conviction during a November 13 speech on technical education in Oklahoma City, in which he spoke publicly of a civilian space agency for the first time.

On Monday, November 25, the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee hearings commenced. They kept Lyndon Johnson and the missile and space issues in the public eye for several weeks. Seventy-three witnesses gave their assessments of the state of U.S. missile technology and interpretations of the events leading up to Sputnik. John Hagen told Johnson that Project Vanguard could have beat Sputnik 1 into orbit if it had been afforded a higher priority.(33) He reported that he had asked for higher priority in 1955 but never received a response.(34)

Donald Quarles testified that, in retrospect, the job of launching an IGY satellite should have been given to the Army in 1955. He hastened to add, however, that "[t]aking the missile program as a whole and comparing their [the Soviet] program with our own, I estimate that as of today our program is ahead." He told Subcommittee chair Johnson that the U.S. was ahead in electronics, but it was hard to say which country was ahead in missiles. It was true, he said, that the Russians had a more powerful rocket engine, but "one would be even there cautious about the statement that they were ahead of us in rocket engines." He reported that since Sputnik 1 there had been no acceleration of U.S. rocket programs - none was necessary. Johnson interpreted this as complacency on the part of the Pentagon and the Eisenhower White House. "The net of it is," he drawled, "that the American people can have adequate defense and eat their cake too - and even have whipped cream on it." (35)

The Subcommittee did not explore specifically how the U.S. should organize to explore space, but this complex and contentious issue was a subtext. As the hearings continued into early December, the Eisenhower administration transferred to the White House the Science Advisory Committee of the Defense Department's Office of Defense Mobilization. It became the nucleus of the new President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which was constituted in part to consider how best to organize the U.S. space effort. Five new members were added, including James Doolittle, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). NACA was created in 1916 to be the civilian government organization performing research into aviation.

The push to organize a national space program received new impetus on December 6, when the Vanguard TV-3 rocket climbed about a yard above its Florida launch pad before falling back and exploding. The mission was to have been the first all-up test of the new Vanguard rocket. TV-3 carried a 1.7-kilogram (3.25-pound) test satellite derided by Soviet leader Krushchev as an "orange." (36)

On December 30, James Killian wrote a memorandum to Eisenhower in which he noted that many scientists held "deeply felt convictions" opposing Defense Department control of the space program because they felt it would limit space research strictly to military objectives and would tar all U.S. space activity as military in nature. He then offered some organizational alternatives for space which he believed would provide "the means for non-military basic space research while at the same time taking advantage of the immense resources of the military missile and recon satellite programs." Killian proposed a Defense Department-run "central space laboratory with a very broad charter" which he likened to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He wrote that the administration might also "encourage NACA to extend its space research and provide it with the necessary funds to do so."(37, 38)

ABMA's Explorer satellite program continued in its backup role following Vanguard TV-3's failure in December. Range restrictions prevented simultaneous Vanguard and Explorer launch preparations. ABMA's opportunity came on January 26 when the backup to the ill-fated TV-3 vehicle, Vanguard TV-3BU, had to stand down pending a second stage engine replacement. This gave the Huntsville team until about February 1 to make a launch attempt. The first attempt on January 30 was scrubbed due to unfavorable winds aloft. The jet stream shifted north the next day, however. At 10:48 p.m. Eastern Time on January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 lifted off on top of a Jupiter-C. At 12:51 a.m. on February 1 successful orbit was confirmed.

Explorer 1's success encouraged supporters of a crash effort to recoup lost U.S. prestige by launching an automated probe to the moon. The proposal, first discussed in Barcelona the morning after Sputnik, came up for discussion in the February 4, 1958, Legislative Leadership Meeting at the White House, an opportunity for Republican congressional leaders and the Eisenhower administration to compare notes.

Interestingly, despite his problems with the Sputniks, Eisenhower remained cold to reaping the prestige benefits of a moon shot. The meeting minutes state that Eisenhower was "firmly of the opinion that the rule of reason had to be applied to these Space projects--that we couldn't pour unlimited funds into these costly projects where there was nothing of early value to the Nation's security. . .In the present situation, the President mused, he would rather have a good Redstone than be able to hit the moon, for we didn't have any enemies on the moon!" When Senator William Knowland pointed out the prestige value of being first to hit the moon, Eisenhower relented partly, saying that, if a rocket now available could do the job, work should go ahead. But the President stressed that he "didn't want to rush into an all-out effort on each of these possible glamor performances without a full appreciation of their great cost."(39)

Meanwhile, Congress discussed alternatives for organizing the U.S. space program. House Majority Leader John McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat, called for a presidentially appointed National Science Council, while another faction sought to put the space program under control of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Democratic Senators John McClellan of Arkansas and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, called for establishment of a Department of Science and Technology headed by a Cabinet-level Secretary, a proposal Eisenhower opposed.(40)

Although making NACA the nucleus of a civilian space program did not at first find supporters in Congress, it soon became the favorite option of the PSAC. On February 4 the Purcell Panel was established to consider organizational alternatives for space. The panel was named for Nobel Laureate Edward Purcell, who was appointed to the PSAC in December when it transferred to the White House. On February 21, Paul S. Johnston, Director of the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences and a participant in the panel, summed up the issue of space program organization as one of "exploration" versus "control." The latter, he said, was a military function. He cited four possible organizational alternatives:

On February 6, the Senate formed an ad hoc Special Committee on Space and Astronautics chaired by Lyndon Johnson. On March 5, the same day Vanguard 1 reached orbit, the House established the ad hoc Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration with House Majority Leader John McCormack as chair. Also on March 5, the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization chair Nelson Rockefeller, James Killian, and Percival Brundage, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, recommended to Eisenhower that "leadership of the civil space effort be lodged in a strengthened and redesignated National Advisory Committee for Astronautics." Eisenhower immediately authorized their proposal and assigned the Bureau of the Budget to draft the required legislation.

In a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 2, Eisenhower called for a NACA-based civilian National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). The President also handed down a directive ordering NACA and the Defense Department to begin arranging transfer of nonmilitary Department of Defense space assets to NACA. On April 14 Lyndon Johnson and New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges introduced the Senate version of the NASA bill (S-3609) and John McCormack introduced the House version (HR-11881). Hearings commenced the following day.

On May 1, James Van Allen announced that radiation detectors aboard Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 (launched March 26) had been swamped by high radiation levels at certain points in their orbits. This pointed to the existence of powerful radiation belts surrounding the Earth. The detection of the Van Allen Belts was the first major space discovery. Supporters of Eisenhower's methodical approach to space exploration capitalized on the find, pointing out that the Soviet Union's two heavy Sputniks had accomplished no equivalent scientific feat. In fact, the Soviets had not launched a new satellite since Sputnik 2 in November.

On May 5, NACA chair James A. Doolittle testified to the House Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration that the U.S. civilian space program had "two focused objectives--gaining scientific data using automated probes and sending into space craft that will carry men on voyages of exploration." Branding an early moon shot a "stunt," Doolittle added that "[i]n our programming we should keep our eyes focused on these objectives. The fact that the Russians may accomplish some specific objectives in their space programs first should not in itself be permitted to divert us from our own designated objectives."(42)

Korolev's team had not stopped work since Sputnik 2. On May 15, Korolev finally launched the conical, 1330-kilogram (2926-pound) Object-D satellite. Academician Sedov declared that "The new Sputnik. . . could easily carry a man with a stock of food and supplementary equipment."(43) The sheer size of the satellite triggered new recriminations and new calls for action. Aviation Week editor-in-chief Robert Hotz again articulated well the mood in the U.S. space community:

Successful launching of the 3000-lb Soviet Sputnik III should dispel most of the wishful thinking that has hung over the U.S. space policy since the fiery plunge of Sputnik II into the Caribbean [on April 14]. It proves once again that the Soviets' early Sputniks were no lucky accidents. It proves that the Soviet space program is a well-organized, consistent effort that is attempting to progress in significant increments rather than simply shooting for some spectacular, international propaganda stunt. It also indicates that the Soviet program has solid and consistent support not subject to the ups and downs of top level policy changes or political whims of the moment. . .We are still debating in Congress the advisability of establishing a National Aeronautics and Space Agency. We hope Sputnik III will shake some of the Congressional nitpickers out of their lofty perches and prod them into action on this vital measure.(44)

Hotz soon got his wish. The House NASA bill passed on June 2, with the Senate version following on June 16. The most important conflict between the bills was the structure and composition of a committee advising the agency's director. The House bill--which Eisenhower favored--made provision for a relatively weak 17-member advisory committee, while the Senate bill had a strong 7-member policy board. A bipartisan 19-member blue ribbon panel chaired by Johnson produced a joint version that retained the strong policy board. The President continued his opposition to the policy board on the grounds that it would usurp presidential authority. Eisenhower and Johnson met at the White House on July 7 to break the impasse. Johnson suggested that the president serve as chair of the policy board, and Eisenhower agreed.(45) The blue ribbon panel met for the final time on July 15, changing the policy board's name to the National Aeronautics and Space Council. Congress passed the final version of the bill on July 16, and President Eisenhower signed it into law on July 29, 1958.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (PL 85-568) stated that NACA would become NASA after 90 days unless the transition was proclaimed sooner by the NASA Administrator. On August 8, Eisenhower nominated T. Keith Glennan, the President of Case Institute of Technology, to be NASA's first Administrator. He nominated NACA Director Hugh Dryden as Deputy Administrator. The Senate confirmed the nominations with little debate on August 14. On August 19, the Department of Defense and NASA agreed to transfer nonmilitary space projects, but deferred the actual transfers until after NASA was in place. Glennan and Dryden were sworn in on August 20.

On August 17, the U.S. attempted its first moon shot, an ARPA lunar orbiter on a Thor missile with an Able-1 upper stage. The Air Force Thor first stage exploded after 77 seconds, destroying the 38-kilogram (84-pound) probe.

On September 4, Eisenhower appointed his fellow National Space Council members. These included Glennan, Detlov Bronk, and James Doolittle. Glennan proclaimed NASA ready to succeed NACA on September 25 and, on October 1, 1958, NASA officially opened for business with five facilities inherited from NACA: Lewis Research Center in Ohio, Langley Research Center and the Wallops rocket test range in Virginia, and Ames Research Center and the Muroc aircraft test range in California. That same day Eisenhower issued an executive order transferring space projects and appropriations from other space programs to NASA. These gave NASA 8240 staff (8000 from NACA) and a budget of approximately $340 million.

5. Denouement: NASA's first 18 months (October 1, 1958-December 20, 1960)

On October 7, NASA formally organized its first "man-in-space" program, which was formally dubbed Project Mercury on November 26. ARPA's launch of the 37.5 kilogram (82.5-pound) Pioneer 1 on October 11 marked resumption of U.S. efforts to reach the moon. The probe failed to attain lunar orbit because of a problem in its second stage but reached a record 115,000-kilometer (69,000-mile) apogee. Pioneer 1 burned up on October 13.

John Hagen transferred from NRL to NASA on November 5 to prepare for theVanguard transfer, which duly moved to the agency on November 20 with $25 million in unexpended funds. Vanguard staff transferred from NRL on November 30. Personnel continued to work where they were located, however, with many making no physical transfer until the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland opened in early 1960.

ARPA handed over Pioneer to NASA in November. The Army proved reluctant to carry out transfers, and in fact fought them in public, through the press. On December 3, however, Eisenhower intervened, issuing an executive order that transferred JPL--then under Army jurisdiction--to NASA. ABMA remained under Army control but agreed to make its resources responsive to NASA needs. In fact, NASA received authorization to bypass the Pentagon and deal directly with Huntsville.

On December 6, the 5.9-kilogram (13-pound) Pioneer 3 spacecraft carried out NASA's first foray beyond low-Earth orbit. The probe reached an apogee of 102,000 kilometers (61,200 miles) before falling back to Earth.

The IGY, the 18-month scientific program that spawned the space race and NASA, drew to a successful close on December 31. On January 2, 1959, Luna 1 (known also as Mechta, meaning "dream") performed the first lunar flyby. It soared past the moon's ancient, battered craterscape at a distance of about 5000 kilometers (3000 miles). The 361.3-kilogram (795-pound) probe left Earth on an R-7 with an upper stage. Luna 1, intended to impact the lunar surface, instead became the first artificial object in solar orbit.

On March 3, NASA launched Pioneer 4. The little probe flew 60,000 kilometers (36,000 miles) past the moon and entered solar orbit. Then, on April 9, NASA selected seven astronauts for the Mercury program.

The Soviet Union succeeded in hitting the moon on September 12, 1959, with the Luna 2 spacecraft, a near-twin of Luna 1. Luna 3 lifted off on the second anniversary of Sputnik 1. The 278-kilogram (612-pound) flyby probe returned the first pictures of the lunar farside on October 7.

The U.S. had lost another heat in the space race to the Soviet Union. This "Second Sputnik" humiliation helped push the moon closer to the center of U.S. space policy. On balance, though, the American response to Soviet moon successes was less strident than those generated by the Sputniks. This time the U.S. had a space agency in place to meet the challenge.

In early 1960, Korolev began launching a series of recoverable Korabl-Sputniks - test versions of the Vostok spacecraft which would launch the first humans into orbit in 1961. NASA, meanwhile, took delivery of its first Mercury capsule on April 1, 1960.

ABMA finally transferred to NASA on July 1, 1960, bringing with it its million-pound-thrust rocket engine and Saturn rocket programs. ABMA formed the nucleus of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Later that month, on July 29, NASA issued a request for proposal for studies leading to construction of the next generation of piloted spacecraft, called Apollo. The spacecraft was envisioned as an Earth-orbital vehicle with eventual circumlunar application.

In November 1960, John Kennedy defeated Eisenhower's Vice President, Richard Nixon, by a narrow margin, in part by emphasizing a "missile gap" that did not exist. On December 20, the President-elect announced his intention to make Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson chair of the National Space Council.

In the popular history of spaceflight, President Dwight Eisenhower is frequently relegated to the dark ages before the U.S. got moving and conquered the moon. However, when Kennedy took charge in January 1961, the organizational apparatus and technology programs that made possible the spectacular events of NASA's first decade were already in place. Eisenhower had a legalistic agenda--establishing "freedom of space" as a principle of international law--and was fiscally conservative and loathe to be drawn into a battle of spectaculars with Krushchev. A more dynamic leader might have been more emotionally satisfying at the time, but the four decades since the start of the space age demonstrate the firm foundations laid in the last half of the 1950s.

End notes

1. The Race for the Moon, Jay Holmes, Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1962, pp. 46-47.

2. Vanguard: A History, NASA SP-4202, Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, 1970, p. 186.

3. "Memoirs of an Armchair Astronaut (Retired)," Voices from the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke, Pyramid, 1967, p. 153.

4. "Satellite's Glow Permeates Barcelona," David Anderton, Aviation Week, October 14, 1957, pp. 29-30.

5. Drawing on this new information, Asif Siddiqi has recently published a revealing account of events in the Soviet Union leading up to Sputnik's launch. See "Korolev, Sputnik, and the International Geophysical Year," Asif Siddiqi ( Similarly, R. Cargill Hall used recently declassified U.S. documents to trace the Eisenhower administration policy decisions that reined in the U.S. satellite program in the years immediately prior to Sputnik. See "Origins of U.S. Space Policy: Eisenhower, Open Skies, and Freedom of Space," R. Cargill Hall, in Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, NASA SP-4407, John Logsdon, editor, 1995, pp. 213-229. Together these articles paint a coherent picture of events in the U.S. and the Soviet Union leading up to the start of the Space Age.

6. Siddiqi.

7. Hall, p. 217.

8. Hall, p. 220.

9. Hall, p. 221.

10. Siddiqi.

11. NSC 5520, "Draft Statement of Policy on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program, " May 20, 1955, in Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, pp. 308-313.

12. Siddiqi.

13. Siddiqi.

14. Asif Siddiqi, personal communication.

15. Holmes, p. 51.

16. Green and Lomask, p. 48.

17. Siddiqi.

18. Siddiqi.

19. "Memorandum of Discussion at the 322d Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, D.C., May 10, 1957," Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, pp. 324-328.

20. "Allen W. Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence, to The Honorable Donald Quarles, Deputy Secretary of Defense, July 5, 1957," Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, p. 329.

21. Siddiqi.

22. . . .the Heavens and the Earth, Walter McDougall, Basic Books, 1985, p. 134.

23. "John Foster Dulles to James C. Hagerty, October 8, 1957," Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, p. 331.

24. "Impact of Russian Satellite to Boost U.S. Research Effort," Aviation Week, October 14, 1957.

25. This was not in fact correct. Only four R-7s were ever deployed as ICBMs, and these were quickly withdrawn from service as too difficult to prepare for launch and extremely vulnerable to attack. The R-7 instead became the most-used Soviet space launcher, and is still in service today, with more than 1200 launches to its credit.

26. "Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age," Roger Launius (

27. "Senate Group Probes Satellite Progress," Katherine Johnsen, Aviation Week, October 14, 1957.

28. "Sputnik in the Sky," Robert Hotz, Aviation Week, October 14, 1957.

29. Launius.

30. "How the Space Act Came to Be," Glen P. Wilson, p. 1.

31. Green and Lomask, p. 202.

32. Wilson, p. 4.

33. Green and Lomask, p. 204

34. "Democratic Leaders Attack Administration Sputnik Reaction," Aviation Week, December 9, 1957.

35. ibid.

36. "Four Objects Reported in Sputnik Orbit," Aviation Week, May 26, 1958.

37. "Memorandum on Organizational Alternatives for Space Research and Development," James Killian, December 30, 1957, Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, p. 331.

38. Before Killian's memorandum became public, some attributed the suggestion that NACA form the basis of the space program to Orval Cooke, the president of the Aircraft Industries Association. In early January 1958, Cooke told a meeting of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences that key decisions, not new agencies, were the way to a vigorous U.S. space program. He proposed that NACA be made the U.S. national space agency. NACA, he said, "has been conducting research and studies in scientific fields leading to man's conquest of space for more than a decade." ("Key to Space," Aviation Week, January 20, 1958.) At about the same time, NACA began to promote itself as part of an interagency space program including the Defense Department, National Science Foundation, and National Academy of Science (An Administrative History of NASA: 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101, Robert Rosholt, 1966, p. 8).

39. "Legislative Leadership Meeting, Supplementary Notes, February 4, 1958," L.A. Minnich, Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, p. 631.

40. "Congress Draws Battle Lines for Outer-Space Control," Aviation Week, February 3, 1958.

41. "Memorandum for Dr. J. R. Killian, Jr., Preliminary Observations on the Organization for the Exploitation of Outer Space," Paul S. Johnston, February 21, 1958, Exploring the Unknown, Vol. 1, p. 632-636.

42. "Doolittle Urges Adoption of Plan for Civil Control of Space Agency," Aviation Week, May 5, 1958.

43. "Four Objects Reported in Sputnik Orbit," Aviation Week, May 26, 1958.

44. "Sputnik III and U.S. Space Policy," Robert Hotz, Aviation Week, May 26, 1958.

45. Wilson, p. 10.

Key Events


May 26 - Sergei Korolev submits a proposal to study launching a Soviet satellite.

October 4 - The ruling body of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) calls for science satellite launches during the IGY.


February 14 - The Technological Capabilities Panel proposes launching a science satellite to establish the principle of "freedom of space."

March 14 - The U.S. IGY Committee declares launching a science satellite during the IGY feasible.

May 27 - President Eisenhower approves the U.S. IGY satellite plan.

July 29 - White House Press Secretary James Hagerty announces the U.S. IGY satellite plan.

August 2 - In Copenhagen, Academician Leonid Sedov announces that the Soviet Union will launch an IGY satellite.

August 3 - The Stewart Committee selects Project Vanguard as the U.S. IGY satellite program.

August 30 - Korolev receives approval to launch the Object-D satellite.

September 9 - Project Vanguard begins officially.


July 1 - IGY begins.

August 21 - The R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile flies successfully for the first time.

October 4 - Sputnik launched on modified R-7 ICBM

November 3 - Sputnik II launched carrying Laika.

November 8 - The Department of Defense authorizes the U.S. Army Explorer as a backup to Project Vanguard.

November 13 - Eisenhower makes his first public statement calling for a civilian space agency.

November 25 - Lyndon Johnson opens hearings In the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee to review U.S. defense and space programs.

December 6 - Vanguard TV-3 launch failure.


January 31 - Explorer 1 launched; first U.S. satellite.

April 2 - President Eisenhower addresses Congress to propose creation of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration responsible for civilian space and aeronautical research.

May 1 - James Van Allen announces discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

May 15 - Sputnik III launched.

July 29 - Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (PL 85-568) forming NASA with NACA as its nucleus.

August 19 - T. Keith Glennan sworn in as NASA's first Administrator; Hugh Dryden is Deputy Administrator.

October 1 - NASA opens for business.

October 7 - NASA formally organizes Project Mercury.

December 31 - IGY concludes.


January 2 - Luna 1 (Mechta) launched - first lunar flyby.

April 2 - Mercury 7 astronauts selected.

September 12 - Luna 2 launch - first lunar impact

October 4 - Luna 3 launched - first pictures of lunar farside


July 1 - George C. Marshall Space Flight Center established with transfer of ABMA from Army to NASA control

July 29 - Project Apollo announced.

December 20 - President-elect John Kennedy announces that Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson will chair the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

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Updated February 8, 2005
Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
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