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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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]
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."
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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 (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sputnik/siddiqi.html). 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.
7. Hall, p. 217.
8. Hall, p. 220.
9. Hall, p. 221.
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.
14. Asif Siddiqi, personal communication.
15. Holmes, p. 51.
16. Green and Lomask, p. 48.
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.
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 (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sputnik/sputorig.html).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Updated February 8, 2005
Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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