PART III : 1958-1959

12. Saturn, 1959



Saturn Runs into Trouble


[226] Juno V, ABMA's "clustered booster" concept for the first stage of a large launch vehicle, weathered the 28 January 1959 review by the National Aeronautics and Space Council in a show of unanimity. Five days later, the Army proposed to change the name to Saturn. (The Army was naming its major vehicles from Greek mythology, and Saturn followed Jupiter on the list.) The Advanced Research Projects Agency approved the name change the following day. The Army, however, had greater ambitions than a simple name change. On 13 February, Medaris submitted a budget request to meet the schedule of a captive firing by December 1959 and first flight by October 1960. His proposal included live second stages for flights 3 and 4 and a live Centaur stage on the 5th flight.


Medaris's estimates called for increases in FY 1959, 1960, and 1961 funding. He gave two alternatives: one, which he labeled as "dead end," consisted of four vehicles; the second consisted of 16 multistage vehicles. Funding estimates were:


FY 59

FY 60

FY 61

Plan 1




Plan 2





Medaris, of course, wanted Plan 2, which called for about twice as much funding as previous estimates. Again the Medaris-von Braun team was rolling fast, putting on the pressure for a much greater program than ARPA had envisioned. Saturn was going to serve the needs of both the military and NASA. For the former, the justification was a large communications satellite in a "stationary" (24-hour) orbit.


By June, Pentagon budget planning for Medaris's 16-vehicle program had reduced the FY 1960 amount about 10 percent but almost doubled the FY 1961 amount. These, however, were cut in subsequent reviews, with FY 1960 set at $80 million.


The optimistic budget proposals for Saturn swirling about in the Pentagon indicated a bright future for the vehicle, but storm clouds were gathering. Opposition appeared on 17 March when ABMA presented a systems study for Saturn. Roy Johnson, director of ARPA, wanted the program thoroughly reviewed and appointed an ad hoc committee for the purpose. He also asked for a recommendation on the upper stage for Saturn. The committee worked through April and half of May and studied three candidates for upper stages: Atlas, a one-engine Titan, and a two-engine Titan.


[227] Johnson's committee activity was followed with interest by the Air Force because of anticipated needs for the vehicle. On 13 April, in the midst of committee deliberations, Richard Horner, the Air Force's assistant secretary for research and development, proposed to Johnson that Saturn be used for the Dynasoar space glider and that the Air Force be given project responsibility.* Apparently nothing resulted from this move.


On 19 May, Johnson's committee recommended the two-engine Titan as the second stage for Saturn. A Centaur was proposed as the third stage for NASA missions. Johnson approved these recommendations and notified Medarls.


The proposal to use the Martin-built Titan brought the Air Force back into the picture, for the development of a modified Titan as a Saturn second stage would affect the Air Force Titan program, which was in full swing. Johnson sought to avoid the potential conflict by directing Medaris to coordinate with the Air Force on actions involving the Glenn L. Martin Company. This didn't suit the Army which wanted to contract directly with Martin for the second stage of the Saturn. In July, the Air Force counterproposed that all procurement and technical requirements be channeled through its Ballistic Missile Division, with the Air Force being responsible for systems engineering of the second stage for Saturn. Matters remained at an impasse until ARPA, on 9 July, authorized the Army to contract directly for the second stage. ARPA also stressed the need for Army coordination with the Air Force.3


While the storm between the Army and Air Force over responsibility for Saturn's second stage was brewing in June, an even greater threat to the Army and Saturn was in the making. Herbert York was promoted from chief scientist of ARPA to director of defense research and engineering-the Pentagon's top position for R&D. He was responsible for all military R&D and for avoiding unnecessary duplication. It was not long before York fixed a critical eye on the escalating plans for Saturn. He was aware that in late 1958 Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles and NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan had urged transfer of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's space team to NASA, but "had been shot down in flames by the Army."4 Medaris, commander of the Army Ordnance Missile Command, von Braun, technical director of ABMA, and Wilbur Brucker, Secretary of the Army, were determined to make the Army the leader for large launch vehicles. The trio were tough opponents; even President Eisenhower believed that the transfer of ABMA to NASA should be made, but he did not interfere with the negotiations. A compromise had been reached in December 1958 to transfer JPL to NASA, but leave ABMA with the Army.


York, a nuclear physicist, professor, and former director of the Livermore Laboratory of the University of California, was accustomed to making his own analyses of roles, missions, and needed systems. In his new job, York decided to try again to get the ABMA vehicle team transferred to NASA. He argued that space exploration, including all manned flight, was the responsibility of NASA; the responsibility for all large launch vehicles for space exploration should be NASA's; [228] von Braun and most of his ABMA team should be transferred to NASA; and the cluster of engines and tanks of Saturn was not the best configuration.


In expanding on his points, York cited the Space Act, his understanding of the President's intentions, and his own belief that "nothing yet suggested by the military, even after trying hard for several years, indicated any genuine need for man in space." York believed that the commitment of the von Braun team to big vehicle development "had been seriously interfering with the ability of the Army to accomplish its primary mission. Whenever the Army was given another dollar, Secretary Brucker put it into space rather than supporting the Army's capability for ground warfare."5 York's criticism of the Saturn I configuration was based on his analysis which indicated that advanced Titan configurations were superior. He also was convinced that a larger vehicle than Saturn I was needed. These considerations led him to argue that Saturn I, as conceived in mid-1959, was unnecessary and should be cancelled. With these convictions, York made his move in June 1959. ARPA had requested funds for Centaur and Saturn; on 9 June, York informed Johnson that he approved the requested funds for Centaur but not those for Saturn and cited more urgent needs as the reason. He suggested that Johnson might consider shifting funds from other projects for Saturn or, failing this, let the development slip.6


With this opening move in his campaign to trim military ambitions in space. York next focused on the Air Force's Titan C proposed by the Glenn L. Martin Company as a launch vehicle for Dynasoar. The first-stage was 4 meters in diameter and was powered by four Aerojet ICBM engines of 667 kilonewtons (150 000 lb thrust) each. The second stage was powered by two of the same engines but equipped with larger nozzles for high-altitude operation.7 On 27 July, York suggested that the Air Force and ARPA should study a common vehicle to meet the requirements of both space missions and Dynasoar. He asked for a report before firm development commitments were made. Two days later, ARPA directed the Army to stop work immediately on using Titan for Saturn's second stage, but soon modified the directive to allow general second stage studies to continue.


Convinced that Saturn was "much bigger than any purely military oriented requirements demanded,8 York found that a similar view was held by George Kistiakowsky, the President's science advisor, and others who had reviewed military satellite requirements in particular and had concluded that more small "stationary" communications satellites were better than a few large ones. This was a blow to the main military justification for Saturn. York discussed his analysis and conclusions with Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy and then sent Roy Johnson at ARPA this message:


I have decided to cancel the Saturn program on the grounds that there is no military justification therefor, on the grounds that any military requirement can be accommodated by Titan C as proposed by the Air Force, and on the grounds that by the cancellation the Defense Department will be in a position to terminate the costly operation being conducted by ABMA.9


The big questions facing Johnson, if he were to rebut York's arguments, were: Could Titan C accomplish the missions in the military's ten year plan, be ready as soon as Saturn, and be built at lower cost than Saturn? If the answers to these were affirmative, [229] he would have to agree with York. Johnson went into a huddle with his staff. Meanwhile, he informed McElroy that if York's assertions were correct, he would not oppose the cancellation of Saturn. He also proposed that Saturn and ABMA be transferred to the Air Force.10 This was apparenfly a last-ditch effort to get the Air Force's help in saving Saturn.


Secretary of the Army Brucker, who had successfully fought Quarles and Glennan to keep ABMA in late 1958, was outraged. Years later York recalled being summoned by Brucker and threatened with dire consequences, but remained firm.11


* Dynasoar was first planned as an airplane boosted to a suborbital altitude followed by skip-glide maneuvers in and out of the atmosphere for maximum range. Later models were to achieve orbit.