Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


When a rocket lifts off, it lights up the launch area with a brilliant burst of flame and then trails a fiery streak across the sky as it soars toward orbit. But without careful guidance all the pyrotechnics will have been for naught. That is, in short, what happened to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

Like a rocket, NASA initially lit up the sky, with spectacular feats. But for lack of proper direction from policymakers, the agency failed to continue on a course that would clearly and consistently serve the national interest. Instead NASA steered by a false star.

The Challenge

At the beginning, of course, few would have imagined that the agency could go so far astray. Indeed, nearly two decades elapsed before this became at all clear. Through the 1960s NASA was running a grand project that had the near unanimous support of Americans for a clear and simply defined goal: Put a man on the moon. It was when that ended that things started to get at once more complicated and less purposeful.

The countdown that led to the launch of NASA began on a Friday evening, early in October 1957. Some fifty scientists had gathered for a cocktail party at the Soviet embassy in Washington. Amid the chatter and clink of glasses, Walter Sullivan of The New York Times was called away for an urgent phone call. A colleague in Manhattan had just seen a dispatch from Tass, the Moscow news agency. It stated that a sphere the size of a beach ball was now circling the earth every 96 minutes, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour and emitting beeps.

Sullivan hurried back to the party and told the news to one of the scientists, the physicist Lloyd Berkner, who rapped on the hors d’oeuvre table until the hubbub quieted. “I wish to make an announcement,” he said. “I am informed by The New York Times that a satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.” The room burst into applause.

That same evening, at his Texas ranch, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson heard the news on the radio. After dinner he and a few guests strolled in the dark along a road, their eyes turned upward. “In the Open West you learn to live closely with the sky,” Johnson wrote later. “It is a part of your life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another country to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.”

The same shock would affect many others in the weeks ahead, for this first step into space stood as a clear challenge. There was every reason to see it as vindicating the long-standing communist boast that theirs was the superior system for galvanizing human productivity. An official announcement from Moscow made the point explicit: “Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel, and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of mankind’s dreams into reality.”

Many Americans saw Sputnik as no less than a new Pearl Harbor. “The time has come,” said Sen. Styles Bridges, a leading conservative, “to be less concerned with the depth of pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the new car, and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears.” On the other side of the aisle, Sen. William Fulbright was equally apocalyptic: “The real challenge we face involves the very roots of our society. It involves our educational system, the source of our knowledge and cultural values.”

Sputnik also seemed to call into question the adequacy of Eisenhower administration policies. Eisenhower was responsible for fighting the Cold War, yet he had insisted on balancing the budget and on avoiding major governmental expansions. Plenty of people, not all of them Democrats, were ready to say that he had not done enough and indeed had exposed the nation to peril. More specifically, his missile-program policies had ruffled military feathers amid problems of interservice rivalry and wasteful duplication. Trevor Gardner, a former Air Force assistant secretary, stated the issue bluntly: “We have presently at least nine ballistic missile programs, all competing for roughly the same kind of facilities, the same kind of brains, and the same public attention.”

Public urgency increased early in November, when the Soviets launched their second satellite. It weighed 1,120 pounds, and it carried a dog as a passenger, clearly foreshadowing future flights that would carry a man. Eisenhower, who had come up as a military leader, was not rattled. He knew that our own missile programs were proceeding apace, with long-range rockets already in flight test. America was strong; our armed forces could defend the nation. Four days after that second Soviet launch, he went on television and stated that their achievement “does not rouse my apprehensions, not one iota.”