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Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
It nevertheless was a foregone conclusion that America would begin major step-ups both in its missile programs and in its nascent space activities. The Air Force and Navy already had programs aimed at launching their own satellites, and these would proceed with renewed urgency. Yet in both Congress and the White House, there was a widespread view that space was too important to leave to the generals. There should be a civilian effort as well, under a new agency. That agency came into existence by congressional act in 1958 and was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Its genesis lay in a small but longstanding organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Working with a shoestring budget, NACA operated two aeronautical laboratories and a propulsion-research center. It had few high-placed Washington friends and little visibility; as recently as 1954 it had received only half the funds it had requested. It had found its niche as an isolated pocket of expertise, like the Geological Survey. But it had a strong reputation among those who knew of it; in 1957 its chairman was no less than Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. It already counted a number of pathbreaking researchers. John Sloop was building the first hydrogenfueled rocket engines; John Becker had made a wind tunnel that could reach seven times the speed of sound. The aerodynamicists Julian Alien and Alfred Eggers had determined the proper shape for a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere from orbit.
Already, in late 1957, some one-fifth of NACA’s work was related to space. Even so, NACA by itself was too small to take on the responsibility of running a space program. But it could serve as a nucleus, overseeing existing space and rocket programs. A Navy effort that was seeking to launch small satellites, known as Vanguard, would be one of the first; so would the Army’s rocket-development group in Alabama, led by the redoubtable Wernher von Braun. Army officials had never quite known what to do with these people; within the new NASA they would be hailed as kings.
The Soviets continued to pull off spectaculars: a 3,000-pound satellite in 1958, a shot into interplanetary space early in 1959, then dramatic unmanned missions to the moon that returned the first photos of its unseen far side, and additional flights carrying dogs. But America was active too. Indeed, while Eisenhower was in the White House, the space program was already undertaking nearly all the principal activities that would occupy it over subsequent decades.
The Air Force introduced its Thor and Atlas missiles as satellite launchers, and the even larger Titan was under development. Descendants of those rockets would still be boosting satellites to orbit thirty years later. In 1960 the United States pioneered the important field of satellite communications with the Army’s Courier satellite and the experimental Echo I of Bell Labs. The Navy launched its first navigational satellite, Transit. The first weather satellite, Tiros I, went up, beginning the immensely fruitful application of spacecraft to meteorology and earth observations. Also in 1960 the spacecraft Pioneer V laid groundwork for the planetary program. It sent back radio communications across twenty-two million miles, demonstrating the feasibility of sending probes to Venus and Mars.
Two other initiatives pointed clearly toward astronauts in space. NASA’s Project Mercury had won Ike’s approval late in 1958 and sent its first seven astronauts to face the television cameras the following April. Their safe return from orbit would be essential, and the Air Force was showing the way with its Discoverer program. This was opening the field of satellite reconnaissance, carrying cameras to orbit and returning the film to earth in protected capsules. The first successful capsule recovery came in 1960 as well, and while it was not televised, it demonstrated what soon would become a familiar sight to TV viewers: a returning spacecraft swaying gently beneath large red-and-white striped parachutes, slowly descending to the ocean.
Among NASA’s leaders, support for a moon program coalesced in 1960. Eisenhower strongly opposed the idea; Kennedy, within months, made it a mission.
In short, American response to the Soviets was both vigorous and protean. Yet to the Democrats, led in 1960 by John Kennedy, it was not enough. Four months after his inauguration, in May 1961, Kennedy called his countrymen to arms: “Now is the time to take longer strides. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” The response to this challenge would now shape America’s space policy.