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 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 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. 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. 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,pound satellite in , a shot into interplanetary space early in , 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.
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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. 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 the spacecraft Pioneer V laid groundwork for the planetary program.
The Birth of NASA
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. 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 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.
In short, American response to the Soviets was both vigorous and protean. Yet to the Democrats, led in by John Kennedy, it was not enough. 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 concept of a manned lunar mission had been germinating within NASA since Its members had looked at space stations and orbiting space laboratories but decided that they had to set their sights higher.
Nothing less would do than to send men to the moon. And no such clear and well-focused goal existed short of the moon. Von Braun in the meantime took the first serious steps toward building big enough rockets, and aerospace firms weighed in with design concepts for lunar spacecraft.
By the end of the year, NASA needed only one thing to proceed with a Moon-landing program: presidential approval.
The question came up in December at a White House meeting, and Eisenhower voiced strong opposition. What changed between December and May, when Kennedy announced this astonishing turnabout of national policy? Headlines made the matter topical, for on April 12 the Soviets had launched their long-awaited first manned flight, sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit and recovering him safely. But on May 5 the United States showed that it, too, had the right stuff, as the astronaut Alan Shepard flew a Mercury capsule on a brief flight that reached an altitude of miles. Yet even a presidential speech does not a policy make, and in JFK was far from becoming the stuff of legend.
He was, however, the leader of a Democratic party gravid with unborn programs, with policy proposals that had been gestating since the days of Harry Truman. A major effort in this area was virtually a foregone conclusion. Health, Wealth, and the Moon. So the real question was not whether NASA would undertake a major expansion but how it would get big enough to reach the moon.
Two powerful influences helped to assure its great growth. The first was the sweeping nature of the Cold War, which fostered a widespread and genuine conviction that we could not let the Soviets get ahead of us in any area at all. It made no difference that if the Russians wanted to emphasize space flight, they could do so only by weakening other parts of their economy. No, if the Soviets appeared to be on their way to building a moon rocket, we had to have one too, or we would fall behind.
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The second influence lay in a widely shared view of new technology. We tend to see high technology today through the prism of Silicon Valley, a creation of the s and s, but in the general view was that new technology would arise not through the work of entrepreneurs but through major government programs. This was in line with recent experience.
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The wartime Manhattan Project had unlocked the power of the atom. Other federal efforts had brought forth jet propulsion and radar. Advocates of a manned moon landing could argue persuasively that such an effort now would bring forth breakthroughs of similar value.
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Yet Kennedy was not free to propose in too sweeping a spirit. Democrats held both houses of Congress, but the real power lay in a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southerners, many of whom held key committee chairmanships. As a consequence JFK would fail to win passage of so basic a reform as the law establishing Medicare; it went down to Senate defeat in mid by a vote of 48 to But those same Southern barons who opposed much social change were great supporters of major aerospace projects, particularly if they involved contracts for their states or districts. Aerospace fitted with their general high regard for things military.
And while the Apollo program, the moon-landing project, was civilian from start to finish, it involved people, equipment, and industries that all had close links to the world of longrange missiles. As the decade progressed, a continuing series of manned orbital flights, increasing in intricacy, kept public attention focused on the moon.
The death of JFK brought a widespread view that Apollo should go forward as a monument to him. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was quite likely even more of a space buff than Kennedy, having apparently decided as early as that it represented an issue that could help reclaim the White House for his party. Johnson, on reaching the White House, proceeded to legislate on a scale that few if any Presidents had ever attained. There would be civil rights bills, Medicare, a tax cut, a war in Vietnam, and much more.
As one pundit remarked at the time, LBJ was promising health, wealth, and the moon. Its report, published that September, listed three main program options for the s and s. All three called for the development of a small twelve-man space station, a fifty-or hundred-man space base, a reusable space shuttle, lunar orbiting stations, and a station on the moon itself.
Two of the three also called for the first manned expedition to Mars, during the s, with the astronauts to fly aboard a nuclear-powered rocket. The Office of Management and Budget slashed more than one billion dollars from it. Nixon faced inflation, a serious deficit, and continuing costs for the Vietnam War. He had to pull in his horns, spending more carefully and launching new initiatives only in the areas of greatest demand. The environment would qualify, and in he set up the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mars would not. As winter deepened and the s came to an end, NASA had to face seriously the question of what it would do next. That would have brought forth a host of unmanned craft, serving needs in communications, weather, earth observations, and planetary exploration. But the agency had grown fat on the manned Apollo project, and a new manned venture appeared essential to its leaders. But there still was hope for the space station and the shuttle, both classic concepts in the lore of space flight. Baby Professor. Speedy Publishing.