The Early Space Age, The Path Not Taken Then, But Now? (Part 1)

1960, Space, in the Beginning

1960 was a pivotal year in American history and space history.  In the U.S. presidential election, space and the space race, was a big issue.  Not only was there the issue of the missile gap where it was thought that the Russians had far more ballistic missiles than we did, (which turned out not to exist) but there was also the panic about the Soviets and their perceived superiority in space exploration.  These fears, along with the flight of Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961, led to the decision for the Apollo program to go to the Moon.   However, before this happened, before the election of John F. Kennedy, there was a healthy debate regarding space policy, the purpose of American space efforts, and its direction.

This space policy debate and exposition was well described in a book published in 1961, based upon a series of lectures in 1960.  The editor of this was Simon Ramo, the R in TRW corporation, a major aerospace player in the early space age.  The name of this book was “The Peacetime Uses of Outer Space”.  Figure 1 is the cover of the book:

Figure 1: Peacetime Uses of Outer Space
Figure 1: Peacetime Uses of Outer Space

In 1960 we were just barely three years into the space age.  The cold war was burning and the battlefield at this time was not peppered with bullets but with press releases, rocket launches.  The Russians had seized the initiative on October 4th 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1.  They followed this up with launches of larger and larger payloads, including Lakia the dog, designed to impress, not just the U.S. military but the world.  The entire early space age was a great public relations battle and the perception was that the Russians were winning.

Part of the problem, was that from the general public all the way up to high level policy makers, we had no idea what the Russians really had, or what their real intentions were.  Thus this fed the rumor mill and the presidential election campaigns with all kinds of rhetoric about how far behind we were, how complacent the Eisenhower administration was, and that we need to make bold moves as a nation to address the crisis of the loss of prestige.

It is in this context and background that this book, the record of a series of lectures sponsored by the University of California on the subject of the peacetime uses of outer space were had.  The lectures ran from March 23rd to Jun 29th of 1960 and featured major public figures, academics, and government officials interested in space.  Following is a list of the chapter authors/lecturers:

Lloyd V. Berkner, President, Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (University of Texas, Dallas)

James H. Doolittle, Chairman of the Board, Space Technologies Laboratories Inc.  (TRW and Now Northrup Grumman) (General, USAF ret.)

Frederick R. Kappel, President, American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T)

Vice Admiral John T. Howard, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, United States Navy.

Leyton Faneuf, Chairman of the Board and President Bell Aircraft Corporation (retired)

Leo Goldberg, Higgins Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University and Staff Member, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Chairman, U.S. National Committee for the International Geophysical Year (IGY)

Morris Neiburger, Professor and Chairman, Department of Meteorology, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

Willard F. Libby, Professor of Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Overton Brooks, Chairman, Committee on Science and Astronautics, House of Representatives, United States Congress

Ralph J. Cordiner, Chairman of the Board, General Electric Company

Brigadier General Don Flickinger, Assistant for Bioastronautics, Headquarters Air Research and Development Command, United States Air Force

Edward Teller, Professor of Physics, University of California

Many of these names may not be familiar to a modern audience but if you read the text of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space book, you can read their resumes.  There are Nobel prize winners,  famous scientists of the day, the CEO of one of the largest corporations (GE) [Ralph Cordiner], and General Jimmy Doolittle, the hero of the Tokyo raid of 1942.

The lectures were all thoughtful presentations about space and its promise, within the context of the hysteria over the space race.

Threads of Policy

When the Kennedy administration came to power the prestige argument won the day. However,  beforehand the discussion space was considerably wider in scope, though prestige was also considered.  Here is an excerpt from the lecture by Overton Brooks:

People have been dreaming about space travel for thousands of years. Now that we have the means to make the dream come true, however, many people begin to doubt the value of our space program. Is it merely political and psychological— that is, are we going into outer space just for reasons of national prestige and advantage in the cold war? Or is it military— to prevent outer space from being used against us, and to use it, if need be, against our enemies? I would answer that the value of our space program is both psychological and military, in the cold war and the hot war alike, and could be amply justified on either ground, in the perspective of 10 or 20 years. Or we can justify it on the ground that it leads mankind farther along the roadway toward his destiny.

This is a thoughtful and interesting in the context of the later decision to implement the prestige based space program.  Also interesting is the reference to the political and psychological “value” context.  During the first two years of the space age, from the launch of Sputnik 1 to the 1960 election, there was a lot of hysteria, as Walter MacDougall  captured in his book “The Heavens and the Earth; A Political History of the Space Age“.

In the political realm, there was a letter, written by Charles Brewton, a little known aid to Senator Lister Hill (D., AL), to George Reedy, an assistant to Senator Lyndon Johnson in October of 1957.  Reedy met with Brewton and took this letter and amplified the sentiment regarding space. It had, among other things, this revealing bit about the perception of the mindset and concerns of the American people at the time:

It did not matter Brewton continued, whether the satellite had an military value: “the important thing is that the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started” In previous ages the Romans controlled the world because of their roads, then England controlled the world because of its ships.  When humanity moved to the air, the United States was supreme through aviation.  “Now the Russians have moved into outer space.”[page 149]

This is directly parallel to and an amplification of, what Overton Brooks, the twelve term democrat and the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, stated in his University of California lecture.  Everyone of that era deeply understood that a great deal of the credit for the victory in World War II was attributable to the United States vast superiority in airpower.  To think that the Russians might have captured the high ground of space, thereby negating that power, would have been deeply worrisome to the American public.  This sentiment was echoed by Lloyd Berkner in his lecture:

LLoyd Berkner,

In speaking of the rewards of space activity, we cannot ignore two others; these are the political and the spiritual. The United States with her leadership in advancing man’s welfare— a leadership triggered by a superb science and technology— has become the standard that must be surpassed by any other nation if that nation is also to claim the distinction of leadership. Therefore, such emergent societies as Russia and China aspire vigorously to surpass the United States to demonstrate the superiority of their ideology and social system. They have set this as their objective unambiguously.

Escape into space— the exploration of the heavenly bodies around us is a deep-seated aspiration of all mankind. That escape was reserved to man’s early gods, and it is closely identified with civilization’s early origins in mysticism, folklore, and religion. At every intellectual level man longs to know the nature of other bodies around him, so astronomy was among his earliest sciences. Man prizes this idea of escape from the earth to the universe as the highest symbol of progress. Therefore, the nation that can capture and hold that symbol will carry the banner of world leadership. Consequently, leadership in space exploration has a real political meaning. Failure in that leadership means inevitably falling into the status of a second-class nation with the heavy costs to our way of free enterprise which subjugation to others would involve.

Clearly the major concern of the above writers and the public was whether or not the USA was still the world leader in this new space age.  It also delved deeply into the most ancient longings and aspirations of humanity to reach into space.  This is an exceptionally insightful observation and goes further to explain the fear for the future and fed the doubts of many whether or not freedom and limited government was still the herald of the future for mankind.  A fear gleefully fanned for the 1960 presidential election.

For general Doolittle, his lecture was a straight forward practical look into the future to see where missile technology was going:

The so-called “space race” with Russia — more of an Olympics than a race — is a scientific crusade for military, political, cultural, and economic objectives. To date in the electronic revolution, the marriage of human intelligence and mechanical brains has produced an offspring made for terror and destruction. This first-born — the big ballistic missile — is as yet the only consistent user of space.

What of the countless man-made objects that will use space in the months and years to come? Here we find the great challenge: To use space in the pursuit of goals that will benefit — rather than destroy — all of mankind.

General Doolittle also addressed the prestige issue, that would figure so greatly in the Kennedy decision:

….Early in 1960 the director of the United States Information Agency told Congress that we are losing prestige throughout the world because of Soviet successes in space. There is already a tendency in world opinion, said George Allen, to view the Soviet Union as pre-eminent in all fields of science and technology because of its space feats. Furthermore, he added, these successes have created a “cockiness” among Soviet officials that endangers world peace.

The strange thing about the leadership issue, looking back is that it was no where near as dire as was being portrayed.   Of course there are reasons and perhaps the biggest one can be traced back to the politics of the time.  The Eisenhower years were years of prosperity, balanced budgets, and unmatched American military power, though with emerging civil rights issues.  Even in space, we were second not because of any Soviet massive leadership but because of a decision by Eisenhower to let the Russians launch a satellite first, and thus render moot any discussion regarding carrying national sovereignty into space, thus allowing them to by default establish the “Open Skies” policy regarding overflight rights for Soviet airspace.

In August of 1956 the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), could have launched a satellite into orbit.  As recounted by Major General Bruce Medaris, who was Von Braun’s boss at the ABMA in his book “Countdown to Decision” (1960), president Eisenhower sent one of his aids down to the launch site to make sure that the fourth stage was sand,  just in case Medaris and Von Braun might accidentally put a satellite into orbit. The overflight rights were exceptionally important to the Eisenhower administration as it was the only way to obtain detailed intelligence regarding Soviet missile launchers without risk to American pilots.  This concern was feverishly amplified after the shooting down and capture of Francis Gary Powers, flying a U2 aircraft over Russia in violation of Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960.

We know about these rationalizations now because of presidential papers, historians like McDougall, and writings of players like Medaris, but at the time the Eisenhower administration would not admit this strategic reason.  Fanning the space hysteria was presidential politics, with one of the epicenters being Senator Lyndon Johnson (LBJ).  In yet another revealing book, “Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige,” by Yanek Mieczkowski, delved into these more mundane politics of the space issue and why it reached such hysterical heights.  Parallel with the Brewton letter and after his meeting with George Reedy, Reedy then wrote to LBJ with these political  aspects of why space was important to the democrats as described by Mieczkowski:

…Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 victories further pounded the Democrats, and when the Little Rock desegregation fights erupted, they felt anxious about the party’s identification with civil rights.  Reedy wrote Johnson that ” in the integration issue [Republicans] have a potent weapon which chews the Democratic Party to pieces so efficiently that it cannot be an effective opposition.”  He warned, “The integration issue is not going to go away… The only possibility is to find another issue which is even more potent.  Otherwise the Democratic future is bleak.

Space provided what Democrats had been searching for, and Johnson crowded the opportunity, making exaggerated statements.  Whoever dominates space, he said “would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperature climates to frigid.”  He claimed that space exploration “will dominate the affairs of mankind just as the exploration of the Western Hemisphere dominated the affairs of  mankind in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”  Johnson wanted to get on equal footing with the Soviets regardless of cost. [page 139]

It is amazing that LBJ would make such absurd statements, but so was the sentiment of the time.  These inflammatory statements further amplified the hysteria and turbocharged the space issue, as to draw a contrast between the policies of the Eisenhower administration (and by implication a 1961 era Nixon administration) and an LBJ/Kennedy White House. So, at the end of the day, much of the rational for the prestige based space program of president Kennedy and later Johnson was based on the politics of the missile gap and the supposed Soviet superiority in space, coupled with bare fisted politics and a grasping for presidential power.  However, there were others that shared the wider perspective of the  lecturers.  Chief among these was Ralph Cordiner.

Ralph J. Cordiner’s  Vision Regarding Space and Private Enterprise Vs Webb-McNamara

Ralph J. Cordiner was a man invested in free enterprise and our capitalistic system.  In his lecture on “Competitive Free Enterprise in Space” he posed several questions that he then provided his thoughts on:

How can we utilize our dynamic system of competitive private enterprise in space, as on earth, to make newly discovered resources useful to man?

How can private enterprise and private capital make their maximum contribution? What projects will necessarily require government chairmanship and support for their execution?

What must be done to preserve a free society while competing in an international race for space? How can we assure that when the space frontier is developed, it will be an area of freedom rather than regimentation?

It is interesting that in the cacophony of the 1960 election that some of these more thoughtful lectures were given.  There is little record of them having any effect on the election itself, but they do provide a window of insight into the thoughts of those not directly invested with the election or the hysteria.  Ralph Cordiner, CEO of GE had the broadest perspective and this is where we now focus our attention.  It must also be noted that he was the Vice Chairman of the U.S. war production board during WWII and thus was intimately involved in the government direction of our entire national economy for several years during the war.  From his lecture:

The advanced industrial nations can now send objects off the planet into space. This new capability opens a whole new frontier to human exploration, development, and use. At this stage, the new frontier does not look very promising to the profit-minded businessman, or to the tax-minded citizen. But then, so it must have seemed to the Greeks, when Jason returned from his exploratory trip into the Black Sea; or to the Phoenicians, when their first explorers returned from the wild and savage shores of the Western Mediterranean. Most of the Greek and Phoenician traders, in 1000 B.C., probably preferred to invest their money in a good safe cargo of grain or wine, shipped over familiar sea lanes to familiar markets. But apparently a few traders, and later colonists, had the vision to see possibilities where other men saw nothing, because in a few centuries the Black Sea and the Western Mediterranean became familiar and profitable regions, enlarging the resources available to civilized man.

These questions go to the heart and soul of the struggle over the future of space policy, not just then, but today as well.  Cordiner was no dyed in the wool free marketer who thought that everything had to be done through private enterprise.  He understood that the new frontier of space was fraught with risk and that it was premature for private enterprise to fully shoulder the burden of its development.  He acknowledges the need for government funding, direction, and control in its early days as recounted:

It appears that the exploration of space is going to depend, for many years, primarily on government financing and hence government direction and control. That will be true because the exploration of space offers relatively little commercial opportunity for private business in the years immediately ahead.

Cordiner had a view of the proper role of government, which is consistent with most conservatives of his era:

What is the proper role of the government, in relation to the economy? Basically, it should provide an orderly political setting that encourages individual initiative and competitive private enterprise. It should provide the regulation necessary to keep the economic system competitive- as it does through vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws and other trade regulations. Government should do for the citizens, at their expense, only those things that the citizens cannot do for themselves through their private institutions. Thus, governments provide certain community services-locally, wherever this is possible, but federally, if necessary.

And also the role of private enterprise:

The competitive system, with its profit-and-loss disciplines, puts men and companies to the test as no other system does. It rewards the creative and the efficient. It penalizes the unimaginative and the inefficient. It provides an incentive for risk not only on the obvious ideas, but also on the “long shots.” It provides a natural and effective system for the elimination of failure, complacency, and delay. At its best, the competitive economy has a vigor, diversity, creativity, and efficiency that no controlled economy can match.

Most people would agree that the proper role of government as described by Cordiner is appropriate.  Some want the government to control everything, and we have seen the problems that accrue to this mindset.  However, keeping our focus on aerospace the description of the role of private enterprise in its full flower today certainly applies to SpaceX, Planetlabs, Google, Apple, and other companies in Silicon Valley who only bear lightly the touch of government.  On the other hand the aerospace companies that dominate our national space efforts today are much like their Soviet counterparts of that bygone era, doing nothing unless the government pays them to research the issue (I have had this told to me many times by executives at Boeing, Lockheed and other large aerospace and defense firms).  Cordiner had the explanation for this:

But we must recognize that there are growth tendencies in these government agencies that could overexpand under the pressures of the space program, unless proper safeguards are established. As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is· struggling against-a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.

Can any serious observer of the current aerospace-defense establishment argue that this has not come to pass in that realm?  Can anyone look at SpaceX, who just obtained a $10 billion dollar valuation for their last investment round and not wonder what the problem is with the status quo?  In looking at the Stock Market today I see that SpaceX has five times the Market Capitalization of the newly merged ATK-Orbital, one third the market capitalization of Northrup Grumman, one sixth of Lockheed Martin, and one tenth of Boeing’s.  That is less than fifteen years after start.  How long until they surpass the big aerospace industrial complex companies in value?  Not very long at the current trajectory.

Looking on the bright side, this is what Cordiner had to say about how to get space done most effectively:

The United States has its own more effective way of concentrating efficient effort on a technical project of importance to the national security. And that is for the people, through government, to determine the objectives to be attained, and then to turn most of the technical work of achieving those objectives over to the private firms that have the managerial and technical capacity to get the work done- using competition and profit-or-loss incentives to the maximum.

Isn’t this what the current Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) is structured as?  Even Boeing and Orbital Sciences have stepped up to give it a go in this quasi commercial activity and even more so with the commercial crew contract.  Compare this with the complete debacle and tens of billions of dollars already spent on the Space Launch System, the Orion capsule, as well as other projects like the James Webb telescope, the NPOESS and GEOS weather and climate satellites.

This perversion of the private enterprise system can be traced back to the Webb-McNamara report.  Here is what it said about private enterprise and government control:

Enormous strides have been made, particularly in our space efforts and in the development of related ballistic missile technology on a “crash” basis.  We have, however, incurrent certain liabilities in the process.  We have over encouraged the development of entrepreneurs and the proliferation of new enterprises.  As a result, key personnel have been thinly spread.  The turnover rate in U.S. defense and space industry has had the effect of removing many key scientific engineering personnel from their jobs before the completion of the projects for which they were employed.  Strong concentrations of technical talent needed for the best work on difficult tasks have been seriously weakened.  Engineering costs have doubled in the past ten years.

These and other trends have had a strong adverse effect on our capacity to do a good job in space.  The inflation of costs has an obvious impact and they are still rising at the rate of about seven percent per year.  This fact alone affects forward planning.  It has often led to project stretch-outs, and may again in future years.  The spreading out of technological personnel among a great many organizations has greatly slowed down the evolution of design and development skills at the working level throughout the country.  Precisely the opposite is true in the USSR, where the turnover rate is very low and the skilled cadres of development personnel remain in existence for a great many years.

General Doolittle had the opposite take on the subject, based on data that he had tabulated:

Moreover, the Russian students’ economic incentive for intellectual excellence is great. An outstanding professor of science, who is a member of the Soviet National Academy of Science, is reputed to get fifty times the remuneration of a day laborer.

Let us, on the other hand, examine where we stand in refining our most vital resource. Within 3 months from now, industry will require some 50,000 engineering graduates. Tabulations show that only 39,000 will graduate. The remaining 11,000 cannot be recruited. They cannot be recovered. They will simply not exist. This is only one indication of an even more serious problem: Student interest in engineering is lessening. Engineering enrollments are dropping.

So the Russians were recruiting, training, hiring, and keeping their “cadres” of engineers and scientists because they paid them more money, exactly the thing that McNamara did not want to do in the U.S.!  How capitalist of the Russians.  It is also funny that Cordiner did not comment on the subject of talent loss though he was the CEO with arguably one of the largest engineering staffs in the nation.  One suspects more was at work here.   Here is their explanation for their system of organization under the title of “Space Projects for Prestige”.

All large scale space projects require the mobilization of resources on a national scale.  They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies.  They call for skillful management, centralized control and unflagging pursuit of long range goals. Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of the nation.

It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute to national prestige.  Major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.

Looking back from the vantage point of today it is clear that the above is hogwash and as McDougall pointed out, stunts for prestige along end up being a series of empty promises, which is what our manned national space efforts for exploration have been since the death of the Apollo program.  It is also clear, from looking at the historical record in the waning years of Apollo that the “management techniques” and the “process” used for Apollo could, in the mind of the technocrats, be turned and use to solve world peace and other vital government projects as Lyndon Johnson told Walter Cronkite on the day of the launch of Apollo 11.  That video is linked here for those who may doubt that mindset.

 Part II Follows

This post got way too long.  It is being broken into two parts for easier digestion.

Addendum to Part 1. I found this gem in one of my books used for the research in this article that convey’s what Eisenhower thought of Kennedy’s Moonshot…

Figure Addendum: Eisenhower Administration Position on Moonshots
Figure Addendum: Eisenhower Administration Position on Moonshots



8 thoughts on “The Early Space Age, The Path Not Taken Then, But Now? (Part 1)

  1. “we had no idea what the Russians really had, or what their real intentions were. ”
    “… need to make bold moves as a nation to address the crisis of the loss of prestige.”

    Sometimes I wonder if this same kind of thing going on right now. Having advantage of looking back from what we know now, (what were they thinking) i.e. the Missile Gap (and I can see after Kennedy takes office, Eisenhower says, “we need to talk.”)

    1. It is 100% clear to me now that the democrats in 1960 were full of it. In one of the books that I read, a mere 18 days after inauguration McNamara admitted that the missile gap did not exist, to the glee of republicans. However, the damage had been done as Ike did not want to reveal the state of our knowledge.

      One just wonders how much different the world would have been had Nixon been elected in 1960 rather than 8 years later.

      1. Kennedy was elected in 1960 with the help of massive electoral fraud in Illinois and Texas. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

  2. Fascinating and useful. Thank you. Recently, I’m reading A Matter of Justice, about Eisenhower’s somewhat unsung initiatives on civil rights — issues on which LBJ lagged a bit in the 1950s. Humphrey looks rather better in this rear-view mirror, because he argued that it didn’t matter where civil rights gains came from — that Eisenhower’s moves should have commanded full support from Democrats. Eisenhower got what would be regarded today as a startlingly high percentage of the black vote for his second term. It’s certainly interesting to learn that the JFK/LBJ emphasis on missile gaps and the like owed something to the Democrats being hobbled by the racism of their Dixiecrat wing. They needed to find some stick to beat the GOP with. LBJ’s hyperbole on Soviet space dominance, well, either I’d forgotten about that or never knew. But I guess it looked like a pretty big stick. I’ve long been leaning toward the view that the moon race was a wastefully hasty way to go about developing space, if you assume that government initiatives had to be the spark. (Which I think is reasonable.) This article adds yet more to the argument.

    1. Michael

      There are new books out that are taking a more critical look at that era and how the politics of the space race became the democrats bludgeon to beat the republican party because of how Ike’s prestige and accomplishments were in danger of making the democrats a rump party.

      The most fascinating part to me comes from McDougall who drew the contrast between Eisenhower’s generation (the generals of WWII) and the Kennedy “men” who were the captains and company commanders in WWII. I had never thought of it in that context. I absolutely agree that the way that we went about space development in the 1960’s was incredibly wasteful, not necessarily in how it was done, but that when the first task was completed, the lunar landings, that we threw it all away.

      I can’t find the reference anymore but I read a French political writer who was afraid that with the immense technological capability that the U.S. was building, that there was a true danger that the USA was going to leave the rest of humanity in the dust as it were and that we would be so powerful that no one could challenge us. That would have indeed happened, had we not thrown away what we had gained.

      This also plays into Nixon as he was successfully ending the Vietnam war, opening up relations with China, and they had to find a way to take him down after their electoral drubbing in 1972.

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