Jockeying for Position

On October 9, only five days after Sputnik I, the Ad Hoc Committee of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board urged the development of "second generation" ICBMs that could be used as space boosters, proposed the eventual accomplishment of manned lunar missions by the Air Force, and recommended the launching of Air Force satellites for reconnaissance, communications, and weather prediction purposes as soon as possible. A few days later, Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas appointed a committee of 56 academic and corporate scientists and Air Force officers, headed by the eminent but controversial nuclear physicist Edward N. Teller, to "propose a line of positive action" for the Air Force in space exploration. Not surprisingly, the Teller Committee in its report of October 28 recommended a unified space program under Air Force leadership.57

Then, on December 10, 1957, Lieutenant General Donald L. Putt, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, Development, set up a "Directorate of Astronautics" for the Air Force. Brigadier General Homer A. Boushey, who sixteen years earlier had piloted the first rocket-assisted aircraft takeoff in this country, became head of the new office. The move quickly met opposition from Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy, who was chary about any of the services using the term "astronautics," and from William M. Holaday, newly appointed Defense Department Director of Guided Missiles, whom the New York Times quoted as charging that the Air Force wanted to "see if it can grab the limelight and establish a position." The furor within the Defense Department caused Putt to cancel the astronautics directorate on December 13, only three days after its establishment.58

Sputnik II, the dismayingly large, dog-carrying Soviet satellite, had gone into orbit on November 3. As the mood of national confusion intensified in the last weeks of 1957, Headquarters USAF ordered the Air Research and Development Command to prepare a comprehensive "astronautics program," including estimates of funding and projected advances in space technology over the next five years. ARDC, which had been working on its own 15-year plan for Air Force research and development in astronautics, now boiled its findings down to a five-year prospectus. ARDC's report went to Headquarters USAF on December 30, and at the end of the year of the Sputniks the five-year plan was under consideration in the Pentagon.59

In any Air Force push into astronautics, NACA presumably would play a key role as supplier of needed research data. The agency had done this for nearly four decades in aeronautics. Proceeding on this premise, Putt wrote NACA [74] Director Dryden on January 31, 1958, formally inviting NACA's participation in a man-in-space program with the Air Force, including both the boost-glide research airplane, soon to be dubbed Dyna-Soar, and "a manned one-orbit flight in a vehicle capable only of a satellite orbit...."60 Dryden promptly approved NACA cooperation on the first approach, although the research agency and the Air Force would not sign their formal agreement on the subject until the following May.61 Regarding the satellite project offer, however, Dryden informed Putt that NACA was working on its own designs for a manned space capsule and would "coordinate" with the Air Force late in March, when NACA completed its studies.62

Behind NACA's apparent reluctance to follow the Air Force lead into manned satellite development was a conviction, held by some people at NACA Headquarters, but mainly by administrators and engineers of the Langley and Lewis laboratories, that the agency should broaden its activities as well as its outlook. Moving into astronautics, NACA should leave behind its historic preoccupation with research and expand into systems development and flight operations - into the uncertain world of large contracts, full-scale flight operations, and public relations. NACA should, in short, assume the leadership of a new, broad-based national space program, having as one of its principal objectives to demonstrate the practicability of manned space flight.

So in the 10 months between the first Sputnik and the establishment of a manned space program under a new agency, NACA would follow a rather ambivalent course. On one hand it would continue its traditional research and consultative capacity, counseling the Air Force on space flight proposals and imparting its findings to industrial firms. But at the same time ambitious teams of engineers here and there in the NACA establishment would be preparing their organization and themselves to take a dominant role in the Nation's efforts in space.


57 Ibid.; Link, Space Medicine in Project Mercury, 24.

58 "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 15; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), House Report No. 67, A Chronology of Missile and Astronautic Events, 36; New York Times, Dec. 11, 14, 1957.

59 "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 12, 18-19.

60 Letter, Donald L. Putt, Deputy Chief of Staff, Development, United States Air Force, to Dryden, Director, NACA, Jan. 31, 1958.

61 Memorandum of Understanding, "Principles for Participation of NACA in Development and Testing of the Air Force System 464L Hypersonic Boost Glide Vehicle (Dyna-Soar I)," May 20, 1958, NASA Hist. Archives. In July 1958 the Air Force awarded concurrent feasibility study contracts to two contractor teams headed by the Martin Company and the Boeing Company. Almost two years later, after Project Mercury was well underway, Martin was chosen to build the booster system and Boeing the hypersonic vehicle itself. By that time the Dyna-Soar concept called for a true satellite vehicle acting as a controllable glider in the atmosphere. After a complex and controversial history, Dyna-Soar finally fell victim to leapfrogging space technology, particularly the two-man Gemini program initiated by NASA. Economy drives in the Defense Department also played a part in this December 10, 1963, decision. After an expenditure of over $350 million without a single test flight, and in the face of a predicted total cost of around $800 million, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the cancellation of the Dyna-Soar project. On the general characteristics of Dyna-Soar see, for example, Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 87 Cong., 2 sess. (1962), Manned Space Flight Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, 151-154; Glenn L. Martin Co. advertisement, Space/Aeronautics, XXX (Dec. 1958), 78; "Dyna-Soar's History Full of Re-examinations," Aviation Week, LXXVII (July 22, 1963), 233; and Martin Caidin, Rendezvous in Space (New York, 1962), 260-269.

62 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 13; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 1 sess. (1960), Project Mercury, First Interim Report, 3.


This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
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