Man in Space Soonest?

[91] Officially NACA still was acting as consultant and tester for the Air Force and industry on spacecraft design and development. ARDC had sent its abbreviated development plan for a manned orbital capsule, based on conclusions reached at the Ballistic Missile Division conference, to Headquarters USAF on March 14. Five days later Air Force Under Secretary Marvin A. MacIntyre requested $133 million from ARPA for manned satellite development during fiscal year 1959. On the same day that Eisenhower proposed the civilian agency to Congress, General White, Air Force Chief of Staff, secured approval for a man-in-space project from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite the introduction of the administration bill in Congress and the resultant tabling the next month of the proposed agreement between White and Hugh Dryden for a joint Air Force-NACA manned satellite project, NACA continued to furnish advice and information to the Air Force.48

Throughout most of April, representatives from the various offices within ARDC, forming a "Man-in-Space Task Force" at the Ballistic Missile Division, worked on an "Air Force Manned Military Space System Development Plan." The final goal was to "achieve an early capability to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." The first of four phases, called "Man-in-Space-Soonest," involved orbiting a ballistic capsule, first carrying instruments, then primates, and finally a man. In the second phase, "Man-in-Space-Sophisticated," a heavier capsule, capable of a 14-day flight, would be put in orbit. "Lunar Reconnaissance," the third phase, would soft-land on the Moon with instruments, including a television camera. The last phase was "Manned Lunar Landing and Return," wherein primates, then men, would be orbited around the Moon, landed on its surface, and returned safely. The whole undertaking was supposed to cost $1.5 billion, a level of financial support that should complete the program by the end of 1965. The Thor-Vanguard, the Thor with a fluorine upper stage, and a "Super Titan" topped by fluorine second and third stages would be the launch vehicles.49

The detailed designs and procedures for the Man-in-Space-Soonest portion of the long-range program went to Headquarters USAF on May 2. Based on Thor-117L, Thor-Vanguard, and Thor-fluorine booster combinations, the "Soonest" concept posited a manned orbit of Earth on the tenth launch of the Thor-fluorine system, in October 1960.50

Meanwhile, on April 30, the contractor team of Avco and Convair, which, since the Sputniks, had spent more time and money on manned satellite design than other industrial firms, presented to the Air Force a highly detailed proposal for development of a "minimum" vehicle. Featuring the "bare" Atlas, the basic "one and one-half stage" ICBM with no second stage, the Avco-Convair approach would orbit a man inside a sphere weighing 1500-2000 pounds. The steel-mesh drag brake, a metallic, inverted parachute, would be used for atmospheric entry.51 [92] Specialists at the Ballistic Missile Division concluded that using the "bare" Atlas would save only three or four months of development time, that it would necessitate an undesirably low orbital altitude, that it ignored the prospect of dangerously high reentry g forces following an "abort" with what was essentially a single-stage booster, and that it presented little "growth potential," in contrast to the Thor fluorine system.52 As early as March, moreover, ARDC's advisers in NACA, led by Maxime Faget, had criticized the complex drag-brake apparatus as "poor policy that might interfere with the early completion of the program as well as being a totally unnecessary device."53

However, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff LeMay, whose directive back in February had accelerated the proposed military manned satellite project, now ordered a reevaluation of the Avco-Convair scheme. LeMay felt this was possibly a cheaper way to get a man into space than Man-in-Space-Soonest, which called for an expenditure of more than $100 million for fiscal 1959. On May 20, Lieutenant General Samuel E. Anderson, Commander of ARDC, replied that in view of a general lack of confidence within ARDC in the Avco metal shuttlecock device, the Air Force should pursue the Man-in-Space-Soonest approach. LeMay accepted this recommendation.54 Henceforth, although there would be significant amendments to Man-in-Space-Soonest, the Air Force's own plan would encounter diminishing competition from would-be contractors' alternatives.

While Anderson was discouraging LeMay's interest in the Avco-Convair proposal, General Schriever, Commander of the Ballistic Missile Division, wrote Anderson that his office was ready to proceed with a manned orbital project; the selection of a capsule contractor awaited only allocation of sufficient funds. But ARDC still could not secure full authorization from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, under which the Air Force would have to fund a project to put a man in orbit. ARPA had sketched the Soonest plan before the National Security Council Planning Board, which supposedly had a "feeling of great urgency to achieve ... Man-in-Space-Soonest at the earliest possible date." But ARPA Director Johnson still shrank from the initial $100-million-plus request contained in the program outline.55

The main trouble was the high cost of mating the intermediate-range Thor with 117L and Vanguard second stages,developing an entirely new rocket with a fluorine powerplant, and carrying out perhaps as many as 30 development flights before trying to orbit a manned capsule.56 Late in May, Air Force Under Secretary MacIntyre and Assistant Secretary Richard E. Horner suggested that making the Atlas a carrier for manned flight might cut program costs below the $100 million mark. ARDC then had its Ballistic Missile Division prepare an alternative approach for Man-in-Space-Soonest. The BMD answer was that using the Atlas would mean reducing the orbital altitude of the 2,000-3,000-pound capsule from about 170 miles to about 115 miles. This in turn would mean that voice contact would be lost for long periods unless more orbital tracking stations were built around the globe. Despite these reservations, on June 15, the Ballistic [93] Missile Division sent to Washington a revised development plan for orbiting a man in an Atlas-boosted ballistic capsule by April 1960 at a total cost of $99.3 million. The next day ARPA gave its approval to the revised "Soonest" plan and authorized the Air Force to proceed with study contracts on the life support system of the proposed manned capsule. The Wright Air Development Center let two concurrent three-month study contracts, at $370,000 each, to North American Aviation and General Electric, which were to design the space cabin and ecological mechanisms and build "mockups" - full-scale working models - of the capsule interior.57

By late June, with the reworked version of the space bill proposed by the Eisenhower administration almost ready to be voted on in Congress, it was apparent that the Air Force was in much more of a hurry to hurl a man into orbit than was ARPA. The new Defense Department agency remained reluctant to commit heavy financing to a project that might well be abandoned or transferred when the civilian space organization proposed by Eisenhower came into existence. Throughout June and into July, an ARPA Man in Space Panel, headed by Samuel B. Batdorf, received briefings and proposals from the Air Force and in turn reported to Herbert F. York, chief scientist in ARPA. But during these weeks Faget, serving as the regular NACA representative on the ARPA panel, began to detect a definite change in the attitude of ARPA personnel toward NACA. The essence of this change, according to Faget, was the growing belief that now perhaps ARPA should give more advice to NACA on space technology than vice versa, as had been the case. For example, York recommended to Johnson that NACA Director Dryden's "personal concurrence" be obtained before any Air Force man-in-space program was formally approved by ARPA.58

On June 25 and 26, the ARPA Man in Space Panel sponsored a meeting in Washington for representatives from Headquarters ARDC, the Ballistic Missile Division, Convair, Lockheed, Space Technology Laboratories, and NACA. The meeting was called to resolve such outstanding questions as the relationship between payload weight and the lifting capabilities of various booster systems, booster reliability, and ablation versus heat sink thermal protection techniques. The gathering produced little specific technical agreement. Into July, ARPA continued to hold back adequate "go-ahead" funds for a full-fledged Air Force effort to send a manned vehicle into orbit.59


48 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 19-20; "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 38-39. See pp. 81-82.

49 "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 41, 43 44; "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 21-22. See also Mae M. Link, Space Medicine in Project Mercury, NASA SP—4003 (Washington, 1965), 25.

50 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 23.

51 "Proposal for a Manned Satellite," Avco Manufacturing Corp., and Convair/Astronautics Div., General Dynamics Corp., April 30, 1958.

52 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 22-23; "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 45-46.

53 Memo for files, Faget, "Attendance at ARDC Briefing on 'Man in Space' Program," March 5, 1958. See also memo to NACA, Soulé, "Second Discussion of ARDC Briefing on 'Man in Space' Program," March 27, 1958.

54 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 23-34; "Outline of History of USAF Man-in-Space Research and Development Program," Air Force information policy lettersupplement No. 109, Aug., 1962, published in Missiles and Rockets, X (March 26, 1962), 148; memo, Crowley to Langley, Ames, Lewis Laboratories and High Speed Flight Station, "An AVCO-Convair Proposal for Manned Satellite," May 16, 1958.

55 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 25.

56 See memo, Herbert F. York, Chief Scientist, ARPA, to Roy W. Johnson, "Next Steps to be Taken in Formulating Man in Space Program," June 7, 1958.

57 "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 25-27; "Outline of History of USAF Man-in-Space Program," 148.

58 Faget interview; memo, Faget to Dryden, "Faget Dealings with ARPA during the Past Several Weeks," June 5, 1958; York memo.

59 "Outline of History of Man-in-Space Program," 149; "Chronology of Early USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 26; "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 53-54.


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