Getting Ready for Space Exploration
While Wernher von Braun and others during the 1950s were helping to create the public expectation that space travel was just around the corner, the U.S. government was taking the initial tentative steps toward making the United States a spacefaring country. With the development of powerful ballistic missiles for launching nuclear weapons getting under way, it was just a matter of time before variants of those missiles were converted into rockets for launching objects, and, soon after, people into orbit.
The United States would not be first to space, however. American prestige took a serious blow when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. The event was seen by many, particularly in the media and the Congress, as proof of Soviet superiority in science, technology, engineering, and social organization-with all the implications that had for the growth of Soviet power and prestige. But Sputnik 1 did not cause high levels of alarm within the Eisenhower administration. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his associates had a different space priority. To Eisenhower and many of his associates, who had felt the impact of Pearl Harbor, minimizing the risk of a surprise Soviet attack was an overriding concern. The need to see into the Soviet Union and to learn the location and number of its military bases, nuclear facilities, missile facilities, bomber aircraft, and so forth created the demand for strategic reconnaissance on a continental scale. At that time, aircraft overflight and sending camera-carrying balloons over Soviet territory (the latter of which provided little useful intelligence) were the only means available for strategic reconnaissance, and they were forbidden by international law.
The Eisenhower administration grappled with this problem and took a number of different approaches to solve it, including a high-altitude spy plane, the U-2, thought impervious to antiaircraft attack. Another approach was approving the early development of satellites that could overfly the Soviet Union and return useful information. In 1954 the Air Force began preliminary development of a reconnaissance satellite program, dubbed WS (Weapon System) 117L. This was the first government-approved space program. Although its feasibility was far from certain at the time, it was understood that a satellite could potentially overcome the risks faced by aerial reconnaissance. First, there was no risk of a satellite getting shot down or destroyed in orbit by conventional air defenses. Second, it was not clear under international law if one country's satellite overflying another country's territory in outer space was legal or not. There was no precedent. Establishing the principle of "freedom of space," that is, the acceptability and legality of satellite overflight of another's territory, became a crucial national security issue for the United States.
Meanwhile, as these national defense concerns were being discussed inside the government, the U.S. scientific community independently was developing a proposal for a scientific satellite to be launched during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which was to run from June 1957 to December 1958. The IGY was a major international effort to study the entire Earth, including its lands, seas, atmosphere, and outer space environments. The international scientific community would collaborate on research and share the results. Sixty-seven countries were to participate, including both the United States and the Soviet Union. To U.S. scientists, orbiting a scientific satellite was a natural extension of their post-World War II research in the upper atmosphere using high-altitude balloons and sounding rockets.
The National Science Foundation approved the National Academy of SciencesÕ proposal for a scientific satellite. But because of its implications for national security, the satellite program also required approval at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Thus a National Security Council paper, NSC 5520, ÒDraft Statement of Policy on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program,Ó May 20, 1955, outlined a variety of reasons for approval of the scientific satellite program, including its scientific and technological benefits, its importance for national prestige, and, most important, its use in establishing the international legal precedent of freedom of space. The satelliteÕs peaceful purposes would be emphasized, since it was to be an unclassified program and the scientific data it acquired would be shared internationally under the sponsorship of the IGY. These factors would increase the chances that no country would protest the overflight of such a satellite. With the legal precedent set, an opening for reconnaissance satellites would be created. Valid scientific interests would provide a convenient screen for equally valid national security concerns. Science would shape the environment for the military to peer behind the Iron Curtain and strengthen U.S. national security. The intentional intertwining of U.S. scientific and national security interests in the U.S. civilian space program was thus part of the U.S. space effort from its inception.
National Security Council, NSC 5520, "Draft Statement of Policy on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program," May 20, 1955
1. The U.S. is believed to have the technical capability to establish successfully a small scientific satellite of the earth in the fairly near future. Recent studies by the Department of Defense have indicated that a small scientific satellite weighing 5 to 10 pounds can be launched into an orbit about the earth using adaptations of existing rocket components. If a decision to embark on such a program is made promptly, the U.S. will probably be able to establish and track such a satellite within the period 1957-58.
2. The report of the Technological Capabilities Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee recommended that intelligence applications warrant an immediate program leading to a very small satellite in orbit around the earth, and that re-examination should be made of the principles or practices of international law with regard to "Freedom of Space" from the standpoint of recent advances in weapon technology.
3. On April 16, 1955, the Soviet Government announced that a permanent high-level, interdepartmental commission for interplanetary communications has been created in the Astronomic Council of the USSR Academy of Sciences. A group of Russia's top scientists is now believed to be working on a satellite program. In September 1954 the Soviet Academy of Sciences announced the establishment of the Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal which would be awarded every three years for outstanding work in the field of interplanetary communications.
4. Some substantial benefits may be derived from establishing small scientific satellites. By careful observation and the analysis of actual orbital decay patterns, much information will be gained about air drag at extreme altitudes and about the fine details of the shape of and the gravitational field of the earth. Such satellites promise to provide direct and continuous determination of the total ion content of the ionosphere. These significant findings will find ready application in defense communication and missile research. When large instrumented satellites are established, a number of other kinds of scientific data may be acquired . . .
5. From a military standpoint, the Joint Chiefs have stated their belief that intelligence applications strongly warrant the construction of a large surveillance satellite. While a small scientific satellite cannot carry surveillance equipment and therefore will not have any direct intelligence potential, it does represent a technological step toward the achievement of a large surveillance satellite, and will be helpful to this end so long as the small scientific satellite program does not impede the development of the large surveillance satellite.
6. Considerable prestige and psychological benefits will accrue to the nation which first is successful in launching a satellite. The inference of such a demonstration of advanced technology and its unmistakable relationship to intercontinental ballistic missile technology might have important repercussions on the political determination of free world countries to resist Communist threats, especially if the USSR were to be the first to establish a satellite. Furthermore, a small scientific satellite will provide a test of the principle of "Freedom of Space." The implications of this principle are being studied within the Executive Branch. However, preliminary studies indicate that there is no obstacle under international law to the launching of such a satellite.
7. It should be emphasized that a satellite would constitute no active military offensive threat to any country over which it might pass. Although a large satellite might conceivably serve to launch a guided missile at a ground target, it will always be a poor choice for the purpose. A bomb could not be dropped from a satellite on a target below, because anything dropped from a satellite would simply continue alongside in the orbit.
8. The U.S. is actively collaborating in many scientific programs for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1957 through December 1958. The U.S. National Committee of the IGY has requested U.S. Government support for the establishment of a scientific satellite during the Geophysical Year. The IGY affords an excellent opportunity to mesh a scientific satellite program with the cooperative world-wide geophysical observational program. The U.S. can simultaneously exploit its probable technological capability for launching a small scientific satellite to multiply and enhance the over-all benefits of the International Geophysical Year, to gain scientific prestige, and to benefit research and development in the fields of military weapons systems and intelligence. The U.S. should emphasize the peaceful purposes of the launching of such a satellite, although care must be taken as the project advances not to prejudice U.S. freedom of action (1) to proceed outside the IGY should difficulties arise in the IGY procedure, or (2) to continue with its military satellite programs directed toward the launch of a large surveillance satellite when feasible and desirable.
9. The Department of Defense believes that, if preliminary design studies and initial critical component development are initiated promptly, sufficient assurance of success in establishing a small scientific satellite during the IGY will be obtained before the end of this calendar year to warrant a response, perhaps qualified, to an IGY request. The satellite itself and much information as to its orbit would be public information. The means of launching would be classified.
10. A program for a small scientific satellite could be developed from existing missile programs already underway within the Department of Defense. Funds of the order of $20 million are estimated to be required to give reasonable assurance that a small scientific satellite can be established during 1957-8 . . .
Courses of Action
11. Initiate a program in the Department of Defense to develop the capability of launching a small scientific satellite by 1958, with the understanding that this program will not prejudice continued research toward large instrumented satellites for additional research or intelligence capabilities, or materially delay other major Defense programs.
12. Endeavor to launch a small scientific satellite under international auspices, such as the International Geophysical Year, in order to emphasize its peaceful purposes, provided such international auspices are arranged in a manner which:
a. Preserves U.S. freedom of action in the field of satellites and related programs.
b. Does not delay or otherwise impede the U.S. satellite program and related research and development programs.
c. Protects the security of U.S. classified information regarding such matters as the means of launching a scientific satellite.
d. Does not involve actions which imply a requirement for prior consent by any nation over which the satellite might pass in its orbit, and thereby does not jeopardize the concept of "Freedom of Space."
This statement was approved at a May 26, 1955, meeting of the National Security Council, thereby becoming in effect the first U.S. National Space Policy.
A proposal from the civilian-like Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for a small scientific satellite developed by the scientific community, funded by the National Science Foundation, and launched on top of a modified sounding rocket, Viking, was selected on September 9, 1955, as the U.S. space contribution to the IGY. The satellite project's name was Vanguard, and the first launch was expected to be in late 1957 or early 1958.
Vanguard was selected in the face of a competing proposal. The potential existed for the U.S. Army, using a rocket developed by Wernher von Braun and his German rocket team, to launch a satellite in late 1956 or early 1957. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency's (ABMA) proposal was called Project Orbiter. But the Eisenhower administration judged that a U.S. military satellite, launched on a military ballistic missile, before the beginning of the IGY, and without scientific justification, was likely to be viewed as a provocative act by the Soviets, generate a Soviet protest, and thus fail to establish the freedom of space principle. There was also some consideration that it should not be von Braun and his team, so recently employed by Nazi Germany, who should be responsible for this U.S. accomplishment. President Eisenhower decided that the establishment of the freedom of space principle was more important than being first. The Army protested the decision to choose the Navy's Project Vanguard, but to no avail.
Such considerations did not constrain Soviet behavior. Sergei Korolev, the "chief designer" of the Soviet space program, and his associates were determined to be the first into space. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite. This "simple satellite," as it was called by Korolev, was explicitly built to beat the United States to the first satellite launch. The Soviets called the satellite "Sputnik," or "fellow traveler," and reported the achievement in a tersely worded press release issued by the official news agency, Tass, printed in the October 5, 1957, issue of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda. The press release ended by linking the satellite launch to the success of the "new socialist society."
"Announcement of the First Satellite," Pravda,
October 5, 1957
For several years scientific research and experimental design work have been conducted in the Soviet Union on the creation of artificial satellites of the earth. As already reported in the press, the first launching of the satellites in the USSR were planned for realization in accordance with the scientific research program of the International Geophysical Year. As a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and design bureaus the first artificial satellite in the world has been created. On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According to preliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbital velocity of about 8000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is describing elliptical trajectories around the earth, and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting sun with the aid of very simple optical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, etc.). According to calculations which now are being supplemented by direct observations, the satellite will travel at altitudes up to 900 kilometers above the surface of the earth; the time for a complete revolution of the satellite will be one hour and thirty-five minutes; the angle of inclination of its orbit to the equatorial plane is 65 degrees. On October 5 the satellite will pass over the Moscow area twice-at 1:46 a.m. and at 6:42 a.m. Moscow time. Reports about the subsequent movement of the first artificial satellite launched in the USSR on October 4 will be issued regularly by broadcasting stations. The satellite has a spherical shape 58 centimeters in diameter and weighs 83.6 kilograms. It is equipped with two radio transmitters continuously emitting signals at frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 megacycles per second (wave lengths of about 15 and 7.5 meters, respectively). The power of the transmitters ensures reliable reception of the signals by a broad range of radio amateurs. The signals have the form of telegraph pulses of about 0.3 second's duration with a pause of the same duration. The signal of one frequency is sent during the pause in the signal of the other frequency. Scientific stations located at various points in the Soviet Union are tracking the satellite and determining the elements of its trajectory. Since the density of the rarefied upper layers of the atmosphere is not accurately known, there are no data at present for the precise determination of the satellite's lifetime and of the point of its entry into the dense layers of the atmosphere. Calculations have shown that owing to the tremendous velocity of the satellite, at the end of its existence it will burn up on reaching the dense layers of the atmosphere at an altitude of several tens of kilometers. As early as the end of the nineteenth century the possibility of realizing cosmic flights by means of rockets was first scientifically substantiated in Russia by the works of the outstanding Russian scientist K. E. Tsiolkovskii. The successful launching of the first man-made earth satellite makes a most important contribution to the treasure-house of world science and culture. The scientific experiment accomplished at such a great height is of tremendous importance for learning the properties of cosmic space and for studying the earth as a planet of our solar system. During the International Geophysical Year the Soviet Union proposes launching several more artificial earth satellites. These subsequent satellites will be larger and heavier and they will be used to carry out programs of scientific research. Artificial earth satellites will pave the way to interplanetary travel and, apparently, our contemporaries will witness how the freed and conscientious labor of the people of the new socialist society makes the most daring dreams of mankind a reality.