Eisenhower Years: 1953-1960

At the time of the 1952 presidential election, technology was changing rapidly. The testing of the first US hydrogen bomb on 1 November 1952 and the first Soviet H-bomb detonation the next August changed the outlook for ICBM development. The new H-bomb, smaller and more powerful than the A-bomb, could be carried by a smaller, less accurate rocket.(29) Due to this breakthrough, the US restarted its ICBM programs in 1954.

As these programs started again, concern about a thermonuclear-armed and potentially hostile Soviet Union became more intense. Because of the closed nature of the Soviet state, little concrete information was available on its state of readiness, military capabilities, or intentions. US military planners could not even draw up a reasonable war plan because they did not know the location of Soviet military targets. Lack of solid information on Soviet intentions meant that a misunderstanding might trigger a nuclear war, while the same lack of knowledge left the US vulnerable in a surprise attack.

Because of a fervent desire to avoid "a nuclear Pearl Harbor," President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed Open Skies to the world in July 1955.(30) Written by Nelson Rockefeller with inspiration from Henry Kissinger, Open Skies proposed that the US and USSR exchange information on their military establishments and allow uninhibited overflights of their territory for verification. This proposal would lessen the fear of a surprise attack. Although highly regarded by the European community, Open Skies was rejected by the Soviets.(31)

International Geophysical Year

The scientific scene changed along with the world military picture in the early 1950s. The big event of the decade was the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a worldwide scientific extravaganza lasting from 15 July 1957 through 31 December 1958. During the IGY, scientists coordinated high altitude scientific research activities on a worldwide scale. The United Nations Special Committee for the IGY invited world governments to launch satellites in the interests of global science.(32)

However, in launching a satellite, there was more at stake for the US than just science. There were such goals of high national importance as establishing the legality of overflight in accordance with Eisenhower's Open Skies or Freedom of Space doctrine and being first in space.(33)

On 28 July 1955, the US announced its intention to launch a satellite during the IGY. The US program would follow National Security Council (NSC) recommendations (laid out in NSC Directive 5520, dated 26 May 1955) and was not to interfere with existing military missile development programs. The NSC recommendations created a de facto separation of the US space effort into military and civilian sectors.(34) The Soviets also announced the intention to launch a satellite and claimed that they would better any attempt made by the US. No one took them seriously at the time.(35)

The Stewart Committee (formed by the assistant secretary of defense to review proposals and pick a US satellite program for launch related to IGY) reviewed Project Vanguard, a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) proposal based on the Viking upper atmospheric research rocket. The scientific (nonmilitary) nature of the rocket pleased the committee as did the NRL's scheme for tracking the satellite, a radio network called Minitrack. In August 1955, the Stewart Committee chose Vanguard for the IGY based almost completely on its separation from the military. Thus, the committee seemed to ignore the national goal of being first in space. Von Braun's promise to launch his group's satellite, Orbiter in 90 days did not sway the committee.(36) The government sanctioned the IGY program in the hope of legalizing satellite overflight with a civilian scientific satellite with no military or political implications.(37)

By late 1955, the changing political and military situation relegated Vanguard to the back burner. To match newly revealed Soviet missile programs, Eisenhower made the US ICBM programs a top priority, and to gain intelligence on the Soviet R&D effort, did the same with the US spy satellite program.

Meanwhile, the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Martin Marietta), the Viking builder, logically became the Vanguard contractor.(38) It also got the contract for the Titan I ICBM shortly after the Vanguard program started. Martin moved its best people to the military project leaving the Vanguard program with little support.(39) Vanguard became a bureaucratic orphan because the armed services had little interest in a nonmilitary project.

Martin finished the Vanguard vehicle design in February 1956 and began construction shortly thereafter. Martin and NRL conducted a number of successful flight tests from December 1956 through October 1957 and scheduled launch of a small test satellite for December 1957.(40)

At this time, the Soviets were making considerable headway with a missile development program drawing heavily on German expertise obtained after World War II. Years ahead of US expectations, the Soviets created the world's first ICBM, the SS-6 Sapwood. Development of this missile began in 1955 as an attempt to redress the perceived arms imbalance brought on by US preponderance in manned bombers.(41) Designed before the technology breakthroughs, the primitive, first-generation nuclear bomb the SS-6 was to carry dictated its immense size.(42) News of the Soviet missile tests leaked to the West and caused the first twinges of what became the missile gap scare.

After a successful test flight on 3 August 1957, the Soviets announced that they alone possessed an ICBM.(43) However, the missile did not reach initial operational capability (IOC) until 1959, by which time US ICBMs had rendered it obsolete.(44) Although some Western reaction to these events was understandably grim, most experts did not take the threat seriously. This view changed radically on 4 October 1957 when the Soviets stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. Since the Soviets had no aversion for interlacing the military with space, they used their new SS-6 ICBM as the booster allowing faster development than with the US's "from scratch" approach. Shock swept across the US, even though the Soviets had made numerous claims that they were very nearly ready to launch their satellite. Now many scientists, engineers, and military officials were convinced the rocket that put the 184-pound Sputnik into orbit had serious military potential. The launch seemed to validate Soviet claims of a massive military launch capability including ICBMs. If nothing else, Sputnik aided Eisenhower's attempts to legalize satellite overflight since no nation protested the overflight of its territory by the Soviet satellite.

The launching of Sputnik pushed Vanguard to the forefront of US public attention while it was still an underfunded and highly experimental system. Without the launch of Sputnik, the subsequent failure of Vanguard would probably have left little impression on the nation. Unfortunately, because of the Soviet success, the country expected Vanguard to work immediately.

On top of these expectations, the media whipped the public into a frenzy over the Sputnik launch.(45) Then a 9 October White House press release, misinterpreted by the press, seemed to indicate that the December Vanguard test flight was an operational launch when the statement said it was just another test.(46) Finally on 3 November, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, the first biosatellite, with the dog Laika aboard. The 1,200-pound Sputnik II was "proof" that the Soviets possessed a fully capable launch system. Thus expectations for Vanguard ran even higher.

On 6 December 1957, with the whole world watching, Vanguard exploded on the launch pad.(47) This disaster became the symbol of failure for the US space program. The Soviets took advantage of the propaganda opportunity by offering to assist the US through the UN program for technological assistance to primitive nations.(48)

After the Vanguard failure, the US government seemed to scramble for a quick solution to this embarrassment and chose to go with a modified version of von Braun's Project Orbiter. In fact, this decision had been made in November, well before the failure. The Juno launch vehicle, topped by a small scientific satellite called Explorer I lifted off on 31 January 1958, and the US had a satellite. Explorer I discovered the presence of radiation belts around the Earth, undoubtedly the most important discovery of the IGY.(49)

The Sputnik launch and the Vanguard fiasco were tremendous blows to US prestige as predicted by von Braun in his 1954 "A Minimum Satellite Vehicle." These events alarmed the US public who pressured the government for action. Eisenhower, bowing in part to congressional and public pressure, recognized the need for a centralized space program and policy. Moreover, the IGY events were major contributors to the growing missile gap scare because of concern among US military and political leaders that they had drastically underestimated Soviet potential. The more tangible reactions were accelerated--US ICBM programs, expanded U-2 overflights, and the beefed-up spy satellite R&D programs.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

To avoid the difficulties experienced with Vanguard, which many blamed on faulty management and lack of unified direction, the government created a new agency to solidify national space policy. The National Aeronautics and Space Act created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958.(50) The act essentially codified the NSC directive of May 1955 by officially dividing the civilian and military sectors. NASA would solidify policy on peaceful uses of space.(51) It absorbed the resources and facilities of NACA and other space-related agencies (such as the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Advanced Research Projects Agency [ARPA]).(52) NASA was the brainchild of James R. Killian, presidential scientific advisor, and opened its doors on 1 October 1958.(53)

As Killian and Eisenhower had devised it, NASA would be a strictly civilian enterprise, thereby limiting the military's role in the national space program. Within its original charter, there was only a vaguely defined relationship with the military. Congress, on the other hand, envisioned a strong military role in space and wished to modify NASA's relationship with the military. To this end, Congress created the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee (to coordinate NASA and Department of Defense [DOD] activities) and the National Aeronautics and Space Council (chaired by the president as commander in chief of the US military to create national space policy).(54)

NASA's first major project, the Mercury Program, began as a result of the 1958 Space Task Group recommendations.(55) Mercury, a stepping stone to the Moon mission later known as Apollo, was to send a man into low-Earth orbit and return him safely. Additionally, Mercury was to discover some of man's capabilities and limitations in space.(56) In mid-1959, after the most extensive physiological and psychological testing ever performed on humans, NASA selected seven astronauts to take part in Mercury.(57)

Long-term planning for Apollo, the US Moon program, began simultaneously with Mercury. By late 1960, Eisenhower became disenchanted with the tremendous estimated cost of putting someone on the Moon. T. Keith Glennan, NASA chief, told the president, "If we fail to place a man on the moon before twenty years from now, there is nothing lost." Glennan planned to go public with this view when Eisenhower saved him the trouble by stopping the funding for Apollo.(58)

Missile Gap

In the 1950s the overriding theme in US strategic thinking was that the Soviets had the "bomb," and no one knew what they might do with it. Sputnik increased apprehension about the subject. The US government needed facts to quell the rising anxiety. As the Soviets were rejecting Open Skies, US intelligence services were trying desperately to peer over the iron curtain into the Soviet Union. As an early and partial solution to the information need, the US, like many other Western nations, employed agents to collect information. These agents were only marginally successful due to the closed nature of the Soviet state. Although the US gained useful information, American intelligence agencies could not see all that was going on in the Soviet Union.(59)

Another method of intelligence gathering employed during this period used large, high-altitude balloons (similar to the Skyhook scientific research balloon) to carry a camera across the USSR. The camera payload was designated WS-119L and code-named Moby Dick. The US released balloons from West Germany, Turkey, and Norway to ride the prevailing winds across the USSR. The Soviets captured many of the balloons, displayed them to the world, and vehemently protested the illegal overflights. The US stopped the flights in March 1956, not because of the protests, but because of poor results. Since the balloons flew at the mercy of the winds, the US could not control or anticipate their speed and direction which made specific targeting impossible.(60)

Surveillance aircraft also flew into Soviet airspace, but before the mid-1950s these aircraft could not penetrate deep enough into the USSR to see facilities far from the border and generally could not fly high enough or fast enough to avoid detection and interception by Soviet fighters.(61) Thus, the Air Force began a new R&D program for a specially designed, high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the U-2. Built by Lockheed, it first flew on 4 August 1955. The U-2 could fly above 80,000 feet, well above the service ceiling of all contemporary fighters.(62) However, even before the U-2's first flight, the Air Force had begun serious work on reconnaissance satellites under Project Feedback.

On 16 March 1955, Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), later Air Force Systems Command, requested studies for a strategic satellite system, designated WS-117L, code-named Pied Piper.(63) The satellite was to carry a camera designed to develop its pictures on board the satellite, scan them with a TV camera, and send images back to Earth. ARDC selected three contractors--Martin, Lockheed, and RCA--for these studies.(64)

Meanwhile the Missile Gap controversy received an added boost from the 1957 report of the Gaither Committee, who had been tasked to evaluate the feasibility of civil defense during a nuclear attack but had broadened its scope to include survivability of US nuclear forces. The committee's final report pointed out the extreme vulnerability of US forces to nuclear attack due to lack of a fast-reaction bomber force and the means to detect missile attack before the missiles impacted. These obvious problems greatly concerned Congress. The controversy centered on Soviet missile production rates and when these missiles would be operational.(65)

This missile controversy pitted USAF Intelligence against the Central Intelligence Agency in a debate over Soviet capabilities. These organizations made differing estimates of Soviet missile production and the number of operational missiles. Moreover, none of the US intelligence services knew where the Soviet factories were, much less their capacity for manufacturing the necessary electronics and other "high-tech" materials required for large-scale missile production.(66) Because of the lack of concrete information, US intelligence agencies turned to their best performer, the U-2.

The U-2s searched for Soviet ICBMs. By summer 1957, U-2s flying out of Pakistan returned with the first pictures of the Tyuratam SS-6 test site. However, analysis of the photos seemed to show that, other than at this one site, there were no ICBMs deployed at all.(67) This finding should have alleviated fears about a missile gap, but the secrecy surrounding the program prevented the public and even some political leaders from seeing this evidence, so the outcry continued.(68)

By March 1958, with reconnaissance satellites now well along in their development, Eisenhower wanted to keep U-2 flights to a minimum to avoid provoking the Soviets. But by this time, U-2s provided 90 percent of US intelligence on the USSR, and the information was literally priceless.(69) Therefore, the US reluctantly continued the U-2 flights at ever-increasing risk of being shot down.

On 1 May 1960, a Soviet air force surface-to-air missile shot down a U-2 flying from Turkey. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, failed to activate the destruct mechanism, and the Soviets recovered both the pilot and the aircraft.(70) The president immediately suspended overflights and the US lost all information that U-2s had been providing. But, in less than three months, the US again had photos of Soviet missile installations, this time the photos came from space.(71)

Military Space Systems

Because it now wished to use reconnaissance satellites, the US had to modify its policy on the peaceful use of space. What had started out as "nonmilitary" became "nonaggressive" use of space. Military observation from space was likened to military observation from the high seas. The right of free passage through space and the denouncement of rights to sovereignty over space became the major cornerstones of US space policy, in part to protect military satellite overflights.(72)

While the U-2s were hunting ICBMs, the fledgling US space reconnaissance program struggled along, underfunded and ignored. Then the Soviets launched Sputnik, and attitudes changed overnight. By late November 1957, Pied Piper funding quadrupled. In January 1958, Eisenhower approved reorientation of the program towards a simpler reentry capsule approach that seemed more promising in the short term. The government depicted this new program, code-named Corona and later known as Discoverer in public news releases, as a scientific research program.(73)

Discoverer used the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) as the booster and the Lockheed Agena upper stage. Launching into polar orbit allowed photographs of the whole Soviet landmass. Discoverer carried a reentry/recovery capsule designed to detach, deorbit, and be recovered at sea or by an airborne capture method.(74)

The new Discoverer satellite first flew on 28 February 1959 from Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) using the Thor-Agena A in the first test of the WS-117L program. The flight failed when the stabilization system malfunctioned.(75)

The Discoverer program's first success came with Discoverer 13 which was launched 10 August 1960 with no instrumentation aboard. It made 17 orbits and reentered smoothly. US Navy frogmen retrieved it near Hawaii after the recovery aircraft missed the parachute. Discoverer 13 was the first man-made object recovered from space. Discoverer 14 was the first satellite to carry cameras and bring back pictures. Launched 18 August 1960, Discoverer 14 restored much of the intelligence capability lost by the cancellation of U-2 flights.(76)

Communication and Navigation. The importance of space support for communications was recognized earlier in the space era. As a military follow-on to NASA's Score satellite (early repeater communication satellite), the Army built the first military communication satellite, Courier 1B. Launched on 4 October 1960, Courier weighed 500 pounds and was powered by 20,000 solar cells. Like Score, Courier was a delayed repeater satellite, capable of storing and retransmitting up to 68,000 words a minute. The satellite operated only 17 days due to a power failure.(77)

Another use for satellites is navigation. For centuries mankind had navigated using the stars as guides. Celestial navigation has certain limitations since stars could not be seen in daylight or inclement weather. A method of overcoming this problem is the use of artificial stars emitting radio waves rather than light so that they can be detected in all conditions. Navigation satellites also provide increased positional accuracy and are less affected by weather, interference, or distance from the station.(78)

The Navy was the first service to become interested in navigation satellites. The first launch of the experimental Transit 1A satellite in September 1959 initiated the world's first military navigational satellite system. Use of Transit to fix locations enabled Polaris submarines to improve the accuracy of their missiles to about one mile.

Antiballistic Missiles. When the ICBM became a reality, military planners began to look for a method to counter the new threat. In the mid-1950s, both the Army and the Air Force began to work in earnest on antiballistic missile (ABM) systems. The first US ABM program, the Army's Nike Zeus, began in 1955. In 1958, the government selected this program for development. The system's nuclear warhead had less than a one megaton yield and was guided to the target by two radars.(79) These radars fed data to the target intercept computer which calculated the steering commands for the missile.(80) The first Nike Zeus launch took place on 16 December 1959. In 1960, the Army ran tests at Ascension Island against Atlas reentry vehicles. Later, the Army conducted successful tests and built an entire Nike Zeus launch complex at Kwajalein Missile Range (KMR). Although the tests continued, DOD canceled the Nike Zeus ABM program in May 1959 because the mechanical tracking radars were too slow and the computer's target processing was unsatisfactory due to inadequate memory. The system also needed a high acceleration missile interceptor for last-ditch defense within the atmosphere (terminal phase interception).(81

Antisatellites. Virtually as soon as the Soviets vanquished the dreaded U-2 from their skies, they were faced with a new reconnaissance platform, Discoverer. As with the U-2, they threatened to shoot down US satellites and worked hard to develop an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon. The Soviets developed several systems in the 1960s and tested them many times with varied, though promising, results.(82)

Meanwhile, half-veiled Soviet threats to orbit nuclear weapons made US development of an ASAT system imperative. Such a system would be a countermeasure to space weapons and, as such, could enforce any agreement banning orbital weapons. ASATs would also provide a means to destroy such a weapon before it could reach its target. Since no one knew how far along the Soviets were in their development program, little time was available for development in the US program. Therefore the US decided to adapt existing hardware.(83)

The Air Force's satellite interceptor (SAINT) was the first US antisatellite program. SAINT developed from ARDC studies on defense against hostile satellites in 1956. ARPA took over the project in 1957 under ARDC oversight. On 11 June 1959, the Air Force let a contract to RCA for research into ASAT techniques, and the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division began development on 20 August when DOD gave final approval for full-scale development of SAINT.

SAINT was to employ the orbital rendezvous technique of interception. The Air Force also envisioned the system as an active defense against Soviet ASATs. It was to defend US satellites, search for orbital nuclear weapons, and rendezvous with and inspect suspect satellites via a TV camera. Not only would the satellite look for nuclear weapons but it also was to differentiate between weather satellites and reconnaissance satellites. Satellites found to be benign would be left alone. Those found to be hostile would be earmarked for destruction.(84)

SAINT used much off-the-shelf equipment to keep costs and development time down. In phase I, SAINT was strictly a satellite inspector using the Atlas-Agena B combination.(85) Air Force planned phase II to include a "kill" capability, perhaps using small, spin-stabilized rockets. However, in July 1960, DOD directed the Air Force to stop referring to a kill capability for SAINT. Once operational, SAINT was to transmit its data to the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).(86)

X-20. Although unmanned space systems were the dominant theme in the 1950s, the dream of manned space flight was ever present. In the late 1950s, Walter Dornberger, working with Bell Aircraft, suggested to the Air Force the construction of a manned space vehicle called BoMi (bomber missile). This craft would be capable of bombing and reconnaissance from low-Earth orbit. In 1955 Bell received approval to begin research for this program, conceived as a follow-on to the X-15 program. The program's emphasis changed to strictly reconnaissance, and in October 1957, the Air Force combined all efforts to create the X-20. NACA joined the program in May 1958, and the government let contracts to Martin and Boeing for weapon system definition studies.(87)

A version of the Titan rocket launched the X-20. Achieving speeds up to 25,000 feet per second, the X-20 would orbit the Earth at a mission altitude of 60 miles. When its mission was complete, it would reenter the atmosphere and land as a glider.(88) In April 1960, DOD gave approval for the first step (suborbital) of a three-step development program for the X-20 with 1966 as the probable date for full operation. However, DOD expressed the opinion that there was no clear-cut need for the X-20, and it remained a contingency program while the Air Force tried to develop a real military mission for it. The lack of a clear mission, along with competition for funds, led to the X-20's eventual demise.(89)

Missile Warning and Space Surveillance. The launch of Sputnik I triggered more than just apprehension and a response in kind (i.e., the launch of US satellites). It also created an entirely new field of endeavor, tracking of objects in space using the Space Tracking System.(90) The first US system, Minitrack, was already in existence at the time of the Sputnik launch, but the US quickly discovered that Minitrack could not reliably detect and track satellites. The US Navy designed Minitrack to track the Vanguard satellite, and so long as satellites followed the international agreement on satellite transmitting frequencies, Minitrack could track any satellite.(91) However, the Soviets chose not to use the international satellite frequencies. Thus, a major limitation of this system became visible. Minitrack could not detect or track an uncooperative or passive satellite.(92)

Concurrent with Minitrack was the use of the Baker-Nunn satellite tracking cameras. These systems used modified Schmidt telescopes of great resolution to photograph and identify objects in space.(93) The cameras first became operational in 1956 and eventually operated at sites worldwide. The Air Force ran five sites, the Royal Canadian Air Force ran two, and the Smithsonian Institution's Astrophysics Observatory operated a further eight sites.(94) The Baker-Nunn system, like Minitrack, provided little real-time data and was limited to night, clear weather operations.(95)

Beyond the problems in acquiring data on satellites, it became obvious that the US tracking network would soon be overwhelmed by the tremendous number of satellites that followed Sputnik and Vanguard. The huge amounts of satellite tracking data accumulated required creation or expansion of organizations and equipment just to sift through and catalog the objects. The need for real-time detection and tracking information to deal with Soviet satellite launches led on 19 December 1958 to ARPA's implementation of Executive Order 50-59 to establish a spacetrack network. This spacetrack network, Project Shepherd, began with the Space Track Filter Center at Bedford, Massachusetts, and an operational space defense network (i.e., a missile warning network). ARDC took up the spacetrack mission in late 1959 and in April 1960 set up the Interim National Space Surveillance Control Center at Hanscom Field, Massachusetts, to coordinate observations and maintain satellite data.(96) At the same time, DOD designated the Aerospace Defense Command (ADCOM), formerly Air Defense Command, as the prime user of spacetrack data. ADCOM formulated the first US plans for space surveillance.(97)

Program 496L. In time, radar largely replaced other tracking methods and provided precise and timely tracking and identification information. A number of new radar sites were built under the direction of the 496L System Program Office. ARPA created this office in late 1959 to develop techniques and equipment for military surveillance of satellites with the "immediate objective of detecting and identifying all man-made satellites."(98)

Authorized under 496L, the Naval Space Surveillance (NAVSPASUR) system has three transmitter sites and six receiver sites dispersed at equal intervals along the 33d parallel in the southern United States. NAVSPASUR projects a detection fence of radio frequency energy far out into space to detect and track all objects passing over the United States. This continuous wave detection radar provides precise satellite position data.(99) With its processing center at Dahlgren, Virginia, NAVSPASUR forms an integral part of the space detection and tracking network.

North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Missile Warning Network. New technology created new challenges for military planners. In the early 1950s, the primary air defense problem was the manned bomber. By the late 1950s, fear of ICBM attack prompted studies (e.g., the Gaither Committee) to determine how the US could react to such attack. Military planners soon realized that there was, at that time, no way to detect an ICBM attack until the weapons hit the ground, which would be too late. To detect and report an attack in time to mount a retaliatory strike, the US constructed a series of interconnected radar sites, each reporting to NORAD.(100)

NORAD became operational 12 September 1957 with the mission of air defense of the North American continent. Headquartered at Ent AFB, Colorado Springs, Colorado, NORAD was and still is a combined US and Canadian command, the first two-nation, joint-service military organization on this continent. In October 1960, NORAD assumed the space defense mission with the formation of the space detection and tracking system. ADCOM became the US Air Force component of NORAD. NORAD's missions were (1) warning of ballistic missile attack, (2) defense against manned bomber attack, and (3) space surveillance.(101)

The first radar systems to come on-line to fulfill the missile warning role were part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) built under the direction of the 496L office. BMEWS provided early warning of an over-the-pole ICBM attack and provided timely and accurate space surveillance data to the NORAD Space Surveillance Center. BMEWS gave 15 minutes warning of an ICBM attack.(102) The first BMEWS operational site was the 12th Missile Warning Squadron at Thule AFB, Greenland, which began operating in January 1960.(103)