Kennedy and Johnson Years: 1961-1968

President John F. Kennedy's administration began its term of office with the traditional policy review. DOD discovered confusion in the military space R&D sector because each service had its own space programs. In March 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought to correct this duplication of effort with DOD Directive 5160.32, Development of Space Systems. This directive allowed all of the services to conduct preliminary R&D on space technology. Then, on 28 March, McNamara made the Air Force the lead agency for R&D and operations of DOD satellites and their ground support. Although McNamara's decision made the Air Force the primary DOD space agency, it did not satisfy the Air Force completely by making it the sole military agency in space.(104)

Within months after the national election, the Kennedy administration began to withhold information on military space systems. In November 1961, the administration issued an order that there would be no press coverage of military launches, no published orbital characteristics, and no government officials would even admit that many of the programs existed. The reasons were obvious--to prevent the Soviets from learning anything that might help them counter the satellites, to keep from embarrassing the Soviets by publicizing US space achievements (thereby causing the Soviets to attempt to shoot down US military systems), and to avoid compromise of these important satellites. After November 1961, the government did not announce launches or vehicle and program names.(105) In time, the US canceled the early programs and deorbited and replaced the satellites associated with them with more sophisticated and capable, though more clandestine, systems. The military programs sank into obscurity, known only to a select few, while NASA's up and coming manned programs seized and held the spotlight for the next decade.

During 1963 space systems played a tremendous supporting role in the Cuban missile crisis. Although they did not locate missiles in Cuba, US satellites told Kennedy that the capabilities of Soviet nuclear forces were quite limited. Knowing the threat enabled Kennedy to call Khrushchev's bluff. Soviet counterpart systems told Khrushchev that the US was positioning forces to attack Cuba and that the US Navy was moving into position to stop Soviet ships. The message was clear: The US meant business. The Soviets backed down, and the crisis was averted.

Military Space Systems

Despite the large sums of money the Air Force allocated for its manned X-20 R&D program, many civilians involved with the program (including McNamara) refused to see X-20 as a weapon system. At the same time, the success of the NASA manned systems, Mercury and Gemini, led some military planners to look seriously at military applications for man in space. Placing a human being in a space station to carry out military tasks seemed to have a number of advantages over unmanned spacecraft. People possess intelligence, reasoning ability, the ability to improvise, and the ability to recognize an unexpected pattern. With a person in a spacecraft, a system would no longer be limited to following a program blindly.(106)

The first studies for manned military space missions began in the early 1960s. These studies stressed orbital rendezvous, the use of winged spacecraft for reentry, and the justification of a manned versus an automated system. The NASA study program of the same time period developed into Gemini, an advanced version of Mercury. In June 1962, Air Force Space Systems Division developed the concept of using a modified Gemini as a military system. The first step in the program, called the Manned Orbital Development System, would demonstrate man's capabilities in space with a space station and four crew members. The program would use either the Gemini or Apollo capsules as the reentry vehicle, but was not planned to be an operational system.(107) In August 1962, the program expanded to include six Gemini missions with Air Force astronauts under the code name Blue Gemini, but it engendered serious political problems.(108)

When McNamara's defense analysts showed that Gemini would be able to do the X-20 military missions cheaper, DOD cut X-20 funding and postponed the first flight to 1966. Subsequently, McNamara insisted on an equal or dominant role for the Air Force in the Gemini program. NASA claimed that this level of Air Force involvement would jeopardize its ability to meet the lunar landing schedule and would signal the militarization of the US civilian space program. Later NASA agreed to carry some DOD experiments piggyback on Gemini.(109) In July 1963, NASA suggested to DOD a space station program to look for a possible military mission for man in space. This program became the Air Force Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL). The X-20 lost out in the funding battle with MOL, and in October 1963, McNamara bypassed the X-20 altogether and obtained funding for MOL. In December 1963, the Air Force made a last bid to save the X-20, suggesting that it be a supply ship for MOL. McNamara answered by canceling the X-20 outright and announcing MOL to the press.(110)

The MOL would be a modified Gemini capsule called Gemini B and a large cylindrical orbital module housing a lab 41 feet long. A Titan IIIC would be the MOL launch vehicle.(111) MOL would determine man's usefulness in space in a cost-effective manner using off-the-shelf equipment and eliminating the need to rendezvous and dock. In a polar orbit, the station would be operational for 30 days. It would test military missions for man in space with 25 experiments including Earth observation via a large orbital optics package, determination of man's ability to survive on orbit for extended periods, and large-structure assembly (such as a radar array) in space.(112)

In January 1965, McNamara reviewed a NASA space station proposal, called Apollo X, because both the Air Force and DOD saw it as direct competition for MOL with all the added expense and duplication that would entail. NASA insisted that since MOL was a short-term program intended to fly in the late 1960s and Apollo X would not be funded until the early 1970s, the two programs were not mutually exclusive. On 25 August 1965, the government gave the formal go-ahead for development of MOL. The five planned flights would begin in 1968.(113)

As the Vietnam War heated up in 1965, DOD reallocated funds to cover the war's costs. Concurrently, development problems delayed the MOL schedule, and the first launch was rescheduled for late 1970.(114) On 3 November 1966, NASA flight-tested a modified Gemini 2 capsule fitted with a Gemini B hatch in the heat shield. In this unmanned test, the hatch survived without problems. In fact, recovery crews found it welded shut. This test turned out to be the only flight of the MOL program.(115)

Military Satellites. As technology advanced in the late 1960s, the first viable military communication satellites were built. The Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) involved three spacecraft phases to provide a reliable network of secure strategic communication satellites with global coverage. Managed by the Air Force, the DSCS satellites were developed by Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge, Inc. (TRW). The first phase, called the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System (IDSCS) or DSCS I, flew in June 1966. The IDSCS satellite weighed 99 pounds and was 33.5 inches in diameter. This phase involved launching 26 spacecraft into subsynchronous orbits.(116) Launched eight at a time on a Titan IIIC, the satellites stayed in view of a ground station for about four days.(117) Subsequent phases have increased capabilities and survivability.(118)

The military became involved with weather satellite systems when it became apparent that the civilian systems could not meet many of unique DOD requirements. Thus, in 1965 the USAF began the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).(119) DMSP provides timely global visual and infrared cloud imagery and other meteorological data along with space environment information to the Air Force Global Weather Central, the Fleet Numerical Oceanography Center, and the Air Force Space Forecast Center to support strategic missions.(120

Vela. The Vela Program monitored the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 by detecting nuclear explosions.(121) Vela studies began in 1959 in an AEC and ARPA program. This program also provided information on natural phenomena such as solar flares. On 16 October 1963, the first Vela launch using an Atlas-Agena booster put up two Vela R&D satellites. With their 68,000 mile orbits, the TRW-built Velas were the highest orbiting satellites of their time. The high orbit allowed one satellite to view an entire hemisphere of the Earth at once. Therefore, two satellites could cover the whole Earth at once. On 8 April 1970, the last two Velas launched. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility shut down the last Vela satellite on 27 September1984 as all functions had been taken over by other systems.(122)

Antisatellites. On 9 August 1961, Premier Nikita Khrushchev openly threatened the West with a new and terrifying weapon, the orbital H-bomb. "You do not have 50- or 100-megaton bombs, we have bombs more powerful than 100 megatons. We placed Gagarin and Titov in space, and we can replace them with other loads that can be directed to any place on Earth."(123) Although the US had hypothesized orbital bombs and had developed countermissions for systems like SAINT, this was the first public indication that the Soviets were actively pursuing this course of action. Within a few months, however, analysis of the threat diminished its proportions. In the light of this analysis, the US cut back the SAINT program in December 1962 and then canceled it outright. Off-the-shelf hardware proved inadequate, and the resultant system reliability was questionable. DOD also doubted SAINT's usefulness against disguised weapons and decoys.(124)

In March 1961, the Navy presented to Congress an extremely advanced ASAT system, Early Spring. This ASAT, based on the Polaris missile, did not use a nuclear weapon as its kill mechanism.(125) R&D work continued into 1964 with researchers investigating several system configurations.(126)

Theoretically, a missile submarine parked itself under the path of the target satellite. The crew launched a missile that had a booster with just enough power to attain the desired altitude. Attached to a restartable upper stage, the payload would hover at the target altitude for up to 90 seconds waiting for the satellite to arrive. An optical scanning system, sensitive enough to see an object that the unaided eye would strain to see, first located the target with a wide field of view and then, once it had identified the target, tracked it with a narrow field for precise guidance. The missile relayed data to the submarine for real-time control. Once it had identified the target, the vehicle maneuvered onto a collision course, and a proximity fuse detonated the warhead releasing thousands of steel pellets. The impact of even one pellet would destroy the satellite. A submarine could launch several missiles at one target.(127) A major advantage of Early Spring was that the Polaris submarines could go almost anywhere to get at a satellite. Although the Navy successfully tested the optical tracker in the late 1960s, it canceled Early Spring because of funding difficulties and problems of real-time command and control at sea.(128)

Another, less versatile system was Program 505, the US Army ASAT program based on the Nike Zeus ABM, code-named Mudflap. McNamara approved the Army's request to restructure the Nike Zeus ABM program into an ASAT in May 1962. Program 505 was the world's first operational ASAT. Modifications gave the missile increased range to do the ASAT mission. The Army based 505 at Kwajalein Missile Range at the facility built for the Nike Zeus ABM tests. In December 1962, the first Nike Zeus ASAT, launched from White Sands Missile Test Range against an imaginary target, succeeded. Many other tests over the next year had fairly good results. After a 27 June 1963 ASAT policy meeting, McNamara directed the Army to complete the Nike Zeus facility at KMR (including its nuclear warheads).(129)

At the same time, the Air Force's second ASAT, Program 437, began on 9 February 1962 as Advanced Development Objective 40 (ADO-40). It was intended as a "demonstration of the technical feasibility of developing a nonorbital collision-course satellite interceptor system capable of destroying satellites in an early time period."(130) The program stressed system effectiveness, simplicity, short reaction time, economy of support and maintenance, and use of both nuclear and nonnuclear warheads. The war- fighting capability of the system was a major consideration.(131) On 8 May 1963, President Kennedy directed the DOD to develop an ASAT capability as soon as possible.(132)

The Air Force based the system at Johnston Island, a small island 715 miles south of Honolulu, Hawaii. The launch complex had all the necessary support facilities for full operations. The remoteness of the island assured safety and security. Program 437 employed the Thor IRBM with an intercept range of 700 miles. The Thor ASAT employed a nuclear warhead as the kill mechanism and produced a five-mile kill radius. System reaction time started out at two weeks, although the Air Force had desired a two-to-three-day reaction time to achieve a kill.(133)

In March 1963, DOD made the Thor ASAT a high priority and directed Air Force to support it fully. Air Force Systems Command and Aerospace Defense Command jointly controlled the program for some time. Air Force Space Command's (AFSC) 6595th Test Squadron conducted the system tests. On 15 February 1964, the squadron launched the first Program 437 rocket. The test succeeded with a simulated warhead passing within easy kill distance of the target, a Transit 2A rocket body. By 10 June 1964, the missiles were fully operational and on 24-hour alert. From 1966 through 1970, the Air Force conducted many successful test launches.(134)

McNamara believed that Program 505 competed directly with the Air Force ASAT, and that DOD could maintain only one program. Program 437 had higher altitude capability while Program 505 had faster reaction time (solid versus liquid propellants). Program 437 received top priority, but the Army still kept the 505 missiles ready at KMR as a fast-reaction ASAT missile for low-altitude satellites. In May 1966, McNamara declared Program 505 redundant and directed its phaseout.(135)

Antiballistic Missiles. By 1960 the threat posed by the growing numbers of ICBMs and decoys rendered the Nike Zeus system obsolete even before it started. In January 1963, the government authorized a new program called Nike X. The Army developed this system to counter the threat posed by depressed trajectory submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) (for which reaction time was far more critical) as well as ICBMs. A low-altitude nuclear burst would be the kill mechanism for the system. Unfortunately, the burst to destroy the reentry vehicle could be as harmful to friendly soft targets as the explosion of the enemy device.(136)

By October 1965, the Army finalized the Nike X design, which consisted of 12 sites with the mission of protecting civilian and military targets against an all-out Chinese or Soviet ICBM/SLBM attack. The program included two missiles, the exoatmospheric Spartan and the endoatmospheric Sprint. The long-range Spartan's first flight was in March 1968. The hypersonic Sprint carried a nuclear warhead of low-kiloton yield and zipped from zero to Mach 10 in less than five seconds. Sprint's first flight was in November 1965.(137)

To complement these missiles, the Army developed new radars. The perimeter acquisition radar (PAR), a phased array radar located at Concrete, North Dakota, detected incoming missiles and provided targeting data. The multifunction array radar, tested at WSMR in July 1964, proved inadequate and the Army replaced it with the improved missile site radar (MSR). The new radar first operated at KMR in September 1968. Located at the missile site, the MSR could discriminate targets at 700 miles and provided terminal phase guidance and targeting information for Spartan and Sprint. An ABM complex consisted of a long-range PAR, a short-range MSR, and Spartan and Sprint missiles with four remote Sprint launch sites about 25 miles from the MSR. Total cost was about $6 million.(138)

McNamara, long against ABM systems, believed that the offense could always overwhelm such a defense at a lower cost. Thus there was really no hope of protecting the general population. Therefore, on 15 September 1967, McNamara announced that there would be no nationwide ABM system (that is Nike X) because an ABM system only prompted the opponent to build more missiles to overwhelm it. In its place would be a "thin" ABM system called Sentinel, covering only major US cities. It would be designed primarily as a precaution against a limited Soviet or Chinese attack. However, the change of administrations would bring yet another change in thinking.(139)

Fractional Orbit Bombardment System. In the early 1960s, the Soviets needed a way to overcome the West's geographic advantages (forward bases in Turkey, Europe, and Asia from which shorter range missiles and bombers could attack the USSR). The Soviet attempt to place missiles in Cuba would have been a partial remedy. When the Cuban venture did not go as planned, they moved to other technological possibilities. The Soviets demonstrated the technology necessary to orbit a space vehicle and then land it in a specific place with the Vostok launches. It was thus logical to assume they could place nuclear weapons in orbit and return them to Earth at any time and place.(140) Khrushchev made this suggestion in 1961, but on 15 March 1962, as part of the rhetoric proceeding the Cuban crisis, he made yet another, more ominous suggestion.

We can launch missiles not only over the North Pole, but in the opposite direction, too. . . . Global rockets can fly from the oceans or other directions where warning facilities cannot be installed. Given global missiles, the warning system in general has lost its importance. Global missiles cannot be spotted in time to prepare any measures against them.(141)

This statement was the first hint of a new concept called the fractional orbit bombardment system (FOBS). This weapon, a modified upper stage launched by the SS-9 Mod 3, Scarp, carried a one- to three-megaton warhead and went into low-Earth orbit, giving the ICBM unlimited range and allowing it to approach the US from any direction, avoiding US northern-looking detection radars and, therefore, giving little or no warning. The reentry vehicle came down in less than one revolution, hence the "fractional" orbit.(142)

After the failure of their first two tests in 1966, the Soviets tested their FOBS with nine launches between 25 January and 28 October 1967. All missions followed the same distinct flight profile--launching in the late afternoon into an elliptical, near-polar low-Earth orbit and deorbiting over the Soviet landmass before one complete orbit. This profile allowed the Soviets to monitor the deorbit, reentry, and impact. US planners viewed FOBS as a pathfinder system intended to precede a conventional ICBM attack. FOBS could destroy ABM radars, disrupt US retaliatory capability, destroy command posts, the White House, and the command and control network. But, due to its limited accuracy and payload, FOBS was ineffective against hardened targets.(143)

Missile Warning and Space Surveillance Network

As new strategic threats appeared, the missile warning and spacetrack network expanded to meet these challenges. BMEWS grew to include three sites: Clear AFS, Alaska; Royal Air Force Fylingdales Moor, England; and Thule, Greenland. These BMEWS sites provided an unavoidable detection fence across the entire northern approach to the North American continent.(144 ) For spacetrack, the Air Force built a totally new type of system, the AN/FPS-85, a prototype phased array radar at Eglin AFB, Florida. The radar reached initial operational capability (IOC) in 1968 with the 20th Surveillance Squadron (SURS) specifically assigned to do the space surveillance mission.(145) Looking to the south, the AN/FPS-85 can see up to 80 percent of all the objects in space each day. This system greatly enhanced NORAD's space surveillance capability.

From the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the Soviet missile threat increasingly came from the oceans as the Soviets developed and deployed SLBM-carrying submarines. To counter this new threat, the USAF planned the SLBM detection and warning system with new radar sites along the coasts and improvements to existing systems to provide warning of missile attack from the sea.(146)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

While NASA geared up for its first manned space launch, the Soviets again beat the US into space. On 12 April 1961, the Soviets launched Vostok 1 with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard. He made one orbit and landed safely. Here was a blow to US prestige on a par with Sputnik. The situation seemed to galvanize the American public. On 31 January 1961, a chimpanzee named Ham survived launch and reentry aboard the Mercury Redstone 2 (MR-2) rocket. Had a man been aboard this capsule, the US would have beaten the Soviets by two and one-half months. On 5 May 1961, US Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard became the first American to go into space with a suborbital flight aboard MR-3. Twenty days later, President Kennedy took advantage of the ground swell of emotion after Shepard's flight to call for putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.(147) The loss to the Soviets and the immediate US response made the American people willing to support a program of Apollo's magnitude.

There were five more Mercury flights, the last four using an Atlas rocket as booster. With this Mercury-Atlas (MA) combination, Marine Lt Col John Glenn became the first American in orbit (three revolutions) aboard MA-6. The last Mercury flight by USAF Maj Gordon Cooper aboard MA-9 was the longest, 22 revolutions (34 hours, 20 minutes).(148)

NASA was virtually dependent on the Air Force for trained launch personnel, launch vehicles, and facilities. All NASA manned launches were carried out by Air Force personnel with Air Force vehicles and facilities until completion of the Apollo Pad 39 launch complex in 1966. However, as NASA's requirements and Air Force involvement grew to meet the challenge of the Moon launch, the Air Force's influence over NASA actually decreased. Many Air Force manned projects were in direct competition with NASA projects. The Moon project, and the stepping stones that led to it, developed a momentum of their own which the Air Force could neither redirect nor reduce.(149)

NASA's Mercury follow-on, Project Gemini, developed procedures and practiced orbital maneuvers, rendezvous and docking, and extra-vehicular activity (EVA), and allowed US astronauts to gain experience needed for longer missions. Too massive for an Atlas rocket launch, Gemini flew atop a man-rated version of the Titan II ICBM. Gemini achieved many successes. In March 1965, Gemini Titan 3 (GT-3), the first manned flight, performed the first orbital plane change. In June 1965, Edward White performed the first US EVA aboard GT-4. GT-6 and GT-7 conducted the first US dual flight in December 1965. GT-7 set the space endurance record (to that date) of 330 hours 35 minutes. In July 1966, GT-10 performed the first hard docking of two spacecraft when it docked with the Agena docking target vehicle (ADTV). In September 1966, GT-11 accomplished the first one-orbit rendezvous with ADTV only 94 minutes into the flight.(150)

By 1966 NASA's Moon project was well under way. The system designed to take men to the Moon and back was huge and massively complex. Its three-stage Saturn V rocket was the largest launch vehicle to date. The first stage, with five Rocketdyne F-1 engines, developed more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off. The first flight of the Saturn V took place on 9 November 1967. The smaller Saturn 1B rocket launched early test missions into near-Earth orbit.(151)

On 27 January 1967, the Apollo flight test program started in tragedy as three astronauts died in a capsule fire during a launch pad rehearsal. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the pure oxygen environment of the capsule was a major contributing factor. Astronauts Virgil ("Gus") Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in the fire. The accident set the first Apollo launch back to 11 October 1968 due to the need for extensive capsule redesign.(152)