[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
On the more overt and more subtle ways that wartime adversaries drove the US space program.
It’s a truism, but nonetheless a necessary one with which to begin a series on the early years of the US space program, that our Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union provided a great deal of the impetus for and motivation behind the development of that program. Calling this element of the rivalry the “space race” (as that hyperlinked article does) links it to the “arms race” a bit more fully than might be warranted—that is, while both competitions did pit the two superpowers against one another in a race to develop new programs and technologies first, the arms race was explicitly focused on weapons that could be used to threaten and (if necessary) destroy the other nation; the space race occasionally included such military technologies (most famously, Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” program) but also and most consistently represented a scientific undertaking with its own significant, global benefits that extended well beyond the Cold War. Yet while it thus may not be accurate to limit our understanding of the space race and the US space program overall to our adversarial relationship with a foreign power, it remains vital to consider just how fully such wartime relationships influenced and directed the space program’s historical origins.
By far the most overt such wartime influence was the Soviet Union’s October 4th, 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Both nations had been working on such satellites over the prior few years, but when the Soviet Union got there first—and then did so again less than a month later, with the November 3 launch of the even more substantial and groundbreaking Sputnik II—the resulting global attention and US political outcry galvanized American public and governmental support for a robust space program. The US would launch its own first artificial satellite, Explorer I, on January 31st, 1958; even more significantly, in late July Congress would pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act, setting a date of October 1, 1958 (not coincidentally, almost exactly a year after Sputnik I’s launch) for the creation of a new governmental agency known as NASA. As I’ve written about numerous times in this space, and despite our fondness for images of national exceptionalism and isolation, virtually all elements of America’s government and culture have been informed and influenced by international relationships and factors in one way or another—yet few have been produced in such immediate and direct response to a single international action as were these originating space program steps. I’m sure our space program would have developed eventually in any case, but it’s entirely accurate to say that it did so when and how it did because of Sputnik and the Soviet Union.
What’s perhaps less well known is just how fully those originating US space program steps likewise depended on the presence and role of another wartime adversary and technology. The Explorer I project featured a number of distinct teams led by prominent scientists, with Dr. William Pickering’s team (at Cal Tech) designing and building the satellite itself and Dr. James Van Allen’s (at Iowa State) designing the instrumentation. Yet Explorer never would have made it into orbit—never would have made it off the ground at all—were it not for the Jupiter-C rocket, a modification of the Redstone ballistic missile that was produced by former Nazi scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun and based directly on the German V-2 rocket that von Braun had helped develop for the Nazis. Von Braun not only directed the army’s ballistic missile program at Redstone Arsenal for a decade, he would then go on to direct NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and develop the Saturn V launch vehicle that would make NASA’s moon voyages possible. While the US space program’s starting points were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, they were directly dependent on von Braun, and thus on science and technologies that had originated with our World War II adversary the Nazis. Just one more complex and unavoidable layer to the international influences on NASA and the space program.
Next NASA post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?
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