How USAF’s Missile Program Helped the Nation off the Pad

May 1, 1964

“From this effort has emerged not only the major portion of our national missile force but also the prime base of technology and management skill underpinning the total national space effort. Many of our space accomplishments to date—both military and civilian—simply could not have been undertaken successfully with­out the prior experience gained In the Air Force missile development program.”

—Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert

It is a fact, documented in the public prints, in congressional reports, and above all, on launch pads and tracking sites around the world, that the US Air Force has made massive contributions of men, hardware, and management capability to the national space effort. This has been hue from the shocked moments after Sputnik, when the nation decided to sharply expand its astronautical program, straight on to the present multibillion-dollar Year Seven of the space age.

Just one aspect of this sizable Air Force role has been the large number of Air Force officers who have served the National Aeronautics and Space Adminis­tration on direct loan or in supportive Air Force efforts, since the civilian space agency’s establishment in 1958.

Today, this large input of Air Force expertise into the space agency is represented on the very highest echelons of the NASA organization: The Air Force officer who successfully directed the USAF Minute­man ICBM program has just come on board at NASA’s Washington headquarters as Deputy Director of NASA’s Project Apollo lunar-landing program. Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips will have operating charge of the complex Apollo effort, under the supervision of Dr. George Mueller, Deputy Associate Administrator of NASA and Director of its Office of Manned Space­flight. Dr. Mueller is himself a highly qualified import into NASA from Space Technology Laboratories, which played such an important role in the USAF missile pro­gram. The Mueller-Phillips team dramatically repre­sents the continuing contribution of the Air Force to the nation’s over-all space effort. This contribution is doubly remarkable in view of the existing responsibil­ity, assigned the Air Force in 1961 by Secretary of Defense McNamara, for research and development of military space systems.

Many observers who take a conspiratorial view of history, have interpreted such Air Force-blue colora­tion of NASA as an indication of Air Force hopes to take over—by a process of infiltration—the entire na­tional space effort. “What could be more obvious?” the cynics have asked, trotting out the old cliché about the camel’s nose in the door of the tent.

This theory admittedly has appeal for those who enjoy looking for Air Force colonels under the bed, but it skirts the basic question of why it has indeed been vital to the public interest for the Air Force to play such a significant role in the civilian space effort. The answer from the start has been undramatic but persuasive: Necessity.

The cold fact is that, without already available Air Force missile program experience garnered from the early ’50s to the day the Russians jolted history with their Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the accelerated American space program could never have gotten under way with any kind of dispatch. To a great de­gree, the Air Force missile program provided a solid base for the post-Sputnik national space effort.

To say all this is in no way to denigrate NASA itself or its predecessor agency, the old and highly respected National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Or the highly skilled and experienced band of ex.-German V-2 rocketeers who in 1957 were in place under the leader­ship of Dr. Wernher von Braun at the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Ala. Or the dedicated (and later unjustifiably abused) Navy team that was working on the International Geophysical Year Van­guard satellite—using a nonmilitary booster because of national policy decisions to stress the peaceful as­pects of space—at the time of Sputnik.

People with vision in all these agencies as well as in the Air Force had seen the potential benefits that would accrue to the US from a large-scale assault on space. The personal files of many of them bulge with pre-Sputnik correspondence on the subject. Of all the pre-Sputnik space prophets, Dr. von Braun was per­haps the most famous public advocate of an American space program that would take US astronauts not only into orbit but on to the moon and to Mars. There is ample evidence that he and others were correctly dubious about the low-level Vanguard program and urged, several months before Sputnik, a crash program to use existing missile capability to launch an Ameri­can satellite that would have beat the Russians to the propaganda punch. And in February 1957 Gen. Ber­nard A. Schriever was publicly declaring the space capability of military boosters then under develop­ment.

It is painful to shift back in memory to the imme­diate post-Sputnik period. Yet to do so helps explain the reason why Air Force missile-program experience, then several years old, was so easily transferable to the expanded national space program that was de­cided on in the months following Sputnik.

That there was no lack of skill in the rocketry art at the time of Sputnik is unquestionably true. The three military services were all in the rocket business, to varying degrees, and there was plenty of aerospace industry capability on hand too, as well as R&D know-how in the old NACA. But expertise was not enough, because it was scattered and splintered. What was needed above all was experience, not only in the rock­etry art itself, but in the management of priority R&D projects—from drawing board to assembly line. And in this field the Air Force was paramount. It had al­ready been doing this kind of massive job for a num­ber of years.

Because of the unique requirements of the USAF missile program, which had started in earnest in 1954, the Air Force had devised new approaches to program management which are still having their beneficial effects today. Looking back on the decision, arrived at with no little argument, to place one man in full charge of missile development, and to allow him to gather a team of technically competent Air Force of­ficers, meanwhile arranging for independent systems management of the programs (which was a departure from the time-honored prime contractor approach), it all seems very commonsensical now. But at the out­set of the missile program, such approaches flew in the face of tradition. Particularly in the face of the tradi­tional approach being used by the Army at Hunts-vile, where the style was to build vehicles hand tail­ored from the bottom up, a custom-tailoring approach in a ready-to-wear era. Those who followed the Air Force-Army missile controversy of the ’50s can recall the noisy argument over which approach was better, the Army’s “arsenal” or the Air Force’s “military-in­dustry team” concept. Certainly there were arguments for the Army’s approach—in a leisurely era. But the ’50s were scarcely leisurely, featuring, as they did, first the frightening realization that the Russians had got­ten the jump on us in the long-range missile business and later the fearful shock of Sputnik.

It is an odd but happy quirk of history that the USAF missile management technique was itself the product of initial inadequacy.

There is nothing like starting virtually from scratch to create new approaches to new problems. Thus it was fortuitous that the Air Force, at the outset of the missile program, was faced with building, in the very basic sense of the word, the requisite management and development team and the industrial backup.

Once the argument within the Air Force, the scien­tific community, Department of Defense, and the Ad­ministration over whether a major missile effort ought to be undertaken was settled—and it was quite an argument—the Air Force was faced with devising the management structure and finding the proper com­binations of people and industry skill to run a success­ful R&D plus production effort that would get opera­tional missiles into the inventory by at least the 1960s.

Final success, not cost, was, of course, the primary criterion, for the Air Force missile effort. Many mis­takes and false starts occurred. One has always to bear in mind that the Air Force was nearly in a vir­ginal condition as it set out in the early ’50s on a tech­nological adventure that was considered unrealistic and even infeasible by a large segment not only of the scientific community but also of the more traditional elements of the Air Force itself.

By 1957, the gamble had begun to pay off, and the country was well on the way to the ICBM and IRBM capabilities it enjoys today. Gray hairs, ulcers, and all the other concomitants of the famous “Black Satur­days” at which the missilemen had wrestled monthly with costs, configuration control, schedules, and the thousands of other elements that went into the re­search and development, testing, site planning, and training associated with the oncoming weapon systems, had taken their toll. But out of it all, at the time of Sputnik, there had emerged a capability in terms of management skill, people, and aerospace industry base that was naturally applicable to the newly-decided-on space program. It is no reflection on the policy deci­sion to invest prime responsibility for peaceful space exploration in the civil agency created by the 1958 space act to say that the Air Force, deep into its mis­sile program experience, could have, with the requisite money and assigned responsibility, taken on the over­all space job too, had such a national policy been de­cided on.

That, of course, did not happen. There were too many political considerations, domestic and interna­tional, to allow it to happen. And in retrospect, it was probably a good thing for the country and for the Air Force that it didn’t happen because, despite the obvi­ous crossovers in technology and management between the existing missile program and the embryonic space program, the missile program, for security reasons, had to retain its top priority. An Air Force doubly in­volved with direct responsibility for both strategic missile development and nonmilitary space operations would probably have become a highly splintered Air Force.

But what didn’t happen directly happened indi­rectly. Air Force input was evident from the begin­ning, not only in terms of personnel but also in terms of philosophy. NASA immediately adopted the gov­ernment-industry team approach that had served the Air Force missile program so well, a point that is illus­trated today by the repeated assertions by NASA Ad­ministrator James E. Webb that more than ninety per­cent of NASA funding is spent with industry. Along with the government-industry team development con­cept went what was essentially, with some modifica­tions by NASA, the same systems-management con­cept that had been employed in the USAF missile effort. In the area of procurement and the crucial man rating of the Atlas that was modified for a mission not originally planned—orbiting a man—NASA, lacking any in-house experience, leaned heavily on the exist­ing Air Force-industry Atlas team. In fact, a separate Air Force-NASA-industry operation was set up along­side the existing Air Force Atlas organization, with offices down the hall at the Air Force Space Systems Division headquarters and at other crucial locations, to produce the man-carrying missiles. Air Force officers who worked on the Atlas development still re­member the skull sessions with Air Force counter­parts on loan to NASA and NASA specialists when­ever questions of needed modifications came up. And they did, often.

The direct and indirect aerospace medical support by the Air Force of the Mercury program has been frequently cited as a prime example of how the Air Force fed unique and vital skills into the national space program. At the outset of the Mercury program, NASA had virtually no aerospace medical capability, while the Air Force and Navy had major capability in laboratories across the country. The Air Force had, in a small way, been in the space medical business per se since as far back as 1949, when a persistent band of civilian and blue-suited aeromedical specialists, led by Dr. Hubertus Strughold at Randolph AFB, Tex., had started and kept cooking on a back burner the Department of Space Medicine at the USAF School of Aviation Medicine. SAM has grown into the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB and is a major element of today’s Air Force Systems Command. The Mercury program itself was, for all practical purposes, a latter-day version of the 1958 Air Force Man in Space program (see “Blueprint for Tomorrow’s Space-crews,” Am FORCE, May ’58) which, in cooperation with the old NACA and with the blessing of the De­fense Department, had been formulated in the imme­diate post-Sputnik period. When NASA was estab­lished and the policy decision was made to assign to it the responsibility for what became the Mercury program, the Air Force fed medical men and monkeys, hardware and procurement know-how into the new national effort. Those were the unhappy days when, for reasons of Administration policy, the contributions of the Air Force to the NASA program were so under­played that, for example, touring reporters visiting the Air Force’s “monkey farm” at Holloman AFB, N. M., where the first orbiting chimpanzee was trained, were asked not to mention that the simians were Air Force types. “Policy,” the briefing officer would mutter.

Fortunately, reexaminations of policy allowed even­tual recognition of these and many other blue-suit con­tributions to the NASA effort. Such early attitudes unfortunately fed the fires of controversy and encour­aged widespread adherence to the view that the Amer­ican space effort is not a race with the Russians but rather a lengthy skirmish between the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This view serves neither the nation nor the space pro­gram nor the Air Force nor NASA. It is true that many observers,’ including this writer, have argued for a greater sense of balance between military and civilian space projects. But such views are geared to the con­viction that technology, including space technology, will probably continue to play a crucial role in world conflict in the future, in the same way it has in the past. These opinions are not expressed in denigration of the really sizable achievements of NASA during its short history.

But what of today’s and tomorrow’s Air Force con­tribution to the national space program, over and above such specifically military efforts as the surveil­lance satellites and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory

There is little question that the inflow of Air Force developmental experience and talent into NASA will continue. It is likely, too, that the NASA organization will take on, in its management approach to such mon­umental tasks as the Apollo moon-landing program, an increasingly strong resemblance to the Air Force missile program. Certainly under the leadership of Dr. Mueller, the ex-Space Technology Laboratories scientist who heads Apollo, and his new Deputy, Gen­eral Phillips, the search for Air Force officers with project management experience who can be loaned to NASA for Apollo will continue apace. Concurrently, we may expect increased applications of what in man­agement jargon is called “the functional matrix ap­proach” to the Apollo program. Already, as Dr. Muel­ler has pointed out, NASA is going the same route as the USAF missile men of the early ’50s by concentrat­ing on “an early identification of the problem.” To the lay observer of the Apollo program, it may seem sur­prising to hear such an expression, since everyone knows that in 1961 the problem had been proclaimed: getting to the moon. But that is the point; in such large programs as Apollo, months must be devoted to anal­ysis of the various technological possibilities, the design of basic components, and the decisions on the scientific experiments that will be performed. Such analysis is crucial to successful preparation of facilities, planning of the mission, and, most important of all, the creation of the plan for the integration of all these activities, systems, and subsystems.

In the case of the USAF missile program, Space Technology Laboratories served as systems integrator in tandem with and under over-all management of the Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Division. The analogy with NASA’s current management technique for the Apollo program is not exact but is certainly close and getting closer. Dr. Mueller describes it in terms of NASA being its own systems integrator through his Office of Manned Spaceflight.

History never repeats itself exactly. This truism applies to the NASA situation today as measured against the USAF missile experience of yesterday. But there are striking parallels and the probability is that similar solutions will continue to be applied to similar problems. NASA has its own headquarters-versus­-field problems just as did the Air Force. NASA’s field centers—especially at Cape Kennedy, Huntsville, and Houston—have from the start plagued NASA Wash­ington headquarters by acting annoyingly like inde­pendent dukedoms. It has already taken a series of reorganizations of NASA from virtually the top down to even begin to bring this unacceptable situation under some sort of control. A firm measure of central control is crucial to successful achievement of the dif­ficult Apollo project, and although we will probably not see quite the same pattern in Apollo management that was developed for the USAF missile effort, it is inevitable that lessons learned during that program will be applied in NASA by men with the backgrounds of Dr. Mueller and General Phillips. Already the pat­tern of designating project officers with responsibility for major elements of the manned spaceflight program has picked up pace.

As one major NASA official has put it, comparing the USAF missile and NASA space experience:

“NASA’s origins were different. It has grown rapid­ly, and its techniques of management have been dif­ferent, but I believe we will see more shifts to the USAF approach as time goes on. The old NACA op­eration was research-oriented. They didn’t have much reason to develop any large management capability, such as is going to be needed for programs of the Apollo type.

“NASA’s growth has been enormous. The Apollo de­cision was a presidential decision to take a giant step, and overnight Apollo was born. Consequently, there was pressure on NASA to get its hardware under con­tract, even before the nature of the requirements were worked out. Only now is the program definition that’s vital getting into shape.

“We need to decide what’s wanted, and we need enough of a plan so that everyone can go in the same direction. And that calls for over-all systems specifica­tion and a really unified approach to requirements.”

The last paragraph above could have been a de­scription of the situation that obtained at the outset of the USAF missile program. Although many of the technological problems that plagued the early missile-men have long since been solved—to the benefit of today’s space planners on both the civilian and mili­tary sides—the problem is essentially the same, one of fusing technology, industry, and will into a purposeful manageable whole.

In the final analysis, probably the most crucial gift of the Air Force to NASA and the nonmilitary space program—more important than the men, skills, indus­trial base, and hardware that have already been pumped into the civil agency’s bloodstream—is the historical example of the impossible effort that suc­ceeded—the USAF missile program, the tenth anni­versary of which we mark this month.