A New Look at the US Space Effort

Sept. 1, 1959

It is nearly two years since the unnerving day the Russians caught us with our technological pants down. In the twenty-three months that have elapsed since Sputnik I went into orbit, we have gone through — emotionally and politically — a significant transition from bland acclimatization, through a nagging-headache sort of cold war, to a new realization of the broadness and potential fatality of the conflict in which our country is engaged with a tenacious antagonist.

That is to say, some of us have. It is still a regrettable fact that most Americans basking in general prosperity find it difficult to believe that catastrophe in the form of sudden nuclear attack or blackmail through Soviet scientific and military superiority can really be in the offing.

Yet aside from the long and loud laments on the hazards of Russian scientific achievements and the need for redoubled American efforts that filled the air in the months following Sputnik, there has been concrete achievement. The mistake of the pre-Sputnik separation of the military missile program and the International Geophysical Year satellite program has at least been tacitly acknowledge. Space — one almost an unmentionable subject in the Pentagon — has become the key word to assure getting some money for your project. New agencies, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on the civilian side, have come into being and have chalked up respectable US achievements, the latest being the Explorer VI “Paddlewheel” satellite, with its promise of relaying extensive information on the nature of the Van Allen radiation belts, and the third Discoverer polar satellite. Both NASA and ARPA are authorized to examine space proposals and applications, to set up programs, to fund and oversee space projects under way in the military research and development operations, and to negotiate with industry and universities for research and developments in space science.

The amount of money and number of personnel today devoted to space efforts are certainly greater than they were in late 1957, and the number of projects under way is also discernibly larger. These facts should be balanced, of course, against rising costs, a factor, which reduces the real value of the total expenditure.

Essentially, there has been a change, and for the better. Space has become a fact of life, not only to the military and to scientists, many of whom had for years predicted its potential, but also to Congress. Indeed, it has been Congress that since Sputnik has evidence the greatest amount of interest in and concern about our technological posture. It was through the series of post-Sputnik investigations in the Senate and House in 1958 that military and scientific witnesses got their greatest opportunity to register alarm about our weakened position vis-à-vis the Soviets.

In those months, the cry was for more money for research and development and more attention to the scientific training of our youth. There was a long and needed catharsis through self-criticism.

The congressional hearings5 had front-page impact. For the first time, Americans heard serious talk suggesting that US progress and superiority were not automatic products of our free system. They heard that an authoritarian system might do as well or better. They heard that a structure such as the Soviets’ — comparatively unconcerned with public opinion — can focus its efforts possibly even more effectively than a free society.

One of the loudest cries during the post-Sputnik congressional inquiries was for a superagency to “run” space technology. By February 1958, the Secretary of Defense had established the new Advanced Research Projects Agency. Most People at the time expected that ARPA would be a stopgap predecessor to the superspace agency to come. ARPA is still in business at this writing.

During the hearings on bills to create the superagency, representatives from the Defense Department, notably the director of the then-new ARPA, warned of dangers involved in giving a separate civilian agency supreme power over military space applications. Other witnesses disagreed and called for an Atomic Energy Commission approach — a separate, superagency with a section for military applications operating to meet military requirements.

What finally happened is, of course, history — somewhat confused history. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created as an independent executive agency; ARPA stayed in business; all three military services retained most of their already sizable research and development facilities but were placed one rung farther down the scale of planning and decision. The attempt had been to create an arbitrary separation between “military” and “civilian” space technology, but the separation was in fact only on paper. Today, more agencies exist, but the military and civilian capabilities are still inextricably entwined, as they would have to be at this early stage of the astronautical art.

And like the fellow who builds a house with a picture window facing the noisy street, then has to buy drapes to cover his picture window, the legislators, having created the legal separation, at the same time have added a special structure designed to bring the two halves together. Thus it was that, under he law creating NASA, the President was equipped with a National Aeronautics and Space Council, which was supposed to advise him on high-level astronautical policy.

At the same time, on a lower level, a special Civilian-Military Liaison Committee was created to iron out differences between the Department of Defense and the new NASA. And finally the long-needed central management of Department of Defense research and development planning was achieved in late 1958 with establishment of the post of Director of Research and Engineering under the congressionally approved Presidential reorganization of the Department of Defense.

This proliferation of agencies and projects drew “space maze” attacks from the press and encouraged Congress to take a new look at the space effort, as set up under the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The most searching investigation was launched this spring by the Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Organization for Space Activities, a subgroup of the Senate standing committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Senator Stuart Symington (D. — Mo.) was subcommittee chairman. The subcommittee’s report was recently released. It provides an interesting commentary on the problems of over-organization.

Many of the witnesses who testified before the subcommittee had previously testified during the post-Sputnik hearings before the House and Senate. They were men who had had to work under the new system. Essentially they were candid, although there was the natural tendency to talk of the national space effort in terms of their own particular operations. Their testimony totaled some 747 pages of hearings and additional supporting material. Among the witnesses were such luminaries as Dr. Herbert F. York, now Director of Research and Engineering in the Department of Defense; T. Keith Glennan, Administrator of NASA; Roy W. Johnson, Director of ARPA; Lt. Gen. Arthur G. Trudeau, Chief of Army Research and Development; Lt. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, Commander of USAF Air Research and Development Command; and William M. Holaday, Chairman of the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee. Notably by his absence was Dr. James R. Killian, then the Special Adviser to the President for Science and Technology. Dr. Killian declined to appear, saying that his work was privileged as a function of the Executive branch.

Mr. Holaday’s testimony was especially revealing. In an almost funny exchange with the subcommittee, Mr. Holaday admitted that the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee had practically no power to “coordinate” space plans of the military and NASA, much less adjudicate differences, regardless of the intent of the law creating the Committee.

Roy W. Johnson, ARPA Director, spoke of a comprehensive six-year space program, but that seemed to be less an actual program, but that seemed to be less an actual program per se than what ARPA considered would be a fruitful series of projects, if the money and talent were made available.

The Navy’s Admiral Hayward reaffirmed his opinion, expressed prior to the creation of NASA, that there ought to be one over-all space agency with a division of military applications, something pretty much like the Atomic Energy Commission. Since then, the Navy has proposed a three-service “space command” — an idea which underscored the sea service’s desire to gain some sort of stated role in astronautics, which it does not have as matters stand now.

The Army’s General Trudeau expressed concern at what he considered efforts to weaken the Army’s role in space technology. While acknowledging that ARPA could probably, for simplification’s sake, be safely absorbed into Dr. York’s Directorate of Research and Engineering, he said that ARPA had filled a useful purpose by being there to say fairly definitive ayes or nays to project ideas and to fund those it supported.

On ARPA, the Air Force’s General Schriever, who formerly headed ARDC’s Ballistic Missile Division (BMD), was most vehement. He bluntly called for the abolition of ARPA as an unnecessary extra layer of authority between the developer of new systems and the user. He also urged that designations of which service was to operate specific space systems be made at the planning stage, rather than after the perfection of the system. In addition, he raised the question of whether such a thing as a “comprehensive space program” can actually be spelled out at this stage of the game.

The role of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, touted as a sort of National Security Council for space matters, came under study. The subcommittee was obviously frustrated in its effort to find out what the Council actually does, as the following exchanges suggest:

Mr. Smith (Everard H. Smith Counsel): [Mr. Glennan,] could you tell us what the procedure is whereby the Space Council reviews these programs once they reach the Space Council level

Mr. Glennan: As I said, Mr. Counsel, I think the activities of the Space Council, being advisory to the President, are confidential in nature, and I think the constitutional situation of separation of powers is pertinent.

Mr. Smith: There is no way that Congress can find out then what the decision is that is reached once these…programs reach the Council level

Mr. Glennan: The final decision, of course, is the President’s decision, and this is evidenced, it seems to me, by the approved budget, which he sends to Congress.


Senator Dodd: What is the theory Is it secret information or is it the privilege of the President

Mr. Glennan: It is the privilege of the President.

Senator Dodd: Is it not classified information

Senator Dodd: Does it not affect the security of the country

Mr. Glennan: No, sir.

Some of the findings of the subcommittee:

• “The distinction between space activities and military requirements is difficult to determine, particularly with reference to assignment of responsibility.”

• “Some efforts have been made to avoid duplication in specific programs and operations. These efforts, however, should be accelerated and extended.”

• “Activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Council are considered confidential by the President. He has directed that the work of the Council comes within the scope of Executive privilege. Congress, therefore, has difficulty in obtaining information concerning over-all space policies, plans, programs and accomplishments.”

• “Differences of opinion were expressed by the witnesses concerning the meaning and purpose of the provision in title II of the Space Act which requires the development of a ‘comprehensive program of aeronautical and space activities to be conducted by agencies of the United States.’”

• “Witnesses were at variance as to the extent to which NASA should ‘conduct aeronautical and space activities’ and whether NASA should continue to have contracting authority.”

• “Confusion and differences of opinion existed among the witnesses as to the distributions of authority and responsibility for military space programs.”

• “Witnesses agreed that ARPA had performed valuable functions. Some witnesses questioned the need to continue ARPA, however, and offered alternative proposals for the performance of its functions.”

• It is clear from the testimony that the existing pattern of organization and administration of space activities within the Department of Defense creates problems for the respective military services in the formulations of plans, programs, and budgets.”

• “Clear-cut decisions have not been made in the assignment of space missions to the respective military services.”

• “The question of whether the Army Ballistic Missile Agency should remain in the Army, or be transferred to NASA, has not been conclusively resolved.”

• “There was conflicting testimony about the existence of a firm six-year military space program.”

• “The Civilian-Military Liaison Committee is not organized or authorized to perform effectively its coordinating functions between NASA and the Department of Defense.”

In documenting these weaknesses and blind spots in the nation’s space organization, the subcommittee performed a yeoman service. But in the end, it could do no more than point up the confusion that continues to exist and the lack of decision on the highest Executive levels — matters such as clear-cut statements on roles and missions of the services, what to do about ARPA, how to coordinate activities of a legion of agencies…all fundamental questions that are going to come up again and again.

The subcommittee made its points tellingly. Having done so, it surprisingly reported that the Space Act does not require amendment now, on the grounds that not enough time has elapsed to test the law fully.

It seems reasonable to ask: Won’t the present problems of the space effort — over-organization and Executive hesitancy to make decisions — be even more serious later on, if today’s loose complex hardens into an unbreakable structure?