“Aerospace,” According to White

Oct. 1, 2007

“Air and Space Are Indivisible”

Gen. Thomas D. White

Statement in Air Force Magazine

Arlington, Va.

March 1958


Are air and space separate military environments? Or are they simply parts of a single “seamless continuum”—the aerospace—in which USAF operates? These seemingly academic questions have stirred fierce debate for five decades, with perceived influence, resources, and policy direction in the balance.

Some trace the controversy to an Air Force Magazine article, published in March 1958, mere months after Sputnik. The author was Gen. Thomas D. White, USAF Chief of Staff. The title, “Air and Space Are Indivisible,” said it all. White bluntly declared, “In discussing air and space, it should be recognized that there is no division, per se, between the two. For all practical purposes, air and space merge, forming a continuous and indivisible field of operations.” He was formulating the integrative concept of “an aerospace.” As is now clear, White’s statement did not close, but only opened, the debate, which goes on to this day.

The nature of international relations has been radically altered by the concurrent development of thermonuclear weapons, intercontinental bombers, and missiles. International relations soon will be further complicated by man’s capability to travel in the far reaches of space. … Aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft are mutually supporting systems. They are compatible in development and operational strategies designed to gain and hold a superior advantage in air and space. They are a functionally complete system.

This factor of system completeness must be kept in perspective if the future patterns of airpower are to be seen clearly. Manned aircraft, missiles, and piloted spacecraft which are responsive to the command and control structure of the Air Force are parts of a continuing integrated system. From an operational viewpoint, they are a single instrument. Operating under the same control structure, missiles, manned aircraft, and spacecraft will provide great flexibility. If circumstances should rule out mission accomplishment with one method, another method will be responsive to the mission. If more than one method is required, they can be applied simultaneously to the target objective.

Ballistic missiles have sometimes been erroneously referred to as the ultimate weapon. It is extremely doubtful whether there ever can be an ultimate weapon, although experience has shown that a single weapon or weapon system can be decisive at a certain time or place. Missiles should be considered as but another step, albeit a very important step, in the evolution from manned aircraft to true piloted spacecraft.

In discussing air and space, it should be recognized that there is no division, per se, between the two. For all practical purposes air and space merge, forming a continuous and indivisible field of operations. Just as in the past, when our capability to control the air permitted our freedom of movement on the land and seas beneath, so, in the future, will the capability to control space permit our freedom of movement on the surface of the Earth and through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Air Force has been pioneering in the fringes of space for several years with manned aircraft. The Bell X-2, a rocket research plane, carried Capt. Iven Kincheloe up to approximately 25 miles above the Earth at 1,900 miles per hour. The X-15, which is now in the development stage, is designed for speeds and altitudes much greater than those of the X-2. The next step is the Air Force program to fly at hypersonic speeds, circumnavigating the globe many times before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

As a weapon system, this program will represent the first major breakthrough in sustained piloted spaceflight. With this system, it will be possible to resolve many of the problems involved in either placing man on a continuous orbit around the Earth or sending him soaring into outer space and to nearby planets. At the rate things are going, it is technically feasible for manned spaceflight to become routine in a very few years. The current technological race is producing technological advances at an unprecedented rate. Engine thrust has been increased many times over what was considered excellent a few years ago, and personal equipment has been improved to a point where it will be adequate for manned spaceflight to the moon.

It is natural for the Air Force to have a major operational interest in the integration of air and space capabilities. Since the beginning of controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine over 50 years ago, the Air Force has used the airplane as its basic system. During these years, it has accumulated a vast amount of development knowledge, operational experience, and practical skills. Today, as the United States Air Force stands on the threshold of the space age, this know-how—the Air Force maturity in the science of flight—is a tremendously valuable and important asset. Through constant exploitation of the range, speed, altitude characteristics, and carrying capability of aircraft, the Air Force has developed techniques of air warfare, which were brought to a high state of perfection in World War II and which were improved even more during the Korean War. Strategic air warfare, the capability to penetrate deep within an enemy’s defenses and attack his vital sources of power, is but one product of Air Force imagination, skill, and experience. …

Missile development and the probing of piloted craft into the fringes of space have been tremendous undertakings, surpassing even the Manhattan Project in scope and goals. In the not too distant future, efficient ballistic missiles and true piloted spacecraft will enter our forces as operational weapons. The Air Force will be ready to receive them and use them effectively, although new problems and challenges can be expected.