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Book Preview: The First Space Race
Interview by Jim McDade


July 23, 2003 — A fascinating and detailed examination of the story of the first space satellites of the late 1950s, Matt Bille's and Erika Lishock's "The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellite" (Texas A&M Press, Summer 2004) details a secret US Navy space project, describes forgotten details about America's first orbiting satellite, and clarifies some common misconceptions about the early space race.

Matt Bille is an Associate with Booz Allen Hamilton in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a consultant and analyst on a variety of space and defense programs and the author of numerous papers and articles on space history and technology.

What follows is an interview with Matt Bille, co-author of "The First Space Race".

Right off the bat, some people might need an explanation of what 'the first space race" was. Most people alive today were born after the early years of space exploration. Can you provide a quick definition of "the first space race"?

When people think of a "space race," they think of the competition between the US and the USSR to put a man on the Moon. But there was a race before that - the race in the 1950s to put the first satellite into orbit. That was an incredibly dramatic time. A satellite was theoretically possible, and who ever did it first would have an edge in technology, science, and the always-present ideological competition of the Cold War. So it was very important in itself. Also, the first space race laid the foundations - technical and ideological - for the Moon race.

When did you first develop an interest in space exploration and how did you eventually reach the decision to document the history of the first space race?

I grew up in Vero Beach, an hour south of the Cape. I watched all the Apollo launches. I can still remember what Apollo 17, the night launch, looked like from a beach view. So I'm an unabashed romantic space-exploration buff. One thing I discovered in reading space history - and this really surprised me - was that there was no book focused on that competition to get the first satellite into Earth orbit. When the NASA History Office asked for proposals for books, to be published by Texas A&M under what NASA was calling the Centennial Series of aerospace history books, I and my co-author, Erika Lishock - I'm the historian, she's the aerospace engineer - put this proposal together.

Tell us a little about Erika Lishock and how she came to be your collaborator on this book.

Erika and I have been friends and collaborators on writing projects, mainly papers on space technology, for a long time. She's a private writer/consultant now, but was once with Lockheed-Martin and was an engineer on the MILSTAR satellite program. She found it very interesting to look at the early programs where there might only be a handful of engineers and a timeline measured in months to design, build, and launch a spacecraft. It's quite a contrast.

I have not read your manuscript; so let me take a shot in the dark. In 1957, many US citizens were shocked by the news of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. In 2003, we can look back on that era and see that Soviet space systems, in comparison to US systems, were quite crude in many aspects. The Soviets were still largely dependent on balky glass vacuum tubes in most of their electronic circuitry and they were years behind the US in miniaturization of technology. The US was behind the Soviets in one key area: large, powerful boosters.

Those stout Soviet rocket engines enabled the Soviets to place some relatively oversized, "clunky", systems into orbit. On the surface, the Soviet feats were spectacular. The US was losing the space propaganda war badly. When the USA later won the "moon race", the Soviets pretended that they never entered that race. What if Sputnik had failed in 1957 and the US Vanguard satellite succeeded first? Do you think that the Soviets would have downplayed the importance of space achievement and effectively muted the first space race?

Heck of an interesting question. The Soviets were committed, I think, to going ahead. Sergei Korolev, their Chief Designer, was as driven as he was brilliant. He built the first ICBM and badgered the government to let him use it for a satellite. I think the Soviets would have gone ahead and tried to make a lot of propaganda out of their satellites being bigger, and then probably tried to beat us to putting a man in space. So a failure of the first Sputnik launch probably would not have changed the Soviet program a lot. It WOULD have changed the US program. If the US had orbited a satellite first, there would have been a lot less urgency on the American side to go ahead with the manned program. It would have happened, but at a slower rate, and I suspect a lunar program might not have developed until after a space station, maybe not until the 1970s or 1980s.

You point out that Sergei Korolev played a critical role in driving Soviet space policy. On this side of the Atlantic, Wernher von Braun's US Army missile team had to be administratively restrained in order to stop them from placing the world's satellite in orbit despite the fact that the Redstone rockets could have put a satellite in orbit as early as 1956. President Eisenhower favored the Navy's advanced (for the day) Vanguard satellite effort. It took an embarrassing, televised Navy failure to prompt Eisenhower to give the Huntsville team a green light for Explorer I. Eisenhower's purported personal campaign against the former German rocket team apparently gave the Russians the early lead in the space race. Did Eisenhower's underestimate Soviet space prowess or did he underestimate how important the space race would become?

There's no question President Eisenhower did not, at first, grasp the international psychological and propaganda importance of the first satellite. He did think a US satellite was worthwhile, both from a national prestige point of view and in confirming the idea (not universal at that point) that space was like the open oceans, beyond national control. Remember, he placed very high priority on the US satellite reconnaissance program.

I'll have to disagree with your suggestion that Eisenhower's perceived dislike of the German rocket team played a role. It's a common belief, but there's nothing in the documentation that's been released to indicate he ever mentioned it. And Eisenhower wasn't directly involved anyway. He let Donald Quarles in the Pentagon make the decision on which satellite program - the Army's, the Naval Research Lab's, or the Air Force's - to back, and Quarles in turn appointed a committee led by Homer Joe Stewart. The Committee heard presentations from everyone, visited some of the sites involved, and voted heavily for the NRL. Eisenhower was only briefed on the selection after it was a done deal.

When the Stewart Committee picked Vanguard over the Army program, their report said they believed it would be cheaper (they were wrong) and it would have more benefit to science because of its larger payload (both programs ended up doing important science). There was, I think, a general belief in the US government that the Soviets were technologically backward and were unlikely to put up a satellite before the US in any event. It's hard to document how much this may have influenced the government's up-and-down funding of Vanguard.

(Author's note: On August 3, 1955, the Stewart Committee selected Vanguard to spearhead the US space effort. The committee vote was split. Dissenting members of the Stewart Committee complained loudly and hard, but the controversial committee decision and Vanguard were ultimately endorsed by President Eisenhower. Officially released documents aside, some knowledgeable observers of these events have reported that Eisenhower did not want the Huntsville "Germans" to get credit for the first US satellite. One researcher, Jennifer Wilding, wrote, "In October 1957 those who had blocked von Braun's proposals (primarily President Eisenhower, who hated Germans) got a shock, Sputnik 1 was launched. Because of Eisenhower's distrust of von Braun the Navy had been awarded the task of launching the first space shot.")

Some people have compared the social impact of Sputnik on US public confidence to what happened after Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the September 11, 2001 terrorists attack. Is that view a big exaggeration of the response or were people really afraid?

It was a shock, but not the earth-shaking panic that seems to be conventional belief these days. There was no public panic, aside from a few famous anecdotes. If you read the media reports of the day, they gauge the public's feeling as "general uneasiness." Most people were surprised, I think, but not terrified, and not angry the way they were with Pearl Harbor or 9/11. There was a lot more concern in Congress (Senator Lyndon Johnson was one of the most vocal) and the media. The major newspapers and newsmagazines did a lot to create a "Sputnik panic" that didn't really exist.

What were the most interesting things you learned, things that perhaps are not common knowledge about this era?

There are three that come to mind.

First, all the museum models of America's first satellite, Explorer I, are wrong. They show it being painted black with white longitudinal striping. There were some examples with that color scheme, but the flight article was bare (sandblasted) stainless steel with white striping.

Second, it's commonly supposed that Project Vanguard got the nod over Explorer in 1955 because it was less obviously a military project. We couldn't find any evidence of that. It's our belief that, while the choice of Vanguard fit nicely with the classified policy of pursuing "freedom of space" for reconnaissance satellites, that wasn't the deciding factor in its selection. It really was based primarily on the perceived scientific return.

Finally, this is the first book with a detailed treatment of a unique effort that was secret at the time, Project Pilot. Navy people at China Lake in California had their own space project, putting together a five-stage rocket and firing it from a fighter plane, with a one-kilogram satellite on board. It was marginally successful at best, but it's a fascinating story few people have heard about.

It is easy to forget the impact of those early space feats on society and culture. I can recall my second grade teacher playing a phonograph record titled SPACE SONGS back in 1961. One of those songs from that disk was titled BEEP-BEEP. That song was about artificial satellites and it was a student favorite. My classmates thought that the main job of satellites was to produce "beeps". Technically speaking, did Sputnik do anything other than just transmit those "beep...beep...beep" radio signals?

Sputnik I did have a basic telemetry capability. By modulating the beeps, it transmitted the pressure and temperature inside the satellite.

Matt, you have a fascinating professional background that includes specialties in aerospace, space history, microsatellites, zoology and cryptozoology. In this day of heightened appreciation for wildlife and environmental issues, some people might find your deep and diverse interests in topics of nature and technology almost contradictory. Some people might claim that you can't be "pro-nature" unless you are "anti-technology". Personally, I do not artificially separate the technological activities of man from nature. In recent years, scientists have documented the crude use of simple "technology" and tools by some creatures. How do you balance the role of human technology and your appreciation of nature?

We're getting deep now :) I agree with you. There's no inherent contradiction between respecting nature and developing technology. It's how you develop and use technology that matters. Technology, wisely used, can move us into a sustainable future. Think of what the view of Earthrise from Apollo 8 did for the ecology movement. And think what Earth-observing satellites are doing for environmental science today. We're not going to solve ecological problems by trying to un-invent technology.

Animals were passengers on some of the early satellites. Is it true that the Soviets had little regard for bringing some of these animals back to earth alive? Did Americans have a more humane attitude toward animal astronauts?

The only animal astronaut we covered in the events through 1959, which was our focus, was in Sputnik II. Laika, the dog. Recovering her was well beyond the technology of the day, and space experts everywhere understood that. Both countries launched smaller animals on sounding rockets routinely: the Americans had tried to bring monkeys down safely in some of the V-2 research shots, but it never worked. In the Cold War days, animal welfare was not a top concern for either government.

Many of the key players in the early space race died years ago and many others are now very advanced in years. Obviously, "The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellite" will help preserve an important part of history. Does it sadden you that many of the historic Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center launch facilities are crumbling from rust and corrosion? Why won't the federal government and preservation groups act to restore and preserve these very significant sites?

It's very sad. I've been to the Cape a lot, and remember I was an "Apollo kid." It is always hard to find money to preserve history. It's not just the buildings, either. We haven't found anyone willing to produce and finance a documentary based on "The First Space Race," which is really sad, since the key people we talked to - James Van Allen, Milt Rosen (Technical Director for Vanguard), Ernst Stuhlinger of the von Braun team, and others - obviously won't be with us forever. All I can say is, the more people know about the story and what happened, the more interested they will hopefully be in preserving it.

It would be interesting to hear what you have to say about the current state of US space exploration. The Columbia accident investigation has reportedly unveiled serious management/organizational issues. Engineers and managers have complained about communications, reporting, and coordination problems. When NASA was created in 1958, diverse civilian and military units merged into what quickly became recognized as a dynamic, highly efficient, "flat" organization. Engineers and middle-managers were empowered to directly call people in the Washington headquarters or at the other NASA centers. NASA was widely considered to be a model organization of institutional efficiency. As NASA grew and aged, it apparently became more of a typical governmental bureaucracy. Do you think NASA can ever become a "model organization" again?

I need to stress we did not spend much time on NASA in this book, since NASA only took over American civilian space programs beginning in October 1958. The most important thing about history, though, is what it can teach us. Technology has changed since 1958, but people haven't. If NASA's people decide they want to run a model organization, there is no reason why it's impossible. There may be obstacles, of course. One example is the tendency to use modern technology to micromanage field centers. Several of the people we talked to commented on how they had gotten away with highly imaginative budgeting and operations back in the 1950s to get the job done, because the technology to micromanage from Washington didn't exist. Despite that, and despite the bureaucratic inertia that has grown over the decades, it still comes down to people. If NASA's leadership is committed to returning the organization to its roots, it can be done.

Wernher von Braun was very proud of the Huntsville rocket team that was comprised of senior German Peenemunde veterans and young American engineers. Dr. von Braun was said to be a strong advocate of the "arsenal" concept of research and development. He wanted Huntsville to not only develop the NASA rockets, he wanted to manufacture them in Huntsville. He still held that view when the Saturn V was chosen for the Apollo program.

By the time of the Space Shuttle decision in the early 1970s, von Braun's influence on major NASA decisions appears to have waned. He definitely did not want large solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle and he wanted more of an emphasis on crew safety. His opinion was over-ridden by a NASA whose mission objective had become meeting budgets rather than beating the Soviets or exploring new places. (The Space Shuttle costs/benefits model by Mathematica was based on a fantasy projection of 60 missions per year with full 65,000 pound payload utilization, giving a payload per pound cost of $100.) Do you consider the shoving aside of that early space pioneer in the prime of his career to have been a major strategic error in national space policy?


In this case, it was. Von Braun was a relatively conservative designer who always liked high margins of safety. Charlie Bossart, who designed the Atlas rocket, once complained that von Braun built rockets "like bridges." It's not surprising that von Braun didn't like adding the complexity of the SRBs to the Shuttle.

No one man is omniscient, of course. Milt Rosen, who headed the Viking sounding rocket project that led to Vanguard, told me that von Braun objected to the Viking design. The Viking's reliance on aluminum instead of steel, and the use of a gimbaled engine for steering, struck von Braun as too risky. When these innovations worked very well, though, von Braun was quick to adopt them for his own future rockets. So while he was a superb engineer in his own right, he was also smart enough to know he didn't have all the answers.

The Shuttle design decision has been well chronicled in books by Dennis Jenkins and others. As respected as von Braun was, neither he nor anyone else could counteract the desire by the President and Congress to reduce space spending. NASA reacted - wrongly, it seems clear in hindsight - by switching the emphasis on the shuttle from low recurring cost to low R&D cost, and that led to the design we see today.


The preceding first appeared on the Moonshot Web. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

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