|This Week in American History
March 28 April 3, 1958
President Eisenhower Establishes NASA under Civilian Control
After one of the hardest-fought battles of his Administration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded in sending to Congress, on April 2, 1958, a request for the creation of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration under civilian control, and an outline of government plans for space exploration and related scientific research. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was seen at the time as an answer to the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik communications satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, but Eisenhower knew the matter was more complicated, and that the nature of America's "answer" could determine its future.
After the death of President Franklin Roosevelt and the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had embarked on a nuclear-bomb and liquid-fueled rocket race, manipulated by the Bertrand Russell world-government cabal, whose strategy was: "You and him fight, while we take over." America's rocket effort was led by Wernher von Braun, the captured German V-2 rocket designer, while the USSR program was coordinated by the brilliant engineer Sergei Korolyev. Most of the scientists working in the military programs had come out of the civilian space-exploration societies of the 1920s and 1930s, but the only way they could obtain the funding to carry out their research was to do it under military auspices.
Meanwhile, the American public was being terrorized by the nuclear arms race, air-raid drills in the schools, and the Army-McCarthy Hearings. Added to this, was a spate of monster-from-space movies where aliens either tried to kill all Earthlings. or "benevolently" suggested, à la Russell, that they submit to being monitored by more advanced civilizations.
On the evening of April 5, 1950, a group of scientists met at the Silver Spring, Md. home of ionospheric physicist James Van Allen. They discussed the fact that the opportunities for doing high-altitude scientific work were waning rapidly, and that a major international scientific project was needed to guarantee funding for new types of rockets to carry scientific payloads into space. The precedent they had to work with was the First and Second Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933. During those two projects, scientists from many countries had cooperated to study Earth's Polar regions.
The group at Van Allen's home decided to suggest a Third International Polar Year for 1957-1958, and by 1954, with input from other scientists around the world, the project was rechristened the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which would study Earth's oceans and atmosphere, as well as the Antarctic and outer space. A sub-committee of the IGY, set up to promote research on communication and data-gathering satellites, recommended that the attempt be made to orbit such satellites during the Geophysical Year.
In response, the Soviet Academy of Sciences named a blue-ribbon Commission for Interplanetary Communications which issued a paper stating that, "One of the immediate tasks of the ICIC is to organize work concerned with building an automatic laboratory for scientific research in space." On July 19, 1955, the U.S. government announced that it would launch a satellite during the IGY; the next day the Kremlin announced that it, too, would launch satellites that year. Few in America took the announcement seriously, for Soviet science was perceived as being behind America in rocket development.
But soon Korolyev had developed the world's first ICBM, which, after several failures, had a perfect test flight. Its existence was announced on Aug. 27, 1957, followed by an announcement on Sept. 17, that a communications satellite would soon follow. On Oct. l, the USSR announced the radio frequency on which the satellite would broadcast, and on Oct. 4, people around the world could hear the "beep, beep, beep" of the little satellite, the "Traveller," as it orbited the Earth.
The American public went into shock. Then, America's attempt to send up its own satellite fizzled after two seconds on the launch pad. Eisenhower, nonetheless, assured the country that the U.S. was not trailing the Soviet Union in space technology: He knew there were five rocket programs being pursued simultaneously, and that the satellite's failed rocket had been the most complicated and difficult of them. However, the public outcry for something to be done was growing ever louder, and Eisenhower realized that if he failed to take the lead in establishing a civilian program, there was another very dangerous direction in which public desperation might be led.
Due to the pressures of the Cold War, certain factions of the military had been lobbying for the militarization of space and for a military base on the Moon. Gen. John Bruce Medaris, the commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, had submitted a 15-year space program which included a 50-man military Moon base by 1971. There were also people, both in and out of the military, who were happy that Sputnik was flying over America, and never challenged the Soviet Union's right to carry out such flights, because the National Security Council, in the early 1950s, had stressed the need for the establishment of "freedom of space," so that America could put up spy satellites with powerful cameras over the Soviet Union.
One of the people who expressed the outlook that Eisenhower had to overcome was Air Force Brig. Gen. Homer Boushey, who addressed the Aero Club of Washington on Jan. 28, 1958. Boushey described how a lunar military outpost could be established, and then stated that, "If we had a base on the Moon, the Soviets must launch an overwhelming nuclear attack toward the Moon two to two-and-one-half days prior to attacking the continental U.S.and such launchings could not escape detectionor Russia could attack the continental U.S. first, only and inevitably to receive, from the Moonsome 48 hours latersure and massive destruction."
The RAND Corporation, too, contributed three different 1958 reports on the feasibility of setting up a lunar military outpost, one of them based on five student papers from a Creative Engineering course at MIT! Fortunately, Eisenhower asked James Killian, the president of MIT and a supporter of civilian space exploration, to become his science adviser a few weeks after Sputnik was launched. The President's Science Advisory Committee, headed by Killian, produced a study laying out a broad program of civilian scientific research and space exploration.
Scientific societies also lobbied for a civilian space program. The Rocket Society feared that the reaction to Sputnik would result in stop-gap measures, rather than a serious, long-term program to explore space. Therefore, the Society's Space Flight Technical Committee, headed by Krafft Ehricke, laid out a 25-year program that included orbiting the Earth, sending robotic spacecraft to the planets, and sending humans to the Moon. The plan was endorsed by Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee on Dec. 30, 1957, and General Medaris regarded it as the first salvo in a battle against total military control of space exploration.
The leader of Congressional action for a civilian space program was Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who set up a new Special Committee on Science and Astronautics in the Senate, while John McCormack and Sam Rayburn established one in the House of Representatives. These committees also commissioned studies on what America's goals should be in regard to space exploration and space science.
President Eisenhower knew that the battle within the military, Congress, and the government institutions could only be won by educating the frightened and shell-shocked American public. In addition to proposing and financing more scientific education in the schools, Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee produced a best-seller called "Introduction to Outer Space." Americans soon began to talk knowledgeably about the science of space exploration and, most important, to develop an optimistic view about what could be accomplished.
The pamphlet covered such topics as why satellites stay in orbit and what they can do, rocket thrust and staging, and the potential for exploration of the Moon and Mars. It offered a chronological timetable for space exploration, beginning with satellites and Moon fly-bys, leading to manned flight and then to manned landings on the Moon. It noted the military value of reconnaissance satellites, but denied the value of satellite bombs and Moon military bases.
Eisenhower's introduction to the pamphlet gives a sense of what he was aiming for: "In connection with a study of space science and technology made at my request, the President's Science Advisory Committee, of which Dr. James R. Killian is Chairman, has prepared a brief 'Introduction to Outer Space' for the non-technical reader.
"This is not science fiction. This is a sober, realistic presentation prepared by leading scientists.
"I have found this statement so informative and interesting that I wish to share it with all the people of America and indeed with all the people of the Earth. I hope that it can be widely disseminated by all news media for it clarifies many aspects of space and space technology in a way which can be helpful to all people as the United States proceeds with its peaceful program in space science and exploration. Every person has the opportunity to share through understanding in the adventures which lie ahead.
"This statement of the Science Advisory Committee makes clear the opportunity which a developing space technology can provide to extend man's knowledge of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe. These opportunities reinforce my conviction that we and other nations have a great responsibility to promote the peaceful use of space and to utilize the new knowledge obtainable from space science and technology for the benefit of all mankind."
In his message to Congress accompanying the NASA legislation, President Eisenhower said, "I recommend that aeronautical and space science activities sponsored by the United States be conducted under the direction of a civilian agency, except for those projects primarily associated with military requirements." NASA was charged with the mission to "plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities." The bill, with several changes approved by Eisenhower, was passed by Congress on July 29, 1958 and NASA opened its doors to the space age on Oct. 1.