The Season of Crisis: 1961
THE 6-MONTH PERIOD prior to the first manned suborbital flight in May 1961 was fraught with changes at the national level which saw NASA reach its lowest point and catapult again to an even more significant role than it had previously enjoyed. In the early weeks of 1961, the future of the American space flight program beyond Project Mercury hung in precarious balance. It was a momentous period of NASA's history, and its highlights help set the stage for the related Mercury events herein recounted.
Three and one-half years earlier the Nation had rallied enthusiastically
to the challenge of the Soviet Sputnik. The National Aeronautics and Space
Act of 1958 had been signed into law and created a new agency, NASA. The
national objective of the exploration of space for peaceful purposes had
crystallized the decision at the Presidential level which led to the establishment
of Project Mercury as the pioneering step in manned spaceflight. Its mission
was to launch a man into space, orbit him around the earth, and recover
him safely. In national priority, Project Mercury ranked second only to
the national defense effort after 1958.
Now, in the message accompanying his Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 1962, President Eisenhower said:
President Eisenhower, mindful of the economic impact of the 1959-60 recession, thus stated in his final budget to Congress that an evaluation was underway to determine whether manned spaceflight would be continued beyond Project Mercury. This decision, by implication, would be the responsibility of his successor as well as a product of the success of manned flight in the Mercury program itself.
It is of importance to the history of space medicine that in the weeks
just prior to his inauguration, President-elect Kennedy was in the process
of reviewing the space program, among other areas of concern. On January
12,1961, the President-elect released a report prepared by an advisory
committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Jerome Wiesner, a member of the
President's Scientific Advisory Committee under President Eisenhower, and
later President Kennedy's own scientific adviser.1
The Wiesner report initiated a chain reaction vitally affecting Project Mercury, particularly the medical aspects. It was highly critical of NASA organization and management, and recommended to the President-elect that, there be a sweeping reorganization of the national space program, involving effective use of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, single direction within DOD of military space efforts, stronger technical management in NASA, and closer government partnership with industry. The Wiesner report was also critical of the Atlas launch vehicle which was to orbit the Mercury astronaut in space, stating that it was "marginal." Indeed, it was concluded that because the U.S.S.R. possessed larger launch vehicles, the United States would not be the first to orbit a man in space. The report stated:
Mr. Kennedy had, in the weeks prior to his inauguration, turned over to Vice-President-elect Johnson the responsibility of recommending a NASA Administrator. He had found that those who advocated a strong civilian space program were opposed both by influential scientists who wanted to curtail manned space exploration and by spokesmen of the military-industrial complex who favored turning over the major role in the space program to the U.S. Air Force.2 James E. Webb, whose name was submitted by Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma (who had succeeded the Vice-President-elect as chairman of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee), was approached and persuaded to accept the position of Administrator. A businessman and lawyer dedicated to public service, he was to infuse new life almost immediately into the NASA structure.
Mr. Webb endorsed an accelerated space program based on in-house NASA planning, to include consideration of a landing on the moon by 1969-70 instead of "after 1970," as had been projected by NASA under the previous administration. He asked the Bureau of the Budget for an additional $308 million to supplement the Eisenhower budget of $1.1 billion, to be applied mostly to the development of large launch vehicles.
1. "Report to the President-elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space," for release to the press, radio, and television on Jan. 12, 1961. Other members of the Ad Hoc Committee were Kenneth B. Belieu, Staff Director, Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences; Trevor Gardner, President, Hycon Manufacturing Co. (and former Asst. Secretary of the Air Force) : Donald F. Hornig, Chairman, Dept. of Chemistry, Princeton Univ.; Edwin H. Land, President, Polaroid Corp.; Max Lehrer. Asst. Staff Director, Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences; Edward M. Purcell, Prof. of Physics, Harvard Univ.; Bruno B. Rossi, Prof. of Physics. MIT; and Harry J. Watters, Assistant to the President, Polaroid Corp. Released report was an unclassified version of a more detailed classified document.
2. Jay Holmes, American on the Moon (Philadelphia:
J. B. Lippineett Co., 1962), p. 189. Mr. Holmes is currently in the Office
of Manned Space Flight, NASA. This brief summary is based on his readable
and interesting account. Much of the documentation for this Important period
is being collected and collated for the John F. Kennedy Library by the
NASA historical staff.