SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION

 

Prologue

 

[xxiii] In science as in life, it is well known that a chain of events can have a point of crisis that could magnify small changes.

- James Gleick, Chaos: The Birth of a New Science

 

Times go by turns, and chances change by course, From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

- Robert Southwell, "Times Go By Turns"

 

[xxv] Historians should start from the premise that what happened did not have to happen. They can then do a better job of explaining why it did.

Too often we think about history as something that had to happen just the way that it did. We think about the past as inevitable and predetermined. For example, we think about the American Civil War as an irreconcilable conflict that had to occur given the depth of the regional differences between the North and the South or as a war that the North, given its greater population and industrial might, was bound to win-when, perhaps, neither necessarily had to be the case. The war might have been avoided, or the Southern states might have won their independence, if certain things about the flow of history had been different, perhaps only slightly different.

In 1991 a controversy developed concerning the death of the twelfth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor, who died in 1850 from a mysterious intestinal ailment, conceivably a type of cholera. Given the symptoms of his illness, some believed that Taylor might in fact have died from arsenic poisoning; maybe a Southerner, angry at Taylor for his opposition to the expansion of slavery, found a way to murder him. Based on this theory, in 1991 a coroner and a forensic anthropologist obtained legal approval to exhume Taylor's body from his tomb in Louisville, Kentucky, and conducted an autopsy to try to find traces of arsenic in bits of hair, fingernail, bone, and tissue. As it turned out, they found nothing to substantiate the theory that Taylor was murdered.

While this investigation was going on, columnist George Will wrote a thoughtful essay about the whole affair, in which he suggested that the country might have followed a different path if Zachary Taylor had lived: the Civil War might have been avoided.1 Even more likely, had he lived, Taylor might have provoked the secessionist movement and brought on the bloodshed 10 years sooner. The South would have faced a North deprived of a decade's worth of growth in industrialism and immigration and would not have confronted a new political party, which found a nation-saving leader in a former Illinois congressman named Lincoln. This Civil War of the 1850s the South might have won.

A more fanciful variation on this what-if theme, again involving the Civil War, can be found in Ward Moore's classic novella of 1955, Bring the Jubilee.2 One of the great stories of time travel, this fascinating little book is based on the idea that the South won the Civil War because of a single turn of events at the Battle of Gettysburg. Moore's story is rooted in [xxvi] a historical event in which a Confederate patrol fails to arrive at a certain place at a given time, a failure that enabled the Northern forces to occupy a strategic place on the battlefield atop Little Roundtop. In Moore's book, however, the Confederate patrol does secure this strategic position, and the South goes on to win the war. Moore draws a stunning counterfactual portrait of post-Civil War America. The reader encounters a prosperous and progressive South, which has all the great universities, and a backward and poverty-stricken North.

I have taken the time to mention Ward Moore's fantasy and the speculation surrounding Zachary Taylor's death simply to introduce the underlying theme of the epic story of space exploration that follows: the past was no more inevitable than is our future. Contrary to what we might have been taught in school, or to what we might in fact still be teaching, history is not a straight highway. To study history is not simply to take a pencil and play dot-to dot. Rather, it is to thread a maze, to follow a course of what are potentially limitless directions, including "all sorts of twists and turns and fresh choices of route confronting each new generation." As George Will pointed out in his column on Zachary Taylor, history-whether it is the history of the American Civil War or the history of our own individual lives-is "a rich weave of many threads." Any one of these threads, if pulled out, could cause a radical unraveling, "setting the past in motion as a foaming sea of exhilarating contingencies." In other words, history could have been different: "Choices and chance cannot be scrubbed from the human story. The river of history could have cut a different canyon."3 That is the theme I wish to explore in relation to the history of one of the premier institutions in the American space program, NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

In the keynote address of a conference on the history of space exploration held at Yale University in 1981, New York Times reporter and prominent American space journalist John Noble Wilford asked a provocative what-if question: what if the United States had launched the first satellite in 1957 instead of the Soviets? The United States could have done it. We had German scientists and engineers who had more technical expertise than those "recruited" by the Soviets. As Wilford explains, "Wernher von Braun had the rocket [a modified Redstone designated the Jupiter C] and could have done it about a year before Sputnik, but was under orders from the Eisenhower administration not to the first American satellite was supposed to be a civilian operation, and von Braun was working for the army at the time."4 To guarantee that the president's orders were followed, army inspectors kept a careful watch on the prelaunch activities of von Braun and his men at Cape Canaveral; they suspected that the Alabama-based rocket team might just "accidentally" launch a satellite using what was supposed to be a dummy upper stage of the Jupiter C to boost a nose cone into orbit.5

In terms of technical capability alone, the United States could have beaten the Russians into space with a satellite. Explaining why our country [xxvii] did not and why the Eisenhower administration did not have the ambition to do so is difficult without reconstructing some complex histories. As Walter A. McDougall argues in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of 1985, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, the explanation hinges on Eisenhower's philosophy of government, especially his fear of the growing influence of what he would come to call "the military-industrial complex." More specifically, it involves his administration's recognition of the need for satellite reconnaissance of the closed and secretive Communist world, but at the same time, the administration's concern that a hot (and expensive) new battle in the cold war would erupt if an American satellite with military associations flew over the airspace of the Soviet Union. To avoid such an eruption, Eisenhower's political strategists suggested that it would be best to let the Soviets set the legal precedent by orbiting the first satellite; then, when an American satellite followed, the Soviets would not have solid grounds for protesting any American overflight.6

With these issues and others in mind, President Eisenhower made his fateful decision to support the more peaceful-appearing but technically inferior Vanguard satellite project rather than the project involving the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's (ABMA) Jupiter rocket. Jupiter, of course, would ultimately boost the first U.S. satellite, Explorer, into space on 31 January 1958, nearly two months after the Vanguard-carrying Viking rocket exploded in flames on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (the press dubbed it "Flopnik," "Kaputnik," and "Stayputnik") and nearly three months after the Russians successfully orbited their canine carrying Sputnik 2.7

If Eisenhower could have known how traumatic and revolutionary the launching of the first satellite would prove to be and what a challenge it would pose to his presidency and his political party, he might have decided differently. The von Braun team might have been turned loose sooner, and the beep-beep-beeping that radio operators heard around the world in early October 1957 might have come from a small American satellite rather than a Russian one.

What if the Americans had launched a satellite first? According to Wilford, "An American first would not have startled the world as much as Sputnik did, for American technological leadership was taken for granted. The impact of Sputnik, when it followed, would have been much less, another case of the Russians catching up, as with the atomic and hydrogen bombs."8 And if that had been the case, if Americans had not found Sputnik so challenging, what kind of space program would U.S. leaders have formulated? Surely, that program would have differed from the ideologically motivated and in key respects shortsighted one that was mobilized in such a hurry to win the space race. If Sputnik had not provoked a major international crisis, much about the history of the world in the last four decades of the twentieth century would have been significantly different.

Consider America without a Sputnik crisis. Without the snowballing political repercussions that were so damaging to the Republicans, [xxviii] Richard M. Nixon, Eisenhower's vice president, possibly would have defeated Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in the whisker-close 1960 presidential election. A reversal in that election alone, which turned on a few thousand questionable votes in Illinois, would have produced such an unraveling of contemporary American history that only a Ward Moore could do it justice.9

The character of the country's inaugural ventures into space would have been vastly different. Without the media riot, without the panic incited by cold war misapprehensions about the Soviet satellite, without the feeling that the Russians had gotten a jump on us, and without the resulting clamor for our government to do something dramatic right now to close the gap, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which dated to World War I and was the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), would have surely lived on.10 Most likely this agency would have proceeded calmly with plans to expand its spacerelated research, and NASA would not have been established, at least not when it was. The United States would still have entered into space, but the country would not have rushed into it.

Instead of plunging into the ocean in a ballistic capsule, the first American astronauts might have flown back from space on the wings of a hypersonic glider similar to those NACA researchers had been working on since the mid-195Os. If the United States had not lacked a booster rocket powerful enough to lift so heavy a weight out of the atmosphere, the first spaceflight might have happened like that anyway, even with the Sputnik crisis. The original seven astronauts (the ones with "the right stuff" ) or more likely, specially trained NACA or military test pilots would have traveled to space and back in a landable space plane akin to a small space shuttle. Given the time needed to develop the requisite booster and considering the extensive development and careful flight testing that such a radically new, winged reentry vehicle inevitably would have undergone, the hypersonic glider probably would not have been launched into space until the late 1960s, but it surely would have proved much more capable and versatile than the Mercury capsules.11

Moreover, instead of sending men to the moon by the end of the decade as President Kennedy had wanted, an NACA-led program under President Nixon likely would have focused on the construction of a small, staffed space station that could have been serviced by the shuttle like vehicle. Such was the target project for space exploration at the NACA research laboratories before Sputnik, and it remained so until President Kennedy's lunar commitment in May 1961.12

Whatever we think about the might-have-beens and paths-not-taken, the undeniable fact is that Sputnik changed the course of history. Sputnik was one of those revolutionary, megahistorical events that interrupted the flow of things, altered the would-have-beens, and made a lot of very unlikely events happen. No one has expressed the irony of the randomness and illogic in the [xxix] historical process better than the longshoreman-philosopher and quasi-cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s, Eric Hoffer. "What were the terrible 1960s and where did they come from?" asked Hoffer after the end of the decade. "To begin with, the 1960s did not start in 1960. They started in 1957.... The Russians placed a medicine-ball-sized satellite in orbit.... We reacted hysterically ",13 If we had not, or if we had put that "ball" in orbit first, everything would have been different. For the past was no more inevitable than is our future.

After Sputnik, the American space program would contend with other critical turning points and other what-ifs: What if President Kennedy had not committed the country to the manned lunar landing or at least not to accomplishing it so quickly? What if NASA had not chosen lunar-orbit rendezvous as the mission mode for Apollo and had instead gone with direct ascent or earth-orbit rendezvous, as most engineers at NASA Marshall Space Center had wanted? What if the national supersonic transport (SST) program had not been cancelled by Congress in 1971? (The U.S. Senate killed the program by only one vote.) Would the United States be flying a competitor to the Concorde? Would the resulting airplane have been a disastrous failure, thus putting Boeing and most of its customers out of business? What if the Nixon administration in 1972 had not decided to go ahead with a scaled-back version of the space shuttle but instead had wanted to develop a space station? What if President Reagan had not endorsed the space station in 1984? What if the temperature at Cape Canaveral on the morning of 28 January 1986 had been only a few degrees warmer? These are just some of the what-if questions we might ask about NASA and the American space program.14

The study of history, at least the history of NASA, reveals something about the past that should not be surprising, but is: historical development is neither linear nor logical. In practice, talking about the next logical step, something that NASA planners have been talking about nonstop ever since NASA came to life, does not ensure that step will be the next one taken. After launching a man into space via Project Mercury, NASA said that the next logical step was to establish a permanent manned presence in low earth orbit, but instead the country landed men on the moon. After going to the moon via Project Apollo, the next logical step was to build an earth-orbiting space station along with a space shuttle to service it, but instead the Nixon administration decided that the country could not afford both and could manage temporarily with just the shuttle, even though the space station had always been the shuttle's main reason for existing. After the shuttle, surely the next logical step was to build a space station, but once again the country has found reasons to postpone building one.

Clearly, logic does not determine our history. Historical logic, if we even want to use that phrase, is not the logic of scientists and mathematicians; it is the logic of Through the Looking-Glass. In that all-too-real fantasy land, Tweedledee explains logic to Alice: "Contrariwise, if it was so, it [xxx] might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.''15 Tweedledee's logic is the only kind the American space program has ever known, or probably ever will.

In this book, I explore the impact of that logic on the research and development activities conducted at Langley Research Center in the 12 years after Sputnik. As the book's title suggests, this impact was revolutionary. I gave much thought to the word revolutionary before using it. In the history of science, since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn's seminal study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, no historian, in fact no scholar, has been safe in the use of the term revolution without reference to the essential Kuhnian concepts and terminology: "paradigm," "anomaly," "normal science," "Gestalt switch," "paradigm shift," and the "incommensurability of paradigms," to name just a few.16 All these terms, along with the word resolution itself which Kuhn defines as "those noncumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible one," have thus been loaded down with meaning, nuance, argument, controversy, and their own long academic histories.17

But the reader can relax. Nowhere else in the text or notes of this book will I make direct reference to Thomas Kuhn or his sociological anatomy of revolution. I do not omit Kuhn because of any disdain for his insights; I just do not fee' that any explicit application of Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions will do much to inform my chosen topic relevant to NASA Langley history. Whether Kuhn's notions have worked implicitly to influence my understanding of the spaceflight revolution at the research center, I leave to the reader to judge.18

Most scholars are familiar with Kuhn and his concept of revolution; far fewer are familiar with the particular concept of the spaceflight revolution for which Kuhnian sociologist William Sims Bainbridge is responsible. Despite my using Bainbridge's terminology and even sympathizing with parts of his concept, I wish to distance myself and this book on NASA Langley from it, even farther than I have from Kuhn.

In 1976 Bainbridge, a professor in the sociology department at the University of Washington, published a fascinating if eccentric analysis of the enthusiasms of the space age, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Analysis.* According to its thesis, the space age came to life "despite the world's indifference and without compelling economic, military, or scientific [xxxi] reasons for its accomplishment." It was not the "public will," declared Bainbridge, but "private fanaticism" that drove us to the moon. "When Neil Armstrong called his 'small step' down on to the lunar surface a 'great leap for mankind', he spoke as the partisan member of a revolutionary social movement, eager to convert the unbelieving to his faith."19

Bainbridge's book essentially advances a conspiracy theory. The majority of people did not want spaceflight; only a few did. And those few romantic idealists, that extremely small but dedicated and well-organized network of men (very few women were at first involved, according to Bainbridge), coaxed, tricked, lobbied, and coerced the greatest technological nations into building mammoth programs to launch them into space. Bainbridge then analyzes the historical and social character of the conspirators: the pioneers and visionaries of spaceflight (the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, the German Hermann Oberth, and the American Robert Goddard, among others); the enthusiastic members of the early space and rocket clubs (such as the German Society for Space Travel, the British Interplanetary Society, and the American interplanetary Society); Wernher von Braun's rocket team in league with the Nazis at Peenemunde; the agenda of the Committee for the Future, that "mystical, almost religious organization," which came to life in the United States in 1970, less than one year after the first manned lunar landing; and finally, the science-fiction subculture, which he calls the "breeding ground of deviant movements," and the Star Trek and Search for Extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) groupies of the present day.20

The book is a brilliant and troubling tour de force from a sociologist of some estimable abilities. I assign it perennially to my graduate students in aerospace history and not just to get a rise from them, which it always does-particularly from the students specializing in military air power who usually think that Bainbridge is simply silly or crazy. Bainbridge's version of the spaceflight revolution is worth investigating, if only because it explores the question of why something that did not have to happen, happened. In the introduction to his book, Bainbridge writes, as I have written in this prologue, that the spaceflight revolution "was a revolution that need not have happened."21

In my version of the spaceflight revolution, however, the revolutionaries are not conspirators from rocket enthusiast organizations and science-fiction clubs, nor are they romantic idealists aspiring to some quasi-religious, superhuman, or millenarian experience in outer space. And they are hardly members of a deviant social movement. Rather, my revolutionaries are government engineers and bureaucrats, who are members of an established research organization dating back to 1915, the venerable NACA. These revolutionaries, because of the hysteria over the launch of Sputnik I in October 1957, metamorphosed along with their organization into creatures of the space age.

My spaceflight revolution is an unlikely story-perhaps as unlikely as Bainbridge's. But this one happened.

 


* Even Bainbridge worried that the word revolution might be too strong in the introduction to his book he defends its use, saying that "the scale and the manner of the achievement" in space "demand powerful language." According to his estimates, "approximately $100,000,000,000 has been spent on space technology; the exact figure is debatable, but the order of magnitude is not." Moreover, Bainbridge continued, "I use the word revolution as a scientifically descriptive term [as Kuhn did], not a metaphor. The development of space flight could be a revolution in two ways: its consequences and its causes." (The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Analysis [New York John Wiley & Sons, 1976], p 1.)


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