Despite the almost universal reference to an “American Space program,” in reality the United States has sponsored (and sponsors still in the early twenty-first century) not one space agency, but many. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force—as well as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence service—field independent space programs. The focus of this essay is the mainly civilian activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Unlike the military or intelligence agencies, which pursue parochial interests, NASA research occurs on a broad front, including aeronautics, human spaceflight, planetary observation, and exploration of the universe.
The foundation of America’s national space program began long before the 1950s and the Space Race with the USSR. It started with a decision in 1915 to establish a laboratory for “the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked” (Roland, 1985, Vol. 2, p. 394). Congress took this step because other countries recognized in the years before World War I that heavier-than-air flight might be consequential in battle and so initiated national laboratories devoted to air research. The United States lagged behind, and when Congress finally acted in 1915, it did so half-heartedly, authorizing a mere $5,000 to inaugurate NACA, added as an afterthought to the Naval Appropriations Act of that year. Through its five laboratories that opened gradually across the United States, NACA represented a consistent federal commitment to aeronautical research, concentrating especially (but not exclusively) on high-speed aerodynamics, of fundamental importance to spaceflight.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the engineers and scientists at NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, led the ascent on Mach 1, Mach 2, and hypersonic (Mach 5+) flight, in addition to conducting extensive rocket research at its Wallop’s Island, Virginia, test facility. But despite its pioneering work, NACA lacked a national mandate to pursue a full-scale space program. This mandate eventually materialized, but not for NACA.
Space exploration sprang into global prominence during a competition announced by the planners of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958. In proclaiming the IGY in 1954, the International Council of Scientific Unions invited nations to launch satellites to map the contours of the earth. This call set in motion a contest between the Soviet Union and the United States. The USSR won with Sputnik 1 in October 1957; the U.S. Army deployed its Explorer 1 satellite in January 1958. Russia’s victory unleashed a torrent of recrimination in the United States, led by the mass media. Congress soon took up the call.
In the end, NACA assumed much of the blame, although it had been far-sighted in pursuing space-related research within the confines of its limited budget. Ultimately, President Eisenhower and Congress discontinued NACA, succeeding it on 1 October 1958 with NASA. But with the transfer of its headquarters and laboratories to NASA, NACA’s spaceflight infrastructure, talent base, and ongoing research (on advanced projects like the X-15 hypersonic aircraft) continued intact. Perhaps the most enduring NACA legacy proved to be the Space Task Group (STG), a brain trust initiated by NACA director Hugh Dryden prior to NASA’s inception. Led by Robert Gilruth, it guided early human spaceflight in the United States and stayed together to oversee future missions. Because of these and other pivotal NACA contributions, the new agency opened its doors poised and ready to contest the USSR.
Mercury and the Moon.
Mindful of the importance of closing the gap with the Soviets quickly, the STG chose the name Mercury (the winged messenger of the Gods in Roman mythology) for the first American attempts at human spaceflight. The STG conceived a blunt-body, single-seat Mercury capsule and chose two missiles for launch vehicles—the Army’s Redstone for the earlier flights and the Air Force’s Atlas for the later ones. Gilruth supervised the selection of seven military test pilots, designated the Mercury 7, as the first astronaut class. Navy Commander Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Launched on 5 May 1961, he made a suborbital flight that lasted approximately 15 minutes and flew to an altitude of 116 miles.
But the U.S. candidate again crossed the finish line second. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin not only became the first human being in space three weeks earlier (April 12), but also actually orbited the Earth. Far worse for the Kennedy administration, just days after the Soviet accomplishment, the U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs ended in disgrace. Eager for the United States to regain the initiative, President Kennedy considered an expansive space initiative that leaped ahead of the USSR. He asked Vice President Johnson—an architect of NASA when he served in the Senate—to consult the experts. Sufficiently reassured, Kennedy addressed Congress on 25 May 1961, calling for a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s.
Congress accepted the challenge, but the president’s offensive left NASA reeling. The space agency had launched just one suborbital flight so far, and only eight and a half years remained before the rendezvous with the Moon. Although in February 1962 astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth three times and the final Mercury flight in May 1963 made 22 revolutions, by this date almost none of the essential technologies needed to voyage to the Moon and back had been fabricated or tested.
As a consequence, Gilruth and the STG decided on an intermediate step between Mercury and the lunar trip. Because it required a two-seat capsule, they called it Gemini, after the mythological Greek twins Castor and Pollux, the guardians of mariners. Gemini acted as a proving ground for the upcoming Moon mission, testing whether astronauts could survive outside their spacecraft and whether capsules could rendezvous and dock with one another.
An early Gemini mission illustrates the uncharted technical waters in which NASA found itself. During Gemini IV in June 1965, a rendezvous with a Titan rocket second stage failed because NASA scientists had not yet mastered the finer points of orbital mechanics. On the same voyage, astronaut Edward White undertook America’s first Extravehicular Activity (EVA). White floated in space for about 23 minutes, but he needed urgent help from mission commander James McDivitt to force open and then to force shut the egress hatch. Had McDivitt not encountered the same problem in training—a spring controlling the latches had failed to compress—the situation might have been dire.
A year and a half later, the last Gemini mission—number 12, crewed by James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin—succeeded not only in rendezvousing, but also in docking with an Agena target vehicle. Moreover, Aldrin made three EVAs lasting more than five hours in all, proving for the first time that astronauts could accomplish practical tasks during lengthy space walks.
Although many of the technologies necessary for the Moon voyages still seemed far off when Gemini ended in November 1966, some obstacles had been cleared. After a contentious debate, NASA’s leaders decided to land the astronauts on the Moon through a segmented process by which the spacecraft flew directly to, and then orbited, the Moon; detached a small lunar lander with a crew of two to touch down on the Moon; redocked with the lunar lander upon completion of its mission; and returned to Earth. In addition, NASA administrator James Webb enlisted a new method of project management (practiced effectively during the ballistic missile program) called concurrency. Rather than develop and test each system component sequentially—the standard practice—concurrency promised faster project completion by integrating many components first and then testing them as a unit.
Still, for Apollo to succeed, several high hurdles needed to be overcome. First, the immense Saturn V rocket had yet to prove itself; at the end of Gemini, not one had flown. Additionally, Grumman Aircraft’s lunar module started late, fell behind schedule, and reported big cost overruns. Then, disaster struck. In January 1967, the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire on the launch pad, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. Months of investigation followed, delaying the Moon shot. Moreover, because the findings identified an obvious cause—the use of pure oxygen in the capsule—NASA’s reputation suffered, particularly in Congress.
Despite these formidable setbacks, Apollo rebounded, in part because of sheer good fortune. To make up for lost time, the agency gambled in December 1968 with Apollo 8. Originally an orbital mission to test system hardware, the Apollo program directors decided instead to send it on a circumlunar voyage. The mission succeeded. Then, about five months before J.F.K.’s challenge expired, NASA launched Apollo 11 to the Moon. Events at first unfolded routinely. But on 20 July 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin orbited in the lunar module, they faced a crisis. First, the onboard computer froze. Then Armstrong, surprised by a landscape too rocky for a landing, took the controls from the autopilot. When he finally touched down, a mere 30 seconds of propellant remained in the lunar module’s descent engine fuel tank—all that remained between Armstrong, Aldrin, and death.
Massive public outpourings greeted the Apollo 11 crew when they returned. Paradoxically, the ill-fated Apollo 13—a dramatic mission in which the crew barely survived after an oxygen tank exploded, resulting in the loss of air and electrical power—attracted far more attention than the other remaining Apollo flights. Despite progressively longer space walks and the collection of increasing amounts of geological material, Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 (November 1969 to December 1972) won less and less of the public’s fascination.
In fact, the tide had been running out on the U.S. space program for some time. Beset by costly social programs and the Vietnam War, presidents Johnson and Nixon presided over a 10-year decline in NASA’s appropriations, peaking at $5.18 billion in 1965 and falling to $3.23 billion in 1975 (Gorn, 2008, p. 149).
Robots, Not Astronauts.
Even as budgets fell, NASA embarked on an ambitious set of missions to probe the cosmos. To begin with, Americans sent a series of probes to the lunar surface to gauge its composition and find locations for human landings. Like human spaceflight, many of the robotic voyages suffered serious setbacks. After nearly three years and six consecutive failures, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) succeeded with Ranger 7, which in July 1964 returned 4,316 photos of the Moon before its planned crash landing. Then, five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft circled the Moon, mapping potential touchdown spots. Finally, the Surveyor spacecraft landed on the Moon in June 1966, eventually transmitting over 11,000 images and calming fears that the surface might be too powdery to support the lunar lander.
One of the longest series of planetary explorations began with the Mariner spacecraft. Although Mariners 1, 3, and 8 failed, Mariner 2 flew past Venus in December 1962 and Mariner 4 approached to within six thousand miles of Mars in July 1965, taking 21 photographs. Mariner 5 also flew past Venus, and in July and August 1969 Mariners 6 and 7 captured about two hundred images as they passed Mars. Mariners 9 and 10 initiated a new era of sophistication in planetary research. Nearly four times the weight of Mariner 4, Mariner 9 became the first probe to orbit another planet in November 1971, eventually mapping 85 percent of Mars’s surface and unveiling a dynamic topography. Finally, Mariner 10 flew by and photographed Venus and then, using the assistance of gravity, passed and observed Mercury three times, ending the mission in March 1975. NASA further burnished its robotic credentials with Pioneers 10 and 11 (to Jupiter and Saturn), Vikings 1 and 2 (to two Mars touchdowns), and Voyagers 1 and 2 (to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; past many of their moons; and on to interstellar space).
A Shuttle and a Station.
If the Kennedy presidency represented the heroic era of space travel, President Nixon’s represented a new age of space pragmatism. After Apollo, Nixon felt that NASA should, above all, “devise less costly and less complicated ways of transporting payloads into space” (Launius, 1994, p. 219). Engineers at the space agency had been pursuing a similar line of reasoning since the 1960s. They conceived of a space system consisting of a reusable, winged space plane boosted into orbit by recoverable fuel tanks. This concept received strong support from NASA administrator Thomas Paine, who envisioned it as a supply vehicle, or tug, for an orbiting space station. The budget-conscious Nixon rejected the station, but approved the tug, known by then as the Space Shuttle.
After 10 years of design and fabrication, the shuttle—as big as an airliner and equipped with a 60 by 15 foot payload bay—made its initial voyage in April 1981. Five different shuttles flew 135 missions, the last in July 2011, and accomplished many things: launched civil and military satellites, conducted space-related experiments, tested human physiology in space, and repaired orbiting spacecraft (most famously, the Hubble space telescope). They also suffered two disasters: Challenger exploded shortly after launch in January 1986, ignited by a leaking solid rocket booster; and Columbia disintegrated on reentry in February 2003, caused by a gap in its external insulation created by flying external tank debris. In all, 14 astronauts died. Moreover, despite the original intentions, the Shuttle program proved to be expensive, costing close to $200 billion by one estimate (Hsu, 2011, p. 1).
Only in November 1998 did the shuttle participate in the mission its designers intended, when it lifted the first component of a massive space station. Over the next 13 years, it hoisted most of the station’s trusses and modules. The process began under President Ronald Reagan, who gave the go-ahead in 1984, saying, “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space” (Launius, 1994, p. 248). Despite the optimism, the station materialized at a snail’s pace, stalled by heavy cost overruns, massive redesigns, and lengthy negotiations that in the end saved the project by forging an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency. First occupied by a crew in 2000, by its completion in May 2011 it weighed almost 1 million pounds and measured the length of a football field. Called the International Space Station (ISS), it had hosted 30 expeditions by the early twenty-first century.
The Twenty-First Century.
The American space program in the twenty-first century has suffered from the same post-Apollo malaise that has afflicted NASA since the 1970s. Having achieved its greatest success early, the space agency has been measured by that yardstick ever since and has often been found wanting.
Nonetheless, there have already been noteworthy achievements in the twenty-first century. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004 and began to travel, photographing the landscape and sampling its rocks and soil. Spirit quit after covering almost five miles; Opportunity continues to roam, having traversed about 21 miles in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Both rovers detected geological features suggesting water.
Additionally, the prominent Earth telescopes found themselves equaled, if not eclipsed, by NASA’s Great Observatories. In the early twenty-first century, the Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes joined the Hubble Space Telescope—repaired and modernized by no fewer than five shuttle missions, the last in 2009—in probing the farthest depths of the universe.
Meanwhile, two presidents have tried to reignite broad, long-range human exploration missions reminiscent of Apollo. In early 2004, George W. Bush unveiled a blueprint for a return to the Moon and ultimately voyages to Mars. Later called Constellation, it encountered headwinds. NASA received no additional funding for Constellation and to economize, its design borrowed liberally from the Apollo capsule, the Saturn V rocket, and the Space Shuttle.
The election of President Barack Obama resulted in a reconsideration of Constellation. The president canceled it in 2010 and directed NASA to pursue a more technologically advanced launch vehicle for possible future visits to asteroids and to Mars. The White House also asked NASA to offer incentives to private firms to develop smaller rockets for such orbital tasks as servicing the ISS.
Yet, despite these presidential initiatives, human spaceflight finds itself diminished in stature and opportunities. This impasse might suggest a historic change. During and since the Apollo program, two camps—human versus automated spaceflight—have waged an intense struggle inside NASA for budgets and prominence during the second decade of the twenty-first century. Generally, human spaceflight has won out. But more recently, robotics seems to be prevailing, in part because the severe economic recession that began in 2008 favors the lower cost of automated systems. Additionally, the reversal reflects the lack of a clear, compelling reason for astronaut-based space travel, as well as the fact that NASA’s human exploration community faces an indeterminate wait before a heavy lift launch system succeeds the Space Shuttle. On the other hand, perhaps this situation represents a temporary hiatus, much like the long gap between the end of Apollo and the first shuttle launch.
In the meantime, the aging Hubble telescope is expected to be replaced in 2018 by the even more powerful James Webb Telescope, equipped with a primary mirror two and three-quarter times the diameter of Hubble’s, orbiting almost 1 million miles from our planet. Realistically, the images from the distant Webb telescope may be the closest that Americans would come to the cosmos for some time.
[See also Airplanes and Air Transport; Astronomy and Astrophysics; Hubble, Edwin Powell; Hubble Space Telescope; International Geophysical Year; Missiles and Rockets; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Satellites, Communications; and Space Science.]
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