This is the introduction and first chapter of my Master's Dissertation which gained an 'A' as part of my overall MA with Distinction. All the material is copyright to Mark Shanahan, 2010. As it forms the basis for my PhD research, I would be grateful for any feedback and comment.
The Space Race was a media construct from the outset. The prestige of the United States was materially damaged by its failure to put the first satellite in space, and while President Eisenhower was comfortable for the Soviets to be the first nation in space, and had no plans to create a 'race', public perception, fanned by radio broadcasts and printed media was very different, and worked against the US President and his chosen stance.
Through Sputnik, and the early Soviet manned spaceflight programmes, Khrushchev exploited America's slow start in rocket and satellite development, propagandising the Soviet space programme as a means of creating a false impression of the relative power of the Superpowers. In the US, Johnson, first through his position in Congress and then as VP to Kennedy following the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, grabbed the space mantle and politicised NASA's efforts as a weapon to fight back against the Soviet threat to US power. In so doing, he and, most publicly, the youthful, photogenic Kennedy, the master of political rhetoric, galvanised media support behind an ambitious rocket programme under the auspices of the new agency reluctantly created on Eisenhower’s watch: NASA. The US media cohort finally bought into this acceleration in the race only following the flight of a true ‘Right Stuff’ All-American hero, John Glenn.
As a means of fighting the Cold War on a very public front, using missiles without warheads, the Space Race provided a compelling vehicle for Eisenhower’s successor, John Kennedy. Through a carefully managed media campaign, supported by the Cold War typewriter warrior Luce and the Time/Life organisation, the Mercury Seven’s growing success came to epitomise all that was good about the Kennedy administration – and deflected the national security issues around unmanned space missions, notably the growing number of military reconnaissance satellites the US had in the sky. Indeed, by setting a goal that America could buy into, heightened, articulated and analysed by a hungry media, Kennedy’s administration created a righteous weapon to use in the fight against the perception of the growing threat of communism.
In the space of just three and a half years, the role and influence of the media changed significantly. Under Eisenhower’s watch, the US press and broadcasters surprised the President and prompted significant action beyond his wishes. By reacting to Khrushchev’s missile and space pronouncements, the media talked up a race that didn’t exist, and gave credence to the notion of the USSR as a technological superpower when the reality was that all the Soviets had was a launch rocket with significantly more thrust than any American equivalent. But whereas under Eisenhower, the tail may well have been wagging the dog, under Kennedy the role was reversed and, the new President was able to galvanise the power of the media behind his aim to overturn the perception of Soviet power by making the race to the moon a ‘safe’ battlefield for prosecuting the Cold War.
While there has been analysis of the space race as the culmination of the US frontier spirit – Murray and Bly Cox comes to mind here; as a triumph of technology coupled with the human spirit – any number of participant memoirs as well as the works of Launius, Cadbury, Seamans and Chaikin apply here; and the political distraction from the perceived missile gap, Bay of Pigs fiasco and social unrest within US borders, one looks to McDougall and Dallek as authorities; there has been little, if any significant analysis on the shaping role that the media – and its associated NASA/Governmental public affairs - played in the space race.Media memoirs recall the reporting of individuals, but comment little on the influence they brought to space policy as a subset of Governmental policy. And while this piece is limited in time scope to the first four and a half years of the space race, it will endeavour to provide a historian’s exploration into how influential the media was in creating and embedding an appetite for space exploration around the world.
One might argue that the most effective media influence on the space programme came towards the end of the Apollo period when, moon landing completed, the news agencies and broadcasting companies cut their coverage significantly and cast around for ‘new news’ stories. Suddenly the visceral sore of the last stages of the war in Vietnam and the actions of Senator Edward Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, had pushed Apollo off the front pages and relegated the moon landings well down the broadcast news agenda – only for the fire to be rekindled, briefly, by the heroism of failure with Apollo 13. However, this dissertation focuses on the early years of the Space Race, primarily from the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, to the completion of John Glenn’s first American orbital mission in 1962. It will assess how a national security issue became one of prestige as each side aimed to use its achievements to enhance their relative status, and how the US media finally found alignment with the US governing executive and its fledgling space agency to add the power of imagery and dialogue to the race to the moon.
How space became a race
Following the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite on October 4 1957, the Chicago Daily News declared that if the Soviets “could deliver a 184-pound ‘moon' into a predetermined pattern 560 miles out into space, the day is not far distant when they could deliver a death-dealing warhead onto a predetermined target almost anywhere on the earth's surface.” The intense surprise at the Soviets’ action was global. A day later, in the UK the Manchester Guardian ran an editorial titled ‘Next Stop Mars. The columnist wrote: “The achievement is immense. It demands a psychological adjustment on our part towards Soviet society [and] Soviet military capabilities.....the Russians can now build ballistic missiles capable of hitting any chosen target anywhere in the world.....Clearly they have established a great lead in missile technology.”
The US was simply not used to coming second in any technological endeavours and the USSR’s success was hard to stomach. In its editorial, The Nation, entitled Red Moon over the US, the October 14th issue of the news weekly Time stated that Sputnik 1 opened “a bright new chapter in mankind’s conquest of the natural environment and a grim new chapter in the Cold War......Russia’s victory in the satellite race proved that the US had not tried hard enough.”
This chapter discusses the elements that came together: media speculation, public fear, secret intelligence, Presidential misreading of the public and an opportunistic Soviet leader to make space such a high profile issue for the last years of Eisenhower’s Presidency.
The popular impact of Sputnik 1’s launch went far beyond its scientific value. It was not seen nor reported simply as a scientific triumph (other than by the TASS news agency in Pravda and on Radio Moscow ), but as a direct threat to the USA’s national security and by implication, the security of the non-communist world. “Death dealing warhead” and “capable of hitting any chosen target anywhere in the world” shows a level of language that was intent – consciously or not – on sowing fear in a society that had only recently come to terms with the Soviets as an H-bomb power. Yet one must question whether Sputnik 1 was a thought-out aspect of Khrushchev’s great plan for systematic revolution – or more a case of happenstance.
It may be argued that the Soviet leader simply benefited from an engineer’s vision to conquer space, and US fear of a ‘missile gap’. However, Sputnik 1’s success was largely down to Khrushchev’s growing understanding of the potency of symbolic gestures in the Cold War climate of tension. It also relied on a US President fettered by the knowledge of the real relative missile strengths of the Superpowers, and the inability to share that knowledge without compromising a significant intelligence advantage. So while elements of the media reacted hysterically to Sputnik 1, for security reasons Eisenhower was unable to respond in a way that could diffuse the situation.
It’s notable that the media was already reporting a ‘race into space’ and a ‘race for satellites’ in the immediate wake of Sputnik 1’s launch. Eisenhower never wanted a Space Race but was harried into a response to Khrushchev’s actions by a media both obsessed with space, and seemingly unable to differentiate between rockets without warheads – focused on manned and unmanned space exploration - and those carrying nuclear warheads offering both offensive and defensive security capability. The US media had been obsessed with space since the early days of rocketry though they often confused scientific fact and science fiction. This confusion was amplified in the public, as evidenced along the East Coast in October 1938, when a radio adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds tapped into significant public gullibility. While thousands were panicked by the fear of invasion from Mars, the lure of space and space travel was already a staple of film, notably through Fritz Lang’s 1929 classic Frau im Mond, as well as the fiction of HG Wells and Jules Verne.
On both sides of the Atlantic, comic books glamorised space adventure. In the UK, The Eagle led each week with the Dan Dare, pilot of the future - while his stories were also voiced each night on Radio Luxembourg in a popular radio series. In the US, Buck Rogers ruled the airwaves and the syndicated comic strips. More serious science fiction was flourishing with iconic titles such Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, capturing the public imagination. But the 1950s also saw the rise of popular science on television and at the fore was the inventor of the V2 rocket, and SS Major, Werner Von Braun.
By the mid 50s, he was a US citizen and had been working for the US Army for almost a decade. The first half of that spell had seen little advance in rocketry in the US as Truman’s policies had focused on an aircraft-based nuclear strike force. And Von Braun’s media activities were focused as much on his bosses as the American public as the rocket scientist lobbied for more funding and status for missile – and by implication space rocket – research. An opportunity to work with Walt Disney on national television network ABC did much to raise Von Braun’s profile while cementing the potential of spaceflight as an aspiration for America.
The growth of TV as the mass media of choice, especially in America was phenomenal in the 1950s and early ‘60s. In 1950 fewer than 8% of American families owned TV sets. By 1954, more than half had televisions. By 1957, 78% of families were set owners, and by 1964, almost everyone - 92% of families had become TV viewers. New channels demanded factual content to balance the family entertainment of Lassie, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy. News broadcasting changed from newsmen simply reading the news to shows with taped pictures of events from around the world, and then to more and more live broadcasts of events happening at the time of viewing. In the late 1950s, the battle between print and television as the prime medium was at its height. By the mid 1960s, television would be dominant. Sensing the rising influence of the media, Von Braun, frustrated by a lack of support for his team’s rocket development, turned to both magazines and television to wake up the world to the possibilities of space travel. He did not use comic strips or science fiction, but spelled out what could be possible if only government would support his efforts.
In a bid to reinforce the promotion of his new theme park, Walt Disney linked up with ABC to launch a new TV show – Disneyland – in 1954. The format varied each week, ranging from animations to science instruction programmes. By 1955 it was ranked by TV pollsters Nielsen as the fourth most popular show across the nation. Disney had read Von Braun’s series of articles in Collier’s Magazine, where the rocket engineer had sought to spread the space exploration gospel. The articles prompted two spin-off books, Across the Space Frontier in 1952 and Conquest of the Moon a year later. Von Braun was being seen and heard at many more space-related events. His biographer, Bob Ward, notes that he hit the speechmaking trail in the early 1950s, and would accept invitations from “any semi-respectable group that would invite him.” With his charm, quirky German accent, opinion on everything and mission to explain, he became an obvious choice for Disney. Disney was not being altruistic: he was looking for a scientist to ally with his soon-to-be-opened ‘Tomorrowland’ at his California theme park. Von Braun opened with a documentary Man in Space, following with Man and the Moon and Mars and beyond. All three programmes received excellent viewing figures in the US and were significant in building the momentum to educate Americans in the wonders of the coming space age.
Von Braun was convinced he had the technology and capability to put the first object into space, and appeared to have the opportunity to do as a response to Eisenhower’s 1954 announcement of the International Geophysical Year, planned to run not for a year, but from July 1 1957 to December 1 1958 . This was Eisenhower’s effort to differentiate a science-(and civilian) based space exploration effort from the missile race he was at pains to avoid. The President encapsulated his attitude in 1960.Responding to a press question asking whether he felt any sense of urgency to catch-up the Russians’ missile development and entry into space, he said: “I am always a little bit amazed at this business of catching up. What you want is enough, a thing that is adequate. A deterrent has no added power, once it has become completely adequate, for compelling the respect of your opponent for your deterrent and, therefore, to make him act prudently.”
Eisenhower’s attitude towards a missile race – and the new forum for Cold War competition that space offered - was a stolid resistance to the demands made often in the media and among his opponents on Capitol Hill to embark on very public, very visible and potentially highly expensive crash programs to compete with the Soviet Union. His economic view on defence spending was close to the parsimony of post-war Truman. Callahan and Greenstein describe it as ‘conservatism along with a strategic doctrine that rejected overkill’. He saw economic peril in every budget increase and was less concerned than many of his contemporaries about the Soviet threat. He was also seemingly unconcerned by ‘prestige’ and the prospective damage to national prestige that being beaten into space by the Soviets might deliver.
His apparent lack of concern came from CIA intelligence reports; not least analysis of the pictures captured by U2 spy plane over-flights of Soviet territory that showed clearly that the Soviets had few ballistic missiles and few, if any, aircraft capable of posing a nuclear threat to the US. So with hindsight, his reaction to the launch of Sputnik 1 is entirely understandable. But Democratic politicians on Capitol Hill did not have that access to intelligence. What they did have was access to the Washington reporters and to every local newspaper and radio station in their locale. And how the likes of Symington, Johnson and even, to an extent, Nixon, chose to fill their days after Sputnik’s beep-beep-beep was first heard - across the world’s radio networks - was by talking to journalists and fanning the flames of a non-existent missile crisis.
It is ironic to note that even in Moscow, the initial media interest in the launch of Sputnik 1 did not capture the significance of the launch and was distinctly low-key. The Soviet public first learned of the “scientific experiment conducted at such a high altitude” through a down-page article on the front of Pravda. The issue that day was led by Marshall Zhukov’s visit to Yugoslavia, and the Sputnik announcement was initially made with no hype, little triumphalism and, under just the terse banner ‘TASS announcement’.
The article stressed the peaceful and scientific nature of the mission and the authorities clearly had not yet seen the propaganda possibilities that the launch offered. It is worth noting that the authorisation to proceed with a Soviet satellite project had come from the Praesidium of the Academy of Sciences on August 30, 1955 . As the proposal was not for a major weapon project, it received lower priority status and this didn’t require approval from the party leadership.
While the Soviets had stated more than a month before that they were ready to launch a satellite , specific details were shrouded in secrecy, with appearing only when Sputnik was safely in orbit broadcasting to the world.
As much is unsaid as said in the article – clearly Sputnik 1 didn’t deliver much in the way of ‘scientific research’. This was merely a step to beat the America into orbit. The Soviets’ chief rocket designer, Korolev had planned to launch Sputnik 1 on October 6th, but learned that the Americans were to present an IGY paper in Washington that night entitled ‘Satellite In Orbit’ . Assuming that this implied a US launch on or just before October 6th, he brought Sputnik’s launch two days forward. However, while this was a simple, stripped down satellite containing little more than a radio transmitter, Korolev launched it into retrograde orbit – travelling east to west. Given that this required a significantly greater thrust to achieve orbit, this was clearly was intended to show the Americans that the Soviet launch vehicle (essentially their ICBM launch vehicle) was more powerful than anything the Americans had or planned.
Pravda’s text is notable in that none of the key figures in the development of the R7 launch vehicle or Sputnik satellite is named – Korolev and his team were deemed to be at risk of kidnap or death by western agents and therefore they were never, in life, given publicity. But most significantly, while the report closes with a generic socialist homily, there is no specific political statement – no message from Khrushchev. This supports the assertion that neither he nor the Politburo saw the political and propaganda significance of this scientific achievement at this stage. According to his son Sergei’ , Khrushchev was in Kiev when he learned of the launch and was certainly not waiting expectantly for any pre-planned outcome.
The reaction in the West over the coming days delighted him; highlighted the significance of the successful launch; and gave him a fantastic propaganda tool for foreign policy. The western world woke up to being over-flown by a Soviet satellite. For Khrushchev, from this night on, the space programme was never about space exploration. It was a bold display of military might meant to match – and indeed top – America’s own frequent displays of firepower.
In response to the launch, US Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson wrote: “Now, somehow, in some new way the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.” Around the world, despite Eisenhower’s apparent calmness, the media response – and public shock - was intense. General James Gavin, a member of the US ICBM development team described it as ‘a technological Pearl Harbour’ – though it of course provided a great lever to swiftly put the US IBCM programme into over-drive. The western media focus was on the possibility of sending not a rocket into space, but a nuclear warhead from Moscow to the west.’ The New York Times screamed with a rarely-used three deck headline: “Soviet Fires Earth Satellite Into Space: It Is Circling The Globe at 18,000mph: Sphere Tracked In 4 Crossings Over US.” When Pravda realised the significance of the launch, it chose not to laud the Soviet achievement directly, but to reproduce stories and headlines from the Western media together with congratulatory messages from the world’s major leaders.
Eisenhower understood better than most the real situation the Soviets were in, but could reveal little of this without undermining US surveillance efforts. He did not comment officially on the launch until October 9th when he issued a statement prior to his White House news conference, congratulating the Soviets for their achievement. But, his composure concealed an ulterior motive. Eisenhower and the U.S. intelligence community had been evaluating proposals for an orbiting military reconnaissance satellite, but had been grappling with the political ramifications of Soviet reaction to over-flights of its territory. The launch of Sputnik effectively ended those concerns, allowing the United States to pursue a policy of space as an ‘open platform,’ establishing that national boundaries did not extend into space. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower's assistant Secretary of Defence, commented to the President on October 7th that the Soviets: “have, in fact, done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space”, a principle which the Soviets could not now refute.
It is worth remarking that Eisenhower waited a full five days after Sputnik 1’s launch to respond to the media and he was taken aback by their hostility at his news conference on October 9th. His belief was that the early hysteria of ill-informed press responses such as the Chicago Tribune’s lead would dissipate once he provided the calm reassurance that had previously been readily accepted by the Washington press corps. Indeed, the President had been used to an easy ride from the press corps. He was still revered as the great war leader and the man who had brought an end to the war in Korea within six months of assuming the presidency. While financially conservative, he had presided over a period of strong economic growth and his approval ratings remained high. As Ambrose said: “Trust Ike was the watchword.” But now he faced journalists ready to ask tough questions and, seemingly, unwilling to believe the administration’s view that Sputnik was just “a silly bauble”.
Ambrose describes the news conference as the most “hostile” Eisenhower faced in his career. And while the transcript clearly shows the 1950s politeness and deference the press was used to operating by, there are some sharp questions that Eisenhower did not deal with particularly effectively. United Press International Reporter Merriman Smith, noting the satellite launch and the Soviet claim to have successfully launched an ICBM – both ahead of the US -challenged the President as to what he was going to do about it. Robert Clark of Associated Press echoed his colleague, asking if the Russians were now ahead of the Americans. ‘Miss May’ Craig, Washington Correspondent for the Portland Marine asked Eisenhower if the satellite gave the Russians the ability to launch missiles from platforms in space, while NBC’s Hazel Markel nailed the country’s concerns, asking: “Are you saying at this time, with the Russian satellite whirling about the world, you are not more concerned or overly concerned about our nation’s security?”
Eisenhower’s response was measured and downplayed – as had been his responses to the previous questions. He had denied the link between the satellite and ICBMs; he had downplayed the Soviet satellite advantage, though he acknowledged it as a psychological success. He had allayed Miss Craig’s fears stating that the satellite was most certainly not a nuclear missile platform, and now sought to allay those of the whole nation. He said: “I see nothing at this moment, at this stage of development that is significant in that development as far as security is concerned.” Indeed, he felt that the Soviets had done little more than ”put one small ball in the air. ”
This set the tone for Eisenhower in the coming weeks as he faced down demands for nuclear shelters, for bombers and more and better bombs, for more missiles and for a sea of dollars to get an American satellite into space even more quickly. For Ambrose it was “one of his finest hours.” Regarding Sputnik coolly, he saw no increased threat. Indeed, at this stage, pouring money into a catch-up satellite programme seemed only an opportunity to build a huge budget deficit in what was likely to be a year of recession anyway. However, the media was rolling Sputnik and a perceived deficit in the missile race into one issue, something Eisenhower would not do. Eisenhower saw military missile development as something entirely separate from a contest in space, and knew that American technology outstripped Russian equivalents in all areas other than a heavy lift ballistic booster. But the public mood was simply not on the same wavelength as the President, and the launch of Sputnik 2 to coincide with the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution caused Eisenhower to modify his response and set the scene for the space race proper .
Sputnik 2 was another propaganda coup for Khrushchev, putting the dog Laika into orbit just a month after Sputnik 1’s launch. Behind the scenes, Eisenhower had been manoeuvring to educate the public beyond the media’s speculation. He still saw no substantiation that the Soviets actually had a workable, accurate and reliable ICBM, and urged both Nixon and Dulles to stress these points. Nixon used this argument in a public speech in San Francisco on October 15th, and Dulles in a meeting with the press a day later. But the facts seemed to refute the administration’s thinking: Sputnik 2 carried a 1,121lb payload, which underscored the strength of the Soviet rockets. The fact its payload was a dog implied the Soviets were focused on manned space flight. Near-hysteria followed in the popular press. Time noted: “The Soviet rocket generated a total thrust more than enough to power an atomic bomb to the moon, more than enough to power a missile around the earth.....In such an apocalyptic week, communism's new coalition of dazzling technology and cutthroat politics represented an epochal threat to the free world.”
Internationally, even sober journals such as Spaceflight, the journal of the British Interplanetary Society, added warnings to the President on the apparent power of the Soviet rockets. “It is… logical to assume that at least in the early development stage (the rocket) was a military project, having as its goal the delivery of an H-bomb warhead over perhaps 5,000 miles.”
Rather than repeat his almost passive response to Sputnik 1, Eisenhower chose to address the nation via television on November 7th. He addressed the fear in people’s minds about national security. In seeking to soothe nation, he said: “We are well ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear field both in quantity and quality. We intend to stay ahead.” In fact, perhaps the greatest consequence of Sputnik’s launch was a redoubling of US efforts to build ICBMs and other nuclear strike forces. The perceived missile gap in favour of Moscow was swiftly replaced by an actual gap in Washington’s favour. Yet even this was not so much an action of Eisenhower, but of a Congressional team led by Johnson looking for a lever to enhance his own standing on the Democratic ticket for the 1960 election, and to ensure the Democrats caught the popular will to beat the Soviets. Following Sputnik 2’s launch, Johnson used the Preparedness Sub-Committee within Congress to “ask the people in charge to tell us...how we can regain the leadership.” Over the next two months, Johnson played the subtle partisan, exposing the Administration’s flaws in developing a credible missile and space programme and enabling him to present himself as the country’s leading advocate for space exploration. This initial investigation led to Johnson’s prime role in 1958 as the architect of the legislation that enabled the creation of NASA.
As owner of a number of TV and radio stations across Texas through Texas Broadcasting (later the LBJ Company) Johnson was certainly the most media-savvy politician at the time. Now he also had an issue to use as his personal battering ram towards the Democratic Presidential nomination. Time reported his addressing the 1958 Democratic Caucus saying: "Our national potential exceeds our national performance. Our science and technology has been, for some time, capable of many of the achievements displayed thus far by Soviet science. That the Soviet achievements are tangible and visible, while ours are not, is a result of policy decisions made within the governments of the respective nations. the evaluation of the importance of the control of outer space made by us has not been based primarily on the judgment of men most qualified to make such an appraisal. Our decisions... have been made within the framework of the Government's annual budget. This control has, again and again, appeared and reappeared as the prime limitation upon our scientific advancement . . . What should be our goal? If, out in space, there is the ultimate position—from which total control of the earth may be exercised—then our national goal and the goal of all free men must be to win and hold that position."
The tone of the Time piece was very favourable towards the Texan Democrat.
Towards the end of 1957, Eisenhower’s approval ratings had fallen from 79% to 57% - by far the lowest rating of his presidency. For once the media appeared to hold the high ground, with the influential weeklies lined up against a perceived slow-moving presidency. Indeed, Time crowned Khrushchev its man of the year for his Sputnik successes. American prestige dropped further with the first test of America’s Vanguard rocket. This was to be launched from Cape Canaveral in a blaze of publicity – literally. For the scientists, this was an merely a staging point on the way to perfecting the Vanguard rocket, but to a public and media stung by America’s second-best status, this ‘launch’ was all about catching up the Soviet space lead – albeit with a 6.5lb satellite. But the US space effort was to be humiliated further when ‘Test Vehicle 3’ exploded four feet off the pad. Thanks to live TV coverage, enabled by the Eisenhower’s demand that International Geophysical Activities be entirely open to public scrutiny, millions watched the unfolding debacle in amazement. The humiliation of the spectacle was global: in London, the Daily Express led next day with the headline: ‘US calls it Kaputnik’. The Daily Herald was no less scathing with: ‘Oh what a flopnik!’ The French were ‘obscure’ with Paris-Journal’s “It seems there is a worm in the grapefruit”, while the US regional dailies could be summed up by the Louisville Courier-Journal which reported: “A shot may be heard around the world, but there are times when a dud is even louder.” At the United Nations, the tongue-in-cheek Soviets asked their American counterparts if the US might wish to receive assistance under the Soviet programme of foreign aid for technical assistance to backward nations.
While America finally lurched into space with Explorer 1 on Von Braun’s Redstone in January 1958, public opinion believed that the US still lagged behind the Soviets. Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader summed up the critical thinking around the public fear of Soviet domination in space. “There is something more important than the ultimate weapon,” Johnson declared. “That is the ultimate position – the position of total control over Earth that lies in outer space.”
While Eisenhower had been willing to let his three armed services compete to develop both satellites and missiles in the hope that competition would bring forth rapid technological advance, the effect had not been what he hoped for. Instead, the administration appeared weak for the first time. Eisenhower looked to have no cohesive space policy; to have lost the lead in the arms race and to have hindered progress in putting the US ahead in space by the very fact he had allowed the US air Force Army and Navy to compete on missile development. Public opinion, fuelled by a critical media, insisted he now had to act decisively to bring coherence to the space programme and a clear separation from what would be seen by the Soviets as aggressive military spending. Eisenhower had already named MIT’s James Killian as Head of the President’s Scientific Advisory Council, bringing all the rival services together under one missile czar. Now, on July 29th 1958 he formally established NASA, building on the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to add “Importantly to our knowledge of the Earth, the Solar System and the Universe.” NASA’s role was to ensure the USA’s leadership in space science, but it would come to life for the American public – and thus be deserving of the necessary federal dollars - only by putting a man in space and, after the Sputnik humiliation, getting there first.
Without the media reaction to Sputnik, it is impossible to think that Eisenhower would have increased US investment in space as quickly or to the extent that he did before his presidency ended. While he was held in huge esteem as a successful war leader, he was the last of the old-school warriors who had fought a war with manpower and aircraft. He was not of the rocket age. It is clear too that much of the action and activity to bring the US into the Space Race was not of Eisenhower’s doing. As Sputnik 1 was followed by the heavier and more complex Sputniks 2 and 3, he was continually urged to respond to the apparent shows of Soviet space might. In setting up NASA as a civilian organisation, he was responding to a suggestion from Vice President Nixon to convert the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics into the civilian and space-science orientated National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Congress supported Nixon’s suggestion and in fact the 1958 Space Bill was drafted and introduced to Congress by the Democrat Senator and Majority Leader, Lyndon B Johnson. With a Presidential election looming in 1960, it is clear that both Nixon and Johnson assessed that space, and closing the rocket and missile gap, would be a leading issue in the debate. As the next chapter will show, both were manoeuvring to be in a strong position to use the space race issue in the fight for the White House.
Yet one should not underrate Eisenhower’s contribution to NASA’s foundation. Nor should one disregard his influence on attempting to win the next lap of the space race, namely putting a man in space. On October 1st 1958, the President removed the task of developing a man in space project from the military and gave it to the fledgling NASA. In less than a year, a sceptical President had created a funded, Congressionally-supported, non-military agency to manage the US’ scientific space efforts. This immediately put clear space between the peaceful exploration of space and military defence – where a parallel missile programme continued largely beyond the reach of the media and immediate interest of the public.
The newly-emerging US space programme was building on four foundations defined by the President’s Space Advisory Committee, namely: man’s thrust of curiosity; national defence; national prestige and scientific growth. Each was to play a strong role in Johnson and Nixon’s presidential aspirations, but found their true articulation with Kennedy. Meanwhile, the harsh military undertones of stockpiling ballistic missiles and developing ever-more refined launchers was seen as very different from NASA’s activities – despite the fact that they shared the same core technologies, research programmes and even launch sites. Yet while the nation was to back Kennedy in his drive to remove the perceived ‘missile gap’, it also saw an urgency not to win the Cold War with warheads, but through the prestige of winning the race to put man in space. With Congressional support, Eisenhower had provided the means to achieve this. Yet it was the media which provided the catalyst for him to act in the first place.