Recall and remembrance in Rocket City
by Dwayne A. Day
|Space anniversaries often prove to be a dilemma for historians. On the one hand, they present an opportunity for them to interact with a broader segment of the public than they normally do. But on the other hand, they tend to be organized by people who are less interested in chasing historical truth than in celebration.|
On January 31, 2008, “Rocket City,” otherwise known as the city of Huntsville, Alabama, hosted two events to commemorate the Explorer 1 anniversary. The first was a symposium looking at the past, present, and future of human spaceflight. The second event was a gala dinner held in the newly opened Davidson Center for Space Exploration that houses the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s beautifully restored Saturn V rocket. The two events were complementary, but in some ways typify the inherent tensions of commemorating an anniversary.
The symposium was titled “50th Anniversary of America in Space” and was held in the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville. Wernher von Braun is a hometown hero for Huntsville, their patron saint of the space race, and residents constantly refer to him reverently as “Dr. von Braun.”
The audience consisted of approximately 400–600 people—an impressive turnout even if perhaps a third of them consisted of captive high school students reluctantly bussed in for the event. Apparently the symposium also conflicted with a commemorative event held on the Army’s nearby Redstone Arsenal, which was responsible for Explorer 1. But considering the relative size of Huntsville itself, a turnout of several hundred people for nearly an entire day was an impressive achievement.
Symposium organizer Ralph Petroff started the day’s events by introducing the first panel’s two moderators. One was Fred Ordway III, co-author of A History of Rocketry and Space Travel, one of the early seminal books on American spaceflight, and also well-known as a technical advisor to the highly influential 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The other moderator was George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society. Ordway introduced Konrad Dannenberg, a deputy project manager on the Saturn V and one of the few remaining original members of von Braun’s “Rocket Team.”
Dannenberg stated that when Sputnik 1 was placed into orbit, the incoming Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy, just happened to be touring the Redstone Arsenal and meeting with the commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency General Bruce Medaris, Wernher von Braun, and several others. Von Braun immediately recognized his opportunity and informed McElroy that his team could place an American satellite in orbit in sixty days. Medaris intervened and suggested that ninety days was a more realistic target. McElroy gave them the approval and they ultimately managed to achieve the goal with Explorer 1 just ahead of their deadline.
In fact, von Braun had been secretly working to develop his own satellite and space rocket after losing the competition to build the American “scientific satellite” in 1955. He could offer an optimistic estimate because—violating Department of Defense orders and probably misappropriating government funds—he had already built some of the necessary hardware and had a rocket in storage. In 1956 and 1957 he had lobbied the Department of Defense to reverse the decision, to no avail. Now he finally had his chance.
Dannenberg also said that in retrospect, it was good that von Braun and the Army team had lost the 1955 selection. Had he succeeded, the United States probably would have launched the first satellite into space—to little fanfare. Without the controversy surrounding the United States being “beaten” by the national of peasants and tractor builders, it is unlikely that as much money would have ultimately flowed into the American space program. There may have been no NASA, and no Apollo lunar program, Dannenberg speculated.
Next up was myself. My talk compared Wernher von Braun’s well-known space vision and advocacy during the period after World War 2 leading up to Explorer 1, with the much less well-known Air Force studies of space flight that were conducted primarily by the RAND Corporation and remained largely classified until the 1990s.
The von Braun vision was bold, optimistic, exciting, and above all very public, aired in a series of national magazine articles and humorous documentaries produced by Walt Disney. It was also largely engineering fantasy that created totally unrealistic expectations in the American public and among at least two generations of engineers who joined the American space program. In contrast, the RAND studies were highly secret, but focused upon real military requirements, like reconnaissance and meteorology, and eventually communications and missile warning.
Looking back on these two visions today, the contrast could not be more startling: most of what Wernher von Braun envisioned and advocated, from wheeled space stations to lunar bases and human missions to Mars, never happened, at least not in the way he proposed, whereas much of what the Air Force and RAND envisioned did happen, and is still with us today. Historians tend to focus on the public nature of von Braun’s advocacy, failing to recognize that he was so public in part because he was so unsuccessful at selling his vision to his military bosses.
|Most of what Wernher von Braun envisioned and advocated, from wheeled space stations to lunar bases and human missions to Mars, never happened, at least not in the way he proposed, whereas much of what the Air Force and RAND envisioned did happen, and is still with us today.|
My talk also addressed the subject of how the U.S. “scientific satellite program” was initiated to establish the right of American military spacecraft to fly over the Soviet Union—the so-called “Freedom of Space” policy first enumerated by a CIA official named Richard Bissell. (See: “Tinker, tailor, satellite, spy,” The Space Review, October 29, 2007, and “Bissell’s people,” November 5, 2007) The Eisenhower administration created a special committee to evaluate proposals for the satellite program and the two key competitors were the Naval Research Laboratory and its Vanguard proposal, and the Army’s “Project Orbiter” proposal led by von Braun’s Rocket Team.
Without much time, I then quickly segued into a brief discussion of what I consider to be several myths about the early space age:
On that last point, I briefly touched on Michael Neufeld’s observation that what many people miss in hindsight is that the Project Orbiter proposed in mid-1955 was not the same as Explorer 1 launched in January 1958. Von Braun’s 1955 proposal was weak, and Pentagon evaluators were concerned that even if the tiny Orbiter had reached orbit, it might be impossible for its builders to detect it.
After my brief talk, Ordway asked Konrad Dannenberg for his comments and Dannenberg agreed with a number of my statements. He added that von Braun’s team never considered the Vanguard to be a bad rocket. Its primary problem was that it never had a chance to be sufficiently tested before it was pressed into service for a high-profile launch.
Next up was NASA chief historian Steven Dick, who talked about the iconic photograph of Wernher von Braun, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director William Pickering, and scientist James van Allen holding aloft a mockup of Explorer 1 at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC only a few hours after the successful launch. He called it probably the most famous American photograph of the early space age, noting that it was more famous than photographs of the actual Explorer 1 launch. Dick also showed several versions of the photograph, taken from different angles. One of these included a fourth person, a scientist who had a meteorite detector experiment aboard Explorer 1 and who is virtually unknown today.
The press conference was a carefully staged event, Dick explained. Organizers had deliberately picked the National Academy of Sciences building rather than the Pentagon or the White House, in order to emphasize the civilian scientific nature of the American satellite. Notably all three men in the photograph were civilians wearing suits, not military men in uniform—General Medaris was deliberately absent. Von Braun had been told ahead of time that during the launch he had to be in Washington, and not where he would have preferred to be, at the Florida launch site, with his rocket.
Much of Dick’s talk focused on William Pickering, who had been born in New Zealand and educated in the United States, eventually rising to run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and transform it from a facility primarily serving Army requirements to a premier scientific and engineering establishment serving civilian space exploration goals. A recent biography of Pickering recounts how he was chauffeured to the NAS building in the cold Washington rain at 2 am, expecting to brief a nearly empty room of a few reporters. Instead it was a mob scene, and the tired men faced an enthusiastic crowd excited that the United States was finally in the space race. Dick concluded by noting that in the past year excellent biographies had been published on all three men—Pickering, van Allen, and von Braun.
Smithsonian Institution historian and curator (and former NASA chief historian) Roger Launius followed. Launius’ talk focused on the cultural events surrounding the launch of Sputnik and the space age. He showed a picture of the front page of the New York Times the day after Sputnik launched. The Soviet achievement occupied the banner headline at the top. But he also pointed out other events that day, including an article about Jimmy Hoffa’s leadership of the Teamsters, and a second-page article about the premier of a new television show named Leave It to Beaver.
Political cartoonists had a field day with the Soviet achievement, and one cartoon depicted Soviet Premier Nikhita Khrushchev on the golf course, having just hit Sputnik into orbit, a sly criticism of Dwight Eisenhower who was ridiculed for playing golf while the Soviet Union surged ahead in the Cold War. The reality was much more complex, Launius noted, and Eisenhower was not a disengaged, uninformed leader, but had been firmly in control of his government while cultivating a public persona intended to make people underestimate him, which they did. Despite this, Eisenhower himself had underestimated the American and world public reaction to the Soviet accomplishment.
Launius finished by showing another political cartoon depicting Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson lighting fuses for two rockets, one for the American space program, and another to boost himself into orbit as well—Johnson was interested in space and beating the Soviets, but he also saw the space race as a means to increase his own profile and position himself in a run for the presidency.
|Dannenberg said that in retrospect, it was good that von Braun and the Army team had lost the 1955 selection. Had he succeeded, the United States probably would have launched the first satellite into space—to little fanfare.|
One subject missing from the panel was a discussion of what Explorer 1 actually accomplished in space. It confirmed the existence of what came to be known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts, but what exactly are they and what do they do? That’s the kind of subject that is difficult to explain to a public, non-scientific audience (and was well explained during a two-day Huntsville conference sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), but its omission here was somewhat glaring. It also was not totally unexpected: Huntsville and the Marshall Space Flight Center have primarily focused upon building rockets to get people and spacecraft into orbit, and its personnel have spent considerably less time and effort concerned with what they are actually supposed to do there. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a two-day educator’s symposium the same week as the Huntsville events, but even if that event focused more heavily on space science, it was a separate event, held on the other side of the country.
After the panel, Ralph Petroff introduced a special guest, Natalia Koroleva, a medical doctor and daughter of Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev. Koroleva was greeted with a standing ovation and then gave a brief speech. The event organizers brought over models of both Sputnik and Explorer 1. Koroleva posed for photos with the Sputnik model. As one of the last surviving members of von Braun’s Rocket Team, the 95-year-old Dannenberg was asked to pose with the mockup raised over his head like the famous photo, assisted by Ordway and Whitesides. (Concerned that they might drop the mockup on my head, I gracelessly moved to the other end of the table—ensuring that I was not in the photograph that appeared in the Huntsville Times the next day.)