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LBJ at NASA
Lyndon B. Johnson helped establish NASA and kick off the Space Race, only to bring the race to an end within a decade. (credit: NASA)

LBJ’s Space Race: what we didn’t know then (part 1)

Few people today realize or remember, but a single man, Lyndon Baines Johnson, “LBJ”, is primarily responsible for both starting and ending “The Space Race”.

In 1957 and 1958, Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader and leader of the Democratic political opposition to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, created such a controversy over the USSR’s launch of Sputnik that Eisenhower was forced into a public space race he didn’t want. That race led to the amazing accomplishments of the next ten years, including the first human landings on the Moon.

Almost a decade later, Johnson was forced to virtually shut down the program he had worked so hard to sell to the government and to the public. By 1966 and 1967, Johnson, then President, desperately needed to cut expenditures to pay for the escalating Vietnam War. So he proposed to the leaders of the Soviet Union that they agree to a treaty, which became the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to eliminate the key prizes to be won in the space race, especially the right of either nation to claim the Moon. That allowed both sides to move expensive space development to the back burner—where it has stayed ever since.

The missile race: Prelude to the Space Race

The story really starts in the aftermath of World War 2 when the US and the USSR each grabbed half of the German rocket program and launched vigorous rocket programs of their own. The US had bases in allied countries surrounding the USSR, from which they could, if they ever needed to, launch a massive nuclear air strike. The USSR had no bases near the US, however, so it needed much bigger, longer range rockets than the US did.

Few people today realize or remember, but a single man, Lyndon Baines Johnson, “LBJ”, is primarily responsible for both starting and ending “The Space Race”.

While the Soviets could get all the intelligence they wanted from Communist agents in America’s open society, the US had a desperate need for intelligence about what was going on inside the USSR’s closed society. Most particularly, the US wanted to know how the Soviet nuclear and ICBM programs were progressing. The US first tried sending high altitude balloons over the USSR and then high altitude airplanes such as the U-2, but the balloons went where the winds took them so they could not be directed to collect information about specific targets. The U-2 solved that problem, but its big weakness became all too obvious on May 1, 1960 when the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down. Powers was held in prison for two years until 1962, when he was exchanged for Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in the most dramatic East-West spy swap of the Cold War.

Even in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, long before Sputnik, the RAND project, the key government think tank, was secretly recommending to the US government a major effort to design a man-made satellite that would take photographs from space—and the rockets to put such a satellite in orbit. In December, 1953, the US Air Force pulled together all its various satellite efforts into a single program known as WS-117L. In October, 1956, the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. got the first WS-117L production contract. However, a big diplomatic problem associated with aerial surveillance worried President Eisenhower and held back the spy satellite program.

The Soviet Union loudly protested that US “weather research” balloons were floating across their territory even though the altitude of the balloons was a very high 25,000 meters. The protest was based on the then current “ad coelum” theory that a nation’s sovereignty extends above its territory “to the heavens”. (New York Times, September 14, 1959, pg. 1). Obviously, such objections would apply even more to any spy satellites that were to go over the Soviet Union every hour and a half, on a clearly predictable schedule.

Sputnik: a Soviet blunder?

But then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union—as part of the “International Geophysical Year”—used one of those big ICBM rockets it had been developing to launch Sputnik 1, an 83-kilogram aluminum sphere that did little more than emit radio beeps. Eisenhower was secretly thrilled! Now the US could go full steam ahead on its top secret spy satellite project, called “Corona”. By being the first to launch a satellite, the Soviets had lost their ability to object diplomatically.

At the suggestion of George Reedy, Staff Director of the Democratic Policy Committee, Lyndon Johnson started making a fuss about Sputnik and its implications for US security.

Eisenhower, though, was in an awkward position. He couldn’t very well crow about what he saw as a Soviet blunder because the very idea of spy satellites was still one of America’s biggest secrets. So he just tried to brush off the launch of Sputnik as unimportant. As the New York Times put it on October 13th, (way back on page 181): “President Eisenhower expressed no alarm over the incident” and added that “this country has never been in ‘a race’”. Even the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made light of Sputnik’s significance. The same Times article reported that, when asked if he had witnessed the takeoff, Khrushchev replied:

No, I didn’t see it. When the satellite was launched, they phoned me that the rocket had taken the right course and that the satellite was already revolving around the earth. I congratulated the …engineers and technicians …and calmly went to bed.

The Washington Post, (October 10, 1957, pg A14), ran an article on the President’s position headlined “On Refusing to Race”.

Clearly, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev expected Sputnik to have its 15 minutes of fame and then fade to a footnote in the history books.

Firing up the Space Race

Lyndon Johnson changed everything. At the suggestion of George Reedy, Staff Director of the Democratic Policy Committee, (who in a 1992 oral history interview with John Logsdon credited a retired senatorial aide named Charles S. Brewton for the original idea), Johnson started making a fuss about Sputnik and its implications for US security.

According to Robert Divine’s The Johnson Years, Reedy sent LBJ a long memo, urging him “to plunge heavily into this one”. Besides being very good politics for LBJ and the Democrats, Reedy said, “The Russians have left the earth, and the race for control of the universe has started.” Reedy argued that the nation that could conquer outer space would dominate the world of the future. “This may be one of those moments in history,” said Reedy, “when good politics and statesmanship are as close to each other as a hand in a glove.”

Johnson, recognizing the political opportunity, jumped in with both feet.

The New York Times for November 23, 1957 (pg 7) headlined “Johnson Outlines Broad Agenda for Senate Inquiry on Missiles”, and “Hearing to Open Monday to Stress Need of Speed.”

The article was referring to planned hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s specially re-activated Preparedness Subcommittee—which Johnson, although he was the Majority Leader of the Senate, was planning to actually chair himself. “As chairman of the inquiry,” the article noted, “the Senate Democratic leader reported that it would cover such matters as ‘our record of consistent underestimation’ of the Soviet program, the Government’s ‘lack of willingness to take proper risks’”.

Only a month earlier, President Eisenhower had said the US was not in a space race, and is supposed to have commented, “Lyndon Johnson can keep his head in the stars if he wants. I’m going to keep my feet on the ground.” But Johnson was going to force Eisenhower into a space race, whether the President liked it or not.

Beware the “Masters of Infinity”: the Space Race is born

By the time the hearings finished six weeks later, on January 8, 1958, even the New York Times was using the “Space Race” phrase. Their headline that day read “Text of Johnson’s Statement on Status of Nation’s Defense and Race for Space”. The Washington Post that day headlined “Free World Must Control Space, Johnson tells Senate Group”.

In his subcommittee’s detailed summary statement Johnson proclaimed that our very future depended on being the ones who first seized ownership of space. “Control of space means control of the world,” Johnson declared.

From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.

Johnson continued:

In essence, the Soviet Union has appraised control of space as a goal of such consequence that achievement of such control has been made a first aim of national policy. [In contrast], our decisions, more often than not, have been made within the framework of the Government’s annual budget. Against this view, we now have on record the appraisal of leaders in the field of science, respected men of unquestioned competence, whose valuation of what control of outer space means renders irrelevant the bookkeeping concerns of fiscal officers.

Those words and that sentiment—that control of space was worth busting the budget for—led to the tremendous increase in space spending in the years ahead, and the wonderful accomplishments that spending paid for. But those words may well have come to haunt Johnson when, as we shall see, he personally led a reversal of that course less than a decade later.

That sentiment—that control of space was worth busting the budget for—led to the tremendous increase in space spending in the years ahead, and the wonderful accomplishments that spending paid for.

There is another point worth making about Johnson’s statement. After the space race ended, some people tried to pretend that the reason for the race had been only the question of “national prestige”. However, nowhere in his lengthy and detailed subcommittee statement summarizing the risks of Soviet dominance in space did Johnson so much as mention the question of national prestige! To him, and the Congress he led, the issue was entirely who would win and own outer space. As Johnson put it bluntly, if it weren’t for the importance of controlling space then we “might dismiss the sputniks as play toys.”

Missiles from the Moon, the ultimate high ground

On its front page of January 29, 1958, the Washington Post headlined “Expert Sees Moon As Rocket Base”. It said,

The Air Force’s top space expert predicted yesterday the moon will be a military rocket base for either Russia or the US within 10 years. Brig. Gen. Homer A. Boushey, deputy director of Air Force research and Development said the moon will provide a “base of unequaled advantage” for raining “sure and massive destruction” on earth.

The General said “he fully supports the view that ‘He who controls the moon, controls the Earth.’”

The widely-respected foreign affairs expert C. L Sulzberger wrote an analysis of General Boushey’s views in the New York Times on March 24 that concluded,

Such concepts are fantastic but no longer fanciful. And their potential military implication is immense. Manned platforms in outer space or missile ramps upon the moon would give the controlling nation a seemingly overwhelming advantage from which to dictate.

How could Congress not give the Space Race whatever funding it needed?

The US plays some serious catch-up

On January 21, 1959, the first attempt to launch a rocket designed to carry the Corona spy satellite, (called Discoverer 1 to hide its real purpose), ended in failure 60 minutes before blastoff. Twelve more tries, generally failures of one sort or another, followed. But, perhaps spurred on by Johnson’s pressure, Eisenhower stuck with the program. Finally, on the fourteenth try, August 19, 1959, the first fully successful Corona mission, Discoverer 14, was launched, with almost no public fanfare.

All these early Soviet successes prompted significant fears that the Soviets might actually claim ownership of the Moon!

The returning capsule, containing nearly10 kilograms of film and suspended from a parachute, was snatched from midair by an Air Force C-119 aircraft. That first successful Corona satellite alone returned more photos of the Soviet Union than the 24 combined U-2 spy missions and the images, although fuzzier than U-2 photographs, covered areas of the Soviet Union never reached by the spy planes. On December 10, 1959, the 18th Discoverer achieved the second truly successful mission and returned 18 kilograms of film filled with images from an improved camera, the KH-2.

Still, the US continued to lag behind those big Soviet ICBM rockets. On January 4, 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 1 made the first lunar flyby. On September 14, 1959, Luna 2 was the first spacecraft to hit the surface of the Moon. The first US spacecraft to hit the Moon, Ranger 4, wasn’t launched until April 23, 1962, two and half years after Luna 2 did it.

The US fears the Soviets might claim the ultimate high ground

All these Soviet successes prompted significant fears that the Soviets might actually claim ownership of the Moon!

On March 7, 1959, six months before Luna 2 actually hit the Moon, the New York Times published an article headlined: “US Bars Haste on Moon Claims”. It said: “The State Department’s legal adviser said today that the Soviet Union would have to do considerably more than ‘stick a Red flag in the ground’ to be able to claim sovereignty over the moon.” State’s Loftus Becker told the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration that “there is considerably more to establishing sovereignty than” planting a flag and that “a large body of law already existed, which, could be expected to govern man in space just as it did on earth.” Presumably, although he didn’t actually say so, this meant that the State Department believed the Soviets would actually have to put a man on the Moon to claim it. However, the legal advisor added, “the Soviet Union, so far had shown no signs of cooperation” in reaching an agreement on just what was required to establish sovereignty, and, in fact, Moscow had indicated it would boycott the upcoming UN Space Law Committee’s discussions of the subject.

On September 14, 1959, when the USSR’s Luna 2 did hit the Moon, the Times ran a front page article headlined “US Rejects Any Flag-Planting As Legal Claim to Rule Moon”. Although the US believed planting a flag wasn’t enough, it said, “John M. Raymond, deputy legal advisor to the State Department said in Washington yesterday that the United States had ‘no views on how far you would have to go’ to claim moon sovereignty, as yet”.

William A. Hyman, a prominent space lawyer, was quoted as saying that, although they had previously taken a different position “it would not be surprising to hear [the Soviets] say that if the satellite made physical contact with the moon, they would then claim they had extended sovereignty to the lunar sphere.” However, he added, “‘the civilized world’ has largely adopted the attitude set forth by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes in 1924 that there must also be occupation with an intent to make it permanent.”

As Vice President, then President, Johnson nurses the Space Race

Lyndon Johnson campaigned for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960 but had to settle for the second slot behind John F. Kennedy. Their big issue was “The Missile Gap”—the charge that the Eisenhower administration had cut military spending so much that they had allowed the Russians to get far ahead of us in missiles and space. Eisenhower offered to give Kennedy a secret intelligence briefing on why that really wasn’t such a problem, but Kennedy declined—and won the election. “The missile gap” issue somehow disappeared after the election.

Johnson continued Kennedy’s dedication to the Moon landing, saying “I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon”.

Once president, Kennedy put Vice President Johnson in personal charge of the space program. By all accounts he took the job seriously and was a very good manager. The only significant black spot was the persistent but possibly unfounded rumor that he made a personal fortune on land deals related to the establishment of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now called the Johnson Space Center) near Houston, in his home state of Texas.

In May, 1961, shortly after the first American in space, Alan Shepard, finished his suborbital flight, President Kennedy, with strong support from Johnson, committed his nation to being first on the Moon. Lyndon Johnson became President on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was shot, and won reelection on his own in 1964. Of course, as the founder and head cheerleader of the Space Race, Johnson continued Kennedy’s dedication to the Moon landing, saying “I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon”.

Under Johnson’s full backing as President, the space program thrived, and, nourished by the competitive space race, accomplished amazing and wonderful things for all humanity during those years.

Until 1966.


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