Review: Satellites, Rockets, and Eisenhower
Developing the spy satellite
Eisenhower’s instincts must have warned him that the U-2 was, at best, a temporary solution. For the long term, he had already ordered the development of the first spy satellites. The US had, in fact, been studying such satellites since the end of World War Two.
Taubman points out that the first satellite engineering study done by RAND was, “...by the technological yardsticks of 1946...a remarkably bold and visionary document.” Like so many of the advanced technology projects of that era, these studies were inspired and supported by General Hap Arnold, who had led America’s Army Air Forces in World War Two. Taubman describes the studies, some of them remarkably prescient, done between 1946 and 1954, but he does not mention the hostility that such ideas, based on the use of powerful rockets, aroused in the Truman administration.
Vannevar Bush, the influential head of the Carnegie Foundation, who had been FDR’s principal science advisor, was strongly prejudiced against missiles, and what he termed “Push Button Warfare.” As a prominent skeptic, with an immense store of credibility, he was able to delay any serious investment in long-range heavy rocket development. Under the Truman administration, military budget cuts, the debate over the foundation of the Department of Defense and other priorities led to the loss of the lead that America thought it had in missile and rocket development.
The 1954, TCP had advised Eisenhower to begin work on the spy satellite program. As with the U-2, Bissel was made supervisor, as Eisenhower did not want the Air Force to have a monopoly over this source of intelligence. The collection and interpretation of what came to be known as strategic photo intelligence, from both the U-2 and Corona, eventually was placed above a Ford dealership on 5th Street and New York Avenue in Northwest Washington.
After discarding the idea that the satellite could develop its own film and transmit the results down to earth by video, Bissel’s team decided that the spacecraft would have to be equipped with a re-entry capsule that would be slowed by parachute, after passing through the upper atmosphere. The capsule would then be snatched in mid air, by specially equipped C-119 transports, and then sent to Washington where the film would be processed and analyzed.
Using mid-1950s technology, this was a task of unprecedented complexity. Bissel’s team had to invent new types of film and to perfect the ablative shielding later used on the early Mercury capsules. Above all, they built the first truly complex spacecraft that would automatically and reliably perform an intricate series of tasks, largely using mechanical control systems.
The Corona satellites are the ancestors of not only the civil and military remote sensing satellites of today, but also of the complex interplanetary probes that are scouting the solar system. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers that were launched this summer can trace their origins to the expertise acquired by US industry in building the CIA’s “eye in the sky.”
In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Taubman correctly calls that event a “humiliating defeat for the United States.” Eisenhower’s first reaction was to play down the achievement. He seriously underestimated the psychological impact of what had happened. It was not just that people overseas saw this as a triumph for Soviet science but, at home, Americans were shocked and disappointed that a rival nation had beaten them into space. The President’s approval rating dropped 20 points practically overnight.
Sputnik had the effect of accelerating the effort to build the spy satellite. Taubman ignores the historical controversy over whether Eisenhower deliberately allowed the USSR to fly first, in order to establish the principal of free passage through outer space. If the US did not complain when Sputnik passed over the US, how could the Soviets complain when a US spy satellite passed over their homeland? Most historians now believe that the President was thinking along these lines, as a consequence of his Open Skies proposal, but that he did not deliberately hold back US space efforts. Instead, the brakes were put on Wernher von Braun’s team due to the Administration’s desire to see the first satellite launched by the ostensibly civilian Vanguard project, managed by the Navy.
After Sputnik the US went through a period of self-doubt and reform that touched on everything, from new funding for science education, to the critiques of tail fins on cars as symbols of national decadence. The Democrats raised the issue of the “Missile Gap,” symbolizing how Eisenhower had neglected America’s defenses. After Sputnik, it seemed an unanswerable indictment. The famous Herblock cartoon that showed a smiling Khrushchev in an Ike-like golfing outfit, having just hit a ball into orbit, was a perfect image for the opposition.
Yet Eisenhower, and those who had access to the information development from the U-2 over flights, and other sources, including some senior Democrats, knew it was untrue. Like the Bomber Gap, it was a illusion promoted more by the Soviets desire to intimidate the West than by the military industrial complex, which had its hands full designing and building the prototype aircraft, missiles and other systems that the Eisenhower administration had ordered. Taubman is not about to say, flat out, that Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was built on a lie. Taubman merely lays out the facts and allows his readers to draw the implications.
In his last chapter, Taubman does a fair job of laying out some of the problems that exist inside today’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It was only a little more than a decade ago that the US government actually admitted the existence of this organization. Nowadays, at conferences, they hand out free pens that read, “Your Line to Security—NRO Customer Support Center.” For the last decade, they have been trying to develop a new generation of imagery satellites. The reckless “can do” spirit of men, like Richard Bissel, Edwin Land and Bernard Schriever seems sadly lacking. Peter Teets, Rumsfeld’s space czar and head of NRO, may have one of the toughest jobs in Washington.