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Richard Bissell
Richard Bissell in Berlin. He played a key role in early American space policy by promulgating the concept of “freedom of space”, essential for satellite reconnaissance. (credit: CIA)

Tinker, tailor, satellite, spy

The Central Intelligence Agency gets blamed for many bad things. It gets far less credit for good things. One thing that the CIA has not gotten credit for—because it has been kept secret for five decades—is that the agency was responsible for the United States’ first space policy, and ultimately, the American civilian satellite program.

The first American space policy was conceived by a CIA official named Richard Bissell. Bissell may not be a household name, but is known to intelligence historians and both airplane aficionados and conspiracy theorists. He was the man in charge of the U-2 and the Mach 3 Blackbird spyplane programs, the Corona reconnaissance satellite, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Some conspiracists believe he played a role in President Kennedy’s assassination.

Bissell, it is now clear, was also the person who thought up the idea that Earth orbit should be free territory, open to any country that placed a satellite there. This idea, known as “freedom of space” or alternatively “right of overflight,” was the first American space policy, and Bissell has never received credit for it, but the documentary evidence is definitive, although it may be incomplete.

The Good Shepherd

Bissell is little known today, and in fact was little known in his day, outside of select circles: today those groups are intelligence and aircraft historians, but in the 1950s they were populated by intelligence bureaucrats and the Washington power brokers. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas profiled Bissell in his 1996 book The Very Best Men. Bissell’s memoirs, Reflections of a Cold Warrior, co-written by Jonathan E. Lewis and Frances T. Pudlo, were also published in 1996 (but, like many memoirs, contained several omissions or distortions, undoubtedly attributed to the failures of memory). Neither book mentioned Bissell’s role in early American space policy.

Bissell, it is now clear, was also the person who thought up the idea that Earth orbit should be free territory, open to any country that placed a satellite there.

Bissell was in many ways a typical CIA official of the 1950s, like a character out of the 2006 movie The Good Shepherd, or a John le Carre novel. A frumpy man in ill-fitting suits as an adult, he was born into a wealthy New England family—his father was president of an insurance company—and attended Groton and then Yale. He earned a Ph.D. in economics from Yale in 1939 and during World War 2 he worked as a civilian on logistics issues such as how to most efficiently move supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. After World War 2 he played an important role in the Marshall Plan rebuilding Europe. By the early 1950s he seemed headed to an academic career as a professor at MIT, but he met Allen Dulles’s sister, who then worked at the State Department and who suggested that he meet with Dulles about a possible job. In early 1954 Bissell joined the CIA as a special assistant to Dulles, a job with no clearly defined duties. Bissell soon became involved in numerous clandestine projects, including directing propaganda programs aimed at overthrowing the Arbenz government in Guatemala—something that many senior government officials considered to be a highly successful project at the time. By the fall, he turned his attentions to aerial reconnaissance, eventually becoming one of the pioneers of American strategic reconnaissance during the Cold War.

History and historiography

The freedom of space theory is relatively simple: the Eisenhower administration, acting upon the advice of the ad hoc civilian Technological Capabilities Panel in early 1955, approved the “Scientific Satellite Program” as an ostensibly civilian effort to establish the legal right to overfly foreign territory during the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958. This was intended to happen before the United States launched any military spacecraft and therefore establish a precedent that military spacecraft—particularly intelligence spacecraft (i.e. spy satellites)—could later exploit.

The Technological Capabilities Panel was established in 1954 by President Eisenhower out of his existing Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization. The TCP, as it is most commonly known by historians, was created to address the subject of surprise attack on the United States. It was essentially Eisenhower’s response to the growing perception among his advisors that the hydrogen bomb and long-range delivery systems such as bombers and missiles posed an increasing danger to the previously largely invulnerable United States. The TCP consisted of a number of senior American scientists who are considered legendary by scholars of American science, defense, and intelligence history. These include Edwin “Din” Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera (a term that is probably alien to anybody under the age of 25 these days), and James Killian, the first presidential science advisor and later the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many of these same men (and they were all men) later went on to serve on Eisenhower’s famed President’s Scientific Advisory Panel, or PSAC (pronounced “p-sak”) formed after Sputnik as a response to the near-hysteria that raged about the loss of American scientific and technological leadership.

It may seem odd today, but at one time scientists had direct access to the president and substantial influence on presidential decision making. As historians H.W. Brands, Michael S. Sherry, and Richard V. Damms have all noted, Eisenhower, who warned in his farewell address about the military industrial complex and the emergence of the “scientific-technological elite,” was in fact more responsible than any other president for creating the environment in which that scientific-technological elite thrived and influenced national policy.

In mid-February 1955 the TCP issued its report to President Eisenhower. The most well-known result of the report was Eisenhower’s decision to increase support for several ballistic missile programs, including the Atlas ICBM and the Jupiter and Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (or IRBMs). Other projects received increased support as a result of the TCP, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

It may seem odd today, but at one time scientists had direct access to the president and substantial influence on presidential decision making.

The most sensitive part of the report, however, was the intelligence section. Whereas most of the TCP report was released during the 1970s and 1980s, the intelligence section of the report was not declassified until the late 1990s (as a result of my request—although many had requested it before and been denied).

Because this key aspect of the report was not released until relatively recently, its influence has been less well known than the other sections of the report. Over time, several historians have explored the events concerning the first American space policy.

Historiography and history

In the mid-1980s Walter McDougall and the late Stephen Ambrose both developed the freedom of space theory, that the civilian satellite program approved within the highest reaches of the US government in spring 1955, was intended to establish the right of overflight of foreign territory by spacecraft during the International Geophysical Year. Ambrose and McDougall based their theory upon a cryptic, and then partially classified, document produced by Eisenhower’s National Security Council, known as NSC 5520 (the twentieth NSC policy document of 1955), and issued after the TCP report was completed. Notably, however, neither historian directly connected the freedom of space theory to the TCP itself, although they both discussed it in the context of that report.

Various civilian scientists had advocated a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. But they were all outside of the government. It was NSC 5520 that formally recommended that the United States develop such a satellite and do so for the purposes of freedom of space. However, the key words that linked this policy to American intelligence collection interests were deleted from the publicly released version of NSC 5520 until the 1990s. Ambrose and McDougall guessed that the link to intelligence was in the deleted section of the document.

The policy was approved in March 1955 and by the summer a special committee led by Homer J. Stewart, a leading engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, selected a Naval Research Laboratory team—over an Army team led by Wernher von Braun—to develop the scientific satellite soon named Vanguard.

During the 1990s, several other historians picked up the subject, most notably R. Cargill Hall, who later became the National Reconnaissance Office historian, and myself. In 1995 Hall wrote an important essay linking the subjects of the origins of US space policy, President Eisenhower, freedom of space, and Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” proposal to Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Open Skies was a proposal for mutual aerial inspection of military capabilities, and Khrushchev rejected it completely. Cargill Hall, for the first time, noted that the TCP report had recommended that the United States should eventually develop reconnaissance satellites. This was a subject that the Air Force had commissioned the RAND Corporation to study back in 1946, an effort that culminated in the highly significant Project FEED BACK report of 1954. However, Hall did not link the TCP report itself to the freedom of space idea, nor did he have permission to use the still-classified language of NSC 5520 linking it to intelligence purposes. Thus, by the 1990s, two key aspects of this history remained unproven: the link between freedom of space and American intelligence interests, and the link between the TCP report and the freedom of space theory. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming, but the proof was still classified.

Over the next several years, I managed to obtain numerous documents on the freedom of space theory that established a clear and unambiguous chain of evidence between the TCP report itself and what eventually became the Navy’s Vanguard scientific satellite program. Some of these were provided to me by researchers like Hall, others I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act or similar legal requests filed with the Eisenhower Library, and still others by being the first researcher to dig through newly declassified archives, most notably a large number of State Department documents declassified in the mid-1990s. One document was a completely unclassified version of NSC 5520 that confirmed for the first time that the scientific satellite program was justified in that document because of “intelligence purposes,” meaning the eventual plan to orbit reconnaissance satellites. Other documents quoted the still-classified intelligence section of the TCP report.

By the 1990s, two key aspects of this history remained unproven: the link between freedom of space and American intelligence interests, and the link between the TCP report and the freedom of space theory. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming, but the proof was still classified.

More document releases followed. These included numerous documents on the implementation of the policy that repeated its intelligence origins. Other documents also provided further context, demonstrating that senior officials argued that a satellite with clear scientific purpose was more important than a simple stunt of launching first (in other words, relegating the propaganda value of a stunt to the scientific and propaganda value of a scientifically meaningful satellite). Several Department of Defense documents from 1956 and 1957 indicated that Wernher von Braun had lobbied to have the Vanguard decision overturned, and had been denied on the basis that the DoD had made a careful decision and was sticking with it. Naturally the Pentagon cannot operate if every decision is open to revision because the loser doesn’t like it.

Cargill Hall also provided me with an interesting document that indicated that Richard Bissell, an advisor to Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, was assigned the task of “monitoring” the implementation of the civilian satellite policy in spring 1955. Because I recognized Bissell as the later manager of the Corona reconnaissance satellite, I assumed that this represented Bissell’s first introduction to satellite issues. A later document discovery was even more intriguing. It indicated that when the Navy’s Vanguard program ran obscenely over-budget (establishing a precedent repeated by numerous space programs ever since), Bissell directed that several million dollars of CIA funds be spent on the program. When I mentioned this to former CIA space analyst Frederick Durant (whose tenure at the agency predated Bissell), he suggested that this was Bissell’s way of assuring a seat at the table in any policy deliberations.

In the late 1990s, the Eisenhower Library finally declassified the intelligence section of the TCP report itself, demonstrating its advocacy of the reconnaissance satellite and the freedom of space policy. (Only one small part of the report remains classified, a section referring to an intelligence collection effort in the Arctic Circle.)

More recently, Michael Neufeld, the chairman of the Space History Division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and author of a positively-reviewed new biography of Wernher von Braun, tackled one of the remaining open questions about this chain of events: whether bias (against the Army and/or von Braun and his German “Rocket Team”) or policy had led to the decision to select the Navy’s Vanguard proposal over the Army’s Jupiter and “Project Orbiter” proposal. Several longstanding popular myths of the American space program center upon this decision, which is usually expressed as confusion over why the Department of Defense selected the Vanguard over the Army’s supposedly superior Jupiter proposal. But as Neufeld demonstrated in a journal article, the Stewart Committee that selected the Vanguard based their decision not simply on the rockets, but also on the satellites and tracking systems proposed by the two primary competitors. The Vanguard, although unproven, was more advanced than the Jupiter. More importantly, the Navy proposal scored high on the satellite and tracking system aspects. But Neufeld noted that the decision hinged upon one vote and the basis of that vote remains unknown. Although he found no clear anti-German, anti-von Braun, or anti-Army bias in the Stewart Committee’s decision in favor of Vanguard, Neufeld concluded that the historical data remains somewhat inconclusive. In light of other documents that indicate that a desire for a propaganda stunt was not the driving factor in the American scientific satellite program, and that developing a scientifically useful satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year was a driving requirement, the Stewart Committee’s decision in favor of Vanguard does not appear to be so odd, or unjustified.

And that seemed to be that. The freedom of space theory was proven and essentially no longer interesting to space historians. There was a long chain of evidence that historians could assemble into a complete story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Space historians like myself stopped actively looking for documents from this era and devoted our attention to the post-Sputnik period.

page 2: the man behind the curtain >>