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Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael D'Antonio captures the wackiness of the first year of the space race as the Americans scrambled desperately to match the Soviets and President Eisenhower intervened to guarantee that the space program would not be run by the military.On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite into orbit around the earth. Little more than a month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik II. News of Sputnik created panic in Washington, D.C., ...
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael D'Antonio captures the wackiness of the first year of the space race as the Americans scrambled desperately to match the Soviets and President Eisenhower intervened to guarantee that the space program would not be run by the military.On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite into orbit around the earth. Little more than a month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik II. News of Sputnik created panic in Washington, D.C., and throughout the United States. Within days, the U.S. military began a madcap race to space full of crashes, skullduggery, and backstabbing until Eisenhower's secret civilian program surpassed the Soviets by putting the first American-a hero monkey named Gordo-into orbit. D'Antonio draws on archives, film footage, and interviews with many of the scientists, reporters, and others who were involved in the first year of the space race. He recounts the early days of the space race with all the zaniness and urgency of the time, just in time for fiftieth anniversary commemorations.
Those Damn Bastards!
On October 4, 1957, the USS Glacier, stubby and wide-beamed, chugged westward in the Pacific Ocean, tracing a course a few hundred miles north of the Galápagos Islands. Shaped like a watermelon cut lengthwise, the ship was designed to crush through polar ice. Her engines were powerful and her steel skin was thick enough to survive even high-speed collisions with growlers, small bergs that sounded like angry dogs as they scraped along the hull. On her maiden voyage in 1955 — called Operation Deep Freeze — the Glacier had cut through 400 miles of frozen ocean that would have stopped any other American ship.
But as sturdy as she was, in the open sea the Glacier was a bit tipsy, rolling with almost every wave, which complicated matters for civilian physicist James Van Allen, his student Larry Cahill, and the members of the crew who gathered early in the morning to help launch a strange contraption called a "rockoon." First they hauled a huge, clear plastic balloon — source of the "oon" part of rockoon — out of the ship's hold and onto the quarterdeck, which was otherwise used as a helipad. Next came bottles of helium, which were tapped to fill the balloon with 26,000 pounds of gas. As it grew larger, and was subject to the breeze, the balloon flopped around like a fish on the deck.
As the crew continued the task of inflating the balloon, Van Allen turned to a long, narrow wooden crate that was propped on sawhorses. Inside was an Aerobee rocket — the "rock" in rockoon — that was roughly six feet long and not much bigger around than a rolling pin. First developed in the late 1940s, various generations of the Aerobee would serve for decades as reliable rockets for exploring the atmosphere and near space. As he turned to this particular rocket, Van Allen summoned some helpers and began to review what they had to do to make it airworthy.
A slightly built man of forty-three, with sloping shoulders and a soft, boyish face, Professor Van Allen hardly looked like a commanding figure. But he had spent more time at sea than most of the crew, and he directed them with a combination of certainty and respect that inspired cooperation. With help from Cahill he got the rocket out of its box. They tested its radio transmitter and attached a rope that would connect it to the balloon for a journey aloft.
The rocket was the tricky part. One had recently fired, accidentally, while it was being readied for use on the deck of another ship. Ignited by a signal from its own radio transmitter, the thing took off horizontally. The flame from its tail burned a ship's officer who stood nearby and blew the coat right off one of Van Allen's students from the University of Iowa Physics Department. It then smashed through a pair of sawhorses and headed straight for a sailor who was talking to the bridge via a deck phone. The rocket sliced through the cord on the phone, leaving the shocked crewman unscathed as he held the suddenly un-tethered receiver in his hand. The rocket finally crashed into a stack of helium canisters that were, to the relief of everyone on board, empty and not pressurized. Burning fuel and pieces of metal flew all over the deck.
Although the injuries from that accident included just the burns suffered by the officer and damage to the student's eardrums, it reminded every scientist, officer, and enlisted man involved with the rockoons that while they looked like mere gas bags trailing fireworks, they were potentially lethal.
Aboard the Glacier, as the moment for the October 4 launch approached, Lieutenant Stephen Wilson picked up a phone on the deck and contacted the ship's bridge. The balloon could be released only when the ship was traveling with the prevailing breeze, at exactly the same speed as the wind, so that the entire contraption would clear the Glacier's smokestack, antennae, and mast. To get the course and speed right, Wilson barked a stream of orders to a helmsman, who made adjustments. "If anyone looked at your ship's track when we were doing this," he would one day recall, "they would be convinced there was some drunk at the helm."
At 1:16 P.M., with Wilson keeping the ship steady, Van Allen signaled the men who held the balloon to let it go. The big clear bubble of gas rose, pulling behind it the rope and rocket and leaving the ship behind. Looking much like a jellyfish with a single tentacle, the balloon moved slowly at first, but as it climbed, and the atmosphere thinned, it picked up speed. Below, Van Allen watched through binoculars as the sunlit blob of plastic flew farther and farther away. Beside him a radioman, Petty Officer David Armbrust, stood wearing earphones and holding a special antenna that was made to track signals from the rocket.
As it approached an altitude of fifteen miles, where the rocket's engine would automatically fire, the men below had one last chance to worry about whether the rig had somehow gotten tangled. A rocket pointing in the wrong direction could race back down to Earth, and hit the ship like a bomb. (This had never happened, but you never know.)
Fortunately, the rockoon performed as planned. At the fifteen-mile mark it fired properly, breaking free from the balloon and climbing skyward to deliver its payload — nine pounds of scientific instruments and a radio transmitter — to a final altitude of seventy miles. Below, on the deck of the ship, Van Allen directed Petty Officer Armbrust, who struggled to keep his antenna pointed at the right spot in the sky so he could pick up the rocket's signals.
When it reached its apogee the rocket was beyond the stratosphere and on the edge of outer space. The equipment on board measured the amount of radiation streaming to Earth from various sources in the universe and radioed the data back to the Glacier. With his rockoons Van Allen had already pierced other regions of the sky. His goal was to understand the earth's magnetic field and the quality, quantity, and behavior of cosmic rays throughout the atmosphere. Because these phenomena affected radio signals, this work had some immediate practical applications. But it would also provide vital information about the conditions a rocket, satellite, or human being might one day encounter in space.
Though connected with Van Allen's long-term research, this particular rockoon flight was part of an ongoing, international campaign of exploration that involved 60,000 people in nearly seventy countries and was called the International Geophysical Year. The IGY had been conceived seven years earlier in Van Allen's living room by a group of renowned scientists who fed on his wife's homemade seven-layer cake. It was modeled after two previous "Polar Years" held in 1882 and 1932, which also involved the world's top explorers and scientists in similar efforts to study the Earth's condition, from pole to pole, and then share their findings freely with the world.
For the men of the Glacier, Van Allen and his rockoons provided the main excitement on a voyage that had otherwise been thoroughly routine. As Lieutenant Wilson would recall, Van Allen was at once brilliant, brave, and possessed of a certain Midwest, regular-guy charm. "He was the kind of character," said Wilson, "that most people only read about in The Saturday Evening Post." Wilson was most impressed by Van Allen's patience, whether the professor was answering the lieutenant's endless questions about his work, or directing sailors in very practical matters. No question, or man, was unimportant. Each received Van Allen's full respect and attention.
Although Wilson counted Van Allen as "one of a kind" he actually represented a certain type — swashbuckling man of science — that went back, at least, to the naturalists who sailed with European explorers to the New World in the sixteenth century. The modern era of the scientific adventurer had dawned with the publication of Charles Darwin's enormously popular writings about his voyages to roughly the same region — the Galápagos and surrounding waters — where the Glacier sailed on that Friday in October. By the start of the twentieth century, the attention of scientific explorers had shifted to the North and South Poles, and the upper atmosphere, which represented the frontier for Earth-bound adventure.
One of the great polar explorers, Thomas Poulter, had been Van Allen's mentor at Iowa Wesleyan College. Chief scientist for Admiral Richard Byrd's second Antarctic expedition, Poulter had a taste for big things and was never shy about pursuing new technologies. For a time he had been famous for it. In the 1930s he designed and built a "Snow Cruiser" that was fifty-six feet long, twenty feet wide, and fifteen feet high and rode on huge custom-made tires. Both bulbous and somehow graceful in design, this tugboat on wheels contained a laboratory, a machine shop, and quarters for four. It carried a small airplane on its roof and enough food and water to last a year.
The Snow Cruiser, which resembled most the future Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, had been a sensation as it toured U.S. cities prior to its deployment in Antarctica from Boston harbor. Poulter's invention was supposed to open a new era in exploration, and help America keep tabs on the Germans, who were prowling around on the pretense of a scientific mission. When it reached its destination and lumbered off the ship, the cruiser nearly tipped over. Poulter gunned the engine and the cruiser lurched forward until its spinning wheels dug four deep ruts in the ice. No amount of effort would free the beast, and it had to be abandoned. A temporary setback became permanent as Congress refused to fund repairs. Sixty-five years later, the lifeless thing remained icebound near the Antarctic outpost of Little America.
As failures go, the Snow Cruiser was spectacular. It was also a perfect illustration of the kind of science that led bookish but ambitious types like Van Allen, who forever retained a sense of awe about Poulter ("one of the most creative people I ever saw") to plunge into esoteric fields like physics. The scientific age was dawning, and Van Allen could see that the hard sciences were going to play an ever-expanding role in determining the course of history. Any doubt about this fact was erased by World War II, a war that was won as much by scientists as soldiers. In the early 1940s Van Allen had helped to invent the proximity fuse, which made antiaircraft shells explode in the vicinity of enemy airplanes. He had sailed into battle aboard the USS Washington to see if the technology worked. Once it was accepted by gunners and admirals, the fuse helped to hasten the end of the war. In the peace that followed, Van Allen enjoyed a reputation that caused people who controlled research budgets and icebreakers to lend him their support.
Immediately after the war, Van Allen, who was fascinated by polar auroras, devoted himself to a sweeping study of the Earth's upper atmosphere using the Aerobee, and then rockoons. His study of cosmic rays, the currents in the upper atmosphere, and geomagnetism, among other things, made Van Allen one of the world's most successful geophysicists.
By the mid-1950s, Van Allen knew that to get better data during the International Geophysical Year he would have to use a much bigger rocket to put an instrument-filled satellite into orbit around the Earth. He talked about this idea with some of the nation's leading rocket designers at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, who agreed that their Redstone rocket seemed perfect for the job. With federal support, a plan was hatched to rely on the Army's launcher, topped with a second- stage bundle of smaller rockets and a third stage developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operated by Caltech — the California Institute of Technology — at Pasadena. The stages would fire in sequence, each boosting the satellite higher.
The plan for an American satellite was sound, but big, government-backed science is often complicated by bureaucratic infighting. In an attempt to claim the satellite mission, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., proposed to use its highly reliable Viking rocket as the basis for a satellite launch and began lobbying for the idea in Washington. The subsequent squabble that arose between the services played out in tense meetings in Pentagon offices. In the middle of one argument the chief of the Army's Redstone program, General J. Bruce Medaris, was told to shut up after he delivered a rant against the airplane — "rather useful in World War II, but it was just an interim solution" — and insisted that missiles were artillery pieces and therefore the Army's domain. At another point an admiral accused the others of telling "a bunch of lies" and stomped out of the room. The admiral was later ordered to return and apologize, which he did.
By the summer of 1957, the U.S. government had gotten behind the idea of a satellite — being first in space would bring America glory — but despite Van Allen's support and the Army's concerted effort to get the job, the Redstone was not selected. Concerned that outer space be considered a peaceful realm, open to all, President Eisenhower's administration assigned the mission to a Navy rocket that was not suited for use as a weapon. Not yet operational, the Vanguard was the only sizable — multiple stages or engines — rocket being developed by any branch of the military that could not carry the weight of an atomic warhead. The larger tried-and-true Army Redstone, which was created to deliver conventional and nuclear warheads, and the Air Force Thor, then nearing completion, were passed over. The three-stage Navy Vanguard rocket derived from the Viking rocket that the Navy had already used successfully. Vanguard also appealed to Eisenhower because, unlike Redstone, it would be designed and built without employing ex-Nazis. This would make a successful satellite launch a truly all-American affair.
After the satellite program was announced, its managers began receiving helpful suggestions from citizens all over America. One writer urged the Navy to rig a button at the White House, so the president could ignite the rocket. A retired riverboat captain from Mississippi volunteered his two singing mice to ride in the satellite so their chirps could be broadcast by radio to the Earth below. Neither suggestion was accepted but the fact that they were made at all showed the range of public excitement.
But as enthusiastic as some civilians were, once the satellite project was awarded, the highest official in the Pentagon actually showed little interest in Vanguard. Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson thought a satellite would be a "nice scientific trick" but was generally wary of expensive research programs. He starved Vanguard for attention and made sure that projects with more direct defense applications — missiles that carried warheads for example — got priority for manpower and facilities. Others in the bureaucracy dogged the project's managers with requests for paperwork. In an attempt to choke off such requests, the Vanguard team once replied to a query for data with a six-inch-thick report they called "the confidential doorstopper."
But while the Pentagon slowed Vanguard, some American officials, including the president, still felt competitive pressure to beat the Soviets into orbit. In the spring of 1957, Eisenhower complained that the nation's image around the world was threatened by the delay, but little changed. It was mainly scientists and engineers who harbored space fantasies; ordinary citizens were far more worried about the growing threat of long-range atomic warheads.
All of the technical and political delays that had slowed Vanguard came to Van Allen's mind on the night of October 4 when Larry Cahill rushed into the officers' quarters to tell him that Armed Forces Radio was reporting on Sputnik. It was around six o'clock in the evening. While Van Allen was excited by the news, a long day on deck beneath the equatorial sun had left him tired and hungry. He went to eat in the officers' dining room and looked at a movie that was being shown to the crew. Curiosity then led him to the ship's radio room, which was just below the bridge, to see if any more news had come across the ship's Teletype.
In the radio room Van Allen found David Armbrust, earphones on, hunched over a radio. Off-duty when word of Sputnik came, Armbrust had rushed to the radio shack and moved a sailor aside so he could try to catch the satellite's signal as it passed overhead. He was joined by Lieutenant Wilson and by a federal scientist named John Gniewk, who had hitched a ride on the Glacier to reach a research station in Antarctica. The four men crowded into the small space and waited in silence. Finally, at about 9:20 p.m., Armbrust heard something. It was a high-pitched beep that sounded somewhat like a cricket on a summer night.
Once they convinced themselves that they were, indeed, hearing the satellite, the men in the radio room suddenly realized that they should record the signal. Gniewk ran to his quarters to fetch a small tape recorder while Van Allen went to get an oscilloscope to generate a visual display of the wave made by the signal. Returning quickly, they managed to get their equipment going and capture about five minutes' worth of beep-beeps before the sound faded away.
When the radio signal finally disappeared, Van Allen quickly calculated that Sputnik would return in about ninety-five minutes. The signal came back exactly when he said it would. The only puzzle in their observations was that they then heard the beeps for much longer — more than twenty-five minutes — than Van Allen expected, given the satellite's speedy journey from horizon to horizon. He figured the radio waves were bouncing off the ionosphere like shortwave signals. As experienced radio operators know, radio waves will bounce off of charged particles in the ionosphere, and return to Earth in a repeating pattern that can carry them great distances beyond the horizon.
After the third set of satellite signals came across the radio, Van Allen dashed off a telegram for IGY officials in Washington, announcing that he had heard the satellite signal and giving David Armbrust credit for discovering it. He waited to hear the beeps one more time before going to bed. Others continued listening, and reading the news that came in over the Teletype.
In his field notebook, which he kept for posterity, Van Allen recorded what happened on the night Sputnik soared far above the highest point he had ever reached with a rockoon. He was impressed by the size of the satellite, writing "Wow!" next to a note about its dimensions and weight. He recognized the propaganda coup realized by the Soviets and their "Brilliant achievement!" And, unable to resist a private "I told you so," Van Allen added that Sputnik had proved that the administration in Washington had been wrong to reject the reliable Redstone, which he preferred over the new Vanguard, for America's satellite program. He believed that the Redstone rocket, which was already tested and refined, could have put the United States in space in 1956.
Although he recognized that the United States might suffer a loss of prestige, Van Allen knew that Sputnik posed no direct threat to American security. He wasn't so much afraid of the satellite as he was delighted by it. Van Allen expected that Sputnik would create a sense of crisis in Washington and that great sums of government money would be spent in response. Much of this cash was going to flow to the big men of science who, in the tradition of the Snow Cruiser, could mobilize ideas, people, and machines to accomplish great things.
As one of the leading figures in geophysics, Van Allen would be expected to join the scramble for contracts. Instead, he was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stuck aboard the Glacier, weeks away from the next port of call in New Zealand. "Causes me to be very sorry to miss the inevitable reconsideration and perhaps marked changes in the U.S. program," he wrote in his field journal. "May be a genuine loss of opportunity for us."
Bobbing along in the middle of a dark Pacific night, alone and receiving limited information, Lieutenant Wilson and Petty Officer Armbrust had more immediate concerns. They wondered if they had been the first Americans to capture Sputnik's beep-beep as it circled the globe. Nearly fifty years later, both men would still think it was possible.
It was not. Earlier on that same night, technicians working for RCA on Long Island had picked up the Sputnik signal at a radio observation station near the town of Riverhead. But even these earwitnesses may have come in second to a group manning the top secret U.S. Air Force Security Service Operations Center in Darmstadt, West Germany.
Far more sensitive than anything aboard the Glacier, the radio receiving equipment operated by Airman Bradford Whipple in Darmstadt was built around an antenna field that was a full 150 acres. It could hear everything from Soviet gunners in tanks on maneuvers in Bulgaria to Aeroflot crews filing flight plans to Leningrad. A patriotic young man from the Boston area, Whipple felt he was performing an important Cold War duty, monitoring the Red Menace. Schooled in the Russian language and culture, he took the job so seriously that he even kept track of the cars with yellow and red Soviet license plates that he saw on the highways around Darmstadt, writing down the numbers of those that cruised near the antenna array and reporting them to U.S. authorities.
On the night of October 4, 1957, Whipple was on duty as a Russian voice intercept operator and transcriber at the secure Operations Center, filling in wherever he was needed. The work could be boring and as was his habit, a radioman whom everyone called "Hogjaw" twisted the dials to see if he could pick up the broadcast of the Yankees-Braves World Series game. (When sport broadcasts weren't available, he searched for country music.) According to Whipple, who recalled these events decades later, Hogjaw's less than rigorous devotion to his duties tended to attract extra attention from annoyed supervisors. On this night when a sergeant drifted over to check on him, Hogjaw showed him a printed recording of some strange Morse code signals — "dah-dit-dah" — that he had homed in on. This sent the sergeant scurrying to report to his superiors.
When the sergeant returned, he said that higher authorities wanted the signal monitored continuously. He yelled for Whipple to go to an operations area called the Radio/Telephone Section, find the signal, and record it on audiotape. Hogjaw continued his Morse code transcription while Whipple, who had proved himself a bit more reliable under pressure, used the most sensitive antennae in the center's array to follow the mysterious signal's voice. In minutes it disappeared, but Whipple continued to monitor the frequency. By the time it returned, about an hour and a half later, word of a possible Soviet satellite launch had reached Darmstadt.
Because Whipple and the others in his unit heard Sputnik before the Soviets notified the world of what they had done, it's likely that they were the first Americans to hear it. Eventually Whipple would have another, far more dramatic encounter with Sputnik, but that event would not occur for nearly a year. For the time being he would just track its orbits and seethe over the fact that the Soviets had beaten America to space.
On the night of its launch, as radio stations broadcast news of its orbit, people around the world lifted their eyes to the heavens and tuned their radios in hopes of connecting with Sputnik. It's not likely that anyone saw the satellite, but they could have glimpsed its booster rocket, a much larger object that was also orbiting the earth. It was visible when it was in the so-called twilight zone at the horizon just after sunset or before dawn. However, because the Soviets had wisely chosen a frequency that could be received by ordinary shortwave radios, millions could hear Sputnik's radio signal with just a little effort.
In Lima, Peru, reporters at one local paper got the news about the satellite via Teletype machine and immediately raced out of the city to a radio base that the U.S. Army had recently established in a mountain clearing. Set on more than twenty-three acres of flat, elevated land, the Minitrack station was one of many that had been built as part of the Vanguard program, which was progressing slowly due to technical problems. (Others were scattered from Australia to Cuba.) At all these stations, which were equipped with sophisticated antennae and receivers, observers had spent months waiting out Vanguard delays, preparing to monitor an American satellite that had yet to fly.
On Sputnik night, the Americans at the Lima Minitrack outpost initially resisted their visitors and sent them away. Then they thought better of their decision to ignore the satellite news and called their boss, who was in the city. Excited by the news, Chester B. Cunningham, chief of the station, raced back and fired up the equipment, although he was not sure what he was supposed to be tracking.
At about midnight, a different group of reporters from Lima appeared and confirmed and expanded on the story told by the first. After much back-and-forth (some of the Peruvians returned to their office to retrieve more information), Cunningham realized what they were saying about the frequencies used for the Sputnik signal. He donned headphones and began working the dials on a radio. What happened next was reported in a memo he sent to his Project Vanguard bosses:
At 1:58 A.M. on October 5 we got the characteristic signal. However I did not believe it to be a signal from the satellite. In 10 minutes it faded out. I then predicted to the reporters that if the signal were from the satellite, it would come back at 2:50. Almost precisely to the minute the signal reappeared. In five minutes the reporters took off for Lima like bullets. We stayed around until 4 A.M. and got a third passage, when we went back to Lima to get some sleep...we got back to the station at 8 A.M. on Saturday, and from then on it was bedlam.
Over the weekend big crowds gathered at the Minitrack station outside Lima to inquire about Sputnik. A tape recorder was brought from the U.S. embassy and Cunningham used it to play the beep-beep for the Peruvians at the gate. Cunningham also posted notices informing visitors about the satellite, and used the chore of watching Sputnik as a training exercise for his men.
Through it all, Cunningham felt uncomfortably humbled by the blow Sputnik delivered to America's standing in the world. In his ultimate report on these activities, right before he requested eighteen hours of overtime pay for the event, Cunningham noted that the Peruvians actually expressed "sympathy" for their giant neighbor to the north. Cunningham said he was worried that America may "have lost some face."
A little loss of face didn't seem to bother the Eisenhower administration. At the highest levels in the American government, the first response to the Soviets' achievement was generally calm. Many had been prepared for the news. In fact, just hours before the rocket blasted off from Baykonur, a senior Central Intelligence Agency official had actually forecast the Soviet satellite success. In a long-planned briefing, Herbert Scoville Jr., deputy director of the CIA, told a White House panel on science, "It wouldn't surprise us if such an announcement [of a satellite success] came at any time."
When the prediction became a reality, President Eisenhower may have been annoyed that his Vanguard had been beaten into orbit, but he was hardly concerned from a military standpoint. "We knew that Sputnik was not a danger," recalled physicist Herbert York, who was one of Ike's science and technology advisers at the time. "And we knew we could catch up." Indeed, York believed that while the Soviets deserved congratulations, Americans had no reason to panic.
This attitude of equanimity was shared by American IGY officials who were gathered on Sputnik night at the Soviet embassy in Washington for a party. After taking a phone call from his bureau, New York Times reporter Walter Sullivan bounded up the embassy stairs to the ballroom to deliver the news. When it was announced to the crowd, the Americans warmly applauded their hosts.
The next day, at a meeting in Washington of the National Academy of Sciences, a Soviet space expert named Anatoli Blagonravov happily agreed to a change in the scheduled program to brief the crowd on the satellite. As he puffed a pipe, the white-haired Blagonravov made a drawing of Sputnik on a blackboard — it looked like a flying basketball trailing four antennae — and reassured his colleagues that it was nothing more menacing than a test vehicle launched to prove that the R-7 could put an object in orbit.
Although they may have envied the USSR's success, the Americans who listened to Blagonravov offered mainly admiration. When the Soviet scientist asked if the Americans might provide his delegation with a radio so they could hear the satellite's signal, Vanguard director John P. Hagen supplied something even better. He brought a tape recorder onto the stage and switched it on to let the beep-beeps captured by American monitors fill the hall.
"That is its voice!" blurted Blagonravov.
If the voice of Sputnik thrilled the scientists in Washington, it thoroughly annoyed certain ambitious and competitive men in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Army Ballistic Missile Agency operated on the grounds of the sprawling Redstone Arsenal. In this once sleepy cotton-trading center, a band of former enemies — U.S. military officials and ex-Nazi rocketeers — had been working on missiles to match and surpass the Soviet's best. They were directed by two leaders — one a U.S. Army general, the other a former SS officer — who tended to fight against the limits imposed on them by bureaucracies, ideologies, or even orders from Washington.
Poetically enough, one of these men, General J. Bruce Medaris, had almost been killed by a rocket designed by the other, former Nazi rocket chief Wernher von Braun. The incident had occurred near a battlefield in France fourteen years earlier. While working in a mobile office, Medaris heard such a loud explosion he thought that an ammunition dump had blown up. Racing outside he found dazed men wandering near a big smoking hole in the ground. Down in this pit he recovered tubing and valves from one of von Braun's rockets, which had apparently malfunctioned on its way to Great Britain.
Years later Medaris would tell this story with the cavalier tone of a man who wanted you to know he had been toughened by combat, though in fact he had seen very little real fighting. Originally trained as a horse soldier (but too late to fight in World War I), Medaris had spent some time in civilian life. But after returning to the service for the Second World War he had made the Army his career as an ordnance officer. Successive promotions had landed him at Redstone, where he commanded the development of the Army's next generation of ordnance — rockets equipped with warheads.
By the fall of 1957, gray was invading the fifty-five-year-old Medaris's bushy black mustache and slicked-back hair. Surgery for prostate cancer the year before had left him a bit slumped and potbellied. But the general still presented himself with a firm, military attitude, a style consistent with the old-fashioned swagger sticks he collected and carried on a regular basis. Having joined the military when horses still went into battle, Medaris's style owed as much to the nineteenth century as it did to the twentieth. He respected rank and was so egotistical he once told a national magazine, "No human being, without the guidance of the Lord, could have been right as much as I was."
As he approached the end of his military career, the general had become devoted to keeping the U.S. Army relevant in an era of changing technology. Airplanes and missiles were rising in importance, and he worried about the Air Force and Navy, which wielded both, getting too far ahead. In Medaris's imagination, one day the Army could be equipped with one kind of rocket that could catapult small teams of men into enemy territory, and others that would serve as ultra-long-range artillery. This view was consistent with a little publicized variant of American strategy that envisioned the limited use of nuclear weapons in war. A chief proponent of this idea was Medaris's friend at the Pentagon Lieutenant General James "Slim Jim" Gavin, who saw nuclear weapons as an antidote to any enemy's superior manpower or conventional arms. Chief of Army Research and Development, Gavin had led the 82nd Airborne during World War II and had been the youngest general in the Army since Custer.
Medaris's leadership partner at Redstone, von Braun, was movie star handsome with a chiseled chin, thick greased-back hair, and piercing blue eyes. Von Braun had become besotted with the idea of space travel as a boy growing up in Prussia. By the time Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, von Braun was, at age twenty-six, one of Germany's leading rocket experts. He was also, in the eyes of his then colleague Willy Ley, a fair-haired, six-foot-one-inch "perfect example of the type labeled 'Aryan Nordic.'" Soon he would become director of the Reich's military missile program, charged with developing weapons that could reach Great Britain from bases on the European continent. (Ley, a writer and early member of Germany's national amateur rocketry society, fled the Nazis for America in 1935.)
Always politically keen, von Braun learned how to satisfy a government bureaucracy while also indulging his dreams of space. He joined the Nazi party and its notorious SS paramilitary and pushed hard to fulfill Hitler's demand for rockets to be fired at civilians in London. His effort would culminate in the V-2, the world's first guided ballistic missile. What he learned about the art and science of space travel came as a side benefit to this military work. He tried to hide the fact that space was his personal priority. And according to one oft-repeated story from this time, this obsession almost got him killed.
The way the tale has been told, von Braun was traveling on a German train when he fell into a conversation with a woman who happened to share a semiprivate compartment. He talked about his dreams of space and how his true passion was exploration, not explosions. The woman was an SS spy. Soon Gestapo agents arrived at von Braun's home in the middle of the night. Certain that the rocket chief was diverting his time and energy into his real obsession, research on space travel, they arrested him on charges that he was undermining the war effort. Equivalent to treason, the accusations could have led to the death penalty, but two of von Braun's allies in the army — armaments chief Albert Speer and missile leader Walter Dornberger — intervened with Hitler himself. After two weeks von Braun was freed on the führer's order.
This account of von Braun's arrest would stand for years until it was refuted by American historian Michael Neufeld. The facts, Neufeld reported, show that von Braun had been caught in a contest between the SS and the army over the future of the missile program. He was arrested after he refused to cooperate with SS chief Heinrich Himmler's takeover attempt. Neufeld did confirm, however, that von Braun's release came about as a result of Speer's intervention. And obviously the young engineer must have been terrified by the experience.
A few months after he was arrested and freed, one of von Braun's V-2 rockets, deployed with a mobile launching group, was finally fired from Belgium against England. It struck a London suburb, killing three civilians, and began a season of missile attacks that would last until March 1945. Roughly 1,500 of these rockets, each carrying approximately 2,000 pounds of explosives, were used against England, and they killed more than 2,500 people.
Britons would regard the rockets as indiscriminate terror weapons, which they were. The men of the German rocket team, who considered their attacks a justified response to Allied bombing raids that killed thousands of civilians, celebrated their first successful firings with champagne. Justified or not, the rocket attacks were not militarily decisive. By the time they began, the Allies had already liberated Paris and the outcome of the war was certain. When surrender was imminent, von Braun thought hard about where he might find a way to continue his work. As one of his colleagues would later explain, "We despise the French; we are mortally afraid of the Soviets; we don't believe the British can afford us; so that leaves the Americans."
After deciding that the rich and amiable Americans might take him in, von Braun loaded a caravan with blueprints, equipment, and hundreds of colleagues and set out to find them. The Americans who took the Germans into custody knew that their prized scientists were tainted by the evil of the Nazi regime. The V-2s had been constructed by thousands of slave laborers — many from Nazi concentration camps — in conditions that recalled Dante's Inferno. Thousands of V-2 slaves — more than the missiles killed when they were fired — died of starvation and disease or at an executioner's hand.
Decades later, proof that von Braun had personally guided the selection of concentration camp prisoners for his missile shops would be made public. But at the time he was taken into custody, the U.S. Army wanted him and the other German rocketeers to build missiles for the United States. Despite opposition from others in the government, the military whitewashed the rocket men's past and they were treated as prized possessions rather than war criminals. The War Department's public notice of this project, issued October 1, 1945, said the move would be temporary, however, and only those scientists and technicians deemed "outstanding" would be included.
Brought first to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, von Braun and his V-2 team became vital to the Army's rocket development program. Initially confined like prisoners of war, the Germans were quickly granted their freedom, and authorities allowed them to bring their families to the United States. In 1947 von Braun went back to Bavaria to marry his eighteen-year-old cousin Maria von Quistorp, who would become a kind of first lady in the small society that the Germans were building in America. By 1950, when the group was moved to Alabama, the notion that they were only temporary visitors was long forgotten. In five years von Braun would become a U.S. citizen and, in the great American tradition, was well on the way to reinventing himself.
Through public appearances, his own writing, and press interviews, von Braun washed himself clean of his Nazi past. Book publishers played their part, including von Braun in three popular anthologies about space. But the editors of Collier's magazine were especially helpful in this task, offering their 3 million subscribers articles about space by von Braun himself and devoting extensive coverage to his enthralling ideas about the future. These pieces, illustrated with fantastic drawings of planets, spacecraft, and astronauts, made it seem as if science fiction fantasies were on the verge of becoming reality. They led to more press interviews and appearances on television.
By 1955, von Braun was such a popular figure that he was featured prominently, along with others from his Nazi days, in a Walt Disney TV series about space exploration. (Two installments aired in 1955. A third would be televised in late 1957.) The series, which featured some rather psychedelic animation — rock-eating animals and walking space plants — was directed by Ward Kimball, creator of Jiminy Cricket and fresh off the job as directing animator of Peter Pan. Kimball and Disney also relied on von Braun's advice as they designed the famous Disneyland theme park in Southern California. When it opened in the summer of 1955, much of the section called Tomorrowland, including its Moonliner attraction, owed its sense of style to the V-2 and other von Braun conceptions.
Disney's embrace, and all the other publicity, contributed to von Braun's status and confidence, and encouraged his dream of human spaceflight. By 1957, he and General Medaris dominated the rocket center at Redstone Arsenal, which in turn played a big role in the development of northern Alabama. As the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had evolved at Redstone, it created hundreds and then thousands of new jobs and a more diversified and wealthy local economy. But the newcomers were not welcomed by all. Some locals shunned the Germans, who for comfort, built their homes together in a neighborhood that locals called the German Colony. But by the mid-1950s people in Huntsville generally took pride in their community's status as the self-proclaimed "Rocket City" and embraced the region's role on the front lines of the Cold War.
The Army group had raced to develop longer-range missiles that could serve the dual purposes of nuclear attack and satellite vehicle. Only orders from Washington had prevented them from putting an object in orbit in 1956. When the Eisenhower administration then chose the Navy team to launch the first American satellite, restricting the Army to shorter-range weapons development, the Alabama rocketeers appeared to comply. But in fact they were so certain Ike was wrong that they secretly continued satellite work and they quietly reserved one of their babies, Missile 29, just in case they were called to launch on short notice.
On the day Sputnik was launched, Medaris and von Braun hosted visitors from Washington, including the new secretary of defense, Neil H. McElroy, and the Army's chief of research and development, James Gavin. McElroy had come to government service from Procter & Gamble, where he had worked for more than thirty years. Gavin, former commander of the 82nd Airborne in World War II, had solidified his status as a folk hero by dating Ernest Hemingway's famous journalist ex-wife, Martha Gellhorn. He would become known as a sharp critic of Eisenhower's reliance on nuclear deterrence and cost-saving cuts in troop strength.
Over lunch that day at the Redstone Arsenal, Gavin and von Braun had discussed the possibility that the USSR might put a satellite into orbit. "Based upon all available intelligence, the Soviet launching was imminent," Gavin wrote months later. They agreed that a proper response would include the development of some kind of "satellite interceptor" along with a "militarily useful satellite" for the American side. This plan fit Gavin's view of space as a military realm occupied by manned stations, from which America might deploy or manage missiles, drones, and surveillance craft to win an "Earth war" against an enemy such as the Soviet Union.
That night, Gavin joined von Braun, Medaris, and the new secretary of defense at the Redstone Arsenal officers club. The hum of the crowded social gathering was broken when it was announced that the Soviets had put Sputnik into orbit. Though he fully expected it, the normally unshakable Gavin felt sickened by the news. He believed that his greatest fear, that the Soviets were pulling ahead militarily, was coming to pass. "I felt crushed," he would recall, "and wanted to take a long walk to think the situation over alone."
Unlike Gavin, who felt discouraged, Bruce Medaris furiously blurted, "Those damn bastards!" He could have been talking about the Soviets, the Navy team that had fallen behind on Vanguard, or the higher-ups in Washington who had prevented his team from going to space. Certainly one of those bastards was Defense Secretary McElroy's immediate predecessor, Charles Wilson, who had been in charge when the Navy rocket was picked for the first American satellite.
While Medaris vented his emotions, von Braun bore down on McElroy. This was one of those rare moments when events seemed to justify a dramatic response and von Braun demanded that "for God's sake" his team be turned loose on the satellite project. Predicting that McElroy would find "all hell has broken loose" when he returned to Washington, von Braun pressed him to keep one thing in mind. "We can fire a satellite into orbit sixty days from the moment you give us the green light."
The next morning, the mood at Redstone was so gloomy it seemed like the whole place had been drenched in defeat. Before he departed, McElroy heard much more about the Army's reliable rockets from a team of younger officers and engineers. With the secretary scheduled to depart at noon, the Redstone group gave McElroy a quick tour of their facilities, making sure he saw they already had the hardware on hand to go into space. They didn't get immediate permission to restart their satellite project, and when McElroy got back to the capital he told reporters only that he was going to resolve the "bottlenecks" that had kept America earthbound. However, General Medaris, ever confident, told von Braun he could assign some workers to prepare Missile 29. If they never actually got the green light, he said, the bookkeeping could be adjusted so the expense of this jump start would never be noticed.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael D'Antonio
Posted June 24, 2011