Air University Review, January-February 1969

The Promise of Space

Colonel Paul E. Worthman

One night in the sixth year of the space age, as Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldis were conversing informally in C. S. Lewis’s rooms at Magdalene College, Cambridge, their thoughts turned to a common interest, science fiction, and a tape recorder caught this exchange:

Amis: The purely technical and the purely imaginative overlap, don’t they?
Aldis: These are certainly the two streams, and they often overlap—for instance, in Arthur Clarke’s writings. It can be a rich mixture.

In Mr. Clarke’s new book, The Promise of Space, we have the rich overlapping of the technical and the imaginative. He begins with the tale of a second-century astronaut, Lucian of Samosata, whose ship was caught up by a waterspout and swept to the moon; and he moves through the centuries to a time when our descendants will build citadels “beneath the blistering sun of Mercury.” En route, he fills his pages with the story of recent achievements in space technology and the promise they bring for the near-term future.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Promise of Space (New York: Harper & Row, 1968, $8.95), xxi and 325 pp.

As always, Mr. Clarke writes with a clarity and assurance that develop understanding in the mind of the interested layman. Rocket mass ratios? Engine designs? Low-inclination orbits? Most readers will come away from this book convinced—and quite properly so—that the fundamentals of space science are well within their grasp.

What Amis calls the “purely technical” in Mr. Clarke’s work deserves admiration and respect. The “purely imaginative is more complex in its evocations. A portion of this book is inventive (one would expect this from the man credited with creating the concept of communication satellites). Much of it is visionary (“two hundred years from now there will be committees of earnest citizens fighting tooth and nail to save the last unspoiled vestiges of the lunar wilderness”). Some is mystical (“space-warps” are suggested as high-dimensional short cuts across interstellar distances). And sometimes it is poetic (“Often, one of these brightly orbiting stars will suddenly explode in a silent concussion of light and a fierce, tiny sun will draw slowly away . . .”).

Perhaps the most instructive reaction to the imaginative would be to extend one’s own thoughts regarding the promise of space. The book jacket refers to the “enormous promise of the 1970’s.” Is that promise “enormous?” Is it enormous for the Air Force? For NASA? What is the likely nature of space activity during the '70s?

A glimpse into the future is often enhanced by an examination of the past. Until recently, military space history has been restricted necessarily to a shallow perspective, with few recognizable vantage points for a long view. Even today, with two decades of data, there are serious hazards in forcing too much meaning from what is available. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the history we have, however brief, is densely packed with events. A world which has launched over 800 spacecraft can feel that it has passed its novitiate and that a few trends and signs must be emerging from the record of that achievement. 

In looking at the space story from 1957 to 1960, one is struck by chaotic excitement within a nation struggling to recover from technological ambush. In military space history, 1961, 1962, and 1963 stand in contrast as years of retrenchment, introspection, and thoughtful evaluation. For the Air Force, in particular, these years are an indicative past containing important clues to the decade ahead and a history well worth reviewing for suggestions of the promise of the ‘70s.

During the decade preceding the Kennedy Administration the United States had made good progress in observing and studying the space environment. Space probe experiments had been under way for almost fourteen years, and the launching record was impressive, totaling over 700 flights. But probes had serious limitations as data gatherers: their observations were made at one location, one altitude, on a particular day. An ideal space technology program should produce a “map” of environmental effect plotted against time. Needed were vehicles that could remain in space; clearly, those vehicles would be satellites.

The Air Force began building a space technology satellite in 1958, using a Thor-Agena combination. This space system reached its full productivity during the Kennedy Administration; by December 1963 it had made 53 successful flights. It flew dozens of sensors and experiments, but its basic contribution lay not so much in the variety of its experiments as in the continuous, repetitive coverage it provided. An important side benefit of this satellite was the introduction of new engineering knowledge and techniques. It tested the Agena stage, for example, and exercised the Air Force’s global Satellite Control Facility, Sunnyvale, California, for the first time.

Of course, the space technology satellite was not operating alone in its field. The Mercury program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in which the Air Force shared heavily, was gathering a mass of data on man in space as Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, and Cooper brought back the record of their pioneering flights. The X-15, although not a satellite, served as a bridge between space probes and satellites, collecting data over a substantial time duration and helping develop engineering answers to a special class of aerodynamic problems.

In 1961, American engineers were using space data from these systems to outline critical technology required by future space systems. Lists of needs appeared in a number of Air Force studies—chief among which was the Gardner Committee Report—calling for new achievements in propulsion, guidance and navigation, auxiliary power, sensors, materials, environmental knowledge, and bioastronautics. These needs were reflected in key hardware requirements: low cost, standard building-block boosters; standardized modular stages; attitude control subsystems; auxiliary power subsystems; and command and control equipment.

The Wiesner Report of 10 January 1961, which examined the national space program for the President-elect, shared a majority of common viewpoints with the Gardner Committee Report. In addition, it pressed hard for certain specifics: setting up an improved management environment for space development; developing larger (much larger) boosters; developing a nuclear rocket engine; developing a manned space station; moving swiftly toward manned lunar landings; and developing an interceptor satellite.

At the same time these studies were under preparation, the Air Force was working on a comparison analysis of what it was doing and should be doing in space to meet the needs essential to carrying out its functions.

First, the Air Force reviewed its space facilities. It had an operational space detection and tracking capability in SPADATS at its Air Defense Command headquarters, Colorado. In the Air Force Systems Command, it had electronic centers at the Electronic Systems Division, Massachusetts, and at Rome Air Development Center, New York; excellent propulsion research facilities were in-being at Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California, at Wright Air Development Center, Ohio, and at Arnold Engineering Development Center, Tennessee; and at the Air Force Missile Development Center, New Mexico, a seven-mile sled track stood ready to test guidance subsystems.

Cape Canaveral, Florida, a $1-billion capital investment, was available as an excellent near-equatorial space launching center. An 80,000-acre site at Vandenberg AFB, California, could be used for launchings into polar orbit.

The Air Force had the boosters for the space job. The Thor, which was to make its 100th space launching in December 1962, was boosting Air Force space technology satellites into orbit, as well as the Army’s communication satellite experiments, the Navy’s navigational satellite, and NASA’s Explorer (scientific), Tiros (meteorological), and Echo (communications). The Atlas booster was available for heavier space loads. The Agena was showing excellent reliability as a second stage with either booster.

The Air Force had the industrial base for space. The ballistic missile program had created a new industrial complex across the face of America. Twenty prime contractors and 1700 subcontractors were looking forward to assuming imaginative roles in space work.

The Air Force’s Satellite Control Facility was a unique organization and fundamental to space operations: the tracking, controlling, and commanding of satellites, some of which would require scores of separate commands on a sing e orbital pass.

Finally, the Air Force had organized the Space Systems Division at Los Angeles in April 1961 as a special management team to handle its space programs.

These unique assets implied extensive obligations, going beyond the Air Force itself to all military agencies and to the nation at large. In 1959, the Air Force had been made responsible for furnishing space booster support to all the military services. In March 1981, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara assigned “research, development, test, and engineering of Department of Defense space development programs or projects, which are approved hereafter” to the Air Force. Again, during the same month, he assigned all DOD reconnaissance, mapping, and geodetic programs to the Air Force. These responsibilities aggregated into an Air Force space mission of great scope potential:

(a) To conduct applied research and advanced technology to further the state of the space art.
(b) To manage the development and procurement of Department of Defense space systems.
(c) To launch, control, and recover DOD space vehicles.
(d) To support other federal agencies as required in attaining national space objectives.

What was the Air Force’s space program at this time? How was it meeting its mission? The military applications of space have been thoroughly studied, and answers as to how the Department of Defense can use space fall into three categories: as an observation post, as a communication center, and as an arena for deterrence. The Air Force had arrived at these conclusions well before 1961 and was developing space systems of each species. The nuclear detection satellite and the attack alarm satellite, for example, were designed to search space and earth for possible covert nuclear testing and ballistic missile launchings. By 1962 the Air Force was building a communication satellite, using mid-level repeater communicators as well as synchronously orbiting spacecraft, to furnish truly global information channels for military users. If space were to be kept peaceful, it was necessary to know what was in space and, specifically, to be able to obtain information on “unknown” orbiting spacecraft. To this end, the Air Force had begun work on a simple inspector satellite.

But the Air Force program of activities extended far beyond its own needs. Time and again, when reading a news account of a Navy, Army, or NASA space flight, one saw the expression “the Air Force furnished the booster.” This terse phrase came into perspective in the Wiesner Report: “The USAF provides 90% or more of the resources and physical support required by the space programs of other agencies.” Booster services were indeed extensive, covering a wide range of activity that might include the first booster stage (usually a Thor or an Atlas), the second stage (an Agena or Able-Star), the final stage vehicle, total system engineering, procurement services for the system, a launching pad, launching services, injection into orbit, on-orbit command and control, and capsule recovery. The record of these services was impressive:

Year Total Launchings Air Force Boosted Other
1960 29 21 8
1961 52 42 10
1962 46 37 9

For the Navy, the Air Force’s booster services were devoted to two very successful programs: a navigational satellite and a geodetic satellite. For the Army, booster support centered on communication satellite tests.

For NASA, the cooperative services were continuous and extensive, Mercury and Gemini being the best-known examples. Others were Ranger, the lunar exploration satellite; Mariner, the Venusian exploration satellite; Topside Sounder, which looked at the ionosphere from above for the first time; Echo, for communications; Nimbus, the advanced version of Tiros; the Geophysical Observatory, for space technology studies; Rebound for passive communications research; the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, for obtaining astronomical data above the interfering atmosphere; Fire, for very high-speed re-entry tests; and Gemini/Target, the docking partner for Gemini. Each of these projects derived its major support from the Air Force—support which NASA officials described as enthusiastic, continuing, and effective in achieving positive results.

In furnishing booster services, the Air Force became convinced of the need for standardized, reliable, “building-block” boosters. The first of these was the solid-propellant Blue Scout, developed in collaboration with NASA and made up of modular units that could be assembled for a variety of payloads and operations. The Agena D, built on a remarkably short 6-months schedule, reduced the variety of Agenas from nine to one. The Standard Atlas brought a ballistic missile design closer to the needs of space Systems. Most important of all, the Titan III family of solid-propellant boosters promised to give the United States capability for lifting as much as 25,000 pounds into a l00-nautical-mile circular orbit.

The Air Force program, coming into flower during the second and third years of President Kennedy’s term of office, generated dozens of firsts in space. Internationally, the United States was regaining much of its prestige, as witness the September 1962 international box score:

  Earth Satellites Lunar Probes  Inter-planetary Probes  Total
U.S. spacecraft   orbited 71 1 4 76
Soviet spacecraft orbited 21 1 2 24

As the Air Force reviewed its assets and resources for space work, its broad mission assignment, and its wide-ranging program, it was tempting to assume that events were combining to make the promise of space a reality for military spacemen. Yet, even as it stood in the midst of apparent bounty, the Air Force began to note signs that the headlong rush of military space activity was to be challenged.

In May 1961, for example, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator of NASA jointly requested the Vice President of the United States to add $626 million to the FY 1962 national space program. These recommendations included a manned lunar spacecraft with a launching vehicle development, a solid-propellant development, an unmanned lunar exploration program, a satellite communications system, a meteorological satellite, a nuclear rocket development, and supporting research and technology. Of this massive work list, only the solid-propellant development was to be done by the DOD, and of the $626-million price tag only $77 million was to go to the DOD. NASA was chosen to carry out the President’s decision to commit the U.S. to landing a man on the moon.

Two months before, in March 1961, the Office of the Secretary of Defense had assigned to the Air Force “research, development, test, and engineering of Department of Defense space development programs or projects, which are approved hereafter.” Although this action was welcomed widely within the Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force Eugene Zuckert, who had a great gift for seeing the defense scene steadily and seeing it whole, remarked that although he, too, welcomed the assignment, it could turn out to be "1ike getting a franchise to run a bus line across the Sahara Desert.” His observation was validated immediately as the OSD began to place existing space programs under a most detailed scrutiny (which often appeared to the Air Force to be hostile). This critical examination went on for months and was very difficult for the Air Force to understand, let alone accept.

Why did the review occur at this particular time, 1961? It could hardly be attributed to impact or backlash from the Soviet space program. During 1961 the Soviet space drama was centering on manned space flights—Vostoks 1 and 2 (Gagarin and Titov); any pressure resulting from these spectaculars would have impacted on NASA, rather than the Air Force. And the examination could not be attributed to a bow wave of NASA activity, since NASA had no space spectaculars during 1961.

We can see today that the basic conflict did not derive from Soviet or NASA influences; rather, it was a product of a fundamental difference in functional and managerial outlook between the OSD and the Air Force. The differences could be summarized, though perhaps oversimplified, as follows:

The 1961 Air Force 
  The 1961 OSD Spaceman
Enthusiastic and zealous 
for space
  Sober, cautious, conservative
Long experience in military space work   New in military space 
Eager to sponsor multiple 
solutions to a single 
space problem
  Determined to select a
single best solution, in 
Advocates of a total 
space systems concept
  Believers in an R&D demonstration concept

These differences in attitude and belief created a fundamental schism regarding the best way to get a space job begun or done. Communication between the two agencies was frequently strained, and relations were complex. Following its own convictions rigorously, the OSD began to cancel or slow down a number of Air Force “pre-Kennedy” programs. The cases took on a dreary similarity, with a regular pattern of review, revision, de-emphasis, or elimination. In January-February 1961, the OSD canceled practically all funding for a spaceborne defense system. In July 1961 it organized a review task group to study the attack alarm system, stating in advance of the review, “It is not anticipated that the results of this study will result in a termination of the program; however ….” In August 1961 it reduced the satellite inspector to a backburner research and development program. In April 1961 it had set a $200,000-limit on individual Air Force space studies, and in the summer of 1962 it took one of its most drastic actions: cancelation of the entire space system study program. Most of these actions clustered in 1961; some parallel actions extended into 1962; the Dyna-Soar cancelation took place in December 1963.

Air Force-OSD space relationships reached their nadir on 9 October 1962, when Assistant Secretary of Defense John Rubel, appearing before the Aerospace Luncheon Club, made a militant speech containing four points that struck the Air Force very hard: (1) in spite of all the studies undertaken over the past five years, no really new ideas for space had evolved; (2) manned military missions in space simply did not make sense; (3) all OSD space systems had to meet clear-cut military requirements; and (4) systems decisions would not be made in response to doctrinal concepts.

At this point it seemed to the Air Force as if Secretary Zuckert’s bus franchise would indeed begin and end in the Sahara. Looking back now, however, one notes that the space prospects of the Air Force were beginning to take an upturn, even in the midst of tribulation. By late 1961 the new OSD space team had essentially completed its review of the existing Air Force program, had purged or slowed down what it found questionable, was planning to sponsor replacement programs that met its new ground rules, and was becoming personally identified as the creator of an approved OSD space program, which, as before, would be largely under the stewardship of the Air Force. In effect, the OSD space team was about to accept its own space program, which happened to be in the Air Force. And, as it gained experience with the OSD, the Air Force was beginning to accept new principles for evaluating and managing a space program. This acceptance had developed early at the Air Force Secretarial level. At other levels acceptance was grudging, limited at first, but inevitable. Regardless of how one felt about them, the new ground rules were becoming facts of life that could not be set aside. Henceforth, Air Force space programs, like other expensive military programs, would be disciplined in concept and scope by an external evaluation of OSD or national (rather than service) need, by system analysis considerations, cost-effectiveness studies, trade-offs, and deliberately conservative extensions of the technological state of the art. New authorizations would be limited, initially, to a research and development phase, followed (perhaps) by an extended precommitment period, and would require continuous, exhaustive justification of all technical, managerial, and procurement aspects to the OSD.

The first step toward reconstructive action came late in 1961, when an Air Force study for a Titan III standardized space booster was accepted. In May 1962 OSD’s  DDR&E issued a White Paper sponsoring the development of a communication satellite by the Air Force. In the spring-summer of 1962, cooperative Air Force--NASA Gemini tests were approved. In March 1968 the OSD agreed to finance a new Air Force satellite inspector. In December 1963 the beginnings of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory were assigned to the Air Force.

The years 1961-63 represented a period of introspection on the part of the Air Force, a period of adjustment to a demanding external management and reorientation of goals in conformity with broadened national space objectives. These events have made 1961-63 a unique source of clues to the military space program of the decade to come. We know, for example, that the space management innovations of 1961-63 remained with the Air Force, have become well-formulated and strongly developed in the OSD, and are even beginning to take root in other government agencies.

Will this close external interest and supervision continue? The answer is “Yes,” or perhaps “Yes, as long as space systems are expensive. "For space systems are not just expensive, they are shockingly expensive. A modest R&D program approved in 1969 can easily become an operational budget-devouring monster in 1972. Spacemen (and Clarke follows the custom) like to quote Tennyson’s vision of

. . . argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight . . . 

But the next phrase, “dropping down with costly bales,” is usually glossed over or omitted. Space “bales” are indeed costly, unusually costly, because they are handcrafted, custom-built, and discarded after one use. Until some way is found to reduce these costs by at least an order of magnitude, military space activities will continue to receive very close attention at the top levels of the OSD—and above.

What do the lessons of the early ‘60s tell us about space activities of the ‘70s? One may generalize, with reasonable confidence, on the military spacecraft of the ‘70s. They will be designed to provide, as now, observation, communication, and deterrent capabilities. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory will be flying during the ‘70s, getting answers to a multitude of questions about the space environment, somewhat like the space technology satellite of the early ‘60s. The very successful nuclear detection satellite will undoubtedly have follow-on counterparts in orbit. Attack alarm satellites will be patrolling the skies, alert to missile launchings over the entire globe. Communication satellites will continue to be useful for both strategic and tactical purposes and will show longer active lifetimes and an increase in available channels. Improved navigation satellites will certainly continue to serve an important defense function. Inspector satellites will probably be available for rendezvous with, and observation of, noncooperative objects in space.

The military man of this generation may roam personally or vicariously through near-earth orbit, but the planets and stars are not for him. He will be a space traveler but not a space explorer, for to enter the realms of cislunar or planetary space he would need to establish, in advance, an explicit, cost-effective need serving national objectives. This doctrine of the early ‘60s will echo throughout the ‘70s.

Working within a franchise that is constrained by money and motive (but still extending far beyond the Sahara), it is likely that the main "new" effort will go into advanced space technology, with the emphasis on “smaller,” “lighter,” “tougher,” “cheaper,” and “different,” in the conviction that this is the route to changing the cost of proposed space systems from “prohibitively” expensive to “very” expensive.

Under these circumstances, it might appear to the military space enthusiast that the grass on the NASA side of the fence is very green. He should take a closer look. In 1969 NASA is hearing, and will continue to hear, the sobering phraseology so familiar to the DOD: “cost effectiveness,” “options,” “trade-offs,” “national goals.” NASA has also been hearing other ominous words, such as “Vietnam,” “urban renewal,” “disadvantaged,” “surtax.” The impetus of the 1961 Presidential announcement will carry NASA astronauts to the moon, but not far beyond, according to recent fiscal decisions. What happens to the moon program after a few successful landings will depend, in large measure, on Congressional and popular reaction to what is found on the moon. For, as Mr. Clarke points out, NASA bales are even more costly than DOD bales, with “the price of the first ticket to the Moon . . . approximately $10 billion, though in later Apollo flights, as development costs are written off, it should come to something like $1 billion.” Since, as he goes on to say, “we cannot continue indefinitely to carpet the Atlantic seabed with Saturn V’s,” NASA’s space program, like that of the DOD, must turn to a relentless pursuit of the “smaller,” “lighter,” “tougher,” “cheaper,” and “different.”

The lack of approval for a postlunar manned program has led NASA to an introspection and self-analysis strongly reminiscent of the Air Force situation of 1961-62. Looking at the fiscal parabola which contrasts NASA’s affluence of 1961-66 with the comparative frugality of the present, its planners have been working hard to find answers to the question, “How do we fill the gap?” Pessimists, stung by the prospect of retrenchment, have suggested drastic alternatives that would involute NASA back into the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) or capitalize on new “growth stocks” such as oceanography or urban renewal. It is unlikely that NASA’s choices will follow these avenues. Rather, it appears that, like the Air Force of 1961-62, NASA will emerge from its self-analysis with new concepts of management and a program more closely aligned to shifting national goals. For one example, NASA is in a preferred position, historically and by inclination, to assume national leadership in the basic research, development, and advanced technology required to produce smaller, lighter, tougher, cheaper, and different spacecraft. Second, NASA’s strong interest in using spacecraft for the direct economic benefit of man could lead to extensions of already-useful programs typified by meteorological, geodetic, communication, and navigational satellites. Here the rules of cost effectiveness will certainly prevail as the costs of candidate space programs are compared to benefits to the United States. It seems clear, even now, that in some instances NASA will find itself in a position to use aircraft to excellent advantage as a complement to its space program. Third, it seems reasonable to conjecture that NASA will give increasing consideration to aeronautics. This could lead to an appropriate renewal of a pre-eminence which it had demonstrated for years and to which it still pays homage in the second word of its name. It would be anomalous, for example, if future advanced civil aircraft were developed and tested elsewhere than in the nation’s aeronautics agency. Finally, if the ‘70s bring a serious international movement toward disarmament, it is possible that NASA would find a rewarding mission in developing and operating an arms control satellite--internationally, bilaterally, unilaterally.

Mr. Clarke writes:

Every age has its dreams, its symbols of romance. Past generations were moved by the graceful power of the great windjammer, by the distant whistle of locomotives pounding through the night, by the caravans leaving on the Golden Road to Samarkand, and by the quinquiremes of Nineveh from distant Ophir . . . Our grandchildren will likewise have their inspiration--among the equatorial stars.

This “purely imaginative” view reflects a great inspirational influence in the early history of the United States military and civilian space programs. As these programs advance, a “purely technical” counterpoint is heard: inspiration is being forced to harmonize value with cost. Yet, of this nation’s many visions, all costly, the inspiration of the stars will continue strong, and each decade will mark a giant stride toward fulfilling the promise that awaits us.

Washington, D. C.


Colonel Paul Worthman (M.A., Miami University) is Deputy Director of the Space Systems Office, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. After completing aviation cadet training in 1942, he served as a meteorologist throughout World War II in the Pacific Theater. Postwar assignments have been as Chief, Atmospheric Sciences Section, Hq USAF; as head of the Atmospheric Devices Laboratory, AF Cambridge Research Center, 1953-56; as Chief, AF Ballistic Missile Division Office Hq Air Research and Development Command; as Director of Space Systems, AFBMD, and Chief, Plans and Programs Office in the newly formed Space Systems Division, from 1960 until his present assignment in 1962.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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