The United States did not have a space program of any sort until 1954, when the Air Force finally secured permission to begin preliminary work on a satellite reconnaissance system. About one year later, in the spring of 1955, the National Security Council's decision to permit development of a relatively simple "scientific satellite" marked the start of another approach to space activity. In both instances, it was 1956 before much in the way of funds was available to support either activity.

The background of American space interest before the 1954-1955 period remains comparatively obscure, even to specialists. During the epidemic of space fever that swept the nation following the Soviet successes of late 1957, the general public became rather hazily aware of such earlier related activities as the experiments of Robert H. Goddard, the development of the German V-2, and the security-shrouded intercontinental ballistic missile program. But perhaps because the years between 1945 and 1957 had seen slight American space enterprise, and perhaps because Americans little like to be told of their failings, the details received no significant attention.

The purpose of this brief study is to gather some of the threads of space enterprise in the 1946-1956 period. For obvious reasons, attention is concentrated on the American scene and, still more narrowly, on the role of the United States Air Force. Nevertheless, an attempt has been made to provide some perspective on other activities related to that general theme.

Available sources are few. H. Lee Bowen's Threshold of Space, 1945-1959 devotes only portions of its first 18 pages to the pre-1957 years. He had completed the draft of a more detailed treatment of Air Force space programs by the middle of 1962, but its publication date remained uncertain. No other Air Force history deals with the period in any depth. Of course, a phalanx of popular writers of variable talent and uncertain knowledge had flooded the market with pseudo science treatises on space flight by 1960, but none of these writers made much use of official documents, and most were more concerned with dramatics than with the relatively prosaic background to the Sputnik years.

In the interest of early publication, research for this history was limited largely to sources available within the Space Systems Division (Air Force Systems Command) at the time of writing. Dr. Bowen, in Air Force headquarters, provided both advice and specific information from his own research, while cheerfully acceding to the use of some material he had laboriously gathered for his own work. Bits and pieces of data came from the office of the command historian and from a skimpy lot of documents collected by the author during an earlier assignment to the Aeronautical Systems Division. Advice, guidance, and invaluable information were also provided by several individuals assigned to both the Space Systems Division and its sibling, the Ballistic Systems Division. Major General R. E. Greer, Colonels P. E. Worthman and Ray Soper, and Lieutenant Colonel V. M. Genez were particularly helpful. Individual acknowledgments are provided in citations of the information as it appears in the narrative.

It is to be hoped that additional information bearing on the formative years of the space program will appear as a result of continuing research. Much that is critical to an adequate understanding has been forgotten, or the records have disappeared. Comments on the accuracy and completeness of this account are, therefore, openly solicited, and any contributions individual readers can make either to the fund of facts or to their interpretation will be most welcome. A continuation of the history of Air Force space programs, probably covering the period from 1955 through 1959, is presently in the research stage with publication scheduled, hopefully, for late 1962 or early 1963. Revision of this manuscript to reflect the product of reader commentary and additional research may then be attempted.


August 1962