ORIGINS OF THE USAF SPACE PROGRAM 1945-1956
THE TRANSITION FROM PROGRAM TO SYSTEM
A combination of circumstances had contributed to the new course of space-program activity. One of the key elements certainly was the emergence of a group of scientific advisors who both appreciated the gravity of the Soviet threat and seemed willing to consider "unconventional" approaches to the United States response. Oddly enough, it was a new "economy drive" in the defense department that provided the final impetus. Determined that defense expenditures could and should be reduced, the department created a Guided Missiles Study Group (under its Armed Forces Policy Council) to recommend means for cutting the cost of the missile program. (Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson in his 16 June 1953 directive creating the review committee specified that "a continuous effort should be made to standardize on one missile for production and use by all military departments, wherever, within the employment limitations of each type of missile, standardization appears to be practicable.") The original group encountered evidence of a significant change in the status of the long-delayed intercontinental ballistic missile program, created a special subcommittee (Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee) to delve more deeply into the subject, and passed on to other topics. Under the leadership of Professor John von Neumann, the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee reviewed the status of the rocket missile program and concluded that new warhead developments plus advances in rocket technology made an intercontinental missile immediately feasible That conclusion, and a series of implementation recommendations, reached Trevor Gardner, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Research and Development, in the first quarter of 1954. Enthused about the potential of the proposal, Gardner and von Neumann secured the active support of the Air Force chief of staff, General N.F. Twining, and Secretary of the Air Force Harold E. Talbott. Together, they succeeded in obtaining funds and directives needed to start work. By July, a field organization had been created, a supporting contractor engaged, and the broad outlines of a massive ballistic missile development program sketched in.
The creation of a substantial ballistic missile program in the Air Force had significance far beyond immediate consequences--though these were important enough. It meant, first, that the eight-year struggle to obtain acknowledgment of the feasibility of long range rockets had been won. The Bush thesis had finally succumbed to the von Neumann thesis. Second, it implied the availability, in the foreseeable future, of rocket vehicles sufficiently powerful to thrust a satellite into orbit. Finally, by confirming that space-age weapons would shortly be operational, it testified to the need for developing a useful military competence in space; to a great many Air Force planners it seemed obvious that only a military space capability could provide an effective counterweight to an intercontinental ballistic missile force.
In May 1954, concurrent with key decisions in the ballistic missile area, Air Force headquarters directed the Air Research and Development Command to assume responsibility for a study of the applications of RAND's Feed Back concept. The research command promptly "documented" Project 1115, obtaining final approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Coordinating Committee on Guided Missiles) in July. In August, Pentagon authorization to proceed with actual work reached the field command, and that command set about issuing more comprehensive directives. The appearance of System Requirement Number 5 on 27 November 1954 signaled approval of a clearly defined effort to develop a reconnaissance satellite system, even though the general operational requirement (GOR No 80) did not emerge from Pentagon channels until 16 March of the following year.
A number of presentations of the Feed Back proposal, largely as defined by RAND, marked the summer and early fall of 1954. Following the Air Research and Development Command's assumption of project responsibility in May, that command began a determined attempt to obtain approval for an expanded industry study effort. Among those who heard and in some degree endorsed the Feed Back approach were the acting chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, J.A. Doolittle, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General N.F. Twining, and the heads of Strategic Air Command and the Air Research and Development Command- -Generals LeMay and Power. General LeMay was quite responsive to the presentation, urging preparation of a formal Strategic Air Command requirements document covering the satellite; but other of the command's officials, notably in its operations analysis staff, urged the greater need for improved refueling techniques and manned bombers. General Putt, who immediately preceded Power as Research and Development Command Chief, strongly supported the satellite program, as did Power himself.
While such presentations were being made at various levels, work began on a number of additional elements, or proposed elements, of the reconnaissance satellite: attitude, guidance, and control, a solar-electrical energy converter, intelligence processing methods, the auxiliary power plant, and the effects of nuclear radiation on electronic components.
In October 1954, Trevor Gardner asked the "ICBM Scientific Advisory Group" (which included many of the earlier von Neumann committee) to consider the possible interaction of satellite proposals and other missile proposals of the moment with the intercontinental ballistic missile effort then rapidly unfolding. The committee decided that the review should be undertaken directly by the Air Force. It was ultimately completed by the Western Development Division and recommended, in effect, that because of the necessity for coordinating the several large rocket-vehicle programs the reconnaissance satellite should be assigned to the Western Development Division for management.
In that a system requirement generally called for the submission of data needed to prepare a formal development plan, while a general operational requirement specified objectives and time goals, the 16 March 1955 requirements document issued by Air Force headquarters actually constituted the first full and formal statement of the reconnaissance satellite program. In many respects, as might have been anticipated, it paralleled the earlier RAND studies. It defined as the Air Force objective a means of providing continuous surveillance of "preselected areas of the earth" in order "to determine the status of a potential enemy's war making capability." Intended for launch from fixed bases, the reconnaissance satellite was to provide daylight visual coverage in sufficient detail to permit identification of air-field runways and intercontinental launch stations. Additionally, an alternate ability to collect electronic intelligence and to provide weather forecasting data was also specified. Although the "ultimate" required definition ("capability to detect objects no more than 20' on a side,") was somewhat optimistic in terms of RAND's earlier findings, the required operational availability date (1965) seemed basically sound.
Initial management of the project was assigned to Wright Air Development Center, the project officers being Lieutenant Colonel Q.A. Riepe and (after August 1955) Lieutenant Colonel W.G. King, Jr. By November 1955, 14 basic "in house" technical tasks had been defined, approved, and assigned to project officers for control purposes. The Air Force had also contracted with Radio Corporation of America, Glenn L. Martin, and Lockheed Aircraft for design studies intended to establish more specifically the time and technology requirements of the undertaking. Industry investigations were conducted under the nickname "Pied Piper."
As early as January 1955, the von Neumann group had decided that it would be possible--and preferable--to work initially on the satellite vehicle and its contents rather than on a total reconnaissance system which would include the booster elements. In this fashion, contended the committee, there would arise no need for interference with the ballistic missile program. The commander and vice commander of the Air Research and Development Command, Lieutenant General T.S. Power and Major General J.R. Sessums, agreed that this was their understanding of program objectives.
In general terms, it was the wish of the Western Development Division and its commander, General Schriever, to devote their principal attention to the intercontinental ballistic missile. The introduction of non-germane tasks such as tactical-range ballistic missiles and satellites promised to interfere with the main assignment unless additional resources were concurrently provided. Nevertheless, it was early apparent than no serious military satellite program could be undertaken by the United States without imposing additional requirements on the ballistic missile development agency. Of the possible launch vehicles that would be available within the years of satellite development and test, only the Atlas-Thor-Titan family promised fully satisfactory thrust characteristics. While not specifically rejecting the notion that the WS 117L program might be assigned to the Western Development Division, those concerned tended to express hope that some alternative could be devised. In one of the early discussions of the reconnaissance satellite during a meeting of the "ICBM Scientific Advisory Committee" in June 1955, the group chiefly considered the topic in a context of "steps which could be taken to prevent the TBM [Tactical Ballistic Missile] and Scientific Satellite programs from interfering with the ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] program." After evaluating the question in some detail, the group decided on a course of action.
. . .The committee unanimously agreed that any Satellite program, Scientific or Reconnaissance, which is dependent on components being developed under the ICBM program, would interfere with the earliest attainment of an ICBM operational capability and requested the Chairman to write a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force advising the Secretary of the Committee's concern in this matter.
There was no question of lack of foresight in such a decision. The group was overwhelmingly concerned with keeping the infant ballistic missile program alive and satisfying the critical need for an operational ballistic missile. There seemed slight prospect that the materiel and personnel resources then available to the Western Development Division could accommodate a major satellite program without diluting the effectiveness of its missile effort; by the same token, in the climate of June 1955, the prospects for obtaining additional resources commensurate with the expanded requirements were so slight as to be unworthy of notice.
The basic question of who should manage WS 117L was resolved in Gordian-knot fashion on l0 October 1955, when General Power ruled that the entire program would be transferred from the custody of Wright Air Development Center to the Western Development Division. The formal notification did not come for another month, and final details of the transfer were not settled until 1956 had begun. Nevertheless, the broad outlines of the undertaking, the scope of the task, and the obvious difficulty of the program were made clearly apparent in the revised system requirement which formally assigned the reconnaissance satellite to General Schriever's keeping.
Although much remained before the WS ll7L program could complete the transition from system proposal to system development, the first steps had been taken. Unhappily for the simplicity of program management, however, the years between 1953 and 1956 were also marked by the commingling of military space vehicle programs with "alternative" or "scientific" satellite proposals. The basic requirement originated in the United States' agreement to participate in the International Geophysical Year activities, became attached to independent satellite proposals originating in both Army and Navy rocket research establishments, and eventually affected the WS 117L program as it was assigned to the Western Development Division.
Although the original Navy approach of 1945 and the RAND studies of early 1946 both contemplated prototype satellites with more "scientific" than military application, it was not until October 1948 that the general scientific community was exposed to such notions. In that month, the Journal of Applied Physics published the "Grimminger Report," a brief article based on unclassified elements of the earlier RAND studies. Its principal effect was to stir up enthusiasm among the various national rocket societies and those relatively small and isolated groups of specialists whose interests were affected by the prospect of space exploration.
The second major impulse for the creation of a scientific satellite came from the space flight enthusiasts and their allies in astronautics. Both formal and informal discussions of the feasibility of and the need for scientific satellites marked the proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, in London, and the First Symposium on Space flight, in New York, during the fall of 1951. Publication of the proceedings of the London meeting as The Artificial Satellite gave the British Interplanetary Society the distinction of having prepared and circulated the first published work to be devoted exclusively to space vehicles.
Wernher von Braun was by that time conducting his own campaign for sponsorship of' an experimental satellite program but as yet had not secured support from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The "MOUSE" (Minimum Orbital Unmanned Satellite, Earth) proposal originated by Dr. Fred Singer was attracting some attention by 1953. (Singer, Arthur C. Clarke, and A.V. Cleaver of the British Interplanetary Society chose the name and blocked out a public relations program for "MOUSE" during an informal meeting in London.) After being rather extensively discussed during the May 1954 Symposium on Space, in New York, the Singer scheme proceeded to gain considerable support in conventional scientific circles.
Concurrent with the "MOUSE" proposal, von Braun formally recommended that the Army fabricate and launch "a minimum satellite vehicle based upon components available from missile developments of the Army Ordnance Corps." Specifically, he urged that the Army use a Redstone missile as the first-stage booster for a satellite. Deciding that the participation of all three services would be necessary to acceptance and funding of such a program, the Army invited both the Air Force and the Navy to cooperate. The plan then being considered involved orbiting a five-pound inert "slug" about two feet in diameter, using clusters of solid-fuel Loki rockets as the upper three stages of the four-stage launch vehicle.
The Navy expressed rather more than mild interest, but the Air Force declined participation because of its concern for long range efforts leading to heavier satellites with military utility. The key Army report was issued on 15 September 1954, while the formal approach to the Navy (following preliminary informal inquiries) was embodied in a memorandum of 14 December. Project costs, at that point, were estimated at $17 million. Some $500,000 actually were made available to support initial studies.
Although the Air Force was not particularly attracted by the von Braun approach, continued Air Force interest in the general topic was indicated by the appearance of a February 1954 RAND study dealing with the uses of a scientific satellite. In both the 1954 study and a supplemental report of June 1955, RAND emphasized the need for an instrumented test vehicle to provide useful data for later space research; the concept of an "inert slug" then being considered by the Army and the Navy was quite ignored. As had been true since 1946, Air Force concern for space exploration was much more closely concerned with useful scientific experimentation than with the general prospect of orbiting "something."
Among scientists, the notion of satellite research gained additional impetus from published reports of Soviet interest in "an artificial satellite of the earth" (November 1953) and from the Soviet creation in September 1954 of a special Tsiolkovski gold medal for work in the field of space flight. The Russians announced that such awards would be made starting in 1957. Concurrently, in 1954, several leading Soviet scientists were named to a permanent commission on astronautics.
By August 1954, Congress had sanctioned United States participation in the activities of the International Geophysical Year. Shortly thereafter, a special committee of the geophysical year agency had recommended that thought be given to the launching of "small satellite vehicles" and the House of Representatives had begun consideration of a formal appropriation of $10 million to support American participation in the scientific activities of the international group. (At about the same time, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson told a press conference that he had no knowledge of any American satellite program.)
In the early months of 1955, the Army and the Navy worked out the details of their proposed joint satellite effort--dubbed Project Orbiter. At that point, the National Security Council had to decide what, if any, relationship should prevail between the existing military missile programs and the requirement for a scientific satellite to support the International Geophysical Year. The decision was formally inscribed in a council directive of 26 May 1955--a document which officially expressed the President's doctrine on the"peaceful uses of space" and which decreed that the American satellite for the International Geophysical Year could not employ any missile intended for military purposes.
The selection of a satellite program was entrusted to Donald A. Quarles, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Development. Quarles named an "Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Special Capabilities," with Dr. H.J. Stewart as chairman, to make specific recommendations on the scientific satellite.
When the Stewart Committee began its investigations, the possible choices had been reduced to three--and two of these were clearly dependent on the use of vehicles drawn from the missile programs of the services. The Army and the Navy proposed Project Orbiter, using the Redstone missile plus upper stages of Loki rockets. In June, the von Neumann group discussed a rather general proposal to employ an early test-version Atlas (Series A) missile to boost a scientific satellite into orbit. The general reaction was that the required Atlas prototypes could be more usefully employed elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Air Force proposed a combination called "World Series" based on an Atlas carrying as its upper stage the well proven Aerobee-Hi space probe rocket. The third alternate was the Navy's Project Vanguard, a program hinging on use of modified Viking rocket and available upper stages (four stages in all).
Although the Army concluded, on the basis of such developments, that both the Air Force and the Navy were sponsoring firm alternatives to the Orbiter program, and that interservice rivalry was at the core of the situation, such was not the case. Looking at requirements in the light of the 26 May National Security Council directive, the Navy quite logically concluded that neither Orbiter nor "World Series" could receive Stewart Committee approval. The "Viking proposal," which became Vanguard, made its appearance as a backup to the primary Navy submission (jointly with the Army)--Project Orbiter.
Apart from the discussion of an Atlas-launched satellite in the von Neumann group, relatively little of importance emerged from Air Force quarters during the period when the Stewart Committee was considering a recommendation. The committee visited the Western Development Division and heard briefings on the Atlas program, its applicability to the general area of scientific satellites, and the prospect of interference between the scientific satellite and the ballistic missile program, but Air Force spokesmen were quite reserved in their advocacy of the Atlas approach. Although taking a conciliatory approach, Division representatives did not disguise their conviction that the directed creation of a special relationship between Atlas and the scientific satellite could easily cause interference with the military effort. They emphasized that a most careful management effort would be required to overcome the effects of such interference if the Atlas and the scientific satellite were tied together.
Shortly after the departure of the Stewart group, the Los Angeles complex considered Convair's presentation of an Atlas-boosted scientific satellite called ORTV-- Orbital Research and Test Vehicle--a 500-pound satellite to be tied to an Atlas C missile for launch. In many respects, it was remarkably similar to the RAND concept of early 1947.
Late in August, the Stewart Committee ruled that Vanguard was more acceptable than Orbiter, principally because the latter would require the use of military "hardware"--Redstone rockets. The chief of Army Ordnance Research and Development promptly protested, pointing out technical shortcomings in the Vanguard approach and emphasizing the danger to United States prestige if the nation failed to be first into space- -but the Vanguard decision was reaffirmed. Those responsible both for confirming the original Stewart Committee recommendation and for rejecting subsequent appeals later told Congress that the Vanguard offered "greater promise" than its alternatives. The explanation that under the existing ground rules only Vanguard could be selected was not publicly offered. Indeed, at least one of the services which offered alternatives to the Vanguard approach was not even aware of the prohibition on the use of a military rocket as the boost vehicle; the Air Force presentation team continued to support World Series without the least intimation that it had been vetoed in advance.
Subsequent Air Force participation in the affair of the scientific satellite was not germane to the main course of events there. On 31 August 1955, after the Vanguard decision had been made but apparently before it had become general knowledge, Air Force headquarters directed the Air Research and Development Command to establish a separate scientific satellite project to be integrated with the WS 117L program. The directive implied that a prototype reconnaissance satellite vehicle should be used to satisfy requirements of the International Geophysical Year.
One month later, on 31 September 1955, Major General Albert Boyd, the Command's deputy commander for weapon systems, advised the Pentagon that substantial increases in fiscal 1956-1958 funding were essential before any progress could be attempted. This response and the impact of the Vanguard ruling prompted Air Force headquarters to issue, on 14 October, further instructions that the Air Research and Development Command should take no additional action on a scientific satellite program until Air Force responsibilities in that area had been clarified.
On 1 November 1955 the "hold order" of mid-October was canceled and the Air Research and Development Command received teletyped instructions to submit a plan for the use of WS 117L prototypes in the scientific satellite program. Command headquarters, within two weeks, had assigned responsibility for preparing such a plan to the Western Development Division. That organization, in rather less than two months, produced a detailed development plan covering a scientific satellite derived from the basic WS 117L program.
In retrospect, the real translation point between studies, proposals, reports, and component programs with limited objectives on the one hand, and a system development phase on the other, was publication of the 14 January 1956 development plan for a prototype, scientific-satellite variant of the WS 117L reconnaissance satellite. Although the preliminary development plan obviously was a somewhat hastily composed proposal for satisfying an Air Force headquarters' desire to participate in the scientific satellite program then beginning, it nevertheless represented the first positive proposal for orbiting an Air Force space vehicle within a given time period. In forwarding the preliminary development plan, General Schriever clearly indicated that his division was principally attempting to satisfy the Pentagon requirement for a demonstration of "orbital capability" using major elements of the Advanced Reconnaissance System--WS 1l7L. The crux of the January 1956 proposal was a feasibility demonstration "within the International Geophysical Year." Thus the initial proposal, deliberately "tentative" in nature, encompassed only that portion of the WS ll7L program which could influence plans for the geophysical year activities. In General Schriever's words:
It appears perfectly feasible to provide an orbiting vehicle of considerable payload capacity within the IGY period, provided implementing action is taken at an early date. This vehicle development can be carried out as a coherent part of the overall Advanced Reconnaissance System Program without significant compromise to the latter. Further, if current schedules can be maintained, no hardware interference with the ICBM program is foreseen. Some interference from a personnel dilution standpoint will necessarily exist. This can be minimized by advanced planning if a consistent program is pursued.
In polite terms, the general was stating that his organization could indeed orbit a scientific satellite if certain conditions were satisfied: adequate financial support, appropriate personnel reinforcements, and resolution to proceed with the program once it had been approved--without frequent halts and starts.
The January 1956 proposal conceived of an initial orbital flight, using an Atlas Series C missile as the boost vehicle, by 19 August 1958. The satellite itself, to weigh about 3, 500 pounds, was to contain " a propulsion system, guidance and control equipment, beacons and other items being developed for the ARS [Advanced Reconnaissance System] and essential for these tests."
In many respects, the proposed vehicle resembled the Thor-Agena combinations actually used in the Discoverer program more than five years later--with Atlas substituted for Thor. Specific scientific measurements which the planning group felt could be taken by the proposed vehicle included atmospheric density, frequency and mass of micrometeorites, thermal flux effects in orbit, solar radiation in the ultraviolet and X-ray regions, and effects of the ionosphere and troposhere on communications. Additional data that could be obtained from the proposed satellite, it appeared, could include information on cosmic radiation, the earth' s magnetic field, and solar high frequency radio noise.
Success in the effort, the Western Development Division carefully explained, would be dependent on four basic circumstances: maintenance of the ballistic missile program schedules, a prompt decision to proceed with the "preliminary" satellite proposal, early selection of a suitable contractor, and "the provision of adequate funds." Planners anticipated that the results of the satellite experiments would be beneficial to progress in ballistic missile development, but specified that missile contractors should not be called upon to participate in the satellite program if that participation would "detract in any way" from their primary concern: missiles. Estimated program cost totaled $95.5 million, of which $l3 million had to be made available by 1 April 1956 if the proposed schedule was to be maintained.
On 16 January 1956, General Power accepted and forwarded the preliminary plan. Two days later, the Air Force Research and Development Policy Council completed a rapid review of the proposal and sent it to the Stewart Committee. Early in February, a composite team from several Air Research and Development Command centers and divisions supported the written proposal through the medium of a special presentation. The Air Force group did not in all respects stand firm behind the Western Development Division plan, however. On instructions from General Putt, newly named Deputy Chief of Staff Development, in Air Force headquarters, the presentation team refrained from emphasizing the need for total program approval and indicated general willingness to "accept approval of a portion of the program."
As far as the Air Force was concerned, nothing particularly significant came from the January 1956 development plan or the later presentation to the Stewart Committee. Notwithstanding the fact that the committee had been far from unanimous in endorsing the Vanguard approach as the most promising of the several alternatives, the August 1955 decision in favor of Vanguard was allowed to stand.Putt's decision not to press the issue probably made no difference. A more forceful course presumably would have ended, in time, as did the action of the Chief of Army Research and Development, Lieutenant General J.M. Gavin, who in the spring of 1956, again vigorously argued for approval of a modified Orbiter program as a much more promising approach than Vanguard. On 15 May 1955 he received orders "telling me in specific terms [he later testified] that the Army would not prepare to launch a satellite using its Jupiter or Redstone missiles." Whatever the consequences, the May 1955 National Security Council decision to separate the scientific satellite from military programs prevailed. In the instance of both the Army Orbiter and the Air Force WS 1l7L, the key factor in the decision not to proceed with an alternative or accessory scientific satellite approach was the strong possibility that the close association of such a satellite with a specific military weapon might delay the scheduled delivery of that weapon. General Schriever and his staff had consistently emphasized that the earliest possible operational availability of an intercontinental ballistic missile was the key objective of the Air Force program and that an Atlas-launched satellite effort had to hinge on success in that effort. The Army frankly conceded that acceptance of its plan to launch a Redstone Arsenal satellite by January 1957 would delay the Jupiter missile program by about three months. The delicacy of development, test, and delivery schedules for the Atlas was even more pronounced than for the Jupiter. Even while proposing a plan for using the Atlas Series C missile to orbit a prototype satellite, the Air Force repeatedly emphasized that no more than a slight slippage in Atlas development would be needed to delay availability of Atlas boosters past the point where they could be used to satisfy International Geophysical Year requirements. Thus the uncertainty of success in meeting geophysical year deadlines and the general prejudice against interfering in any way with the progress of ballistic missile development essentially caused the demise of the 1956 proposal to orbit an Air Force scientific satellite.
Something in the nature of an epilogue to the January-February 1956 episode occurred one year later. On 1 February 1957, the development staff in Air Force headquarters, at the request of the Department of Defense, asked General Schriever's group to submit a current estimate of the ability of the Air Force to build a "back-up" scientific satellite that could be launched during the International Geophysical Year. The West Coast agency replied on 8 February, in a message that was forwarded from command headquarters three days later, that no Air Force scientific satellite launchings could be scheduled with any assurance of success before mid-1959, but that if the Atlas program continued to make excellent progress it might be possible to schedule one or two maximum risk launchings during 1958--that is, during the final months of the International Geophysical Year. In either event, some $91 million in additional funds would be needed to support such an effort, exclusive of base operation and maintenance costs.
The Department of Defense, which again was considering variants of the Vanguard and Orbiter proposals as well as a scientific satellite based on the WS 117L, decided again that no justification existed for tying the WS 117L program to International Geophysical Year Programs. The Stewart Committee unanimously endorsed the validity of the current Air Force approach and, by implication, the need for a military satellite. Nevertheless air staff members in the Pentagon remained conscious of the continued presence of anti-satellite sentiment in the Defense Department. Some officials in the defense establishment openly questioned the feasibility of a reconnaissance satellite, and questioned even more the existence of a valid military requirement for such a system. Perhaps equally troublesome, concern for a variety of other programs which, in the climate of the early 1950s, appeared to be far more significant to the Air Force than military satellites, frequently caused even those who were officially supporting the space effort to be somewhat tepid in their support. Thus, Air Force planners convinced of the urgency of a space program and working to secure its approval, too often found their audiences at higher levels to be either indifferent or actively hostile to their proposals.
Nevertheless, work went doggedly ahead. Even though the "crash effort" to prepare a development plan for a scientific satellite to orbit by the fall of 1958 took precedence, work on a military system with a more realistic deadline continued. Indeed, considerable urgency attached to the preparation of a full development plan. On 10 February 1956, before anything was known about the Stewart Committee's decision on the proposed "prototype" scientific satellite, the project officer for WS 117L (Colonel 0.J. Glasser) outlined a schedule calling for the completion of all basic planning by 1 April. The project office met that deadline, forwarding on 2 April a formal development plan that established a May 1959 target date for first orbit. (However, as late as March 1956, Glasser's group still was giving thought to meeting the time requirements of the Geophysical Year Program, and as much as a year later it did not seem entirely impossible to launch some sort of a satellite by the end of the Geophysical Year.)
The full-scope system development plan for WS l17L received General Schriever`s approval on 2 April 1956 and General Power's endorsement three weeks later. Designed to satisfy the requirements of the March and October 1955 operational requirement and system requirement documents, it was almost exclusively concerned with the purely military reconnaissance aspects of the satellite program. In the sense of providing that early flights would have the "additional objective" of collecting "geophysical data of interest to the scientific community in general," it conformed roughly to some of the details of the preliminary plan of 14 January. That was the only significant concession to the scientific satellite, however. The orbital element was essentially a refined reconnaissance satellite tied to an Atlas launch vehicle. The complete system, including vital ground installations for analyzing and disseminating the collected information, was intended to be fully operational by the third quarter of 1963. Exclusive of facilities, the research and development cost was expected to be about $114.7 million.
Air Force headquarters approved the 2 April plan, essentially as submitted, on 24 July 1956. A development directive covering the system appeared on 3 August. It contained only one important qualification, but that was all-important: development was authorized within a funding limitation of $3 million for fiscal 1957. The Air Research and Development Command system development directive (actually prepared in the Pentagon) which appeared on 17 August expanded on that qualification by citing "severe limitations on FY 1957 funds available to this command," and conceding that this was inadequate initial funding."
Nevertheless, almost precisely 10 years after its first appearance in the guise of a RAND study, the military satellite had achieved system status. But whereas conservative estimates of program costs had indicated an initial need of at least $39.1 million through fiscal 1957, the WS ll7L program approved in August 1956 was funded at rather less than 10 percent of the requirements level. It was not a particularly auspicious start, but considering the obstacles of funding stringency, skepticism and "policy considerations" that had been overcome in progressing that far, the achievement was not unremarkable.
Yet the obstacles that had appeared as early as 1946 still were troublesome.
Through the whole of the period when the supporters of WS ll7L were seeking program approval and adequate funding, the general attitude of the Department of Defense remained hostile toward satellites. Although not openly proclaimed, it was departmental opinion that satellite vehicles were not feasible, and further, that until Vanguard experiments confirmed feasibility itself, the WS 117L program should be funded at the "study level". Another obstacle to careful and detailed planning was a severe restriction on the circulation of information concerning the WS 117L proposals. The obviously critical political implications of a reconnaissance satellite designed to operate in peacetime served to inhibit free discussion of the program itself. The extent to which such rigid security classification hampered thorough planning and prevented a more effective presentation of WS ll7L realities was difficult to assess, but in the opinion of one key participant, it certainly had "an adverse impact."
At the point of initial program approval and funding, in 1956,
the Air Force space effort gave every indication of being on a
sound technical foundation. Unhappily, adequate funding still
was lacking, and perhaps more important, high-level understanding
of the vital need for a realistic military space effort was scant.
There lay the real problem.