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Beating the Russians into Space: We Could Have

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The schools were blamed for letting the Russians orbit the first man-made satellite. Declassified memos, though, indicate that the U. S. could have had an orbiting satellite over a year before Sputnik circled the earth:

During an October 8, 1957 meeting with governors and generals, President Dwight Eisenhower reported he had heard that the U. S. could have launched a satellite well before Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, which the Russians had put into orbit four days earlier. According to a declassified memorandum of that meeting, Deputy Secretary Donald Quarles acknowledged that it was so.

Secretary Quarles said there was no doubt that the Redstone, had it been used, could have orbited a satellite a year or more ago wrote Brigadier General A. J. Goodpaster, secretary to the meeting. In fact, on September 20, 1956, Wernher von Braun's Army Ballistics Missile Agency had launched a 4-stage Jupiter-C, a Redstone variant, from Cape Canaveral. The first three stages lifted the missile 862 miles into the air and sent it hurtling downrange at 13,000 miles an hour. The fourth stage could have easily bumped something into orbit. The fourth stage was filled with sand.

Why? According to Goodpaster's account, “The Science Advisory Committee had felt that it was better to have the earth satellite proceed separately from military development.” This, said the Committee, would “stress the peaceful character of the [space] effort…” The Jupiter-C, after all, was a super V-2 with which von Braun had terrified Britons near the end of World War II. Its primary purpose was to incinerate Russian cities with nuclear warheads. The Russians might not react well to a potential mushroom cloud hurtling overhead every 90 minutes.

Goodpaster also reported that Quarles "went on to add that the Russians have in fact done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space—this seems to be generally accepted as orbital space in which the missile is making an inoffensive passage."”

The previous day, October 7, Eisenhower had received a "top secret" memorandum from secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, observing that a 1954 meeting of the International Council of Scientific Unions, with Russian scientists in attendance, recommended that "thought be given to the launching of small scientific vehicles." The preferred time for such a launch would be the International Geophysical Year, a period from July 1957 through December 1958 involving 67 countries exploring various scientific aspects of the land, seas, and skies. The American space program, operated by the Navy and named VANGUARD, was scheduled to launch March 1958. It was neither a "crash"” program nor in competition with Russia’s.

On July 5, 1957, CIA Director Allen Dulles memoed intelligence to Quarles indicating the Russians planned to launch a satellite in the next few months. Dulles predicted September 17, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian space rocketry visionary. It's possible they tried then and failed, but more likely technical problems pushed the date back to October 4.

Having advance knowledge of both the American and Russian schedules and the American goals, Eisenhower remained calm when Sputnik soared. He was almost alone and took a lot of flak from Democrats in Congress for his seeming lack of concern over what the rest of the world viewed as a stunning accomplishment by a technologically backward nation.

Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson's reaction was typical: "Soon they'll be dropping bombs on us like kids dropping rocks from a freeway overpass."” As writer Tom Wolfe later described the atmosphere, “"Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle of the forces of good and evil."”

American media alleged that the forces of evil were greatly assisted by their superior schools. Life’s five-part series, "Crisis in Education," depicted Russian schools as tough, rigorous, and academic while U. S. schools contained mostly easy-going slackers. Other publications echoed Life's sentiments. That it might be a bit foolish to blame today's schools for technological lags (which actually did not exist) created by people who had graduated 20-30 years earlier, apparently did not occur to Life’s editors. Or to anyone else except, in fact, Eisenhower. The schools never recovered from Sputnik.

In his memorandum to Eisenhower, Wilson contended that what "the Russians have succeeded in doing is without military significance. The rocketry we are using (for our satellite) is completely separate from ICMB and IRBM rocketry. Other technical requirements than the mere production of high-powered rockets have controlled our schedules."” "Other technical requirements." The schools had nothing to do with it.