"From this effort
has emerged not only the major portion of our national missile force but also
the prime base of technology and management skill underpinning the total
national space effort. Many of our space accomplishments to date—both military
and civilian—simply could not have been undertaken successfully without the
prior experience gained In the Air Force missile development program."
—Secretary of the Air
Force Eugene M. Zuckert
It is a fact, documented in the public prints, in
congressional reports, and above all, on launch pads and tracking sites around
the world, that the US Air Force has made massive contributions of men,
hardware, and management capability to the national space effort. This has been
hue from the shocked moments after Sputnik, when the nation decided to sharply
expand its astronautical program, straight on to the present
multibillion-dollar Year Seven of the space age.
Just one aspect of this sizable Air Force role has been the
large number of Air Force officers who have served the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration on direct loan or in supportive Air Force efforts, since
the civilian space agency's establishment in 1958.
Today, this large input of Air Force expertise into the
space agency is represented on the very highest echelons of the NASA
organization: The Air Force officer who successfully directed the USAF Minuteman
ICBM program has just come on board at NASA's Washington headquarters as Deputy
Director of NASA's Project Apollo lunar-landing program. Brig. Gen. Samuel C.
Phillips will have operating charge of the complex Apollo effort, under the
supervision of Dr. George Mueller, Deputy Associate Administrator of NASA and
Director of its Office of Manned Spaceflight. Dr. Mueller is himself a highly
qualified import into NASA from Space Technology Laboratories, which played
such an important role in the USAF missile program. The Mueller-Phillips team
dramatically represents the continuing contribution of the Air Force to the
nation's over-all space effort. This contribution is doubly remarkable in view
of the existing responsibility, assigned the Air Force in 1961 by Secretary of
Defense McNamara, for research and development of military space systems.
Many observers who take a conspiratorial view of history,
have interpreted such Air Force-blue coloration of NASA as an indication of
Air Force hopes to take over—by a process of infiltration—the entire national
space effort. "What could be more obvious?" the cynics have asked,
trotting out the old cliché about the camel's nose in the door of the tent.
This theory admittedly has appeal for those who enjoy
looking for Air Force colonels under the bed, but it skirts the basic question
of why it has indeed been vital to the public interest for the Air Force to
play such a significant role in the civilian space effort. The answer from the
start has been undramatic but persuasive: Necessity.
The cold fact is that, without already available Air Force missile
program experience garnered from the early '50s to the day the Russians jolted
history with their Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the accelerated American space
program could never have gotten under way with any kind of dispatch. To a great
degree, the Air Force missile program provided a solid base for the
post-Sputnik national space effort.
To say all this is in no way to denigrate NASA itself or its
predecessor agency, the old and highly respected National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics. Or the highly skilled and experienced band of ex.-German V-2
rocketeers who in 1957 were in place under the leadership of Dr. Wernher von
Braun at the Army's Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Ala. Or the
dedicated (and later unjustifiably abused) Navy team that was working on the
International Geophysical Year Vanguard satellite—using a nonmilitary booster
because of national policy decisions to stress the peaceful aspects of
space—at the time of Sputnik.
People with vision in all these agencies as well as in the
Air Force had seen the potential benefits that would accrue to the US from a
large-scale assault on space. The personal files of many of them bulge with
pre-Sputnik correspondence on the subject. Of all the pre-Sputnik space
prophets, Dr. von Braun was perhaps the most famous public advocate of an
American space program that would take US astronauts not only into orbit but on
to the moon and to Mars. There is ample evidence that he and others were
correctly dubious about the low-level Vanguard program and urged, several
months before Sputnik, a crash program to use existing missile capability to
launch an American satellite that would have beat the Russians to the
propaganda punch. And in February 1957 Gen. Bernard A. Schriever was publicly
declaring the space capability of military boosters then under development.
It is painful to shift back in memory to the immediate
post-Sputnik period. Yet to do so helps explain the reason why Air Force
missile-program experience, then several years old, was so easily transferable
to the expanded national space program that was decided on in the months
That there was no lack of skill in the rocketry art at the
time of Sputnik is unquestionably true. The three military services were all in
the rocket business, to varying degrees, and there was plenty of aerospace
industry capability on hand too, as well as R&D know-how in the old NACA.
But expertise was not enough, because it was scattered and splintered. What was
needed above all was experience, not only in the rocketry art itself, but in
the management of priority R&D projects—from drawing board to assembly
line. And in this field the Air Force was paramount. It had already been doing
this kind of massive job for a number of years.
Because of the unique requirements of the USAF missile
program, which had started in earnest in 1954, the Air Force had devised new
approaches to program management which are still having their beneficial
effects today. Looking back on the decision, arrived at with no little
argument, to place one man in full charge of missile development, and to allow
him to gather a team of technically competent Air Force officers, meanwhile
arranging for independent systems management of the programs (which was a
departure from the time-honored prime contractor approach), it all seems very
commonsensical now. But at the outset of the missile program, such approaches
flew in the face of tradition. Particularly in the face of the traditional
approach being used by the Army at Hunts-vile, where the style was to build
vehicles hand tailored from the bottom up, a custom-tailoring approach in a
ready-to-wear era. Those who followed the Air Force-Army missile controversy of
the '50s can recall the noisy argument over which approach was better, the
Army's "arsenal" or the Air Force's "military-industry
team" concept. Certainly there were arguments for the Army's approach—in a
leisurely era. But the '50s were scarcely leisurely, featuring, as they did,
first the frightening realization that the Russians had gotten the jump on us
in the long-range missile business and later the fearful shock of Sputnik.
It is an odd but happy quirk of history that the USAF
missile management technique was itself the product of initial inadequacy.
There is nothing like starting virtually from scratch to
create new approaches to new problems. Thus it was fortuitous that the Air
Force, at the outset of the missile program, was faced with building, in the
very basic sense of the word, the requisite management and development team and
the industrial backup.
Once the argument within the Air Force, the scientific
community, Department of Defense, and the Administration over whether a major
missile effort ought to be undertaken was settled—and it was quite an
argument—the Air Force was faced with devising the management structure and
finding the proper combinations of people and industry skill to run a successful
R&D plus production effort that would get operational missiles into the
inventory by at least the 1960s.
Final success, not cost, was, of course, the primary criterion,
for the Air Force missile effort. Many mistakes and false starts occurred. One
has always to bear in mind that the Air Force was nearly in a virginal
condition as it set out in the early '50s on a technological adventure that
was considered unrealistic and even infeasible by a large segment not only of
the scientific community but also of the more traditional elements of the Air
By 1957, the gamble had begun to pay off, and the country
was well on the way to the ICBM and IRBM capabilities it enjoys today. Gray
hairs, ulcers, and all the other concomitants of the famous "Black Saturdays"
at which the missilemen had wrestled monthly with costs, configuration control,
schedules, and the thousands of other elements that went into the research and
development, testing, site planning, and training associated with the oncoming
weapon systems, had taken their toll. But out of it all, at the time of
Sputnik, there had emerged a capability in terms of management skill, people,
and aerospace industry base that was naturally applicable to the
newly-decided-on space program. It is no reflection on the policy decision to
invest prime responsibility for peaceful space exploration in the civil agency
created by the 1958 space act to say that the Air Force, deep into its missile
program experience, could have, with the requisite money and assigned
responsibility, taken on the overall space job too, had such a national policy
been decided on.
That, of course, did not happen. There were too many
political considerations, domestic and international, to allow it to happen.
And in retrospect, it was probably a good thing for the country and for the Air
Force that it didn't happen because, despite the obvious crossovers in
technology and management between the existing missile program and the
embryonic space program, the missile program, for security reasons, had to
retain its top priority. An Air Force doubly involved with direct responsibility
for both strategic missile development and nonmilitary space operations would
probably have become a highly splintered Air Force.
But what didn't happen directly happened indirectly. Air
Force input was evident from the beginning, not only in terms of personnel but
also in terms of philosophy. NASA immediately adopted the government-industry
team approach that had served the Air Force missile program so well, a point
that is illustrated today by the repeated assertions by NASA Administrator James
E. Webb that more than ninety percent of NASA funding is spent with industry.
Along with the government-industry team development concept went what was
essentially, with some modifications by NASA, the same systems-management concept
that had been employed in the USAF missile effort. In the area of procurement
and the crucial man rating of the Atlas that was modified for a mission not
originally planned—orbiting a man—NASA, lacking any in-house experience, leaned
heavily on the existing Air Force-industry Atlas team. In fact, a separate Air
Force-NASA-industry operation was set up alongside the existing Air Force
Atlas organization, with offices down the hall at the Air Force Space Systems
Division headquarters and at other crucial locations, to produce the
man-carrying missiles. Air Force officers who worked on the Atlas development
still remember the skull sessions with Air Force counterparts on loan to NASA
and NASA specialists whenever questions of needed modifications came up. And
they did, often.
The direct and indirect aerospace medical support by the Air
Force of the Mercury program has been frequently cited as a prime example of
how the Air Force fed unique and vital skills into the national space program.
At the outset of the Mercury program, NASA had virtually no aerospace medical
capability, while the Air Force and Navy had major capability in laboratories
across the country. The Air Force had, in a small way, been in the space
medical business per se since as far back as 1949, when a persistent band of
civilian and blue-suited aeromedical specialists, led by Dr. Hubertus Strughold
at Randolph AFB, Tex., had started and kept cooking on a back burner the
Department of Space Medicine at the USAF School of Aviation Medicine. SAM has
grown into the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB and is a major
element of today's Air Force Systems Command. The Mercury program itself was,
for all practical purposes, a latter-day version of the 1958 Air Force Man in
Space program (see "Blueprint for Tomorrow's Space-crews," Am FORCE,
May '58) which, in cooperation with the old NACA and with the blessing of the
Defense Department, had been formulated in the immediate post-Sputnik period.
When NASA was established and the policy decision was made to assign to it the
responsibility for what became the Mercury program, the Air Force fed medical
men and monkeys, hardware and procurement know-how into the new national
effort. Those were the unhappy days when, for reasons of Administration policy,
the contributions of the Air Force to the NASA program were so underplayed
that, for example, touring reporters visiting the Air Force's "monkey
farm" at Holloman AFB, N. M., where the first orbiting chimpanzee was
trained, were asked not to mention that the simians were Air Force types.
"Policy," the briefing officer would mutter.
Fortunately, reexaminations of policy allowed eventual
recognition of these and many other blue-suit contributions to the NASA
effort. Such early attitudes unfortunately fed the fires of controversy and
encouraged widespread adherence to the view that the American space effort is
not a race with the Russians but rather a lengthy skirmish between the Air
Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This view serves
neither the nation nor the space program nor the Air Force nor NASA. It is
true that many observers,' including this writer, have argued for a greater
sense of balance between military and civilian space projects. But such views
are geared to the conviction that technology, including space technology, will
probably continue to play a crucial role in world conflict in the future, in
the same way it has in the past. These opinions are not expressed in
denigration of the really sizable achievements of NASA during its short
But what of today's and tomorrow's Air Force contribution
to the national space program, over and above such specifically military
efforts as the surveillance satellites and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory?
There is little question that the inflow of Air Force
developmental experience and talent into NASA will continue. It is likely, too,
that the NASA organization will take on, in its management approach to such monumental
tasks as the Apollo moon-landing program, an increasingly strong resemblance to
the Air Force missile program. Certainly under the leadership of Dr. Mueller,
the ex-Space Technology Laboratories scientist who heads Apollo, and his new
Deputy, General Phillips, the search for Air Force officers with project
management experience who can be loaned to NASA for Apollo will continue apace.
Concurrently, we may expect increased applications of what in management
jargon is called "the functional matrix approach" to the Apollo
program. Already, as Dr. Mueller has pointed out, NASA is going the same route
as the USAF missile men of the early '50s by concentrating on "an early
identification of the problem." To the lay observer of the Apollo program,
it may seem surprising to hear such an expression, since everyone knows that
in 1961 the problem had been proclaimed: getting to the moon. But that is the
point; in such large programs as Apollo, months must be devoted to analysis of
the various technological possibilities, the design of basic components, and
the decisions on the scientific experiments that will be performed. Such
analysis is crucial to successful preparation of facilities, planning of the
mission, and, most important of all, the creation of the plan for the
integration of all these activities, systems, and subsystems.
In the case of the USAF missile program, Space Technology
Laboratories served as systems integrator in tandem with and under over-all
management of the Air Force's Ballistic Missile Division. The analogy with
NASA's current management technique for the Apollo program is not exact but is
certainly close and getting closer. Dr. Mueller describes it in terms of NASA
being its own systems integrator through his Office of Manned Spaceflight.
History never repeats itself exactly. This truism applies to
the NASA situation today as measured against the USAF missile experience of
yesterday. But there are striking parallels and the probability is that similar
solutions will continue to be applied to similar problems. NASA has its own
headquarters-versus-field problems just as did the Air Force. NASA's field
centers—especially at Cape Kennedy, Huntsville, and Houston—have from the start
plagued NASA Washington headquarters by acting annoyingly like independent
dukedoms. It has already taken a series of reorganizations of NASA from
virtually the top down to even begin to bring this unacceptable situation under
some sort of control. A firm measure of central control is crucial to
successful achievement of the difficult Apollo project, and although we will
probably not see quite the same pattern in Apollo management that was developed
for the USAF missile effort, it is inevitable that lessons learned during that
program will be applied in NASA by men with the backgrounds of Dr. Mueller and
General Phillips. Already the pattern of designating project officers with
responsibility for major elements of the manned spaceflight program has picked
As one major NASA official has put it, comparing the USAF
missile and NASA space experience:
"NASA's origins were different. It has grown rapidly,
and its techniques of management have been different, but I believe we will
see more shifts to the USAF approach as time goes on. The old NACA operation
was research-oriented. They didn't have much reason to develop any large
management capability, such as is going to be needed for programs of the Apollo
"NASA's growth has been enormous. The Apollo decision
was a presidential decision to take a giant step, and overnight Apollo was
born. Consequently, there was pressure on NASA to get its hardware under contract,
even before the nature of the requirements were worked out. Only now is the
program definition that's vital getting into shape.
"We need to decide what's wanted, and we need enough of
a plan so that everyone can go in the same direction. And that calls for
over-all systems specification and a really unified approach to
The last paragraph above could have been a description of
the situation that obtained at the outset of the USAF missile program. Although
many of the technological problems that plagued the early missile-men have long
since been solved—to the benefit of today's space planners on both the civilian
and military sides—the problem is essentially the same, one of fusing
technology, industry, and will into a purposeful manageable whole.
In the final analysis, probably the most crucial gift of the
Air Force to NASA and the nonmilitary space program—more important than the
men, skills, industrial base, and hardware that have already been pumped into
the civil agency's bloodstream—is the historical example of the impossible
effort that succeeded—the USAF missile program, the tenth anniversary of
which we mark this month.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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