Monday, 5 May 2014

Embattled Heavens: ICBMs and the Beginnings of Space Exploration

Launch sequence for Atlas ICBM. US Air Force photos

In recent years my historical research has focused on American military missile programs during the first decade after the end of World War II.

When this topic comes up, many people instantly think of Wernher von Braun and the rocket experts he brought with him from Germany after he surrendered to American forces in 1945. A decade later, von Braun and his team were in Huntsville, Alabama, building the Redstone missile for the U.S. Army. And while the Redstone did play an important role in the early space race, I would argue that the action was elsewhere.

The major missile program in the United States in the 1950s was the U.S. Air Force program to develop Atlas, America's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Along with the air force Titan ICBM and Thor missiles that quickly followed it, Atlas formed the centrepiece of America's nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s.

As well, Atlas, Titan and Thor carried the overwhelming majority of U.S. satellites and spacecraft into orbit and beyond from the late 1950s up to the late 1990s. Atlas rockets carried the first American astronauts into orbit, most of the American spacecraft that preceded Apollo to the Moon, and the first wave of spacecraft that explored the solar system.

Without the air force decision to proceed with Atlas in 1954, the U.S. would not have had much of a space program in the 1960s. Yet Atlas has been lost in the controversy that followed the Soviet Union's use of their own ICBM to launch the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit ahead of the U.S., and the historical emphasis placed on Wernher von Braun.

My work on Atlas was the topic of my address last month in Berlin to the Embattled Heavens conference on the military influence on space exploration - a conference I discussed in this blog last week. 

For many years, the U.S. Air Force was criticized for waiting until 1954 to start on Atlas. I found this idea of air force hesitation to be strange, given that the U.S. military during the Cold War was notorious for promoting almost any and all weapons programs. My re-examination of the early years of the Cold War suggests that air force behaviour with Atlas was consistent with its usual support of new weapons.

I argued that developments in nuclear weapons drove development of both Atlas and the first Soviet ICBM, the R-7, and that the  space race of the 1960s was a product of the race to develop nuclear weapons after World War II.

Many popular accounts have stressed the scientific roots of the race into space, along with the idea that going into space was hugely popular with the public. More recent research has pointed out that while space programs do have public support, many Americans felt that the massive sums spent on Apollo in the 1960s would have been better spent on other things, a fact that politicians picked up on when they curtailed Apollo after six landings on the Moon.

My own research shows that the infrastructure of early space travel was built first to support nuclear weapons. Historian Alex Roland, who also spoke at the Embattled Heavens  conference, has long argued that the controversy that followed the launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a turning point in the U.S. military's quest to mobilize the civilian economy in the service of military priorities.

The idea fostered by some historians that the U.S. Air Force dragged its heels on Atlas has been thrown into question, and I argue that this mistaken idea also fed into the military quest for more weapons.

To better understand how space exploration has evolved, we must look honestly at what was behind the development of the first space launch vehicles. I believe that it was nuclear weapons, not love of space travel, that drove their creation.

If the creation of nuclear weapons had not led to ICBMs in the late 1950s, the reach into space that followed would have been quite different. For example, we might still be waiting today for the first human footprints on the Moon. And there would also be many other consequences, both good and bad, including the state of technology in our society today.

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