My fifth book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, which has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press, deals with the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM in the 1950s. Although the birth of the ICBM is an important event in both the history of nuclear weapons and of space exploration, the facts behind this event have been hidden or misunderstood for decades.
The Soviet Union’s first ICBM, the R-7, shot into the headlines on October 4, 1957, when it was used to launch the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik. The surprise and consternation Sputnik caused around the world and especially in the United States led to major misunderstandings over the history of ICBMs that persist to the present day.
The R-7 was developed in secret, and later its story was distorted as part of larger Soviet propaganda narratives. The openness that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s allowed the real history of the R-7 to be told.
The creation of America’s first ICBM, the Atlas, has also been surrounded in myth. The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, deals with those myths as it tells how marrying long range ballistic missiles to nuclear weapons went from an idea at the end of World War II to a high priority national program in the spring of 1954.
Both Atlas and the R-7 were liquid fueled rockets that were better suited to be space launch vehicles than ICBMs. Atlas first went on station as an ICBM in 1959 and was used for that purpose until 1965, when it was replaced by more suitable Titan and Minuteman ICBMs. The R-7 served as an ICBM over roughly the same time span.
Because the R-7 was built much larger than it needed to be for military purposes, it was able to launch large payloads into space, including Sputnik, many other satellites, the first Soviet probes of the moon and neighboring planets, and virtually all of Russia’s human spacecraft up to the present time.
The U.S. government chose to use smaller rockets than Atlas to launch its very first satellites, which is one reason why the history of Atlas has not been adequately studied until recently. But Atlas served as one of the primary launch vehicles used in the U.S. space program from 1958 until the end of the 20th century, launching America’s first astronauts into orbit, along with many important satellites and space probes that explored much of the solar system.
Many works analyzing the roots of America’s missile and space programs were based on assumptions made in the wake of Sputnik, and they missed the realities of the decade that followed World War II, when America’s military was struggling with many technological, organizational and financial challenges that have since been forgotten.
ICBMs were built by military forces and were designed for military purposes, but the military factors that dictated the development of Atlas were often ignored in earlier accounts of its history. In writing The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, I researched how the U.S. Air Force and other services really saw missile programs in the postwar era.
While it is well known that while the German ballistic missile known as the V-2 advanced rocket technology in World War II, its many deficiencies limited military interest in larger ballistic missiles in the years that followed the war. In the 1950s, technical advances for missiles and new military needs created by the hydrogen bomb converted skeptical scientists, engineers and military officials into advocates for ICBMs.
Many of the German rocket experts who built the V-2, most famously Wernher von Braun, went on to work for the U.S. Army and then NASA after the war, and their part in the U.S. space program has been exaggrated due to von Braun’s prominence as an advocate for space travel in 1950s and 1960s America. This book helps set their contributions to space programs into their proper context.
Without ICBMs, humanity’s initial reach into space might have been much slower than it was. I believe that The Bomb and America’s Missile Age provides a fresh and more accurate account of this episode in the history of nuclear arms and the events that preceded humanity’s first steps into space.
My work on this book began more than a decade ago as I did research for my Ph.D. thesis. In the years since I completed the thesis, I rewrote it into a narrative form for general readers. This book is now available from http://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/bomb-and-americas-missile-age and from booksellers.
|An Atlas rocket launches astronaut John H. Glenn into orbit in 1962. NASA Image.|