NASA formally opened its doors on October 1, 1958, and it turns 60 years old today. The nation’s space agency has marked the diamond anniversary in various ways, and anticipates a bright future.
However, given heated talk of a Space Force, military “domination” of space, and the rise of commercial companies, it is reasonable to pause at this moment to ponder NASA’s durability.
This tension, and more, is revealed in a new book titled edited by space historian John Logsdon. The book presents some of the seminal documents from the creation and evolution of NASA over the last six decades. It reflects what Logsdon describes as “30 years of immersion in primary documents and reflects my judgment on a mixture of what’s most important plus some that are human interest and fun.”
Civil or military?
In an interview with Ars, Logsdon reviewed some of the earliest government discussions that led to the formation of NASA. In February 1958, President Eisenhower and a small group of advisors—including then Vice President Richard Nixon—met with Republican congressional leaders four months to the day after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.
“One of the things is that from its inception, and even before that, the space program was a political act,” Logsdon said. “It was formulated in the context of geopolitics. And back in the 1950s, in particular it was the Cold War competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Some of the themes that we are debating even today, like the importance of space for our national security, and the right way to organize that, were addressed right at the very beginning.”
The principal question debated during this meeting concerned the US response to Russia’s spaceflight activities: should they be led by the military, or some kind of civilian space agency? Eisenhower, according to notes of the meeting kept by White House staff secretary L.A. Minnich Jr., initially as though the military should have overall responsibility for spaceflight. For civilian activities, he said, the military might take input from a non-military scientific group.
Clearly, Eisenhower’s thoughts were bent toward the military implications of space, rather than any scientific or exploration activities. When the discussion turned to development of a spacecraft that might be sent to study the Moon, Eisenhower remarked that he was more interested in development of the Redstone missile than being able to hit the Moon, because the United States didn’t have any enemies on the Moon. The Redstone was the first US ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The pro-military viewpoint might have carried the day, but for two people at the meeting. One, recently appointed science advisor James Killian, said US interests might be better served adopting a peaceful, civilian posture in space. His views were then supported by Nixon.
“It’s possible to say that Nixon was one of the fathers of NASA, which boggles the mind,” Logsdon said. The irony is that, a decade later, even as Nixon was congratulating the returning heroes from the Apollo missions, his administration was cutting the space agency’s budget and dispatching any hope it had of sustaining the Moon landings with a space station, lunar base, or human missions to Mars.
But in 1958, Nixon’s voice lent credence to the idea that the United States could use space to make a powerful statement about democracy during the Cold War. “The argument was that the Soviet Union was secretive, carrying out a program under secret auspices, almost certainly military auspices, and that the United States would be better off with an open, civilian program able to cooperate,” Logsdon said, while also maintaining a highly classified intelligence-focused military program.
This argument ultimately carried the day, and it was soon decided that an existing civilian agency that worked to advance US aviation interests, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, should form the base of a new agency: NASA.
In the first years of NASA, however, Logsdon’s book documents attempts by the Air Force to claw back some aspects of human spaceflight. Later, in the 1960s, the Air Force even established its own plans for a space station and its own astronauts, but this ultimately never succeeded as NASA went on to the successful Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
Then, in the 1970s, the Carter administration pushed the lever of spaceflight power a step further in NASA’s favor. The White House forced the Department of Defense to agree to fly its national security payloads on NASA’s new Space Shuttle, instead of on a separate fleet of rockets supported by military funding. For a short time, the military was beholden to NASA to fly its spy satellites into space.
This arrangement, never supported by career military officials or the intelligence community, began to break down even before the space shuttle accident in 1986. By then the military had already begun to re-develop its own independent capabilities—first with the Titan series of rockets, and then also with the Delta and Atlas launch vehicles.
During recent decades the military has increased its influence over US spaceflight activities. Today, with the possible creation of an independent Space Force and the prospect of even more resources, it seems possible that the Air Force could subsume more of NASA’s mission of spaceflight, even up to fielding its own blue-suited astronaut corps.
At the same time, with NASA’s help, commercial companies are beginning to operate in low-Earth orbit. Soon, privately owned spacecraft will fly humans into orbit and, probably within the next decade, companies such as Bigelow or Axiom may operate private space stations. Some companies, such as SpaceX, also seek to send humans into deep space, including circumlunar mission and eventually landings on Mars.
This may seem to leave limited room for NASA to operate, but Logsdon said that NASA has a path forward into the next 60 years. The agency has an unparalleled track record in exploration, particularly with robotic probes stretching across the Solar System from the Sun to the outer planets and beyond. Despite a mixed record with human exploration in recent decades, the agency has a clear mission to explore.
“I think [NASA] certainly has a future,” he said. “Let’s hope it’s vibrant. It does things that uniquely it is chartered to do. No other government agency, or the private sector, is going to explore Jupiter, or encounter objects in the Kuiper Belt. Robotic exploration of the Solar System and the Universe is not going to be a private sector activity. If we want to do this, and I think an advanced country wants to do that, we need an organization to do it. And that’s what NASA knows how to do.”