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Bill King and Space Cadets
The group of “Space Cadets” who played a key role in the early history of US Air Force space efforts.

Bill King and the Space Cadets

Last week I wrote an obituary to Brigadier General Bill King, one of the pioneers of satellite reconnaissance (see “Big Sky Ranch”, The Space Review, June 29, 2009). During an unrelated search of my computer hard drive, I came upon this part of a chapter of my still-unfinished history of satellite reconnaissance during the Cold War. It deals with Bill King’s arrival in the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite office in 1955 and provides a better idea of what King did there.


In August 1955, Major Quentin Riepe, who had run the small Advanced Reconnaissance Satellite (ARS) office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio since fall 1954 was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel William G. King, who had just graduated from the University of Chicago’s management course. “We didn’t know until later how lucky we were that he appeared when he did,” Jim Coolbaugh said. Coolbaugh was one of the small group of Air Force captains who had worked on ARS for nearly a year and who called themselves the “Space Cadets.”

During these briefings, Coolbaugh and King found that they inevitably had to explain orbital mechanics to at least one new attendee.

King, like Riepe before him, had to give lots of briefings about the ARS project, which until that time was primarily some paper studies and very limited hardware development. But the management course left him very well prepared for this. He would usually go to a briefing accompanied by one or another of his officers.

During these briefings, Coolbaugh and King found that they inevitably had to explain orbital mechanics to at least one new attendee. Whenever they stated that the satellite would fly at a fixed altitude and heading, someone would speak up and say “If I had done that flying over Europe during the war, I would of got my ass shot off!” They would then have to explain how difficult it was to shoot down a satellite traveling at 17,000 miles an hour. Another common question was why the men thought that an object could be made to circle the Earth. “This would lead to a discussion of the Moon,” Coolbaugh explained dryly.

Bill Troetschel, another Space Cadet, remembered one meeting where an officer asked King, “What are we doing about ESP in terms of determining enemy intentions?” King turned to Troetschel and quietly asked “What the hell is ESP?” When Troetschel told him it meant extra-sensory perception, King calmly turned to the questioner with a straight face and said “Nothing, Sir.”

Occasionally the meetings went bad. King remembered one briefing he gave to General Curtis LeMay, now in charge of Strategic Air Command and thus the chief don of the bomber mafia. In the middle of the briefing LeMay exclaimed “Shit! I can do all that with my B-36!” and stormed out of the room, muttering that he didn’t know where King had gotten approval to go on travel to sell such a stupid idea as a satellite. As soon as the big man left, all of his generals got up and left as well, and King found himself standing in an empty auditorium.

But King was quick to add that he later gave another briefing where LeMay wandered in unexpectedly. This briefing was even more pie in the sky, and King was talking about the possibility of sending a satellite to the Moon. LeMay asked a few thoughtful questions and then thanked the men for coming to brief SAC. Years later, long after the general had retired, King had the opportunity to meet LeMay and mentioned the earlier briefing. LeMay said that he must have been in a bad mood that day.

Troetschel remembered one briefing with General Donald Putt, the head of the Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command, in attendance. Putt, of course, had been monitoring the satellite program for several years, with enthusiasm. “After the briefing was finished, he called me over to his huge earth globe, mounted in a beautiful wooden stand, and put his finger above the earth’s surface at what would represent the scale altitude of a satellite and very quietly asked me What the hell keeps it up there?” Troetschel remembered. “When I explained that the satellite would be continuously falling around the earth due to its velocity in the same manner as the moon, his eyes lit up, he thanked me, and walked away to join his staff.” Eventually, King acquired a number of toys to demonstrate the physics of spaceflight, such as a ball on a string that he could whirl around in the air.

In October, the various contractor teams asked to bid on building a reconnaissance satellite submitted their final proposals and the project office began evaluating them. All three teams were awarded further study contracts. The teams were RCA and North American, Lockheed and CBS Laboratories, and Martin and IBM.

Shortly before the evaluation, the ARS office received word that the satellite program was to be transferred to General Bernard Schriever’s organization in California, the Western Development Division (WDD). This was not really a surprise. They had been expecting it for some time. The satellite was to sit atop an Atlas rocket and there was no way that Schriever would let such a program operate outside his control. The ballistic missile was, after all, the number one weapons program in the country and nothing could be allowed to interfere with its schedule.

Schriever and others had deliberately established the Atlas ICBM development office out on the West Coast in order to get it as far away from Wright Air Development Center as possible. He and others felt that WADC and its parent, the Air Research and Development Command, had been a big part of the reason that the Air Force had dragged its heels on developing an ICBM during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many in WDD had a dim view of the Air Force’s existing laboratory structure.

As soon as they got to know him better, Coolbaugh and his colleagues liked Bob Truax. They realized that he had been involved unofficially in space issues long before their satellite office even existed.

“The first real evidence of the impending transfer was the presence of people from WDD at our evaluation meeting,” Coolbaugh remembered. Navy Commander Robert Truax from WDD was there, along with a representative of the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. Ramo-Wooldridge was an unusual entity. Schriever had hired them to provide engineering support for the ICBM development effort. Although Ramo-Wooldridge did not build anything (indeed, they were contractually forbidden from building anything), they had a team of experts that helped to design and oversee the technical issues associated with building the ICBM. It was a unique arrangement and one that nobody else in the Air Force followed. It was all part of Schriever’s new approach to developing an ambitious weapons system.

Some of the Space Cadets, like Bill Troetschel, were initially wary of Commander Truax. He had referred to their project “as nothing more than a modified nose cone on an Atlas” early on, before he was associated with it.

But as soon as they got to know him better, Coolbaugh and his colleagues liked Bob Truax. They realized that he had been involved unofficially in space issues long before their satellite office even existed. Truax had even been involved in the Navy’s Earth Satellite proposal of 1946—the one that had prompted Curtis LeMay to ask RAND to study a satellite. “He was the first real Space Cadet we had seen,” Coolbaugh explained. Truax was president of the American Rocket Society and had worked with the British Interplanetary Society. He was a Navy officer working on the Air Force’s Atlas missile program, but he already had a reputation in the space world. “In many ways, he was the first Space Cadet in the Air Force,” Coolbaugh explained.

“The Ramo-Wooldridge people were another story,” Coolbaugh said. “They went out of their way to tell us how the program was going to prosper when it was transferred to WDD and received all the support that Ramo-Wooldridge would provide.” But they weren’t just tooting their own horn. “They constantly belittled the Air Force laboratory personnel,” Coolbaugh added. “It was annoying to watch them carry-on in front of the lab people and not recognize the negative effect they were having on some superbly qualified people. During the evaluation, they asked many questions which were intended to show us their technical superiority.”

The last of the contractor presentations was by Lockheed and by that time the Ramo-Wooldridge people had annoyed just about everybody in the conference room. Lockheed’s presentation was by Louis Ridenour. Although he was not officially in charge of Lockheed’s program, he was clearly the most respected and influential person at the company when it came to advanced research and development issues. He had worked at the Radiation Lab, he had been Air Force Chief Scientist, and he had worked on all of the early RAND satellite studies. Perhaps more importantly for Lockheed, he knew the ins and outs of bureaucratic politics, and he was not one to suffer fools gladly.

While the Space Cadets knew Ridenour’s reputation, none had seen him do a formal presentation. “It was the first time most of us had been exposed to Louie. He was good!” Coolbaugh exclaimed. At the end of Ridenour’s presentation, the Ramo-Wooldridge people jumped in again, asking him a bunch of theoretical questions. “Finally, Louie had enough, and he gave a short, pithy talk on how successful technical development programs are carried out,” Coolbaugh remembered.

Unfortunately, there are a great number of very smart scientists who can’t run these programs,” Ridenour declared, “because they cannot stop studying the technical problems and start bending the tin.” It was a direct slap at Ramo-Wooldridge’s experts, who were forbidden from doing anything other than studying the problems. “This speech by Louie almost got a standing ovation from the Air Force people who were present,” Coolbaugh explained.

Bill King was not one of the Space Cadets. For him the satellite program was interesting, but not a passion. As soon as he heard about the transfer of the program to the Western Development Division, he began working on a plan for how to move the people and their files to the West Coast. King was also not impressed with the Ramo-Wooldridge people and their attitude toward the satellite. He wanted to keep the program entirely under Air Force control.

King told the Space Cadets to compile a list of everyone working on the satellite program in any capacity. “And Bill meant every person,” Coolbaugh explained. He had them put together short but concise lists of all the work being done for the program office by all of the Laboratories, research centers, the Atomic Energy Commission and consultants. When all of this information was compiled and put on charts, it represented a large, entirely “Air Force” program.

Bill King was not one of the Space Cadets. For him the satellite program was interesting, but not a passion.

Shortly afterwards, the office was told to prepare a briefing for General Schriever at WDD. King, Coolbaugh and several other members of the program office went out to Los Angeles to meet with Schriever, who opened the meeting by welcoming them to his Western Development Division and telling them about its relationship with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. He told them they would be happy as part of WDD and would get the same support from Ramo-Wooldridge as the missile programs.

King knew that he was not going to accompany the office to WDD. He was going to be assigned another development program, the trouble-plagued Snark cruise missile, which was not under Schriever’s control. With nothing left to lose, King made his pitch: “General, I’m afraid your plans for the program will ruin it.”

Schriever, surprised, asked the junior officer what he meant. King told him that the program would suffer drastically if it lost all its current support and had to make do with the small resources of Ramo-Wooldridge. There would also be a delay as Ramo-Wooldridge’s experts had to get up to speed with the program. King had Schriever’s undivided attention and the lieutenant colonel pulled out his briefing charts, showing who was then working on the satellite program around the country. Coolbaugh thought that King’s presentation was superb and Schriever was really intrigued by it. But the Space Cadets were not sure that it would actually work.

Not long afterwards the program office was informed that the satellite would remain an all-Air Force operation, as King wanted. “Bill was no Space Cadet,” Coolbaugh explained, “but the program owed him a lot.”

King remembered another meeting with Schriever as they hashed out exactly how the transfer would take place. At one point in the meeting Schriever’s secretary walked in and handed him a note. Schriever looked at it and said nothing, putting it in his pocket, but after that King thought he became a little more assertive, a little more curt. When the meeting ended Schriever walked out the door and his staff was waiting for him, cheering. The secretary had just informed him that President Eisenhower had personally approved Schriever’s promotion from Major to Lieutenant General.

Shortly before Coolbaugh, Troetschel and Jack Herther left for Western Development Division, they decided they needed a way to commemorate their early work on the satellite program. One of the men’s wives worked with ceramics and they had her make up small tie tacks showing a cloudy earth with red satellite tracks criss-crossing it in an 83 degree retrograde orbit, in the same way that RAND had proposed in its Feed Back report. King presented these to each of the men who had been there in the beginning, when the Air Force satellite program was nothing more than a group of enthusiastic junior officers working out of an office in Dayton, Ohio.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of a number of people who helped in gathering information for this portion of my manuscript: Bill Coolbaugh, Jack Herther, R. Cargill Hall, and of course, the late Bill King.