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NSRC 2020

 
Johnson and Agnew
Lyndon Johnson, seen here with Spiro Agnew at the Apollo 11 launch, may have played a key role in early US space policy, but one much be careful about overstating his influence in starting or stopping the Space Race. (credit: NASA)

Big claims, little evidence

Carl Sagan popularized the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is a good bit of advice that applies in many intellectual fields. A similar rule for writing history is to not get too far out in front of your evidence. You should not write big conclusions with small crayons. It is fine to have theories and ideologies, but ultimately they have to be based upon solid and convincing evidence.

Unfortunately, a recent two-part article in The Space Review fails that test (See “LBJ’s Space Race: what we didn’t know then”, part 1 (June 20) and part 2 (June 27)). The article, written by Alan Wasser, has at its core an interesting set of questions—what started the space race, and what ended the space race? Although those questions may seem to some to be self-evident, it is never a waste of time or effort to revisit assumptions that are usually taken for granted.

You should not write big conclusions with small crayons. It is fine to have theories and ideologies, but ultimately they have to be based upon solid and convincing evidence.

Wasser’s argument is that Lyndon Baines Johnson both started and ended the space race. He supposedly started it with his public hearings in the Senate after the launch of Sputnik, and he ended it with the Outer Space Treaty signed in January 1967. Wasser claims that the space race was primarily about owning territory—the Moon—and when that was declared illegal in an international treaty, the space race was over.

This argument fails on multiple counts. There are many problems with the article. Those problems can generally be divided into categories: errors of fact, errors of interpretation, and methodological flaws. Although there is insufficient time or space to discuss all of them, this article will discuss a few.

Factual errors

Unfortunately, the article in question has numerous factual errors. Many of these are directly relevant to the author’s argument, and some are not. In general, the voluminous errors indicate a serious misunderstanding of the subject matter and undermine the entire thesis. Here are a few of the factual errors:

“In December 1953, the US Air Force pulled together all its various satellite efforts into a single program known as WS-117L. In October 1956, the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. got the first WS-117L production contract.”

This is incorrect. There were not multiple satellite efforts at that time. There were several studies underway at the RAND Corporation and some small-scale experimental work at Wright Field in Ohio, but they were all centralized. The project was operating under the designation MX-2226 and Project 1115 until early 1956, when it was redesignated WS-117L. Lockheed actually won the contract to build the spacecraft in early 1956. For more details, see James Coolbaugh’s article “Genesis of the USAF’s First Satellite Programme” in the August 1998 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Coolbaugh was initially in charge of MX-2226.

“However, a big diplomatic problem associated with aerial surveillance worried President Eisenhower and held back the spy satellite program.”

This is incorrect. The spy satellite program was not held back by concern about the right to overfly Soviet territory. As several sources indicate, WS-117L was denied full funding because the Air Force uniformed leadership was uninterested in the potentially expensive project, and because senior civilian officials were also unwilling to fund it. Although there is substantial evidence to indicate that the Eisenhower administration was interested in funding a civilian scientific satellite to fly before any reconnaissance satellite in order to establish “freedom of space,” there is no indication that the spy satellite program was “held back” because of this.

“Obviously such objections [by the Soviets] would apply even more to any spy satellites that were to go over the Soviet Union every hour and a half, on a clearly predictable schedule.”
There is no evidence that Eisenhower was “thrilled” by Sputnik. Documents released from that time period, such as meeting minutes where Sputnik was discussed, indicate that Eisenhower did not consider Sputnik that big a deal.

Actually, this is backward. A vehicle in orbit is less provocative than one flying through territorial airspace. The Eisenhower administration knew that the reconnaissance balloons and the U-2 aircraft that they had sent over the Soviet Union clearly violated both their territory and international law, they felt that there was the possibility that satellites would be considered too high to violate airspace boundaries. However, they wanted to establish clear precedent for this in order to not prompt the Soviets to develop anti-satellite weapons.

[After Sputnik] “Eisenhower was secretly thrilled! Now the US could go full steam ahead on its top secret spy satellite project, called Corona. By being the first to launch a satellite, the Soviets had lost their ability to object diplomatically.”

There is no evidence that Eisenhower was “thrilled” by Sputnik. Documents released from that time period, such as meeting minutes where Sputnik was discussed, indicate that Eisenhower did not consider Sputnik that big a deal. In addition, the Corona program was not formally approved until February 1958, many months after Sputnik. That is when the name Corona was also applied. Moreover, when the United States began launching military satellites, the Soviets complained diplomatically. They only stopped their complaints in 1962, when they launched their own reconnaissance satellites.

“Lyndon Johnson changed everything.”
“By the time the hearings finished six weeks later, on January 8, 1958, even the New York Times was using the ‘space race’ phrase.”

Sputnik was an international sensation around the world before Lyndon Johnson said anything at all. And various publications were using the phrase “space race” as early as 1955.

[Corona suffered many failures.] “But, perhaps spurred on by Johnson’s pressure, Eisenhower stuck with the program.”

This is false. Eisenhower did not need any pressure from Senator Lyndon Johnson to continue Corona. He did it because he wanted intelligence about the Soviet Union and he was extremely concerned about the illegal and provocative U-2 flights he was occasionally sending over the Soviet Union. There is a significant paper trail supporting the view that it was the need for intelligence information that drove Corona through the numerous early failures. I interviewed General Andrew Goodpaster, Eisenhower’s staff secretary (who died only a few months ago). Goodpaster recounted how he had informed Eisenhower of several of the Corona failures and Eisenhower’s reaction was always the same, “We have to keep going. This is too important.” Eisenhower’s priority was gathering intelligence, not placating Lyndon Johnson.

“Finally, on the fourteenth try, August 19, 1959, the first fully successful Corona mission, Discoverer 14, was launched, with almost no public fanfare.”

There are several mistakes here. The first successful mission was Discoverer 13, launched on August 10, 1960. It carried no film. The first successful photo-reconnaissance mission was Discoverer 14, launched August 18, 1960, not August 19, 1959. Discoverer 13 received much public fanfare: too much, for some people. (For sources, I suggest starting with the book Eye in the Sky, from the Smithsonian Institution Press.)

“On December 10, 1959, the 18th Discoverer achieved the second truly successful mission and returned 18 kilograms of film filled with images from an improved camera, the KH-2.”

Again, the wrong year. This happened in 1960, not 1959.

“Eisenhower offered to give Kennedy a secret intelligence briefing on why that [the “Missile Gap”] really wasn’t such a problem, but Kennedy declined—and won the election. The missile gap issue somehow disappeared after the election.”

Actually, Kennedy was briefed about the U-2 missions over the Soviet Union and their intelligence take. After that, he conspicuously toned down his rhetoric on the missile gap. The gap controversy also did not magically disappear. Better intelligence collection—primarily from the Corona satellites mentioned earlier—helped to erase much of the uncertainty that fueled the missile gap.

“Kennedy put Vice President Johnson in personal charge of the space program. By all accounts he took the job seriously and was a very good manager.”

Kennedy did not put Johnson in “personal charge of the space program.” Johnson was named chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which was an advisory post only. Johnson managed nothing. This entire section also dramatically overemphasizes Johnson’s role and understates the role played by both Kennedy—he was President, after all—and his other advisors. Johnson was simply one voice among many.

“It was early 1966, and the U.S. was gaining but still hadn’t quite caught up to the Russians in space.”

This is false. By early 1966 the Soviets had not launched a single manned spacecraft in a year. The United States, by contrast, had launched five Gemini missions. In all of 1966 the United States would launch five more manned missions and the Soviets would not launch any. It was clear who had pulled ahead in the space race by this time. After the Soviets suffered a fatality during the Soyuz 1 flight in 1967, they fell even farther behind.

“Johnson’s intelligence services were telling him the Soviets were on track to reach the moon.”
“Because of that lack of intelligence, the administration had to assume that, if it cut space spending to pay for Vietnam, it might well lose the space race.”
NASA spending peaked in 1965 and decreased in 1966, before the signing of the Outer Space Treaty. Soviet space spending kept increasing until 1970, over two years after the signing of the Outer Space Treaty.

These two statements are contradictory—either his intelligence was good or there was a lack of it. In fact, the story of what the intelligence agencies were determining about the Soviet lunar program is just now being told. By 1965 the intelligence community was beginning to conclude that the Soviets were falling behind the United States. For more information on this I can suggest a variety of sources, starting with a series of articles that Asif Siddiqi and I wrote for Spaceflight magazine in late 2003 and early 2004, as well as an article I wrote for Air Force magazine in July 2004.

“LBJ had no idea of the significance of the death of Korolev—if indeed he’d ever heard the name—but Khrushchev certainly understood.”

Khruschchev was deposed in October 1964. Korolev died in January 1966.

“Indeed, we did get the ‘Manned Orbital Research Laboratory’ referred to in that memo. Now, close to four decades later, we have the International Space Station instead of real efforts to explore and settle the Moon and Mars.”

The Manned Orbital Research Laboratory was a real program in the 1960s. It was canceled. NASA then flew Skylab instead. ISS is not MORL and it is doubtful that anybody involved with the program even heard of MORL.

“Significantly, space funding increased every year, in both the US and USSR, until the passage of the treaty in 1967, and then decreased thereafter.”

This is wrong on both counts. NASA spending peaked in 1965 and decreased in 1966, before the signing of the Outer Space Treaty. Soviet space spending kept increasing until 1970, over two years after the signing of the Outer Space Treaty. In fact, this point completely negates the premise that the treaty was connected to a desire to reduce space spending in the United States.

There are other errors, but there is insufficient space to discuss all of them.

page 2: errors of interpretation >>