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What exactly was Richard Bissell’s role in formulating the concept of “freedom of space”? (credit: CIA)

Bissell’s people

A couple of months ago a space author generously sent me a copy of his book, telling me that he had used a number of my articles in writing it. So naturally I turned to the footnotes to see which ones and cringed to learn that he had primarily cited my Internet writings rather than my print articles. The reason that this bothers me is that I view my Internet articles as first drafts, not final polished works. They lack footnotes, for instance, and the careful checking, re-checking, and editing that I (and my editors—it’s always good having someone looking over your shoulder) put into works that appear in print. Usually I write the Internet articles late at night, only a day or two before they go online, rather than weeks or months (or sometimes years) before they see print. My recent article about CIA official Richard Bissell’s role in developing a key aspect of the first American space policy (see “Tinker, Tailor, Satellite, Spy”, The Space Review, October 29, 2007) is an example. I wrote that Bissell was the person who thought up the concept of “freedom of space.”

Turns out I was wrong.


Although Bissell was the person who sent the issue up the chain of command, the first memo mentioning the issue was actually written by a young Air Force officer working for Bissell.

Bissell wrote several memos about this subject in late September 1954, which he sent up the chain of command at CIA. Those documents were declassified in 2003 and released at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The documents were significant for several reasons. Prior to this release, historians who have written about this subject for the past two decades (including myself) believed that the concept of freedom of space originated with a high-level scientific advisory committee called the Technological Capabilities Panel (or TCP) in February 1955. The new documents push back the origins of the policy by several months and indicate that somebody other than the TCP was responsible. I wrote that the person responsible was Bissell, but that’s not strictly accurate.

One of the historians whom I mentioned in the article contacted me about the documents, which he was unaware of. Upon reading the article he obtained copies of the same documents that I had and noted that although Bissell was the person who sent the issue up the chain of command, the first memo mentioning the issue was actually written by a young Air Force officer working for Bissell. That same unnamed Air Force officer has previously been given credit by other historians for bringing the U-2 proposal to Bissell’s attention at the same time.

Bissell still deserves much of the credit, because he recognized the importance of the issue and brought it to the attention of his superiors. We do not know anything more beyond that, but I strongly suspect that Bissell then communicated the idea to the Technological Capabilities Panel, which included it in their report. That report then led to the approval of NSC 5520, the draft “Statement of Policy on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program.”

NSC 5520 formally approved the civilian satellite program that became Vanguard. As noted in the earlier article, it was NSC 5520 that first came to the attention of historians in the 1980s, and which directed everyone’s attention toward the Technological Capabilities Panel. The key sentence was “The report of the Technological Capabilities Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee recommended that intelligence applications warrant an immediate program leading to a very small satellite around the earth, and that re-examination should be made of the principles or practices of international law with regard to ‘Freedom of Space’ from the standpoint of recent advances in weapon technology.” In the version of the document released in the 1980s (download it here), the underlined words above were deleted. In the version of the document released in 1996 (download it here), there were no deletions. In between those document releases, various historians had connected the policy to the Eisenhower administration’s interest in reconnaissance satellites. But while we were exploring that alleyway, we did not realize that there was another path that involved the CIA and Richard Bissell—and this Air Force aide who worked for him.

So who was this young Air Force officer? I asked my colleague Chris Pocock, who is the preeminent historian of the U-2 spyplane. Chris doesn’t know. If we ever learn that person’s name, then we can determine if he, like Bissell, later played an important role in the development of early American space policy and intelligence satellite policy.

It is clear now that 1954 was a pivotal year for the development of American strategic reconnaissance during the Cold War.

Someone else contacted me about last week’s article as well. This person noted that at the exact same time that Bissell was reviewing this issue and sending it up the chain of command at the CIA, Lloyd Berkner, a prominent American physicist who had first proposed the idea of the International Geophysical Year back in 1950, was then in Europe proposing the launching of a satellite as part of the IGY. Was this a coincidence, or was Berkner actively in touch with Bissell, or somebody else at the CIA, coordinating his activities? Lacking a smoking gun, I am inclined to believe that these were parallel but uncoordinated efforts. Bissell’s aide wrote in a memo that a satellite had already been proposed as part of the IGY. What Bissell and then his superiors discussed was what the US government should do and why. The standard protocol is for government officials to figure out what to do before proposing anything in an international forum. Lloyd Berkner had no such restrictions. Nobody at CIA would have told Berkner to proceed with his proposal until they had reviewed the issue—and they were in the midst of reviewing it at the time he was making his proposal. If he had contacted them at that moment, they probably would have told him to stop and await further instructions. But there may be other documents awaiting declassification that might shed further light on this subject.

It is clear now that 1954 was a pivotal year for the development of American strategic reconnaissance during the Cold War. That was the year that the RAND Corporation produced its FEED BACK report, which not only defined how a reconnaissance satellite might be built, but also defined what it could do. It was also the year that a group of young Air Force officers at the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio got excited about this idea and began using extra research and development funds to start work on some of the necessary subsystems, like horizon sensors. (They called themselves the “space cadets”, and they deserve more credit for starting the military space program than they generally get.) And of course 1954 was also the year that Kelly Johnson proposed the U-2 spyplane that was approved by President Eisenhower in November and run by Bissell. And now it is clear that 1954 was the year that somebody first broached the idea of using a civilian satellite to serve as a pathfinder for establishing the legal principle of freedom of space for the reconnaissance satellites that would follow.

This subject, which those of us who wrote about it in the 1990s assumed was a closed book, has now fluttered open again, and some of us are struggling to update our articles, even the ones with footnotes.