It is almost a truism that the primary U.S. space launch capabilities were created only because of the challenge of an exceptionally desperate Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the development and deployment of ballistic missiles, space-based intelligence-gathering capabilities, and the orbiting of scientific satellites into space were all critical to ensuring the national security of the United States.
For the first decade of the space age, the U.S. space effort operated and evolved in response to consistently focused governmental policy of the highest national priority. During that era the focus was on test and evaluation of ICBMs and on developing these systems into space launch vehicles, primarily to support the reconnaissance mission operated from Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) on the West Coast and the robotic space flight mission operated from Cape Canaveral on the East Coast. The initial development, test, and evaluation of ballistic missiles also drove the development for extensive tracking, telemetry collection, and precise photographic capabilities.
During this earliest period of space launch development the United States began employing the principal launchers—Atlas and Delta, as well as the now retired Titan—that found use beyond the Cold War era. It is hard to believe in the year 2014, but the United States still relies on the descendants of these three ballistic missiles for the bulk of its space access requirements. Even though the three families of space boosters—each with numerous variants—have enjoyed incremental improvement since first flight, there seems no way to escape their beginnings in technology (dating back to the early 1950s) and their primary task of launching nuclear warheads.
The first-generation ICBM, the Atlas, was flight tested beginning June 11, 1955, and made operational in 1959. A second ballistic missile, the Thor, also dates from the 1950s and under the name Delta became an early workhorse in America’s fleet of launchers. The Titan ICBM quickly followed the Atlas and Thor into service with the U.S. Air Force in 1959 and remained on alert until the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s.
Since these space launch vehicles began existence as national defense assets, they reflected both the benefits and liabilities of those origins. For example, the national defense requirements prompted the developers to emphasize development schedule and operational reliability over launch costs. Consequently, these vehicles were exceptionally costly both to develop and operate.
Indeed, the Eisenhower administration poured enormous resources into the development of these first generation space access vehicles. As a measure of government investment, through fiscal year 1957 the government spent $11.8 billion on military space activities in 1957 dollars. “The cost of continuing these programs from FY 1957 through FY 1963,” Eisenhower was told, “would amount to approximately $36.1 billion, for a grand total of $47 billion.”
In 2014 dollars, for comparison, this would have represented an investment of more than $235 billion. An investment of even 25 percent of that amount today would make possible an enormous advance of launch vehicle technology.
The period between 1957 and 1965 might best be viewed as the height of the Cold War era and the age of the great race for space. Engaged in broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the non-aligned nations of the world, space exploration was one major area contested. The Soviets gained the upper hand in this competition on October 4, 1957, when they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, as part of a larger scientific effort associated with the International Geophysical Year. The Soviets did not relinquish their apparent lead in the space race until the mid-1960s.
At the same time that the United States seemed incapable of conducting space operations effectively—notably during the failed launch of the Vanguard satellite on national television on December 6, 1957—the Soviets seemed to enjoy every success. In those first 8 years of the space age, it looked as if the Soviet Union did everything right in space flight, and the United States appeared at best a weakling without the kind of capabilities that the command economy of the “workers’ state” in the Soviet Union had been able to muster. The result was that the United States mobilized to “catch up” to the apparent might of its Cold War
About 1965 the Cold War began to wane as a powerful motivator behind space activities. From the point where America began flying the Gemini spacecraft, and especially with the flights of Apollo—1968-1972—it became obvious that the United States led the world in rocket technology. Accordingly, the space race began to wane during that era, as the nation was consumed with issues other than crises with the Soviet Union, especially it focused on the war in Vietnam.
Since the beginning of spaceflight more than fifty years ago, those who seek to travel in space have been, in essence, between a rocket and hard place. The enormous release of energy made possible through the development of chemical rocket technology, allowed the first generation of launch vehicles to free humanity and its robots from the constraints of Earth’s gravity. It allowed the still exceptionally limited exploitation of space technology for all manner of activities important on Earth—communications, weather, GPS, and a host of other remote sensing satellites—to such an extent that many individuals in the United States today cannot conceive of a world in which they did not exist.
This launch of Falcon 9 in 2012 signals a step forward in space access–especially new, non-DoD developed rockets–but the technology is only incrementally improved and still relies on basic chemical propulsion.
This same chemical rocket technology made possible human flight into space, albeit for an exceptionally limited number of exceptional people, and the visiting of robotic probes from this planet to our neighbors in the Solar System. These have been enormously significant, and overwhelmingly positive, developments.
The rockets that make space access possible, however, have also been enormously expensive despite sustained efforts to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Most launch vehicle efforts throughout the history of the space age, unfortunately, have been fraught with a fair measure of self-deception and wishful thinking. A large ambitious program is created, hyped, and then fails as a result of unrealistic management, especially with regard to technical risk. These typically have blurred the line, which should be bright, between revolutionary, high-risk, high-payoff R&D efforts and low-risk, marginal payoff evolutionary efforts to improve operational systems. Efforts to break the bonds of this deception may well lead in remarkable new directions in future launcher development efforts. I hope so.