As Johnson Feared

It was just as Johnson had feared; the US were behind the Soviets in space. He was more stressed than the October night he saw Sputnik in the night sky. He recalled the Subcommittee session with Dr. Von Braun.

In von Braun’s arrogance he was convinced the Nazis were far more ahead in accurate, long-range ballistics than the mismanaged Soviet program, but that the US lagged behind the Soviets. The Soviets saw space as a next battleground, launching a satellite with potential military capabilities. The Soviets could spy over Earth, specifically on sensitive areas above the Earth and the US could do nothing.

The Soviets were ahead of the US in space, science, and technology and Johnson could not stand for that. He thought of space as a potential battleground, a place the Soviets might try to assert their Communist dominance. The US was lagged behind militarily, national defensively. Von Braun complained about the lack of scientists and surplus of engineers, given scientists and their distaste for technology. Scientists were technological skeptics. [2]  The US needed to build and build quickly.

Johnson was not prepared to stand for the US failing behind in national defense technology. “We’re investigating this issue further,” he might have said to himself. Johnson sat at his desk and thought the matter over more carefully. He recalled Braun’s testimony after this afternoon’s session.

“What I think could be done is this,” Braun began, “Suppose, shall we call it, a National Space Agency were set up, either under the Secretary of Defense or as an independent agency, and this agency were given its own budget. We have made a detailed plan as to what it would take to run such a thing and just to quote a figure here, we are thinking about 1.5 billion a year. This is in addition, of course, to what is spent on the military missile programs. This money would be strictly for this long-range space program, for tlhe conquest of space. When forming this agency, it should also be clearly understood that this is a long-range proposition, that this yearly going rate would be something to plan and rely on, say, for the next 10 years.”

Von Braun continued, “Now, this Space Agency would have to set up its, own in-house master planning organization where competent people would plan a course of action, a stepwise course of action, on how to proceed to attain certain milestones. For example, to put a man into an orbit on a returnable basis within the next 5 years, and to have a manned space station, say, in 10 years. The Space Agency should also be free to let project management contracts in certain subareas included in the overall scope.

An independent agency, Johnson thought. A space agency. Von Braun’s suggestion echoed in his head.

“‘Your job is to get a man, on a returnable basis, into an orbit in 5 years,’ shall we say, ‘and you will build a space station in 10. Here is your own money. You can use the same industrial structure that supports the IRBM and ICBM and other projects, but the head of the Space Agency will make certain that he coordinates his contracts with the heads of the military missile agencies of the services.'”

Johnson remembers asking von Braun, “Why do you want to go to the Moon?” “Most certainly, when Columbus discovered America, he found very little here that was worth talking about and he could not possibly have possessed the imagination to predict all the things that developed on the continent he discovered. I think curiosity, and nothing else, should be the motivating power in exploration and research, and it is just curiosity why I would like
to go to the moon.” Curiousity indeed Johnson might have thought.

“Why do you think it is important that the free world get there first?” Johnson asked.

“Visiting the moon is only part of the overall concept of conquering space.” Conquering space Johnson thought. Indeed space was a taboo word in the Pentagon 6 months ago. Now agencies were fighting to take control of space first. If we were to create a new agency…

Johnson thought heavily on the matter. He still had another few days of hearings on the topic. He was still awaiting all information from the Pentagon on Sputnik and the military’s work in space and atmospheres.

Over the next few weeks, Johnson was busied with Congressional hearings and Press conferences.

Johnson later wrote a white paper criticizing both Democrats and Republicans in there stances towards space. He wrote, “The sad truth is that US progress in space has been continually hampered by the Republican administration’s blind refusal to recognize,e that we have engaged in s space and missile race with the Soviet Union and to act accordingly.” [1]  He continued, “It is a fact that if any nation succeed in securing control of outer space, it will have the capability of controlling the earth itself.” [1]

Johnson was late to the next Congressional hearing on spaceflight in January of 1958 called “Inquiry Into Satellite and Missile Programs.” He was in a conversation with Senator Saltonstall about holding a Democratic minority conference about the hearing held last November and December to review witness testimony. He showed up to the hearing ten minutes late.

Over the month of January, Johnson heard witness testimony from several Admirals and Generals from all the branches of the military – Army, Air Force, and Navy as well as executives from Lockheed, Northrop Aircraft, General Dynamics Corp, Western Electric, and Bell Telephone Labs.



[1]  J. M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest, The MIT Press, 1970.

[2]  Z. Wang, In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America., Rutgers University Press, 2008.



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