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Chapter 1: Sputnik
1.1 Congressional Preparedness Subcommittee
Senator Johnson sat presiding over the Congressional Preparedness Subcommittee at 10 am on a chilly Washington, DC morning along with Senators Johnson, Kefauver, Stennis, Symington, Saltonstall, and Flanders as well as members of the Congress’s special council. The group sat with members of the Armed Services Committee.
“Please come to order,” Senator Johnson said.
Senator Johnson would be presiding over a hearing called, “Inquiry into Satellite and Missile Programs” on the November afternoon almost two months after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957.
Senator Johnson continued, “We are here today to inquire into the facts on the state of the
Nation’s security. Our country is disturbed over the tremendous military and scientific achievement of Russia. Our people have believed that in the field of scientific weapons and in technology and science, that we were well ahead of Russia. ”
The room was quiet. “With the launching of Sputniks I and II, and with the information
at hand of Russia’s strength, our supremacy and even our equality has been challenged. We must meet this challenge quickly and effectively in all its aspects,” Johnson reported.
Johnson remembers looking up at the night sky and seeing Sputnik and feeling distressed that the US was not first in science and technology, in space.  He began collecting information shortly from the Pentagon after Sputnik’s launch and assembled a list of witnesses to hear from to prepare a Congressional hearing on national defense and US science and technological security. His hope was to create a record to sort out all the media hype about satellites and guided missiles.
Johnson continued, “There are a few things I wish to make clear about the committees
attitude. It would appear that we have slipped dangerously behind the Soviet Union in some very important fields. But the committee is not rendering any final judgments in advance of the evidence, on why we slipped or what should be done about it. Our goal is to find out what is to be done. We will not reach that goal by wandering up any blind alleys of partisanship. I suppose that all of us, being human, have some ideas on steps that should be taken. But the committee judgment will represent a meeting of the minds after all the facts are available, and this committee’s judgment will represent an effort to make a contribution to the defense of our Nation. The facts that I learned so far give me no cause for comfort…”
Johnson called for unity between Democrats and Republicans. He brought up Pearl Harbor. “There were just Americans anxious to roll up their sleeves to close ranks and to wade into the enemy,” he said.
Johnson called the first witness, Dr. Edward Teller, known as the Father of the H-Bomb, now a professor at University of California Radiation Laboratory. Mr. Weisl was first to question the witness. “Will you please tell us, Dr. Teller, briefly, what your relationship to atomic and thermonuclear weapons has been since your arrival to this country?” Dr. Teller gave a brief summary of his travels to different laboratories and his eventual tenure at University of California.
“Have you participated very actively in the development of the hydrogen bomb?” Mr Weisl asked. “I have, yes, sir,” Dr. Teller responded. Senator Johnson interrupted, “Senator Symington is having trouble seeing the witness because of the photographers, and we have had a request to ask them to take their pictures and then move along.” Johnson shooed the audience of photographers to the side.
Mr Weisl asked Dr. Teller about the relationship between fissionable and thermonuclear long-range missiles. Dr. Teller told of ballistic missiles, long-range missiles could shoot 1,500 to 5,000 feet, however the missiles weren’t much for accuracy therefore the larger the explosive the greater the accuracy.
Mr. Weisl was concerned about accuracy, and asked Dr. Teller about “clean bombs” that is, bombs that are powerful enough to cause a powerful explosion that hits on target, rather than a long-range missile that requires a huge explosion to barely hit a target. Dr. Teller told Mr. Weisl such weapons require significant testing.
The questioning continued. Dr. Teller testified that Sputnik required a rocketry, a rocket motor, a guidance system, propulsion; and he discussed how these systems relate to ballistic missiles. If rocket technology could be adapted…
Mr. Weisl got to the heat of the argument: “Then you believe that the Russians have an intercontinental ballistic missile at this time? ” Dr. Teller responded that he did not know if the Russians had adapted rocketry technology to their ballistic missiles. The room was quiet; Mr. Weisl pressed Dr. Teller. “Dr. Teller, what must the Russians have in their
long-range guided missile, in addition to their ability to put a satellite in outer space, in order to hit a target?” Dr. Teller told Mr. Weisl about the problem of reentry when a rocket comes up the velocity that is inevitable on the come down would be a high speed and be a problem. Dr. Teller told the committee it was a problem the Russians could probably solve.
Mr. Weisl spoke, “Dr. Teller, why do you believe we are behind the Russians in the development of the long-range missile?” Dr. Teller told the committee the US is behind in ballistics and the Russian rocket technology is proof the US is behind. Dr. Weisl and Dr. Teller spoke for several minutes and discussed how Russian scientists lead a good life and how Russian society uses science very practically in everyday life.
Dr. Teller changed the subject. “Shall I tell you why I want to go to the moon?” he joked.
Mr. Weisl laughed, “Yes, sir.”
Dr. Teller told of the scientific advancement going to the Moon or Mars would hold. Mr. Weisl was more concerned again about Russia and asked Dr. Teller if he thought the Russians would see the Moon as a military endeavor and if the US would find it practical militarily to go to the Moon. “My imagination is not good enough for that,” Dr. Teller responded. The committee discussed assorted topics with Dr. Teller before calling its next witness to give testimony.
The Subcommittee met again the next day and discussed Russia science programs, its economy, use ballistic missiles, and then Project Vanguard.
Project Vanguard was a project lead by Director, Dr. John Hagen who also served as a member of the National Science Foundation. Dr. Hagen would be the Subcommittee’s next witness. Dr. Hagen discussed Project Vanguard and how it was first a science experiment lead by the Department of Defense to launch a satellite for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The Department of Defense had already done work in atmospheres and the Aerobees and Viking rockets needed to launch the satellites needed to be built at the Naval Research Laboratory. The IGY would last from July 1957 to December 1958. Dr. Hagan described the Viking rocket and the orbit and the space-to-Earth communications of the satellite to the Subcommittee. The satellite uses radio waves to communicate with a ground station. Dr. Hagen reiterated the project was supposed to be off the ground by the end of the IGY.
Mr. Vance asked if the project could be hurried, and Dr. Hagen said there were funding limitations, that ballistic missiles were of a higher priority and the Vanguard satellite program was a secondary priority classification.
Mr.Vance asked, “[Without limitations] do you think that you could have gotten it up ahead of Sputnik I?” Dr. Hagen responded at first hesitantly than responded, “I think that we probably would have come very close to the same time, if not ahead of it.” It was after this questioning Congress had the information it needed to boost the Vanguard project from a low priority science project to a higher security national defense project. Johnson called the committee to order and decided an executive session was needed to meet in the Armed Services Committee Room to hear the Director of Central Intelligence, Mr. Allen Dulles. Johnson settled the press, “At the conclusion of his testimony I will meet with the press and tell them anything that I may be able to as a result of that testimony…Dr. Hagen, we thank you for indulging us. Counsel, will you proceed with the examination of the witness?”
Dr. Hagen continued to discuss the scientific benefits of the Vanguard Project. Later, Mr. Vance asked Dr. Hagen about the military benefits of Project Vanguard. “…satellites, close-in satellites, can certainly beexcellent aids to navigation. Within the Navy we, have this navigation problem. The problem is not confined of course to the Navy but we are very aware of it. Close-in satellites can help in navigation. They could also help in such things as television relays.
“What are they,” Dr. Vance asked. Dr. Hagen continued, “You can place a satellite in an orbit some 22,000 miles or so above the earth, at which time it has a period of just 1 day.
So you could place it over the United States, for example, and if you instrumented it as a television relay station, you could feed television programs into the satellite and have them rebroadcast to cover the whole of the United States with one transmitter. This is an obvious thing which will be done some day and it certainly has its military advantages.”
Dr. Vance then asked Dr. Hagen about Russian satellites. Dr. Hagen described Sputnik, and described the “decay” process in which satellites are dragged down by the atmosphere and lose orbit and burn up in the atmostphere “just as the meteor does,” Hagen described.
Dr. Hagen discussed the Russian satellite Sputnik with the council and described the kind of propulsion needed to launch the satellite. Senator Johnson was concerned if the American Viking rocket could support such as satellite and Dr. Hagen was not sure, “we were comparing potatoes and peas here when we compare with they are doing with our
Vanguard experiment, because our rocketry for this is not a military rocket, and we should not draw conclusions about our military capabilities in this comparison.” Dr. Hagen continued to describe the physics of the Vanguard project and images were included in the Congressional record.
Senator Johnson thanked Dr. Hagen for his testimony and the Subcommittee hearing ended about 4 pm that November day. The next few days the Subcommittee would hear testimony on ballistics and guided missiles with witnesses from the Department of Defense, the Army and the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) including testimony from Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director of Development Operations Division at the ABMA in Huntville, Alabama.
Dr. Werhner von Braun was a man in his mid forties; he had short brown hair, wrinkles on his face from decades studying rocket physics. He sometimes wore glasses. Von Braun was long influenced by the science fiction works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and got his start in rocketry working for the German Army working in the ballistic missile division.  He was formerly apart of Hitler’s “rocket team” and built V-2 bombers that used slave labor from a concentration camp in Mittelwerk.  He stood before Congress that Wednesday afternoon and prepared to be questioned about his work for the ABMA and the US’s status on rocket development.
Mr. Weisl began, “Dr. von Braun, you are associated in the German use of the V-2. Will you tell the committee briefly just what your association with the V-2 was?”
Von Braun responded, “The V-2 was the outgrowth of liquid fuel rocket developments that
had been going on in Germany since 1930. In 1930, still as a student, I became associated with the German Society for Space Travel. We built some rather primitive liquid-fuel rockets under the auspices of this society.”
“How old were you at that time, Doctor?” Mr. Weisl asked. “Eighteen,” Von Braun replied.
Von Braun began, “In 1932, about 2 years later, the German Army became interested in our work, but was ready to support us only with the stipulation that we would move behind the fence of an army facility. This is how I became affiliated with the German Army. Under the auspices of the army we first built two smaller liquid fuel rockets, and by 1936 this project had progressed so well that the German Army, jointly with the German Air Force, decided to establish a rocket center on the Baltic Sea, which became the Rocket Center of Peenemuende, and it was there that the V-2 rocket was developed. The actual development work on the V-2 began in early 1940. The first flight tests were made in the spring of 1942, but were unsuccessful. In October 1942, the first successful flight of the V-2 was made. In September 1944, the V-2 went into military operation.”
Mr. Weisl asked, “Dr. von Braun,, will you tell the committee briefly how you managed to escape from the Russians as they were approaching Peenemuende?” Von Braun testified about how the Russian Army was approaching from the East and him and his comrades could hear the artillery fire at night. “It was very obvious to me and my associates that the war was lost…” he said. The group was on the rear of the fighting front, confused about which direction to go. They decided to go west.
“We finally wound up partly in central Germany and partly in Bavaria. There we were ultimately run over by the American Army,” von Braun testified.
“Were you able to escape to the American Army with equipment?” Mr. Weisl asked.
“Yes sir,” von Braun replied. Von Braun continued, “only about 2,000 tons, but I would say the most important equipment, finally wound up in American hands, including the documents covering our scientific and engineering work.”
Mr. Weisl asked, “In other words, you delivered the equipment and documents and all the supporting data you could bring with you to the American Army?”
“That is right,” von Braun replied.
Mr. Weisl asked to what extent had the Russian Army gained German rocketry technology, but von Braun told the committee about how the Russians made poor use of their gained technology and that the Russia ballistic missile program was heavily mismanaged.
“The Russian program wasn’t very convincing, and not really dangerous,” von Braun concluded.
Dr. Weisl responded, “You do not underestimate the ability of the Russians to make and develop and plan and research into the missile field do you?”
“No sir, I don’t,” von Braun replied.
“Do you believe the Russians are ahead of us in this field?” Dr. Weisl asked.
“In the ballistic missile and satellite business, definitely; yes, sir,” von Braun answered.
Mr. Weisl and Dr. von Braun discussed impediments to the missile program for some length. They discussed the unfunded Jupiter missile program and how a larger problem was in engineering. Von Braun discussed his shortage of engineers and surplus of scientists who were not helping the project. Von Braun thought the answer lied with how the missile program was prioritized.
“This is a very fundamental and, I think, a very serious question…” von Braun began, “The question is asked, very simply: ‘Do we need it for the Atlas?’ Answer: ‘No.’ ‘Do we need it for the Titan?” ‘No.’ ‘For the Jupiter?’ ‘No.’ ‘For the Thor?’ ‘No.’ Consequently, there is no need for a big engine.”
Mr. Weisl was interested, “In other words, you agree with General Medaris there is need for an engine with a large thrust?” Von Braun replied, “Yes, sir.”
The testimony continued, “And you join with General Medaris in feeling that
the control of outer space and, I might say, with General Gavin, that the control of outer space is just as important, if not more so, than the development of the ballistic missile?” Mr Weisl asked.
“Sir, I believe that–”
Mr. Weisl pressed, “You join in that belief?”
Dr. von Braun looked cool. “Yes, sir; I do…I am convinced that the Russian concept, as demonstrated by Sputnik No. 2 carrying this animal, is clearly much broader. They consider the control of space around the earth very much like, shall we say, the great maritime powers considered the control of the seas, in the 16th through the 18th century, and they say, ‘If we want to control this planet, we have to control the space around it.’
Mr. Weisl responded, “Then we will discuss outer space with you this afternoon, Dr. von Braun.”
Senator Johnson concluded, “The committee will stand recess until 2:30. The room erupted.