On NASA’s creation and Eisenhower’s “Future Theater of War”

On July 16, 1969, five minutes until liftoff of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the vehicle went through its usual status checks. The astronauts were busy conducting reports, awaiting confirmation systems were all clear and “go for launch.” Three minutes later, Apollo 11 would lift off and make it to the Moon and back.

We remember the launch and we remember Neil Armstrong’s historic “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” words, but how did we get there? How did the US decide to get to the Moon let alone return? What happened during the Apollo Era that would warrant such a decision?

In the 1940s, the US was involved in ballistic missile and atmospheric science, largely with the Huntsville military ballistics program lead by the Army. The US had been interested in science and technology policy largely during this period. The US worked as a technocracy, that is, using government lead technological enterprise as a means to secure the state. The only other country involved in technocratic enterprises during this period was the Soviet Union.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched an unmanned probe into space, Sputnik, thus effectively creating the world’s first satellite into orbit. The US saw this as a threat to state security and immediately called to order a Congressional hearing to discuss Soviet involvement in space and the US’s role in missile and satellite technology. As Logsdon (1970) tells, proponents of entering the space race saw the US falling into a second-class nation without demonstrating rocketry technology. Rocket technology would effectively show the US had achieved long-range missile capability.

The US had already had plans to launch a satellite into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year of 1957 under Eisenhower and it called this program Project Vanguard. The US team under Eisenhower viewed this project as a scientific endeavor and did not place this project on top priority until Soviets launched Sputnik. After Sputnik, satellites became a national security issue.

After Congressional hearings with leaders from the Department of Defense, the Navy and the Army, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed with the goal of creating an agency that would handle our space crisis. Eisenhower’s first job for NASA was to transport Department of Defense functions to NASA as well as in 1959 transfer the Army ballistics in Huntsville to NASA. NASA would become the agency that handled rocketry sciences lead by Werner Von Braun and no longer in Army hands. The Air Force had also long been interested in human spaceflight specifically for warfare purposes. [1]

The US was at a race with the Soviet Union for technocratic achievement and after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the US viewed itself as behind the Soviets technocratically. Many technocratic rationales for beating the Soviets were argued during this period: National prestige, national security, science, and technology.

Logdson (1970) credits the Apollo Mission to President Kennedy, not Eisenhower as Eisenhower wasn’t motivated under the rationales of national prestige, national defense, or science and technology as means to explore space; he saw space as a scientific and futuristic prospect. [1]  Eisenhower did not believe NASA should be motivated by militaristic rationales, like national defense, which was a crucial decision for his making NASA a civilian, not defense Agency. [1]  Kennedy was motivated by these rationales and the decision to go to the Moon is largely credited to him.

The US saw the Apollo mission of landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth as the goal of the Space Race under the guise of boots on the ground in space. The US eventually put man first on the Moon beating the Soviets, however after the Space Race was effectively run, NASA’s Apollo missions ended.

Human spaceflight and Eisenhower’s Future Theater of War

Logsdon (1970) shares that human spaceflight to Eisenhower was seen as a “futurist theater of war” in space and served as a potential to warfare rather than an immediate danger. [1]  Human spaceflight was seen as a low priority and future tier of spaceflight in the Sputnik era of early satellite technology. Wang (2008) credits the President’s Scientific Advisory Council (PSAC) as technological experts as well as skeptics. [2]  PSAC has listed rationales: 1) man’s need to explore space; 2) national defense; 3) national prestige; and 4) science as reasons to explore space. [1]

Still, PSAC had a human spaceflight agenda on their report, albeit a far shooting one, that included moon bases as an eventuality. [1] Eisenhower and his advisers viewed human spaceflight as an ending goal, yet satellites as a top priority. As Logsdon (1970) tells, Eisenhower viewed satellites under the rationale of science not defense, and did not approve of space as a defense endeavor; it was Kennedy and Johnson that saw the potential of warfare in space at the human level and reach the decision to go to the Moon. [1]  The Apollo Era was a defense endeavor and men on the Moon was seen as an epic military enterprise, effectively “boots on the ground” type military achievement. This was a futuristic age of scientific pursuits and technocratic progress.


[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.