Supernatural NASA

This article looks at the events that led to the creation of NASA from the context of exploring the role of a national space agency.

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In the first Stars without wars article we looked out how the beginnings of the various space programmes were in the rocketry designs leading to some of the most terrifying weapons of World War II. In this article we explore the importance of a single government approach to a nation’s space interests, in this case NASA in the United States.

Stars without wars: Supernatural NASA

Let’s have a look at how was is it possible that an entire planet of lay people consider NASA more or less “The One” who gets people to space and are generally disappointed at their apparent lack of action.

Many times when talking to people the word NASA comes through. There is this general expectation that NASA is/ should be the space saviour who by its simple power of will (or a President’s directive) can plant people and humankind in space. What these people don’t realise is that:

1. NASA is a government department

2. Of the United States.

So despite the world’s romantic expectations, NASA cannot and will not solve issues that are global in nature simply because it’s the equivalent of the Ministry of Space for the United States of America. Everyone who can relate to how a Ministry of Agriculture or a Ministry of Health works knows that these are specific for each country they operate in. So the Ministry of Agriculture in New Zealand (or the equivalent of) would have no direct involvement in supporting farming in Norway. It is the Ministry of Agriculture from Norway (or its equivalent) that supports farming and farmers in Norway and so on. So if people from New Zealand would like to see things in space they will have to operate through a government department that is representing New Zealand’s interests in space. This is the reason why, when Rocket Lab USA announced they wanted to launch rockets from New Zealand, the government of New Zealand created the New Zealand Space Agency (in 2016), to deal with these kind of issues. The New Zealand Space Agency operates within the Ministry for Business Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) and it’s a government department.

However, without interfering in other nations’ internal affairs, what NASA did, since their inception, was to inspire generations of space enthusiasts around the world; they have been the first to “open shop” in plain sight and broadcast rocket launches on TV. They have also been a major player in the creation of space policies (aka, how to do things when in space) and with this they deserve the unofficial title of “Manager of Progress for World Space Exploration.”

In the last article we talked about how after the end of World War II, people took the first ever pictures from space, on October 24, 1946 with a photo camera mounted on a captured V2 rocket. Just a few months prior to that, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, H. H. (“Hap”) Arnold, gathered engineers and scientists and established the RAND Corporation, in April 1946. Their mission was to come up with key inventions and they have: first report produced by RAND was called ‘Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship”. The report explained space physics and technical designs and introduced almost every one of the major military space missions that would be developed in the coming years including communications, attack assessment, weather reconnaissance, and strategic reconnaissance. Nevertheless, the report was overlooked for a long time.

Where is the edge of space?

Also around that time, a definition for what is space was proposed. The edge of space is also known as ‘The Kármán Line’. Theodore von Kármán was the one who lead the team who decided around mid-1950’s that ‘space’ begins at 100 km altitude, and they considered that Astronautics needed the lack of atmosphere to be viable whereas Aeronautics needed the presence of atmosphere. Hence the difference between the two is that space flight (astronautics) can maintain speeds impossible to maintain in atmospheric drag for very long time and without power applied to the vehicle whereas atmospheric flight, aeronautics (heavier than air vehicles) can only sustain flying with power. Around an altitude of 100 Km the atmosphere is thin enough so that the boundary could be set. (de Córdoba 2015)

The Edge of Space

However, a secret satellite surveillance project (Corona) was high on the US President Eisenhower’s agenda, but unfortunately for the US, diplomatic issues held back its development.

On 4th of October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik.

This was both good and bad. Good in a skewed way for the US because “by being the first to launch a satellite, the Soviets had lost their ability to object diplomatically”, says Alan Wasser in The Space Review in 2005. Bad because the launch of Earth’s first artificial satellite ‘Sputnik’ by the Soviet Union on 4th of October 1957, ignited a full-scale crisis in the U.S. The event was described as having had a ‘Pearl Harbor’ effect on American public opinion. (Warren-Findley, Jannelle; NASA 2001)

The birth of the US government department known as NASA as an organization was directly influenced by the launch of Sputnik, and NASA began operations almost a year later after the launch of Sputnik, with the broad and very general function to “research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” (Dick, Steven J; NASA 2008) With this simple preamble, the Congress and the President of the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958. NASA in fact replaced the former NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was a U.S. federal agency founded on March 3, 1915, to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. When NASA was formed all its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Commemorative pin, 100 years NACA-NASA

NASA’s birth was directly related to the pressures of national defense. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War, a broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the nonaligned nations. During this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the space race.” (NASA; Garber, Stephen J; Launius, Roger D;, 2005)

Promoted by the US as a separate civilian space agency to carry out an open program of scientific activities and to engage in international cooperation, NASA provided a great contrast to the closed and secretive Soviet space effort. Besides, having a civilian agency active in space exploration was seen as a way of lessening attention on U.S. national security space efforts. (Logsdon, John; NASA 2008) In fact, the Pentagon had its own space program: Before the advent of NASA, the Department of Defense (DoD) had been the primary space agency, created to make sure that “surprises like Sputnik will not happen again”, (Tether, Tony; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency 2005) and remained dominant for some time thereafter. (Whalen, David; NASA 2004)

History shows that although a report called “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World Circling Spaceship,” was produced as early as May of 1946 by the U.S. think-tank called Project RAND, there was not enough momentum in the US to justify these actions for the public eye (taxpayers, or for their leaders for that matter), and determine them to undertake the actions recommended by RAND. It was the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957 that provided the push. (Whalen, David; NASA 2004)