61

Not Whether but When: The New Momentum

IN MID-CENTURY the largest government-supported national projects which the United States had set itself took on some of the familiar character of a mission. These gargantuan enterprises, which dwarfed the expenditures even of foreign aid, were the first occasions, other than military ventures, when the nation as a whole focused its public resources on such costly achievement. The two grandest triumphs of American technology were produced by such efforts. One was success in splitting the unsplittable: fissioning the atom and producing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The other was in reaching the unreachable: conquering interplanetary space and landing on the moon. Both were American conquests of the impossible. And they would symbolize even more than other successes of New World civilization what democratic man was sacrificing for his successes. For, oddly enough, their national triumphs would give individual Americans a new sense of powerlessness.

These two American spectaculars showed certain conspicuously common characteristics. Both were incited and accelerated by pressures from outside the nation: one by the wartime fears of earlier success by Nazi Germany; the other by “peacetime” fears of being overshadowed by the success of Soviet Russia. Both were facilitated by the brains, the imagination, and the energy of immigrants: one by refugees from the rise of the Nazis; the other by refugees from the fall of the Nazis. Both pursued objectives which, though never before attained, were still quite specific. Both operated on a definite time schedule set long in advance. To accomplish their purposes both of these far-flung efforts had to reach their predicted goals within a specified time.

In some respects, too, these triumphs of American democracy offered extreme contrasts. One was undertaken in wartime, the other in “peacetime.” And while the one was perhaps the most closely guarded secret ever kept about so enormous an enterprise spread so widely and employing so many people, the other was probably the most widely publicized and most widely witnessed of all enterprises in human history.

Whatever the obvious differences between these two enterprises—the exploration of the inconceivably minuscule world inside the atom and the exploration of the inconceivably vast universe of outer space—they both had the effect of deepening man’s sense of momentum and accentuating his feeling of the new unfreedom of omnipotence.

EVEN IN AMERICAN HISTORY there had been no close precedent. Perhaps the most nearly comparable American achievement was the building of the first railroad across the North American continent. Before the Civil War, publicists were characterizing the railroad as “that work of art which agitates and drives mad the whole people; as music, sculpture, and pictures have done in their great days respectively.” Thoreau warned in Walden (1854): “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

While the transcontinental railroad itself was more novel in its dimensions than in any other way, many viewed it with the same awe and alarm that would accompany the first explosion of an atomic bomb three quarters of a century later. When the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were nearing the link-up which would complete the tracks across the continent, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., the New England railroad magnate, in the passage already quoted at the opening of this volume, observed that “from a period long before the Christian Era down to 1829 there had been no essential change in the system of internal communication.” Now he saw suddenly let loose “an enormous, an incalculable force … exercising all sorts of influences, social, moral, and political; precipitating upon us novel problems which demand immediate solution; banishing the old before the new is half matured to replace it; bringing the nations into close contact before yet the antipathies of race have begun to be eradicated; giving us a history full of changing fortunes and rich in dramatic episodes.” The railroad, he thought, might be “the most tremendous and far-reaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind.” At the time, the railroad men’s conquest of the continent was a spectacle without rival anywhere in the world. The Trans-Siberian Railway was not begun until 1891, and the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway was a product of the same era. The transcontinental railroad, like the most impressive achievements of American technology in the twentieth century, had succeeded in reaching a definite goal within a specified time.

The greatest works of cooperative exploration before the twentieth century—the discovery of America in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the exploration of Oceania in the eighteenth century and the Nile in the nineteenth century, exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica in the twentieth century—all these had reached toward goals that were more or less vague. From the nature of those older enterprises, it long remained uncertain whether, much less when, their goals had been attained. By contrast, Americans in the mid-twentieth century discovered that the more vast and the more centralized and more far-reaching their national enterprises became, the more definite became the objective and the more rigid the time schedule.

There was another remarkable and unprecedented feature to this new kind of race for empire—for the empire of the atom and the empire of outer space. When the microcosm (the atom, the invisible within) and the macrocosm (the universe, the invisible without) had both become worlds for exploration on schedule, the stakes were unimaginable, failure was inconceivable, and success would be apocalyptic. These new empires, like the old, became scenes of frantic racing to get there first. But in the old race for land and territory, one nation’s gain was another’s loss. The dividing line which Pope Alexander VI drew in 1493 one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands (apportioning the newly discovered lands between Spain and Portugal) expressed the spirit of the old colonialism. That was a race for place, for lands to be occupied and exploited, people and territories to be ruled. When the world opened up to seafaring explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, peoples and places at a distance became the subject of fable, folklore, and optimistic advertising. Only a few people at home even knew that America existed.

But the New Worlds of the twentieth century were everywhere. Everything was atoms and everyplace was an avenue to the heavens. If one nation was there, that did not mean another nation could not also be there. To match the everywhere communities, there were now to be everywhere colonies.

IN THE EARLY YEARS of World War II, the great nuclear scientists who arrived in England as refugees from Hitler were for security reasons not allowed to do military research. Excluded from “practical” work like that on radar, they were given ample time to speculate on what would prove to be the most explosive practical issue of modern technology, the feasibility of an atomic bomb.

To the notion of an atom bomb there were several dimensions of impossibility. “Splitting” the atom (from Greek atomos meaning “indivisible”) was, of course, a contradiction in terms. Such indivisible units had been the foundation of modern physics. After the nineteenth century had elaborated a theory of the atom, it was generally believed that each “element” was truly elementary, that the atom was the lowest common denominator of matter and that an atom of one element could never be transformed into an atom of another element.

Then late in 1938 two German physicists, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, discovered that when they bombarded the heavy element uranium with neutrons, they produced some quantities of a different, lighter element, barium. This process of apparently transforming one “element” into another was the first public hint that the “indivisible” atom might not be indivisible after all, that an atom of one element might conceivably be “split” into atoms of other elements. Two Austrian physicists, Lise Meitner, a collaborator of Hahn, and her nephew Otto Frisch, who had been expelled from their country because they were Jews, were then refugees in Sweden. They boldly accepted this new possibility that the atom was not indivisible; and they called it “fission” (from Latin findere, “to split”) by analogy to the biological process of bacteria, which reproduce by splitting.

Over the centuries, of course, alchemists and charlatans had dreamed of transmuting “base” elements like lead or iron into gold or silver. But now that their dream was coming true, it had a quite unexpected result. For the twentieth century had become less interested in matter, and in the precious elements like gold and silver, than in energy. If fission could actually be accomplished, then, according to Einstein’s formula (E=mc2) a fantastic amount of energy would be released. Even though the mass of any one atom was small, the energy released would be multiplied by “c2” (the speed of light squared), an enormous multiple evolving upwards of 100 million electron volts.

About the same time that Hahn and Strassmann were doing their work in Berlin, a French physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie in Paris, and the Italian Enrico Fermi and the Hungarian Leo Szilard (both of whom were now in the United States as refugees from Mussolini and Hitler) discovered that the fission of uranium would free more neutrons. The conclusion seemed clear, then, that by allowing these neutrons to split more uranium, it would be possible to produce still more neutrons to split still more uranium, setting up a “chain reaction,” in which each split in its turn would produce enormous quantities of energy. This energy might be used either for a new source of industrial power or as a new kind of explosive.

The community of scientists, and especially of theoretical scientists, was international. Hitler and the millions of German Nazis had enriched the rest of the world community of scientists by driving out of Germany and German-occupied Europe those brillant physicists who, according to the Nazis, were not “racially pure.” These were to be the very same men and women who played a crucial role in conceiving and planning the atomic bomb. By 1939, when Hitler had begun his march across Europe, science and technology in the United States had already been remarkably strengthened by these refugee physicists who were committed to the Allies.

On August 11 of that year, a letter from Albert Einstein (who had come to the United States in 1933, whom the Nazis deprived of German citizenship in 1934, and who promptly became an American citizen) was delivered to President Roosevelt. Einstein’s letter informed the President of the possibility “that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future,” and therefore called for “watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration.” Forecasting the magnitude of an atom bomb, Einstein reminded the President that while the United States had only meager ores of uranium, the most important world sources were in the former Czechoslovakia and in the Belgian Congo, both readily accessible to Germany. He therefore uged that the government try to secure and stockpile uranium, that experimental work be supported, and that the government be alert to any evidence that Germany was proceeding to make a bomb. On receiving Einstein’s letter, the President appointed a committee on uranium, and on November 1 he let a year’s research contract for $6,000. Meanwhile in several universities the European refugee physicists were working with American physicists to learn more about fission.

By this time, experimental physics had become a lively subject in the graduate schools of American universities. While Americans were not leading the world in theoretical speculation, they had shown remarkable success in devising apparatus to test the theories. By 1931 Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California in Berkeley had made the first cyclotron, which had greatly facilitated research into the atom and experiments with radioactivity; and Robert Van de Graaff at Princeton had devised a high-voltage electrostatic generator for creating beams of subatomic particles. American experimental equipment was inferior to none.

Large-scale government support of atomic research did not come until after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but then it came promptly. By mid-January 1942, Arthur H. Compton, a member of a new planning committee who had been surveying the implications of the most recent research for the making of a bomb, announced to his physicist colleagues a definite schedule: (a) to determine whether a chain reaction was possible, by July 1, 1942; (b) to achieve the first chain reaction, by January 1943; (c) to have a bomb, by January 1945. “Research and Development,” another name for this vast effort, would require an enormous national investment which was dispersed over the continent.

FROM THE DAY of commitment, the question at each stage was not whether but when. The theoretical and practical uncertainties did not dilute the faith that a bomb would be made. But the pressure of war, which made the job urgent, required an especially costly mode of procedure. By mid-1942 it was still uncertain which of the five conceivable ways of producing fissionable materials would be most effective. Under other circumstances each would have been tried in turn, starting with the procedure that seemed most promising, until the best one was found. Against this approach, Compton observed, “The Germans are at present probably far ahead of us. They started their program vigorously in 1939, but ours was not undertaken with similar vigor until 1941.” It appeared that even a few months’ delay might give the Germans the deciding advantage. The planning committee of scientists therefore determined to explore all five methods at the same time, even though this meant building a costly plant for each of them, and with the expectation that in the long run all the plants except one would prove unnecessary. By December 1942, the committee was able to reduce the possibilities. The four plants that they recommended building would cost about $400 million.

Planning and construction of these, along with administrative responsibility for the whole bomb project, was put under the direction of Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, who had been the Army’s Deputy Chief of Constructions and supervised the building of the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building. Groves, the son of an Army chaplain, had been raised in army posts, and had spent a year and a half at M.I.T. before going to West Point, where he graduated fourth in his class in 1918. He had no special knowledge of physics or the atom. But as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Constructions he had a responsibility for spending some $600 million each month, and he had a reputation for getting things done.

When the original schedule (along with the decision to spend the hundreds of millions) was made, it still had not even been demonstrated that there could be such a thing as a nuclear chain reaction. Experiments had shown that an atom of uranium might be split into atoms of another element. It had not yet been shown that the neutrons liberated on fission of a uranium atom could be harnessed to split still more uranium atoms to liberate still more neutrons to liberate still more neutrons, and so on. If the neutrons were inevitably lost in the process, the splitting of the atom, however interesting to the physicist, would be of little practical significance; but if a self-sustaining chain reaction could be produced, an immeasurable new source of energy would have been discovered. On December 2, 1942, in a secret laboratory which had been improvised from a squash court under the grandstands at Stagg Field of the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi performed the first nuclear fission and proved that the reaction would be self-sustaining. The planners had shown confidence in their calculations (and in Fermi’s prediction that he could prevent a runaway reaction and explosion) by performing this risky experiment in the heart of a densely populated city instead of in a remote country laboratory.

But even before Fermi had given his decisive proof, enormous sums had been committed, and new cities were being built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at Hanford, Washington, and at Los Alamos, New Mexico. These secret “cities in the wilderness” were twentieth-century “cities upon a hill”: cities for production and experiment full of threat and promise for all mankind. The most far-flung and most costly technological effort in history aimed to accomplish man’s control over the smallest dimension in his reach.

The program remained substantially on schedule. All the different steps necessary to provide any of the conceivably feasible raw materials for a bomb were taken simultaneously, while at the same time scientists and technicians were already designing the bomb itself. It proved to be an enormous industrial task to produce enough fissionable material. While, on the whole, judgments, guesses, and predictions proved correct, the riskiest forecast was that it would be possible to produce a bomb at all. On July 16, 1945, within six months of the time that had been indicated by Compton back in January 1942, the first atomic device was exploded at Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert. “It was like the grand finale of a mighty symphony of the elements,” wrote William L. Laurence of the New York Times, who witnessed the explosion from the observation post twenty miles away, “fascinating and terrifying, uplifting and crushing, ominous, devastating, full of great promise and great foreboding…. On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the birth of the world—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: ‘Let there be light.’”

Just three weeks later, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, destroying four miles of the heart of the city and bringing death or injury to more than 160,000. Three days later a second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. On the following day, August 10, the Japanese offered to surrender. As for the Germans, against whom the American physicists had been racing, they had surrendered three months before.

THE NEW WORLD of the divisible atom brought new dimensions of catastrophe as well as of knowledge. The destructive power of the atomic bomb, made in the U.S.A. and first used by Americans, gave Americans a new sense of the community of man. But many Americans were haunted by fear that in the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima they had conjured a fifth rider of the Apocalypse. Along with Pestilence and War and Famine and Death, was there now a horse reserved for Science? Bewilderment at the magnitude of the new power began to be overshadowed by a sense of common worldwide doom. If Americans could make an atomic bomb, why could it not be made by others? If a uranium bomb was destructive, why not a hydrogen bomb, or some future model still more potent?

Nothing before, not even the great immigrations or two “world” wars, had made Americans feel so immersed in the world. This apocalyptic terror of the late logo’s also brought scientists who had made the bomb into the political arena. With their Federation of Atomic Scientists (later expanded into the Federation of American Scientists) they aimed to save mankind from the consequences of their success. In the United States they secured civilian control of atomic evergy and they organized a movement for international control of the atom.

Oddly enough, the new instruments and evidences of American omnipotence brought a new sense of powerlessness about the future. Fate and Providence and Destiny were being displaced or at least overshadowed by a growing sense of Momentum: a deepening belief in the inevitability of continued movement in whatever direction the movement was already going. “Momentum” described the new sense in many ways. By contrast with the notion of God’s Will or the Economy of Nature or Progress or Destiny, it was neutral. It suggested a recognition of the force, a sense of powerlessness before it, and an uncertainty about whether it was good or evil. Perhaps never before in modern history had man been so horrified and bewildered by the threat of his own handiwork. His sense of where things were going was no less clear, perhaps it was even clearer than ever, but his sense of his freedom to change the direction and of his power and his duty to judge the direction had dwindled.

A hint of the new way of thinking had been the theme of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s much publicized Wave of the Future (1940): “The wave of the future is coming and there is no fighting it.” The view that the future was governed by forces man could see but could not shape or deflect was long since beginning to be felt by Americans who had lost their sense of the miraculous, who saw fewer and fewer limits to the power of organized man, and who were suddenly confronted by the immeasurably explosive power of their gargantuan technology.

Of all this, the history of atomic weapons had been a classic example. Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and the others who had prodded President Roosevelt in 1939 to hasten to make an atomic bomb, had been impelled then by their fear that Nazi Germany might already be on its way to making such a bomb. Before August 1942 some of the physicists (as later recalled by Alice Kimball Smith, who was personally acquainted with them) “found comfort in the hope that some insuperable obstacle might demonstrate the impossibility of an atomic weapon.” But already by 1943, when the large staff of scientists was recruited for the project, it appeared unlikely that the weapon would prove impossible. “People were saying rather that if a bomb could be made the fact should be settled once and for all.”

During this period, few scientists seemed troubled by the consequences of their work. “Almost everyone,” Robert Oppenheimer recalled in 1954, “realized that this was a great undertaking…. an unparalleled opportunity to bring to bear the basic knowledge and art of science for the benefit of his country. Almost everyone knew that this job, if it were achieved, would be a part of history. This sense of excitement, of devotion and of patriotism in the end prevailed.” Or, as one of them recalled, “I worked on the bomb because everybody I knew was doing it.”

By late spring of 1945, some of the leading physicists were persuaded that their organized efforts had succeeded and that a usable atomic bomb was about to be produced. A number of them, including several who had been the most energetic in initiating the project six years before, were appalled. Faced with the product of their work, some of these prime movers of the bomb worked frenetically to prevent its use in the war. The brilliant Leo Szilard prepared memoranda and petitions, and circulated them among his colleagues. He then tried desperately to convey his apprehensions directly to President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt, and later to President Truman. He proposed, for example (as some of the physicists had originally envisaged), that the bomb be used only for a demonstration in some uninhabited place; there it presumably would be so destructive that it would persuade the enemy to surrender. On one occasion he even suggested that to avoid a postwar nuclear arms race against Russia, the United States should not use the bomb against Japan at all, and so should try to convince the Russians that American efforts to make a bomb had failed. But these products of Szilard’s fertile imagination simply gave him a reputation for being erratic; the more he proposed, the less he persuaded. When Szilard, with two other atomic scientists, called on James F. Byrnes (President Truman’s personal adviser, and about to become his Secretary of State) to urge restraint in using the bomb, Byrnes saw the bomb mainly as something to impress the Russians with, and worried only about how to justify to Congress the $2 billion that the bomb had cost.

James Franck, one of the most famous of the German refugee physicists, had joined the project in 1942 with the express understanding that if the United States was the first to build a bomb, he would have an opportunity to offer his views about its use to the highest American officials. On June 11, 1945, Franck presented a report, signed by six of his eminent colleagues, including Szilard, to the President’s committee:

Thus, from the “optimistic” point of view—looking forward to an international agreement on the prevention of nuclear warfare—the military advantages and the saving of American lives achieved by the sudden use of atomic bombs against Japan may be outweighed by the ensuing loss of confidence and by a wave of horror and repulsion sweeping over the rest of the world and perhaps even dividing public opinion at home.

From this point of view, a demonstration of the new weapon might best be made, before the eyes of representatives of all the United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America could say to the world, “You see what sort of a weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future if other nations join us in this renunciation and agree to the establishment of an efficient international control.”

After such a demonstration the weapon might perhaps be used against Japan if the sanction of the United Nations (and of public opinion at home) were obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate certain regions as an alternative to their total destruction. This may sound fantastic, but in nuclear weapons we have something entirely new in order of magnitude of destructive power, and if we want to capitalize fully on the advantage their possession gives us, we must use new and imaginative methods.

Dissent among other atomic scientists in the laboratory at Chicago was so deep and so frequently expressed that Compton, who was in charge of atomic research, directed that they be polled on the use of the bomb. A hasty poll appeared to show that only 15 percent of the atomic scientists favored full military use against Japan, 46 percent favored a limited military demonstration first, and the rest favored other forms of limitation on its use. The sampling of scientists’ opinion on the use of the bomb which General Groves gave to the Secretary of War before the final decision was made showed only a small minority in favor of using the bomb without warning.

The most obvious example of momentum was the simple fact that although the bomb was initiated by men with a passionate hatred of the Nazis and a fear of Nazi domination of the world, it was not used against the Nazis at all, but against the Japanese. As the historian Donald Fleming has observed, the Japanese had to take Hitler’s medicine. Several months before the Nazi surrender on May 8, 1945, Americans no longer feared that the Nazis could have perfected an atomic bomb. While United States forces were closing in, it was still generally assumed that to end the war in the Pacific, the United States would actually have to invade the home islands of Japan. Shortening the war against Japan, even with its saving of perhaps millions of lives, still was a different objective from preventing Nazi domination of the world. But an atomic bomb had been made, and at enormous cost. In the end, all the voices urging caution and second thoughts about long-term consequences were barely audible above the roaring, crunching momentum of the gargantuan organized effort.

President Truman took full responsibility for introducing the world to the atomic bomb. “But,” Alice Kimball Smith observed, “his decision was not so much a positive act as a choice not to halt the enormous, multifaceted effort which he had found well advanced three months earlier. To have called such a halt, contrary to the advice of his most trusted associates, would have required an almost inconceivable exercise of individual initiative.” The President’s decision, General Groves later recalled, “was one of non-interference—basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans.”

The next stage in atomic weapons research, the quest for a “super” (or hydrogen) atomic bomb, was prodded by the revelation in 1949 that the Soviets possessed the bomb, and further dramatized the overwhelming force of this New Momentum. The moral uncertainty which briefly delayed decision to proceed with the bigger bomb was dissolved as soon as the uncertainty over the possibility of building the new bomb was dissipated. But as building a thermonuclear bomb—one based on fusion rather then fission—came to appear possible, there was widening agreement that the effort actually to build it was necessary. The “can” had smothered the “ought.”

LIKE THE ATOMIC BOMB, the American space enterprise was a by-product of World War II, and of the challenge of German technology. The full story of American exploration of space would, of course, reach back to the beginnings of the airplane, back to Robert Goddard’s experiments in New Mexico, to the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk and beyond. But in the latest stage, the American effort was stimulated and made possible because the German V-2 had shown the usefulness of rocketry in warfare. In January 1945, as the Russian armies approached the launching station of Peenemünde, the German rocket scientists decided to flee to the West. This crucial decision brought the most advanced rocket scientists themselves, along with the technical documents recording the successes and, most important, also the failures, of earlier German efforts in rocketry. Then, during 1945, under the code name “Operation Paperclip,” the U.S. Army transported to military bases in the United States the men and the documents which comprised the world’s best resources for the new sciences of rocketry and space exploration. Foreign scientists, now fleeing not from Hitler’s victory but from his defeat, were newly enlisted in the American space enterprise, where they played as large a role as they had in the atom.

The steps in the American space venture are familiar enough. From the improvement of launching rockets to the first American satellite (Explorer I) in 1958, to the first American in orbit (Project Mercury) and the first American communications satellite (Telstar I) in 1962, to American two-man spacecrafts (Project Gemini) in 1965, and on to the program (Apollo) for landing Americans on the moon. The dramatic details of this story have been told and will be retold by others. What concerns us here is less the exploits than the enterprise, what it showed about American ways of doing whatever was desired or required, and what it meant for the American’s sense of control over his present and his future—in a word, what it tells us of the growing sense of momentum.

The most stirring event in the beginnings of American space enterprise was not anything accomplished on American soil or by American technicians. On the morning of October 5, 1957, the world was startled to see in the sky an artificial satellite launched by the Russians. “Sputnik” (meaning, in Russian, fellow traveler of the earth) was an aluminum alloy sphere less than 2 feet in diameter and weighing 184 pounds. Never before had so small and so harmless an object created such consternation. The world stage was set. Four years of preparation had alerted nations to the International Geophysical Year (IGY), to be held in 1957–58 as a symbol of peaceful exploration of outer space. In 1955, when the Russians announced their intention to launch a satellite within two years, the three armed services in the United States were still competing for control of the space effort. But Americans assumed that this could not affect the outcome of the space race, since Soviet technology was so far behind and was destined to remain behind because of the axiomatic inferiority of its political system. It was an article of faith that “communism” could not beat “democracy” in the arena of science and technology where the free competition of ideas spelled progress. It is not surprising, then, that Sputnik shocked and confused Americans, and bewildered American friends abroad.

Another reason for American alarm was less complicated. For Sputnik had been launched by an intercontinental missile which, as Nikita Khrushchev explained over the Moscow radio on August 26, 1957, could be accurately directed from the Soviet Union “to any part of the world.” Experts quickly saw that Soviet technology could now deliver an atomic or hydrogen warhead to a target in the United States. But the official American reaction generally followed political party lines.

“A silly bauble in the sky” was how Sputnik was described by the usually prescient Clarence Randall, then a special assistant to President Eisenhower. He contrasted it disparagingly with the basic American strength shown in a display of American supermarkets in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. President Eisenhower’s Director of the Budget, Percival Brundage, was reported to have told a dinner partner that within six months Sputnik would be forgotten—to which Perle Mesta replied, “and in six months we may all be dead.” President Eisenhower himself tried to brush off Sputnik as a stunt that had no bearing on military capability, and in his press conference declared, “Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehension one iota.”

The widespread feeling in the nation was better expressed by Democratic Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. “Sputnik,” he said, “confronts America with a new and terrifying military danger and a disastrous blow to our prestige.” However unloved by those it aimed to please, the United States had been respected and feared for its technological superiority. Now even this was in doubt. Sputnik II, a second Soviet satellite carrying the dog Laika and weighing 1,120 pounds, was launched only one month after Sputnik, on November 3. Then, on December 6, the Vanguard missile, designed to send up the first American satellite, upon starting up from its launching pad quickly collapsed in flame. The world press outdid itself in headlining snide epithets like “Kaputnik” (London Daily Express) or “A Pearl Harbor for American Science” (Tokyo Yomiuri).

These accumulating evidences of Soviet superiority in space technology triggered a concern bordering on hysteria, for the quality of American education, especially in mathematics and the sciences. And the Soviet challenge did influence the curriculum of some schools. But within another decade, the worry over “excellence” in American public education was to be displaced by a similarly hysterical anxiety to lower academic standards in order to provide “open” college admission.

Despite pressures, President Eisenhower remained generally cool toward the space enterprise, and especially toward programs for landing a man on the moon. But after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress in 1958 as a way out of interservice rivalries, the momentum of space activities gathered force. In August 1960, when NASA sent to the Bureau of the Budget a request for $1.25 billion for the fiscal year 1962 in order to move ahead with its manned space flights, the President requested a special study by a panel of scientists. At a White House meeting in December 1960, the committee reported that “the first really big achievement of the man-in-space program would be the lunar landing.” And they estimated the costs: $350 million to complete Project Mercury; $8 billion for an Apollo circumlunar voyage; $26 billion to $38 billion for a lunar landing. In justifying this expenditure, the obvious comparison was made to Columbus’ voyage of discovery to America, which had been financed by Queen Isabella, who, according to legend, had to pawn her jewels to secure the funds. President Eisenhower retorted that he was “not about to hock his jewels” to send men to the moon. The mood of this decisive meeting, one participant reported, was “almost sheer bewilderment—or certainly amusement—that anybody would consider such an undertaking. Somebody said, This won’t satisfy everybody. When they finish this, they’ll want to go to the planets.’ There was a lot of laughter at that thought.”

President Eisenhower did not see the military or the scientific need for such a space program, and he thought it imprudent to spend so huge a sum for international public relations. Nevertheless, the NASA budget was increased from $494 million in its first full year of operation to $923 million in the second year, and in November 1960 NASA actually increased its budget request by another $100 million from its August figure of $1.25 billion to $1.35 billion. Nearing the end of his presidency, Eisenhower was more than ever conscious of his figure in history, and of his need somehow to embody his belief that the role of government in American life should be reduced. This meant cutting the budget and keeping speculative expenditures (and what was more speculative than a voyage to the moon?) at the lowest level. Reinforcing this was President Eisenhower’s Cincinnatus-complex. Haunted by his military background, the President was determined to keep American life civilian-oriented and peace-minded. In December 1960, only a few weeks before his farewell address to the nation, President Eisenhower refused to approve funds to continue the space program toward a moon landing. In the farewell address on January 17, 1961, he warned the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…. We must also be alert to the … danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological élite.”

WHEN JOHN F. KENNEDY became President on January 20, 1961, he had no special knowledge of space matters, and no particular interest in space policy. His overriding world-concern came from his sense of rivalry between the West and the Communists and from his obsessive determination that the United States should not be outshone by the Soviets. Just as President Eisenhower, a man of military experience, demanded that a costly space program be justified by clear military uses and distrusted public-relations pretexts, so President Kennedy by contrast was preoccupied with prestige, with how to make the American reputation prevail over that of the Soviets. In retrospect we can see that the space enterprise, and especially a moon landing, was tailor-made for improving United States public relations and for raising prestige abroad. For while space exploration had a military significance, this was by no means obvious, and the enterprise could therefore appear as a symbol of the American love of peace and of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. At the same time, the act itself—putting a Man on the Moon—was so easy to grasp that it was bound to be a show stopper on the world stage. A moon landing, properly planned and scheduled, would fill television screens everywhere.

President Kennedy withheld his directive for the moon landing until he could be briefed by his own advisers, until the American lag behind the Soviets in space technology appeared indisputable, and until the prestige competition with the Soviets had reached a crisis. These impelling conditions accumulated in rapid succession within four months of his coming to the White House. The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, with a new head who was a devotee of space exploration, persuasively urged the scientific benefits, and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson was a space enthusiast. James Webb, whom President Kennedy appointed as the head of NASA, was a man of vision, with extraordinary powers of organization and leadership. Having quickly assimilated the complex technical problems of the enterprise, Webb proved effective in convincing reluctant congressmen and the vacillating President.

Meanwhile the Soviets had pushed ahead with dramatic success. On April 12, 1961, Moscow announced:

The world’s first space ship Vostok with a man on board, has been launched on April 12 in the Soviet Union on a round-the-earth orbit. The first navigator is Soviet citizen pilot Major Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin.

Phoning Gagarin his congratulations, Khrushchev crowed, “Let the capitalist countries catch up with our country!”

On the evening of April 14, President Kennedy held a meeting in the Cabinet Room with his principal advisers, significantly combined with an interview with Time-Life correspondent Hugh Sidey. The stated purpose of the meeting was “to explore with his principal advisers the significance of the Gagarin flight and the alternatives for U. S. action.” According to Sidey’s report (which the President himself had checked for accuracy):

“Now let’s look at this,” said Kennedy impatiently. “Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the moon before them? Can we put a man on the moon before them? What about Nova and Rover? When will Saturn be ready? Can we leapfrog?”

The one hope, explained [NASA official] Dryden, lay in this country’s launching a crash program similar to the Manhattan Project. But such an effort might cost $40 billion, and even so there was only an even chance of beating the Soviets.

James Webb spoke up, “We are doing everything we possibly can, Mr. President. And thanks to your leadership we are moving ahead now more rapidly than ever….”

“The cost,” he pondered. “That’s what gets me.” He turned to Budget Director Bell questioningly. The cost of space science went up in geometric progression, explained Bell…“Now is not the time to make mistakes,” cautioned [Science Adviser] Wiesner….

Kennedy turned back to the men around him. He thought for a second. Then he spoke. “When we know more, I can decide if it’s worth it or not. If somebody can just tell me how to catch up….”

Kennedy stopped again a moment and glanced from face to face. Then he said quietly, “There’s nothing more important.”

On April 15, three days after the Gagarin triumph, Cuban exiles trained by the CIA began their attempted coup with air strikes against Castro’s planes, followed forty-eight hours later by an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Within two days it was clear to the world that the Bay of Pigs was a disaster for the United States. Never was American self-esteem or the American reputation abroad more in need of a lift. Now the President felt under special pressure, as the President’s Science Adviser explained, “to get something else in the foreground.” The President could use a “space spectacular.”

Within the week, at a press conference on April 21, President Kennedy announced that he had asked a committee, headed by the Vice-President, to recommend the national investment in space, and to report “any program now, regardless of cost” which could give the United States a good chance to beat the Soviets in space. Wernher von Braun told the Vice-President on April 29 that “we have a sporting chance of sending a 3-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets.” and “an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon (including return capability, of course).” Other experts had agreed that a lunar landing was the first space spectacular in which the United States might beat the Soviets. On May 5 the first public success of Project Mercury sent Astronaut Alan Shepard into a manned space flight. In a memorandum to the Vice-President, James Webb and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara urged:

It is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world. All large-scale projects require the mobilization of resources on a national scale. They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies. Dramatic achievements in space therefore symbolize the technological power and organizing capability of a nation. It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute to national prestige….

Major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified…. Our attainments are a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own. The non-military, non-commercial, non-scientific but “civilian” projects such as lunar and planetary exploration are, in this sense, part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war.

This same memorandum was delivered to President Kennedy on the afternoon of May 8, and by the next day word had been leaked to the press that the President was approving a program to put an American on the moon. The Webb-McNamara memorandum became the President’s program. This required an increase of $549 million (61 percent over President Eisenhower’s figure) in the space budget for the following fiscal year, and billions more over the next five years.

President Kennedy’s speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, on “Urgent National Needs” laid out his space program: “that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” With very little debate, Congress approved President Kennedy’s space program, which, Senator Robert S. Kerr explained, “will enable Americans to meet their destiny.”

Less than ten years later, on July 20, 1969, at 4:17 P.M. Eastern daylight time, an American did land on the moon. The most ambitious goal of human technology had been achieved by Americans, and on time. At the launching of Apollo II, a member of President Kennedy’s family, R. Sargent Shriver, poignantly recalled that in 1961 at the time of announcing the national commitment to go to the moon, President Kennedy had remarked, “I firmly expect this commitment to be kept. And if I die before it is, all you here now just remember when it happens I will be sitting up there in heaven in a rocking chair just like this one, and I’ll have a better view of it than anybody.”

MOMENTUM, AN EVER more prominent feature of the American’s relation to his future, had of course dominated the space venture. Despite President Eisenhower’s grave doubts about the wisdom of increased expenditures on space exploration and his lack of imagination about its possibilities, he still found himself approving a NASA budget of over $1 billion. In retrospect, President Kennedy’s decision to proceed toward landing an American on the moon had many of the features of President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. The wartime momentum was no longer there, but there were other momentums: the force of competition with the Soviets, and most of all the increasing mass and velocity of the space enterprise itself. While President Kennedy claimed personal responsibility and must be given personal credit for making the timely decision to go to the moon, in the perspective of history that decision, too, appears less a positive act than a decision not to halt another enormous, multifaceted effort.

As American civilization became increasingly permeated by its technology, it lay increasingly at the mercy of the internal logic of advancing knowledge. Science and technology had a momentum of their own: each next step was commanded by its predecessor. To fail to take that next step was to waste all the earlier efforts. Once the nation had embarked on the brightly illuminated path of science, it had somehow ventured into a world of mystery where the direction and the speed would be dictated by the instruments that cut the path and by the vehicles that carried man ahead. The autonomy of science, the freedom of the scientist to go where knowledge and discovery led him, spelled the unfreedom of the society to choose its way for other reasons. People felt they might conceivably slow the pace of change—they might delay the supersonic transport (SST) for a year or two—but they wondered whether they were in a position to stop it.

Precisely because the United States had been so democratized, the Old World barriers between “science” and “technology,” the institutions which traditionally separated the men who thought from the men who did, were broken down. In fact, the very distinction between the “theoretical” and the “practical” acquired a shocking new irrelevance. While the atomic enterprise, which had been urged by that Patron Saint of the Abstract, Albert Einstein, let theoretical physics prove itself practical, the moon enterprise led toward an objective that was ultimately abstract. The most costly scientific venture in history (which by 1972 had reached many times the cost of the atomic bomb) was undertaken by a nation that was only vaguely aware of what “practical” purpose, if any, it might serve.

The sense of momentum which overwhelmed Presidents burdened the ordinary citizen. The pace of Research and Development, of advertising, of ingenious, pervasive, and inescapable new ways for making and marketing nearly everything to nearly everybody, made it seem that the future of American civilization and the shape of everyday life could not fail to be determined by the mass and velocity of the enterprises already in being. This pervaded the public feelings about all sorts of industrial developments: the elaboration of packaging (from the paper bag and the folding box to cellophane to double-wrapped in cellophane to who-could-tell-what); the automobile (from the Model T to the “annual” model to semiannual models to who-could-tell-what); and countless other momentums big and little.

Fewer decisions of social policy seemed to be Whether-or-Not as more became decisions of How-Fast-and-When. Was it possible even to slow the pace, to hold back the momentum—of packaging, of automobile production, of communications, of image-making, of university expansion, of highway construction, of population growth?

This new climate of negative decision, this new unfreedom of omnipotence was confirmed by forces outside the industrial machinery. For the atomic bomb along with the space adventure and a thousand lesser daily demonstrations—the automobile and the airplane, radio and television, computer technology and automation, and the myriad products of Research and Development—were showing that the “advance” of science and technology, whether guided or vagrant, would control the daily lives of Americans. Not legislation or the wisdom of statesmen but something else determined the future. And of all things on earth, the growth of knowledge remained still the most spontaneous and unpredictable.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!