42.

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE

Despite these traumas, Schriever and Ramo and their associates at the Schoolhouse in Inglewood were by no means discouraged. On the contrary, they were filled with the stir of adventure. They were giving birth to a “New Era,” two words that appear repeatedly in Bennie’s diary entries at this time. The ballistic missiles they were fashioning would lift the Air Force out of the atmosphere and carry it off into the world of outer space. In these chilling years of the early Cold War, fear of the Soviet Union was a constant and powerful stimulant. The probability that they were in a race with unnamed and unknown but nonetheless all too real rivals hard at work to destroy the United States from within the dark, closed society behind the Iron Curtain was pervasive, and Schriever never let anyone forget this. “If we don’t push into it [this New Era], we have failed our country and seriously endangered our security,” he told the Schoolhouse gang in a pep talk.

Yet anxiety for the security of their nation and a race against opponents who would endanger it were only half of what drove them. These men were engineers. They built things. Theirs was a different ethos from that of operators like Power and LeMay, who got their adrenaline rush from the lure of aerial combat. The engineers’ fulfillment came from creating the new, from bringing into being that which no one else had yet achieved. And in building their lethal rockets, they were simultaneously opening the realm of space that had so far been beyond the reach of man. Their rockets would be more than weapons. They would also become launch vehicles to penetrate this unexplored vastness. If they could acquire the means to send a hydrogen bomb into space and bring it back down again, they could do so with other things and, although they were military men to whom human exploration of space was not a priority, they could do so too with man. The technology that applied to sending the bomb up and bringing it back down again intact applied to virtually everything else. The first American astronauts to venture into space were, in fact, to ride up on military missiles and to return in capsules that were modified versions of the initial hydrogen bomb warhead.

Bennie imparted some of the exhilaration of this adventure in a secret briefing he gave to the staff of the Air Force’s think tank, the RAND Corporation, in nearby Santa Monica on January 31, 1955. He spoke of a warhead flashing through space at the previously unimaginable speed of 20,000 feet per second, of the “invulnerability” of this nuclear spear point to Soviet defenses. And yet, he said, the real objective of the adventure was to contribute to the preservation of peace. The ICBM was not being built to be used as a weapon. Rather, as an instrument of war the ICBM would have the “highest probability of Not being used.” The thought was an idea he had absorbed from Gardner and was to reiterate over and over in the years to come. Once the missile existed the Soviets were “unlikely to miscalculate our capability to retaliate” and would be afraid to attack. The ICBM would thus achieve its highest purpose. It would have “deterred Total War.” Schriever was articulating a concept that would subsequently become known as Mutual Assured Destruction. And once they had attained the means to penetrate what he called the “New Environment—outer space,” they could move on to the next contribution to “preserve the peace.” They would power their rockets to even higher speeds than 20,000 feet per second in order to fling into orbit around the earth the spy satellites Arnold and von Kármán had envisioned. The “constant surveillance,” the regular flow of information on “enemy intentions” provided by these spy satellites, would deny the Soviets the possibility of a surprise attack, of a nuclear Pearl Harbor, the dread of which haunted many, including Eisenhower.

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