Permitting the Air Force and the Army the extravagance of duplicating IRBMs became the least of Eisenhower’s concerns after Sputnik, the Soviet surprise of October 4, 1957. Near the end of August, the Russians announced that they had flight-tested an ICBM. Sergei Korolev’s monster R-7 rocket, the Semyorka, had flown a 4,000-mile course from its launching pad at the new Soviet test center at Baikonur, also known as Tyuratam, in Kazakhstan in Central Asia all the way across Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Bering Sea. The test was not perfect. The reentry vehicle disintegrated about six miles above the earth. No matter: the length of the flight was what counted. The Semyorka (designated the SS-6 Sapwood by NATO intelligence officers) was in reality the precursor of a Soviet ICBM. Designed to carry a super-size 5.4-ton fission, or atomic, pay-load because the Soviet Union did not explode its first full-fledged hydrogen bomb until November 1955, let alone begin the process of downsizing one for an ICBM warhead, the rocket was so huge it weighed twenty-three metric tons with its tanks empty, meaning that it could be moved only by rail. The steps necessary to prepare it for flight and fuel it with LOX and kerosene took twenty hours, versus the fifteen minutes for which the Atlas was being designed. The Soviets were to deploy only four Semyorkas at another new launch center readied in 1959, Plesetsk, south of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) in the far north of western Russia. Khrushchev’s son Sergei remembered that his father also recoiled at the cost, about half a billion rubles per R-7 site. “What will we do, we’ll be without pants,” Khrushchev complained to Korolev.
But if its bulk and long readiness time rendered the R-7 impractical as an ICBM, its power made it ideal for the launching of satellites. The trick to tossing a satellite into orbit was to burn the rocket engines long enough to gain sufficient velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the earth. The R-7 had plenty of capacity for that. The August announcement of an ICBM was played down by Wilson and Eisenhower and caused only ripples in Washington and in the country as a whole. The event of October 4 was another matter. That evening Baikonur time, Korolev, as the Soviet Union’s leading rocket designer, watched through his personal periscope in the blockhouse as his Semyorka lifted off carrying in its nose cone a metal ball polished to a silvered finish. Reed-thin radio antennae for the small battery-powered transmitter within the ball trailed back to the sides. The whole weighed only 83.6 kilograms, 184.3 pounds. The voice of the launch controller called off the drama over the blockhouse’s loudspeaker system as the rocket attained the required velocity and the nose cone separated and flew into orbit. The glistening ball was released and began circling earth, its little transmitter emitting a beep, beep, beep that told the world the Soviet Union, and not the United States, had inaugurated the Space Age.
The ball was named Sputnik, simply the Russian word for “satellite,” and it provoked a national ordeal of soul-searching in the United States. However much Americans worried about the Soviet Union, they had always assumed it was technologically inferior, incapable of besting the United States in everything from kitchen appliances to rockets that would open space. Was America, proud America, now slipping into second place? What was overlooked in the furor was that the Soviet Union was a selectively superior nation. In the highly stratified and contorted society that Stalin had hammered into being, while most citizens suffered austere lives of deprivation, the state created and concentrated highly advanced science and technology in areas that interested it and rewarded those scientists and technologists who served it, as Stalin had rewarded Igor Kurchatov and those who had produced the atomic bomb for him, with comfort and privilege. Sputnik was a manifestation of this pattern.
The creation of the R-7 meant that the Russians had a lead, and as was to be proven, a quite temporary one, in long-range rocketry. With it, they had been the first to decide to launch a space satellite. Sputnik did not mean, as Khrushchev crowed, and as many Americans now were afraid, that the Soviet Union was the future. Its overall technological and economic strength, with wide gaps in its infrastructure, was immensely inferior to that of the United States. Eisenhower could have sent up a space satellite ahead of or virtually simultaneous with the Russians had he been willing to spend the money and had he thought it necessary. The secret U-2 flights over Russia were, he believed, keeping him reasonably well informed of Soviet military advances. (He could have eased the political pressure on himself by sharing this unique intelligence with the Democratic leadership of Congress, but he considered the photography too sensitive to do so.) A space satellite to conduct photographic reconnaissance after the U-2 had outlived its usefulness was in the secret planning stage. He saw no need to go to considerable expense to throw up some interim but militarily useless satellite. (And as Schriever and his associates were to learn, the real trick was not to hurl a satellite into orbit. It was to bring back to earth intact what you put into the satellite.)
Dwight Eisenhower was the last American president to believe that military spending which was not absolutely necessary was money wasted and that a well-founded economy was as important to the security of the country as armed might. His achievements during the Second World War also gave him confidence in his military judgment. He listened to his admirals and generals and then made up his own mind. He was caught unawares by Sputnik because he failed to foresee the psychological and political repercussions if he permitted the Soviets to get a space satellite up first. He had left it to the Navy to send a tiny satellite into orbit for the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year with an inadequately tested rocket called Vanguard, which blew up on its pad on December 6, 1957, two months after Sputnik, to the further embarrassment of the nation. It was to be Wernher von Braun, on January 31, 1958, approximately four months after Sputnik, and with the administration’s belated support, who demonstrated that satellites were not a Soviet monopoly. Using Juno I, a multistage rocket derived from the Redstone, he lofted Explorer I, an eighteen-pound satellite, into orbit.
Few Americans, however, viewed Sputnik in this perspective. The Democrats, who had long been critical of the administration for its parsimony toward the military, went on the assault. The formidable Senate majority leader from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, accused Eisenhower of imperiling America by his obsession with balancing the budget. Senator Symington called for a special session of Congress, declaring that “unless our defense policies are promptly changed, the Soviets will move from superiority to supremacy.” “Scoop” Jackson, the clandestine ally of Bennie and Trevor Gardner in obtaining the Gillette Procedures, urged observance of “a week of shame and danger.” Johnson soon announced the opening in late November of lengthy hearings by the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Commitee on Armed Services, which he headed.
The hearings were to endure through January 1958 with dozens of prominent witnesses and to subject the administration to rising political pressure. Nor did it help when, on November 3, 1957, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Korolev, at Khrushchev’s behest, launched Sputnik 2. It weighed 1,120 pounds, six times the heft of Sputnik 1 and sixty-two times the weight of von Braun’s little Explorer I, and orbited the globe with a mongrel dog named Laika aboard. American animal rights activists protested after the poor creature died from overheating of the capsule, but the Soviet press pronounced Laika a martyr for the cause of space. The leadoff witness at the Johnson hearings was that genius of scaremongering Dr. Edward Teller. He warned that the Russians might beat Americans to the moon, that they might learn to control the weather and render the United States a second-class nation by restricting rainfall over the North American continent, and that within ten years they would have the best scientists in the world because Russian students were such math and science whizzes. Despite the ludicrousness of much of Teller’s testimony, his appeal to undertake a major educational reform in the United States by raising the level of scientific and mathematical education, an appeal reiterated by a number of the witnesses to follow, was well taken. The National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided federal funds for the teaching of math, science, and foreign languages, was the first harvest of these reforms.
Sputnik was definitely a blessing out of the blue for Schriever. He had first heard Quarles speak of the “Poor Man’s” approach the secretary wanted the Air Force to adopt when, in the summer of 1956, Quarles had rejected Schriever’s Fiscal Year 1957 missile budget and ordered a revision with substantial cost reductions. Quarles was reflecting pressure from Wilson, who was in turn reflecting it from Eisenhower, to rein in military expenditures in order to avoid raising the ceiling on the national debt, then running at approximately $275 billion. In testimony before a Senate committee that summer, Quarles had defended his severe reductions in the overall research and development budget of the Air Force with classic Eisenhower thinking: “I believe it both necessary and feasible to provide adequate military defenses and, at the same time, to preserve the sound economic foundations of the Nation.” The Air Staff pointed out to General White that if Quarles’s economies were accepted, the Air Force would not be obeying Eisenhower’s September 1955 National Security Council injunction to field an ICBM force “at the earliest possible date.” The president solved that conflict himself by issuing a new NSC directive in March 1957 that changed the attainment of an operational ICBM capability to “the earliest practicable date.” Schriever had submitted to Quarles’s “Poor Man’s” edict in the fall of 1956 and produced another budget, this one for Fiscal Year 1958, of $1.335 billion, 20 percent lower than the previous one, scything down the number of planned ICBMs from 120 Atlas and Titan missiles to 80.
The Air Staff and General White endorsed Schriever’s new plan and warned it was “as low as we dare go.” But this was not low enough for Quarles and Wilson and the president. They also slashed the number of IRBMs to be deployed, from the original eight Thor and eight Jupiter squadrons totaling 240 missiles to four squadrons of each and 120 missiles in all. A draft agreement to base the Thors in England was signed by Wilson and Duncan Sandys, Britain’s minister of defense, in January 1957 and ratified by Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when they met at Bermuda that March. The Jupiters were eventually to be based in Italy and Turkey after agreements were later reached with both of those countries.
In May 1957, the blade of the economy guillotine fell once more, slicing another $200 million off the “as low as we dare go” missile budget of $1.335 billion. And again this was not enough. In July, Wilson, after he was chided at a National Security Council meeting for not being sufficiently ruthless, announced his intention to squeeze to $1 billion the annual missile costs of all three services, including those for a revolutionary submarine-launched ballistic missile named Polaris that the Navy had initiated. Schriever was nearly forced to eliminate overtime costs at the factories, to delay payments, and to slow down production. The existing program called for six Atlas, seven Titan, and six Thor missiles to come off the line every month. Wilson pressed the Air Force so hard that General White offered to take this down to four of each type per month, despite the delay this would have on deployment, but Wilson withheld agreement on the offer. He ordered the Air Force to study the repercussions of going down to a two-two-two production rate. Schriever did his best to keep the contractors who were building his missiles from becoming utterly discouraged. “There has been no change in national priority,” he told the Convair and Douglas and other executives. What was occurring was “certain adjustments of key milestone dates” and “a logical stretch-out” of the program. And all of this was in vain. Despite reassuring words and soothing bureaucratic jargon, he could not prevent a deterioration in the morale of his contractors and within his own staff. They were supposed to be engaged in an enterprise central to the survival of the nation and this niggardly government was acting as if they were spendthrift schoolboys. Then Sergei Pavlovich Korolev sent his R-7 Semyorka aloft with Sputnik like a Space Age cavalry to the rescue.