The Space Race

Although the United States had pulled ahead of the Soviet Union in the arms race by 1961, the Soviets were generally considered to be far ahead of the Americans in the space race. The Americans had accomplished several "firsts" and had made important scientific and technological advances. American research had detected the Van Allen belts and solar X-rays; introduced solar cells and made the first television pictures of Earth; launched the first weather, communications, and polar-orbit satellites; and made the first recovery from orbit. But the Soviet "firsts" were more spectacular. The Soviets had launched the first satellite, were the first to reach escape velocity, were the first to "hit" the moon (with a probe), were the first to see the far side of the moon, and weie the first to send animals into orbit and return them safely to earth. And in April 1961, the Soviets were the first to launch a man into Earth orbit.

This event, in combination with a shaky political situation resulting from such events as the Bay of Pigs, inspired President Kennedy to strive for a dramatic achievement. Vice President Johnson conferred with NASA leaders, who made a bold suggestion. They believed that the American space program could put a man on the moon by 1967 or 1968, ahead of the Soviets. Eager to upstage the Soviets in the space race. President Kennedy declared on May 25,1961, "I believe 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".

A plan for the Apollo project to land a man on the moon was in place by the end of 1962. The mission plan called for a manned lunar module to detach from the spacecraft, land on the moon, and return to the spacecraft orbiting the moon. The astronauts would return to Earth in the spacecraft, and the lunar module would be left orbiting the moon. This technological feat would entail two liftoffs (one from Earth and one from the moon), escapes from the gravitational fields of Earth and the moon, and a soft landing on the surface of the moon. Fortunately, research and development of some of the critical components, such as the F-1 engine, the J-2 engine, and the Saturn VB stage, was already underway. Testing continued and necessitated new facilities capable of testing large engines and testing in simulated space conditions.

At the same time, the United States continued to pursue its Mercury and Gemini manned orbiter projects and Ranger and Mariner interplanetary probe projects. It was during the Gemini series that the United States, using the Saturn and Centaur launch vehicles, "caught up" to the Soviet Union in the ability to put heavy loads into space. In addition, the United States' Surveyor series made important discoveries about the moon. Although they occurred too late to contribute to the Apollo design, they confirmed that the design was reasonably safe.

In 1960, the Directorate of Rocket Propulsion and Missiles was reorganized and renamed the Directorate of Rocket Propulsion (U.S. Air Force 1960). No jobs were created or eliminated, but the directorate's new mission emphasized propulsion development instead of the previously emphasized areas of missile systems testing, propulsion development, and component reliability testing. In 1961, the Directorate of Rocket Propulsion, although it was still working in the field of rocket propulsion (most notably the Minuteman program), was reassigned to the Space Systems Division. In 1962, the name was changed again, this time to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL), a change that reflected the expanded role in conducting and directing rocket propulsion research. At the same time, the Leuhman Ridge facility was elevated to the status of a Research and Technology Division Laboratory. In 1967, the Research and Technology Division Laboratory was renamed the Directorate of Laboratories (Aerotech News and Review 1990).