Sputnik and the Reaction of the West

U.S. morale was dealt a major blow in October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The launch of Sputnik was not only an indication that the USSR had pulled ahead in the space race, but an indication of Soviet weapons development. It became apparent that the Soviet Union had a large, long-range missile at atime when the United States had not yet successfully tested the much smaller Atlas. The launch of Sputnik triggered hysteria in Europe and the United States that marked a unique period in the Cold War. The general belief was that the West faced a technologically superior enemy that might soon enjoy superiority and that the West might actually lose the Cold War, the arms race, and the space race. During other periods. Western fears were focused more narrowly, and the overestimation of the enemy was not so all encompassing.

The Sputnik launch placed increased emphasis on the need for Air Force launch vehicles to place military satellites into orbit and to be prepared to counter foreign satellites if necessary. Sputnik was the impetus for many changes in government organization dealing with defense, space, and scientific research. These changes included the presidential advisory apparatus, the creation of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) and NASA, and the eventual reorganization of the Defense Department. This event was also the impetus for the accelerated development of the Discoverer satellite; the Atlas, Thor, and Jupiter projects; and the 500,000-pound-thrust E-1 engine, which would later be scaled up to the 1-million-pound-thrust F-1 engine. In 1958, the Air Force was allowed to proceed with the development of the Minuteman missile. During that year, the AFRL was very active. A coordinator was necessary to make sure that no two stands were firing simultaneously (Robert Corley, personal communication 1998). Because of the acceleration of programs, the streamlining of the organization of the Defense Department, and the increased funding directed toward missile development and space exploration, by 1961, the United States had pulled ahead of the Soviet Union in the arms race and maintained its strategic superiority.

The Sputnik launch was seen as evidence of an impending "missile gap". If the United States failed to catch up, some believed, the Soviet Union could gain first strike capability within a few years. The United States would no longer be insulated froom enemy attack by its geographic isolation. This missile gap could become a "deterrent gap", a situation in which the USSR could attack without fear of effective retaliation (Levine 1994:58). Soviet ICBMs took 30 minutes to reach North America; later the missile's flight time was shortened to 15 minutes. It was vital that American missiles be launchable within that time frame to avoid being destroyed in the ground. Research efforts increased to reduce the launch preparation time for American ICBMs by shifting from liquid to solid propellants. Liquid fuels were extremely unstable and had to be loaded just before launch. Solid propellant missiles could be launched almost immediately because the fuel was self-contained and storable (Heppenheimer 1997; Lee Meyer, personal communication 1998). Development of the ability to hot-fire these solid propellant missiles was developed by the United States and greatly contributed to achieving the goal of a 15-minute flight time. (Neufeld 1990; Stine 1991).

In 1959, the Leuhman Ridge facility was expanded to accommodate work on the F-1 engine. In that same year, the engineers and technicians of the Rocket Propulsion Division from Wright-Patterson AFB were transferred to Edwards AFB and incorporated into the Directorate of Missile Captive Tests (DMCT). The mission of the DMCT in 1958 was to direct the: research, development, and evaluation required in the performance of Air Force Flight Test Center captive evaluation testing of missile system and their components; accomplishment of technical and logistic support to missile contractors conducting tests at the Air Force Flight Test Center; studies of test methods and facilities needed to accomplish potential future mission responsibilities. (U.S. Air Force 1958:199)

This directorate was renamed the Directorate of Rocket Propulsion and Missiles within the year (U.S. Air Force 1961a, 1964b). The development of the rocket facility on Leuhman Ridge had come full circle. Originally an ancillary part of the ARDC rocket program located at Wright Field's Power Plant in 1952, the facility at Leuhman Ridge had become the Air Force's primary rocket propulsion research and testing facility by 1959. This consolidation enlarged the mission to include the development of rocket propulsion technology for air-launch ballistic missile and space applications.