Defense contributions help NASA’s 50-year legacy

October 9, 2008 at 2:25 am

As the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration celebrate its 50th anniversary this week, Defense Department personnel also can take a bow for the key role they have played in lending technology and expertise to NASA’s space exploration and research mission.

NASA began operations on Oct. 1, 1958, just a few days short of the one-year anniversary of the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik I launch. Concerned about the race for technological superiority in space, U.S. officials debated long and hard over whether the space program should be placed under military or civilian control, historical documents show.

Ultimately, NASA was established as a new civilian agency that borrowed heavily from the Defense Department and other government organizations as it built its own capabilities.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see the deep connection between NASA and DOD, beginning with the astronaut program. In fact, President Dwight D. Eisenhower almost assured that connection when he decreed that all astronaut candidates be test pilots with college degrees.

All seven original astronauts — known as “The Mercury 7” because they were chosen for Project Mercury, the nation’s first manned space flight program — came from the military. Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra and Scott Carpenter were Navy aviators; Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Donald “Deke” Slayton were Air Force pilots; and John Glenn flew in the Marine Corps.

The long list of military members who became “firsts” at NASA didn’t stop there. John Glenn, who flew 59 combat missions during World War II and another 63 during the Korean War before joining the Naval Air Test Center, made history at NASA as the first American to orbit Earth on Feb. 20, 1962.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, got his initial flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., in 1949 and 1950, then went on to fly 78 missions over Korea during the Korean War. His words as he stepped from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — are an indelible mark in NASA’s history.

Neil Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11 crewmembers had deep military roots, too. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1951, before serving as an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War.

Michael Collins, who orbited the moon as Armstrong and Aldrin walked on its surface, also got his commission at West Point before joining the Air Force and receiving flight training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.

Thirty years later, Eileen Collins — no relation to the Apollo 11 astronaut — made NASA history in 1999 aboard the Columbia as the first woman to command a space shuttle. An Air Force colonel, she graduated from Air Force undergraduate pilot training in 1979. She was attending Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., when NASA selected her for its astronaut program.

Military members have participated in NASA’s great triumphs as well as its deep tragedies, including the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.

Four servicemembers were among the seven Challenger crewmembers killed when a fuel tank exploded 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Michael J. Smith, the pilot, was a Navy captain; Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee and Ellison Onizuka were Air Force lieutenant colonels; and Gregory Jarvis was an Air Force captain.

Again, five U.S. military officers, as well as an Israeli officer, died when Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. That incident killed Navy Cmdr. William C. McCool, the pilot; Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband; Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Navy Capt. David M. Brown and Navy Capt. Laurel Clark. Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon and Kalpana Chawla, the only civilian on the mission, also died.

But the connection between the military and NASA goes far beyond the astronaut program.

From its inception, NASA officials looked to the Defense Department and other interagency, academic, industry and international partners to build the agency’s capability, Roger D. Launius, curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, noted in an article written for NASA’s 50th anniversary magazine.

The military had been looking to space and the development of rocket technology and expertise since the closing days of World War II, Air Force Space Command officials noted. NASA officials were anxious to tap into this expertise, and quickly absorbed several ongoing military efforts into its organization. These included the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland that would form the core of the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. NASA officials also incorporated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed for the Army by specialists at the California Institute of Technology, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., where Wernher von Baun’s engineering team was developing large rockets.

Shortly after its formal organization, NASA specialists took over management of space exploration projects from other federal agencies, including the Air Force.

“These activities relied fully on the expertise and resources of the U.S. Air Force in seeing them to fruition,” Launius wrote.

One of NASA’s earliest borrowings from the military came in the form of launch vehicles originally developed to deliver nuclear weapons.

“Most of the launchers used by NASA during its formative years originated as military ballistic missiles,” Launius wrote. “It was, and remains, the fundamental technology necessary for civil space exploration, and it came largely from the military.”

Meanwhile, officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, another organization Eisenhower created in response to the Sputnik launch, have provided critical expertise that has benefited NASA throughout its 50-year history.

Defense Department officials stood up DARPA to find and quickly develop advanced technology for the military so the United States would never again suffer a technological surprise by another nation.

Initially, DARPA scientists and engineers concentrated on the first surveillance satellites that ensured U.S. presidents had accurate intelligence information on Russian missile program activities, historical records show. But DARPA experts advanced other space projects as well, developing the Saturn V rocket that ultimately enabled the United States to launch the Apollo missions to the moon.

As they observe its 50th anniversary, NASA personnel can look back on its many accomplishments that have brought mankind a better understanding of the solar system and universe. As they advanced this research, NASA scientists and engineers, like those in the military services and DARPA, have pushed the technological envelope in everything from weather forecasting to navigation to global communications.

Speaking at the recent NASA 50th anniversary gala, Neil Armstrong looked back on the agency’s history and its future.

“The goal is far more than just going faster, higher and further,” he said. “Our goal, indeed our responsibility, is to develop new options for future generations, options for expanding human knowledge, exploration, human settlement and resource development in the universe around us.”

(AFNS)
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