October 4, 2017

1967. Washington in the Space Race

The Cold War Balance of Terror
"The Atlas-Agena D launch vehicle carrying Lunar Orbiter 5 into orbit, Cape Canaveral, Fla., Aug. 1, 1967" (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

January 29, 1967

Back in the early 1940s when this correspondent was covering the dying Blitz on London, the British newspapers began carrying carefully censored reports about a series of mysterious "sewer and gas explosions" that seemed to occur on the southeast quadrant of the city—explosions of vicious concentration that knocked down buildings and left huge craters in an area relatively untouched by the Nazi night bombing simply because there were few military or even concentrated civilian targets in the area.

It didn't take long for rumors to sweep through the pubs of the British capital that there was nothing wrong with London's public utility and sewer system, that the mysterious and frightening gas main explosions that came out of nowhere were somehow the fault of that "bloody Hitler" who also was making a dangerous nuisance of himself by sending over those Jerry-built buzz bombs with their random and nerve-wracking loads of high explosive.

The London rumors were true, of course. The mysterious gas main explosions were actually caused by another of Hitler's secret weapons, the V-2 liquid-propelled rocket. It was a comparatively crude weapon by today's standards, but at the time it was the most sophisticated military instrument of World War II, and marked the beginning of the global intercontinental ballistic missile systems as carriers for today's American and Russian nuclear warheads which keep the precarious balance of terror that passes for peace these days.

The Nazi development of a military rocket, which could penetrate the stratosphere in a long-lob from Germany's Baltic coast to drop on London some six hundred miles away, also had great and obvious implications for man's exploration of space.

The rocket pioneers, such as America's Robert Goddard, had been widely ignored and brushed off as eccentrics, even though as far back as 1918 Goddard successfully tested a tactical military rocket for skeptical US Army officials at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground—which was substantially the same as today's widely employed recoilless rifle.

It took the desperation of the irrational Nazi dictator in search of so-called "miracle weapons" to save his "thousand-year Reich" that proved to be the catalyst making it possible for man to annihilate his species and conversely for man to embark on his greatest adventure, the conquest of space.

As this week in Washington ended, these threads of history led to a solemn ceremony at the White House, and to a developing debate on Capitol Hill. And most tragically and ironically, the web encompassed the ill-fated Apollo 1 space capsule which on Friday evening became the fiery tomb of three of America's leading astronauts.

It was about 5 PM on Friday that the diplomatic envoys of more than sixty nations began to gather in the East Room of the White House for the signing of the world's first multinational space agreement, a treaty extending the rule of human law outside the earth's atmosphere, specifically banning weapons of mass destruction from space and otherwise banning warfare from the new environment and from the moon, the planets, and the stars to be explored in the future.

The space treaty was not a new idea, but its actual formation represented a diplomatic victory for President Johnson who last May ordered US envoys in the United Nations and at the nonstop disarmament negotiations in Geneva to press for the pact preserving space for the peaceful exploration and exploitation of all mankind.

Even the most cynical of the skeptics who place little faith in such far-out agreements, particularly with the Russians—even these doubters had to be impressed with the matter-of-fact language and realistic approach of the treaty writers.

For example, the new agreement requires prompt and safe return of any astronauts or cosmonauts, and their space vehicles or remnants thereof which land outside their national territories. It forbids any claim of territorial conquest, sovereignty, or national acquisition of the moon and bans military installations and military maneuvers there. The new treaty even specifies that if one nation's space vehicles or experiments somehow damage another signatory nation, then the offending country pays for the damage done. Thus this agreement is not just a pipe dream document put together by scientific dreamers.

President Johnson has hailed the space treaty as "an inspiring moment in human history" and pointed out that when man reaches the moon, "astronaut and cosmonaut will greet each other as brothers, not adversaries."

Watching the ceremony was a delegation of five US astronauts who flew north from Cape Kennedy and the Houston Space Center to represent the NASA scientific project. Also on hand was Dr. Wernher von Braun of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was Colonel von Braun who some twenty-seven years earlier was one of the German scientists at Hitler's missile installations at Germany's Peenem├╝nde who helped launch those first exploding "gas mains"—so-called—that hit London.

The Churchill government acted vigorously to keep Hitler's V-2 weapon secret, even from the British people. This was done for two reasons. First, the V-2 explosions were a military intelligence matter. Second, there was serious concern about the morale of the people if they knew they were under attack by a weapon against which the London government had no defense.

Fortunately the Germans had not had time to develop an accurate guidance system for their rockets. And neither did they have enough of them to impress the tough British people. But it was a near thing.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara went to Capitol Hill to discuss with the Senate Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees exactly the same problem which confronted Winston Churchill back in the 1940s—what to do against military rockets who carry their devastation into stratospheric space and fly to their targets at some 18,000 miles an hour. However, McNamara's problem was immensely more difficult than the late prime minister's—and there was no keeping it secret from anyone.

Old Army men used to say that you can't shoot a bullet out of the air with another bullet. Modern rocket scientists have devised a way to do just that; providing, of course, there were not too many rockets and providing that they could avoid diversionary and dummy missiles to get at the real thing.

United States policy in the past was to build up such tremendous offensive striking power that any nation (meaning the Russians) who attempted nuclear aggression against this country would know it was committing an act of suicide. Until a year or so ago, this also was the basis of Moscow's nuclear defense—an ICBM standoff which Winston Churchill first labeled as the "balance of terror."

However, in the past few years the international balance of nuclear power threatens to become unstuck. First France and then Communist China decided to join the so-called fraternity of nations. And despite all of Washington's efforts—and the efforts in Moscow and the United Nations to limit the spread of the fused and fissioned atom—the experts say that a dozen nations could have the super-bomb within the next five years if they choose to go down the costly nuclear road.

But what most disturbs Mr. McNamara and Congress was the revelation last November that the Soviet Union had made a start on an antimissile defense system, with initial construction underway in the Moscow-Leningrad area and possibly elsewhere.

Defense Department research and development officials also have been working on an AMD program, notably the Nike-X weapons system. Pentagon projections on the Nike-X have estimated it would be the most expensive defense project ever devised by man. With an all-out public shelter program, the cost of a Nike-X coast-to-coast complex might run as high as $50 billion.

Secretary McNamara said that even with the best and most expensive antimissile defense the nation could devise, it still would be unable to prevent the death of forty to sixty million Americans under an all-out nuclear rocket attack.

The secretary said that the Russians are wasting their money on trying to build defenses against the US nuclear missile arsenal. In fact, the United States already is moving to improve its present intercontinental weapons to assure that the new Soviet antimissile defenses will be completely overwhelmed. McNamara further argued that if the US acted to build the costly Nike-X defense system, then Russia too would move to increase the striking power of her ICBMs.

The result would be another kind of arms race—a costly antimissile contest which neither nation could win.

For this reason, confidential talks are now going on in Washington and Moscow to see if this defensive race can be stopped before it gains serious momentum.

Thus it would appear that the White House and the Kremlin now are in a kind of no-limit nuclear poker game. Both have aces in the hole with the offsetting ICBMs. But now the Kremlin appears to have raised the pot by starting a missile defense system. There's no doubt that America can more than match the Russian bet, but McNamara's argument is "why do it when both sides end up exactly where they are now?" Thus the diplomatic negotiations here and in Moscow.

What worries Congress is that, in international poker, if one does not call the other side's bet then he may get to believing he has an unbeatable hand. And under such circumstances all gamblers become aggressive. Thus, goes the argument, the US just has to call the Kremlin wager and at least make a start on the Nike-X system. Before the antimissile defense argument is over, it may become a political issue in next year's presidential campaigning.

At the White House space treaty ceremonies on Friday, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg signed the document for the United States. The British ambassador, Sir Patrick Dean, was there for the United Kingdom, and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin signed for the USSR. These were the sponsoring powers of the United Nations treaty. Ambassador Dobrynin was applauded when he echoed the hopes of the others that the space treaty might lead to the settlement of other problems facing the nations here on earth.

The signing of the historic document began at about 5:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. And after a brief reception by President and Mrs. Johnson in the White House Green Room, the honored guests departed. The five NASA astronauts, along with Vice President Humphrey, NASA director James Webb, and Dr. Wernher von Braun went their separate ways to get ready for another reception and dinner honoring the occasion at Washington's International Club.

As you know, at 6:31 PM the Apollo 1 spacecraft atop its Saturn booster at Cape Kennedy suddenly and momentarily turned into a Bessemer furnace. Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee died instantly. And across the country, mourning Americans are searching for meaning, just as many families do every day somewhere in the land when they receive news of a casualty in Vietnam.

Gus Grissom was a 15-year-old teenager in Mitchell, Indiana when those German V-2s first started landing on London during World War II. Ed White was what the Armed Services call an "Air Force brat" and was all of eleven years old. Roger Chaffee was a 6-year-old first grader in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As children of the missile and the Space Age, Grissom and White joined the Air Force.

The eldest, Grissom was the only one of the three who saw combat. He was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, staying on in the Air Force to become one of the seven Mercury astronauts selected by the National Space Agency.

Ed White was a West Point graduate of the class of 1952, before there was an Air Force academy. Before becoming an astronaut, he spend three and a half years with the US Air Force in Germany, and he'll go down in history as America's first space-walker.

Roger Chaffee joined the Navy after graduating from Purdue University and became a carrier pilot specializing in aeronautical engineering.

In other words, all three of these young men dedicated their lives to the services of their country before the Russians fired their first Sputnik into orbit, before there was a National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Furthermore, when the United States entered the race for space, they volunteered for the risky, exploratory rides into the heavens.

If the nation is looking for meaning out of the tragedy of Apollo 1, it might be that it would be foolish and unthinkable to let the chosen mission of astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee go unfinished.

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.