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The first satellite - Open Skies redux?


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In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed an 'Open Skies' policy to the Soviet Union. It would allow surveillance overflight of each others countries in order to reduce the possibility of secret military preparations and help build trust through transparency. As Eisenhower stated, 'Open Skies' would have the effect of "lessening danger and relaxing tension" between the two heavily armed rivals.

In the climate of the Cold War though, this proposal was rejected by the USSR on the belief it would be used for extensive spying.

On 4 OCT 57, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 to a huge fanfare from around the world, and apparent shock in the US. The US had been planning to launch a satellite but was not yet ready. The first US orbital satellite was Explorer 1, launched on 1 FEB 58.

What is unknown to most people is that the US could have launched a satellite as early as 20 SEP 56, nearly a year earlier than the USSR. On that date, a Jupiter C rocket was launched Cape Canaveral on a test flight. The fourth stage of the vehicle was deliberately disabled to ensure that it did not achieve orbital velocity.

Werner Von Braun and the Huntsville engineers were furious at the launch of Sputnik, knowing they could have beaten them. Von Braun had warned of this many times. The day after the Sputnik launch, Von Braun briefed Secretary of Defence McElroy that he could have a satellite in orbit within 60 days (although General Medaris, the Huntsville commander, said 90 days). When Project Vanguard failed to launch a satellite, Von Braun was given the go-ahead on 8 NOV 57. His team delivered as promised.

Why did the US apparently give up this first to the Soviets? The general claim is that no resources were to be taken away from the military rocket programmes (the Jupiter / Juno series were a derivative of the Redstone MRBM) and Project Vanguard (started in 1955) would achieve the launch.

In my opinion, the Eisenhower administration made a shrewd move and purposely allowed the Soviets to launch the first orbital satellite.

With the rejection of the 'Open Skies' proposal, the only suitable surveillance would be manned overflight by high flying aircraft. These however, were becoming increasing vulnerable to ground based missile systems. Satellite photo-reconnaissance was not yet possible but it shortly would be. If the US took the lead in 'spy satellites', there would be a possibility that the USSR would oppose their use in space, claiming illegal overflight of Soviet territory.

On the other hand, if the USSR were to first launch a satellite, then they could hardly complain if another country did likewise. Allowing the USSR to be the first nation to launch an orbital satellite set a precedent to which the US could take advantage of.

Thoughts?

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Evan -

I wasn't aware of the '56 launch capabilities.

Interesting take on why we delayed. Its true that we were able to use the fact that the USSR was first with overflights from space to deflect criticism from our own spy satellites with much success

I'd like to think that Ike or someone was that clever - unfortunately, the pervasiveness of incompetence in our government (at least over the past 30 years that I've been paying attention) leads me to believe that it was more dumb luck than anything else.

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In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed an 'Open Skies' policy to the Soviet Union. It would allow surveillance overflight of each others countries in order to reduce the possibility of secret military preparations and help build trust through transparency. As Eisenhower stated, 'Open Skies' would have the effect of "lessening danger and relaxing tension" between the two heavily armed rivals.

In the climate of the Cold War though, this proposal was rejected by the USSR on the belief it would be used for extensive spying.

On 4 OCT 57, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 to a huge fanfare from around the world, and apparent shock in the US. The US had been planning to launch a satellite but was not yet ready. The first US orbital satellite was Explorer 1, launched on 1 FEB 58.

What is unknown to most people is that the US could have launched a satellite as early as 20 SEP 56, nearly a year earlier than the USSR. On that date, a Jupiter C rocket was launched Cape Canaveral on a test flight. The fourth stage of the vehicle was deliberately disabled to ensure that it did not achieve orbital velocity.

Werner Von Braun and the Huntsville engineers were furious at the launch of Sputnik, knowing they could have beaten them. Von Braun had warned of this many times. The day after the Sputnik launch, Von Braun briefed Secretary of Defence McElroy that he could have a satellite in orbit within 60 days (although General Medaris, the Huntsville commander, said 90 days). When Project Vanguard failed to launch a satellite, Von Braun was given the go-ahead on 8 NOV 57. His team delivered as promised.

Why did the US apparently give up this first to the Soviets? The general claim is that no resources were to be taken away from the military rocket programmes (the Jupiter / Juno series were a derivative of the Redstone MRBM) and Project Vanguard (started in 1955) would achieve the launch.

In my opinion, the Eisenhower administration made a shrewd move and purposely allowed the Soviets to launch the first orbital satellite.

With the rejection of the 'Open Skies' proposal, the only suitable surveillance would be manned overflight by high flying aircraft. These however, were becoming increasing vulnerable to ground based missile systems. Satellite photo-reconnaissance was not yet possible but it shortly would be. If the US took the lead in 'spy satellites', there would be a possibility that the USSR would oppose their use in space, claiming illegal overflight of Soviet territory.

On the other hand, if the USSR were to first launch a satellite, then they could hardly complain if another country did likewise. Allowing the USSR to be the first nation to launch an orbital satellite set a precedent to which the US could take advantage of.

Thoughts?

Evan, according to The Race by James Schefter, Eisenhower wanted the mission to have a purely scientific purpose so as not to agitate the Kremlin. Someone in the Pentagon (according to Schefter) suspected, or had been tipped off that a military nose cone might be used and "accidently" sent into orbit. To prevent this, Medaris sent in technicians to disable the Sergeant rockets and fill the cone with sand.

Given that Eisenhower later would distance himself from his more Hawkish advisers, and later still, order an end to U2 flights over Soviet territory, I see no reason to disbelieve his concern was genuine. What, on the surface, seems a bit out of character is the Pentagon disabling the Jupiter in order to achieve Ike's wishes. I'm sure it could just as easily ensured it was filled with scientific instruments, and at the same time, prevented any "accidental" orbit without going to the extremes it did. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis, but I'd be looking at someone other than Ike as the engineer of the deception.

Alleging to be behind technologically, when in fact you were not, does have great political advantages. It justifies further spending, more extensive programs, and puts you in the position of appearing to be the "underdog" under the greater threat. The latter also doesn't hurt in keeping the public scared and dependent on you keeping that threat at bay.

The Space Race Gap

The Missile Gap

The Brainwashing Gap

All lies. All for the same purpose.

This whole area, by the way, is very significant in understanding Oswald's activities in the 1956-59 period. Ike's Director of the Bureau of the Budget, Percival Brundage, was heavily involved with both the Vanguard and Open Skies projects. If lack of funds for the Jupiter project was part of the problem, look no further than the Keeper of Purse Strings. He was also the president of The Friends of The Albert Schweitzer College... and past president of the religious organization which ran it.

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Evan, according to The Race by James Schefter, Eisenhower wanted the mission to have a purely scientific purpose so as not to agitate the Kremlin. Someone in the Pentagon (according to Schefter) suspected, or had been tipped off that a military nose cone might be used and "accidently" sent into orbit. To prevent this, Medaris sent in technicians to disable the Sergeant rockets and fill the cone with sand.

Hi Greg! The nose cone still contained instrumentation, IIRC. It was the upper (fourth) stage that was disabled. Perhaps a "military" payload might have been fitted, but I really can't see it. Satellite recon was still in its infancy, so simply demonstrating that a certain weight could be lifted to orbit would indicate that a warhead would be possible. Even in that case, an "inadvertent" launch to orbit would have meant that the test crew would need to know where the payload would de-orbit to.

Given that Eisenhower later would distance himself from his more Hawkish advisers, and later still, order an end to U2 flights over Soviet territory, I see no reason to disbelieve his concern was genuine. What, on the surface, seems a bit out of character is the Pentagon disabling the Jupiter in order to achieve Ike's wishes. I'm sure it could just as easily ensured it was filled with scientific instruments, and at the same time, prevented any "accidental" orbit without going to the extremes it did. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis, but I'd be looking at someone other than Ike as the engineer of the deception.

Yep, that's why I said 'administration' rather than Ike personally (though I can't see him not being aware of it). I think the administration saw the advantage of letting the Soviets achieve orbital flight first, and held back their own people.

There is little doubt that they deliberately prevented it; the question is why?

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