[Oct. 1, 1961] Over and Above (America’s surprising lead in the Space Race)


by Gideon Marcus

When the news is full of Soviet spacemen and bomb tests, it’s easy to get the impression that America’s losing the Space Race.  The Russians got the first Sputnik, the first Muttnik, the first Lunik.  They launched the first two men into orbit; America’s two astronauts had shorter missions than most people’s commutes.  Not a week goes by without some cartoon in the papers depicting a Sickle and Hammer festooning a space station or the Moon.

And yet, are we really behind?  Just last month, the Air Force had three Discoverer missions (29, 30, and 31).  Discoverer is a spy satellite.  It is launched into a polar orbit (i.e. one that goes North to South rather than East to West) that allows the craft to view the entire Earth every day.  It snaps pictures with an onboard camera and then, after a couple of days, jettisons the camera back to Earth in a reentry probe.  The Air Force catches these probes in mid-air!  This is to ensure that our nation’s enemies don’t recover them before we can. 

The Communists are up to Sputnik #10.  The Air Force, with just one series of satellites, has over thirty.  There is simply no comparison in the number of flights we are launching.  Moreover, we have more kinds of flights: the scientific Explorers and Pioneers, the Echo and Courier communications satellites, the missile-detecting MIDASes, the navigational TRANSITs

Now, you may be wondering if the Soviets have more satellites up, and they just aren’t telling us.  It is true that the Communists seem loathe to announce any flights unless they are a) civilian in nature and b) successful.  However, since satellites necessarily travel across the entire globe, it is impossible to hide an orbital mission for very long.  Too many countries are scanning their skies with radar and telescopes.  Too many professionals and amateurs tune into the heavens, listening for a scrap of telemetry.  No, it’s pretty clear that the West is beating the East, at least in the number of missions, by an overwhelming margin.

Moreover, we will very soon catch up to the Russians in terms of the size of payloads we can launch into orbit and beyond, the one arena in which they’ve enjoyed a consistent advantage.  Not only will the Atlas and Titan ICBMs soon be able to boost humans into orbit, but the new Saturn should dwarf anything the Soviets have to offer.  Unlike all of our (and their) previous rockets, the Saturn has been purpose-built as a civilian heavy-lift booster.  Its capacity is going to be tremendous – and it will only be increased as time goes on.

Next time someone tells you that the Reds are clobbering us in Space, just send them one of those commemorative postcards our flyboys issue for each Discoverer launch.  By the time the Russians get to 31 in any satellite series, I imagine we’ll already be well past 100.

6 thoughts on “[Oct. 1, 1961] Over and Above (America’s surprising lead in the Space Race)”

  1. Thank you for this Joe Friday – and very cheering – post. The mid-air catches are great, and it’s a fine picture.

    Looking forward to a long line of postcards.

  2. I’ll believe in the Saturn when I see one lift off.  You’re talking about a project that will have to be funded across multiple Congresses and appropriation cycles.  And considering how many “oopsies” the military and NASA have had, how many of this super-rockets are we likely to lose before they get them sorted out?

    And while we have a lot of launches, and I’m sure the spy satellites are useful, we’re probably two or three years from being able to get a man into orbit, and the Soviets have done it *twice* now.  And the Soviets have sent rockets past the moon, and photographed the Farside and sent back photos.  If they’ve done *that*, I’m sure they’ve sent up plenty of spy satellites too.

    We had the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force all competing, and now NASA, which hasn’t been able or interested in maintaining the knowledge the military learned with so many failures.  And already, it’s looking like NASA’s primary mission isn’t space, but maintaining its funding.

      1. In all the US-Soviet news, it seems the British haven’t made many headlines on this side of the pond.

        They seem to have caught up on the A-bomb and H-bomb fronts, the V-bombers are flying, and they’ve developed their Blue Streak ballistic missiles, and now they’ve thrown their nexr card on the table; they’re supposed to launch their first satellite next year.  I haven’t been able to find out too much about it yet. I asusme they’ll launch from some place in the Commonwealth intead of the Home Islands.

        It has been a hard decade and a half for Britain; they didn’t get Marshall Plan freebies like our enemies did,.  But they seem to have made an astounding recovery, and their technical know-how is first rate.  Every single jet engine manufacturer in the United States pays licensing fees to Rolls-Royce, for example.

        And while the USA and USSR had Goddard and Tsiolkovsky, the Brits have had the British Interplanetary Society pushing for space exploration since the early 1930s. 

        The Society has a fair amount of political influence, and apparently it has only been Britain’s dire financial straits that has kept them out of the scramble for space.  Now that they’re getting their feet back under them again… they might surprise people.

  3. Human spaceflight gets the headlines, understandably, but unmanned spacecraft provide a lot more important scientific knowledge.  All due credit to the Soviet Union, but slow and steady may win the race.

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