Last Wednesday, I had dinner in Washington D.C. with Neil Sheehan, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. We discussed his recently released book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. He will be joining us in Las Cruces at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.
The book details the development of our country’s space industry. Many of the facts in the book were once classified; the details of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) programs that opened up space were vividly written in Sheehan’s meticulous journalistic style . I heard about his book on KRWG during NPR, another NMSU contribution to Las Cruces. The story is about the man who developed the Air Force ICBM program, General Bernard Schriever. Schriever was an aspiring golf pro before World War II. It was General Schriever’s genius for persistence, organization and leadership that made reading the book feel like I had been given a pass into a room full of secret negotiations, failures and great struggles in the void that is the constant companion of the researcher.
Learning about the role of the research universities in the start of the space program is one of my motivations for reading this book. I have mentioned before, the research universities, including NMSU, are a national asset . This week we start a new semester at NMSU. Our university system has a great legacy in this country. NMSU earned its legacy in the space industry and continues to contribute to the industry.
Another important university in the early space industry, is the California Institute of Technology. The first head of the Guggenheim Aerospace Laboratory at California Institute of Technolgy (GALCIT) was Theodore von Karmen. He was also the founder of Aerojet General and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Similar to our Physical Sciences Laboratory (PSL), JPL provided experimental research capacity to enable development and testing of missile systems including engines. When von Karmen was asked by Bernard Schriever to head a large study committee to develop what became the ICBM program, he included two of his brilliant graduates on the committee, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge. These men started what eventually became the Thompson, Ramo, Wooldridge company better known as TRW. This study committee began the long arduous process of using, in part, Robert Goddard’s research, to develop the engines, fuel tanks, guidance and control systems, and communications capabilities that became the ICBM. The head of our Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program at NMSU is a graduate of Cal Tech and has worked on the ICBM program. Small world!
In 1951, we were moving into the Cold War. Our military leaders were sure Russia would soon develop an atomic bomb and missiles to deliver the bomb. In fact, Russia completed the first nuclear weapon test in late 1951. The job of Ramo, Schriever and Wooldridge was to design, test, build and manufacture enough missiles to deter the Russians from using their capability. The book describes the technical and political challenges these men faced to convince our political leadership to move to a missile defense system and away from reliance on the bomber.
The Air Force and Army had competing ICBM programs, the Air Force program was headed by Bernard Schriever and the Army program by Werner Von Braun. The story of their competing test programs is not well known and relevant to our emerging commercial space industry test programs of today. By 1958, von Braun convinced President Eisenhower, while the military program was necessary for our country’s security, a civilian space program was necessary to assure our country’s scientific and engineering superiority. NASA was established and it was Werner von Braun who headed the agency and eventually used an ICBM to get the first humans into space.
During our dinner, I asked Neil if he had any advice for young journalists and writers. He thought quite a long time before he spoke. The other people at the table had opinions, as one of our dinner guests is the publisher of Space News, another the owner of a large public relations firm in Washington DC. He finally said, “While I don’t really have advice, I know students will need to have one foot in the digital world, and one in the print world. They will have to know how to write, they should write every day. Emails, press releases, stories, and most importantly, learn how to do research. ”
Welcome to all our students, you have come to a great town and a great university.