- Into the Unknown Together: The DOD, NASA, and Early Spaceflight
The decision in 1958 to separate the military and civilian space programs in the United States set in motion a dicey collection of issues and circumstances that fundamentally shaped the direction of space policy in the nation through the end of the Cold War. Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Erickson's important new study of this evolution provides an excellent explanation of the unfolding of these issues over the decades of the latter 1950s and 1960s. Starting as a dissertation in history at George Washington University, Into the Unknown Together concentrates on the human element of spaceflight. It demonstrates the hesitancy with which the Department of Defense (DoD)—especially the U.S. Air Force—allowed the newly created civil space agency—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—to assume responsibility for piloted spaceflight. At sum, the DoD capitulated to overwhelming political pressure to give primacy for the mission to a civil agency rather than a military one and because of a lack of a clear-cut military mission for humans in space.
As Erickson explains, the United States undertook five separate human spaceflight programs during the "heroic" era of the first decade after Sputnik. These included the three well-known NASA programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But the Air Force undertook two more, the Dyna-Soar [End Page 558] spaceplane and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), an attempt to build a space station. Erickson not only adds to the knowledge of the NASA programs, by focusing on NASA/DoD relations, but also provides outstanding capsule histories of the military program not available elsewhere.
By concentrating on the issue of human spaceflight from the perspective of the Pentagon, Mark Erickson has done the cause of space history a valuable service. He places the "daring do" of those with the "right stuff" in the context of broader internal government politics and prerogatives. He shows that spaceflight was not simply a question of demonstrating technological virtuosity vis-à-vis the Soviet Union for prestige purposes, but also a struggle within the federal government for primacy in the human dimension of the enterprise. He makes his case with significant attention to detail and the use of exhaustive primary sources.
Despite the early decision to situate the human spaceflight mission in NASA, the DoD has never truly accepted that verdict. Beyond the era of the 1960s that Erickson documents in such detail, the DoD sought to involve itself in human spaceflight aboard the Space Shuttle, pursue development of a series of spaceplanes and orbital platforms, and even study concepts for military bases on the Moon. Mark Erickson's Into the Unknown Together is an important exploration of this longstanding dream of the defense establishment. It might, because of the cantankerousness of the actors in some instances, be just as aptly named Into the Unknown in Spite of Intergovernmental Rivals, but it is a welcome addition to the historical literature of civil/military relations concerning spaceflight.