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Competition Versus Cooperation: 1959-1962

During the early years of the Cold War's Space Race, both the U. S. and the Soviets tried at different times for cooperation. The following narrative is excerpted from a NASA report, "The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project," which is available online.

Competition Versus Cooperation: 1959-1962
By Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell

For NASA personnel interested in fostering cooperative projects with the Soviet Union, the political climate of 1959-1962 was frustrating. These were the years of Soviet Premier Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's foreign policy that on the one hand sought detente with the West while on the other exploited "every major trouble spot, every embarrassment" to damage Western influence and prestige....

Khrushchev did not want a crisis that would lead inexorably to nuclear disaster, but he was a skillful poker player who successfully bluffed the leaders of the country that had originated the game, until the confrontation over missiles in Cuba.

Nineteen fifty-nine was a year of political maneuvering. Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Khrushchev held their "kitchen debate" at an American exhibition in Moscow's Sokolniki Park, and Khrushchev later made his ostentatious, but largely ceremonial, visit to the U.S. It was also the year of the first Soviet lunar probes. Luna I, launched in January, was the first spacecraft to penetrate interplanetary space; Luna II, launched during the Premier's visit to the U.S., was the first spacecraft to hit the moon. Then in October, Luna III swung around the moon and photographed its back side. But the debates and visits did nothing to solve international problems; successful moon probes certainly did not enhance the chances for cooperation between the two nations - especially when contrasted with the high number of U.S. launch failures in 1959.

In the next year...American pilot Francis Gary Powers became an unintentional celebrity when his Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft was downed deep in Soviet territory....

On 5 May 1960, on orders from the White House, NASA stated that one of its U-2 research planes used "to study gust-meteorological conditions found at high altitude" had been missing since 1 May. Then six days later, Eisenhower admitted publicly that the flight actually had been part of a military reconnaissance program conducted with his permission. While the administration had to cope with the impact of the U-2 mission at the abortive Paris summit conference and later during Khrushchev's visit to the United Nations in September, NASA had to fight the notion that there was more to the civilian program than was being admitted in public.

An immediate issue was Soviet participation in the Tiros weather satellite program. "It's part of our national policy that space research is for peaceful purposes," Arnold Frutkin told a Wall Street Journal reporter. "We want to have an open program. And the best way to prove this to other countries is to have them participate in our experiments." NASA had long planned to solicit the cooperation of other nations, including the U.S.S.R., in studying cloud photographs taken by the Tiros satellite. Soviet participation would have gone a long way to allay fears that Tiros was looking at more than the weather patterns, but the Soviets saw-or purported to see-the satellite as another U-2. A year later NASA Administrator James E. Webb labeled as "political opportunism" their attacks on the Tiros program and their refusal to participate.

Even without the U-2 incident, 1960 was not a propitious time to talk about cooperative ventures in space. The American public was watching a very close political contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon; a key campaign topic was the state of the nation's defenses against nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. During the campaign, the trade journal Missiles and Rockets invited the candidates to respond to a series of statements on space and defense. The first proposition asked if they would "recognize as national policy that we are in a strategic space race with Russia." Kennedy's response was published first:

"We are in a strategic space race with the Russians, and we have been losing. The first man-made satellite to orbit the earth was named Sputnik. The first living creature in space was Laika. The first rocket to the moon carried a Red flag. The first photograph of the far side of the moon was made with a Soviet camera. If a man orbits earth this year his name will be Ivan. These are unpleasant facts that the Republican candidate would prefer us to forget. Control of space will be divided in the next decade. If the Soviets control space they can control earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents. This does not mean that the United States desires more rights in space than any other nation. But we cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first."

Nixon responded later in a manner that was uncharacteristic of the Eisenhower administration, which had played down the idea of a space race. Candidate Nixon argued:

"If the Eisenhower Administration had not long ago recognized that we were in a strategic race with Russia, our space record would not be as creditable as it is today. Twenty-six satellites and 2 space probes have been launched successfully by the United States. Six satellites and 2 space probes have been launched successfully by the Soviet Union. Today 13 United States satellites are in orbit; only 1 Russian satellite remains in orbit. Eight United States satellites in orbit are still transmitting; the sole Russian satellite in orbit is not transmitting. The United States has recovered 2 satellite payloads from orbit while the U.S.S.R. claims to have recovered one. Despite the greater weight of U.S.S.R. space vehicles, the United States has gathered far more scientific information from space. In instrumentation, communications, electronics, reliability, and guidance, United States space vehicles have made gigantic strides. In short, the United States is not losing the space race or any other race with the Soviet Union. Today we are ahead of the U.S.S.R. From a standing start in 1953, we have forged ahead to overcome an 8-year Russian lead. And we will continue to maintain a clear cut lead in the race for space."

While the candidates debated, NASA and the Eisenhower administration attempted to keep a line open with the Soviets on space cooperation. [The U.S.] had talked informally with Academician Anatoliy Arkadyevich Blagonravov about the possibility of using Echo I, the balloon-like passive communications satellite, for communications experiments between the United States and the Soviet Union. Echo I had been launched on 12 August 1960, three days before the International Astronautical Congress convened in Stockholm, and the delegates had heard a message recorded by President Eisenhower, transmitted part of the way by the satellite. On 22 September, the President in an address to the United Nations suggested a four-point proposal for the peaceful exploration of space, using as his precedent the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which had prompted scientific research and barred military activity from that continent. However, the future of Eisenhower's hope for an agreement on the peaceful uses of outer space would depend upon the efforts of the new President and the individuals within NASA.

Kennedy's election in November 1960 portended a number of changes for defense and space programs.... Kennedy announced on 11 January 1961 the appointment of Jerome B. Wiesner of MIT to be his assistant for science and technology. The same month appeared the "Wiesner Report," [which] foresaw "exciting possibilities for international cooperation" in space exploration and communications. Such projects would prosper if "carried out in an atmosphere of cooperation as projects of all mankind instead of in the present atmosphere of national competition." Kennedy pursued the same theme in his inaugural address:

"Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce...." Kennedy continued to espouse the cooperative theme in his State of the Union address on 30 January 1961. The President invited all nations, including the U.S.S.R., "to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe." He repeated the hopes of his science advisers that the arms race could be kept from spreading into space. "Both nations would help themselves as well as other nations by removing these endeavors from the bitter and wasteful competition of the Cold War." This was to be a recurring theme in Kennedy's public comments.

At the time of these pronouncements, and to this day, debate has existed over the depth of the new President's initial understanding of the space issue relative to the realities of international power politics. Missiles and space had been a warm issue during the campaign; Kennedy had insisted that the previous administration had allowed national defense to slip in relation to Soviet strength. After Kennedy assumed the Presidency, the "missile gap" proved to have been a myth; but the problem remained to fit the national space program into the power equation by which American military and political leaders would evaluate the "strength" of their nation versus that of the Soviet Union.

Ten days after his inauguration, Kennedy followed the recommendation of his Vice President and nominated James E. Webb to be Administrator of the space agency....

As the first months of 1961 slipped away, Kennedy and Webb became convinced that second place in space exploration would carry the negative impression that the United States was second rate in military strength as well. This conclusion once again pointed to the dilemma of competition versus cooperation in space exploitation. On the one hand, Kennedy genuinely wanted to cooperate in this arena with the Soviets; on the other hand, military and technical superiority had to remain with the United States. Events during the spring of 1961 swiftly determined his choice between these conflicting goals.

The successful one-orbit flight of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin on 12 April 1961 was a significant element in the subsequent American deliberations. While this event was anticipated by the Kennedy administration, the Soviet feat was still another blow to the American image at home and abroad. The Soviet Union constantly stressed three themes in exploiting the first manned space flight:

1. the Gagarin flight was evidence of the virtues of "victorious socialism";

2. the flight was evidence of the global superiority of the Soviet Union in all aspects of science and technology;

3. the Soviet Union, despite the ability to translate this superiority into powerful military weapons, wanted world peace and general disarmament.

Such a challenge could not go unanswered. Theodore Sorenson later commented, overdramatically perhaps, that "As the Soviet Union capitalized on its historic feat in all corners of the globe, Kennedy congratulated Khrushchev and Gagarin and set to work."

Even as John Kennedy was rolling up his sleeves and consulting his advisers, other events were unfolding that would complicate the political scene. None too secretly, a band of approximately 1,500 Cuban refugees was preparing to launch an invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba. The exact impact of this military and political fiasco on the subsequent decision to go to the moon has been repeatedly argued by many of those associated with the Kennedy administration. John Logsdon concludes in his study of the events:

"The fiasco of the Bay of Pigs reinforced Kennedy's determination, already strong, to approve a program aimed at placing the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in the competition for firsts in space. It was one of the many pressures that converged on the president at the time, and thus its exact influence cannot be isolated. As president, Kennedy could treat few issues in isolation anyway, and there seems to be little doubt that the Bay of Pigs was in the front of his mind as he called Lyndon Johnson to his office on April 19 and asked him to find a 'space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.'"

By the end of April 1961, Kennedy had decided that the dramatic program would be a manned lunar landing. The suborbital flight of Alan B. Shepard in his Freedom 7 spacecraft on 5 May was a much needed positive accomplishment, which brought favorable public response. On 8 May, Vice President Johnson presented to the President a memorandum prepared by NASA Administrator Webb and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara-"Recommendations for our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals." The Webb-McNamara memorandum suggested that manned space flight could be an effective means of enhancing national prestige:

"Major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.... The non-military, non-commercial, non-scientific but "civilian" projects such as lunar and planetary exploration are, in this sense, part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war."

John Kennedy agreed....

On 25 May in a speech on "Urgent National Needs," the President reminded the Congress that "these are extraordinary times. We face an extraordinary challenge." After addressing himself to a number of other important issues, Kennedy turned to the subject of space. This new frontier was just another aspect of the "battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny...." Therefore, "Now it is time to take longer strides-time for a great new American enterprise-time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth." One of those "longer strides" Kennedy proposed was the landing of an American on the moon. The President believed "that the Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." This goal was that bold type of challenge that had peculiar appeal to the young President. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Thus, space competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was reaffirmed by Kennedy's speech. What did this mean to NASA, and particularly what did it mean for NASA's mandate to cooperate? During 1961, the NASA position on the prospects of Soviet-American space cooperation was one of basic skepticism. Administrator Webb was committed by the Webb-McNamara memorandum of 8 May to support a program of American technological pre-eminence in space. Any program of cooperation would have to occur within a framework that would not jeopardize America's chances of establishing that position.

In June 1961, in response to questioning, NASA submitted a series of formal statements to the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. "In general, how cooperative have the Soviets been in sharing the results of their space experiments?" NASA responded that the difference between the attitude of the U.S. and that of the U.S.S.R. was one of degree. The Soviets were judged to have been quite active in international meetings. They had presented papers and discussed problems of mutual interest with their international colleagues, but it was the NASA opinion that they had not operated with an openness comparable to that of scientists from other nations. Throughout 1961, NASA spokesmen told Congress and the American public that while NASA still sought space cooperation with the U.S.S.R., the attitude and actions of the Soviets left little hope for success.

Public remarks by Soviet officials in 1961 on space cooperation were equally ambivalent. On 13 February, Kennedy congratulated Khrushchev on the launch of a space probe to Venus. In his reply two days later, Khrushchev thanked Kennedy for his "high appraisal to this outstanding achievement of peaceful science." The Soviet leader, in referring to Kennedy's inaugural and State of the Union invitations to the Soviets, said that "such an approach...impresses us and we welcome these utterances of yours." But the Soviet Premier still saw disarmament as the key to the problem: "We consider that favorable conditions for the most speedy solution of these noble tasks facing humanity would be created through the settlement of the problem of disarmament."

With Gagarin's Vostok I April flight, the tone of the Soviet statements on cooperation in space changed. Clearly the Soviets enjoyed their sense of technological superiority, but still they did not totally abandon the thought of cooperation with the U.S. Academician Sedov [chairman of the Commission for the Promotion of Interplanetary Flights, USSR Academy of Sciences], in his public congratulations to Alan Shepard for suborbital flight, was careful to point out that the Gagarin flight was of greater significance. He also restated the Soviet position on the relationship of international cooperation in space flight to the question of disarmament:

"Soviet scientists and scientists of other countries, who are occupied with scientific research in space, are participating in mutual discussions on the results achieved, and we can speak on the beginning of fruitful cooperation. Nonetheless, the problem of international scientific cooperation on space flights in general is still not resolved. It is evident that such cooperation will be successful only upon the favorable development of international relations and the realistic solution of the problem of disarmament."

Later at the Washington meetings of the International Astronautical Federation during October, Sedov was asked if the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would be able to collaborate in launching large payloads. Sedov replied, "I think it will be possible in the future, not only between the Russians and Americans but with other countries as well." Deputy Administrator Dryden observed at the time that "Sedov and I have discussed this possibility many times. If the decision were ours alone, there would be no problem." Coming at a time when East-West tensions had worsened, optimistic statements about cooperation in space hardly seemed realistic. The two-day confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the June 1961 Vienna summit was from Kennedy's perspective a disaster. But in one of the rare moments of amicability, Kennedy suggested that the two nations pool their space efforts and "go to the moon together." Khrushchev's immediate response was "all right," but upon reflection the mercurial Soviet leader decided that such a venture would not be practical. The boosters used for manned space flight had military implications. That triggered considerations of disarmament, and that brought the discussions back to the Cold War. There the proposed joint trip to the moon died.

The unsuccessful Vienna summit was followed by the crisis over the Berlin Wall. With that physical barrier between East and West Berlin erected on 13 August 1961, Khrushchev once again raised the question of the divided status of Germany. For the second time in three years, Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the East German Government, thus forcing the Americans to deal with a separate communist state. On 25 July, Kennedy told the nation in a somber television address that the United States would go to war should that become necessary to defend a free Berlin. Khrushchev reacted strongly to what he perceived to be an ultimatum from the President of the United States, and while the two sides negotiated the Berlin issue, the Soviet Union dramatically broke the three-year old moratorium on atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Beginning on 1 September 1961, the tests continued for two months. They were culminated with a 58-megaton explosion, the most powerful hydrogen device to have been tested at that time by either nation. While events such as these would seem to pose insurmountable barriers to cooperation in space, Russian and American scientists managed to keep the discussions alive.

Threats to world peace posed by the succession of summer and autumn crises, while not unnoticed, seemed far distant from the pleasant atmosphere of the lodge at Smugglers Notch, Vermont. For four days, 5-8 September 1961, scientists from ten countries, including the U.S.S.R., gathered for the Seventh International Conference on Science and World Affairs. Included in a broad spectrum of proposals relating to greater cooperation among the world's scientists were suggestions for a program of space cooperation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Four areas in which the scientists felt that cooperation was possible were (1) a worldwide system of weather satellites and forecasting; (2) an international program of communications satellites; (3) an international exchange of data relating to space biology; and (4) a joint program for the scientific exploration of the moon and the planets. Despite the international debate engendered by the Soviet resumption of nuclear arms tests, there was an atmosphere of good will at Smugglers Notch. The fragility of such scientist-to-scientist efforts was clearly demonstrated two months later.

In November 1961, NASA and the U.S. Department of Commerce sponsored an International Satellite Workshop in Washington. American representatives explained their plans for the further exploitation of weather satellites and encouraged other nations to participate in the gathering and use of satellite data. The Americans expected delegates from the U.S.S.R., Poland, and Czechoslovakia, since visas had been sought by representatives of those countries. On the second day of the workshop, it became apparent that the Soviets would not attend. To most contemporary observers the lesson was clear: cooperation in space matters was a political consideration that could be understood only in the broader context of East-West relations. Nineteen sixty-one, the fifth year of the space age and NASA's third, had not been a good year for space cooperation. Indeed, as one commentator has reflected: "For all the style and excitement of the new team, and all the great promise, 1961 was a terrible year for the Kennedy Administration." International tensions would not lessen during 1962, but the opportunity for cooperation in space would seem more real....

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Curator: Kim Dismukes
Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty