By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

14. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 350-371

Book VI: Building the Unstoppable, 55. The Reluctant Rescuer; 56. Thor vs. Jupiter; 57. Sputnik; 58. Thor Readies for Europe
Schriever asked Richard Jacobson, the chief of test facilities and operations, to take over the troubled Thor program. But when Jacobson declined, Schriever persisted, pointing out that the three failed launches were the result of the way the missiles were tested, and that Jacobson had the expertise to see that the mistakes were eliminated. So Jacobson agreed to become "acting" program director while Schriever found a new role for Ed Hall, the current program director. He tightened up all the launch procedures, and in August 1957 Thor 104 made it off the launch pad and flew for ninety-six seconds before exploding. In September, Thor 105 succeeded in releasing its payload, which flew on for 1,495 miles before splashing down in the Caribbean. And in October, Thor 106's warhead went the required 1,725 miles.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower had called for a review of both the Thor and the Jupiter projects, with an intention to shut one of them down. Schriever argued that Thor had the advantage because its missiles were being produced at Douglas, which was ready to gear up for full production, whereas the Jupiter missiles were still being made one by one at Redstone. Jupiter also lacked ground support and storage, which could also cause delay in production. The Army countered that Jupiter's reentry vehicle -- the warhead -- was lighter than Thor's and could therefore fly farther. But Mettler managed to lighten the reentry vehicle, which was the same one designed for the ICBM, and Thor 107's traveled 3,043 miles to splashdown. In the end, the competition was called off and both programs remained active.

One reason for the continued competition may have been the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. It was a massive public relations coup for the Soviet Union, putting Eisenhower into a political hot seat. As Sheehan comments,
Dwight Eisenhower was the last American president to believe that military spending which was not absolutely necessary was money wasted and that a well-founded economy was as important to the security of the country as armed might.
Eisenhower's achievements during World War II had made people confident in his military leadership, but Sputnik caused people to doubt if enough was being done to win the rocket race. The Soviets followed with Sputnik 2, a 1,120-pound satellite carrying a dog named Laika, on November 3, 1957, the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader, called for hearings by the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. "The leadoff witness at the Johnson hearings was that genius of scaremongering Dr. Edward Teller." It was not until January 31, 1958, after an embarrassing failure by the Navy to launch a satellite in December, that Wernher von Braun's team used Juno I to send Explorer I, which at eighteen pounds was lighter than either Sputnik, into orbit.

Schriever had been struggling with steady cuts in his budget until Sputnik and the Johnson hearings. Now he was getting ready to deploy Thor missiles in England according to an agreement signed with the British in January 1957. (Jupiters were being sent to Turkey and Italy.) And the ICBM program was still on track. Jacobson had been working on developing a series of tracking stations along the Atlantic range for testing the Atlas and Titan missiles, and the Los Alamos Laboratory had provided a simulated bomb to be placed in the reentry vehicle. Tests were being made of the inertial guidance system, which depended on vacuum tubes in the primitive computer. Thor 112 had to be blown up because it lost stability during its test in December 1957, but Thor 113 was a perfect flight whose payload landed directly on target. After more test launches in July and August 1958, Thor was deemed ready to be deployed in England, and the first missile was sent to its British launch site at the end of August.

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