By Charles Matthews

Thursday, July 8, 2010

16. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 406-439

Book VI: Building the Unstoppable, 66. A Victory Despite the Bugs; 67. Minuteman: Ed Hall's Triumph; 68. "You Couldn't Keep Him in That Job". Book VII: A Spy in Orbit and a Game of Chance, 69. A Would-Be Spy in the Sky Goes Awry; 70. Mathison Snatches the Prize; 71. Discoverer Goes "Black" into Corona; 72. A Hare-Brained Scheme
After the deployment of Atlas D at Vandenberg, there was a year's learning curve for the SAC launch crews. Maj. Benjamin Bellis was put in charge of straightening things out, which he did by insisting on full documentation of every modification that engineers made to the missiles, particularly if they were successful, "because you know you got it right but you can't repeat it," Bellis observed. "It drives you wild." Meanwhile, work was proceeding on the F series, the last of the Atlas models and the first to be put in underground silos. By December 1962, there were 132 Atlas missiles ready to be used against the Soviet Union. And the Titan, originally a fallback missile in case Atlas didn't work, had added another 54 missiles to the arsenal.

Now attention turned to "the ultimate in ICBMs," the Minuteman. Ed Hall had been angry at being shoved aside on Atlas and requested a transfer, but instead Schriever put him in charge of the Minuteman project, which was the creation of a solid-fueled ICBM that would have an advantage over the liquid-fueled Atlas and Jupiter. It could be much smaller, for one thing, as long as the bomb it would carry could be sized down. And it could be launched more quickly than the liquid-fueled rockets, which took fifteen minutes to fuel. Minuteman could be launched instantly. Hall managed to win over even Curtis LeMay by creating a vision of hundred of Minuteman that could be launched simultaneously:
Hall got the impression that what appealed most to LeMay was the massiveness of the scheme. The thought of hundreds and hundreds of rockets roaring out of silos was LeMay's vision of how to frighten the Russians and then to reduce the Soviet Union to cinders if it did come to nuclear war. 
Approval of "what would probably be the biggest rocket program the Air Force would ever undertake" was granted in February 1958. But Schriever disappointed Hall once again by taking the project out of his hands. Hall was so bitter that he left the Air Force and went to work as an engineer at United Aircraft Corp. A young colonel named Samuel Phillips, who had worked on the Thor installations in Britain, was put in charge of Minuteman. The first test of the missile, in February 1961, was a complete success that earned Philllips a promotion to brigadier general at the age of 40. He went on to run the Apollo moon landing program on loan to NASA.
The creation of Minuteman now put the United States so far ahead in the strategic missile competition that the Soviet Union was confronted not with a gap but with a chasm." It would be five years before the Soviets acquired a solid-fueled missile.... The advent of Minuteman put an end to the fear of a nuclear Pearl Harbor that had haunted Eisenhower.... And even if by some miracle the Soviets managed to hit first with everything they had, there wuld still be plenty of Minutemen intact in their steel and concrete shelters to doom Russia. No Soviet statesman with a vestige of sanity could risk a surprise attack.
But Schriever still had work to do, this time on spy satellites. He had been put in charge of the Air Force's satellite program in 1955, partly because he was also the one in charge of the rockets that would put the satellites into orbit. Nothing much got done on them, largely because of Eisenhower's budget concerns, until Sputnik was launched in 1957. Eisenhower authorized creation of a spy satellite in February 1958, with the Air Force in charge of development but the CIA in charge of the finished product, an arrangement parallel with the one that had been successfully used on the U-2 spy plane. Of course, Schriever would take the blame for any failures.

The project was announced as a scientific and medical one called Discoverer, to test the effect of space on the items "from human bone marrow to corn seedlings" that would be carried into orbit and then retrieved. But the CIA called it Corona, and the most important things to be sent up would be cameras and film. Schriever put "Moose" Mathison in charge of satellite control, which was first housed in a motel in Palo Alto and then in a room at Lockheed in Sunnyvale. The equipment used to control the satellites was primitive -- there were no minicomputers or solar panels, and the control system was a strip of plastic tape with holes punched in it that was hooked up to an electric timer.

The first launch attempt, in January 1959 from Vandenberg, was a disaster that the crew labeled "Discoverer 0." But the Discoverer I launch went fine, sending the Agena rocket into orbit, though with an attempt to eject and recover a capsule. Discoverer II also launched well, but the control station in Hawaii lost track of the rocket. The capsule was supposed to be ejected and recovered in the Pacific northwest of Hawaii, but there was no way to control the satellite after radio connection was lost. It was calculated that, left on its own, the capsule would  land on a Norwegian island near the Arctic Circle. Mathison flew to the island, whose governor reported that people had seen the capsule, attached to a parachute, descend. But there was nothing at the site except tracks in the snow leading to a coal mine, a concession that belonged to the Soviet Union. Mathison was convinced that the Russians had the capsule, but Schriever messaged, "Tell Moose to stay out of Soviet territory." The capsule, which had no military value, was never found.

A year and a half followed with little success and increasing complaints from Eisenhower to Schriever and to Richard Bissell, the CIA man put in charge of Discoverer/Corona. Schriever was about to dismiss Mathison from the project until Discoverer XIII was launched in August 1960. When he learned that the orbit was perfect, Mathison flew to Hawaii and recovered the capsule, which contained only instruments and an American flag. He flew back with the capsule to Andrews Air Force Base, where Schriever was waiting. The capsule was taken to the White House where the flag was removed and presented to Eisenhower. Then the capsule was displayed to Sen. Richard Russell, the chairman of the Armed Services committee, and Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader before being sent on a tour of the United States and eventually winding up in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

In fact, Mathison had made an end run around the CIA, which was supposed to pick up the capsule from the Navy ship that retrieved it, and fly it to Rochester, New York. It was meant to be a dress rehearsal for the top-secret delivery to Eastman Kodak of the film capsules that would eventually be placed in the capsule. The CIA was furious, and accused Mathison of a "unique mix of creative anarchy and casual effrontery." (Mathison had even packed a service pistol to intimidate the captain of the ship if he put up any resistance to his taking the capsule.) Mathison was just doing what Schriever, who had learned the value of publicity, wanted him to do. 

The next launch was the real thing, and this time Mathison left retrieval up to the CIA. Discoverer/Corona XIV went into orbit eight days later, carrying a panoramic camera developed by Itek, a company founded by Richard Leghorn, a colonel in the Air Force reserve. Launch, orbit and recovery were perfect, and the resulting photographs of the Soviet Union were deemed "terrific, stupendous." Eisenhower was pleased, of course, but he also insisted that the pictures be kept secret, for fear that Khrushchev would find a way of retaliating. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was briefed on the spying, and as a result stopped talking about the "missile gap," though as Sheehan notes, "he did not stop his supporters from talking about it, and Nixon suffered the consequences on election day." Discoverer was now Corona, a project that remained secret as its successors have done.

As for Minuteman, the first ten missiles were placed in silos in October 1962 -- the same month that Khrushchev "brought the United States and the Soviet Union the closest they were ever to come to nuclear war." When Leonid Brezhnev took power from Khrushchev two years later, he cited the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of Khrushchev's "harebrained scheming." Khrushchev had been most irked by the presence of missiles in Turkey, the closest to the Soviet Union, and decided that sending IRBMs to Cuba would test the United States' resolve. The Soviet R-12 missiles in Cuba would threaten Eastern cities as far north as New York, and as far west as Dallas and Oklahoma City. Both Khrushchev's friend and adviser Anastas Mikoyan and his foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, advised against it. Khrushchev failed to realize that "Americans regarded the Caribbean as the Romans had regarded the Mediterranean. It was Mare Nostrum, Our Sea." And that "No American president could withstand the political firestorm that would ensue if he acquiesced in the positioning of Russian nuclear missiles on" Cuba. 

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