By Charles Matthews

Thursday, July 1, 2010

9. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 207-228

Book IV: Starting a Race, 34. The Tea Pot Committee; 35. Getting Started; 36. "Okay, Bennie, It's a Deal"
Gardner and Ramo had lived in the same apartment house in Schenectady in 1937 when Gardner was a student engineer at GE, and he knew about Ramo and Wooldridge because his company, Hycon Manufacturing, had been located nearby in Pasadena. So they came to mind when Gardner was looking for companies to work on the ICBM. Ramo suggested that Gardner needed a committee of top scientists to study the project and confirm to the brass that it was do-able. Von Neumann agreed to head the committee.

Meanwhile, Ramo and Wooldridge were looking to break away from Howard Hughes, who although he didn't interfere with their operation of Hughes Aircraft, had the potential to give them trouble. He refused to be fingerprinted, for one thing, which meant that he couldn't get a security clearance. So Ramo and Wooldridge left Hughes in September 1953 to start a computer and electronics firm called the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. They secured financial backing from Thompson Products, which made automotive and aircraft products, and secured their financial backing. In 1958, Ramo-Wooldridge merged with Thompson and became Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, which was abbreviated to TRW Inc. in 1965. Initially aiming at the civilian rather than the military market, Ramo and Wooldridge were persuaded by Gardner to take on the ICBM project, which Schriever agreed to fund from his budget at the Development Planning Office.

Von Neumann's committee, which also included Clark Millikan, Charles Lauritsen, Jerome Wiesner and George Kistiakowsky, became known as the Tea Pot Committee -- a code name for use on the telephone. They examined the three long-range strategic missile projects the Air Force had under development and settled on the Atlas project, an intercontinental ballistic missile project based on improving the German V-2 that was directed by engineer Charlie Bossart. In February 1954 the committee issued a report certifying the feasibility of the ICBM and suggesting that one could be produced by 1960-61 and enough to be a deterrent threat to the Soviet Union could be in the field by 1962-63. They also suggested that current work on the Atlas by Convair be stopped and a new development group be put in charge of the entire project.

The report also played on the fear that the Soviet Union would be the first to develop an ICBM, although there was no evidence at all on what the Soviets were up to where missile work was concerned. The fear of a "missile gap" became a political football that Kennedy used to win the election in 1960. In fact, the Politburo in 1953 had decided on a strategy based on long-range missiles rather than the long-range bombers of SAC. And the first medium-range ballistic missile, with an 800-mile range, had been tested in March 1953. "The United States was indeed caught in a missile race, a strategic competition of profound importance of which it was quite unaware, and in which it was behind." Von Neumann's Russophobia had served him well.

But the task was now to convince what Gardner called "those narrow-gauged bastards in the Pentagon" that they needed a crash program to develop an ICBM. With the help of Schriever and Vince Ford, Gardner drafted a memo outlining a plan to have two launching sites and four missiles ready by June 1958 and 20 sites stockpiled with 100 missiles by June 1960. He proposed forming a division within the Air Research and Development Command to achieve this task. He also specified that Ramo-Wooldridge be hired to provide the scientific and technological expertise, and estimated that the five-year cost would be $1.545 billion -- "an enticingly reasonable figure that would prove to be a gross underestimate."

Interservice rivalry still needed to be dealt with. The Army had its own team of rocket men, headed by Wernher von Braun, at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. And there was intraservice rivalry too: Curtis LeMay, who opposed any project that would threaten to take money away from his bombers. Gardner formed a new Scientific Advisory Committee with many of the Tea Pot Committee members remaining, still under the leadership of von Neumann, with additions such as Norris Bradbury, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, and Charles Lindbergh. Final approval for Gardner's proposal came in June 1954, one month after Gardner had asked Schriever to direct the project.
"I'll take the job," Schriever said, speaking slowly so that each word came through distinctly, "provided I can run it -- completely run it -- without any interference from those nitpicking sons of bitches in the Pentagon."

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