Ballistic Missiles: Springboard to Space

March 1, 1958
“We have led our generation to the threshold of space—the road to the stars is now open.” — Walter Dornberger

The quote at the top of this page was written by Dr. Dornberger in his book V-2, referring to the first successful flight of a V-2 missile from the German facility which he commanded at Peenemunde. Implicit in these words is the recognition that the ballistic rocket had unlocked the key to successful exploration of space. Recent events – the Russian Sputniks and the American Explorer – have driven this fact home. Fortunately, in its space endeavors, this nation is in a position to call upon the resources of the mightiest single military project the country has ever known, exceeding in magnitude even the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb.

This is the Air Forces’ ballistic missile program, a logical springboard into space. Ballistic missiles can be considered the first true space weapons, since they are outside the atmosphere for some ninety percent of an intercontinental flight. As an introduction to our discussion of the USAF ballistic missile program we could find no better source than its boss, Maj. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, who runs the show from his position as Commander of the Ballistic Missile Division of the Air Research and Development Command.

The following excerpt is from an address by General Schriever; made long before the various satellites – Russian and American – had sullied the virgin reaches of outer space. The occasion was an Astronautics Symposium, jointly sponsored by the USAF Office of Scientific Research and Convair at San Diego, Calif., in February of last year. We think it remains the best explanation of the important implications of the USAF ballistic missile program in the US conquest of space and serves as a fitting introduction to our examination of the program in its historical, developmental, and operational context.— The Editors.

How have the ICBM and IRBM programs contributed to the conquest of space? They have contributed in a very concrete sense from the standpoint of hardware that has been developed or is being developed for this program. A tremendous industrial capability is being built up and production know-how is being established in many new areas. These airframe, propulsion, and guidance subsystems development and the data, which will become available as ballistic missile test flights are made, will make possible a whole gamut of follow-on projects.

Take, for example, the propulsive unit. The same propulsive unit that boosts a heavy nose-cone warhead to 25,000 ft/sec, could boost a somewhat lighter body to the escape velocity of 35,000 ft/sec or to an orbital path around the Earth. Using the same number of stages, the ratio of thrust to weight would be greater by using a lighter payload, and higher accelerations and velocities could be reached before burnout. Or with our present state of knowledge, it would be relatively easy to add another stage. We have already done that successfully on our reentry test vehicle, the X-17. The same guidance system that enables the warhead of a ballistic missile to reach its target within a permissible accuracy would also be sufficiently accurate to hit a target much smaller than the moon. Or, if we are talking about circular orbits around the Earth, errors in guidance could be easily observed over a period of time and corrected, and the satellite kept on an accurate orbit. And, of course, these same propulsive and guidance components could also be used for surface-to-surface transport vehicles of various sorts to experimentally carry mail or strategic military materiel to critical sites. The same applies to structural advances of the ICBM that have brought us to new heights in the ratio of total weight to structural weight. I would be willing to venture a guess that ninety percent of the unmanned follow-on projects that one cold visualize for the future can be undertaken with propulsive guidance, and structural techniques, presently under development in the Air Force ballistic missile program.

It is reasonable to expect that it will not be too difficult to extend these present developments to surface-to-surface transport of personnel by rocket propulsion, or space travel of personnel at some time in the future. However, before man can be committed to space vehicles, a tremendous amount of human factors research will be necessary…. Granted this research, there are other problems as well. A specific example of the kind of advanced development probably necessary for manned spaceflight to distant planets is sustained thrust through space. This will permit us to reach higher velocities and cut down the flight time, which would otherwise be impractically long for a human passenger even to the closest planets. Such long sustained thrust, at a small enough magnitude level to be tolerable to a man, requires a type of propulsion technique that is not well suited to takeoff thrust and general ICBM requirements. The successful achievement of the required propulsion system is clearly indicated by today’s science, but it has to be developed a program beyond the current ICBM program.

Space technology, probably for some decades, will not revolve primarily around apparatus for controlled movement of vehicles from one point to another in empty space. Perhaps not only initially but for all time, space technology will include as its most characteristic problem the need for going from the surface of one terrestrial body to another with successful passage through the atmosphere of each. The first big problems, then, are how to bring a substantial mass up to empty space with velocity sufficient to continue interbody space travel, with adequate precision in the velocity vector control, and how to bring it back through an atmosphere without disintegration. In each of these respects, if one for the moment bypasses human cargo ambitions, the ICBM is attaining the necessary capability and, even for manned flight, the ICBM flight-test program will provide experimental data of direct interest.

Granted then that the ICBM program is a major pioneering and foundation step for space technology, what appears to be a logical future program? The answer is not easy. It is very difficult to make a firm prognosis on military need during a twenty-year period for something as new and revolutionary as ballistic missiles, Earth satellites, and space vehicles. We are somewhat in the same position today as were military planners at the close of the First World War when they were trying to anticipate the employment of aircraft in future wars. Consequently, my prognoses will go from those which are reasonably firm to those, which might be considered visionary. Fortunately, there is a considerable overlap between the advances in the state of the art which are required for the firm needs and those now considered visionary.

First, we should consider those changes in the operational and technical characteristics of our long-range ballistic missiles to make them superior, reliable weapons. Almost any military planner would agree that if we can increase the range, increase the payload, reduce the gross weight, increase the accuracy, reduce the cost, or simplify the operational procedures, we will have made a worthwhile contribution. Now, in order to achieve any or all of thee objectives, it will be necessary to advance the sate of the propulsion art, the structures art, or the guidance art, or perhaps all three. When these advances are made, they will be applicable also to the more visionary projects. The basic science underlying these engineering arts has been well surveyed in the past two years. It tells us that considerable advance is possible on all fronts.

A word is necessary on the relationship between military need and scientific feasibility in space technology. In the long haul our safety as a nation may depend upon our achieving “space superiority.” Several decades from now the important battles may not be sea battles or air battles, but space battles, and we should be spending a certain fraction of our national resources to ensure that we do not lag in obtaining space supremacy. Besides the direct military importance of space, our prestige as would leaders might well dictate that we undertake lunar expeditions and even interplanetary flight when the appropriate technological advances have been made and the time is ripe. Thus, it is indeed fortunate that the technology advances required in support of military objectives can, in large part, directly support these more speculative space ventures….

Where does all this lead? My thought is that the evolution of space vehicles will be a gradual step-by-step process, with the first step beyond ballistic missiles being the unmanned, artificial Earth satellite and then perhaps unmanned exploratory flights to the moon or Mars. These first flights would no doubt be research vehicles to gather scientific data and to accumulate information on pace environmental conditions for future design use. The information gathered form these flights will supplement the information gathered from ballistic missile test flights. Many of the things that we can learn from satellites will lead not only to a better understanding of conditions to be encountered in space, but will lead to a better understanding of our own planet. Weather reconnaissance can be accomplished in a more effective manner. This will lead to a better understanding of the movements of polar air masses and the courses of jet streams and will permit improved long-range weather forecasts and improved aircraft and missile operations. A better understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field will lead to better radio communications, more reliable navigation instruments, and perhaps new ideas for propulsive devices. Refined data on the Earth’s gravitational effects will lead to improved guidance. Much remains to be known about cosmic rays. Unmanned satellites will be the means for obtaining this information.

I have described some of the benefits to be derived from our early ventures into space, and the contributions the ICBM program is making in this direction.

Payload capability of a future satellite could be in the order of hundreds or even a thousand pounds. Such payload would permit more instrumentation and many varied types of space experiments.

Vehicles with additional complications could be made to have the ability to return intact from space. However, without fundamental extension the environment during spaceflight would not be suitable for a human passenger. Therefore, manned spaceflight cannot be attempted with such apparatus, but many of the associated physiological questions can be answered by experiments with animals. We may, in fact, be able to fill nearly all the gaps in our knowledge which are now holding back the design of manned spacecraft.

Given vehicles with these capabilities, still another avenue for a scientific achievement is immediately opened – for with additional rocket thrust a lunar research vehicle is highly possible. In view of the small additional cost of such an experiment, it seems certain that in the not too distant future it will be tried.

The ICBM program, through the technology it is fostering, the facilities that have been established, the industrial teams being developed, and the vehicles themselves, is providing the key to the further development of spaceflight. Many fascinating new horizons are sure to open within the next decade as a direct result.

There is ample precedent in history for the utilization of military capability to explore unknown regions. Over the centuries the great exploration of this planet have been conducted by military men, usually with no precise idea of what the ultimate value of their discoveries might be – either in a military or an economic sense. But the exploring was done, and the value usually followed.

Columbus discovered America as an admiral in the service of Spain. Magellan and Sir Francis Drake were military men. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which opened the West, was a military enterprise. Likewise Admiral Byrd’s exploits at both Poles.

So it is quite fitting that the Air Force should be interested in furthering the knowledge of its new medium, just as did the Army and Navy in their in the past. It has been estimated that during the next five to seven years, American exploration in space must be based on ICBM technology. Hence this section will be devoted to the ICBM program, with charts beginning on Page 76, a chronology of ICBM milestones on page 80, and a text beginning on page 84.—The Editors