Commentary Magazine

The Heavens and the Earth, by Walter McDougall

Technology & the Technocrats

The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age.
by Walter Mcdougall.
Basic Books. 576 pp. $25.95.

The Reagan administration has announced that during the next five years it will conduct research into the technology of anti-missile weapons. During that time, it will strictly refrain from developing such weapons. If the researchers' standards are met, another five-to-seven-year period will be devoted to “development.” Only after the full cycle of research, development, testing, and evaluation is completed will the U.S. decide the fundamental question of whether or not we intend to protect ourselves against ballistic missiles.

This approach to things, which has become the rule in the U.S. government, was once summed up by Colin Gray as follows: “What we want to do in space is affected greatly by our judgments as to what is technologically possible.” In real life, however, things work the other way around. What we find technically feasible in space, or anywhere else, depends for the most part on what we choose to do. The willing make molehills out of mountains, or find ways around them; the unwilling do the opposite.

Walter McDougall's “political history” shows how the missiles and satellites that the U.S. and the Soviet Union possess today are less an expression of how far each country has been able to push the state of the art than of the priorities set by those whom each system has placed in positions of responsibility. Technology, McDougall's evidence demonstrates, is subordinate to political choice, which can hold it back or call it forth. This book, true to its title as a political history, chronicles the struggles over the choices made on each side; it is important to understand the debates of a generation ago because today's debates cover nearly the same ground, although with arguments not nearly so thoughtful.

Before we examine the substance of McDougall's history, however, we should glance at the thesis with which he sews it together. The government, McDougall argues, must assume responsibility for technical and scientific progress if there are to be spectacular achievements and even if there is to be a national defense. But this assumption of responsibility carries a cost in terms of freedom which we may not wish to pay. Thus, in the period before World War II, German and Soviet rocketry, patronized by totalitarian regimes, outshone Robert God-dard's private brilliance in the New Mexico desert. Then the war and its aftermath led the U.S. to begin force-feeding scientific progress, but with deep and, in McDougall's view justifiable, misgivings. With evident sympathy he recounts President Eisenhower's dogged, foredoomed effort to restrain the federal government's involvement in scientific-technical matters even as the cold war, and the prospect of space flight, caused that involvement to burgeon.

In the aftermath of Sputnik, we as a society agreed to mobilize vast resources behind the space program and, therefore, to increase the size and intrusiveness of the U.S. government in more areas than one. As McDougall writes, “Some pundits exaggerated the dangers of the Soviet satellite . . . in order to marshal support for their own agendas.” The jump in federal spending for welfare, for example, was justified in order to develop the nation's “human resources.” Once this became a legitimate federal goal, it could be pursued in ways wholly unrelated to space. Thus, when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to help bright students become engineers, linguists, and so forth, it added money for students not going to college. “All that was needed,” McDougall notes, “was a political synthesis of the cold-war posture and the progressive social posture and leaders willing and able to sell the synthesis. . ..” Quite so.

But where does this argument take us? Although his book abounds with hints that “technocracy” leads inexorably to Soviet sharagas and Nazi slave-labor camps, McDougall does not come out and say explicitly that a liberal society competing for high-tech weapons with a totalitarian regime is condemned to become like it. Nor does he discuss the possible ways in which free societies can minimize the chances of becoming more like their totalitarian enemies even as they “force-feed” the technology they need for their defense. Instead, and no doubt fortunately for the reader, he fully occupies himself with an excellent account of the fascinating events that have brought us to our current pass.

In the light of McDougall's account one can see why the Soviet Union has become the only country in the world that possesses missiles with the combination of power and accuracy to destroy enemy missiles in their silos, and why a variety of anti-missile devices are now coming off Soviet production lines while the U.S. has formally put off for another decade any decision about producing such devices. The reason is that on balance, and with the exception of the moon program, any shortcomings Soviet engineers possess in these fields have been more than offset by the superior ability of Soviet leaders to focus technical innovation.

“The rocket teams of both superpowers,” McDougall writes, “protested that they could have launched a satellite years earlier if left to do so without military or political interference. But the genius of the engineers was only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.” The U.S., although it got nearly all of Nazi Germany's rocket team, plus all of its records and almost all of its equipment, nevertheless lost the race for the first intercontinental ballistic missile as well as for the first earth satellite because its leaders were not particularly interested in winning that race. Later, when the United States exploited its technical superiority to go to the moon, it was because American politicians chose to respond in this particular way to popular pressure for achievements in space. The very same choice, however, led to a virtual shutdown of American efforts to use space to prepare for fighting, surviving, or winning wars.

Soviet leaders, by contrast, knew what they wanted from their rocketeers, and why they wanted it, long before the latter could deliver. The few members of Wernher von Braun's rocket team who had fallen into Stalin's hands were interested in space travel, as were, indeed, their colleagues who had wound up in the United States. But the Soviet leadership wanted missiles, and did not want to hear of space travel. Before it possessed the atomic bomb, McDougall writes, and long before it knew the bomb could be made small enough and powerful enough to be used as a warhead on a missile, the Politburo had decided to build intercontinental rockets. Research was fine, Stalin said, but the Soviet Union needed intercontinental strike systems as quickly as possible.

As for the complex leadership of the United States, it was cool not just to space travel but to missiles as well. Among the many technical advantages then enjoyed by the United States was a superior ability to fabricate rocket nozzles resistant to high heat. This allowed von Braun's team in Huntsville, Alabama to build bigger and more efficient engines than could be built in the Soviet Union. But many years would pass before von Braun received the authorization and the money to build those engines. Meanwhile, Soviet engineers, who did not have the metals for big, efficient engines, did have a mandate to deliver a product. So they got around the technical problem by clustering many relatively inefficient engines. The result was the world's first intercontinental rocket, the rocket that launched Sputnik and that is still in use today as the world's most prolific space-launch vehicle.


In the U.S., no military service or unit—indeed, no one—was assigned the responsibility for building long-range rockets. Rocketry was divided into many technology programs, none with a mission or a deadline. The services, however, were jealous enough to fight for the option to build such rockets. They did not intend to exercise those options, because to do so would have taken money out of current programs, but each wanted to protect itself against the possibility that some time in the future any of the others would have a monopoly on a new mission and new budgets.

Absence of purpose engendered bad technical judgments. Vannevar Bush, the foremost expert on military research and development, had declared in 1945 that no one knew how to build an ICBM and that one would not be built for a long time to come. By 1949, he could no longer rule out the possibility that some might be built, but he thought the cost would be “astronomical.” Bush and a host of others were satisfied that anything reentering the atmosphere after an intercontinental ballistic flight would be heated by friction to temperatures higher than any material known to man could withstand. He was right, and, in a way, he is still right. But engineers who started rather than stopped with that fact have been able to get around it in two interesting ways: with materials whose surfaces ablate, or peel off, as they burn, cooling the rest, and with materials that do not withstand but dissipate heat (as in the tiles of the space shuttle).

The truth is that the research-and-development establishment was literally not interested in building ICBM's, and ridiculed those who did. Thus, Vannevar Bush spoke for thousands of bright but smug people:

Some eminent military men, exhilarated perhaps by a short immersion in matters scientific, have publicly asserted that we are [interested in high-trajectory guided missiles spanning thousands of miles]. We have been regaled by scary articles . . . we even have the exposition of missiles fired so fast that they leave the earth and proceed around it indefinitely as satellites, like the moon, for some vaguely specified military purposes.

This in 1949, when the Army's rocket team was sitting on reasonably concrete plans and on basic technology nearly identical to those used for U.S. ICBM's and satellites almost a decade later.


At about the same time, however, Americans began to learn that what our “best and brighest” were saying could not or at least should not be done was in fact being done on the Russian steppes. Prominent outsiders, notably then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Hanson Baldwin, the military correspondent of the New York Times, charged the government with ignorance, confusion, and a lack of policy. In 1950, as a response, President Truman appointed the president of the Chrysler Corporation as his special adviser in this field. Mistaking this as a decision, rather than as a move to defuse the pressure for making a decision, the press touted the birth of a new era of push-button warfare, and the President's new adviser as its czar.

Of course, he was no such thing. He appointed a blue-ribbon technical panel that recommended a long-term research-and-development program. The panel also defined the program's goals: a rocket able to carry a 10,000-pound payload 5,000 miles with an accuracy of 0.01 degrees. Until we could build that, the government would not consider whether to build missiles. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, we would build nothing.

This filibuster-by-technical-definition lasted almost four years until news of the Soviet H-bomb—and of Soviet missile tests—caused a new panel to be appointed. The new panel found that a rocket carrying one-third the payload with one-half the accuracy that had been previously specified—something we had known how to build for some years—would be worthy of being called an ICBM after all. Armed with this new report, a junior civilian at the Pentagon made a fuss about unrealistic technical requirements, and finally, in 1954, a special organization was created within the Air Force specifically to produce an ICBM. The Soviets were far ahead.


The story of the race for the first satellite is not very different. The Eisenhower administration became interested in orbiting a satellite only in the context of the International Geophysical Year. Although the Soviets had made no secret of their thrust toward space, and although many American leaders realized that both military advantage and prestige were at stake, the administration worried about the possible disapproval of international opinion, and even of the Soviet Union itself, if America were to launch satellites over other countries without permission. Even after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 von Braun pleaded in vain with the Secretary of Defense, Neil H. McElroy:

We have the hardware on the shelf. For God's sake, turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up a satellite in sixty days, Mr. McElroy! Just give us the green light and sixty days!

But the green light did not flash until the administration had been further embarrassed by Soviet successes, and had begun a slide in public-opinion polls that ultimately carried the Republicans out of the White House.

Why did the government let itself be ruled by the inertia of the military bureaucracy and the politically faint-hearted? McDougall cites Eisenhower's aversion to technocracy, his concern for a balanced budget, and his unwillingness to take funds from existing military programs. But surely there was another factor, one which McDougall alludes to elsewhere when he describes U.S. policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons in the early postwar period as “striking for its tentativeness, confusion, and quest for the least drastic option.”

The period at the end of the Eisenhower and at the beginning of the Kennedy administration is the exception that proves the rule. Two Secretaries of Defense, Thomas S. Gates, Jr. and Robert S. McNamara (and the latter only until 1963), believed that by targeting Soviet airfields and missiles, and by building good defenses against both bombers and missiles, the U.S. could deter war and, if it came, win it while minimizing American casualties.

The strategic triad on which, with only a few changes, the U.S. still relies today—1,000 Minuteman missiles, Poseidon submarines, and B-52's—was ordered in that period. As McDougall notes, no sooner had McNamara ordered it than he saw it would have to undergo constant alteration to match changes in the target base (e.g., Soviet hardened silos). Defensive weapons, too, would have to be constantly renewed. Thus, for a variety of reasons, the establishment that McNamara created and which still endures in the Pentagon decided that we had reached a technological plateau, and that our forces would be frozen. As a result, by 1967, according to the standards McNamara had established in 1963 for judging the efficacy of American forces, the United States was underarmed. But by then the standard had changed.


The military forces, the military strategy, and the space program we have inherited from the 1960's all rest on the premise that outer space will remain a sanctuary through which the city-killing missiles of both sides will be able to fly, as well as the satellites that reassure both sides that the scheme is still in place. This orthodoxy is embodied in hardware and in a technical-managerial elite that rules both in the Pentagon and in the aerospace companies, and that has frozen the mental habits of senior officials concerning what might or might not be useful in missiles and space equipment. This in turn has led to an unwillingness to tackle new technical tasks, sooner or later rationalized by the judgment that those tasks are impossible. Reports that the Soviets have either solved or circumvented certain problems are similarly rationalized away as untrue or, if true, meaningless.

The actual history of the 1970's and 80's, however, belies this orthodoxy. The Soviets have built precisely the kinds of missile-killing offensive missiles that our “deal” with them sought to prevent, that our best and brightest judged so terribly difficult to build, and that our intelligence community denied for over a decade the Soviets were building. This force carries, at present, 6,000 missile-killing warheads. We plan nothing comparable—ever.

The Soviets have also built a ground-based anti-ballistic missile system much like the one both superpowers supposedly forswore in the ABM Treaty of 1972. The technology in the Soviets' six Pechora-class battle-management radars, in the Flat Twin engagement radars (in full production), and in the SH-4 and SH-8 interceptors (in full production) is much superior to that in the systems the U.S. gave up in 1972. The Soviets are also producing a surface-to-air missile system that defends lightly attacked targets—i.e., the vast majority of targets—against ballistic warheads. The Soviet Union is almost certain to place a high-energy laser in space within the next two years.


None of this is better than what we could build today. How, then, do U.S. officials justify the decision not to build the kinds of counter-force missiles, ground-based antimissile devices, and first-generation space-based lasers that the Soviets are building?

Only a minority of officials explicitly adhere to the orthodoxy, or claim that we should not imitate the Soviets in their determination to waste money. Most pretend they are not really against the new weapons, but are simply waiting for the technology to mature. Behind a screen of technical and pseudo-technical controversies, which they declare beyond their own competence to adjudicate, they hide (often from themselves) the need to make hard political and strategic choices.

Thus, our government has reacted to the prospect of anti-missile defenses the way it reacted in 1950 to the prospect of ballistic missiles—only more so. The President has appointed commissions to study strategic forces and anti-missile defenses. These commissions have been made up of figures whose interests are contrary to the course of action they have been asked to study. The commissions have also defined the job that the new weapons must do by establishing requirements for them that current technology cannot meet.

For example, the Fletcher Panel stipulated that to be considered an acceptable anti-missile weapon, a laser device must place upon its target 100,000 joules of radiant energy per square centimeter. Clearly not good enough according to this yardstick are currently producible lasers that can place 7,000 joules per square centimeter at a distance of 1,000 kilometers. Never mind the fact that the missiles now in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals are likely to blow up if they receive considerably less than one-seventh that amount of radiation. Never mind that no one has ever designed, much less built, a missile to the Fletcher Panel's specifications. The list of such disqualifications-by-definition is very long.

In the artificial world of military research-and-development management, just as in the artificial world of arms control, a weapon may be and yet not be. The Soviet Union's SA-12 is in fact a potent anti-missile device, but since it does not fit into the categories of the ABM Treaty, or into the category of weapons the U.S. is considering, American officials who live by those categories do not regard it as an ABM weapon, even as they concede its ability to kill warheads. The Pentagon publication Soviet Military Power calls the Soviet Union's forthcoming space laser weapon an anti-satellite device. It does not ask how much destructive energy this “anti-satellite” device could place on a ballistic missile x kilometers away, or what effect on our retaliatory abilities the Soviets could achieve by launching a dozen such “anti-satellite” devices in a crisis.

Thus do the masters of technology declare themselves the humble servants of the technocrats. In confronting today's evasions of responsibility, it is useful to know that similar things have happened before. The Heavens and the Earth reveals that a generation ago, the pressure of events forced high officials to take on responsibilities they would rather not have exercised. McDougall's portraits of the men who at that time forced the bureaucracy's hand leaves one wondering whether today, as then, there may be individuals in public life ambitious enough actually to employ their offices to accomplish great things.

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