The Other Space Race: Eisenhower and the Quest for Aerospace Security

  • Published

The Other Space Race: Eisenhower and the Quest for Aerospace Security by Nicholas Michael Sambaluk. Naval Institute Press, 2015, 352 pp.

On 4 October 1957 (Eastern Standard Time), the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, the first man-made satellite, into orbit. It is an understatement to say that in the years since 1957, much has been written about the Sputnik-1 launch, its historical significance as one of humanity’s premiere scientific achievements, its effects on the American psyche, and its contribution to the 1960s “space race.” Often overlooked in this extensive literature, however, is the fact that for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and key policy makers in his administration, Sputnik-1 was hardly the apocalyptic bolt from the blue it was portrayed to be by the press, Eisenhower’s political opponents, and key segments of the US military. Behind the scenes, Eisenhower had developed a well-thought-out space policy emphasizing the free overflight of space objects (a critical legal and policy precursor to the United States’ intended development of reconnaissance satellites) as early as 1955. This policy was threatened as the United States Air Force and Eisenhower’s rivals sought more military-oriented space technologies to counter perceived Soviet threats from outer space.

With The Other Space Race: Eisenhower and the Quest for Aerospace Security, Nicholas Sambaluk seeks to examine these oft-overlooked issues and bring to the fore this titular “other space race”: the bureaucratic struggle for the “soul” of early American space policy between Eisenhower and his civilian advisors on one side and the Air Force, its allies in Congress, and the popular press on the other. Sambaluk—who holds a PhD in American history, military history, and international relations from the University of Kansas—has had a notable career as an academic, having previously taught military science and American history at the US Military Academy at West Point, Purdue University, and the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. He is currently an associate professor of strategy at the Air Force’s Air University eSchool of Graduate Professional Military Education. Sambaluk is the author of several other books involving the intersection of technology and military affairs and a contributing editor for Strategic Studies Quarterly.

The Other Space Race is a monograph that uses a largely chronological narrative to frame the United States’ internal, bureaucratic “space race” as a contrast to Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” approach to developing national space policy and the Air Force’s campaign for “armed space exploitation” (p. 1). Beginning (after a brief introduction) with Eisenhower’s election to the presidency in 1952, the book’s 11 chapters detail how Eisenhower’s national security priorities influenced his approach to space policy—particularly his belief that America’s ultimate success in the Cold War would require a “long-haul” effort rather than reliance on “crash technology programs” and military gimmicks (p. 29). Sambaluk emphasizes Eisenhower’s desire to prevent war with the Soviet Union through the application of reconnaissance technology. This emphasis provides the reader with a fascinating, logical trajectory of Eisenhower’s national security policies, from his approval of secret (and under international law, likely illegal) U-2 flights over Soviet territory to his administration’s eventual recognition that “reconnaissance satellites moving unhindered and unchallenged through space” (p. 49) might prove the most effective way to gather intelligence. As a result, Eisenhower and his advisors made “freedom of space”—the idea that outer space, unlike airspace, would not be subject to national sovereignty—a key policy goal from at least 1955 onward. The general international recognition of the concept—arguably bolstered by the global reaction to Sputnik overflight—was a critical policy victory for Eisenhower, the significance of which would be demonstrated by the successful deployment of the United States’ Corona reconnaissance satellites in 1960.

On the other side of the domestic “space race” was the United States Air Force, which was convinced that outer space “would ultimately become a realm of combat” (p. 1) and considered Eisenhower’s perspective on space policy to be dangerously naïve. To convey the Air Force’s interest in outer space, Sambaluk draws on the Air Force’s historical forays into the space domain, including its creation of “aerospace” doctrine (which defined air and outer space as a “continuous environment” in which the Air Force would operate [p. 71]) and its ill-fated attempt to create a Directorate of Astronautics in late 1957. His primary narrative device to epitomize the Air Force’s view of outer space, however, is the developmental history of one of its premiere space weapon projects: the dynamic soaring vehicle or “Dyna-Soar.” The Dyna-Soar was originally conceived in the mid-1950s as a hypersonic, multipurpose weapons system that, at least theoretically, could be launched into orbital or suborbital space to conduct long-range reconnaissance and bombing missions. Eisenhower “disdained” the Dyna-Soar project as an expensive, impractical, and dangerous program that threatened his stated space policy goals (p. 182). However, he shied away from cutting its budget due to increased public support for the Air Force, and his own Democratic political opponents, in the wake of the Sputnik launch.

Ultimately, Sambaluk argues that Eisenhower was a victim of his own success—a tragic hero whose farsighted space policies were misunderstood and maligned to the detriment of his reputation and legacy. The Eisenhower administration had “given early and deliberate thought to space policy” (p. 34) and, indeed, had used its policy goals to create a space environment that would, in time, allow the United States an unrivaled advantage in satellite surveillance. These achievements, however, were undertaken behind the scenes and were highly classified. When Sputnik seemed to provide irrefutable evidence of Soviet superiority in outer space technology, Eisenhower was unwilling to potentially jeopardize his classified space policies and programs by using them to reassure the American public. As Sambaluk notes, under these circumstances, “[Eisenhower’s] methods became as much of a trap as a tool” (p. 113) and left the field of public opinion to be easily occupied by Eisenhower’s critics, political opponents, and space policy adversaries.

There is little to criticize about The Other Space Race. Drawing from a wide range of archival sources, books, trade journals, and government documents, Sambaluk has made good use of his extensive research into the topic of early American space policy. The only minor criticisms of this reader might be, first, that while the narrative is mostly chronological, portions of some chapters diverge either backward or forward in time, which could be confusing for all but the most careful readers. Second, the book’s conclusion, a chapter on John F. Kennedy’s space policies followed by a brief epilogue, seems rushed in comparison to the much more detailed earlier chapters.

These quibbles aside, The Other Space Race is essential reading for anyone with an interest in space security issues. Sambaluk’s book is not only a fascinating historical work but also a mirror through which current American space security policy can be considered and better understood. Tensions between advocates of weaponized space technology and proponents of space demilitarization were not unique to the late 1950s. Such tensions have characterized American space policy from the launch of Sputnik-1 to the present day. Indeed, with the creation of the United States Space Force in 2019 and the US military’s recent recognition of outer space as a “war-fighting domain,” they may be more pronounced than ever before. With The Other Space Race, Sambaluk has written a timely, insightful work that provides important insights into policy making, the division between civilian and military policy makers, and the intersection of national security and new technologies.

Maj Jeremy J. Grunert, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."