U.S. Was Maybe *This Close* To Nuclear Rockets

This month marks the 54th anniversary of the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  It was created out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) just two months after the National Space Act was signed into law.  But, as Alexis Madrigal explains over at The Atlantic, this was not the only possible home for the nation’s space agency.

How the nation’s space efforts were organized was a topic of discussion since at least early 1958, and most likely since at least October 5, 1957, the day after Sputnik launched.  Madrigal reprints a memo from early 1958 that outlines four possible means for organizing the space program (one of which was chosen), and suggests how some alternate possibilities might have emerged if a different choice had been made.

What we now know as NASA could have been:

  • A completely new agency;
  • A program in the Atomic Energy Commission (now transformed into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission); or
  • A program in the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense

Now there were no doubt many other possibilities discussed.  One question at front of mind for many was who would control the nation’s space program – civilians or the military.  While the military does run space missions, and has since the 1950s (NASA’s Huntsville facility grew out of the Army’s rocket facility there), that’s a very different arrangement from having a military-run space program (for instance, civilian astronaut Neil Armstrong probably wouldn’t have been the first to land on the moon).

And it would likely have been different if the space program was hosted at ARPA, one of the agencies involved in creating the networks that led to the Internet.  If tasked with space exploration, its computer networking efforts may have gotten less attention.  As Madrigal notes provocatively, had this option been picked, it’s possible the 1990s could have been a space boom rather than the dot-com boom.  Or that dot-com boom might have originated from somewhere else besides the U.S.

And if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had been given the responsibility for sending people into space, the rockets our astronauts sat on may have looked differently and used very different propulsion.  While there are nuclear power plants on some of our satellites, nuclear rockets have never been developed for launch or moving massive amounts of payload into orbit.  Why would a former aeronautics agency have sufficient experience with nuclear propulsion to even try?  But coupling one relatively new technology (spaceflight) with another (nuclear propulsion) makes things more complicated.

Like Madrigal’s piece, this is a fun exercise in speculation.  But hopefully it’s made a point about organizing complex activity – context matters.  (Yes, I tried to make this point last month, but it bears repeating.)  Where in government science and technology policy is being performed matters as much as what is being performed.

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