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C. B. Waff (Air Force Research Laboratory)
The U.S. program for exploring the solar system with spacecraft began with the five Pioneer lunar-probe attempts of 1958-1959, which were initiated prior to the formation of NASA under the auspices of the Department of Defense's newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency. Although most historical accounts of early U.S. solar-system exploration note the failure of all the probes to get anywhere near the moon (only the final Pioneer 4 probe succeeded in escaping the earth's gravity), virtually no attention has been paid to how these probe attempts came to be approved by President Eisenhower in March 1958. An examination of formerly classified documents at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Space Systems Division History Office at Los Angeles Air Force Base has revealed that while efforts were made to place scientific instrumentation aboard the probes, a major impetus for the approval of the probes and a major factor in their design was a desire by President's Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC) members and ARPA officials to restore national prestige by surpassing in a very public way the Soviet Union's recent achievement of orbiting the world's first artificial satellite. Although PSAC members ultimately decided visual reconnaissance (i.e., close-up photographs of the lunar surface) was the best means to achieve this goal, they did briefly consider (but rejected) the idea of landing and exploding an atomic bomb on the moon. (This paper is based on research conducted under a NASA-JPL contract.)
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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 37 #4
© 2005. The American Astronomical Soceity.