[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

It's 50 years since Sputnik I lifted off. Although I was airminded as a kid, I was much more spaceminded. So 1957 was always a crucial year in my understanding of history back then: it was where the modern age began. (In fact the very first historical work I ever I started -- but never finished! -- was a history of the space race from Sputnik on. I can't have been older than 12 so it's not exactly sophisticated ...)

More than that, to me 1957 was where the future began. A future where humans would spread out into the solar system and then explore the universe beyond. And who knows? Maybe I'd even get to take part in that somehow! That future hasn't quite worked out the way I'd envisaged it -- yet -- but of course, I'm in good company where failing to predict the future is concerned. There's a good article by Michael J. Neufeld in the July/August 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on Wernher von Braun's proposals for manned orbital battle stations. In the early 1950s, von Braun predicted that these would be used to deploy nuclear weapons in orbit. For example, in a conference paper published in 1951, he wrote that

Our space station could be utilized as a very effective bomb carrier, and for all present-day means of defense, a non-interceptible one.1

and that

The political situation being what it is, with the Earth divided into a Western and an Eastern camp, I am convinced that such a station will be the inevitable result of the present race of armaments.2

Neufeld makes the point that for all his expertise in rocketry -- including leading the V2's development team -- von Braun's obsession with space stations meant that he failed to realise that ballistic missiles actually made a lot more sense as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons, rather than space-launched hypersonic gliders -- a space station being a relatively big and very predictable target, for one thing.3

Von Braun wasn't the only one arguing along those lines. There were others. The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein co-authored a popular article in 1947 for Collier's Magazine which suggested putting nukes in orbit. In a novel published the following year, Space Cadet, he expanded upon this idea. Now, I read Space Cadet probably a couple of dozen times when I was a kid, but haven't for a long time so I'll have to rely upon the Wikipedia page to explain:

The Space Patrol is entrusted by the worldwide Earth government with a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and is expected to maintain a credible threat to drop them on Earth from orbit as a deterrent against breaking the peace. [...] The cadets are taught that they should renounce their allegiance to their country of origin and replace it by a wider allegiance to humanity as a whole and to all of the sentient species of the Solar System.

It never occurred to me before now, but this is nothing more than the international air force concept, so beloved of liberal internationalists in the 1930s (it was included in the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1935 general election, for example), but now updated for the coming space age! Only now instead of pilots of all nations standing by, ready to drop high explosives on any aggressor nation, it would be astronauts with atom bombs. Plus ça change ... sometimes, anyway.

When I was 12, I understood that Sputnik I was part of a 'Race for Space' between two superpowers, as I put it, but I mainly saw it it as a straightforward -- if impressive -- technical achievement, which the Soviet Union managed to do first. I certainly didn't have much clue about the bigger picture of the Cold War or the historical background to the decision to launch a small sphere into orbit, though. Now it's hard for me to see things in any other way, as all of the above probably demonstrates. But sometimes it's good just to forget about all that context and just appreciate the thing-in-itself.

So I'll end by reverting to age 12 and saying wow, that is just so ace!

  1. Quoted in Michael J. Neufeld, "Wernher von Braun's ultimate weapon", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, 53. 

  2. Quoted in ibid. 

  3. But the fact that von Braun was still trying to sell the public on manned space stations in 1965 with no military role beyond reconnaissance suggests that it's more that he just really, really liked space stations, rather than that he wasn't aware of the potential of ballistic missiles. 

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5 thoughts on “Companions

  1. Jakob

    For the possibly interested: this evening (Thursday 4th) the Royal Aeronautical Society is having a double lecture - satellites after Sputnik, followed by a Virgin Galactic progress update. All to be followed by 'Russian pies and vodka', courtesy of the Russian Embassy...

    The venue is RAeS headquarters, 4 Hamilton Place (just off Hyde Park Corner), starts 1800 sharp - tea and biscuits from 1730.

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