I Was There: “The Tremendous Potential of Rocketry”

Jimmy Doolittle remembers the birth of the U.S. space program.

In 1958, NACA facilities, like Ohio’s Lewis Research Center, were re-labeled NASA centers. (NASA History Office)
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While we did not actually say “You young fellows stand on one side and you old gentlemen on the other,” there was an effort to get the ideas of the young people. There were honest differences of opinion between laboratories, between people, between young and old. I think you will find these same differences of opinion in most American homes. It is only when they become destructive rather than constructive that harm is done.

PUTNAM: People have said the Air Force had gone in the wrong direction after World War II in looking to the pilotless bomber as an intercontinental striking force to augment the manned bomber, and had ignored the ballistic missile. Almost everyone in the scientific community advising the Air Force agreed that [a cruise missile], the Snark and the Navajo, would be the most proper to pursue.

Most of us saw in the subsonic piloted aircraft a means of getting range promptly that we did not see in the ballistic missile.  The concept at the time was with the directed pilotless aircraft. A military capability could be achieved with greater speed than by the missile, which seemed farther away and had unknown problems, whereas the guidance, power plants, and the fuselage and wing structure [of aircraft] were known.

PUTNAM: A major figure in getting the ballistic missile program started was [assistant secretary of the Air Force] Trevor Gardner.

Benny Schriever [an Air Force general who headed the division responsible for creating the intercontinental ballistic missile] worked closely with Trev Gardner and Johnny Von Neumann [a Hungarian-American mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project]. The unique thing he did—Gardner and Von Neumann conceived it—was to take a lot of unknown things and develop them in parallel. In the early days of aviation, the two principal parts of the airplane were the structure and the engine. You designed the structure to the engine available. “Now we will put on the necessary military equipment.” You installed the guns or bombs, the photographic and navigation equipment. By the time you got through, it was a clunker. You had to put bulges on the airplane to get the stuff in, the absolute opposite of systems engineering. With Schriever it was possible to start many things at the same time and have them all introduced into the complete vehicle, ready to go as early as possible.

PUTNAM: It sounds simple in the abstract but it is complicated in the doing.

Systems engineering had some very difficult human-equation problems. You had to have someone with the authority to give the whip to the chap who was lagging and say, “You either get on with this and we will give you some people to help you, or we will give it to someone else.” This was a terrible decision to make, because that guy may have spent six months getting as far as he was. So you had to make a decision: Is this chap completely incompetent and do you have to start all over with someone else? Benny solved the problems in this new concept one by one. Si Ramo and Dean Wooldridge [who would go on to form Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, later known as TRW] were a great help to him in setting up this system.

Perhaps best known for winning the Schneider, Bendix, and Thompson air race trophies, making the first “blind” takeoff and landing by relying solely on instrumentation, and in 1942 leading the first air campaign against Japan, Doolittle also was a director of Shell Oil and TRW and in 1985 was named a four-star U.S. Air Force general. He was the last chairman of the NACA, and in 1958 he turned down an offer to serve as the first administrator of NASA.

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