If there is a theme to the following narrative, it is that the United States did not exploit its initial postwar advantage over Soviet technology. There is significant evidence to support the conclusion that American science could have pushed the nation into the space age in advance of the Russians. The key event was the successful launch of a satellite, and here the United States clearly failed to take the initiative.

The enormous advantages of such an undertaking have often been stated in retrospect, hindsight being one of the most highly perfected human characteristics. Enhanced national prestige, a significant lead in the space race, and substantial benefits to national security would certainly have resulted from the launching of a successful American satellite at any time between 1946 and 1956. It is little known that precisely such benefits were foreseen on the occasion of the first serious engineering proposal that the United States sponsor a satellite program. Ten years before Sputnik, in February 1947, a RAND report prepared for the Air Forces predicted:

. . . Although trips around the moon and to neighboring planets may seem a long way off, the United States is probably in a better position at present to progress in this direction than any other nation. Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualize the impact on the world one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the United States were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.

Rarely has a forecast been so accurate!

By 1946 it was apparent to many that the United States then had sufficient technical competence to embark on a realistic space program with attainable objectives. Contemporary studies and related correspondence clearly show that both technical specialists and Air Force managers had an abundance of vision.

In the early years, before 1952, the booster problem in particular would have been troublesome, but the difficulties were probably no more formidable than those developing and operating the X-1, the first supersonic aircraft. And from the level of the Air Force chief of staff down to project engineers, virtually everyone exposed to the potential of the space proposals became an enthusiast. What happened, then, to delay for a decade the nation's decision to enter the space age?

Lack of real progress between 1945 and 1955 was attributable chiefly to a sequence of circumstances stemming from the extreme conservatism of national goals. Like the "experts" who early denied that aircraft could ever play a useful military role, critics of the embryonic space proposals questioned both the feasibility and the utility of a space program--and sometimes slighted the good sense of its supporters. The dominant attitude paralleled that of Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson, who in the late months of 1954 told reporters he had never heard of an American satellite program and when informed that the Soviets might orbit a vehicle earlier than the Americans responded publicly that he "wouldn't care if they did." Most Americans, secure in their transitory nuclear dominance and thinking of national strategy in terms of World War II concepts, probably would have agreed with him.

There were other difficulties and problems in the early space effort. Interservice rivalry certainly was one. Austere budgets, without "frills" like missiles and satellites, constituted another. The space effort certainly was not the sole victim; over the same decade relatively little progress was made in the development of ballistic missiles, nuclear propulsion for both aircraft and submarines remained sludgebound, and experimental aerodynamics was so thoroughly stifled that some operational prototype aircraft of 1958 were superior in performance to contemporary research aircraft.

It should be remembered, nonetheless, that the decade before 1956 was marked by the emergence of the first intercontinental bombers (produced over the violent protests of aircraft, the first hydrogen bomb, and a host of other major advances. It should also be recalled that, notwithstanding national folklore, American pragmatism has never looked with particular favor on revolutionary military technology--as witness the fate of General Mitchell- -and that the results of World War II had reinforced a national faith in rapid mobilization (the "minuteman syndrome") and an unmatched production potential as panaceas for disabilities arising from lack of preparedness. It is an historical cliché that the United States has entered every war superbly prepared to win the previous war. In this context, the struggles of space program advocates to obtain recognition, and their success in advancing basic technology to the point where a 1955 start on a space program could be realistically scheduled, probably deserve more praise than they have been accorded.