Happy Birthday, NASA! Here's What Might Have Happened If You Were Never Born

Our space program almost ended up under the control of the Atomic Energy Committee and the precursor to DARPA.


The NERVA test engine being put through the paces. It was to be the centerpiece of a nuclear-powered space program.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular new technology in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a government agency. And this was the problem with space travel. 

On this day in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened for business a mere two months after President Eisenhower signed its existence into law. The new agency was created largely out of people and infrastructure inherited from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which had been the government's civilian vehicle for aviation research. 

But before NASA became a sure thing, it was only one of several prospective bureaucracies that might have been put in charge of space exploration. And though I love our space agency, a couple of the other alternatives that the government considered may have been more exciting. 

In February 1958, the President appointed a panel to investigate "the organization for the exploitation of outer space." S. Paul Johnston, director of the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences and a member of the panel, laid out the four ideas that were floating around during that year before the formation of NASA. Here's a reprint from his original memo:


We know that, in fact, the government decided on the third alternative here. But take a look at options two and four. 

Proposal two would have given over space exploration to the Atomic Energy Commission! Johnson even said that "strong Congressional support is in evidence for assigning the mission to the AEC." Furthermore, the AEC was a powerful organization within the government at that time: "[t]he AEC has unquestionable adequate management and all the authority it would need," Johnson noted.

To me, at least, this is nuts. Producing atomic energy and sending rockets into space are wholly different things united only by their newness as technologies. Johnson took a similar view. "The technology of flight both in and out of the atmosphere is not part of the normal AEC competence," he argued. "Although it is true that nuclear propulsion for aerial and space vehicles comes within its field, consensus seems to be that practical utilization of such propulsion is 5 to 10 years away."

Well, here we are 54 years later and nuclear propulsion has not reached "practical utilization." The AEC's power has waned. But let's imagine, just for a minute, what would have happened if our space and atomic programs had become conjoined! We might have doubled down on our nuclear space program, which was considerable in the early days through the Nuclear Space Propulsion Office. While that might have failed in the short-term, it might have actually set us up better for solar-system exploration beyond the moon. 

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