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.

"The destinations dictate the power system," Rao Surampudi, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who works on the development of power systems, told me in 2009. And if you're not trying to go beyond the moon, it doesn't make sense to develop nuclear rockets.

Oftentimes in technology, though, we see what a technology does best suddenly become its goal. So, if nuclear rockets were great at sending people far into the solar system, perhaps an AEC-controlled space program might have privileged such missions over or beside a moon landing?

For that same story in 2009, Patrick McDaniel, a nuclear engineer and co-director of the University of New Mexico's Institute for Space and Nuclear Power Studies, passionately argued that not pursuing nuclear propulsion was what limited our space program and led to its current decline. "[With nuclear rockets] we could have done a lot more things in space. We could have gone more places. It's highly likely we would have gone to Mars."

And that might not even be the most far-out alternative scenario we can imagine for our space program. Consider if option four from the memo above had been adopted: the Advance Research Projects Agency, precursor to DARPA, would have been running our space program. The argument for ARPA, as Johnson saw it, was "on the grounds of immediate action." The ARPA facilites were "well staffed and the experience level is high."

Imagine again how our space program might have changed if it were under largely military control. And don't forget: ARPA might have been changed, too. If ARPA had been concerned with getting a man to the moon or some other space possibility, might it have been as focused on its computer research (headed by JCR Licklider) on the key research that led to ARPANET, which in turn, led to the Internet? What if it was common to cruise around space in the 1990s, but we were decades from having the web?

I'm asking these questions because A) they are really fun counterfactuals and B) to bust up the idea that the development of the American and global space agendas was inevitable. JFK was right, we had to choose to go to the moon. Not only was JFK's decision not inevitable, but the political calculus that led Eisenhower and Congress to organize the space technology effort under NASA helped determine the options that Kennedy thought he had.

In this one decision, the futures of nuclear power, the space program, and the Internet were all tangled together. We got this version of the present, but I wouldn't bet that if we reran the experiment, we'd be able to reproduce this result.