Part VI: Roots of Innovation
Lunacy: periodic insanity, once thought to be caused by the phases of the moon. Then Project Apollo came to fruition. During the Cold War, lunacy could be described in a more literal sense; who other than lunatics would consider it possible to reach space, let alone the Moon, prior to the end of the Second World War? Yet, we have that lunacy to thank for the modern world.
Part VIa: Stunning Strength through Sputnik
During the Cold War, the American and Soviet militaries derived two main advantages from space-launching rockets—nuclear weapons delivery followed by satellites dedicated to reconnaissance and communications (developed in that order). The first defined the missile arms race from Ustinov’s VPK and Brezhnev’s rise to power in 1964 until the 1987 INF treaty, the second launched a technological arms race that propels the world to this day. What might seem odd is that VPK (Soviet MIC) delivered ICBMs and satellites before MIC (the American Military-Industrial Complex), considering that both nations’ civilian and military space programs were derived from the V-2 rocket from Nazi Germany. I’ve touched on earlier how monumental a task it was for Soviet rocketry to compete with the fact that the U.S. Army had more or less imported Peenemunde through Operation Paperclip to Redstone Arsenal. How, then did the Soviets beat the best German and American rocket scientists into space?
Simple—the Soviets never questioned the value of ICBMs. The Red Army captured Mittelwerk (the main V-2 manufacturing facility during the war) and turned over captured V-2 missiles and the few German rocket scientists that did not follow Werner von Braun into American hands to Soviet rocketry pioneer Sergey Korolev. Korolev and his missile design bureau OKB-1 copied the V-2 and put the new R-1 missile into production in 1947, entering service with the Red Army in 1950. With the R-1’s range at only 270 km, OKB-1 in 1953 moved onto designing the first Soviet ICBM—the 8,000 km ranged R-7. R-7 derivatives put Sputnik 1 and 2 into orbit on October 4 and November 3, 1957. The R-7 remains the center of the Russian space program, derivatives of the ICBM having launched all manned missions in the Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz programs (i.e.: every manned Soviet/Russian launch).
Meanwhile, von Braun and the other Paperclip scientists were essentially imprisoned at Fort Bliss until the R-1 scared the U.S. Army in 1950, leading to their relocation to Redstone Arsenal to design the 320 km ranged PGM-11 Redstone, which first flew from Cape Canaveral in 1953 and was declared operational in 1955. The missile was first deployed to units in West Germany in 1958, the same year the Redstone-derived Juno 1 launched Explorer 1, the first American satellite. The power differential between the Redstone and the R-7 is staggering, which shouldn’t be surprising given the American missile was barely theater-ranged and the Russian launcher is an intercontinental ballistic missile.
A better question than why Soviet rocketry advanced so much farther than the Americans (and Germans) during the 1950s is: why was American ICBM development so much slower than OKB-1? The answer is again simple, and depressing: dangerous, myopic bomber generals.
Part VIb: The Idiocy of Hedgehogs…
One man tried desperately and nearly managed to destroy rocketry in the U.S. Air Force: General Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command (SAC). LeMay, whose inexplicable thoughts concerning the use of thermonuclear weapons I have touched on previously, stunted USAF missile development for the better part of a decade:
Curtis E. LeMay, who led Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957, considered America’s first ICBM, the Atlas, an extravagant boondoggle that wouldn’t perform as anticipated. It would achieve a “satisfactory state of reliability [only after] long and bitter experience in the field,” he argued. Of course, LeMay consistently put ballistic missiles last among SAC funding priorities, meaning the Atlas wouldn’t get a chance to gain the “long and bitter experience in the field” that he demanded.
It didn’t help that the man had the demeanor of a rabid wolverine that led directly to his men nicknaming him “Iron Ass.” Naturally, a man like that did not play well with others, especially his eventual superior, General Thomas White:
In 1948, White was appointed the Air Force’s director of legislative liaison. Eugene M. Zuckert, then an assistant secretary and later Secretary of the Air Force, recalled White as “a sharp contrast to the usual World War II Air Force general. He was a deep and thoughtful individual. He impressed me more than any officer I had ever met. When he got that job, it became obvious that this man was a man of superior qualifications in an area where the Air Force was very, very poor.” White quickly earned a reputation among policy-makers for being articulate, statesman-like, gentlemanly, and humane—qualities that led to his selection as Chief of Staff over LeMay [initially].
The root of the USAF’s missile issues during the 1950s was twofold. General White earned his fourth star when he became Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in 1953; two years after LeMay “earned” his fourth star (he had been commanding SAC as a Lt. General from 1948 to 1951—meaning he was elevated in rank without being assigned duty with more responsibility). LeMay despised White, mainly due to having his ball taken away from him:
LeMay had, in fact, been the heir apparent to Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the second Air Force Chief of Staff, but a series of unexpected events spoiled the succession plan.
In March 1950, Vandenberg’s deputy, Gen. Muir S. Fairchild, died of a heart attack. Nathan F. Twining, who had planned to retire as a three-star, was appointed vice chief. He then became Chief after Vandenberg—suffering from prostate cancer—retired early.
Twining picked White instead of LeMay as his vice chief, a post White held for four years. When Twining was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1957, White moved up to become Chief. Newspapers appraised White’s selection as the “dark horse choice.”
Losing out to White was particularly galling for LeMay, who let slip his disdain for attachés in his autobiography. In a backhanded attack on White, LeMay described how he rescued Power from attaché duty: “[Power] was being sent to England as an air attaché, for God’s sake. Matter of fact, he already bought all of his stiff shirts, demanded by protocol, to go to England. Well, I got him snaked out of that.”
LeMay eventually got his chance to run the Air Force, but the long wait undoubtedly aggravated the tenuous relations with White.
But seniority infighting paled in comparison to the influence of the bomber mafia.
Curtis LeMay was a hedgehog—he knew and was excellent at one big thing. That excellence was at training large air fleets to relentlessly pursue a single goal. His performance during the Second World War was legendary, as the bomber mafia’s ethos (courtesy of Stanley Baldwin) of “The bomber will always get through…” works perfectly if either the air defenses are decimated or the attacker is too fast to intercept. LeMay apparently was not aware his smashing success was due to the former, not the latter.
When Baldwin spoke on the floor of the House of Commons in 1932, bombers had significant advantages against the underpowered fighter planes of the day that were still predominately biplanes. Bombers had adopted monoplane designs first, becoming faster than enemy forces and friendly escorts. Only able to attack in one pass, opposing fighters had little chance of downing large numbers of attackers. LeMay, who initially flew pursuit aircraft before switching to bombers, did not understand that such advantages are transitory.
By the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1936-37, fighter performance had increased markedly with the introduction of monoplane fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf-109 whose single wing reduced the immense drag associated with having two or more sets of wings. Bomber and fighter manufacturers also went in different directions with the introduction of ever more powerful piston engines—fighter designs using increased engine power to increase acceleration and top speed while bombers became larger to accommodate more ordnance. By the time World War II broke out, bombers had become very vulnerable to opposing fighters, a trend that only became worse as the war dragged on. The British Bomber Command turned to night raids to reduce the immense losses during daylight raids, and USAAF B-17s and B-24s had to wait for the widespread introduction of friendly long-range P-47 and P-51 fighter escorts to mitigate the American bombers’ vulnerability.
Not wanting to face reality over Europe, the bomber mafia felt vindicated in the Pacific. B-29 casualties over Japan paled in comparison to the bloodletting against the Luftwaffe. But once again, success was transitory. It again took air superiority fighters, this time F-86 units, to wrest command of the air back after MiG-15s started to drive LeMay’s B-29s from the sky over Korea. Perhaps success had been more illusionary than transitory in 1945. The gargantuan F6F Hellcat fighter screen of USN’s Fifth Fleet shot down nearly 500 Japanese combat aircraft during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19-20 1944, an event known as “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” This essentially spelled the end of the Japanese land and sea-based air forces. Worse, by 1945 the home islands were so short of fuel and essential supplies due to U.S. Navy submarines and carrier aircraft mauling the Japanese merchant and naval fleets that Japanese fighters were largely incapable of mounting much of a defense against LeMay and XXI Bomber Command B-29s from Guam, Saipan and Tinian.
Armed with this lack of vision, LeMay was destined to resist mightily the different mindsets required move the USAF into the Cold War:
In December 1948, LeMay convinced [General Hoyt] Vandenberg to assemble the USAF Senior Officer Board. At LeMay’s urging, the board endorsed strategic bombing as the young service’s primary mission, giving him a mandate to transform SAC. Under LeMay, SAC grew fourfold, from 51,985 personnel and 837 aircraft to more than 224,000 airmen—larger than the US Army in 1939—and 2,711 aircraft.
Not surprisingly, LeMay, whose professional success and identity were vested in the manned nuclear bomber, was unreceptive to developing a disruptive alternative. He fumed after learning of White’s May 1954 directive that accelerated Atlas “to the maximum extent that technology would allow.”
LeMay disparaged ICBMs as mere “political and psychological weapons,” insisting any money budgeted for them would be better spent on “penetration aids”—air-to-surface missiles—for his bombers.
In response, in June 1954, LeMay maneuvered Power, his protégé, into command of Air Research and Development Command (ARDC). His intent was to keep the organization out of the hands of missile enthusiasts.
LeMay’s characterization of ICBMs is a devastating indictment of the SAC commander in retrospect. All nuclear weapons are ‘political and psychological weapons.’ LeMay had no business commanding nuclear forces; considering that POTUS was a former five-star general in 1954, LeMay should have been brought to heel for his arrogance, which was legendary:
LeMay earned a reputation for being, as Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara said, “extraordinarily belligerent” and “brutal.”
LeMay’s personal demeanor matched his philosophy of war. Warren Kozak, LeMay’s biographer, described him as “dark, brooding, and forbidding. He rarely smiled, he spoke even less, and when he did, his few words seemed to come out in a snarl. Women seated next to him at dinner said he could sit through the entire meal and not utter a single syllable. Surly, tactless, and with a lifeless, moist cigar constantly locked between his teeth.”
Fortunately for Eisenhower’s non-confrontational style (but unfortunately for everyone else after Eisenhower left office), General Thomas White fought smart:
In a brilliant counter, White, with Twining’s support, ordered the creation of the Western Development Division (WDD), a semi-autonomous organization given responsibility for missile development. Although the WDD was nominally part of the ARDC, its funding was appropriated independently. Additionally, the WDD was granted contracting authority, so it was not beholden to the ARDC commander. Bernard A. Schriever, then a junior one-star, was put in charge.
Before the WDD’s establishment, the Air Force treated missiles no differently than any other weapon system. Air Force Letter 136-3, released in September 1952, asserted that missiles were not revolutionary weapons and did not deserve special treatment. In fact, the Air Force even designated missiles as “experimental bombers,” and the Atlas was designated the XB-65.
General White’s maneuvering did not just protect ICBM development. The first American reconnaissance satellite project predated artificial satellites themselves. The USAF, fond of almost indecipherable abbreviations and acronyms,
Military satellite projects were added to the mission of the Western Development Division in the mid-1950’s and came to play an increasingly important role in the activities of the Division’s successors. The first satellite program was known as the Military Satellite System, or Weapon System 117L (WS 117L). The commander of Air Research and Development Command transferred responsibility for the program from Wright Air Development Center to WDD on 10 October 1955. WS 117L was, in concept, a family of separate subsystems that could carry out different missions, including photographic reconnaissance and missile warning.
Given that Gen. Thomas Power commanded ARDC in 1955, it may have been General White himself that transferred WS-117L to WDD along with the development of the SM-65 Atlas. LeMay, in a display that might indicate the four-star general was in reality a petulant child:
[LeMay] used every opportunity to fan the embers of resistance among the bomber coterie, who occupied most of the service’s top jobs. Increasingly frustrated, White scolded his Air Staff, saying that ballistic missiles were here to stay—that they needed to realize this and get on with it.
LeMay ignored the reprimand and refused to divert money from bombers to missiles. He outlined his position in a 1955 memorandum: “It is my firm belief that the manned bomber must be the backbone of our offense for some time to come. … Various missile programs should be re-examined to eliminate as many as is necessary to provide the funds for extension of our bomber capability.”
The bomber was more than a weapon to LeMay. It was, in the words of one historian, “a fighting machine to which he was deeply wedded emotionally, an arm in which he had unshakable faith.” Tellingly, LeMay devoted just three pages of his 572-page autobiography to missiles, and he used those three pages to justify the retention of nuclear bombers.
Ever the hedgehog, LeMay found a willing audience amidst the bomber gap hysteria:
In June 1956, LeMay told Congress, “We believe that in the future the situation will remain the same as it has in the past, and that is a bomber force well-equipped, determined, well-trained, will penetrate any defense system that can be devised.” He later proclaimed, “I think any force that has manned weapons systems at its disposal will certainly have the advantage over one that chose to go to an unmanned system.”
At wit’s end, White complained in a speech to the Air War College in 1956: “We see too few examples of really creative, logical, farsighted thinking in the Air Force these days. It seems to me that our people are merely trying to find new ways of saying the same old things about airpower without considering whether they need changing to meet new situations and without considering the need for new approaches to new problems.”
Oddly enough, both LeMay and White are equally wrong here. LeMay is hopelessly stuck in the bomber mafia’s Stanley Baldwin ethos that “the bomber will always get through…” which depends whether the near-sonic bombers are facing slower subsonic piston fighters and flak batteries or much faster supersonic fighters and hypersonic SAMs. White understands this difference, but how useful will those massive Atlas missiles be over Southeast Asia, General? (Perhaps White deserves a break in this regard—he would succumb to leukemia in 1965).
LeMay had his head stuck in the sand while White’s was stuck in the clouds; the cold shower of reality won’t dawn on anyone until Vietnam and modern combat leaders like Robin Olds showed how poorly prepared the USAF was for actual combat. The lack of competence is striking when one compares careers. Thomas Power served as a four-star general for seven years, White for eight years, LeMay for fourteen. Robin Olds never earned more than a single star.
Part VIc: …Versus the Brilliance of DARPA and the Discoverer
WS-117L, which General White had saved from LeMay’s tunnel vision or outright blindness in 1955, nevertheless failed spectacularly under the incompetent tutelage of the 1950s U.S. Air Force. After the immense embarrassment from watching Sputnik being but into space first, the Eisenhower Administration split up the program, directing the USAF to focus on SAMOS (Satellite and Missile Observation System). Los Angeles Air Force Base tries to put the best face on it…
SAMOS, the second program that evolved from WS 117L, aimed at developing a heavier reconnaissance payload that would be launched by an Atlas Agena booster rather than the Thor Agena used to launch Discoverer. The payloads were intended to collect photographic and electromagnetic reconnaissance data. The photographic data would be collected by cameras in the Agena spacecraft, like the Corona payloads. However, the film would be scanned electronically in orbit and transmitted to ground stations. SAMOS had three unclassified launches from the west coast: 11 October 1960, 31 January 1961, and 9 September 1961. Only the launch in January 1961 was successful. In 1962, a veil of secrecy was drawn across the SAMOS program, and the Air Force stopped releasing information about it. After several more classified launches, however, it was apparent that the technology for the electro-optical film readout system was not yet sufficiently advanced, and Air Force undersecretary Joseph V. Charyk canceled further work on the payload.
…but clearly the method the Air Force was relying on was defective. “Scanned electronically in orbit,” otherwise known as photocopying the film and sending the grainy, low-resolution images to a printer at Vandenberg AFB like a grade school student would do with a library reference book before the widespread availability of digital cameras, demonstrates how ill-thought out the SAMOS concept was.
Los Angeles AFB (the headquarters of the USAF Space and Missile Systems Center) discusses Discoverer (the first program to evolve from WS-117L) as well:
The Discoverer program aimed at developing a film-return photographic reconnaissance satellite. The satellite would carry a camera that took pictures from space as it passed over the Soviet Union and China. Film from the camera would be returned from orbit in a capsule; a parachute would be deployed to slow the descent of the capsule; and the capsule would be recovered either in mid-air or in the ocean.
Modern readers might briefly wonder why film retrieval would be dependent on such a cumbersome recovery system; recall the SAMOS/space photocopier idea was the closest technology had progressed to digital transmission by the early 1960s.
The Discoverer Program carried out 38 public launches and achieved many technological breakthroughs. Discoverer I, launched on 28 February 1959, was the world’s first polar orbiting satellite. Discoverer II, launched on 13 April 1959, was the first satellite to be stabilized in orbit in all three axes, to be maneuvered on command from the earth, to separate a reentry vehicle on command, and to send its reentry vehicle back to earth. Discoverer XIII, launched on 10 August 1960, ejected a capsule that was subsequently recovered in the Pacific Ocean, the first successful recovery of a man-made object ejected from an orbiting satellite. Discoverer XIV, launched on 18 August 1960, ejected a capsule that was recovered in mid-air northwest of Hawaii by a JC-119 aircraft, the first successful aerial recovery of an object returned from orbit. The capsule from Discoverer XIV was the first to return film from orbit, inaugurating the age of satellite reconnaissance. Satellite reconnaissance filled a crucial need, because President Eisenhower had suspended aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union just three months earlier after the Soviets had shot down the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.
One might also wonder why I continue to lambast the Air Force given how revolutionary Discoverer was. My reason is singular—Discoverer was the first project that the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, renamed DARPA in 1972 when Defense was added to the agency’s name) focused on.
Eisenhower authorized the creation of DARPA on February 7, 1958 in response to the illusory Sputnik scientific gap. General White had solved the USAF missile development issues the year prior by tapping Curtis LeMay to become his Vice Chief of Staff when White himself was nominated USAF Chief of Staff in 1957; nevertheless DARPA immediately unleashed a wave of creative energy that has continued for 55 years. DARPA’s description of its activities during the 1960s reveal why a “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent” moniker is apt:
To address ballistic missile defense (BMD), ARPA established the Defender program, which lasted until 1967, performing advanced research relating to BMD and offensive ballistic missile penetration. This program was ARPA’s largest over the decade and included pioneering research into large ground-based phased array radar, Over the Horizon (OTH) high-frequency radar, high-energy lasers, and a very high acceleration anti-ballistic missile interceptor, as well as extensive research into atmospheric phenomenology, measurement and imaging, and missile penetration aids.
ARPA’s nuclear test detection program, Vela, focused on sensing technologies and their implementation to detect Soviet weapons testing. Vela Hotel satellites successfully developed sensing technology and global background data to detect nuclear explosions taking place in space and the atmosphere, providing monitoring capability supporting the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in 1963. Vela also included seismic detection of underground explosions and ground-based methods to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and in space.
By 1960, a counter-insurgency project (AGILE) was started as the Vietnam War heated up. This included diverse tactical systems ranging from field-testing experiments leading to the M-16 rifle to foliage-penetrating radar capable of automatically detecting intruders, an acoustically stealthy aircraft for night surveillance, and initial work in night vision.
In 1962 ARPA initiated the Office of Information Processing Techniques and Behavioral Sciences to address information processing “techniques” with a focus on possible relevance to command and control. As is elaborated below, under the expansive vision of its first director, J.C.R. Licklider, this office went on to effect a fundamental revolution in computer technologies, of which the now-famous ARPANET was only one element.
Yes, DARPA created the internet (as well as assault rifle, missile detection, and nuclear explosion detection technologies) but first it spawned Project Corona.
Part VId: Corona
DARPA’s first project eliminated the need for U-2 and yet-to-be fielded SR-71 Soviet Union over-flights:
The Discoverer Program officially ended after the launch of Discoverer XXXVIII on 27 February 1962. In reality, however, it continued in clandestine form until 31 May 1972 (the date of the last film recovery), carrying out 145 launchesunder the secret code name Corona. At the direction first of President Eisenhower and later of President Kennedy, the direction and management of Corona and other satellite reconnaissance programs passed to a new DOD agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), when it was created in 1961. Corona’s first major accomplishment was to provide photographs of Soviet missile launch complexes. It also identified the Plesetsk Missile Test Range, north of Moscow, and provided information about what missiles were being developed, tested, and deployed. These and other accomplishments came to light when the CORONA Program was declassified in February 1995.
Corona and the related Argon and Lanyard satellites took 866,401 photographs that now stand as one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s crown jewels. Not mentioned is that all of DARPA’s developed spacecraft transitioned to NASA or back to the DOD in 1960. Why wasn’t DARPA continuing to run Discoverer by the time NRO was established in 1961? Because they were too busy designing the engines for the Saturn rockets. Known for pioneering a “high-risk/high-reward” method of conducting research and development, DARPA literally gave us the Moon.
Corona never passed into Air Force control, likely because LeMay succeeded White as Chief of Staff in 1961. The CIA exerted operational control over Corona. NRO, like DARPA laid independently under DOD to keep it out of reach of the bomber mafia’s demented grip (LeMay got busy trying to direct Air Force funding toward his “dream bomber,” the Mach 3 XB-70 Valkyrie and when that didn’t work fought Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke and managed to steal operational control of Navy SSBNs and their Polaris SLBMs in the Pacific). But LeMay never could get his fingerprints onto the devices that launched the modern world: the Key Holes.
Part VIe: Key Hole Goes Digital
Since their inception until the mid-1970s, the designation for American reconnaissance satellites was Key Hole, abbreviated KH. The first nine series of spy satellites dropped film for recovery. KH-1, -2, -3, and -4 were designated Corona, like the project that spawned them. The KH-4, -4a, and -4b satellites alone shot over 800,000 photographs. KH-5 and KH-6 were the Argon and Lanyard satellites. The KH-7 was designated Gambit, the KH-8 as Gambit 3, and KH-9 as HEXAGON but colloquially as Big Bird. All but the KH-7 were produced by proud MIC member and U-2, SR-71, and U.S. Navy SLBM manufacturer Lockheed. Passing overhead more than 70 miles up at speeds exceeding the equivalent of Mach 20, the Key Holes tipped the world into the Information Age.
That tipping point was the KH-11, another Lockheed product sometimes known as Kennan. First launched atop a Titan III from Vandenberg on December 19, 1976 the KH-11’s design remained top secret for 36 years until NASA acquired two as surplus from the NRO. With a telescope aperture the same 94 inches as the Hubble Space Telescope, the KH-11s are enormous machines capable of 3.9 inch resolution from 200 miles up. But the game changer with the KH-11 is the film—there is no film.
The first application for digital cameras naturally was spy satellites—the NRO had been waiting fifteen years for the technology. Sending imagery back to NRO headquarters in Chantilly, VA via communication satellites and satellite launch control at Vandenberg AFB at nearly real-time, the KH-11 was the final fruition of SAMOS from WS-117L. ARPANET was envisioned for information processing, specifically for command and control:
In the mid-60’s, Paul Baran of the RAND Institute was commissioned by the Air Force to study how to maintain command and control after a nuclear attack. The solution that Baran suggested involved a technology called “packet switching,” which would allow a message on a network to find its destination via any route available. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) believed that Baran’s theory would work and that such a network would not only fulfill the Air Force’s original missions, but would also answer the agency’s need for sharing information between its many research institutions. In 1969, ARPANET was born.
When ARPANET connected UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah, there were three things that users could do: log into a remote computer, print to a remote printer, and transfer files between computers. Even with this limited set of capabilities, the network was an instant success and more and more institutions clamored for connection.
During its first decade, ARPANET truly lived up to its billing as an “experimental network.” New applications and network protocols were constantly developed, tested, and deployed. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman wrote the first email program and the ARPANET community adopted it immediately. Soon after the appearance of email came the “mailing list,” an email format that created virtual discussion groups. One of the first such lists was SF-LOVERS, dedicated to fans of science fiction.
Perhaps the most significant development to come out of ARPANET was TCP/IP or Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol. This set of network standards would not only replace ARPANET’s original Network Control Protocol (NCP), but would also serve as the basis for the “network of networks” that was to follow and eventually render ARPANET obsolete.
Do I have to be a rocket scientist to think these two technologies were related?
I started with a history of weapons development that coincides and explains that these innovations were intimately connected with military development needs. This piece, the third in a massive series that explores the incredible levels of development related to the bomber and missile gap psychosis from the onset of the Cold War leads me to satellite development, which I believe directly created the computer/internet/communications revolutions through the efforts of DARPA, the NRO, and General Thomas White. But I am also left with another startling conclusion—innovation has stagnated since the 1976 deployment of the first KH-11s.
For better than two months, I’ve been connecting the lines and dots between Robert Gordon’s phases of the industrial revolution:
- IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
- IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
- IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
Gordon has concerns about there ever being an IR #4:
Another claim by the growth optimists is that 3-D printing and micro-robots will revolutionize manufacturing. This is an old story, told in one form or another since the first industrial robot was introduced by General Motors in 1961. Manufacturing productivity, driven by robots and other machines has been healthy throughout the postwar era, even in the past half-decade. But manufacturing’s share of the economic pie has inexorably shrunk, from 28% in 1953 to 11% in 2010. That sector of the economy is performing a marvelous ballet, on a shrinking stage.
Can economic growth be saved by Google’s driverless car? This is bizarre ground for optimism, but it is promoted not just by Google’s Eric Schmidt but by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Erik Brynjolfsson. People are in cars to go somewhere, whether from home to work or from home to shop. Once they are inside the car, there is relatively little difference between driving the car on their own or having it drive itself. Greater safety? Auto fatalities per million miles traveled have already declined by a factor of 10 since 1950.
The United States is going backwards. NASA discontinued the Saturn rocket family before the Space Shuttle first put to flight—the latter system far less capable in terms of weight it could lob into Earth orbit (let alone the Moon or further). The shuttles are now retired, with the intention that private enterprise will take up the slack. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to have the only manned orbital system available—the Soyuz that dates from 1967 (launched by a R-7 rocket that first flew in 1957).
In air travel, the trend is no different. The first generation turbojets (707, DC-8, Convair 990) were all faster than second generation turbofans. Newer transports cruise slower still, to say nothing of regional jets like the grossly underperforming CRJ200. Given the astonishing levels of progress that preceded the deployment of digital satellites, what changed?
One possibility is speed. An old thought about technology is 6, 60, 600, 6,000… noting that humanity entered the year 1800 where the average speed of the horse permitted humanity to travel at a top speed of six miles an hour. The year 1900 saw a domination of trains, with a top speed in around 60 miles an hour. 2000 saw airliners with an average top speed around 600 miles an hour. If projected again, 2100 should see 6,000 miles an hour…but this runs into a major snag.
I demonstrated that marine technology dominated throughout the nineteenth century—where does that fit in? Nor was there a century between high subsonic airliners and rockets capable of exceeding 6,000 miles an hour—there was at most ten years between development of the two technologies (rocketry is a thousand of years older than aviation if you include the Chinese/Mongols). So what else could it be?
Part VII: MOL
In the Key Hole series of spy satellites, the first nine models (KH-1 through KH-9) dropped film for recovery in midair or at sea supplanted by the digital KH-11 mini-Hubble. Wait what about KH-10?
KH-10 was the designation for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Launched by the same Titan II GLV that launched the Project Gemini astronauts, MOL would also use the Gemini B capsule to conduct 40-day spying missions. The CIA director was opposed to MOL from the start, worried that the death of one or more MOL astronauts would bring a swift end to orbital surveillance. Canceled in June 1969 (the month before Apollo 11 landed), MOL would be replaced by older Key Hole satellites before the entire KH-1 through 9 program being supplanted the KH-11 between 1976 and 1986.
This was the innovation that carried through the loudest in the decades since—better to automate than risk lives. DARPA’s creative energies yielded the prototype Predator and Global Hawk UAVs, also led to VLSIs:
Two DARPA technologies — very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI, and graphic-design software — were originally developed, in part, to manage daunting controls faced by military pilots who made split-second decisions in advanced jets but that work also helped create the computer workstation industry, including such companies as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems, DARPA said.
The language of innovation and progress the Jet and Space Age was “bigger, higher, farther, faster.” DARPA research personified those words in the 1960s. What motivates today’s innovations (such as they are)? It’s the language of automation, and it has sinister effects.
The language that many automation designers use is to design the human out—”we don’t need him anymore.” The whole of industry is following suit, trying to design the operator out of machines rather than using machines to increase the capabilities of the formerly human operators. There is a massive flaw with this line of thinking, which I will explore in a later posting.