INT: Terrific. So one of the answers that was put forward by the US was to do a lot with work with Werner von Braun. Tell me a bit about him.
HY: Well, the immediate answersthat Eisenhower came up with involved organisational changes more than anything else and he established a President's Science Advisory Committee and in the Pentagon, under his general direction, they established the AdvanResearch Projects Agency, which exists to this day and which they thought were the best way to understand this problem and then do what was necessary and then a little while later, they created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to carry out some of this programme. Now, von Braun at that time was employed by the United States army and was building a particular kind of missile, called the Red Stone missile, which was to be deployed in Europe, it was a short-range missile. The army was also developing some longer range missiles and von Braun was involved in those as well, but most of the missile programmes in the United States, the province of the United States air force, the Atlas, the Titan, the Minute Man and then there was the navy Polaris, we had lots of big rocket programmes going on, then also we had the secret reconnaissance satellite programme going on at the same time. Well, von Braun and his bosses were good publicists and they did make proposals about how to go ahead with solving this problem and for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the President did not want to bring the secret air force programme out into the public, he wanted to keep it secret, the reconnaissance programme, we found ourselves dealing publicly with only two alternatives to match the Russians. One was a programme called Vanguard, which was sponsored by the navy and that was the official hope, that had been the official programme designed to produce the first American satellite, and then von Braun, who had been making through the army separate proposals for an alternative way to launch satellites. One of the first things that the President's Science Advisory Committee did - and I was the chairman of a three-man sub-committee to study this problem - we reviewed the Vanguard in great detail, we reviewed the von Braun programme in great detail in December of 1957 and I remember proudly that we prepared a report that would be three pages long to the President, which said that the von Braun programme has a fifty-fifty chance of working the first time, the navy programme has only a fifty-fifty chance of working ever. And therefore we made the recommendation to go ahead with the von Braun programme. Now other people had already reached that conclusion, in the Pentagon and elsewhere, so we weren't the only ones who arrived at that conclusion. But we did provide Eisenhower with the assurance that if we backed von Braun...
(Interruption - telephone)
INT: So, you produced a three-page report that said that the von Braun project sounded more chance, but what actually went ahead and happened?
HY: Well, von Braun had already designed essentially what we would call a bootleg programme, a system which could put a very small satellite into orbit. He had used as a cover for this programme another development programme that was fully authorised for the development of re-entry vehicles and he built a rocket system that would bring a small re-entry vehicle up to the kind of speeds that inter-continental missiles would experience on re-entry. Now the speed of an inter-continental missile, so it'll go a quarter of the way around the world, is essentially the same as the speed of a satellite, so as early as 1956, von Braun had in fact built a system which had been used and fired, was a four-stage rocket, but the top stage, the topmost stage, the fourth stage as they said had been filled with sand instead of powder. So when they launched it, it went down the South Atlantic and landed somewhere near Ascension Island. If the fourth stage had had powder in it, it probably would have gone into orbit that day, a year before Sputnik, but the Pentagon knew that this was a bootleg programme, they were officially backing the navy programme and they were forbidden to put a live stage as number four. Well, when Sputnik went up and there was a desperate feeling that something had to be done, von Braun was so close to ready, that it only took him another three or four months and in fact the first von Braun satellite, a very small thing compared to the Russian satellite, was launched at the end of January 1958, not quite four months after the first Sputnik. The navy programme, we were right on with our judgement about it, the navy programme just barely worked. Six months later it sent an even smaller satellite in orbit, called a Vanguard, but our prediction about the von Braun programme that it had a fifty-fifty chance of working the first time, the first one worked, the second one failed and then the third one worked again. So, it was a good judgement.
INT: But is it true that the first public reaction to Sputnik was the attempted launch of a Vanguard?
HY: Well, the Vanguard was coming along so that the first launch would have been sometime early in 1958 anyway. There was an attempt to speed it up by some months, but the Vanguard had already been under development for about two years and, as I said, was scheduled for launch sometime in early 1958. We tried to launch it in 1957 and it just failed.
INT: Was that a public humiliation, I suppose would be the word?
HY: Very much so, because it was accompanied by a lot of fanfare and a lot of boasting about what our intentions were. Eisenhower eventually became very sensitive on that point, not just these, but there were a succession of difficulties with launching space missiles and vehicles. And Eisenhower became very concerned about the boasting that seemed to precede these things, precede these failures and did his best to clamp down on it and to prohibit people, to the extent he could, from making these advance predictions about what was going to happen. He became very sensitive on that score.
INT: I'm just going to ask you the same question one more time. Could you tell me what happened in December of '57 which was the Vanguard launch?
HY: Well, in December '57 they tried to launch the first Vanguard. It simply was a rocket system that had been originally programmed for a few months later and they brought it forward and it failed. It didn't get off the launch pad or it went up a little ways and fell back. There were several failures of the Vanguard, they're all mixed up in my mind, I don't even remember which the first one was.
INT: So where did Werner von Braun come from?
HY: Well, Werner von Braun's origins were, of course, Germany and the German V-2 programme. He, as a young man, was involved with making some movies about launching vehicles to the moon. When he the learned about the establishment of a programme by the Germans to build long-range rockets, as a result of World War One they had been limited in what they could do with aircraft, so they turned to rockets as a secret way around that limitation. Von Braun joined the programme very early, as a very young man, worked at [Pienemuende], became the chief scientist at [Penemuende], he wasn't the head of the programme, that was General Dornberger and other people from the military, but Werner von Braun was the chief scientist and he gathered a group around him, many of whom were very good engineers, a few of them were good scientists and they built the V-2, of World War Two notoriety. The V-2 was by far the biggest liquid fuelled rocket of its day. There were other liquid fuelled rockets being built in this country and in Russia, but they were quite a bit smaller, the V-2 was the biggest and when von Braun was debriefed at the end of the War, as the Allies moved in, he told 'em about the programme and that produced great interest in this country. We saw the Cold War was coming... Oh, at first, we wanted to see what there was to exploit that we might use against Japan, that possibility at least theoretically was there and that was one of the rationales for going in and finding out as soon as we could what the Germans had. Then, of course, with the defeat of Japan, that reason went away, but the ColWar came along very soon after that, so the idea of exploiting all this German talent and this German information as part of our own defence programme came to the fore and eventually von Braun and much of his team was brought here in a special programme called Paperclip, which involved bringing several hundred of them to the United States. What had happened in Germany at the end of the War is that the whole [Pienemuende] operation, which involved several tens of thousands of people, was over-run by the Russians, but von Braun and a couple of hundred people at the top knew that their chances were better in the West and so they managed to make their way to Allied lines. So we got the top two hundred people, the Russians got whatever it was, ten or twenty thousand of the working people, the lower level staff, engineering people at [Pienemuende] and eventually took many of them to Russia. We brought von Braun and a hundred or so others to this country, where the air force at first discovered what their ideas were and then eventually they were transferred to the army and the first thing they did was to help us build or rebuild or use many of the V-2s which we had captured. Now, other teams in America were using them without von Braun's help. We didn't actually need von Braun, we had the equipment and we knew how to use it without his help. But there was a lot of competition, a lot of inter-service rivalry and von Braun was helped greatly by that. The army saw von Braun as a means for improving its competitive relationship vis a vis the air force. So the role of von Braun in the development of the American missile programme has been much exaggerated. If von Braun had never come to this country, it would have made very little difference, in my judgement, because the air force was already moving down this line fairly solidly before the army essentially took in von Braun and used him as a wedge to get into the programme in a big way.