A US committee’s plans for a space program (1958)

In March 1958 the President’s Science Advisory Committee, convened by Dwight Eisenhower the previous year, submitted a report on the American space program. PSAC recommended a strong focus on space technology and exploration, while warning not to ignore scientific research on Earth:

“What are the principal reasons for undertaking a national space program? What can we expect to gain from space science and exploration? What are the scientific laws and facts and the technological means which it would be helpful to know and understand in reaching sound policy decisions for a United States space program and its management by the Federal Government? This statement seeks to provide brief and introductory answers to these questions.

It is useful to distinguish among four factors which give importance, urgency, and inevitability to the advancement of space technology.

The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn to the exploration of outer space as their next objective.

Second, there is the defence objective for the development of space technology. We wish to be sure that space is not used to endanger our security. If space is to be used for military purposes, we must be prepared to use space to defend ourselves.

Third, there is the factor of national prestige. To be strong and bold in space technology will enhance the prestige of the United States among the peoples of the world and create added confidence in our scientific, technological, industrial, and military strength.

Fourth, space technology affords new opportunities for scientific observation and experiment which will add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe.

The determination of what our space program should be must take into consideration all four of these objectives. While this statement deals mainly with the use of space for scientific inquiry, we fully recognize the importance of the other three objectives.

In fact, it has been the military quest for ultra long-range rockets that has provided man with new machinery so powerful that it can readily put satellites in orbit and, before long, send instruments out to explore the moon and nearby planets. In this way, what was at first a purely military enterprise has opened up an exciting era of exploration that few men, even a decade ago, dreamed would come in this century…

Since the rocket power plants for space exploration are already in existence or being developed for military need, the cost of additional scientific research, using these rockets, need not be exorbitant. Still, the cost will not be small either. This raises an important question that scientists and the general public (who will pay the bill) both must face: Since there are still so many unanswered scientific questions and problems all around us on earth, why should we start asking new questions and seeking out new problems in space? How can the results possibly justify the cost?

Scientific research, of course, has never been amenable to rigorous cost-accounting in advance. Nor, for that matter, has exploration of any sort. But if we have learned one lesson, it is that research and exploration have a remarkable way of paying off – quite apart from the fact that they demonstrate that man is alive and insatiably curious. And we all feel richer for knowing what explorers and scientists have learned about the universe in which we live.

It is in these terms that we must measure the value of launching satellites and sending rockets into space…”