By the fall of 61, things had started to get back to normal. Of course “normal” is a relative term for a planet that is under threat of death. But people cannot maintain a constant state of excitement or panic or whatever for an event which is scheduled to happen forty years hence.
In the middle of June, the Kremlin announced that the Soviet Union would undertake its own operation to divert Damocles. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Kremlin records became available to scholars and intelligence officials of the West, that the full extent of disarray that President Kennedy’s announcement had thrown the Soviet government into was clear.
Within a day of the announcement, a special meeting of the Central Committee was convened. The White House had, as a matter of course, distributed documentation of the threat to most of the governments on the planet. This documentation was checked by Soviet scientists, so there was no question of an American trick, so reported the head of the evaluation team to General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.
Also in attendance at the meeting, having been carried to Moscow from Star City in the second seat of a Mig fighter, was Alexi Korelov, the chief designer of the Soviet space program. Khrushchev made some very pointed questions to the father of the Vostok space craft. Was Orion possible? Why was not the Soviet Union working on such a space craft?
I can certainly have sympathy for Korelov. Wrong answers to the General Secretary in those days could often lead to a long exile in Siberia or even a bullet in the back of the head in some cellar at Lubyanka, the KGB’s dread headquarters. Korelov wisely told Khrushchev that the matter needed further study. The General Secretary gave him two weeks.
I suspect that Korelov knew what answer his master expected even before he left the Kremlin that day. In any case, the answer he gave him was, essentially, yes, the Orion concept was feasible. Khrushchev’s response was immediate and predictable. Get it done and before the Americans.
While this was going on, I was lingering around Washington, interviewing members of Congress. The budget proposal for Project Orion was sent up to the Hill within a few days of the announcement. The projected budget for President Kennedy’s initiative would lie somewhere between the Manhattan Project and the Second World War in terms of cost. NASA, hitherto a small, albeit famous government agency would suddenly become more important than the rest of the government combined. It would be upon it that the salvation of our world would rest.
The vast majority of the Congress was reconciled with that fact. Many, of course, could foresee great advantage of some of the vast sums about to be spent would come to their districts and states. It would mean jobs for constituents, contracts for campaign contributors, and votes come Election Day. No one was quite vulgar enough to say so out loud, even in private. Everyone gave lip service to the over riding interest in saving the world while privately maneuvering to grab their share.
Not many people, at least during that first year, quibbled over the details of Project Orion. After all, if one has a life threatening disease, one certainly does not argue with ones doctor over what procedure to be used to cure it. It seemed a reasonable view to take to vote the sums necessary, authorize the project, and sit back to await developments.
Well, except for one person. A United States Senator, in fact, from the state of Wisconsin
William Proxmire was one of the strangest and coldest men I ever met. He had served in military intelligence during the Second World War and had been elected to the Senate in a special race to replace the infamous Joe McCarthy in the late 50s. He started his Senate career by opposing something that then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson wanted, not at first glance a very smart thing to do.
The first hint I got that Proxmire was up to something happened when I was interviewing someone from the Atomic Energy Commission about using nuclear bombs to boost space craft into orbit. I asked him about fall out and how setting off a series of thermonuclear explosives in the atmosphere might affect peoples’ health. There had been talk, even before the announcement, about a permanent atmosphere test ban treaty to replace the arrangement that had been in effect since 1958 and was due to expire that fall.
“You’re the second guy who’s asked me about that,” the scientist said.
“Oh, who else is interested? The press?”
“No.” He started looking into his rolodex. “Some Senate staffer. Said his boss was interested.”
“Do you know which one? Senator, I mean.”
When he told me, I was puzzled. Why would a Senator from Wisconsin be interested in nuclear fall out? The plans extant at the time contemplated launching the Orion ships from the Nevada desert, where they tested nuclear bombs anyway, nowhere near Wisconsin.
In the meantime, the supplemental budget request hit Capital Hill and almost immediately sailed through the House. The Senate took the matter up in mid July. The Space Committee authorized the money and the Appropriations Committee voted to spend it. It was expected that the “debate” would take a number of days, since all one hundred Senators were expected to make long winded speeches about how they too were in favor of saving the planet, regardless of cost.
Sure enough, it started like that. First off was Senate Majority Leader Michael Mansfield of Montana. He addressed the chamber for about a half an hour while Vice President Lyndon Johnson presided, watching the proceedings like a hawk. Next up was Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Dirksen made what had been the quote of the day when he said, “A billion here, a billion there, and soon we shall be spending real money. And that’s what it will take to save our species from destruction.”
I said would have been had what followed not happened.
Democrats and Republicans switched off for most of the day. About three o’clock, the junior Senator from Wisconsin was recognized. He rose to the floor.
“We are here today charged with the most solemn duty that the United States Senate has ever been asked to discharge,” he said. “This body has been asked to decide matters of war and peace, in my lifetime against the most intractable enemies our civilization has ever faced. Now we are asked to approve measures to stave off an even greater threat than the Nazis, one that nature herself has presented to us. The stakes are not just freedom, but existence itself.
“Yet, it seems to me, that in our haste to begin this great project that we are in danger of doing harm to our country and our planet. My concerns are two fold. First, the stupendous amount of money that is proposed to be spent on this project. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will grow from a budget of just under a billion dollars for this year to over ten billion dollars by 1965. I have to think that while we are staving off the threat of Damocles, that we have other needs as well. Providing decent health care and education, for example. Can we afford to do those things if we proceed with the plan placed before us?”
As the speech made this turn, one could see Vice President Johnson starting to lean forward, looking daggers at Senator Proxmire. This sudden objection was not supposed to happen. It was certainly not suppose to happen without LBJ knowing about it first, so he could stop it.
“Is the plan the only one that can stop Damocles? I don’t know. No one in this chamber knows. We have not had hearings on other, cheaper alternatives. Why not build an unmanned rocket, with a mighty nuclear bomb, and sent it to Damocles to blow it up or blow it off course? It might work. It would certainly cost less.
“Then the plan to build colonies on other planets, just in case the plan to stop Damocles fails, troubles me. I’m not a big fan of the space program. I think the whole idea of settling other planets is a little bit ludicrous. Certainly it is not the sort of thing that should be a demand on the public purse. But NASA seems to have sold the idea based on the understandable fear that Damocles has caused. However, assuming that we are going to fail to stop Damocles, even though we have forty years and the resources of a great nation at our call, looks to my eyes like defeatism. It is certainly an expensive proposition that may not be necessary.
“Second, I am very troubled by the idea of using nuclear bombs, exploded in the atmosphere, as a means of launching space craft. The plan we have before us calls for a prototype Orion space craft to be launched to the Moon some time in this decade. Eventually tens or even hundreds of such space craft will be launched in NASA’s ill conceived colonization effort, not to mention the one that will be launched to stop Damocles. We’re talking about thousands of nuclear bombs potentially exploded in the atmosphere, with unknown effects of the environment of the Earth and the health of its people.
“I’m not saying that we should not stop Damocles. We absolutely must, if our world is to survive. I am only suggesting that we should stop, consider, and reflect that there may be less drastic means to do so. The doom that Damocles is bringing is forty years off. We have time to deliberate before we are stampeded into a course of action that we may ultimately regret. I urge a no vote on the proposition. I yield the floor.”
From the gallery where I was sitting, I saw Johnson whispering to an aide as Proxmire took his seat. I couldn’t hear, of course, but I can well imagine what was being said.
In any case, funding for the supplemental passed ninety five to five. J William Fullbright and three others joined Proxmire in opposition.
So what was going on, here? Most of the newspaper editorialists thought Proxmire was either ill advised or crazy. A maximum danger required a maximum effort, seemed to be the consensus. But there was method in the madness, as was eventually seen.
Around that time, a church service was taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana. The man speaking, then thirty years old, was named the Reverend Jim Jones. He had founded a church called Peoples Temple, then associated with the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. There was much to be said about Reverend Jones’ church at the time. Alone of just about any congregation in Indiana, it was integrated. Blacks and whites worshiped together. Part of Jones’ message concerned social justice for all races, particularly the poor and working class.
The announcement of Damocles seems to have affected Jim Jones very deeply. It would not become apparently for some years how much it had.
“We are living in the last days,” he said. He stood at the pulpit, a handsome man with movie star looks, charismatic and passionate. “The Bible tells us of these days. Now science has confirmed it. We are living in the last days. The hand of God is upon us, for our sins. We have made God’s creation a sewer of wickedness, with our killing, our stealing, our adultery, our lying, and our neglect of the word of the Lord!”
He began his sermon calmly, but with his voice steadily rising in passion. He did not raise his voice; just enough to be heard. He had the congregation in his palm from the moment he opened his mouth.
“Our leaders, in their vanity, believe that they can stop the doom that approaches with their rockets and their nuclear bombs. These awful tools, I say to you, are as nothing against the will of the Lord. Let there be no mistake. Nothing can stop the wrath of God. But some few of us, whose faith has never wavered, will be saved. But only if we make ourselves worthy”
That was the beginning, as it turned out, of what would become the Church of the Last Days, whose membership would number nearly three millions and would have congregations in every state. More of that anon.
While that was going on, I was making the final move down to Houston, which was going to be the site of the Manned Space Flight Center. There was no reason why it should be in Houston and not in Florida or Nevada, except that Vice President Johnson shrewdly concluded that NASA jobs in Texas translated to NASA support among the Texas delegation in Congress. A large cow pasture south of the city was chosen and purchased. Construction began toward the end of the year.
I got a nice house in one of the sleepy, bayside towns in the area that was about to experience the boom of the century. It faced the water, which made for attractive sunrises on the porch for breakfast. I set up my writing office with a window overlooking the beach. It a peaceful venue for the start of what was going to become a multi volume history of the Orion Project.
At the end of August, I went down to the newly designated Nevada Space Flight Center at Jackass Flats in Nevada, seven five miles northwest of Los Vegas, to witness a test of an Orion model using conventional explosives. There had been a number of such tests before, when the program had been secret. This one was open to the press and other people such as myself.
They put the print reporters and other important guests on makeshift bleachers some distance from the test stand. The television folks were in a nearby building with cameras and other equipment already set up. They were going to try to cover the test live, as if it were an actual space shot and not a subscale test of a model that would only go a few hundred feet in the air. Everybody on the planet had a stake in what was going to happen that day, so it was considered newsworthy enough to interrupt soap operas and game shows.
It was a hot, cloudless day. I had gotten use to the moisture sodden summer that was Houston, so the dry heat was actually a relief to me. Others, though, seemed to be suffering. The sky was a blindingly bright blue. The desert below was a mélange of browns and yellows, stark and desolate. Except for the occasional cacti and of course we crazy humans out under the blazing sun, one could imagine the landscape being as lifeless as the surface of the Moon. Of course, back then, we didn’t know as much as we do now about the surface of the Moon or any other celestial body.
We had been taken on a tour of the test stand and were shown the test article the day before. The test article was about a meter in diameter and was shaped like a bullet. It would eject five charges of specially shaped C4 which would explode in turn, propelling the model higher and higher. Upon reaching the highest point of its flight, the test article would deploy a parachute and would descend to the desert floor to be retrieved for examination.
“T minus thirty minutes and counting until the firing of the test vehicle,” a loud speaker boomed. “The final checkout of the test article will be completed within the next several minutes and the test crew will withdraw to the observation bunker. This is Orion Test Control.”
When I had arrived the previous day, I had witnessed a facility still in the process of being built. Great earth moving machines were roaring and the skeletons of new building were rising up on the desert floor. A pipeline was being built to bring in water. The Nevada Space Flight Facility would eventually have its own nuclear power plant. Within a few months, a virtual city would arise in one had once been designated Area 25 of the Nevada nuclear test facility. Laboratories, workshops, offices, private homes, even a school would eventually be built.
The frenzied hiring of just about anyone with any engineering background had already begun. Thousands of people from across the United States and a number of foreign countries would soon be gathered in to what eventually would be called Orion City. This migration would be matched by similar amounts of people going to Houston, Florida, and other places which were becoming NASA research centers.
To fill the sudden demand, colleges and universities were augmenting engineering and science programs. If you were interested in aerospace engineering or nuclear physics, very likely you would have a place ready for you somewhere. President Kennedy proposed and quickly passed through Congress an education bill to subsidize the hiring of math and science teachers in elementary and secondary schools.
“T minus twenty minutes and counting.”
I looked through my binoculars and saw several men pile into a jeep and drive away from the test stand toward the dug out bunker about a hundred or so feet away.
Curiously, the other space program was still proceeding. Gus Grissom had flown in a repeat of Shepherd’s sub orbital flight in July and had barely got out of his sinking Mercury capsule alive. Orbital flights, using Mercury capsules on an Atlas rocket were planned starting the following year.
Why mess around with rocket propelled capsules when the future was clearly Orion? First, there was a lot that was not known at the time about flying men in space. Could they even survive for long periods of time in micro gravity? What about space walking? Rendezvous and docking? These questions could be answered using Mercury and it’s follow up vehicle, Gemini, before the first manned Orion roared from the Jackass Flats.
There was also a debate going on about how to operate Orions. Would they land back on Earth once completing a mission? Or would they remain in space, to be resupplied, refueled, and recrewed by smaller, rocket powered space craft? The advantage of the latter was obviously to limit exploding nuclear bombs in the atmosphere during a landing of an Orion. I had already seen concept drawings of space craft that could bring as many as twenty people up to an orbiting Orion and other space craft that could bring supplies, including nuclear bombs, up. Some of these future space ships would have wings, would launch like a rocket, vertically, and then land like an air plane, horizontally.
“T minus ten minutes and counting.”
I leaned back, as comfortably as I could under the circumstances, and was trying to listen in on some of the conversations around me, picking up some of the atmospherics. Somebody was talking about a big, nuclear disarmament protest that was being planned for London in a couple of weeks. It was understandable that there were people who wanted the nuclear powers to disarm, considering what a thermonuclear war would do to the planet. But apparently the movement, at least some of the fringe part of it, was trying to stop Orion because it used nuclear explosives as a propulsion method. I shook my head in bemusement. Damocles would destroy life on this planet as surely as a thermonuclear exchange.
“T minus five minutes and counting.”
Slowly, but surely, the conversations around me began to taper off, even the argument about the upcoming World Series to my right. People started to focus on the test stand and the tiny object upon it. I put my binoculars to my eyes and waited.
“T minus one minute and counting.”
The test stand seemed awfully still, shimmering in the desert heat. Silence descended, except for the persistent voice on the loud speaker.
“T minus ten…nine…eight…seven…six…five…four…three…two…one. Ignition!”
The first explosion was a flash underneath the test article. A bang reverberated across the desert floor. The test article flew straight into the air. Another flash and bang, then another, and another, and finally the last one. The test article was high in the clear blue sky, barely a dot.
Then, the parachutes deployed, red and white stripes billowing. As the test article slowly began to descend toward the desert floor, people started to stand up and cheer. First singularly, then in groups, then every body. I found myself clapping and yelling like a rebel soldier charging a Yankee line. The test article touched down on the desert, the parachutes draping over it decorously. The engineers leaped out of their observation bunker, piled into their jeep, and took off toward it.
“Well, that’s one step toward our salvation,” said the man standing to my left, who turned out I later found out was Hugh Sidey. I nodded to him. One small step indeed.
Children of Orion – Chapter 1
Children of Orion – Chapter 3
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.