360. Memorandum From the Secretary of State’s Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Outer Space (Farley) to the Under Secretary of State (Bowles)1


  • Hazardous Launch Trajectories

Twice in the past six months, pieces of U.S. space vehicles have landed on foreign territory. On September 26, 1960, a malfunction in the second stage of an attempted NASA lunar probe caused its premature re-entry over Africa and the impact of some metal pieces upon the Union of South Africa. On November 30, 1960, a failure in the Thor booster rocket attempting to place a Transit satellite in orbit caused the rocket motor and tank pieces to fall upon Cuba. Fortunately, with the reported exception of one Cuban cow, these impacts caused no known casualties or property damage. Fortunately, too, the reaction of the South Africans was phlegmatic curiosity and that of the Cubans over-played histrionics. As a result, neither impact has produced a significant international demand for curtailment of our space program. There has been created, however, a certain undercurrent of international uneasiness and, in conjunction with our much-publicized launching failures, some feeling that the United State is insufficiently cautious in pursuing its space goals.

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In my judgment, we must, in the interests of the future conduct of the U.S. space program, make every effort to prevent impacts of space vehicles on foreign territory. The cumulative effect of such impacts would be likely to arouse substantial opposition to our space program as a whole, would render already unpopular U.S. space projects like SAMOS more vulnerable to propaganda attack, and could be expected to foster powerful resistance to future experiments with nuclear power in space and launch vehicles. Additional impacts on foreign territory would also provide justification should proposals be made (e.g., in the UN) for requiring prior consent to overflight of countries by satellites, particularly in the case of experimental launches.

At present, we are especially concerned at the chances of impact afforded by three space programs. One is the forthcoming Mercury abort shot, scheduled for April 20, in which an empty Mercury capsule is intended to be recovered at sea in the vicinity of the Canary Islands. Malfunction of the retro-rockets, which have not been flight-tested at orbital velocity, could bring the capsule down in Africa. Malfunction of the launching vehicle at a critical stage in its burning period could cause an African or an Australian impact.

A second hazardous program involves one or two additional launches of the Transit satellite over the same ill-fated trajectory that produced the impact of November 30 on Cuba. Mr. Nitze has written you about these launches and has asserted that the statistical odds against a Cuban impact were 2,100 to 1 last November when the impact occurred. Although last November’s failure raises doubt as to the validity of the Cuban odds, our principal concern has always been for an impact on South America. Transit’s pre-orbital trajectory traverses the entire continent from Venezuela to southeastern Brazil with estimated impact odds of one in twenty-one.

The third program of a hazardous nature is Centaur, in which this unique hydrogen-oxygen fueled second-stage rocket is tested over a trajectory crossing the width of Africa from northwest to southeast. To our knowledge, this is the first time it has been proposed to flight-test an untried launch vehicle over a land route.


It is admittedly difficult to strike a balance between the technical requirements of present space programs and the necessity to preserve opportunities for our programs in the future. Nevertheless, with respect to the foregoing programs, I recommend:

Because the Mercury program has the highest national priority, has proceeded thus far at great expense and effort, and would presumably bring substantial prestige rewards if successful in first placing a [Page 810] man in orbit and recovering him, I recommend that, despite the hazards involved, you interpose no objections to the April 20 and subsequent Mercury flights.2
Because the Transit program has no overriding priority (while taking fully into account the value of the associated pickaback experiment) and would be delayed at the most one year by our non-concurrence in the requested research and development launches over South America, I recommend that you sign the attached letter to Mr. Nitze (Tab A)3 regretting that the political risks are too great to permit you to concur in the launches over South America.
Because the important Centaur program is still in the planning stage and susceptible of modification, I recommend that you sign the attached letter to Mr. Webb (Tab B)4 requesting that the dangers to our over-all space program and to our political relations with Africa be carefully considered before a final technical decision is made to test the Centaur vehicle over Africa or other major land areas.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 701.56311/4–761. Confidential. Drafted by Richard V. Hennes, and cleared by Assistant Secretary G. Mennen Williams (AF), Wymberley DeR. Coerr (ARA), George S. Newman (G), and Leonard C. Meeker (L).
  2. Bowles approved recommendation 1 on April 17.
  3. Not printed. The Transit communications satellite was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on June 29, together with two satellites that were intended to study, respectively, the Van Allen radiation belts and the effects of solar X-rays on the Earth’s ionosphere.
  4. Document 361.