361. Letter From the Under Secretary of State (Bowles) to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Webb)1

Dear Mr. Webb:

I am writing you in reference to the Centaur program as recently described to officers of this Department by officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I am told that the presently conceived Centaur program calls for initial test flights of this hitherto untried vehicle over the continent of [Page 811] Africa and that utilization of the customary water range for testing would yield less complete performance data. In view of the volatile and highly unstable political situation currently prevailing in Africa, it would seem to me unwise to risk an impact on the Congo or elsewhere along the trajectory for anything but a project of the greatest national importance for which no alternative flight path could suffice.

In the light of two recent impacts of U.S. space vehicles upon foreign territory,2 I am also concerned at the cumulative effect of repeated impacts upon our space program as a whole. At some point, particularly if we should suffer an especially unlucky hit causing damage or casualties, substantial international opposition to our space program as a whole would arise. Not only would this provoke proposals in the United Nations and elsewhere for requiring prior consent to overflights of countries by U.S. satellites, particularly in the case of experimental launches, but also it would render already unpopular U.S. space projects like Samos more vulnerable to propaganda attack. Of especial interest to NASA would seem to be the predictable unfavorable response to an impact upon their territory of those African countries who have granted NASA tracking and communications facilities and staging privileges for contingency recovery of the Mercury capsule. In addition, a pattern of impacts upon foreign territory could be expected to foster powerful resistance to future experiments involving the use of nuclear power in space and launch vehicles.

Admittedly, risks must be run in the vigorous pursuit of our national space program. It is this realization that has caused us to evaluate the very real hazards of the Mercury program as being outweighed by its overriding importance. However, I hope that you will agree that the interests of our space program as a whole demand that we accept risks of impact upon foreign territory only in those rare instances involving projects of the highest national priority. Accordingly, I should very much appreciate your assistance in assuring that the foregoing considerations are taken into account before NASA makes its technical decision to propose testing of the Centaur vehicle over Africa or other major land areas.3

Sincerely yours,

Chester Bowles4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 701.56311/4–1761. Confidential. Drafted by Hennes and cleared by George S. Newman, Assistant Secretary Williams (AF), and Leonard C. Meeker.
  2. See Document 360.
  3. On April 28 Webb replied, in part: “You have my assurance that each of the considerations which you mention will be taken fully into account in the selection of trajectories required for this test program. We shall, in addition, maintain liaison with your Department, as has been the case in all flight testing, through the usual channels.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 701.56311/4–1761)
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates Bowles signed the original.