368. Letter From the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson) to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Webb)1

Dear Mr. Webb:

Mr. Bowles’ letter of April 17 called attention to the undesirability of launching Centaur over a trajectory involving hazard of possible impact in an extensive region of mid-continent Africa. Your acknowledgment of April 28 stated that political considerations would be taken into account.2 I am now writing you to confirm the understanding on the Centaur program reached with your staff and to express our continuing interest in timely consultation respecting such matters.

On the basis of discussions with NASA staff we understand that a year’s delay would be involved in changing launching trajectory and [Page 830] that such a delay is considered unacceptable by NASA because of the relationship of Centaur to the Saturn and Nova developments. We also understand the Centaur test program has been altered to include an initial ballistic flight which is to provide additional data before the first orbital attempt is made. According to NASA staff, there remains a chance of impact, but all practicable precautions will be taken.

It remains this Department’s considered view that the United States must make every effort to hold to the minimum hazards to other countries arising from the conduct of our space programs. However, we appreciate that occasions will arise necessitating the use of launching trajectories not completely free of risk, and we are prepared to make exceptions where clearly necessary.

In the present case, we recognize that the key role of Centaur in our future space effort makes undesirable the further delay we are told would result from a change in trajectory. With this in mind and with the understanding that all precautions will be taken, this Department will not interpose objection to the two Centaur launchings planned for the mid-continent trajectory. Accordingly, we shall, as requested, seek arrangements so that Project Mercury facilities in Bermuda, the Canary Islands, and Australia can be employed in support of the Centaur tests. We have been informed that the other Mercury facilities will not be used.

Although we shall proceed as indicated, the information available to us points toward the conclusion that selection of the proposed trajectory was dictated by the location of existing NASA ground facilities rather than by mission and safety of flight considerations. In the circumstances, it seems clear that NASA should seek greater flexibility in its ground launching and support arrangements to make possible the avoidance of hazardous trajectories. If failure to achieve such flexibility should result in additional impacts in other countries, the political cost and the cost in possible limitations on our space activities would appear likely to outweigh the monetary costs involved.

Timely consultation is a crucial factor in minimizing problems such as the present one. We hope that as NASA proceeds with planning for the testing of new systems (such as Saturn, Nova, and Rover) and for new missions (lunar and interplanetary missions as well as further space research), this Department will be informed of such plans at a time which will permit any necessary changes to be made without undue program delays.

Sincerely yours,

U. Alexis Johnson3
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 701.56311/4–1761. Confidential. Drafted by Wreatham E. Gathright (S/AE), and cleared by J. Wayne Fredericks (AF) and Stephen M. Schwebel (L).
  2. See Document 361 and footnote 3 thereto.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.