379. Letter From the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson) to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Bundy)1

Dear Bill:

Thank you for your letter of March 28, 1963 requesting policy guidance on actions to be taken in the event of a contingency landing during the forthcoming Mercury 9 flight and future Gemini operations.2 An instruction to our embassies in countries under the orbital path describing in detail the procedures to be followed in contingency situations is attached for your information. This message, drafted in consultation with DOD and NASA, is also being sent to the appropriate military commanders and to posts in intermediary countries.3

The Department has given careful consideration to the implications of a contingency landing and our objective has been to develop guidance which will secure for us maximum opportunity to effect recovery of the astronaut and his space vehicle. It is our view that the more forthcoming we are with governments in giving them advance notification on the details of the flight, the more cooperation we will receive in an emergency situation. I have therefore outlined in some detail the procedures we will follow so you will have a clear idea of how our planning has developed.

In anticipation of contingencies which might arise during the expanded Mercury and Gemini programs, the U.S. delegation to the UN introduced a resolution in early 1962 in the Legal Subcommittee of the Outer Space Committee which, if adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, would establish the broad, general principle providing for assistance to and safe return of the astronaut and the spacecraft to the launching country. While there was no disagreement with the Soviets or any other country on this principle, Soviet instransigence on other points blocked the adoption of this resolution thus far. [Page 862] Consideration has also been given to the negotiation of separate bilateral agreements outside the UN framework. Practical political reasons argue against this procedure.

It is, however, our intention to inform governments of the spaceflight in advance. The Department feels that prior advice would pave the way for their assistance in effecting immediate recovery. As you know we hold the view that outer space is not an extension of sovereign air space. National sovereignty is not therefore involved and no prior approval to orbit spacecraft over any territory is to be requested.

We plan to follow a similar procedure with the Chinese Communists, where we are instructing Ambassador Cabot to forward a letter to the Chinese Ambassador in Warsaw. In the case of the North Vietnamese, we are exploring the question of whether the International Control Commission in Saigon with access to Hanoi could give the necessary assistance. With respect to Cuba, we shall inform the Swiss in advance.

The Department will be informed by NASA of the possibility of any contingency landing. In anticipation of a contingency landing in non-Communist controlled territory, Search and Rescue or Naval recovery units will proceed to the spacecraft landing area. NASA will inform the Department of such a landing and the mission concerned will be contacted by telephone and Flash precedent telegram to request necessary clearance for Search and Rescue aircraft underway. If known, the coordinates of the landing will be furnished at this time.

Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft should be instructed to observe ICAO regulations and aircraft commanders should follow all instructions issued by Air Route Traffic Control. In the event they are unable to contact the country’s Air Route Traffic Control, they should be instructed to proceed according to their flight plan. In the case of a few countries such as Indonesia it may be necessary to modify this policy and we are currently examining this matter.

In the event of an emergency landing within territorial waters of a friendly power, appropriate Naval commanders are authorized to order naval ships, or to request friendly merchant ships, to enter these waters to effect recovery. Embassy and Naval authorities should notify appropriate authorities of host country concerned if this contingency arises.

It should be noted that there are large gaps in the tracking and communications facilities used to track the spacecraft and that an emergency landing could occur in areas outside the range of tracking facilities which could precipitate a search over a vast area. On certain orbits this could include Communist held territory.

Should a known contingency landing take place in Communist China, North Viet Nam or Cuba those countries will be requested [Page 863] through intermediaries to give assistance to and effect the early return of the astronaut and spacecraft. In the case of Communist China, the Department plans to enlist the aid of the British Mission in Peiping in addition to the Ambassadorial channel in Warsaw. Similarly, the British Mission in Hanoi, in addition to the International Control Commission at Saigon, will be asked to intervene with North Viet Nam. The Government of Switzerland will be asked to intervene in the case of Cuba. Prior arrangements will be made with the intervening countries.

SAR aircraft will not be permitted to enter the airspace of or land in Communist China, North Viet Nam or Cuba. In the case of a landing known to be within the Communist-controlled areas of Laos, the ICC will be requested to use its aircraft to assist in locating and retrieving the astronaut and spacecraft. Because of the openness and world-wide interest in the type of flight, it is our judgment that should the astronaut land in Communist territory and be turned over to the governmental authorities he will be returned to the United States. However, little hope is held for return of the spacecraft.

SAR aircraft and Naval forces should be authorized to penetrate the territorial waters of Communist China, North Viet Nam and Cuba for the purpose of locating, rendering assistance to and retrieving the astronaut and the spacecraft. In the event the SAR forces are opposed or fired upon the rescue forces are authorized to proceed to recover the astronaut and spacecraft, if in the judgment of the on-scene commander the recovery is militarily feasible and can be expeditiously accomplished without unduly endangering the life of the astronaut.

If the astronaut or spacecraft is recovered by foreign forces within their territorial waters, SAR and Naval forces should make every effort to effect recovery by peaceful means. The use of force should not be authorized without prior consultation with the Department of State.

In the event the spacecraft lands on the high seas and the astronaut or spacecraft is recovered by a foreign vessel, U.S. forces should be directed to request the transfer of the astronaut and the spacecraft to American control. In the event the foreign vessel refuses to return the astronaut and spacecraft, the American commander should so report through his chain of command to the DOD which should consult the Department of State before issuing further instructions. He should not be authorized to use force but should be directed to keep the foreign vessel under surveillance pending receipt of instructions.

As you will note from the attachment, the Department of State will maintain an around-the-clock watch during the entire course of the flight and will have available facilities providing direct communications with the NMCC, NASA headquarters and Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral. Throughout the flight, Embassies and Mission located in countries [Page 864] orbited will have a senior officer available on an 24-hour alert basis and will maintain a supporting communications watch. Every effort possible is being made by the Department of State to assure that adequate means of communication will be available to all posts involved.

With regard to the suggestion contained in the JCS memorandum of March 15, 1963 to the Secretary of Defense the press as well as the Voice of America, as in the case in previous flights, will provide the world with information on the progress of the flight.


Alex Johnson4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, SP 10 US/GEMINI. Secret. Drafter by Trevanion H.D. Nesbitt, and cleared in draft by George S. Newman and George Warren (G/PM), Richard D. Kearney and Allan I. Mendelsohn (L), Edward E. Rice and Captain Robert E. Wood (FE), and Edward M.J. Kretzmann (SCI). Copies were sent to Charles Johnson (NSC), James E. Webb, and Edward Welsh.
  2. In this letter, Bundy transmitted a memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointing out the need for such policy guidance. (Ibid.)
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates signed the original.