28. Action Memorandum From the Acting Counselor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council (Owen) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Adequacy of US Space Programs


Before he left for Lima, Walt Rostow wanted to express to you his concern as to whether the US was applying sufficient effort and resources to research and development in advanced space technologies, particularly (1) in space propulsion, (2) in the requisites to exploration of the nearby planets and (3) in the extension of technology in present applications, such as communications satellites, to more advanced applications. This memorandum spells out the basis for his concern.

We must be in a position to exploit all significant opportunities which may affect both our military capability in space vis-é-vis the Soviets and our world leadership in advanced technology and the exploration of space.

This concern has been brought to mind by two recent events:

The decision taken by DOD to cancel as of December 31 all government support of research and development work on Project Orion, which, as you know, involves the development of a large maneuverable space vehicle that would be propelled by small nuclear explosions and might carry heavy loads into deep space.2
A recent NASA briefing for US Ambassadors and State Department officers3—particularly Mr. Webb’s responses to questions about the scope of NASA’s long-range research and development program in advanced space technology.

In addition, as part of the Administration effort to economize, both the NASA and DOD space programs have been curtailed. These budget limitations necessarily lead to concentration on current commitments at the possible expense of longer-range programs. Between the criteria of DOD for a military requirement and of NASA for emphasis upon Apollo and Apollo-related programs we may be overlooking some important areas of research.

In the case of space propulsion, for example, the imminent abandonment of Project Orion may be disquieting. This particular project involves only one of several advanced techniques for space propulsion, and has not been demonstrated thus far to be among the most advantageous to them. Nonetheless it is one of the areas in which a quantum jump in space technology is possible by either side and may constitute an option which should not have to be foreclosed. There may be other similar instances.

We have not fully recovered from the blow to our prestige, and the burden imposed on our diplomacy by the Soviet sputniks and luniks and orbiting manned-space vehicles, as USIA polls of foreign opinion on the relative military strengths of USSR and USA continue to attest.

We must continue to be concerned by the possibility not only of a significant breakthrough by the USSR in military technology in space, but of dramatic advances which boost Soviet prestige, and damage ours, even if they do not gravely affect the military balance.

You are familiar with the President’s general observations, made in St. Louis on October 21, on one of the ten ways to fight communism: “by maintaining superiority in every field of science and technology which does or can affect the security of the Nation. This applies to the exploration of outer space. We dare not leave this area of our universe to become a monopoly in the hands of those who would destroy freedom. We must therefore obtain and maintain a leadership for the Free World in outer space and we are trying to do that.”4

[Page 63]

We have discussed this matter with SCI, which shares our concern lest desirable long-range options be side-tracked in the present squeeze between budgetary limits and existing program commitments. Although we have no specific evidence that this is the case in any critical respect, Mr. Kretzmann agrees that the matter merits early attention. He has suggested that the best way to seek a balanced and authoritative answer is through the National Aeronautics and Space Council, of which you are a member. I agree.


We recommend that, soon after Senator Humphrey assumes the Chairmanship of the Council as Vice President, you request a meeting of the NASC to review the broad question of whether the US Government is doing all it should in research and development to assure that we are preserving significant opportunities which may affect our military capability in space and our world leadership in the advanced technology of space exploration. This would seem to be an appropriate step at that time. Meanwhile, if you agree, SCI will put the staff of the Council on notice and work with them in preparing for a useful discussion by the Council.5

  1. Source: Department of State, S/PC Files: Lot 72 D 124, Scientific and Technological Development, 1965. Secret. Cleared by Edwin M. Kretzmann (SCI), Scott George (G/PM), and William R. Tyler (EUR). A copy was sent to Ambassador Harriman.
  2. More information on the Department’s position on Project Orion is in a memorandum from Kretzmann to Eugene Rostow, November 24. (Ibid.)
  3. On November 10.
  4. For the full text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book II, pp. 1396–1401.
  5. Secretary Rusk initialed the approval line.