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Chrysler lifts NASA: the next step in the rocket story

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© 2008 Curtis Redgap, Orlando, Florida

Chrysler positioned itself as one of the leading missile manufacturers by being an excellent, high-quality manufacturer. The awarding of a contract for the Redstone Missile System as discussed in the previous chapter was not of political origins, but from the patriotism of Chrysler Corporation as a whole, and the engineering acumen that made its products desirable to have.

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To review, K. T. Keller, on retiring as head of Chrysler Corporation, was chosen by President Harry Truman to head the United States missile programs on the recommendation of Secretary of Defense, General George C. Marshall. Marshall had been the Chief of Staff since his appointment by Franklin Roosevelt in September 1939; he had leapfrogged far more senior officers, rising from a single star Brigadier General to full four-star General. Roosevelt's faith was well placed, and Marshall was later the first Army officer to receive the 5 star rank (in 1944).

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Chrysler Corporation began production of the Redstone missile in Warren, Michigan, on September 27, 1954. Earlier models in 1952 and 1953 had been manufactured by Chrysler at the Redstone Ballistic Missile Complex. The quality was outstanding, with the Redstone delivering perfect launch after perfect launch, earning its nickname as "Old Reliable" and the "Army Workhorse." As each contractual goal was reached, the Army reissued the contract, extending Chrysler's work into many years, up through 1961 for the Redstone (the assembly photo above was taken in 1957). It was not, however, the end to Chrysler's work in space by any means.

You Tube production featuring Chrysler Warren Michigan Missile Plant

In February 1956, the Army issued Chrysler a contract to build the Jupiter rocket. The Jupiter was a follow-on rocket developed by Wernher von Braun, who had determined that the Jupiter-C could easily accomplish his long range goals of using rockets for exploration of space. It was a modified Redstone missile with liquid fuel for intermediate range flights.

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This missile development was supposed to have been halted. However, von Braun, increasingly frustrated, had disobeyed orders and continued the development under funds of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), hiding it as part of a program to get a "civilian" satellite into orbit for the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY). He received tacit approval by General Medaris, the ABMA head, who agreed that the US was far behind the Union of Soviet [removed] Republics in missile development.

Politically, the slippage in missile development really began in 1952 when the von Braun team was placed in White Sands, New Mexico, out of the loop of political influence and key planners. Instead, von Braun practically whiled the time away with with dreams of huge missiles carrying men to Mars.

The USSR started to send their captured German scientists back to Germany in 1952, believing that their involvement in Russian missile development held no news for a US intelligence agency. They were wrong; as soon as some of the Russian-captured Germans arrived in West Germany, immediate contact was established with members of von Braun's team in the USA. It didn't take long for the Soviet plans and capabilities to become knowledge of the von Braun team or the Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] (more accurate and far more correct than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ever thought of being!)

The CIA had the upper hand, and unfortunately, the ear of the President, Dwight Eisenhower. Both the President and the CIA were desperate for intelligence of things behind "The Iron Curtain." von Braun scoffed, stating that, given the go-ahead, he could and would place satellites and manned spacecraft into orbit, well ahead of the USSR. Had he been given the "go-ahead" in 1952, the USA would have beaten the Russian space efforts, easily, by at least two full years!

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President Eisenhower had been pushing for the right to have US aircraft overflights of Russian territory, and in return, allowing Russian aircraft to fly over the USA. Pundits were horrified. Congress and the public were skeptical, but Eisenhower was not easily deterred. He rejected the KH-1 Chronos satellite program because the launch missiles had been developed by the military. (No such objections seemed to have been raised about the sort of aircraft that might have been used to fly over Russia had "Project Open Sky" been approved by the two powers. At the time only the in-development B-52 had such a long range suitable for the huge Soviet Republic land areas.)

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When the KH-1 Chronos Spy satellite project was rejected from the military, it landed in the hands of the CIA, which had no reservations about how the satellites got into orbit. Development continued within the Air Force, in total secrecy, even from President Eisenhower.

The cost, at the time, was estimated at around $5 million, for just the single development unit. By Defense Department standards, that was cheap, and the Jupiter C had already been built! Had Eisenhower allocated funds, imagine what he could have achieved with the $20 million it cost to develop the U-2 spy plane, along with the $35 million or so spent to other military contractors for development work on the same sort of plane - not to mention the amount spent on procuring the first 20 U-2s.

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The US Air Force, newly formed in 1947, won a great battle in 1949, beating the US Navy in getting funding for the giant B-36 Peacemaker against the Navy's giant super aircraft carrier in the "Revolt of the Admirals." Neither service was focused on missiles, even though both had missile development programs.

Try as he might to capture the attention, or imagination, of planners, politicians, and programs, Wernher von Braun felt betrayed by promises he had received from the Army, along with the politicians in Washington.

Aided by his backwater channels of communication from his German colleagues recently back from Russia, he was increasingly desperate to get America into space. He was aware of the propaganda windfall the first country would receive. Russia continued to develop a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead over thousands of miles as well. The Russian race to explore space, like the programs in the USA, were mired in political bickering and Kremlin dithering.

Then, scientists announced the International Geophysical Year for 1957 through 1958. Eisenhower deemed it an opportunity to set satellites streaming over Russian land masses without diplomatic protests. Even Russia would not openly object to scientific progress. It would resolve the issue of ownership of airspace above a country. Once the civilian satellites were whizzing overhead, it would set the precedent for the freedom of space sweeping aside Soviet objections even to those missions with a full military application involved.

The "civilian" missile system, named Vanguard, was ordered into production after President Eisenhower formed a secret committee to determine the best way to get a satellite into orbit. Fresh after World War II, it quickly developed a sort of "not-the-Germans" mentality. Representatives from all the armed services, and several members from the civilian rocket companies, voted the Vanguard program that the Navy had initiated, and shelved, as the best program, with costs to be held at $12 million.

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von Braun was aghast. He fought the decision, as did General Medaris. However, Eisenhower seemed to harbor deep reservations about Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists. Without openly expressing his discontent with their presence, the President politely set aside anything that came from that group.

Costs to get Vanguard into space quickly rose. Off the shelf parts, supposedly Vanguard's main cost savings, were found to require extensive retrofits. At $100 million, von Braun and Medaris rose to the occasion, with objections that started to gain traction in Congress and in the public eye. In early 1956, major media outlets began to question the President's decision to champion an obvious failed booster system. General Medaris then presented the already complete, and ready to launch Chrysler built Jupiter C as an alternative.

About the same time, the huge Soviet launch complex at Baikonur was under construction. The Russians were well into building their huge rocket, with engine testing begun in January 1956.

President Eisenhower reluctantly allowed the Jupiter C to be test fired, remaining adamant that no satellite was to be put into orbit; instead an inert mass was loaded into the upper orbiter stage, which would be programmed for a sub-orbital shot. von Braun was frustrated, but he accepted the program. President Eisenhower was not pleased, but he was said to have been impressed with how von Braun had covered his tracks in building the Jupiter.

On September 20, 1956, the first USA satellite could have been a reality because the Jupiter C, like the reliable Redstone, performed flawlessly. The dead weight sailing up and into space would have gone into earth orbit.

The 31.5 pound dud satellite went 3,300 miles down range from Cape Canaveral at a height of 680 miles.

Two more successful launches of the Jupiter C occurred on May 15, 1957. That flight lifted a 300 pound dead weight a full 350 miles into space, going 710 miles down range. The August 8, 1957 shot sent 100 pounds 285 miles high and 1,500 miles down range from Cape Canaveral Florida. Those shots would have pushed the USA into greatness, but they fell to prejudice. The Jupiter C had been ready for launch in 1955, two years ahead of the Soviets.

Chrysler Corporation was given a contract to build the Jupiter in November 1956.

On October 4, 1957, the world was stood on its ear. Russia launched the first manmade "moon" into orbit over the earth. Sputnik ("tiny moon") criss-crossed the world every 96 minutes. The media frenzy overcame expectations of the Soviets; it appeared that Russia was the totally dominant technological leader of the world. There was no way to measure their progress, so there was no way to tell the world the real truth. Soviet Premier Khrushchev never expected that.

Eisenhower was furious, taken totally by surprise. He felt, and rightly so, that the CIA had deliberately mis-led him on Soviet space progress. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson initiated, with White House approval, a far-reaching investigation of how the USA lost the space race. Military leaders were scrambling for any sort of concept to retake the lead in space. It would come, but at a great price, and far into the future, as Russia kept their pace of space with first after first.

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I was 11 years old at the time. My father was angry, and like all Americans, shocked and concerned. It seemed that American was vulnerable to Soviet domination, with a space-based attack to come at any time. A Sputnik flight path was announced over our local TV station, along with the times that the little moon would be visible over our American heads. It was an awesome moment to look up into the crystal clear Autumn night, and see the brightly shining satellite tracking straight over our country. We watched the satellite many times over many days. America seemed to have no answer. The very next month, the Soviets put a dog into orbit. The first American answer was a single stage launch test by Vanguard on 23 October 1957. It was very suborbital, with only one stage tested, and was barely noticed in the hue and cry of Soviet excellence in space.

On December 6, 1957 the Vanguard satellite launching rocket only achieved a complete failure on its own pad. The whole world was watching as it exploded in a huge fireball. Some very large newspapers ran full color photos of the explosion, labeling them "Kaputnik." Word was sent quickly to have von Braun get a satellite into orbit using the Jupiter C.

As von Braun had repeatedly stated, he could achieve orbit within 60 days of getting the go ahead. He was good to his word, putting America's first satellite into orbit on February 1, 1958. [This satellite appears to have lasted until 1970.]

Even so, America remained convinced that the USA had suddenly become a second rate power! Sputnik was still being hailed as the best greatest achievement of all time. The USA had no real intelligence to get a peek at what the Soviets were doing.

Even at that, Eisenhower still backed the Vanguard project. The Soviet triumph did resolve the issue of "free" space, whereby satellites whizzed overhead of any country on Earth. Project Corona, the Keyhole spy satellite program, directed by the CIA, went ahead with full force. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. President Eisenhower insisted upon the manned section being staffed with recognized test pilots, and only one agency to be in overall charge. On that same date, President Eisenhower also announced that there would be a totally new location for NASA, the George C. Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Two days after NASA became law, on August 1 1958, the US Army launched its 50th Chrysler-built Redstone off Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean. It was the centerpiece of Operation Hardtack, one of 77 open air nuclear tests conducted by the military in 1958. Operation Teak shot the 50th Redstone, which lifted a 3.8 megaton thermonuclear device to 252,000 feet, 47 miles (outside the upper limits of the atmosphere, and considered to be "space"). Due to a programming error, the missile did not track down range, exploding directly over the island. It caused a huge disruption in radio and unleashed a particularly large amount of dirty radiation into the upper ionic atmosphere due to the type of device. The missile, built by Chrysler Corporation, performed flawlessly despite the human programming error.

Chrysler and Wernher von Braun, already well connected, became more so when NASA awarded Chrysler Corporation a contract to build seven Jupiter Redstone missiles in late 1958. These missiles were for the Explorer satellite program; the Vanguard project had been quietly shelved.

Shortly thereafter, Chrysler was awarded a contract for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency for $52 million to build Jupiter Redstone boosters. These were for weaponry. Nuclear warheads were making rapid increases in destructive power, as well as becoming smaller and lighter for easier launch on a missile.

In 1958, the best missiles, such as the Redstone and Jupiter C, had in the ranges of 80,000 pounds to 160,000 pounds of thrust. Wernher von Braun knew that something to the tune of 6 million pounds of thrust would be needed to lift and accelerate the satellite or capsule to 25,000 miles an hour and escape Earth's gravity.

After seeing the embrace of his Jupiter C rocket, he turned to Chrysler Corporation, which began research and exploration for a means to build such a 6 million pound thrust vehicle. They already had some things done from interests done in 1956.

Chrysler engineering began looking at engines that were currently developed. The Air Force had the F-1 Rocketdyne engine that had been built in a study done in 1955. The size was good, and the power was 1.5 million pounds of thrust. However, further development was halted because such a huge engine had no perceived use at that time. Chrysler began designs that coupled the engines together. A series of mechanical drawings rendered 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 engine configurations working together. Imagine the 8 engine booster would have been a monster with 12 million pounds of thrust! Pundits dubbed the concepts of rockets as "Cluster's Last Stand," because they doubted such designs would work.

Suddenly, at the end of 1959, the US Army decided it no longer wanted to be in the big thruster business. It proposed that its missile development programs and Dr. Wernher von Braun be sent over to NASA. von Braun balked. He didn't understand the Army's reasoning. However, it was clear that NASA was now the head of any space effort, and funds for big booster development could be utilized by the Army into other areas. von Braun made it clear that he was displeased with the decision of the Army, and would have many reservations about any appointment to NASA.

Army planners saw the handwriting on the wall when a group of newly appointed high ranking NASA officials came calling upon General Medaris. On December 2, 1958, the NASA officials wanted the opinion of the ABMA on the feasibility of utilizing the Chrysler-built Redstone as the booster for the manned space program. For Redstone itself, thank the saints that Chrysler Corporation quality was far above the quality that was being built into their cars of the period. Redstone at that point in time had experienced between 70 and 75 launches (numbers vary because of military secrecy) without a single failure. It was no wonder NASA came calling to use the Redstone. NASA also wanted the ABMA to discuss costs of building a series of rockets.

On January 8, 1959, NASA requested that ABMA, through Chrysler, build 8 Redstone rockets for the Mercury Project. Prices were still under negotiation. On January 16, 1959, NASA also wanted ABMA and Chrysler to serve as the launch directors of the eight rockets.

The program built intensity quickly. Meetings were held continuously. Some were planned, others called spontaneously, at times a dozen a month. The price had not been yet finalized due to the ever expanding mission goals and safety related items involved in manned flights.

Chrysler continued with missile production, and kept the big booster development program going, as well as becoming heavily involved in the NASA Mercury Project. von Braun had re-named the big booster program as "Saturn", the planet after Jupiter.

On June 24, 1959, Chrysler and NASA finally settled the contract. Initially, Chrysler had told NASA that they felt the costs for the 8 Redstone rockets would be projected at $15 million. In the interim months, two additional Jupiter C rockets had been ordered as well as Chrysler and ABMA chosen to be the launch company. Chrysler, never, at that time, one to seek big profits in defense work, offered up a fly away cost of the entire Project Mercury set at $20 million. Expecting far more, NASA officials unhesitantly accepted the amount.

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While jubilation followed at Chrysler and ABMA, the Army officials found themselves increasingly pushed outside the decision making loops. von Braun failed to notice the widening chasm between himself and the US Army. The final straw probably occurred on December 22, 1959 when the first NASA Redstone was set up at the ABMA site for testing. No one asked the Army.

The Marshall Space Center in Huntsville opened for business on July 1, 1960. The Army team had arrived, without Dr. von Braun. It took a face to face meeting with a military physicist in the Pentagon to settle the issues. von Braun made it very clear that he would never go to NASA unless the big booster rocket programs were a priority. The issues were overcome. Dr. Wernher von Braun was named the Marshall Center's first Director, taking his full time office in July 1960.

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Chrysler had not been idle during any of that time. Now, with von Braun in the driver's seat of NASA, their place in the space race would be assured.

The first test of their concepts from von Braun's ideas culminated in the Saturn I rocket. It used the cluster design, but not the F-1 engine. Instead it boosted loads based on 8 H-1 engines that had
130,000 pounds of thrust each.

Chrysler built 10 Saturn I vehicles. All were used by NASA with no failures.

Quickly proving that the clusters were not only viable, but economical to produce, NASA and Chrysler moved quickly to bigger and better lift systems. At this point all other missile contracts for Redstone (now obsolete) Jupiter, Jupiter C had been completed. No more such contracts were extended since the missile systems had quickly all been obsolete with new technology.

Chrysler designed and built the next Saturn Rocket, the Saturn IB. It too had a cluster of 8 H-1 rocket motors, but they had been up rated to 200K pounds of thrust each, giving the IB 1.6 million pounds of thrust. Chrysler built, and NASA, flew nine of the Saturn IB without any failures. They were not the sole single source for this rocket.

Things were quickly ramping up. Funding flowed like water. Chrysler realized in early 1960, that even before the eventual development of the Saturn I, that it could not sustain the level of being a single source contract to fulfill the upcoming demands of the heavy lift vehicle. Chrysler would remain a prime contractor, but with the huge developments mounting quickly within NASA, they would not be the sole builders of the heavy rockets going to the moon.

Next: Riding a Chrysler (rocket) to the Moon

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