Within a month the ARDC had established two research projects. The Manned Glide Rocket Research System would be a rocket-boosted winged follow-on to the X-15 that would reach 120 km altitude and Mach 21 - orbital velocity. The Task 27544 Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System would be a re-entry capsule, boosted by an ICBM, which would allow quick reaction delivery of critical cargo to any point on earth in less than an hour - or place a man in orbit. It was recommended that the second alternative be pursued as a priority, since development of re-entry vehicles and the Atlas ballistic missile would allow the first manned flight by 1960. It was seen as important to establish Air Force priority in this field since von Braun's Army team at Huntsville was known to be making similar proposals for rocket-powered troop transport.
In order to protect its precedence ARDC briefed the classified projects to the USAF Western Development Division (later the Ballistic Missile Division, BMD), in Inglewood; the Wright Air Development Center, in Dayton; the NACA at Langley; the prime aircraft contractors; and the American Rocket Society. In the absence of any funding from headquarters, ARDC had to rely on the contractors to invest their own funds in feasibility studies. McDonnell, a small aircraft company seeing a future business opportunity, began work in March 1956. Avco, the lead USAF contractor for ICBM re-entry vehicles, produced its first study by November 1956.
BMD formulated a long-range plan for Air Force dominance in space. On 29 July 1957 presentations were made at the Rand offices to the Air Force Scientific Board on competing concepts from ARDC and BMD. BMD had ambitious plans that extended to lunar flight (which would evolve into Project Lunex), while ARDC stuck to its two short-term projects. NACA's interest was confined to the Manned Glide Rocket Research System. They proposed a raised-top, flat-bottom glider configuration in a September 1957 feasibility report.
Russia launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October, creating a political furor and giving new priority and urgency to the military's space efforts. On 15 October the NACA held a technical conference to resolve the final configuration for the Manned Glide Rocket Research System. The agreed delta-winged flat-bottom configuration would evolve into the X-20 Dyna-Soar.
On 20 November Avco issued its second report, advocating a spherical manned reentry capsule brought down from orbit by a shuttlecock-like steel drag brake. Harrison Storms of North American conceived of a way to get an American into space as quickly as possible. North American had a warehouse full of partially-completed G-38 boosters for the just-canceled Navaho missile program. Storms proposed to cluster four of them together in order to launch an orbital version of the company's X-15 manned rocketplane. From the ARDC's point of view, the problem with either approach was the appalling reliability of either of these rocket boosters. The Atlas had only been launched twice so far, and not made it to burnout without veering off course. The Navaho G-38 had never been launched, although the prototype G-26 boosters were finally looking reliable on the last three flights after catastrophic results on the first four.
The ARDC still had no funds for research work, but the political furor over the Sputnik surprise mounted. Air Force efforts to do something were frustrated by the Eisenhower administration's disinterest in expanding the military-industrial complex into the space - at literally astronomical cost. An emergency committee chaired by physicist Edward Teller had proposed on 28 October that a crash space program, run by the Air Force, should be undertaken immediately. On 3 December Eisenhower's officially-sanctioned "civilian" satellite vehicle, the Vanguard, exploded on the pad on its first orbital launch attempt. But when the Air Force created a Directorate of Astronautics on 10 December, it was derided by Secretary of Defense McElroy and shut down three days later. No funds were forthcoming for either the Avco or North American proposals.
Headquarters USAF nevertheless ordered ARDC to prepare a comprehensive five year astronautics program. This was delivered to the Pentagon on 30 December. The plan foresaw development of reconnaissance, communications, and weather satellites, using recoverable data capsules. The manned program would begin with a manned capsule test system, followed by space stations, and an Air Force base on the Moon. Funding required would be $1.7 billion in FY 1959 alone.
Although this plan stalled in the offices of the civilian management of the Pentagon, the ARDC pushed ahead at full speed. On 20 to 31 January 1958 ARDC held a secret conference at Dayton where eleven airframers briefed their concepts for the first American manned spacecraft. There seemed to be a consensus that the basic Atlas ICBM alone was incapable of boosting sufficient payload to orbit for a manned capsule. The Atlas with an upper stage would be required. Most contractors proposed using the Hustler (later Agena) upper stage. This secret Lockheed vehicle was already under development for the deep black Corona reconnaissance satellite. A few contractors suggested using a solid propellant upper stage with the Atlas or he two-stage Titan-I booster. Only North American dissented, still advocating its cluster-of-Navaho-booster approach. Avco presented its drag-brake capsule concept, boosted by a Titan I. Lockheed, Martin, Aeroneutronics, McDonnell, and Goodyear all advocated simple ballistic capsules of various forms, boosted by an Atlas with an upper stage. Bell and Northrop rejected the ballistic approach, one of them saying that a capsule 'would be only a stunt', and presented their Dyna-Soar designs. Republic presented the Ferri sled, a weird lifting vehicle.
On the last day of the conference, ARDC directed Wright Field to ignore the lifting concepts and concentrate on the fastest way of getting a man into space. BMD was to advise on the booster system to be used to accomplish that task. Overnight after the conference, von Braun's team launched the first US satellite using an Army Redstone booster. The Air Force was not only behind the Soviets, it was behind the Army. The first request for purchasing action, for a 24-hour environmental control system for the capsule, was issued a few days later.
The ARDC boiled down the 11 proposals to the three that had the best chance of quick realization - North American's X-15B, acceleration of the nascent program for the X-20 Dynasoar winged space glider, or one of the simple ballistic capsule designs, boosted by an existing launch vehicle. On 27 February they took these straight to Curtis LeMay, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and former head of the Strategic Air Command. LeMay's main comment was: "Where's the bomb bay?" Nevertheless, he instructed ARDC to select one of the concepts and submit a detailed plan for an Air Force man-in-space program as soon as possible.
The next day, Roy W Johnson, former vice-president of General Electric and now head of the Pentagon's new Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), affirmed that "the Air Force has a long term development responsibility for manned space flight capability with the primary objective of accomplishing satellite flight as soon as technology permits." On 8 March BMD proposed an 11-step "Manned Space Flight to the Moon and Return" program. This began with instrumented and primate orbital missions, followed by a manned orbit of Earth; circumnavigation of the Moon, first with instruments, then primates; instrumented hard and soft landings on the Moon; a primate landing on the Moon; manned lunar circumnavigation; and a manned lunar landing.
On 10-12 March ARDC held a conference at BMD of 80 technical and biological specialists. The objective was to reach agreement on a plan to get a man-in-space - soonest - in accordance with LeMay's orders. Unfortunately for North American's X-15B, the consensus at the conference was that the "quick and dirty" approach was best. This would consist of a simple ballistic capsule using parachutes for a water landing, weighing around 1300 kg. The capsule would be 1.8 m in diameter and 2.4 m long, and completely automated - the human-factors people felt there was no certainty that a pilot could function under the stresses of space flight. This last point ruled out the piloted X-15B.
The capsule's life support system would be designed for single-crew missions of up to 48 hours. The preferred re-entry vehicle was the 'Discoverer' type being developed for the Corona project. For this kind of capsule, where the direction of G-forces was reversed between ascent and return, the pilot's couch proposed by Harold J von Beckh of ARDC's Aeromedical Field Laboratory was necessary. This was attached at pivot points at the head and feet of the pilot, so it would rotate freely to bring the pilot's back against the G forces, regardless of their direction. An ablative heat shield would allow re-entry deceleration to be kept below 9 G's, and the cabin temperature below 65 deg C. Multiple small solid propellant retro-rockets would brake the capsule back into the atmosphere at the end of its mission.
Nobody advocated using the Atlas alone as the booster. The medical specialists concluded that the occupant might be subjected to 20-G's in an abort from the Atlas, believed to be beyond the limit of human tolerance, whereas a two-stage vehicle would limit that to an acceptable 12-G's. Space Technology Laboratories, technical advisor to the Air Force for the ICBM program, believed the Atlas would be too unreliable. They favored using the Thor IRBM with the Nomad fluorine-hydrazine upper stage. A development program was sketched out, requiring flight of 10 Thor-Ables for initial tests and primate flights, to be followed by 20 Thor-Nomad flights. While all this was going on, NACA management was still committed to winged orbital flight, and had not participated in the Air Force capsule discussions. It was not until three days after the conference that NACA agreed to support the effort, although it declined to jointly manage the project with the Air Force.
ARDC sent its crash development plan for a manned orbital capsule to Headquarters USAF on 14 March. Based on this, on 19 March, the Air Force requested $133 million from ARPA for the program in FY 1959. While the Air Force was charging forward, Eisenhower had numerous high-level studies underway, all with the objective of preventing the extension of the military into space. He also approached the Russians on calling off the space race altogether, but got nowhere.
NACA held its own internal conference on manned spacecraft on 18 March at Ames at Moffett Field. Faget led the Langley majority group, advocating a ballistic capsule. This would be semi-conical, 2.13 m in diameter, 3.35 m long, using a heat sink heat-shield. The advantage over the Discoverer-type re-entry vehicle was that the pilot's seat would not have to pivot. The design was aerodynamically unstable compared to the self-righting Discoverer design, but attitude control jets were believed to be sufficient to keep the capsule from oscillating uncontrollably during re-entry.
John Becker from Langley offered a winged configuration, which would re-enter at a high angle of attack, using its flat under-side as a heat shield. He argued that a one-man vehicle would weigh 1390 kg, not significantly heavier than Faget's ballistic capsule, while limiting re-entry deceleration to 1 G.
The Ames concept was the blunt M-1 lifting body that the center had been refining for many months. This was a compromise between the pure ballistic and winged vehicles. Reentry deceleration would be kept to 2-G's, and the pilot could remain in control at all times.
All of these NACA discussions were held in a vacuum regarding the launch vehicle. It was felt that waiting for development of a two-stage vehicle would take too long; the Atlas ICBM alone should be sufficient. But no one at NACA had the 'need to know' to gain access to the classified performance characteristics of the Atlas.
Within ARDC a Man-in-Space Task Force was set up at BMD. While the final goal was to "… to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth," the first phase was "Man-in-Space-Soonest." This was the program sketched out in March, and used the Thor-Nomad vehicle. Once the first human had been orbited, MISS-1 would be followed by MISS-2 - "Man-in-Space-Sophisticated". This would use a heavier version of the same capsule, demonstrating manned flight up to the 14-days required for a voyage to the moon and back. Phase 3, "Lunar Reconnaissance," would soft-land an unmanned probe equipped with a television camera on the lunar surface, to prove landing techniques and verify the nature of the lunar surface. Phase 4, "Manned Lunar Landing and Return," MALLAR, would orbit primates, then men, around the moon; and then land primates, and then men, on the moon and return them to earth. For the Phase 4 lunar flights a Super Titan launch vehicle, using fluorine-oxidizer second and third stages, would power the spacecraft toward the moon.
By 2 May the task force forwarded to Headquarters USAF the detailed designs, operational procedures, and schedule for Man-in-Space-Soonest. The Thor-Agena/WS-117L, Thor-Able, and Thor-Nomad boosters would be used. The first manned flight would be made on the tenth launch of the Thor-Nomad, in October 1960. The capsule had an abort system that used high-thrust solid fuel rockets at the base of the capsule to fire it clear of the booster in case of an emergency.
But suddenly there was a three-week delay. Avco had gotten back together with Convair, and on 30 April they back-doored to LeMay a convincing and highly detailed proposal for development of their minimum vehicle. This used the Atlas without an upper stage, and the same Avco drag brake design they had been working on for two years. Even BMD, which hated the idea of using the "bare" Atlas, had to admit it would save four months in development time. But ARDC, advised by Faget at NACA, still favored the simple ballistic capsule with a parachute landing. Therefore on 20 May, Lieutenant General Samuel E Anderson, Commander of ARDC, replied to LeMay that he had no confidence in Avco's design, and recommended that the Air Force proceed as per the 2 May plan. LeMay accepted the response, and the program lurched back into gear.
But ARPA was still reluctant to provide the $133 million required to start development. They felt the development of the Thor-Nomad would take longer than planned, and possibly require 30 vehicle launches rather than 20, causing a massive cost escalation. Convair convinced Air Force Under Secretary MacIntyre and Assistant Secretary Richard E Horner that using Atlas instead could cut the program cost below $100 million. BMD grumbled that this would mean cutting the orbital altitude of the 900 to 1360 kg capsule from 275 km to 185 km, leaving the capsule out of range of the tracking network for much of the time. Nonetheless they submitted a revised plan on 15 June, using the Atlas and bringing the budget to $99.3 million while moving up first manned flight to April 1960.
With these changes ARPA released modest budget funds for initial study contracts for MISS-1. Convair had won the booster race, but Avco was out of the running on the spacecraft. Up to this point McDonnell had invested more work than any other contractor on designing the spacecraft. They had over 70 staff working full-time on it, at their own expense. They had consulted extensively with Faget at Langley to keep abreast of NACA's latest information on capsule design. Therefore it was quite a blow when, on 16 June, Wright Field issued competitive design study contracts to North American and General Electric for the capsule. Each contract was nominally valued at $370,000 and was to run for three months. Each contractor was to complete design of the capsule and present a mock-up of their planned spacecraft. A down-select would be made in September, once fiscal year 1959 had begun.
On 25 June the Air Force completed a preliminary astronaut selection for the project. The list was prioritized according to the weight of the pilot due to the low payload available. The 150-175 pound group consisted of test pilots Bob or Robert Walker, Scott Crossfield, Neil Armstrong, and Robert Rushworth. In the 175 to 200 pound group were William Bridgeman, Alvin White, Iven Kincheloe, Robert White, and Jack McKay. It was the first astronaut selection in history. (Most historians assume the Bob Walker listing is an error for X-plane pilot Joseph Walker, although a Captain Robert P Walker, USAF, did graduate in the Edwards test pilot school class 54-C on 17 January 1955, together with Robert White).
While all of this was going on Eisenhower's plan to create a civilian space agency had developed into legislation, which was working its way through Congress. ARPA was not willing to put too much ARPA money into what might be another agency's project. Herbert York at ARPA put the brakes on by replacing the USAF's swift decision-making with committees and studies. He decided NACA would have to start clearing important decisions. An ARPA coordination meeting on 25-26 June with representatives from ARDC, BMD, Convair, Lockheed, Space Technology Laboratories, and NACA failed to reach a decision on the payload capability of the Atlas for the mission, the reliability, or on the use of a heat sink or ablation heat shield. They even started studying other booster possibilities. ARPA still withheld formal release of funds for the full-scale development program.
While all of this was going on, NACA Langley, expecting to receive the project in FY 1959, worked independently to complete its own in-house manned capsule design. The original flat-bottomed concept of March was refined, first to the Soyuz-like configuration that McDonnell was working on, and finally to the rounded-bottom, conical configuration finally adopted for the Mercury capsule. Faget continued to work closely through the back door with McDonnell despite the fact that the USAF had already down-selected to North American and General Electric.
On 10 July Brigadier General Homer A Boushey of Headquarters USAF informed ARDC that Eisenhower's Bureau of the Budget, firmly in favor of placing the manned space flight program in the new civilian agency, was blocking further release of funds for the program. On 16 July the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was passed by Congress, and NASA was created out of the NACA and some Army and Navy rocket laboratories. But ARPA told the Air Force there was still a chance the White House would support MISS if costs could be kept to under $50 million in FY 1959. They could present the project as so far along, and with so low a cost to complete, that it would be a big setback to start all over with NASA.
But BMD couldn't make the figures come out this way. Funding of only $50 million in FY 1959 would delay the first American in space to early 1962. Instead, on 24 July, General Bernard Schriever at BMD issued the sixth revision to the MISS development plan. This had a total cost of $106.6 million with the bare Atlas as the booster. Salient features included establishment of a worldwide tracking network, resolving quickly the heat sink versus ablation heat shield issue, and continuing with design of the Thor WS-117L and Thor-Able as backups in case the Atlas proved to be unreliable. Assuming immediate authorization from ARPA, Schriever promised release of the final tender documents to the contractors within 24 hours, and orbiting of the first man in space by June 1960.
The next day there was one last session with ARPA Director Johnson at the Pentagon. BMD pointed out that only full, unrestricted, immediate program approval to go ahead with MISS would give the United States a real chance to be "soonest" with a man in space. Johnson flatly refused. Eisenhower saw no valid role for the military in manned space flight. NACA didn't plan to spend more than $40 million on their manned space program in FY 1959, fiscally much more attractive than the $107 million the Air Force was asking for.
On that day - 25 July 1958 - America gave up its chance to put the first man into space. A manager like Schriever could undoubtedly have rammed the project through on the promised schedule. The collection of scientists and tinkerers at NACA had no chance.
Air Force participation in what was now a NASA program continued briefly. It was not quite clear that the new civilian agency would be given the lead in the manned space capsule program. Harrison Storms at North American was informally told he would be given the MISS capsule contract. In mid-September, action was replaced by a committee - a joint NASA-ARPA Manned Satellite Panel to draw up recommendations. NASA became operational on 30 September 1958, and the Air Force took only a logistical support role in the new program.
NASA ran a new competition for the manned capsule, which was to be produced to Faget's precise specifications. McDonnell, which had worked so closely with Langley, unsurprisingly won the award in January 1959. NASA would spend over $400 million on Mercury, but not fly the first American in orbit aboard an Atlas until February 1962. McDonnell's corporate commitment, preparation, and kowtowing to Faget's preferences were noted by Harrison Storms at North American. He vowed not to make the same mistake again. Four years later he convinced North American's management to take the same approach, and won the biggest plum of all, the Apollo moon-landing contract.