Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite


The U.S. satellite reconnaissance program before Sputnik

In 1954 the U.S. Air Force launched an ambitious program known as WS-117L to develop the world's first reconnaissance satellite. The goal was to take photographic images from space and relay them back to Earth via radio. Because of technical issues and bureaucratic resistance, however, WS-117L was seriously behind schedule by the time Sputnik orbited the Earth in 1957 and was eventually cancelled. The air force began concentrating instead on new programs that eventually launched the United States' first successful spy satellites.
Eyeing the Red Storm examines the birth of space-based reconnaissance not from the perspective of CORONA (the first photo reconnaissance satellite to fly) but rather from that of the WS-117L. Robert M.Dienesch's revised assessment places WS-117L within the larger context of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency, focusing on the dynamic between military and civilian leadership. Dienesch demonstrates how WS-117L promised Eisenhower not merely military intelligence but also the capacity to manage national security against the Soviet threat. As a fiscal conservative, Eisenhower believed a strong economy was the key to surviving the Cold War and saw satellite reconnaissance as a means to understand the Soviet military challenge more clearly and thus keep American defense spending under control.
Although WS-117L never flew, it provided the foundation for all subsequentsatellites, breaking theoretical barriers and helping to bridgemajor technical hurdles, which ensured the success of America's first working reconnaissance satellites and their photographic missionsduring the Cold War.


When Americans went to bed on October 3, 1957, little did they realize that the night sky was about to change forever. the only forewarning was a small article in the New York Times, “Soviet Expert Tells West of Test of Rocket.” Found at the bottom left corner of the first page on the morning of October 4, the piece would have garnered only passing interest had it not been for the events of the day.

At Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, just minutes before midnight on October 4, a Soviet rocket blasted off. At its top sat the Soviet Union’s contribution to the satellite program of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Weighing only eighty-four kilograms, the polished metal sphere of Sputnik, meaning “traveler,” was an oversized radio beacon. Its sole purpose was to orbit the earth and make electronic noise. and what a noise it made! It permanently altered the tranquil night sky. the earth and the moon were no longer alone. a man-made signal pierced the eerie silence of space.

Americans did not immediately grasp what had happened. Traveling at over seventeen thousand miles an hour, the satellite (complete with its booster and protective shroud following in its wake) flew over the United States twice before the U.S. government became aware of it. Radio Moscow first broke the news to the world, playing up the achievement for its propaganda value. in the United States the shock and disbelief were evident. Believing strongly that the nation had to act and that the Americans’ igy counterpart to Sputnik—VANGUARD—would not provide results in the near future, Werner Von Braun, long a vigorous advocate of satellite research and director of the Development Operations Division of . . .

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