In Sputnik's wake in late 1957, a small circle of Langley researchers had plunged into the dark and frigid depths of space science. "We were aeronautical engineers," remembers William H. Michael, Jr., a member of Clinton E. Brown's Theoretical Mechanics Division who had just returned to Langley after a two-year stint in the aircraft industry. "We knew how to navigate in the air, but we didn't know a thing about orbital mechanics, celestial trajectories, or interplanetary travel, so we had to teach ourselves the subjects." In the Langley technical library, where during the days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) the word "space" was not even allowed, Michael could find only one book that helped: It was An Introduction to Celestial Mechanics but it had been published in 1914, before the first pioneering rocketry had taken place under Robert H. Goddard. Michael had never heard of its author, a British professor of astrophysics named Forrest R. Moulton.5 With this out-of-date text in hand, nevertheless, Michael and a few associates taught themselves enough about the equations of celestial mechanics to grow confident in their computations. Before long, the novices had transformed themselves into experts and were using their slide rules and early electronic computers to figure out ways to reach the Moon and to return.
This team did not know at the time how useful their calculations would so quickly turn out to be. In anticipating the trajectories for different lunar missions in the late 1950s, Brown, Michael, and their colleagues were "leapfrogging" over what most people deemed "the logical next step": an Earth-orbiting "space station." The group also did not know that their mental gymnastics would set the direction of the U.S. space program for the next twenty years.
Even after Sputnik, most proponents of space travel still believedfollowing the wisdom of Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy, Hermann Oberth, Guido von Pirquet, Wernher von Braun, and other space-minded visionariesthat humankind's first step out into the universe would be to some sort of space station in the Earth's orbit. From this nearby outpost, which could also serve as a research laboratory in which all sorts of unique experiments and valuable industrial enterprises might be conducted, human travelers could eventually venture out in spaceships for trips to the Moon, the planets, and beyond. Therefore, after establishing Project Mercury, and putting an astronaut into space, most in NASA believed that the development of a space station was "the next logical step." It was the perfect target project by which NASA could focus its space-related studies as well as its future plans.6
But Clint Brown and his associates felt differently: the politics of the space race were dictating the terms of the American space program, not the inspired prophecies of the earliest space pioneers. The Soviet Union had already demonstrated that it had larger boosters than did the United States, which meant that the Soviets had the capability of establishing a space station before Americans could do so. Brown explained years later, "If we put all our efforts into putting a space station around the world, wed probably find ourselves coming in second again." The "obvious answer" was that "you had to take a larger bite and decide what can really give us leadership in the space race." To him "that clearly seemed the possibility of going to the Moon and landing there."7 In other words, what Brown was arguing, in this feverish and confused early stage of the spaceflight revolution, was that the "obvious answer" should take precedence over the "next logical step."