"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."
Interviewer: Dr. Seamans, perhaps you could talk about how "Space Race" during the 1950's was driven predominantly by military needs.
Dr. Seamans: Well, back in early 50's there were some real concerns about defenses and the possibility of Soviet attack by aircraft. At that time, a big conference was held called Project Charles. It was at MIT called Project Charles, because it's on the Charles River. There was a discussion of badgers and bison, and what were the various aircraft that could come over the pole and attack the United States. And the need for early warning, the need for interceptor aircraft, and so on. We had very lively discussions with the likes of Benny Schriver and Oppenheimer, and all kinds of top thinkers in the country. During that discussion there was a question of whether we should be just concerned about air defense, or whether we should also be concerned about the possibility of long-range missiles. The consensus was that we did not need to be concerned about it. That it was gonna be a long time before either of our countries had ICBM's It wasn't very long after that that the military felt that the Soviet military were starting to move ahead with long range missiles. And for that reason we should start post haste with a program. It would actually was run by General Schriver. And it was run as one of the top priority programs of the country. This was in the -- this was in the early 50's. That's when the Atlas and the Titan and the Minuteman were developed.
Interviewer: I want to ask you about your personal reaction to Sputnik , when that went up. Tell the story about where you were, what you thought, and whether or not America could have done it first.
Dr. Seamans: Well at the time, in 1957, I was working for RCA. I was a director in a laboratory out in Wolfham, and I had to commute back and forth roughly an hour each way. I was driving home, had the radio on, and suddenly heard that the Soviets had put a satellite into space. I remember the reaction I had at that time. It hit me just about the time I was coming down our driveway going into the garage, and I thought, "this did not have to happen this way, we had the capability of doing it." I was chagrined that we had not been first.
Interviewer: At the time did you feel like the Soviets were technologically more advanced than the US, or did they just pull off something that was remarkable for it's sheer audacity?
Dr. Seamans: My feeling at the time was that we were well ahead of them technically. This was just a question of having the motivation to move out, not realizing the importance of it. And that the Soviets obviously did have really more capability than I'd expected at that time. I actually, in one sense, thought they might be planning something of this sort. But I was, at the same time, surprised and almost amazed that they had done it.
Interviewer: I want to ask you now about when you went to NASA. You said that Eisenhower wasn't so interested. He wanted to do things, but still do it for only a billion dollars.
Dr. Seamans: Right
Interviewer: When you got there, space was the top national priority in the sense that it was receiving all the focus that it may have needed. What was the main objective at the time? Was it to stay in front of the Russians? And from where you sat when you got there, did you feel like America was still behind? And what changed to make America decide to make space a priority and to beat the Russians?
Dr. Seamans: Sputnik had taken place in'57. NASA was formed in '58. I went down in 1960 not being terribly familiar with what the NASA program was. Keith Glennan, who was then the administrator, gave me the opportunity to go round and visit various centers that NASA had to see what our programs really were. During that time it became obvious that we had really quite an imaginative scientific program. We were getting started on some of the communication and meteorological possibilities. The manned program was really being done on a shoestring. I felt, when I came back, that one of the things we should do since it already received a great deal of publicity, the seven astronauts were all by then well known households words, that we ought to beef that program up, give it more emphasis. Because NASA was gonna rise or fall depending on how well that program was conducted. It didn't seem to me that there was great intensity within the administration on the importance of the Mercury project.
Interviewer: Did you feel like you thought the Soviets were definitely on the way to launching a man in space?
Dr. Seamans: It was clear that the way they had run their program, they'd been getting amazing mileage out of what they were doing with really less capability than we had. I was sure that they were going to try to do it if they possibly could. I was not fully aware of what their capability was.
Interviewer: What was it you felt they were going to try to do?
Dr. Seamans: It was obvious. They had actually already put a dog in space, which is the equivalent to our putting a chimpanzee in space. They were leading up to a manned program, and they were gonna carry it out as soon as they could.
Interviewer: Could you describe how the launch of Yuri Gagarin stimulated the American space program and what was the political impact, and what impact did it have in terms of the National objectives in space?
Dr. Seamans: I think to answer that question we first have to double back and describe what the state of our thinking was within first the Eisenhower Administration, and then the Kennedy Administration. In simple terms it was that manned flight beyond Mercury was a possibility. Eisenhower had wanted to put in his State of the Union message that after Mercury there should be a hiatus. We should stop, see what we had done, and then possibly decide to do more. He did not put that in, but that was definitely the thinking of his administration. Kennedy came in; he wanted to do more. But he wanted to do it on his own terms. He wanted to think it through carefully. He had not made any decision as to whether to go ahead with Apollo. At the time that Gagarin flew, it's hard to get across the idea today of what happened. As a result of Gagarin, the Congress was absolutely up in arms. Jim Webb administrator and Hugh Dryden his deputy had to appear before a special session of Congress, a special committee to review why we had not been doing more in space. Why are we so slow, why had they beaten us again; why weren't we working overtime, double time? Because, one of the answers was very simple: they hadn't given us the funds for it. But you couldn't say that to them. Kennedy in turn was very upset that this had happened and commissioned his vice-president Johnson, who was then in charge of the space council, what can we do to possibly have a chance of getting ahead of the Soviets? To do something spectacular before the Soviets. There were the usual things that might be done. Space station, well the Soviets had essentially done that already. Flying around the moon. Or possibly a lunar landing. But that was looked at by many people as a long shot, something that we shouldn't really commit ourselves to do.
Interviewer: And why was the commitment then made? What happened?
Dr. Seamans: Well that was the general feeling. Now it was pretty obvious during this interregnum between Eisenhower and Kennedy that these kinds of discussions were going to take place. We commissioned some studies within NASA, two in particular, one by the Von Braun group, and one by Bob Gelruth and the space task group, to see how they would attack a lunar landing program. We had the results of those studies. We were also in the process of trying to figure out what it might cost to carry out such a mission. This information was becoming available just as these political discussions were taking place at the highest level. I personally felt at that time that we could do it. When you reasoned through each step of the way, you'd say, we can do it. Either we have the technology, or it's in the course of developing. But I admit that after having testified to this before congress, when I went up to Montrose Park in Georgetown and took a look, it had to be a full moon the day I testified before Congress, and I realized that I had said "Yes we can within the decade, go to the moon," I thought, "You know, am I nuts or not?" I mean, when you looked at the overall likelihood of doing it, when you saw the moon and you're standing on the earth, it was somewhat staggering.
Interviewer: One of the reasons that Kennedy went public with that objective was that you and the administration felt reasonably confident that you could get there before the Soviets.
Dr. Seamans: It was. It was our feeling that we could get there, that we could get there within the decade. We were actually targeting '67 just for internal planning purposes, so we had a 2-year hedge. But we could not guarantee that the Soviets would be second. We felt there was a reasonable chance they might get there ahead of us. But we knew that they would at least have to develop a whole new rocket system to do it. We knew that the rocket system they had available at that time would not permit a landing. It would have permitted a circumlunar flight but not a landing.
Interviewer: When the Soviets launched three men into space, did you have a suspicion that it was still the same capsule basically that Gagarin had gone up in?
Dr. Seamans: Well, our information was sort of fuzzy on that score. But from what we had seen with their various missions, they were doing a great deal with one common set of equipment. I personally admire them very much for their, I call it their sophistication. It wasn't sophistication of technology; it was sophistication in getting tremendous mileage out of equipment that we would not even have used ourselves. It was boilerplate kind of hardware, heavy hardware, very elementary electronics, and so on. It showed that somewhere there was a very smart group or individual behind it all to have planned such a sophisticated program.
Interviewer: So you knew that there was some mysterious chief designer. What did you know about him? What was your impression of this guy who was in charge of their space program?
Dr. Seamans: Well, it was difficult to imagine the person, because for a while we didn't even know there was a person. But then as time went on we began to get clues that there was a chief designer. We were able to pick up some information. He was in a car in Moscow, and we picked up a little of his voice, remarks, and realized that this person was in charge. And we could see the fruits of his endeavor. We were actually observing the new large rocket that they were developing at their launch range, for example. We could see how well he was doing with the existing hardware, and we could then imagine that he was putting it all together with the new hardware that was coming along. He was gonna be as imaginative as he had been with the rather limited hardware that he had to begin with. So we knew that we were dealing with somebody who was very competent and very imaginative and was going to do his best to carry out a lunar program before we did.
Interviewer: Did you consider him an enemy?
Dr. Seamans: I never considered him an enemy in the sense that he was trying to do us in. I consider that he was an enemy in the sense that he was gonna try to defeat us from a geo-political standpoint.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you had information about a big rocket. This was the beginning of the N1. Could you describe some intelligence reports that clearly showed early on, '63, '64 that they were trying to build a big rocket that could only be used for the moon?
Dr. Seamans: Well, the overhead photography during that period was getting better and better. I'll never forget the day that we saw a new building at their launch facility. The Soviets always put things together horizontally. It was a long low building and we realized that they must be building a rocket of much greater lift weight capacity than what they'd had in the past, and it could only be used for some kind of a lunar program. Then somewhat later we could see the rails being built to it. We could then see the complex coming on that would have the ability to erect this giant vehicle and launch it. Then one day we happened to catch it with our overhead satellite photography as it was being taken out to the pad. And it was big. It was bigger than the Saturn. It had to be bigger, because they did not have, and we knew this, they did not have the same ability to use liquid hydrogen that we did.
Interviewer: You said you'd never forget that day you first saw the building. What was your reaction?
Dr. Seamans: This is real. That up till then we'd assumed they were gonna have a program. Khrushchev had said he was gonna defeat us in every way possible including the space program, which seemed to indicate that, yes they had this in mind. But when you actually saw it on the film, we said, "Okay, this is a real contest."
Interviewer: What was the difference between the American military and the Russian military involvement in the space program?
Dr. Seamans: There was an attempt during this period to work out joint programs with the Soviets. There was a lot of pressure particularly in our country. Kennedy himself, somewhat later on in his term, suggested that rather than have our own expensive program going to the moon; it should be a joint project. But our relationship with the Soviets was strictly with their Academy of Sciences. They did not have the equivalent of a NASA, which was unclassified and ran open programs. The actual work with the rockets and so on was part of their military programs. And with this overlay, with their Academy of Sciences to have scientific discussions but not to get subsequent discussions up of hardware and things of that sort.
Interviewer: Talk about the strength of American industry and the focus it brought to bear on the Apollo program.
Dr. Seamans: Once the decision was made to go ahead and run an Apollo program, one of the issues was how much should we build up NASA itself? And how much effort should be taken up by our industry. And the decision was that we should increase the size of NASA a minimal amount, just enough to provide the overall management of the program. I remember going with Jim Webb over to the Corps of Engineers for example. We had a major task of building facilities. The Corps in turn, knew how to go out to our construction industry, our architects to begin with, and then the construction industry to put these giant buildings together. We, in turn NASA, were contracting out directly with the aerospace industry and with other industries to move ahead. We estimated that at the time of maximum effort we had at least 400 thousand people in this country, working on the Apollo program. The Soviets did not have that base to draw on. They tended to be very compartmentalized. They had a group that worked on airplanes and a group that worked on the missiles and so on. These are relatively small groups and they had very little ability to work back and forth between these entities. They could not suddenly expand their effort the way we could and the way we actually did.
Interviewer: In '67 there were two disasters, first here and then in the States.
Dr. Seamans: Yeah.
Interviewer: There was an intense pressure on both sides to progress the program. How did that pressure impact these disasters?
Dr. Seamans: I think that one thing that should be borne in mind is that both we and the Soviets were well aware of the risks we were taking. We were doing everything we possibly could to minimize the risk to human life. I feel that very strongly on both sides. Because we knew about some of their losses, some people said they're being reckless with human life. That was not so. In our case we had a very tragic fire. But we were taking no more risk, as far as we knew that particular day when we had the fire, than on a Mercury flight or a Gemini flight or all the other things that we were doing. We just plain miscalculated the danger of having a fire when we had a compartment full of oxygen and how devastating that would be. We had never been smart enough to run a test with an iron type capsule where we'd started a fire to see how devastating it would have been. Or we would never have done it. But it wasn't because it was a high-risk program. We were trying to beat them, to beat the Soviets, and we were doing this in an indiscriminate sort of way.
In, in the summer of '68 there was a conference going on in Vienna, a UN conference on the peaceful use of space. At that time George Lowe had come up with the idea that the Lunar module was not ready. It had been contracted for several years after every other part of the system. They were not ready to run a lunar module flight for that reason. Why not take the hardware that was available and have a mission that would go around the moon, a circumlunar flight. Tom Payne looked into it. He was then the deputy administrator, and he actually telephoned Jim Webb who was at this conference in Vienna. This is a tough decision for Jim, because he was over there and couldn't actually have a detailed discussion on the subject. I chatted with him about it. The question of why do it and the reason for doing it was that we could do it, and we felt that there was a reasonable chance that the Soviets could also do it. So why not pick up the marbles? They were there to pick up, and so we went ahead and carried out the mission. And of course it proved to be a tremendous success. The picture that came back of the earth in the distance with the very unattractive looking lunar surface, that is -- unattractive from the standpoint of human habitation, gave us a new perspective on our universe and of ourselves. And then, I think, finally, when we had broadcast Christmas Eve.
Interviewer: This had real strong political resonance, even if it was unplanned. It still had deep meaning.
Dr. Seamans: Not only did we end up with a very remarkable picture of the earth and the lunar surface, but we also ended up, and I believe this is just an ad-lib but it had a tremendous impact, the reading by the three astronauts from Genesis, from the Bible. I know it had a tremendous impact on me when I actually was listening to it and I think it had a very large world impact as well.
Interviewer: And there was the political omen too, the "godless communism."
Dr. Seamans: Sure.
Interviewer: Can you talk about that?
Dr. Seamans: It was not only a very remarkable feeling to have somebody going around the moon reading the Bible, but it also had geopolitical overtones. Because, as Khrushchev said, after Gargarin flew he came back, and he didn't find God up there. And all of a sudden we have the reading from the moon of the Bible front and center. I think that had a big impact around the world.
Interviewer: In '69 the Russians are still doing something, did you have a sense that they might pull a rabbit out of the hat?
Dr. Seamans: Well, you know, we at NASA always felt that the competition was a real competition. We felt that right up until the day that Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped on the moon. We had pretty good glimpses of their program, of their large launch vehicle. We did not know specifically what they were doing with their capsule, but we knew that there had to be a capsule to go along with this large vehicle. We really felt that until the day we actually carried off the mission, there was always the chance that the Soviets would go first. That was a very real feeling within NASA at that time.
Interviewer: Just looking back now, erm, you know decades later, erm, what's your own personal view of Sergei Korolev and his team? How do you think history will judge him?
Dr. Seamans: Well it's always hard to know how history will judge somebody but there's no question how I judge him.
Dr. Seamans: He was a very, very exceptional designer. He used the tools he had exceptionally well. And he used them in a most imaginative way. He got just a tremendous mileage out of it, and now that we've actually been privy to what he was doing for the lunar lander, it's obvious that he could very well have gotten there first. If he had been able, or, it had been possible for them to develop the large vehicle. But that was extremely difficult thing for them, because they did not have liquid hydrogen. They did not have the digital computer equipment to check it out properly. It's no wonder that it blew up twice. It blew up on the pad, and then they launched it and got it up a few hundred feet, and it blew again. Destroyed the complex.
Interviewer: So we now know that they tried to get there and; you know they were serious about it.
Dr. Seamans: We were pretty sure at the time that they had a major effort going for the landing on the moon, because we could see the large booster on the pad. And we found that they did lose two of their large vehicles trying to set 'em off. But what we didn't know at that time: precisely what they had in the way of equipment to actually land on the moon. It wasn't until recently that a group from MIT actually was being escorted around their laboratories and happened to look through a door. He asked, "What was that for?" and their guide said, "Well that's what we had for the lunar landing.
"Can we go in and take a look?" And they said "well sure, come on in, take a look." And it was actually labeled "Lunar Lander." Fortunately one of our group could read Russian asked, "Can we take a picture of it?" They said, "Yeah, sure take a picture of it." And that's the first hard evidence we had that they really had a lunar lander. And that they undoubtedly could have achieved a landing about the same time we did, perhaps even before, if they'd been successful with their big booster.
Interviewer: I'd like to ask you now about Korolev personally. He had an enormous amount of responsibility that went across the military and scientific space program to the extent that there was no comparison in the American system. Now we know what the extent of his responsibility was. It strikes me as remarkable, how does it strike you?
Dr. Seamans: It strikes me as truly remarkable that he had to essentially carve out his own area. There were other forces at work, within the Soviet Union, that were trying to head him off, that were jealous of him, that were not as competent as he was. That's one of the reasons for the jealousy and they were even trying to compete with him. The fact that he was able to fence in a group of people working with him, who were loyal to him, and could carry out there programs I think it's a truly remarkable human exploit.
Interviewer: Looking back now, what's your own sense of the space race in the 60's? I mean was it worthwhile? Was it overtly political? There are lots of guys that were involved with the designers in Russia that now feel it was too political. What would you say to that?
Dr. Seamans: Well, I think we were in competition with the Soviets for roughly 50 years, and the battle was waged in a large number of ways. This was just one of the ways that we were doing battle with them. We always felt that at some point we had the resources that we could overpower them, and we finally did. But it took this effort. It took military effort. It took competition in many areas to actually bring down the Soviet Union into now what, hopefully, will become democratic countries.
Interviewer: At the time did you feel the stakes were that high?
Dr. Seamans: I definitely did. I thought the stakes were very high. We had, I think, on the order of 27 thousand nuclear warheads aimed at us. That's pretty serious business.
Interviewer: How did this high stakes space race tie into the politics of the 60's?
Dr. Seamans: I think that the Soviet Union, with their program, got a tremendous amount of mileage out of the way they could advertise around the world. They had the Communist system. It was the wave of the future and democracies were not gonna catch up. Even students in this country felt that that probably we were doomed to be second-class citizens. I think it was a very real competition.
Interviewer: That perception was based partly or largely on their space program?
Dr. Seamans: No, it was not based entirely on their space program. That was part of it, but we were fighting on many fronts in my view. And it was a tough battle. They were tough competitors.
Interviewer: Could you encapsulate the propaganda value of their initial triumphs in space?
Dr. Seamans: We used to collect posters from around the world, say in Indonesia, all kinds of places, where there would be the hammer and the sickle and Gagarin's picture. The wave of the future. There was no question about it in our minds at that time. They were using their capabilities whether they developed them for this reason or not nobody knows, but they were smart enough to use it to their advantage and to our disadvantage, and they were very successful at it.