American Rocket Society Comes of Age | This Week In Space History
by michael shinabery
Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part story.
While World War II proved the “destructive” capabilities of rockets, the American Rocket Society was frustrated the technology achieved no “scientific purposes,” said the August 1980 Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). That the United States had not launched a manned rocket to the Moon wasn’t for any lack of effort by ARS co-founder G. Edward Pendray.
“He travelled a great deal and became, in the words of one newspaper, ‘a one man messiah’ for the cause of rocketry,” the JBIS said. “By 1945 he had made over 300 speeches and written 500 articles.” To “the business and scientific communities” Pendray pointed out “rocketry and guided missiles would develop into new … highly profitable industries.” While he stressed such “practical goals” as “as rocket-propelled or assisted aircraft (and) rocket mail carriers … his ultimate dream … was to see this startling new war technology turned to a means of manufacturing the first spaceships.”
On March 7, 1945, after speaking to the Washington, D.C. Society of Engineers, the JBIS said Pendray “chatted” with Clarence Davies, secretary of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Davies “suggested a possible affiliation between the ARS and ASME.” Committees representing “both groups” voted approval on Nov. 2; the merger gave the ARS “increased revenue and scientific standing,” as well as “increased membership.” The roster included “members of Congress, government officials, high-ranking military officers, leaders of industry, engineers, scientists, and students,” Douglas Mudgway wrote in “William H. Pickering: America’s Deep Space Pioneer” (NASA/2008). “It was the largest and most prestigious organization of its kind in the country, if not the world, and encompassed the entire missile and space business of the U.S. When the ARS spoke, people listened.”
From the 12 founders in 1930, ARS membership increased to 11,500 in 1958, 13,750 in 1959, and “by 1962 it soared to 20,450.” Dr. Robert Goddard was a member “for many years,” Science magazine said in a Nov. 23, 1945 tribute after Goddard’s death. Earlier that year, the father of liquid fuel rocketry had been “elected to the Society’s Board of Directors.” Pickering, who as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first U.S. satellite into orbit in 1958, was the ARS president in 1961. He told the Society’s 1961 convention (which Mudgway quoted): “Missiles for hot war, Space for cold war; these two elements of our strength are critical in determining our national posture, our standing among nations, our ability to lead the free world.”
For years before satellites ever lifted off from the pages of science fiction for Earth orbit, the ARS tried “to convince the various scientific institutions that satellite flight was feasible,” said “Satellite!” (Hanover House/1956). Finally, in 1954, the ARS Space Flight Committee “submitted a ‘Study of the Feasibility of an Experimental Earth Satellite’ to the National Science Foundation,” the JBIS documented. According to “Satellite!,” “the text stated that the study of the utility of an unmanned Earth satellite would be one of the most important steps that could be taken immediately to advance the cause of space flight, and that this step would also increase the country’s scientific knowledge.”
ARS “continued to push for the scientific and peaceful conquest of space,” Erik Bergaust wrote in “Wernher von Braun” (National Space Institute/1976). “The (S)ociety, consequently, became the spark plug that ignited the space satellite ideas.”
By 1962, the ARS had created approximately 55 geographical “sections” nationwide, each with chapters,” the JBIS said. In the fall of 1954, Dr. John Paul Stapp told El Paso members about his G-force studies aboard rocket sleds at Holloman Air Force Base, said “Men, Rockets and Space Rats” (Messner/1955). Three months later, Stapp would ride a rocket sled to 632 mph in five seconds.
On Sept. 21, 1954, the Alamogordo newspaper reported Edward Francisco, chief of White Sands Proving Ground’s Propulsion Branch, spoke to the Alamogordo group. “The rocket propulsion field has become so complex today that no single mind can encompass its innumerable facets,” the paper quoted Francisco. “Modern rocket research requires a team of specialists much as a modern hospital requires a team of doctors who are specialists.”
In 1958, “The Rocket Pioneers” (Messner) contrasted the ARS’ achievements with the organization’s humble beginnings, stating: “Its cellarworkshop (sic) youth is a thing of the past. Like other similar organizations it has come of age. But it looks back a little wistfully, and with considerable pride, to the days when it was still building frail projectiles out of odds and ends of metal, when its members were still dream-inspired pioneers in a science which now, like the Society itself, has achieved the stature of maturity.”
The era established in 1930 by dreamers who, while they were amateurs experimented enthusiastically nonetheless, came to a close at the end of 1962 when committees representing the ARS and the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences voted to merge. The IAS, according to the Smithsonian Institution website siris-archives.si.edu, was founded in 1932 as “a society of aeronautics-related professionals.” The new, merged organization went by the name of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,” the JBIS said, “with a starting membership of about 36,000. Pickering was president when “the new society formally began operation” on Feb. 1, 1963.
“I felt I lost part of my life,” the JBIS quoted Pendray. “But I also knew that the merger was in everyone’s interest and (I) voted for it.”
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Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.