— Just four months after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, the U.S. created the
Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
Now called DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the agency probably is better known for helping develop innovative military systems and technologies, such as the Internet, than for space projects.
organization has a rich space history. “Virtually all of what emerged in the NASA program of the 1960’s was on paper in ARPA by the summer and fall of 1958 …” according to a 1975 study by economic counseling firm Richard J. Barber Associates Inc.
of Washington titled “The Advanced Research Projects Agency, 1958-1974.” Early on,
ARPA initiated development of
several high-profile space projects, including:
TIROS meteorological satellite program in 1958. The program was transferred to NASA in 1959 and eventually became the prototype for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s system of weather satellites.
Pratt & Whitney RL-10 LOX/LH2 engine for the Centaur upper stage for
the Atlas and Titan rockets. The RL-10 was the first upper stage to use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel.
that clustered high-thrust engines in 1958 at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which eventually led to the development of the Saturn 5 booster that sent Apollo capsules to the Moon.
“DARPA’s mission has been since its inception to prevent technological surprise, and we have contracted with outside researchers to perform high-risk, high-reward research,” DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said in a Jan. 29 e-mail message. The “technological surprise” that impelled the creation of ARPA was the Sputnik launch.
Newly appointed Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy spearheaded the creation of ARPA with the support of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The goal was to send the United States to the forefront of global technological development, according to Barber.
The potential of new technologies are assessed for potential future value whereas most defense research focuses on the near term, according to the DARPA Web site.
The agency also was created as a way to quell competition between the military services for space projects, especially those involving reconnaissance and anti-ballistic missile research, according to historian and sometime DAPRA consultant David Smith’s 2007 paper “DARPA Rising: The race for Space and The Early Years of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, 1958-1960.” As an outside organization, ARPA could handle these programs without being beholden to any of the defense services.
When ARPA was formed, the Army, Air Force and Navy all were developing separate, and sometimes competitive, space capabilities.
McElroy initiated ARPA’s defining characteristics: using a small staff, contracting resources outside the organization and creating a minimal of new research labs, the Barber study wrote.
But it was the agency’s first director Roy Johnson, a former executive at General Electric, who institutionalized those characteristics into ARPA culture.
“Johnson perceived that ARPA’s job was to put up satellites,” according to Barber.
But Eisenhower was committed to establishing a civil space program and soon after the creation of NASA in October 1958 ARPA’s role changed, Smith said.
By 1960 most of ARPA’s space programs were transferred to NASA. And even though the development of reconnaissance satellites would continue to be handled by the military, most of those services were managed by the Air Force and not ARPA, according to both Smith’s “DARPA Rising” and “The Advanced Research Projects Agency, 1958-1974.”
For most of the 1960s DARPA was primarily relegated to ballistic missile defense and other non-space projects such as solid-propellant chemistry, materials science and nuclear test detection.
Today DARPA has initiated several high-risk, high-reward space projects, such as Tiny, Independent, Coordinating Space Craft, which would use microsatellite clusters to perform space monitoring to satellite servicing.