The U.S. military might look quite different today had Bernard Adolph Schriever pursued the potentially lucrative career in professional golf that lay ahead of him when he graduated from Texas A & M University in 1931.
Schriever, whose feats on the golf course landed him in “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” twice before he received his bachelor’s degree in science, instead chose a career in the U.S. military , where he flew more than 30 combat missions in World War II as a B-17 bomber pilot.
But Schriever clearly will be best remembered for having shepherded the development of the nation’s first ICBMs, space launch vehicles, and reconnaissance and communications satellites.
The retired four-star U.S. Air Force general was 94 years old when he died at home in Washington June 20, leaving behind his wife Joni.
Engineers working to develop complex space and missile systems can be brilliant yet unfocused, but Schriever’s leadership during the 1950s and 1960s kept things on track, according to retired Gen. Chuck Horner, a former commander of Air Force Space Command.
“He had the technical knowledge to guide them, and the discipline and foresight to drive them,” Horner said in a June 22 interview.
Without Schriever’s leadership, President John F. Kennedy might not have had the ICBMs in his arsenal that helped give him an edge during negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, according to Rick Sturdevant, deputy command historian at Air Force Space Command .
As a brigadier general, Schriever was the first commander at the Air Force’s Western Development Center in Los Angeles, which he helped organize and form in 1954. The center was the precursor to the Air Force ‘s Space and Missile Systems Center, which procures missiles, rockets and satellites for the service.
Schriever held monthly meetings with staff at the center to discuss what was working and what was not in the early d evelopment of rockets and satellites, Sturdevant said in a June 22 interview. Those meetings were nicknamed “Black Friday” by staff who dreaded being under the gun , yet conceded that the sessions were very productive, Sturdevant said.
In addition to working the technology side of ICBM force development, Schriever had personnel training to operate and maintain the nascent arsenal well ahead of deployment , Sturdevant said.
Schriever was known as a tireless worker who was constantly making the trip from Los Angeles to Washington to brief members of Congress about the progress of the Western Development Center’s work. Despite public criticism from some Capitol Hill denizens that work was not moving fast enough, Schriever maintained cordial relations with Congress.
The general was an aggressive advocate for space and missile programs, often securing more dollars from Congress for such efforts than the president would request in his defense budgets.
“From colonel to four-star, from 1953 to the time he retired in 1966, there was no stronger advocate for space than Bennie Schriever,” Sturdevant said.
Schriever’s aggressive advocacy did not always go over well with the higher ups in Washington. After a February 1957 speech in which Schriever called on the United States to maintain “space supremacy,” Defense Secretary Charles Wilson admonished him not to use the word “space” again in public, according to Sturdevant.
But Schriever was not to be deterred. Two months later, the general was featured on the cover of Time magazine, where he reiterated the need for space superiority and was described as “Missile-man Schriever,” Sturdevant said.
Seven months later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and Schriever faced less resistance to advocacy for space and missile programs.
In the late 1950s, Schriever notably lost one major battle — over manned military spaceflight. In the days when robotic technology was very rudimentary, Schriever believed that Air Force astronauts should operate space-based reconnaissance and weapon platforms. But NASA was given responsibility for human spaceflight upon its creation in 1958, and the idea of putting weapons in space was rejected by policymakers wary of escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, Sturdevant said.
But Schriever nonetheless succeeded in getting Air Force personnel involved in the early Mercury and Gemini manned spaceflight programs, Sturdevant said.
Even in his 80s and 90s, Schriever regularly counseled generals who took command at Air Force Space Command, according to George “Skip” Bradley , command historian at Air Force Space Command.