PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Long before America put men on the moon, placed constellations of satellites in space or launched precision- guided missiles across the earth, people working with little fanfare, under difficult conditions, pushed themselves to the limits to ensure this nation’s survival.
Three of those people — Col. (ret.) Joseph Kittinger Jr., Dr. Ruben Mettler and Col. (ret.) Thomas O. Haig — were recognized for their roles in expanding America’s space and missile programs with induction into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame at Air Force Space Command headquarters Sept. 21. More than 300 people attended the event.
In being honored with the 2000 Air Force Space and Missile Pioneer Award, the three men become the 19th, 20th and 21st members of the hall of fame. The National Space Club-sponsored award began in 1989 with the selection of 10 members. In 1997, Air Force Space Command took over responsibility for both the award and hall of fame.
"Many of the pioneers honored here today labored more than 10 years before NASA was even created", said Lieutenant Gen. Roger DeKok, AFSPC vice commander, who presided over the induction ceremony. "Very few of their compatriots or family members were allowed to know what they were doing. They toiled in some of the nation’s deepest secrecy for reasons of policy and security that no longer exist."
Leap of faith from 102,800 feet
Kittinger, an Air Force pilot, made his name through involvement in U.S. stratospheric balloon programs during the 1950s and 1960s. A few years before astronauts were introduced to the world through NASA’s Mercury program, Kittinger and a few other airmen pushed the envelope of space.
"Back in the early ’50s, space was a dirty word," said the 72-year-old Kittinger. "Fortunately we had some leaders — men like General [Bernard] Schriever and Doctor [John] Stapp — with the guts to put Americans into space."
As test director of "Project Excelsior" at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Kittinger investigated the effects of high altitude and rapid acceleration and deacceleration on the human body. On Aug. 16, 1960, he jumped out of a balloon from 102,800 feet above earth, the highest altitude any man has ever jumped. The temperature in the balloon dipped to 94 degrees below Fahrenheit.
Freefalling more than 80,000 feet in just under five minutes, Kittinger opened his parachute at 18,000 feet after attaining a top speed of 714 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound. In the process he set still-standing world records for man’s longest freefall and fastest speed.
Two years later, Kittinger and an astronomer spent 18 and a half hours in a balloon at 82,200 feet over Holloman AFB, N.M. to examine the atmospheric variations in brightness of star images, a program dubbed "Project Stargazer."
Kittinger later volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam. He served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. On May 11, 1972, he downed a MiG-21 over Hanoi before being shot down and captured. He spent the next 11 months in captivity as a prisoner of war. After his release, he spent five more years in the Air Force before retiring as a colonel in 1978.
America’s missile maverick
Mettler, 76, is credited with helping bring the Thor, Atlas, Titan and Minuteman missile systems on line nearly half a century ago.
He worked for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation and the Ramo-Woolridge Corporation in the 1950s after a distinguished Navy career during and immediately following World War II. With Hughes, Mettler developed lead collision fire control systems for the Falcon missile and guided rockets.
After moving to Ramo-Woolridge in 1955, he became assistant director of the Guided Missile Research Division, developing the Thor
intermediate-range ballistic missile. Thor, the Air Force’s first missile to use inertial guidance, was flight tested after only 13 months and became operational after three and a half years.
Promoted to director of System Engineering and Technical Direction, Mettler soon oversaw development and production for Thor, Atlas, Titan and Minuteman missiles as Ramo-Woolridge transitioned to
TRW, Inc. From 1969 to 1977, he served as TRW’s president and chief operating officer and then was its chairman and chief executive officer from 1977 to 1988.
Mettler said the difference between now and 40 years ago is that the United States has to stay focused and "keep pushing ahead with space technology." He said it is vital that America maintains its lead built up over the past half a century.
Sending weather satellites over Russia
Haig could well be called the father of America’s defense meteorological satellites. His efforts in the Cold War era paved the way for today’s advanced satellite systems.
Haig entered the military during World War II and directed the Air Force’s "Moby Dick" program during the early 1950s. The program was charged with developing ways to send balloons carrying reconnaissance cameras over Russia.
In the 1960s, Haig, now 79, was placed in charge of the classified Program 417, leading an all-active-duty force that monitored, developed and engineered military weather satellites.
"My faith in blue-suiters is unbounded," Haig said, recalling his days working on Program 417. "There is no one on the outside [of the Air Force] who is smarter than those who serve on the inside."
The Program 417 satellites were used to provide information on cloud cover for aircraft flights during the Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian evacuations from the Congo and air operations in Vietnam. The program would later be declassified and become known as the Defense
Meteorological Satellite Program.
After a stint as the National Reconnaissance Office’s assistant director of Research and Development, the colonel retired in 1968 and took a position with General Electric before moving on to become the director of the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin.