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At Cape Canaveral, U.S. astronauts were still waiting their chance to ride a Mercury capsule down the Atlantic missile range. But now even this little experiment seemed empty and futile. Mercury men were hard put to conceal their discouragement. They had all been working with desperate intensity; some were groggy with fatigue; and they felt that their country was not behind them. "We could have got a man up there," cried one of them angrily. "We could have done it a month ago if somebody at the top two years ago had just simply decided to push it." Said another: "All of us were longing for someone to say 'O.K., boys, let's go.' We were prevented from winning by high-level decisions. If Columbus' Santa Maria had been handled that way, she would never have left the harbor."
These bitter men were only partly right. U.S. defeats in space go back a long way to a few top-level decisions. Perhaps the most serious U.S. handicap is lack of a big and reliable Stage 1 rocket booster. The Russians have boosters with more than 800,000 Ibs. of thrust. They developed them because they thought that they would need them to loft heavy nuclear warheads across the world's oceans.
The U.S. has weaker boosters only because its nuclear physicists decided correctly that they could build comparatively light nuclear warheads that would not need giant rockets to carry them to their targets.
From the lack of a big booster have flowed many familiar U.S. troubles. Everything that the U.S. fires into space, including the man-carrying Mercury capsule, must be built as light as possible. Structure and equipment are inevitably delicate, pushed to the peak of performance. The Russians have plenty of payload to play with. They can use rugged, dependable and comparatively heavy parts. Their spacecraft can afford the luxury of parallel electronic circuits, one ready to take over if the other fails. Many of the Russian achievements in space, including their accurate control systems, can be explained by the weight-lifting muscles of their big boosters.
Star in the West. Still, many U.S. spacemen are growing weary of this pat excuse. They prefer to blame a longstanding failure of U.S. imagination. While he was still in Germany in the early 19405, Rocket Expert Wernher von Braun realized the possibility of producing satellites and saw plainly that they would have enormous propaganda value. When he came to the U.S. in 1945, he pleaded for "an American star, rising in the west" to impress the world. U.S. space enthusiasts took up his cry, but the U.S. Government was slow to give support.