NASA and Its Vietnam Support Effort

One area in which NASA did make a direct and concretely identifiable support effort for the DOD was in adapting and originating technology for the DOD's use in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In December 1965, NASA created a special Limited Warfare Committee "to coordinate the overall NASA effort to support the Military Services in Southeast Asia."181 By the end of 1966, Webb wrote the CSAF: "We have had a modest effort underway for a year now, aimed at applying space derived technology or techniques to the solution of some of these problems [in Vietnam], and we have two or three projects which are about ready to be turned over to the Services at this time."182 Seamans reported to DDR&E Foster that "we are most pleased to have the opportunity to assist in these difficult matters [concerning the] application of NASA's competence, capabilities, and resources to the problems you are facing in Southeast Asia." Seamans reported that NASA was currently working on numerous projects for eventual DOD use such as: reflector satellite, quiet aircraft, target marker, countermortar system, ambush detection system, passive communications satellite, and new battery systems.183 Boone reported NASA's efforts by the end of 1966 were budgeted at about $4 million a year and occupied 65 scientists and engineers.184

By the middle of 1967, Seamans considered two of NASA's projects in this field as major: an effort to improve the use of white phosphorous as a target marker and an attempt to develop an acoustic-mortar locator. Seamans estimated NASA's FY 68 expenses for its Southeast Asian support effort at $3.7 million. This figure included not only the two major projects but also exploration into many other possibilities such as: tunnel destruction, ambush detection, and a napalm can-non.185 In December 1967, however, NASA's support for the DOD's war effort in Vietnam leaked to the press. The Washington Post reported NASA's Office of Advanced Research and Technology was spending between four and five million dollars per year directing 100 scientists and engineers on tasks "vital to the Vietnam war." The Post quoted an unnamed NASA official: "I don't think anybody is so naive that he might feel an agency spending $4 billion a year on technology shouldn't spend some of it trying to win a war we're fighting."186

It is doubtful NASA welcomed this type of publicity, but its effort to support the war in Vietnam continued. Boone stated that NASA personnel eventually considered 89 specific problem areas for the DOD relating to the Vietnam War.187 For instance, a NASA document from 1969 revealed, "This agency is studying the development of a surveillance system for helicopter patrol of urban areas" in Southeast Asia.188 Another 1969 NASA document listed numerous contributions to the US forces in Vietnam, to include: $3 million worth of computer technology, highlighted by the sound-location system for detection of mortars; electronics such as a small device to locate a survival radio when separated from a downed pilot; fire-suppressant foam to reduce airplane hazards; and a target-marker rocket.189 Given the lack of documentation surviving from this effort after 1969, however, Levine's conclusion that it was phased out in 1969 seems correct.190 Given the fact that a $4 million annual effort in a budget of $5 billion represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of NASA's total funding, its Vietnam War effort was not a major factor in the NASA-DOD relationship. However, it is one of the few concrete areas that existed in which NASA tangibly supported the DOD.

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