The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. By Sharon Weinberger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. Illustrations. Acknowledgments. Notes. Sources. Bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 486. $32.50 ISBN: 978-0385351799
Despite its 60-year existence, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) remains unfamiliar to many people within the Department of Defense (DoD) and to most people outside DoD. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, erudite astrophysicist and host of the National Geographic Channel's StarTalk television program, stumbled over the agency's exact name during an interview with journalist Sharon Weinberger, the author of this book, in November 2017. His minor gaffe unintentionally illustrated the need for Weinberger's history of DARPA.
Established simply as ARPA by President Dwight Eisenhower in February 1958, the agency provided managerial oversight of all U.S. space projects in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. The agency assigned specific projects to the Air Force, Army, or Navy for execution; but ARPA itself controlled the purse strings and substantial decision-making authority. Consequently, during its infancy, the agency helped demonstrate many key space-based capabilities: SCORE, the world's first communications satellite; Corona, the first photoreconnaissance satellite; TIROS, the world's first meteorological satellite; Transit, the first navigation satellite; and Vela Hotel, the first nuclear-detection satellite. Planning the development of space launch vehicles also became an ARPA responsibility prior to establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Beyond this early phase in ARPA history, Weinberger's book focuses sequentially on the agency's attempts to define its mission and organizational vision. She describes the agency's less-than-successful, sometimes sinister "counterinsurgency" efforts during the Vietnam War. Similarly, she assesses ARPA proposals for ballistic missile defense as "too expensive, too impractical, or a combination of both." Under its expanded name after 1972, DARPA shifted its mind-related research from parapsychology to biocybernetics, then to augmented cognition. By 2010, that research line evolved into "computational counterinsurgency," with emphasis on crowd sourcing and social networking technologies for threat identification.
Meanwhile, the agency participated in other...