Interregnum

On January 16, 1961, President Eisenhower delivered his annual budget message to Congress, asking for amendments to the Space Act of 1958 and referring to Project Mercury with far less confidence than he had shown five days earlier:
In the program for manned space flight, the reliability of complex booster, capsule, escape, and life-support components of the Mercury system is now being tested to assure a safe manned ballistic flight into space, and hopefully a manned orbital flight, in calendar year 1961. Further testing and experimentation will be necessary to establish whether there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned spaceflight beyond the Mercury program.5
Members of the Space Task Group and of the Mercury team at large could take little comfort from the fact that this speaker was an outgoing President, for they also knew that the incoming President's scientific policy adviser had been quite critical of the "marginal" Mercury-Atlas program. Regarding "man-in-space," the Wiesner Committee had said:
[305] We are rapidly approaching the time when the state of technology will make it possible for man to go out into space. It is sure that as soon as this possibility exists, man will be compelled to make use of it, by the same motives that have compelled him to travel to the poles and to climb the highest mountains of the earth. There are also dimly perceived military and scientific missions in space which may prove to be very important.

By having placed highest national priority on the Mercury program, we have strengthened the popular belief that man in space is the most important aim of our non-military space effort. The manner in which this program has been publicized in our press has further crystallized such belief. It exaggerates the value of that aspect of space activity where we are less likely to achieve success, and discounts those aspects in which we have already achieved great success and will probably reap further successes in the future.6

When the managers of NASA and of STG, a few days later, became aware of the earlier, longer, confidential version of the Wiesner report, they were reminded of Mercury's tenuous standing as an urgent, but not an indispensable, "crash" program. If they should fail on their first attempt to place a man in space, or to put him in orbit, or to recover him from orbit, they not only would sacrifice a human life but create a national humiliation. Mercury managers had always been acutely aware of these portents, but the low status of Mercury in real and rumored policy papers made these days darker than ever. Wiesner's Committee recommended that Kennedy not allow "the present Mercury program to continue unchanged for more than a very few months," and that he not "effectively endorse this program and take the blame for its possible failures." Above all else the Wiesner Committee recommended that:
We should stop advertising Mercury as our major objective in space activities. Indeed, we should make an effort to diminish the significance of this program to its proper proportion before the public, both at home and abroad. We should find effective means to make people appreciate the cultural, public service, and military importance of space activities other than space travel.7
Next to Mercury, the Wiesner group was most critical of the Nation's booster program, particularly of the inability of United States rockets to lift heavy payloads into space. Measured by rocket thrust, Russian superiority continued unchallenged. Profound criticism was levelled at the Atlas, which was now truly operational as a weapon system, but which had failed signally in its five most recent tests as a launch vehicle for NASA payloads. Wiesner's committee recommended vigorous study of the Titan missile as an alternative Mercury launcher, but STG had already studied and rejected the Titan as a launch vehicle.8

Whereas there seemed to be threats of cancellation or modification of Project Mercury from all sides, the Mercury teammates knew from their MR-1A experience of December 19, 1960, that nothing succeeds like success. While some of them carefully but hurriedly made ready for MR-2, others just as desperately sought to ensure the success of MA-2.

In moments of respite from its hectic pace, STG could see three essential tasks that had to be performed within a matter of weeks if the Task Group was to [306] be kept together and functioning. First was the necessity to send a chimpanzee on a successful Redstone flight. Second was the need to qualify the McDonnell capsule and all its systems by a Little Joe flight under max q conditions similar to the worst possible Atlas abort. Third, but perhaps most important, was the imperative need to test and prove as soon as possible the Mercury-Atlas combination, even if only on an elementary ballistic flight.9

The admittedly "hasty" Wiesner report was received by the press with mixed reactions. According to the Washington Post, the study was tacitly adopted by the President-elect when he named Wiesner, simultaneously with its release, Chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) for the new administration. Aviation Week said that Kennedy had rejected the committee's advice to revamp or scrap Mercury and that he had decided to risk receiving the blame if the first manned shot failed. To Roscoe Drummond, a syndicated columnist, the Wiesner report read like "a melange of observations based on superficial study." Drummond was highly critical of the entire political transition, noting that T. Keith Glennan had departed from Washington on Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961, leaving NASA headless, since no one had yet been named as his successor. Hugh L. Dryden, too, had resigned in accordance with protocol, but he remained on hand until he should be relieved. Drummond further charged that no Kennedy representative had consulted NASA to study the workings of the agency nor had any Kennedy official read or listened to briefings that had been prepared for the new leaders by outgoing Administrator Glennan and his staff.10

In this time of transition NASA officials expected a stronger challenge to the civilian space agency's sphere of influence from the military, perhaps supported by some defense industry contractors. Part of the "military-industrial complex" against which Eisenhower had warned in his farewell address seemed to be lobbying to shrink NASA's function to that of the former NACA - applied research and development engineering.11 The retiring President also had warned against the domination of science by the needs of the Federal government and against the domination of public policy by a "scientific-technological elite." On the other hand, the editors of Aviation Week had expressed alarm several times over NASA's tendency toward enlargement of its own technical bureaucracy and assimilation of other space research organizations.12 Whether or not there was actually any "power struggle" among the Air Force, Army, and Navy over the spoils from a stripped NASA, any such fears of the Pentagon were premature while the Mercury-Redstone attempt to fly and recover an "astrochimp" was still pending.

For some time, NASA had endured attacks from various eminent American men of science. The Wiesner report both reflected and encouraged such attitudes. Vannevar Bush, James R. Killian, and George B. Kistiakowsky were all long since on record as considering manned space flight a technological luxury that ought not to be allowed to eclipse more urgent scientific necessities. [307] Even within NASA, some scientists would have reallocated resources for manned space efforts beyond Mercury so as to give more funds and priority to instrumented, more purely scientific, research flights.13

Such political opinions of scientists to a large degree had been translated into official policy under the Eisenhower administration, whose last budget recommended a manned space flight research and development cut of $190.1 million from NASA's request for fiscal year 1962 of $1,109,600,000. The Bureau of the Budget in January allowed a total NASA request of $919.5 million, only $114 million of which was earmarked for manned space flight, including Project Mercury. Some $584 million was requested for military astronautics within the total $41.2 billion request for the Defense Department's budget.14 Surely this contrast in funding carried significant meaning.

The criticisms of NASA and its struggle for money in Washington were serious enough, but of far greater concern to the civil servants, contractors, and servicemen working with NASA and STG was the problem of "Mercury-rating" the Atlas. Since the unsolved MA-1 disaster at the end of July 1960 had been blamed on, but never isolated in, the interface area where the capsule and booster were mated, both the Air Force and NASA shared uneasily the responsibility for finding preventive medicine before MA-2 could be launched.

The Wiesner Committee apparently had been unaware of the Rhode-Worthman Committee, established on December 19, 1960, four days after the explosion of the Atlas-Able 5-D Moon probe. NASA and the Air Force, acutely aware of Wiesner's activity, were pressuring the high-level investigating committee of seasoned engineers to find solutions to the interface problem. NASA Headquarters was very much concerned by the poor performance of the lighter-gauge Atlas modified for NASA launches and by the inability of STG and the Air Force complex to pinpoint the reason for the MA-1 failure. Richard V. Rhode, NASA Headquarters' senior structural engineer, was sent to California to press for a solution. The Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, under Major General O. J. Ritland and Brigadier General H. W. Powell, likewise had appointed a senior technical officer, Colonel Paul E. Worthman, to work with Rhode as co- chairman.

During the last week of December 1960 and the first week of January 1961, the 12 members of the Rhode-Worthman Committee met continuously at Convair/Astronautics in San Diego and at the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles. One of the objectives of this meeting was to find a majority agreement on the diagnosis for MA-1 and the prognosis for MA-2. Paul E. Purser and Robert E. Vale, representing STG, with the aid of G. L. Armstrong of Convair, argued that a "quick-fix belly band" could be effectively used to reinforce the structural strength of the "thin-skinned" Atlas. Specifically they had in mind Atlas No. 67-D, which had been at the Cape since September, being prepared for mating with capsule No. 6 for the MA-2 launch. On the other hand, Bernhard A. Hohmann of Aerospace urged strengthening the adapter ring. James A. Chamberlin forthwith had redesigned the fillets and stringers in that casing also. [308] Because a "thick-skinned" Atlas - one whose upper conical sections would be made of stainless steel approximately .02 instead of .01 inch in thickness, costing thereby an extra 100 pounds in weight - could not be finished and shipped to the Cape before late March 1961, the Rhode-Worthman Committee finally, but not unanimously, agreed not to wait for a replacement booster. NASA assumed the risk of a messy technical and political situation in the event of failure, and the Air Force agreed to make every effort to push MA-2 through the region of maximum aerodynamic and political stress as soon as possible. But precisely how to do this still remained debatable.15

New band stiffeners in the adapter ring, some 20 extra accelerometers, strain gauges, pressure sensors, and mandatory operational restrictions for mild weather, winds, and complete photographic coverage, plus the use of the improvised truss or corset, called the "belly band," for MA- 2, were all included in the interim report of the Rhode-Worthman Committee, issued on January 19, 1961. The joint team effort required for these decisions, said Purser to Rhode, "admittedly has not always been easy, but we believe it has worked. 'Resolution of conflicts of technical judgment' has been achieved by mutual discussion and education rather than by manager edicts."16 The reluctance of Aerospace and STL representatives to accept the "belly band" truss was symbolized at first by their use of the invidious metaphor "horse collar" to describe it. So apt and fitting was the "horse collar" in distributing the load of max q over the Atlas airframe that all parties accepted the nickname and the hardware by mid-February. Meanwhile work proceeded frantically in laboratories and wind tunnels at Ames and at Tullahoma, Tennessee, to provide all the information possible through simulated conditions before subjecting this "quick-fix" to a flight test. But there was great drama and suspense in the technological preparations for the vitally important launching known as Mercury-Atlas 2.17

Now that Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, an early advocate of a strong space program and slated to become the new chairman of the strengthened Space Council, promised energetic leadership among the countervailing powers in Washington, the aerospace community waited impatiently to hear who would be named the new NASA Administrator. Kennedy assigned Johnson this task of selection. Considering Johnson's long-standing interest in space matters, many observers had supposed that the selection would be made soon after the election and that the designee might be a member of the Wiesner Committee.18 But the case was not so simple. The problem seemed to be one of settling on qualifications and then finding a man who would agree to preside over an agency with an uncertain future. The risk of becoming a political scapegoat was great indeed. The Wiesner report stipulated that one of the prerequisites for a member of the Space Council was that he be technically well-informed, and this requirement would apply also to the NASA Administrator. But whereas a university scientist with engineering and executive experience might meet this qualification, Washington and management experience also was essential.19

[309] Kennedy remarked at a press conference, five days after his inauguration, that the NASA Administrator should be chosen by the end of the week, thereby deflecting newsmen's attention to the Vice-President for the name of the new Administrator. Johnson, in turn, received suggestions from his former Congressional colleagues on the space committees, and Wiesner called to Washington the man who accepted the post. On February 2, 1961, Senator Robert S. Kerr, Democrat from Oklahoma and Johnson‘s successor as chairman of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, presided at the confirmation hearings on the nomination of James Edwin Webb.

An experienced business head of numerous corporations, a lawyer, Director of the Bureau of the Budget from 1946 to 1949, and Under Secretary of the Department of State from 1949 to 1951, James E. Webb also had been a director of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation and a reserve officer and pilot in the Marine Corps. Although his background was not that of a scientist, he was widely known in governmental and industrial circles for having worked with scientists on committees and with engineers as a director of such organizations as Educational Services, Incorporated; the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies; Sperry Gyroscope Company; and as a trustee of George Washington University.20 Webb's appointment as NASA Administrator came as a surprise to those who expected one of the Wiesner Committee to be chosen. A few critics said that he lacked the technical background necessary to attract scientists and eminent engineers to NASA and that his nomination was a result of Senator Kerr's influence. But Wiesner supported and the Senate confirmed Webb's nomination after Webb severed all his business connections with McDonnell Aircraft. His active interest in science suggested that Webb would strive to keep a balance between science and technology in space activities. His governmental and executive experience promised that he could work well with the Bureau of the Budget and with the aerospace industries to promote NASA's interests. Webb's intellectual interests in public administration and international affairs indicated that he might become instrumental in achieving international agreements to prevent space from becoming a new theater for conflict in the cold war. Indeed, Webb's supporters felt certain that he actively would invite the Soviets to cooperate in American space exploration projects, a proposal that Kennedy had made notable in his inaugural address.21

With a vigorous new Administrator as its spokesman, and with the reconfirmation of Dryden as second in command, NASA quickly regained confidence regarding the scientific, budgetary, and military-industrial obstacles to its manned space flight program. In facing the military, Webb had the support of Representative Overton Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Early in 1961, Brooks became the first highly placed government official to lambaste the presumed campaign to build, at the expense of NASA, a stronger military space program.22


5 Documents on International Aspects of . . . Outer Space, 188. For some perspective on the larger interregnum and the search for a national space program between 1958 and 1962, see House Committee on Government Operations, 89 Cong., 1 sess. (1965), Government Operations in Space (Analysis of Civil-Military Roles and Relationships), 49-71.

6 Ms., "Report to the President-Elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space," Jerome B. Wiesner, chairman (unclassified version), Jan. 12, 1961, 11, 12.

7 Ms., "Report to the President-Elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space," Wiesner, chairman (classified version), Jan. 10, 1961, 17. The other members of this committee were Kenneth BeLieu, Trevor Gardner, Donald F. Hornig, Edwin H. Land, Max Lehrer, Edward M. Purcell, Bruno B. Rossi, and Harry J. Watters.

8 At a press conference on Oct. 26, 1960, Robert R. Gilruth was asked about the possibility of using the Titan rather than the Atlas for orbital flight. Gilruth said he preferred the Atlas, pointing out that the technical problems connected with it were being solved, whereas those associated with the Titan were nowhere near solution. The fact that the second stage of the two-stage Titan ignited in flight presented additional problems to orbital flight, he said. In contrast all three Atlas engines ignited at liftoff. Gilruth actually drafted a letter intended for Maj. Gen. Osmond J. Ritland, commander of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, asking for a briefing on the possible application of the Titan to the Mercury program. The letter (Gilruth to Ritland, Jan. 18, 1961) was never mailed, primarily because the conceptual development of the follow-on program after Mercury was beginning to take shape. In May 1961 Robert C. Seamans was sold on the Titan II as a launch vehicle for Mercury Mark II, and thereafter NASA and DOD agreed to support each other's use of Titan II and III respectively; Seamans, interview, Washington, Sept. 1, 1965.

9 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), Third Annual Report in the Fields of Aeronautics and Space, Jan. 18, 1961, XVI, 8-9; Paul E. Purser, interview, Houston, March 15, 1965; George M. Low, interview, Houston, March 19, 1964.

10 Washington Post, Jan. 12, 1961; "Washington Roundup," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Feb. 6, 1961), 5; Washington Evening Star, Jan. 12, 1961; Newport News Daily Press, Jan. 27, 1961. The Wiesner Report admitted that the committee's review of the nation's space program had been made hastily.

11 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-61 (Washington, 1961), Item 421, 1038, "Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People," Jan. 17, 1961. Eisenhower had warned: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. . . . We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes . . . ."

12 On the "military-industrial complex" problem, see George T. Hayes, ed., The Industry-Government Aerospace Relationship, 2 vols. (Menlo Park, Calif., May 1963), Stanford Research Institute Project No. IS-4216; Robert Hotz, "Gathering Storm Over Space," Aviation Week, LXXIII (Nov. 7, 1960), 21; Hotz, "Sharp Defense/Space Changes Expected," Aviation Week, LXXIII (Nov. 14, 1960), 30-31. See other articles in Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan. 16, 1961), 21; (Jan. 30, 1961), 21, 34; Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), 184; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), Military Astronautics (Preliminary Report), Staff report No. 360, May 4, 1961.

13 For some of the scientists' criticism of Mercury, see Jay Holmes, America on the Moon: The Enterprise of the Sixties (New York, 1961), 72-82. The most prevalent scientific objection to Mercury was expressed by the question "Why put the sensitive stomach and heart of a man out in space when his other senses can be sent out there with man staying on the ground but in the loop?" Douglas R. Lord, interview, Washington, Sept. 3, 1965.

14 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), NASA Authorization, Hearings, Part I, March 13-April 17, 1961, 4, 192, 195, 199, 213. Cf. Rosholt, Administrative History of NASA, 136-137, 184, 190-195 for more details on the extremely complex financial history of NASA during this period. See also Merton J. Peck and Frederic M. Scherer, The Weapons Acquisition Process: An Economic Analysis (Boston, 1962), 100. It is perhaps significant that what purports to be a House Committee on Science and Astronautics manuscript, entitled "Project Mercury: A Preliminary Progress Report," dated October 1960, accurately estimated (at last) a completion cost for Project Mercury at $393 million, of which approximately $110 million would be spent on the McDonnell contract for the spacecraft.

15 "Interim Report," Joint Air Force/NASA Ad Hoc Committee on Atlas Boosted Space Systems, Jan. 19, 1961. Richard V. Rhode, interview, Washington, Dec. 30, 1964; Bernhard A. Hohmann, interview, Houston, Sept. 16, 1965. Richard V. Rhode pursued the method with which the Atlas contractor would fit the "belly band" to the booster's top sections, since there were small metal appendages that would have to be ground flush to the booster's surface. He was particularly interested in how they would prevent the metal from being undercut and thereby weakening the structural strength even more. General Dynamics responded that they had a technician with capability to prevent undercutting. Rhode asked to be shown. After seeing the proof, he directed that this individual be sent to the Cape to perform this part of the "fix." Rhode, interview, Washington, Jan. 18, 1965.

16 Letter, Purser to Rhode, Jan. 10, 1961; Ms. notes, Purser, "STG-773, 67-D Instrumentation," Jan. 3, 1961; Ms., "Agenda - Abort Parameters," Jan. 4, 1961. Seamans and Abe Silverstein of NASA Headquarters; James R. Dempsey of Convair/Astronautics, and the Secretaries of the Air Force and the Department of Defense were all involved in telephonic conferences behind the scenes on the MA-2 decisions. For the final decision to go with the "horse collar," see Ms., Purser, "Notes for Rhode Committee: Status of MA-2," Feb. 13, 1961.

17 Rhode, "The First Hundred Seconds," paper, American Rocket Society Conference on Launch Vehicle Structures and Materials, April 3, 1962. Rhode here applied his experience with the Electra and the Atlas to Saturn problems of fuel slosh, acoustics, panel flutter, buffeting, and wind effects during the first 100 seconds. "In a structural sense there is really no such thing as a 'launch vehicle,' " he said.

18 Holmes, America on the Moon, 189-190; Hotz, "New Vigor for Space Program," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan 16, 1961), 21.

19 James E. Webb, interview, Washington, Sept. 3, 1965; Webb, address before Science Convocation at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., Nov. 7, 1965, NASA News Release. See also "Washington Roundup," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan. 30, 1961), 21.

20 Holmes, America on the Moon, 190-192; Senate Committee on Astronautical and Space Sciences, 88 Cong., 1 sess. (1963), NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1964, Hearings, Part I, 5-6; NASA biography of James E. Webb, Jan. 27, 1964. For details of Webb's background, see Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), Nomination of James Edwin Webb to be Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

21 "Washington Roundup," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan. 30, 1961), 21; "Kennedy Appoints Webb to Direct NASA," Aviation Week, LXXIV(Feb. 6, 1961), 29; Hotz, "Success and Disappointment in Space," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Feb. 6, 1961), 21; Newport News Daily Press, Feb. 5, 1961; Holmes, America on the Moon, 192. Webb's appointment was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 9, and he was sworn in on Feb. 15, 1961.

22 Letter, Overton Brooks to John F. Kennedy, March 9, 1961; Kennedy to Brooks, March 23, 1961; see also "Washington Roundup," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan. 16, 1961), 25; "Cooperation Theme is Stressed by NASA and Defense Officials," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Jan. 30, 1961), 34; and "Washington Roundup," Aviation Week, LXXIV (Feb. 6, 1961), 25.


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