NASA Gets The Job

After the passage of the Space Act on July 16, Killian had requested from Dryden a formal memorandum placing on record NACA's views regarding a manned satellite project. Two days later, a week and a half before Eisenhower signed the act, Dryden sent his memorandum to Killian. The NACA director sketched his organization's extensive research background in such pertinent areas as control systems for hypersonic vehicles, thermodynamics, heat-resistant structural materials, and the current X-15 project. Then, in his strongest official statement up to that time on development, operations, and managerial responsibilities, Dryden concluded, "The assignment of the direction of the manned satellite program to NASA would be consistent with the President's message to Congress and with the pertinent extracts from the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. . . ."87

Like everyone else, including Air Force leaders, Dryden wanted to avert a potential conflict between NASA and the Air Force regarding manned space flight. On the same day that Eisenhower signed the Space Act, July 29, Dryden met with Roy Johnson and Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy to discuss the future management of manned space programs, but no agreement was reached. The conferees adjourned to await action from the White House.88

Some time between then and August 20, probably on August 18 ,Eisenhower made his decision. Again apparently acting on Killian's advice, he assigned to NASA specific responsibility for developing and carrying out the mission of manned space flight. This decision provided the coup de grace to the Air Force's plans for Man-in-Space-Soonest. Deputy Secretary of Defense Quarles decided the $53.8 million that had been set aside for various Air Force space projects, [102] including Man-in-Space-Soonest (but not Dyna-Soar), would constitute part of the $117 million to be transferred from the Defense Department to NASA. LeMay, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, then notified the Air Research and Development Command that he was transferring $10 million previously earmarked for the Soonest project. He added that Eisenhower's action obviously made impossible the immediate project approval Schriever had urged on July 24. A seventh and final manned satellite development plan, which the Ballistic Missile Division submitted to ARDC on September 11, significantly dropped the term "Soonest" from its descriptive title.89

The Air Force would proceed with its Dyna-Soar project in conjunction with NASA and later would inaugurate a "Discoverer biosatellite program" based on the 117L system. After August 1958, however, the project to rocket into orbit a man in a ballistic capsule was under undisputed civilian management, although it would draw heavily on all three services as well as industry and universities.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration received authorization to carry out this primitive manned venture into lower space mainly because Eisenhower was wedded to a "space for peace" policy. He was joined by his closest advisers, most members of Congress, and perhaps a majority of politically conscious Americans. In 1958 there simply was no clear military justification for putting a man in orbit.90 And while there is little evidence on this point, it may be assumed that the very ambitiousness of the Air Force planners, to whom the orbiting of a manned ballistic vehicle was only the first phase of a costly program aimed at putting a man on the Moon, discouraged the budget-conscious Eisenhower administration. Already enormous sums were being spent on ballistic missiles and other forms of advanced weapons technology.

Also helping to influence the President and his advisers, however, was the fact that NACA, around which NASA would be built, already had gone far in designing, testing, planning, and generally making itself ready for the execution of a manned satellite project. For months representatives from NACA Headquarters had conferred periodically with prospective contractors like Avco, Lockheed, and General Electric on such subjects as heatshield technology, environmental control systems, and communications requirements.91 As early as March 1958, both before and after the Ames conference, Maxime Faget and Caldwell C. Johnson, working in PARD, together with Charles Mathews of the Langley Flight Research Division, had drawn up basic outlines for the manned ballistic satellite mission, the capsule configuration and internal equipment, heating loads and structural considerations, and weight limitations for a manned payload lifted into orbit by an Atlas. Throughout the spring and summer, Johnson, a self-made engineer attached to PARD from the Langley Engineering Services Division, continually modified his designs and specifications for the "can" to be mounted on the Atlas ICBM.92

By the end of the summer, experimenters operating in the 2,000-foot towing tank at the Virginia laboratory already were using Langley-made scale models and [105] dummies of the ballistic capsule in water impact trials, while other engineers were carrying out air-drop tests of a boilerplate capsule parachute system over Chesapeake Bay. And a group from the Lewis laboratory was commuting regularly to Langley to participate in design discussions on all the orbital spacecraft systems, especially on thermal protection techniques and on the attitude control, separation (posigrade), and reentry (retrograde) rockets.93

Meanwhile Faget's and Paul Purser's proposal made early in the year for a clustered-rocket test booster to be used in payload design research and in manned vertical flights had undergone a politic modification. After Dryden publicly drew his analogy between the Army's Project Adam and the circus lady shot from a cannon, the PARD research team leaders dropped the name "High Ride" and shelved their ideas for using the rocket to fire a man into space. In August, Faget asked William M. Bland, Jr., and Ronald Kolenkiewicz of PARD to prepare precise specifications for a vehicle to launch full-scale and full-weight capsules to a maximum altitude of 100 miles. Only a year would pass before the experimental rocket went into operation. When it did, the former "High Ride" would have acquired the new nickname "Little Joe."94

Only three days after Eisenhower signed the Space Act and more than two [106] weeks before he formally gave the manned satellite job to NASA, Dryden and several other representatives of the disappearing NACA had testified before the House space committee on their budget request for $30 million for fiscal 1959. Assistant Director Gilruth of Langley gave a hurriedly prepared presentation on plans for a manned ballistic satellite; his remarks amounted to the first open discussion of the technical aspects of what was soon to become Project Mercury. After exhibiting models of the contour couch and an outdated cone-shaped capsule, Gilruth turned to the proposed launch vehicle. Here he revealed the fears and hopes about the Atlas that would characterize NASA's efforts to orbit a man:

The Atlas . . . has enough performance to put this in orbit and the guidance system is accurate enough, but there is the matter of reliability. You don't want to put a man in a device unless it has a very good chance of working every time.

There are scheduled many Atlas firings in the next year and a half. Reliability is something that comes with practice. It is to be anticipated that this degree of reliability will occur as a result of just carrying out the national ballistic missile program.95

The Main Committee of NACA held its last meeting on August 21 and formally extended best wishes to NASA and Administrator Glennan, who attended the meeting.96 In mid-September, Glennan and Roy Johnson of ARPA agreed that their two agencies should join in a "Man-in-Space program based on the 'capsule' technique."97 They then established a joint NASA-ARPA Manned Satellite Panel to draw up specific recommendations and a basic procedural plan for the manned satellite project. Composed of Gilruth, who served as chairman, and Faget of Langley, Eggers of Ames, Williams of the Flight Station, and George M. Low and Warren J. North of Lewis, representing NASA, together with Robertson C. Youngquist and Samuel Batdorf of ARPA, the panel began holding meetings during the last week of September.98

On September 25, Glennan issued a proclamation declaring that "as of the close of business September 30, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been organized and is prepared to discharge the duties and exercise the powers conferred upon it."99 In a message to all NACA personnel he added:

One way of saying what will happen would be to quote from the legalistic language of the Space Act. . . . My preference is to state it in a quite different way - that what will happen . . . is a sign of metamorphosis. It is an indication of the changes that will occur as we develop our capacities to handle the bigger job that is ahead. We have one of the most challenging assignments that has ever been given to modern man.100

On Tuesday afternoon, September 30, more than 8,000 people left work as employees of the 43-year-old NACA. The next morning almost all of them returned to their same jobs with NASA.


87 Memo, Hugh Dryden, NACA Dir., to James R. Killian, Jr., "Manned Satellite Program," July 18, 1958.

88 "Chronology of Early Air Force Man-in-Space Activity, 1955-1960," 63.

89 Ibid., 68; "Chronology of USAF Man-in-Space Activity, 1945-1958," 31-32; "Outline of History of Man-in-Space Program," 149; Colchagoff interview.

90 The pros and cons of the military's place in space have been debated almost incessantly since the immediate post-Sputnik days. For a treatment of the controversy, see, for example, Vernon Van Dyke, Pride and Power: The Rationale of the Space Program (Urbana, Ill., 1964). In retrospect, it seems proper to conclude that "the real issue within the Government was not whether to have a military or civilian space effort, but to create suitable arrangements for both." House Committee on Government Operations, 89 Cong., 1 sess. (1965), Government Operations in Space, Staff Report No. 445, 36.

91 See memo for files, Hugh M. Henneberry, NACA Space Flight Office, "Briefing by General Electric Representatives on Studies Related to Man-in-Space Program," July 17, 1958; memo, Henneberry and G. C. Deutsch, to Assoc. Dir., "Discussions with Avco and Lockheed Representatives Concerning Materials for Thermal Protection of Satellite Reentry Vehicles, Washington, June 26-27, 1958," Sept. 8, 1958.

92 "Specifications for a Manned Satellite Capsule," Langley Research Center, undated; C. C. Johnson, interview, Houston, Feb. 13, 1964; Mathews interview.

93 Memo for files, Purser, "General Background Material on Project Mercury," March 23, 1959; Project Mercury, First Interim Report, 5.

94 Purser, interview, July 18, 1965; North memo; Ms., William M. Bland, Jr., for Project Mercury Technical History Program, "The Birth of the Little Joe Booster," undated; Bland, interview, Houston, April 14, 1965.

95 House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, 85 Cong., 2 sess. (1958), Authorizing Construction for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Hearings, 17-18.

96 Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Astronautics in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), 101.

97 Memo, Roy Johnson, ARPA Dir., to NASA Administrator, "Man-in-Space Program," Sept. 18, 1958.

98 Project Mercury, First Interim Report, 5; Gilruth, interview, Houston, March 18, 1964; minutes, Panel for Manned Space Flight, Warren J. North, secretary, Sept. 24 and 30, and Oct. 1, 1958.

99 T. Keith Glennan, "Proclamation on Organization of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," NASA General Directive No. 1, Sept. 25, 1958.

100 Quoted in message to Langley Research Center, Sept. 25, 1958.


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