The People In Charge

Glennan and Dryden decided many questions of appointment quite naturally by allowing informal working arrangements to become formal. Glennan's fellow Clevelander, Abe Silverstein, Associate Director of NACA's Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, was appointed Director of Space Flight Development. Silverstein had been the technical director of research at Lewis since 1949 and had worked closely with Dryden since March and with Glennan since August in [113] planning the early organization of NASA.8 As reflected by his title, manned programs per se were supposed to occupy only about one-third of Silverstein's time. He brought with him from Cleveland three other scientist-administrators of demonstrated talents to handle most of his staff work concerning the manned satellite program, which then was a minor portion of Silverstein's responsibility compared with his concerns over propulsion development. Newell D. Sanders became Silverstein's Assistant Director for Advanced Technology. But the primary relations between Washington and the field activities for manned space flight development were to be handled by George M. Low, who eventually became chief of an Office of Manned Space Flight, and Warren J. North, a former NACA test pilot who at first headed an Office of Manned Satellites, then of Space Flight Programs. Dryden and Glennan depended heavily upon Silverstein and his aides for the technical review and supervision of the division of labor among the various NASA field centers. But the locus of manned space flight preparations remained with the small group of Langley and Lewis personnel under Gilruth, the group that had zealously researched, planned, and designed what was to become Project Mercury.

Dryden desired to conserve the character of the three primary NACA centers as national laboratories specializing as necessary in applied and advanced research for aeronautics and astronautics. Glennan agreed to assign the large new development and operational programs to distinct, or at least reorganized, groups of people. The directors of the Langley, Ames, and Lewis Research Centers should continue their aeronautical and missile work with a minimum of disturbance while expanding the proportion of their research devoted to space. NASA Headquarters personnel, temporarily located in the Dolley Madison House, across Lafayette Square from the White House, should be able to coordinate agency-wide activities without too much interference in the high degree of local autonomy at the research laboratories near airfields in Virginia, California, and Ohio.

With the birth of NASA all the former NACA laboratories had their names changed. Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, from 1920 until 1940 the first and only research lab for NACA, became on October 1, 1958, the Langley Research Center. Located on the Virginia peninsula, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk, the Langley laboratories flanked one side of old Langley Field, one of the pioneer U.S. military airfields; for 10 years now the Air Force had called it the Langley Air Force Base. NASA's 700 acres there contained buildings and hangars more permanent and other structures more unusual than were normally found at military airfields. On opposite edges of the runways, about 3,000 civilians in 1958 worked at facilities worth more than $150 million. About 700 of these people were professional engineers and self-made scientists whose major tools were 30 different wind tunnels. Also they had experimental models, operating aircraft, shops, and laboratories for chemistry, physics, electronics, and hydrodynamics.9

As a national aeronautical laboratory Langley supported little if any "pure" [114] or "basic" science, in the sense of independent individual investigations in pursuit of knowledge as opposed to utility. But it had long provided a world-renowned institutional setting for "applied science." Both research and development were carried on there without prejudice.10

Now that the "sky" was to be redefined in terms of "aerospace," man's mastery of dimensions at least five times higher than he had ever flown required radically new social as well as technological inventions. Silverstein was asked by Dryden to help Gilruth create an entirely new management organization, composed primarily of Langley personnel, without disrupting other work in progress. The Director of Langley Research Center, Henry J. E. Reid, was on the verge of retirement, and responsibility for administering Langley had devolved to Floyd L. Thompson. Neither Reid nor Thompson was close enough to the manned satellite working level, where events were moving so rapidly, to assume charge of the special organization taking shape there.

The project director of the manned satellite program should therefore be the man who had already directed it through its gestation period - Robert R. Gilruth. As Assistant Director of Langley and the former chief of the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), he had long nurtured Maxime A. Faget and his associates, the conceptual designers of the NACA manned satellite. After the consolidation of professional consensus at Langley behind the Faget plan in March 1958, Dryden and his Washington associates Ira H. Abbott and John W. Crowley, Jr., had given Gilruth authority to get underway.11

Gilruth had come to Langley after earning his master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota under Professor Jean Piccard in 1936. He had been a leader in research during the development of transonic and supersonic aircraft, becoming the man in charge of structures, dynamic loads, and pilotless aircraft studies at Langely in 1952. During the decade of guided missile development, Gilruth had served on some six scientific advisory committees for the military services and for NACA. His eminence was widely recognized both as a scientist-engineer and as a research administrator. Furthermore, he was eager to continue his leadership of the vigorous group of younger engineers working with Faget.12

As soon as Gilruth and Faget returned with Glennan's verbal approval "to implement the manned satellite project," Thompson, acting director of Langley, began making arrangements to establish in separate facilities at the Unitary Wind Tunnel Building the self-appointed group already working on space flight. Charles J. Donlan, Technical Assistant to the Director of Langley, was asked to serve as Assistant Project Manager. Under Gilruth and Donlan, 33 Langley personnel, 25 of these engineers (14 of them from PARD), were officially transferred on November 5, 1958, to form the nucleus of a separate organization to be called the Space Task Group.13

Although the new Task Group was responsible directly to Washington, its initial composition and actions were left largely to local initiative. The Langley [115] group had anticipated by two months the official actions and had discussed organization of a "Manned Ballistic Satellite Task Group." Called by some of its secretaries the "Space Task Force," it had acquired 10 to 15 men from Lewis Research Center when Silverstein in July had directed them to commute to Langley to aid in working out detailed designs for structure, thermal protection, and instrumentation in the program. This informal Langley-Lewis working arrangement gradually integrated and expanded as the Space Task Group took shape through the following year.14

Gilruth's authorization gave him two hats: one as project manager of the Space Task Group, and the other - announced May 1, 1959 - as assistant director of a new NASA "space projects center" to be located near Greenbelt, Maryland, about 15 miles northeast of the Nation's capital. In Washington, Dryden and Silverstein were making plans for this space development facility to accommodate the NASA inheritance of Project Vanguard and about 150 of its personnel, transferred from the Naval Research Laboratory. Such a facility might easily double as an operations control center. At this time the scientific and operational aspects of manned satellites appeared to complement the tracking network and instrumentation for the Vanguard satellites. So as soon as the building could be constructed on an agricultural experimental farm at Beltsville, Maryland, the Space Task Group would move there. In the interim Langley would continue to furnish lodging and logistic support while a space flight operations center was being built. All this was to change about two years later when it became apparent that the scope, size, and support for manned space endeavors called for an entirely separate center.15

Everyone connected with the Space Task Group in the first several months of its existence was too busy preparing and mailing specifications, briefing prospective contractors, and evaluating contractor proposals to take much interest in organization charts. A kind of executive committee, forming around Gilruth and Donlan during November and December, gradually organized itself along functional lines. Gilruth and Donlan, Faget and Paul E. Purser, Charles W. Mathews, and Charles H. Zimmerman formed the core of this first executive council. Other senior NACA engineers on the original STG personnel list, men like Aleck C. Bond, Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Howard C. Kyle, George F. MacDougall, Jr., and Harry H. Ricker, Jr., also played important roles in the initial formulation of the technological plan of attack.

Of the 35 members of the original group from Langley, only eight provided administrative or clerical services. Thus, with the 10 additional-people from the Lewis laboratory, Gilruth and Donlan had 35 scientist-engineers to assign to specific technical problems. Those 14 who came directly from PARD continued working on implementing their designs, as they had been doing for almost a year. Five men came from the Flight Research Division of Langley, two came from the Instrument Research Division, two from the Stability Research Division, and one each from the Dynamic Loads and Full-Scale Tunnel Research Divisions. [116] Some of these, men like William M. Bland, Jr., John P. Mayer, Robert G. Chilton, Jerome B. Hammack, Jack C. Heberlig, William T. Lauten, Jr., and Alan B. Kehlet, had made substantial professional investments in the space flight program at a time when this was still some risk to their careers. Being a Buck Rogers buff was not yet quite respectable.16

From Glennan's approval of the project until the formal establishment of the Space Task Group on November 5, and indeed for some months later, it was by no means certain how much support and what priority the manned satellite program might receive. Some NACA careerists were hesitant to join an operation that might easily prove abortive. So far Gilruth had no specified billets to fill nor any public, formal mandate from Headquarters. He and Silverstein worked together very closely through the shuttle service of George Low on Silverstein's staff, who divided his time between Washington and STG. The hectic early days, cluttered and confused, made the future of the Task Group appear less than certain. Although NASA Headquarters had received from ARPA and allocated to Langley the necessary funds to get started, NASA seemed to prefer the science programs it had inherited along with instrumented satellites. The Space Task Group wanted full and explicit support of the development engineering necessary for a manned satellite. But the members did not let lack of documented clarity from the policy level dampen their enthusiasm or activity. Throughout October, trips and conferences by key personnel verified at the working level and in the field what could and could not be done to implement policy planning in Washington. To many of the younger engineers under Gilruth, NASA's initial organizational confusion offered opportunity for initiative at the local level to accomplish more than directives from Headquarters in getting an American into orbit.17

In order to avoid the danger of converting the Langley Research Center into Langley "Research and Development" Center, Dryden insisted that the Space Task group should be separated from the mother institution and attached to the Beltsville Center. Some Langley engineers welcomed the opportunity to participate in a full-fledged development program; others, more research-oriented, abhorred the idea. In managing the Space Task Group, Gilruth had to reconcile these attitudes, to recruit talent and screen zeal, and to create an organization capable of developing into hardware what had been conceived in research.


8 Abe Silverstein, interview, Cleveland, May 1, 1964. For details on the launching of NASA, see Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958 to 1963 (Washington, 1966), Chap. 3. See also "Top Aides Named by Space Agency," New York Times, Oct. 5, 1958.

9 "Background Information on Langley Research Center," Public Affairs Office, LRC, June 1960. The bulk of the professional staff consisted of "aeronautical research engineers." Since about 1954 some engineers, recruited from industry or from "accredited" schools of aeronautics, together with senior and most valuable members of the NACA laboratory teams, had been given more nearly competitive salaries and the title of "aeronautical research scientist." College accreditation and comparative evaluation were as problematical in this as in any other field, but institutions with high reputations for excellence in aeronautical engineering and aerodynamics included the California and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology, Stanford, Michigan State, and Cornell Universities, and many others certified by various professional societies.

10 A few generalizations may be hazarded about Langley before 1959. Most of its professional staff came from the South and Midwest; few had been academically trained as aeronautical engineers; most held only bachelor's degrees, usually in mechanical or electrical engineering, often from Georgia Institute of Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or Auburn University. An esprit de corps based on many years of valuable service to aviation and to the nation seems to have been pervasive. And certainly the Langley professional people always would insist on their own experience and contributions as having proved the artificiality of invidious distinctions between science and engineering. Most helpful for understanding the nature of governmental management of applied science is David Novick, "What Do We Mean By Research and Development?" in California Management Review (Spring 1960), 21, as quoted in Merton J. Peck and Frederick M. Scherer, The Weapons Acquisition Process: An Economic Analysis (Boston, 1962), 27, 28.

11 Hugh L. Dryden, interview, Washington, Aug. 31, 1965; Robert R. Gilruth, interview, Houston, March 18, 1964.

12 See the biography by Frank Waters, Robert Gilruth: Engineering Space Exploration (Chicago, 1963), 24-60.

13 Memo, Gilruth to Assoc. Dir., "Space Task Group," Nov. 3, 1958; memo to all concerned, Floyd L. Thompson, "Space Task Group," Nov. 5, 1958. See memos, Charles H. Zimmerman to Procurement Officer, "Request for Authority to Negotiate a Contract for Manned Satellite Capsules," Nov. 3, 1958; Sherwood L. Butler to NASA Hq., "Request for Authority," Nov. 4, 1958.

14 Ms. notes, Jerome B. Hammack, "Manned Ballistic Satellite Group," Aug. 19, 1958; letter, Purser to Mary S. Ambrose, undated, 2; Andre J. Meyer, Jr., interview, Houston, Feb. 24, 1964. For key management positions and progression, see James M. Grimwood, Project Mercury: A Chronology, NASA SP-4001 (Washington, 1963), Appendix 8.

15 Alfred Rosenthal, The Early Years: Goddard Space Flight Center Historical Origins and Activities through December 1962 (Washington, 1964), 17-20, 27.

16 Besides those named in the text, the original list of Space Task Group members on Nov. 5, 1958, included Edison M. Fields, Claiborne R. Hicks, Jr., Ronald Kolenkiewicz, John B. Lee, Herbert G. Patterson, Frank C. Robert, William C. Muhly, and Paul D. Taylor, as professionals; Shirley J. Hatley, Norma L. Livesay, Nancy C. Lowe, Betsy F. Magin, Joseph J. Rollins, Ronelda F. Sartor, Jacquelyn B. Stearn, Julia R. Watkins, and Shirley P. Watkins, as clerical staff. The 10 members of the formal Lewis detachment were Elmer H. Buller, A. M. Busch, W. R. Dennis, M. J. Krasnican, Glynn S. Lunney, Andre J. Meyer, W. R. Meyer, W. J. Nesbitt, Gerard J. Pesman, and Leonard Rabb. Others from Lewis, like John H. Disher and Kenneth C. Weston, also commuted informally.

17 George M. Low, interview, Houston, March 19, 1964; Gilruth, interview; Dryden, interviews, Washington, Sept. 11, 1964, and Aug. 31, 1965.


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