The Background of Rendezvous

The project that Gilruth announced on 7 December 1961 had not just then sprung into being. A year of planning, work, and advocacy had gone before, and more than three years of intense effort lay ahead before Gemini carried men into space. Even so, Gemini was something of an afterthought in the American manned space flight program. Gemini did fly after Mercury had achieved its major goal of putting an American into orbit and bringing him back safely and before Apollo first bore men aloft on the path that led eventually to the surface of the Moon. But that is misleading. One of the reasons for Gemini, in fact, was to keep Americans in space during the time when Mercury had run its course but Apollo had yet to be launched.

Gemini took shape after Apollo had begun, in part to answer a crucial question for Apollo: Was rendezvous and docking in orbit a feasible basis for a manned lunar landing mission? When NASA officials appeared before Congress early in 1962 to justify the new program, the heart of the case they argued was the need to develop and prove the techniques of orbital rendezvous.22 Project Gemini was intended to show that a piloted spacecraft could meet an unmanned target in space - the orbit of the spacecraft matching that of the target so that there was no significant difference in speed and no significant distance between the two, in much the same way that two aircraft might fly in formation.

Many aspects of modern space flight were first suggested in the sometimes fanciful but often profound space-travel writings of the early 20th century. One was the value of rendezvous in orbit. It first emerged as part of the space-station concept, which can be traced through the works of the Russian pioneers of astronautics - K. E. Tsiolkovskii, Yu. V. Kondratyuk, and F. A. Tsander - and in the writings of their Central European counterparts - Hermann Oberth, Walter Hohmann, Guido von Pirquet, and "Hermann Noordung." Their goal was flight to the Moon and planets, but their calculations suggested [6] that chemically propelled rockets might lack the power to launch such journeys directly from Earth's surface. If a journey were carried out in stages, however, the problem might be surmounted.

They proposed using a space station, a stopover point in orbit. Once such a station was built, any number of rockets might be launched to meet it, each bearing its cargo of fuel or supplies to be transferred to the station. When enough had been gathered, fuel and supplies might then be loaded aboard an interplanetary vessel, perhaps itself constructed in orbit, and the real journey to the planets could begin. In effect, the trip would be launched from orbit, the greater part of the velocity needed to escape Earth's gravitational field having been already attained. This concept had been widely accepted in space-travel circles by 1929.23

While rendezvous was clearly a key technique in this scheme, it failed to receive any special emphasis. That changed after 1949, when two members of the British Interplanetary Society pointed out that orbital staging need not depend on first building a space station. The new concept was called "orbital technique" or "orbital operations." The pieces of an interplanetary vessel might simply be assembled in Earth orbit without troubling to construct a space station, or several rockets might meet in orbit and transfer their fuel to one of their number, which would then embark on the final mission.24 As Wernher von Braun, later one of NASA's leading advocates of orbital operations, remarked, the space station really amounted to no more than a "space rigger's hotel."25

The rapid spread of this idea brought rendezvous into sharp focus. Unlike the space-station concept, to which rendezvous was a sometimes neglected adjunct, orbital operations moved rendezvous to center stage. The first paper specifically addressed to the problem of "Establishing Contact Between Orbiting Vehicles" appeared in 1951.26 One result was a renewed attention to orbital mechanics, a topic that had languished since the path-breaking work of Walter Hohmann in 1925. By the end of the 1950s, a theoretical framework for rendezvous techniques had been largely erected.27

When NASA planners began to grapple with the problem of picking long-range goals for the American space program, however, they tended to overlook the part rendezvous might play except as it related to space stations. This may have reflected, as much as anything else, the imprint on NASA of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). When NASA began its career on 1 October 1958, its core was the 43-year-old NACA, to which had been added several military and quasi-military space projects. NASA was designed to be, and in time became, something larger, wealthier, and more adventurous than NACA had been. But for a time much remained unchanged or changed only slowly. [7] The habits of mind, the viewpoints, the styles, the biases fostered by the old setting did not vanish overnight with the old name. The same NACA engineers, scientists, managers, and technicians who left work on 30 September 1958 were back on the job for NASA the next morning. Time would bring new faces and fresh view-points, thin the ranks of the old NACA hands, and weaken the grip of old habits; but NACA left an enduring mark on NASA and its programs.28

NACA had existed to serve - to solve problems for military and industrial aircraft programs. Its field, in which it was very good, was applied research - solving general engineering and technical problems in aeronautics. NACA laboratories had produced many of the technological innovations that transformed the post-World War I airplane, a slow and inefficient machine of small military and no commercial importance, into the major weapon and economic giant of mid-century. Langley Memorial Laboratory was the first and, until the eve of World War II, the only NACA laboratory; Langley research pioneered many prewar innovations in aeronautical design. Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Aeronautical Laboratory went into operation early in the Second World War, the Pilotless Aircraft Station in 1945, and the High Speed Flight Station in 1947. In 1940, NACA had 650 employees and a budget of $4.37 million; five years later it employed 6,800 and spent $40.5 million. But NACA still focused its research in those areas where lack of knowledge hindered aviation progress, spending little effort on basic research - expanding scientific knowledge - and steering clear of development, which meant seeing a specific project through design, building, and testing.29

During the 1950s, some of the most pressing problems in aeronautics arose from the little studied and poorly understood effects of high temperatures on very fast-moving aircraft and rockets. This made the focus of NACA research in that decade transonic and hypersonic flight, with special stress on aerodynamic heating phenomena.30 When Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 transformed space from a region of scientific curiosity to an arena for national rivalry and spurred planning for manned space flight, this background stood NACA in good stead.

A small group of engineers at Langley began working informally on a manned orbital satellite. At the start of October 1958, in one of his opening moves as NASA's first Administrator, T. Keith Glennan approved the project. He formed the Space Task Group to run it and announced its name as Mercury two months later. STG started with 45 people led by Robert Gilruth and they had only one job: the most direct and speedy achievement of manned orbital flights.31 It was a complex but straightforward engineering task. Project Mercury "did not require and does not require any major technological breakthroughs."32 What it did need was just what a NACA background provided, [9] the skills of applied research and aeronautical engineering and particularly experience in the aerodynamics of hypersonic flight.

Manned space flight beyond Mercury, however, was another matter. The crucial role of boosters in setting the limits of what could be done in space prompted NASA to its first long-range planning venture, "A National Space Vehicle Program," issued in January 1959.33 This report surveyed existing boosters and proposed developing a series of new ones. It did no more than suggest a range of missions suited to each of them. What could be done, however, was one thing; what should or would be done was something else. Choosing among the possible goals now became NASA's central planning concern.

This concern produced "The Ten Year Plan of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration" in December 1959. Ultimately spacecraft would carry explorers to the Moon and planets, but for the 1960s, NASA chose the more modest goal of circumlunar flight - a trip to the Moon, a few passes in orbit, and a return to Earth. "Manned exploration of the moon and the nearer planets must remain as major goals for the ensuing decade."34

NASA planners assumed that a trip to the Moon would be launched directly from Earth's surface. That required the giant Nova booster, the largest of the four new vehicles proposed in January 1959. Nova was a concept built on an engine (the F-1) designed to produce 6.7 meganewtons (1.5 million pounds of thrust). Air Force contracts with Rocketdyne had begun F-1 development in mid-1958. This was one of the military projects turned over to NASA when it was formed. Four of these engines were planned for Nova's first stage to provide 27 meganewtons (6 million pounds of thrust) at a time when the most powerful existing American booster required three engines to generate 1.6 meganewtons (360,000 pounds of thrust).35 The belief expressed in the January report that, "with Nova, a manned lunar landing first becomes possible,"36 pervaded NASA planning throughout 1959 and 1960. Even when refueling or assembly in orbit were discussed as alternatives worthy of study, they were discarded as a basis for planning, since "it is assumed that the Nova approach will be followed."37

The choice was by no means final, but NASA was leaning strongly toward direct ascent, perhaps more by default than by decision. To the extent that they had been compared at all, the merits of direct ascent and orbital operations had been merely asserted rather than studied. The question had been cited as a major one, and some of the problems involved in "the all-the-way approach versus the assembly-in-orbit approach" had been aired at meetings of the Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight, more commonly known as the Goett Committee after its chairman, Harry J. Goett of Ames, during 1959.* 38 [10] But, as NASA's 10-year plan showed, the question had yet to exert much effect on NASA policy.

Notably absent from NASA's budget request for fiscal year 1961 was money to study rendezvous, nor did NASA spokesmen mention rendezvous when they defended the budget before Congress early in 1960.39 There was also little talk of space stations. That had not been true the year before, when NASA asked for funds to study both a small orbiting space laboratory and rendezvous techniques. These were closely related. NASA's 1959 choice of lunar landing over a space station as its long-range goal caused rendezvous to fade into the background, since the agency had yet to conceive rendezvous for any purpose other than supporting a space station.40


* This phrase became the standard shorthand for the controversy between direct ascent and rendezvous for the lunar mission in the minutes of the Goett Committee, which was formed in April 1959. The members were Milton B. Ames, Jr. (NASA Office of Aeronautical and Space Research), De E. Beeler (High Speed Flight Station), Alfred J. Eggers, Jr. (Ames), Maxime A. Faget (STG), Laurence K. Loftin (Langley), George M. Low (NASA Office of Space Flight Development), Brice T. Lundin (Lewis), Harris M. Schurmeier (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and Ralph W. May, Jr. (NASA Office of Advanced Research Programs), secretary. The committee intended both to "take a reasonably long term look at man-in-space problems leading eventually to recommendations as to what future mission steps should be" and to recommend appropriate research programs to support these steps. This function recalled that of the technical advisory committees that had been NACA's instrument for promoting the exchange of information and recommending needed research, although unlike them its membership was drawn entirely from with the organization. NASA research was to be aligned with NASA development, just as NACA research had been aligned with military and industrial development in the past. The Goett Committee was chiefly responsible for choosing lunar landing as NASA's appropriate long-term goal.


22 Testimony of James E. Webb, Seamans, and D. Brainerd Holmes in U.S. Congress, House, Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1963 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 10100 (Superseded by H.R. 11737), 87th Cong., 2nd sess., 1962, pp. 4- 5, 102-103, 25051, 460-62.

23 Barton C. Hacker, "The Idea of Rendezvous: From Space Station to Orbital Operations in Space-Travel Thought, 1895-1951," Technology and Culture 15 (July 1974).

24 H. E. Ross, "Orbital Bases," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 8 (January 1949), pp. 1-19; Kenneth W. Gatland, "Rockets in Circular Orbits," ibid,, 8 (March 1949), pp. 52-59; letter, Ross to Barton C. Hacker, 9 July 1968; Michael Stoiko, Project Gemini: Step to the Moon (New York, 1963), pp. 34-36.

25 Memo, Hacker to David S. Akens, "Proposed Interview with Dr. [Wernher] von Braun," 8 Sept. 1968, with enclosure, "Proposed Questions for Dr. Von Braun," with von Braun's answers, n.d.

26 R. A. Smith, "Establishing Contact Between Orbiting Vehicles," presented at the Second International Congress of Astronautics, London, September 1951, published in Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 10 (November 1951), pp. 295-99.

27 Hacker, "The Idea of Rendezvous"; idem, "The Genesis of Project Gemini: The Idea of Rendezvous, 1929-1961," presented at the Twelfth International Congress of the History of Science, Paris, August 1968, published in Actes 10: Historic des techniques (Paris, 1971), pp. 41-46.

28 Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 55-106; Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), pp. 19-44; Arthur L. Levine, "United States Aeronautical Research Policy, 1915-1958: A Study of the Major Policy Decisions of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics" (Ph. D. diss., Columbia University, 1963), pp. 124- 80; Ira H. Abbott, "A Review and Commentary of a Thesis by Arthur L. Levine . . . ," April 1964; Enid Curtis Bok Schoettle, "The Establishment of NASA," in Sanford A. Lakoff, ed., Knowledge and Power: Essays on Science and Government (New York, 1966), pp. 162-370; Mary Stone Ambrose, "The National Space Program, Phase I: Passage of the 'National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958'" (Master's thesis, American University, 1960), part I; Elisabeth Alison Griffith, The National Aeronautics and Space Act: A Study of the Development of Public Policy (Washington, 1962).

29 Michael David Keller, "A History of the NACA Langley Laboratory, 1917-47," March 1968; George W. Gray, Frontiers of Flight: The Story of NACA Research (New York, 1948); Jerome C. Hunsaker, "Forty Years of Aeronautical Research," in Smithsonian Report for 1955 (Washington, 1956), pp. 241-71, reprinted in Forty-Fourth Annual Report of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1958 (Final Report) (Washington, 1959), pp. 3-27; James H. Doolittle, "The Following Years, 1955-58," ibid., pp. 29-31; Levine, "United States Aeronautical Research Policy"; Rosholt, Administrative History, pp. 20-21; Abbott, "Review and Commentary," pp. 81, 156-57, 179, 186-87; Edwin Mansfield, The Economics of Technological Change (New York, 1968), pp. 45-48; Charles V. Kidd, "Basic Research - Description versus Definition," Science, 13 Feb. 1959, pp. 368-71, reprinted in Norman Kaplan, ed., Science and Society (Chicago, 1965), pp. 146-55.

30 "NACA Research in Space," in U.S. Congress, House, Select Committee on Astronautics, Astronautics and Space Exploration: Hearings on H.R. 1181, 85th Cong., 2nd sess., 1958, pp. 404-410, public version of a classified document, same title, December 1957, describing NACA research in "Aerodynamics and Space Mechanics," "Propulsion," and "Structures and Materials."

31 Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 109-16, 132.

32 D. D. Wyatt, "The Rationale of the NASA Space Program," Advances in the Astronautical Sciences 6 (1961): xxxiv.

33 "A National Space Vehicle Program: A Report to the President," NASA Propulsion Staff, 27 Jan. 1959. An unclassified and much condensed version of this report may be found in U.S. Congress, Senate, Subcommittee on Governmental Organization for Space Activities of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Investigation of Governmental Organization for Space Activities: Hearings, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pp. 17-24.

34 "The Ten Year Plan of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," NASA Office of Program Planning and Evaluation, 18 Dec. 1959.

35 "A National Space Vehicle Program," pp. 3-4, 13, 23; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Manned Space Flight Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, Staff Report, 87th Cong., 2nd sess., 4 Sept. 1962, p. 158; First Semiannual Report to the Congress, October 1, 1958-March 31, 1959, NASA, 1959, pp. 26-27; "GAO Report on Review of Procedures Followed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Awarding Contract for 1.5 Million-Pound-Thrust Single-Chamber Rocket Engine to North American Aviation, Inc." in U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, The Production of Documents by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the Committee on Science and Astronautics: Hearings, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 27, 29 Jan. 1960, pp. 89-119.

36 Investigation of Governmental Organization, p. 21.

37 "Manned Space Flight Long Range Plans," NASA Office of Space Flight Development, rev. 17 Aug. 1959, p. 29.

38 Memo, John W. Crowley to Ames, Lewis, and Langley Research Centers and High Speed Flight Station, "Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight," 1 April 1959; memo, Crowley to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, subject as above, 8 April 1959; memo, Crowley to Dir., Space Flight Development, subject as above, 2 April 1959; Ralph W. May, Jr., "Minutes of Meeting[s] of Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight, May 25-26, 1959," and "June 25-26, 1959"; memo, Harry J. Goett to Abbott, "Interim Report on Operation of 'Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight,' " 17 July 1959; "Third Semi-Annual NASA Staff Conference: Program Formulation and Status of Activities, Monterey, California, 3-5 March, 1960," pp. 18-20; John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 56-57.

39 NASA witnesses before congressional committees during 1960 mentioned rendezvous only twice. On 1 February, Abbott referred to a ferry vehicle in describing a space laboratory concept to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics and, on 29 March, von Braun touched on orbital refueling or latching in discussing possible Saturn missions before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Review of the Space Program: Hearings, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 1960, pp. 304-305; U.S. Congress, Senate, NASA Authorization Subcommittee of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1961: Hearings on H.R. 10809, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 1960, p. 227.

40 The main burden of defending NASA's 1959 request for funds to study rendezvous fell to DeMarquis D. Wyatt, technical assistant to the Director of Space Flight Development in NASA Headquarters. Wyatt consistently identified the need for rendezvous techniques with the problem of logistic support for a permanent manned orbiting laboratory. Nowhere in Wyatt's testimony, in that of other NASA witnesses, nor in the prepared materials submitted to Congress by NASA was there any hint that rendezvous might serve some other purpose. U.S. Congress, Senate, NASA Authorization Subcommittee of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Supplemental Authorization for Fiscal Year 1959: Hearings on S. 1096, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pp. 77-80; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics and Subcommittees Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4, 1960 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 6512, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pp. 94-95, 97, 267-68; idem, Subcommittee on Independent Offices of the Committee on Appropriations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Appropriations: Hearings, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pp. 42-45.


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