Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 1
 
SPACE SCIENCE
 
 
 
[11] This book is about space science. The subject is simple in concept, comprising those scientific investigations made possible or significantly aided by rockets, satellites, and space probes. But in its realization space science turns out to be very complex because of the diversity of scientific investigations made possible by space techniques.
 
Interest in the phenomena of space is not recent, its origins being lost in the shadows of antiquity. Impelled by curiosity and a desire to understand, man has long studied, charted, and debated the mysteries of the celestial spheres. Out of this interest came eventually the revolution in thought and outlook initiated by Copernicus, supported by the remarkably precise measurements of Tycho Brahe, illuminated by the observations of Galileo and the insights of Kepler, and given a theoretical basis by Newton in his proposed law of gravitation. The Copernican revolution continues to unfold today in human thought and lies at the heart of modern astronomy and cosmology. 15
 
Yet, until recently outer space was inaccessible to man, and whatever was learned about the sun, planets, and stars was obtained by often elaborate deductions from observations of the radiations that reached the surface of the earth. Nor were all the inaccessible reaches of space far away. The ionosphere, important because of its role in radio communications, was not as far away from the man on the ground below as Baltimore is from Washington. Nevertheless, until the advent of the large rocket, the ionosphere remained inaccessible not only to man himself but even to his instruments. As a result many of the conclusions about the upper atmosphere and the space environment of the earth were quite tentative, being based on highly indirect evidence and long chains of theoretical reasoning. Time and again the theorist found himself struggling with a plethora of possibilities that could be reduced in number only if it were possible to make in situ measurements. Lacking the measurements, the researcher was forced into guesswork and speculation.
 
Small wonder, then, that when large rockets appeared they were soon put to work carrying scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere for making the long-needed in situ measurements. From the very start it was clear that the large rocket brought with it numerous possibilities for aiding the investigation and exploration of the atmosphere and space. It could be instrumented to make measurements at high altitude and fired along a vertical or nearly vertical trajectory for the purpose, falling back to earth after reaching a peak altitude. When so used the rocket became known as a sounding rocket or rocket sonde, and the operation was referred to as sounding the upper atmosphere.
 
A rocket could also be used to place an instrumented capsule into orbit around the earth, where the instruments could make extended-duration [12] measurements of the outer reaches of the earth's atmosphere or observations of the sun and other celestial objects. Or the rocket might launch an instrumented capsule on a trajectory that would take it far from the earth into what was referred to as deep space, perhaps to visit and make observations of the moon or another planet. The orbiting capsules were called artificial satellites of the earth; those sent farther out came to be known as space probes or deep space probes. Finally, the ultimate possibility of carrying men away from the earth to travel through deep space and someday to visit other planets emphasized dramatically the new power that men had acquired in the creation of the large rocket.
 
A language of rocketry emerged, which the news media popularized. Familiar words took on new meanings, and new terms were encountered: artificial satellite, spacecraft, space launch vehicle, rocket stages, countdown, liftoff, trajectory, orbit, tracking, telemetering, guidance and control, retrorockets, reentry-and space science.
 
Through all the centuries of scientific interest in space phenomena, the phrase space science had not gained common use. That the terminology did not come into use until after rockets and satellites brought it forth gives force to the definition of space science given at the start of this section. That definition sets forth the meaning in mind when in June 1957 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences combined the functions of the IGY Technical Panel on Rocketry and the IGY Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program into a single board, naming it the Space Science Board. That is the meaning implied by the discussions in the first book-length publication by the Space Science Board a few years later.16 That is the meaning picked up by Samuel Glasstone in 1965 in his comprehensive survey of space science:
 
The space sciences may be defined as those areas of science to which new knowledge can be contributed by means of space vehicles, i.e., sounding rockets, satellites, and lunar and planetary probes, either manned or unmanned. Thus space science does not constitute a new science but represents an important extension of the frontiers of such existing sciences as astronomy, biology, geodesy, and the physics and chemistry of Earth and its environment and of the celestial bodies. 17
 
While the basic meaning of space science was clear and unvarying from the start, the exact nature of the activity, and in particular its relationship to the rest of science, was not always so clear. Glasstone's use in the above quotation of space sciences in one place and space science in the very next sentence reflects one question that arose often during the first years of the NASA program. Is space science a new scientific discipline* or, if not yet, [13] will it in time develop into a new discipline? The question arose primarily because of the pure-science character of space science and the strong coherence that quickly developed in the field, but also because of the broad range of scientific topics to which research was addressed. The initial answer to the question generally agreed to by those in the program was that given by Glasstone: space science was not a new discipline and should not be expected to become one. The initial response was probably intuitive, but in retrospect it is seen to have been the correct answer.
 
Space science makes extensive contributions to geophysics; but this part of space science remains a part of the discipline of geophysics, using its techniques and instrumentation and employing and extending its basic theory-sharing its paradigm, that is. The researchers using space techniques for geophysical investigations, while perhaps thinking of themselves as space scientists, continue to call themselves geophysicists, to be members of geophysical societies like the American Geophysical Union, to present their papers at geophysical meetings and to publish them in geophysical journals.
 
Space science also makes numerous contributions to astronomy, but again the parts of space science devoted to astronomy remain a part of the discipline of astronomy, and space scientists using rockets for astronomical research continue to view themselves as astronomers. Their results are presented at meetings like those of the American Astronomical Society or the International Astronomical Union** and are published in their journals or proceedings.
 
Cosmic ray physicists find space methods advantageous in many of their researches, but continue to be cosmic ray physicists first and space scientists only incidentally. Examples can be multiplied at length.
 
Nevertheless, for several years following Sputnik the thought that space science might evolve into a separate discipline persisted. One can understand why. The demands imposed by rockets and spacecraft on the running of a science program were severe, giving a coherence to the field akin to that characteristic of a scientific discipline. But rockets and spacecraft did not rest upon or stem from the scientific disciplines they served. Rather, they were simply trucks to provide transportation to otherwise inaccessible places, while the genuine techniques and instrumentation of the investigations were those of the individual disciplines that benefited from the new means of transportation.
 
To emphasize the diverse scientific disciplines, writers sometimes chose to use the phrase space sciences . At other times authors used science in space [14] to imply that space science was not separate from science on the ground and was neither more nor less than the familiar, everyday science carried out in a new arena. These initial uncertainties were reflected in the changing names given to the space science group in NASA Headquarters by the author and his colleagues. In 1958 and 1959 the division in the Office of Space Flight Development that had responsibility for scientific research in space was labeled Space Science. When NASA Headquarters reorganized under the new administrator, James E. Webb, the space science program was elevated to the level of a separate office, which called attention to the plural nature of its activity in its title: Office of Space Sciences. Finally, in the reorganization of 1963 that brought science and applications together under one head, NASA settled on space science as its choice for the rest of the 1960s, designating the new entity as the Office of Space Science and Applications. 18
 
If space science had been distinctly separate from the rest of science, NASA might well have felt less impelled to draw in the wide participation that the agency encouraged in the program. As it was, recognizing that no single agency could reasonably expect to bring within its own halls the expertise needed for all the separate disciplines, NASA consciously sought broad participation from the outside scientific community, especially from the universities, where the greatest interest in pure science was to be found.
 
Within the universities the question arose in a somewhat different form. As the numbers of those entering space science research grew apace, a need to provide training for new scientists who might wish to pursue space research as a career became evident. Should this be done by setting up departments of space science in universities? The instinct of NASA program managers was not to do so, and when asked they advised against it, recommending instead that opportunities be provided within the traditional departments of astronomy, physics, geophysics, geology, etc., for taking on space-related problems as thesis topics. Most universities saw it this way, although a few decided to experiment with separate space science departments.***
 
The inseparability of space science from the rest of science and the broad range of disciplines to which space techniques promised to contribute gave impetus to the rapid development of science in the national space program. It must be emphasized that scientists came into the program with problems that had been under attack by other methods and that appeared to need some new approach if they were to be solved. The promise to provide that new approach drew researchers first to sounding rockets and later to satellites and space probes.
 
[15] Writing about six years after the start of sounding rocket research in the United States, in what was probably the first book devoted to the subject, the author was able to find in the scientific literature significant results to report on upper atmospheric pressures, temperatures, and densities; atmospheric composition; solar radiations in the ultraviolet and x-rays; upper-air winds; the ionosphere and the earth's magnetic field; cosmic rays; and high-altitude photography. A year later the list was extended even further in a book reporting the papers presented at the first international conference on the subject of high-altitude rocket research, arranged by the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel (see chap. 4) of the United States and the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society of London.19 In 1956, just a decade after the start of rocket sounding of the upper atmosphere, the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, extrapolating from its sounding rocket experience, turned its attention to the researches that would be possible with instrumented satellites of the earth. These deliberations were published in the first book on the subject to be assembled by persons professionally engaged in high-altitude research. 20 To the research topics listed above, the book added some new ones: meteors and interplanetary dust, particle radiations from the sun, the aurora, stellar astronomy, meteorology, and geodesy. The potential contributions to science of both manned and unmanned spacecraft were discussed in the Space Science Board's first book. While most attention was devoted to unmanned exploration of space, the ultimate potential of manned spaceflight was recognized in such words as: "The significant and exciting role of man lies in the exploration of the Moon and planets." 21
 
Such scientific investigations, made possible by sounding rockets and spacecraft, came to define what is meant by space science. Much of the potential of space science was already discernible before ever a satellite had been launched, and by the end of 1960-by which time the first NASA administrator, Keith Glennan, had set the agency firmly on its course-the broad sweep of space science was fully apparent. By the end of a decade space science research had become worldwide, and a steady flow of results was pouring into the literature. 22
 

* A scientific discipline is an area of scientific investigation in which the investigators share a common paradigm or group of paradigms, embracing a common body of theory, and techniques and often instrumentation that stem from the underlying theoretical basis of the discipline.
 
** Although much, probably most, of the space science research on the moon and planets falls into the disciplines of geophysics and geochemistry, the Planetary Sciences Division of AAS and Commission 16 (Planets) and Commission 17 (Moon)- in 1979 merged as new Commission 16- of the IAU have maintained a vigorous interest in these aspects of space science research.
 
*** One successful experiment was the Department of Space Sciences set up by Rice University under the direction of a young theoretical physicist, Dr. Alexander Dessler, who had done considerable research on the newly discovered terrestial magnetosphere and who for some years served the American Geophysical Union as editor of the space sciences section of the Journal of Geophysical Research.
 

 

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