Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 13
 
EXPERIMENTAL PROGRAM: FACILITIES GRANTS AND MEMOS OF UNDERSTANDING
 
 
 
[232] When James E. Webb began in the spring of 1961 to encourage NASA managers to expand and deepen the agency's association with the nation's universities, they naturally thought in terms of programs like those of the Office of Naval Research or the National Science Foundation, programs which have been characterized here as conventional. But Webb, out of an interest born of his long experience in government as director of the budget and as under secretary of state and many years of association with the Frontiers of Science Foundation in Oklahoma and Educational Services, Inc., in Massachusetts, had more in mind. He wanted to experiment, to create a closer, more fruitful government-university relationship than had existed before.
 
No sooner had the word gone out that NASA now possessed the authority to support the construction of university facilities and would be receptive to proposals suitably related to the space effort than the agency was deluged with requests for support of laboratories and institutes. The month of October 1961 illustrates the kind of interest that had been stirred up. Lloyd Berkner of the Southwest Research Institute in Dallas obtained from NASA a commitment to support the Institute at the rate of $500 thousand a year on a step-funded basis.21 On 20 October 1961 Nobel Laureate Willard Libby, representing the University of California at Los Angeles, discussed with Webb and the author the possibility of getting money from NASA to erect a building to be devoted to research in the earth sciences. As a site for the building, the university was interested in acquiring title to some neighboring land belonging to the Veterans Administration. The land was understood to be surplus to current government needs, and Libby wondered if NASA might assist in obtaining the real estate for the university.22
 
Two days later, Governor Kerner of Illinois was in Webb's office to explore Illinois's interest in the NASA university program. Immediately on the heels of the discussions with Governor Kerner, James S. MacDonnell, president of MacDonnell Aircraft Company and a trustee of Washington University at Saint Louis, was inquiring as to how Washington University might be related to the space program.23 On 26 October 1961 Professor Gordon MacDonald of UCLA followed up Libby's earlier Visit seeking an earth-sciences laboratory for the university.24 In these exploratory [233] discussions, Webb's questioning began to reveal the germ of a new idea, that of getting universities to develop stronger university-community relations.
 
By 30 October, when Professor Samuel Silver of the University of California visited NASA Headquarters to solicit support for a space science center at Berkeley, Webb's idea had begun to take shape. Silver needed not only money for space research, but also funds to erect a laboratory to house the space-science center. Webb asked if the proposed center might take on two economists who, working closely with the physicists and engineers, would study the values of science and technology, their feedback into the economy, and how a university can help to solve local problems.25 To Webb the fact that a laboratory provided by NASA would be devoted to space research, while an essential requirement, would not be adequate justification. There had to be more, and during the first half of 1962 the desired quid pro quo was worked out. Following the administrator's lead, on 3 July 1962 Donald Holmes set down a few notes on the policy that would be followed by NASA in making construction grants to universities. Holmes noted that in accordance with Public Law 87-98, and when the university had met criteria established by NASA, it would be NASA's intention to vest title in the grantee to the facilities acquired under the facilities grant program.26 Among the criteria would be Webb's special requirement, of which, in connection with a proposed facility grant to the University of California at Berkeley, Webb wrote on 25 July 1962: "One of the conditions of the facility grant will be to require that each university devote appropriate effort toward finding ways and means to assist its service area or region in utilizing for its own progress the knowledge, processes, or specific applications arising from the space program." He further stated that a memorandum of understanding signed by senior officials of the university and NASA would be used to establish the conditions of the facility grant.27
 
These additional conditions for obtaining a facility grant from NASA may or may not have been necessary to justify the grants to Congress, but for Webb they were entirely in character. He repeatedly said that he liked to accomplish several things at once with any action he took. He saw in the universities not only a source of support for the scientific and technical research of NASA, but also the possibility of meeting a much broader need of the administration. In the last half of the 20th century, political, economic, and social problems had become so complex as to place them beyond the comprehension of any single individual or group. As never before in the history of man, statesmen needed advice and counsel based on the expertise, experience, and insight of many diverse talents. Where better to look for this than on the university campus where all kinds of talents and interests exist together, engaged in study and thought at the [234] very frontier of knowledge and understanding? The task was to bring all this talent together in such a way as to derive from it practical and timely advice to administrators and lawmakers.
 
So, as NASA people sought specific help from the universities in their individual projects and programs, Webb sought to give this developing university program a broader and deeper character. He would support the training of large numbers of graduate students and the construction of limited numbers of buildings for space science and engineering and the aeronautical sciences if university administrations in return would commit themselves to developing new and better ways of working with local governments and industry to solve common problems and advance the general welfare. Webb was especially interested in seeing what could be done to develop readily tappable centers of advice for local, state, and national government.
 
The universities were quite ready to sign agreements along the lines that Webb desired, but actually showed little understanding of what Webb was talking about. Most university administrators seemed to feel that the agreements were purely cosmetic showpieces that could be used in Congress to justify the construction grants and other subventions to the universities. A few produced some results, but nothing approaching what Webb had hoped for.
 
Webb's dream was a desirable objective, but may have been impossible of achievement in the university environment. The independence of the individual researcher, which academic tradition guarantees, fosters the expertise and specialized knowledge that Webb wished to tap. To place such expertise and knowledge on ready call to be applied on command to problems of someone else's choosing that is, on demand from the government seeking advice, or the university administration' seeking to serve the government-would destroy the very independence that generated the unique expertise in the first place. This meant that one would have to rely on voluntary contributions to the activity by individual professors, which left the university administrators in a position of attempting to persuade their professors to join an undertaking the administrators themselves did not understand well enough to describe in very persuasive terms.
 
To add to the dilemma, university researchers often feel that their best personal contributions to society are to be made through their personal research, which is the thing that they do best. Thus, when Webb asked individual department members if they didn't feel an obligation to their university administration to help carry out a memorandum of agreement like those with NASA, the answer was no. Such an answer, which was regarded as natural and proper by the university researcher, seemed outrageously callous and irresponsible to Webb.
 
That NASA could apply only a few tens of millions of dollars in the university area afforded Webb very little leverage. As Richard Bolt of the [235] Science Foundation had pointed out, university needs nationwide for buildings, equipment, and other capital investments were variously estimated in the vicinity of several billions of dollars, against which NASA's few millions made little showing.
 
The fortunes of the sustaining university program rode the wave of Webb's interest in drawing the universities into the broader role in political, economic, and social matters to which he felt they could contribute so much. One may argue over whether Webb's objectives were achievable at all; but they could hardly have been realized in the few years that he allowed for their accomplishment. In 1965, when the university program appeared to be riding high, Webb, instead of taking satisfaction in its accomplishments, began to show disappointment in its shortcomings. On 19 February 1965 he wrote to the author that "no university, even under the impetus of the facilities grant accompanied by a Memorandum of Understanding, had found a way to do research or experiment with how the total resources of the university could be applied to specific research projects insofar as they are applicable."28
 
Webb met frequently with university heads to press them for reports of progress. He asked for independent reviews of the program. One of these conducted by Chancellor Hermann Wells of the University of Indiana, included an extensive tour of the universities owning buildings paid for by NASA. The report did not give Webb the encouragement he sought. When the president of one of the universities Webb felt most likely to produce good results stated that most of the universities believed Webb had introduced the memo of understanding purely to satisfy Congress and that he really wasn't serious about requiring performance under the agreement, the administrator's disenchantment was complete. As 1966 rolled around it became clear to his associates that Administrator Webb was planning to wind down the sustaining university program.
 
In an effort to forestall any such curtailment, the author wrote a 13-page memorandum to the administrator pointing out the importance of the universities, the substantial accomplishments already achieved in the NASA university program, the highly successful training-grant program which was already bringing many competent young recruits into the space program, and the increasing flow of results from the research grants.29 The author argued for a strong, continuing program, emphasizing that current accomplishments were the results of steps taken many years before and that a successful program of the kind NASA now had was the best possible basis from which to try to achieve the special objectives Webb had in mind. It was too late; events had overtaken the program. Added to Webb's disappointment with lack of performance on the memoranda of understanding was an emergent suspicion that the Gilliland Committee report might have grossly overestimated the need for new technical people in the nation's work force. Physicists and engineers, especially in the aerospace [236] field, were beginning to have difficulty in landing jobs, and it was just possible that NASA's sizable graduate-training program might be exacerbating a serious national problem. Simultaneously President Johnson, disturbed by unrest and violence on the campus and smarting from what he regarded as gross ingratitude for all that his administration had done to help students pursue their education, was disinclined to provide any further assistance. (That the dissidents were associated with departments other than the scientific and technical ones with which NASA was concerned was obscured by the emotions of the period.) As Webb later told the author, he had been instructed by the president-in a memorable meeting-to wind down the training program. In the existing climate, Webb proceeded to phase out the facilities grant program also. This dropped the sustaining university program to about one-quarter its previous level by FY 1968, for the time being consisting principally of the broad area-research grants. Numerous congressmen, like Joseph Karth of Minnesota, who had found the sustaining university program to their liking, expressed disapproval when the new budget requests showed how much it was being curtailed. Nevertheless, the cuts stood.
 
Ultimately Smull and Holloway became casualties of Webb's disillusionment over the NASA university program. To Smull and Holloway-and to the author also-the basic university program was amply justified by the important, often essential, contributions made to the prime NASA objectives in space science and technology. Webb's desire for a broader government-university relationship, while understandable and laudable, seemed best regarded as a hope for an additional benefit that might or might not be attained.
 
But Webb didn't see it that way. To him the broader objectives were the most significant contribution that the university program, or at any rate the sustaining university program, could make. Without that contribution the program forfeited his endorsement. He came to feel that Smull and Holloway favored the conventional program too much and did not put enough effort into achieving the newer relationships he sought. From accompanying Smull on numerous visits to universities and hearing him urge on university people Webb's desire for performance under the memos of understanding, the author knows that the administrator was wrong in this estimate. But the lack of mutual understanding grew, exacerbated by Holloway's sharp tongue and Smull's failure to display to the universities the image of NASA that Webb desired. Finally Holloway left to take a position in another agency. Smull moved to another office in NASA.
 
Francis Smith, an electronics engineer from the Langley Research Center who had achieved considerable success in conducting various investigations and planning activities for NASA, was put in charge. Phoenix-like, out of the ashes the Office of Grants and Research Contracts rose again in form of an Office of University Affairs, for a short while reporting directly [237] to the administrator and then for a number of years to the associate administrator. Honest, witty, and bedeviled by Webb's assignments to duties he really didn't care for, Smith nevertheless displayed a willingness to experiment that put him in great favor with the administrator. But Smith did not long stay at the post, leaving NASA to go to the University of Houston. Thereafter Frank Hansing took over and proceeded to mold the university program to the needs of NASA as perceived by top management.
 

 
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