Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 14
 
THE CHARACTER OF THE FIELD CENTERS
 
 
 
[245] The different centers in NASA had distinctive personalities that one could sense in dealing with them. As might be expected the former NACA laboratories kept as NASA centers many of the characteristics they had acquired in their previous incarnation. One trait was the fierce organizational loyalty that had been displayed as part of NACA. Thus, while officials at those centers were convinced that the real power of the agency lay in the centers and felt very strongly that they should have some voice in formulating orders, and also that once given an assignment they should be left alone to carry it out, they also recognized that the ultimate authority lay in headquarters. Given marching orders they would march much as ordered.
 
The new centers in NASA had their difficulties in this regard, to varying degrees. The Marshall center reflected the background and personality of its leader, Wernher von Braun, and his team of German rocket experts. Bold, with a bulldog determination, undaunted by the sheer magnitude of a project like Saturn, they could hardly be deterred by request or by command from their plotted course. The effort to superimpose the Juno space science launchings and the Centaur launch vehicle development on the Marshall team, when Saturn represented its real aspiration, simply did not work out. The Juno launchings had to be canceled after a string of dismal failures, which space science managers at headquarters felt were caused by lack of sufficient attention on the part of the center.10 Centaur, in the midst of congressional investigation into poor progress, was reassigned to the Lewis Research Center.11 The Manned Spacecraft Center developed an [246] arrogance born of unbounded self-confidence and possession of a leading role in the nation's number-one space project, Apollo. A combination of self-assurance, the need to be meticulously careful in the development and operation of hardware for manned spaceflight, plus a general disinterest in the objectives of space science as the scientists saw them, led to extreme difficulties in working with the scientific community. But the art of being difficult was not confined to the manned spaceflight centers. In this both the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were worthy competitors. So, too, was headquarters, for that matter.
 
The Goddard Space Flight Center's collective personality stemmed from its space science origins. As the first new laboratory to be established by NASA, Goddard inherited most of the programs and activities of the International Geophysical Year, like the Vanguard satellite program and the Minitrack tracking and telemetering network. Also, many of the scientists and engineers of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel and the IGY sounding rocket and scientific satellite programs joined Goddard to make up, along with the Vanguard team, the nucleus out of which the center developed. These origins indelibly stamped Goddard as a space science center, even though science accounted for only about one-third of the laboratory's work (and by the nature of things, most of that effort went into the development, testing, and operation of sounding rockets, spacecraft, and space launch vehicles required for the scientific research). In actuality only a small fraction of the Goddard Space Flight Center's personnel was engaged in space science research. Nevertheless, the presence of those persons in key positions, which they came to fill as charter members of the laboratory, imparted to the center a character that accounted simultaneously for its success in space science and for many of the difficulties experienced with upper levels of management.
 
As professional scientists, these persons were by training and experience accustomed to deciding for themselves what ought to be done in their researches. While subjecting themselves to a rigorous self-discipline required to accomplish their investigations, they nevertheless approached their work in a highly individualistic manner. They questioned everything, including orders from above. While they could and did work effectively as groups, their cooperation included a great deal of debate and free-wheeling change on what was best to do at each stage. To trained engineers in NASA-for whom a smoothly functioning team, accepting orders from the team leader as a matter of course, was the professional way of going about things-the seemingly casual approach of the Goddard scientists looked too undisciplined to work.
 
The Goddard scientists had also been accustomed to determining their own objectives and pacing themselves as they thought best. The accomplishment of an experiment that produced significant new information [247] was what counted; costs and schedules were secondary. That a project took longer to carry out than had originally been estimated was of little consequence so long as the project succeeded, particularly if the additional time was put to good use improving an experiment and ensuring success. This peculiarly science-related sociology of the space scientists at Goddard reinforced the tensions that naturally come into play between a headquarters and the field in large organizations, and led to a major confrontation in the mid-1960s.
 

 
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