Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 17
 
MANNED SPACE SCIENCE
 
 
 
[290] Leadership at the top provided the template, as it were, for the leadership exercised by NASA managers lower down. As stated earlier the straightforward, though frantically busy, years of Glennan's tenure and Webb's first years as administrator afforded an ideal climate for program people to establish their working relations both inside and outside the agency. As for space science, at times NASA was pulling and the scientific community reluctantly following, as with observatory spacecraft, the manned spaceflight program, and later Viking. At other times NASA was being pushed by an impatient clientele, as was illustrated by the scientists' desire for more sounding rockets, for individually assigned Explorer-class satellites, more Pioneer-class probes to Venus and other planets, and the utter dissatisfaction with NASA's organizational arrangements in the life sciences.
 
For space science one of the most difficult problems of leadership, both inside and outside NASA, concerned the manned spaceflight program. Underlying the prevailing discontent in the scientific community regarding this program was a rather general conviction that virtually everything that men could do in the investigation of space, including the moon and planets, automated spacecraft could also do and at much lower cost. This conviction was reinforced by the Apollo program's being primarily engineering in character. Indeed, until after the success of Apollo 11, science was the least of Apollo engineers' concerns. Further, the manned project appeared to devour huge sums, only small fractions of which could have greatly enhanced the unmanned space science program. It has been seen how such concerns colored the proceedings of the space science summer study in Iowa City in the summer of 1962 and led to Philip Abelson's campaign against the manned spaceflight program (p. 209).
 
The science program managers in NASA rallied in support of the agency's manned spaceflight projects, but they had their difficulties internally. As the nation's top priority space project, Apollo enjoyed a commanding position when it came to funds and requests for support from other parts of NASA. With regard to the latter, Ranger and Lunar Orbiter pictures of the moon and Surveyor data on properties of the lunar surface were, to Apollo people, a source of engineering information that had come too late to be used in the original design of lunar spacecraft and were none too soon for planning the Apollo missions.23 Apollo's need for lunar data tended to constrain the planning of unmanned investigations of the moon. Apollo engineers sought from the unmanned program specific discrete [291] items of information, such as the bearing strength of the lunar soil and the distribution of craters and rubble on the surface. But space scientists insisted the desired information could be had from an investigation of the moon that would provide an understanding of the basic processes that had gone into the creation of the moon and its surface features. Moreover, such an understanding would make it possible to answer specific questions not now foreseen that might come up later; concentrating too narrowly on unrelated individual measurements could be self-defeating in the long run. The engineers were not convinced and this insistence of the scientists on a thorough scientific investigation appeared like an unwillingness to be helpful, or worse, a self-centered desire to have it one's own way. Moreover, the Apollo people pointed out, the manned missions would make possible all that the unmanned spacecraft could do and more, and the scientists ought to wait for Apollo to provide the means for making the definitive studies they desired.
 
The troubles between the space scientists and the manned spaceflight engineers were enhanced by a decision of the associate administrator, Robert Seamans, that the Office of Space Science and Applications would assume responsibility for all space science in the NASA program, including that done on manned missions, but that the monies for manned space science projects would be put in the manned spaceflight budget, where they would be less likely to be cut in the congressional review process.24 The Office of Space Science and Applications understood that this was simply a budgeting device and that after NASA's appropriations had been secured the manned space science monies needed for advanced research and the design and prototype work on manned space science experiments would be transferred to space science. But George Mueller did not do this. Instead he undertook to review and pass on the intended space science work before releasing money from his budget. In this way Mueller exercised the control over the manned space science program that had supposedly been assigned to the Office of Space Science and Applications. It is, in fact, a cardinal principle of management that the one who has the money has the control.25 Thus Seamans had given the space science managers a responsibility for which they didn't have the necessary clout.
 
The author met periodically with Mueller in an effort to develop a satisfactory working relationship. The manned space science division under Willis Foster was one of the devices agreed on to bring the two offices closer together (p. 284). But, while Mueller appeared to the scientists to be fairly lavish in allocating funds to the engineering aspects of the manned spaceflight program, he suddenly became very cost conscious when it came to supporting science. In this climate the scientists were unable to discharge properly the responsibility that Seamans had assigned to them, and they quite naturally tended to direct their attention to the unmanned space science program. Noting this, manned spaceflight personnel accused the [292] space scientists of neglect. Ignoring that their office was withholding the monies that had been slated for support of manned space science, they asked why the Office of Space Science and Applications wouldn't put some of its own funds into the important area of manned space science. To the science managers who were already having enough difficulties meeting the needs and demands of the scientific community, this question appeared infuriatingly obtuse.
 
As for the scientific community, to cut back on the unmanned program to fund a manned space science program would have generated a major crisis. Supporting an adequate unmanned program could keep the periodic attacks of the scientists on the manned program within bounds. Those scientists who did participate in the manned flights found the exercise much more difficult than working in automated spacecraft. Schedules were tighter and oriented toward engineering and operational requirements, rather than toward science. Documentation and test requirements were an order of magnitude greater than those for unmanned missions, where the life of an astronaut was not in the balance.
 
The frustrations felt by the scientists were illustrated by those expressed by Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey who early went to work with the Manned Spacecraft Center in preparing for the Apollo missions to the moon. Shoemaker's participation in the NASA program was in keeping with an arrangement between NASA and the Geological Survey that Thomas Nolan, director of the Survey, and the author had agreed on. Nolan committed the support of USGS scientists, while NASA (the author) agreed to use this support and not to build up within the agency another little Geological Survey. The agreement was informal, arrived at over lunch at NASA Headquarters, and never went to the Administrator's Office for his blessing. In spite of the informality, however, the agreement had a major effect on the shape of the geology portion of the space science program.
 
Under the aegis of this agreement-perhaps without ever being aware of its existence-Gene Shoemaker worked long and hard with the Manned Spacecraft Center and the astronauts to plan a lunar exploration program, to develop cameras and instruments for photography and measurements of the moon, and to help train the astronauts in the geological sciences and in the techniques of field work. Shoemaker was instrumental in arousing and maintaining the interest of the earth sciences community in lunar science. He and his colleagues contributed much to the success of the Apollo astronauts in their geological exploration of the moon.
 
It was a shock, then, to manned spaceflight personnel members when, after the resounding success of Apollo 11, their colleague and former mentor began to blast them for alleged shortcomings in Apollo. Shoemaker contended that in the name of engineering and safety requirements serious scientific shortcomings had been designed and built into the Apollo [293] hardware-unnecessarily. Shoemaker contended that this was due primarily to utter insensitivity to the needs and interests of science and that if properly designed, Apollo would have been able, without danger or compromise to operational requirements, to contribute far more to science than it was going to. Shoemaker was particularly incensed over the canceling of several planned Apollo missions. In a talk before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 1969, he likened the first Apollo landing to the first exploratory trip of John Wesley Powell down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. Both were courageous and fruitful ventures. But Powell's first trip was followed by years of intensive study of the geology of the Grand Canyon, which provided the real scientific return and practical benefit of those explorations, whereas Apollo was going to be cut off too soon after the initial landing to capitalize properly on the tremendous investments already made.26
 
Shoemaker seized every opportunity to take up the issue and to castigate NASA. NASA people felt the affront deeply. Shoemaker had come into the space program an unknown, just beginning his scientific career. Sizable sums of money had been devoted to support his research, and NASA had in effect financed much of his career. Why couldn't Shoemaker criticize in private and praise in public? And, anyway, what good was all the criticism going to do? NASA lacked the funds to continue Apollo landings much longer. Moreover, voices on the Hill were- asking why the agency didn't just stop all further lunar missions, since each new flight exposed NASA and the country to a possible catastrophe and the loss of much of the good that had already been achieved-a possibility that was not lost upon those conducting the missions.
 
Little could be done in the way of backtracking and redoing the Apollo hardware, but some steps could be taken with regard to how the existing hardware was used. Yielding to strong pressure from the scientific community, supported by scientists within NASA, the Johnson Space Center* inaugurated a new era in relations with the scientific community. Lines of communication between the experimenters and astronauts and engineers were strengthened, during both preparation and flight periods. The experimenters' feeling of effectiveness increased steadily with each new Apollo mission until with Apollo 17, which carried geologist Harrison Schmitt, the scientists were positively ecstatic.
 
Teams assembled from the outside scientific community by the Johnson Space Center, to help plan for the lunar exploration and to advise on the allocation and analysis of lunar samples, did yeoman service, and their advice was heeded. Their efforts received considerable praise from the [294] scientific community, although naturally there were always those who were dissatisfied with some of the recommendations made for allocating lunar samples. With the advice of these groups NASA supported the outfitting of laboratories and the preparatory work necessary to get ready to analyze samples when they should become available, thus building up a team of hundreds of scientists around the country to take part in this unique project. The result was a revitalization of lunar science, and more importantly, a development of new and improved instruments and techniques for geochemical, geophysical, and mineralogical analysis. Following the return of the first lunar samples, it was not long before more than 700 researchers around the world were thoroughly involved in their analysis and study. The Johnson Center sponsored annual meetings in Houston to make reports and discuss results. Attended by hundreds of scientists from various fields and many countries, these attracted considerable attention from the press.
 
This success gave rise to another of the debates in which NASA so often found itself embroiled. After the first rush of analysis and study of the lunar samples was over, the time arrived for more work on integrating disparate results into a connected and understandable whole, in particular to attempt to discern what the new information meant with regard to the origin and development of the moon, the solar system, and the earth. At this stage there was no longer need for so many hundreds of investigators, and it made eminent sense for NASA to plan to fund only a part of those previously supported by the agency. Such steps were unequivocally recommended by NASA's advisers, who accordingly shared in playing the role of the villain in the reductions that followed.
 

* The Manned Spacecraft Center was renamed the Johnson Space Center 17 February 1973.

 
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