Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 9
 
PRESIDENT'S SCIENCE ADVISORY COMMITTEE
 
 
 
[121] In space science at least, NASA's relations with the President's Science Advisory Committee grew out of the central role it had played in the formation of the agency. From the start the Space Science Panel of PSAC took a close interest, frequently reviewing what was being done and offering advice. When astronomers could not agree on specifications for the orbiting astronomical observatory, and NASA found itself in the middle, the Space Science Panel and its chairman, Edward Purcell, pushed NASA to resolve the difficulties. Of NASA's desire to be cooperative, Glennan years [122] later would write: ". . . no major operating agency ever gave more consideration to the very much less than objective cries of the 'scientists[.]' Within the Administration -that is, NASA [-] we had solid and often brilliant scientists who were able to plan a truly 'NATIONAL' science program in Spite of the of the often controversial advice and complaints so freely given by the Scientific Community!"20
 
By the spring of 1962 the space science group in NASA Headquarters had settled on policies to use in developing the program and in working with the scientific community. These policies were described to the Space Science Panel in April 1962 and appeared to have the panel's blessing.21 The policies, together with the NASA management instruction on responsibilities of principal investigators in the flight program, provided the framework for the conduct of the space science program during the 1960s.22
 
It is worth dwelling a bit on these policies, since they colored all of NASA's relations with the scientists. The agency undertook, with the best advice it could get, to determine the most important areas of research-clearly a subjective matter, which the agency sought to handle as objectively as possible. Then NASA tried to support competent scientists working on what were thought to be the most important problems in each area. No attempt was made to saturate any area with researchers, in the belief that high quality could best be achieved by supporting only those investigations that seemed most fundamental and most likely to yield significant new information. When funds were ample, this policy could be followed without difficulty; but when money became tight, difficult choices would have to be made, and perhaps an entire area of research might have to be curtailed to afford adequate funding for the remaining areas. Such situations did arise later on. For example, in the budget squeezes of the late 1960s NASA chose to decrease ionospheric and magnetospheric research in order to maintain adequate support for solar system research and space astronomy. Although the Space Science Board endorsed this choice, the board had to face dissension in its ranks from the particles-and-fields workers who were hard hit by the cutbacks.
 
NASA tried to provide continuity of support to researchers. It was recognized that a single experiment usually was but a step in an investigation and that it was important to enable a scientist to complete the entire investigation. For example, a single sounding rocket flight could yield interesting data on ion densities in the ionosphere, say at White Sands at noon on a summer's day. But to understand the processes in ionospheric behavior, geographic and temporal variation, and the relationship of solar activity to the ionosphere-an immeasurably broader and more significant objective than to know the state of the ionosphere at only one time and location-would take years of research and many experiments.
 
Continuity of support was a genuine worry to non-NASA scientists. In this regard they felt at a disadvantage with respect to scientists in the [123] NASA centers who could count on being supported continuously by their agency. Moreover, the NASA scientists clearly had an inside track in placing their experiments on NASA spacecraft; many outsiders worried that NASA would take care of its own scientists first and assign the leftovers to outside experimenters. To allay such fears, the author informed the Space Science Board that NASA would pick experiments on the basis of merit and would assign most of the available payload space on NASA science missions to outside scientists.* When, in November 1959, Lloyd Berkner, as chairman of the Space Science Board, sent a lengthy criticism of the space science programs to George Kistiakowsky, the president's science adviser, Berkner found few things to praise. One was the stated policy of reserving no more than 20 to 25 percent of the payload on science missions for NASA personnel.23
 
This policy did not have universal support within NASA, where there was much sympathy for the idea of taking care of one's own. After all, it was argued, NASA people had undertaken to create and operate the necessary space tools for scientific research, to defend the program before the administration and the Congress, and to do a lot of the drudgery needed to keep a program going. For this they should be guaranteed first rights over those who chose to remain in the academic world with all its niceties and privileges. In sympathy with the NASA laboratories, Silverstein himself voiced such views, and the author at times found himself in the middle. Nevertheless, a genuine effort was made to adhere to the stated policy, and for a while the proportion of outside scientists finding berths on NASA spacecraft increased. But the limited amount of payload space available, along with the increasing numbers of applicants who wanted to take part, militated against reaching the ideal. Responding to renewed criticism, in March 1960 John Clark, in a NASA memorandum discussing relations between the agency and the Space Science Board, reiterated: "It is still the NASA objective that the larger part of the scientific work will be done outside of the NASA organization. . . . about 60 percent of the present space science work is being done outside NASA, compared to 40 percent in-house."24
 
During the 1960s, except on some individual flights, NASA never quite achieved the stated, admittedly arbitrary goal. While occasionally a cause for grumbling, the matter did not become serious again until the early 1970s when tight budgets once more seemed to put research groups in universities at a decided disadvantage relative to those in NASA centers.
 
NASA also recognized that it was not enough to pay only for flight experiments. A certain amount of related research had to be supported, particularly that required to lay the groundwork for experimenting in [124] space. During its first year, however, NASA appeared to be neglecting this important aspect of space science in its concentration on getting spaceflight projects going. In his critical letter of November 1959 to Kistiakowsky, Berkner unleashed a lengthy critique of the program as he saw it at the end of its first year. Berkner dwelt on a number of concerns scientists repeatedly returned to throughout the years. Along with worries about relative amounts of money going into manned spaceflight-Mercury at the time-Berkner expressed the interest of scientists in having large numbers of small vehicles in the program in preference to a few larger ones. He also registered complaints about the domineering attitude of NASA project engineers toward experimenters and about the difficulty outside scientists had in competing with NASA scientists unless the necessary engineering facilities were provided to enable the outside scientists to compete. Berkner considered the question of support for long-term, space-related research a major issue, averring that NASA had to provide support, since the National Science Foundation was not likely to do so.25 Responding to Berkner's criticism, Administrator Glennan wrote to Kistiakowsky on 3 December 1959 agreeing among other things that NASA should support the long-range basic research important to space science.26 In this vein, NASA's university program office later devised a method of step-funding research projects so as to assure a university scientist of at least three years continuous support (chap. 13).27
 
While recognizing its own responsibilities toward experimenters NASA also asked principal investigators to assume considerable responsibility on their part-specifically for the preparation, calibration, installation, and operation of their instruments. This policy, which was somewhat fuzzy at the start, grew in clarity as time passed, until it was articulated in April 1964 in a formal NASA issuance.28 Basically, a principal investigator was given a place on a satellite or space probe for his instruments, was assigned the necessary electrical power, telemetering, and other support from the spacecraft, and was promised a certain period of time after the flight during which the data obtained would be reserved to him for analysis, interpretation, and publication. In return, the investigator was expected to work as a member of the project team, meet all relevant schedules, and ensure that his equipment was properly constructed, passed prescribed tests, and was available in operating condition for installation in the spacecraft at the appropriate time. In addition to using the data for his own research, the experimenter was expected to put them into a suitable form for archiving in the data center so that later researchers could use them for further studies..
 
The policy was simple in concept, but problems arose from time to time. Not infrequently the scientists would feel that too much prominence was being given to engineering, as opposed to scientific, requirements, and that the project manager did not appreciate that the scientific experiments [125] were the purpose of the project. On his part, the project manager often would feel that the scientists did not understand the difficulties in getting an operating spacecraft aloft, and the importance of meeting schedules and test requirements. Such conflicts often seemed in the nature of things, for the engineer was trained in disciplined teamwork, while the scientist's stock in trade was highly individualistic questioning of authority. The engineer would find the scientist's propensity for last minute changes to make an improvement in the experiment baffling, while the scientist would find the engineer's insistence on prescribed routine frustrating. Yet the scientists and engineers could and did work out their differences, though sometimes at the expense of management time.
 
More subtle was the question of what was meant by the experimenter's taking responsibility for his experiment. If the investigator interpreted that as giving him control over the project manager, the scientist-engineer clash was enhanced, and management had to make clear that the project manager was in charge. That the investigator should take responsibility for ensuring that all phases of his experiment were being properly taken care of did not mean that the scientist had to do them all himself, though sometimes there was confusion about this. The investigator was expected to work out with the project manager how the investigator would meet his responsibilities. Often a contractor would be engaged to construct the scientific equipment. Perhaps NASA would agree to do part of the work. Whatever arrangement was made, it was still the investigator's responsibility to be aware of how things were going and when necessary, perhaps with the project manager's help, to see that steps were taken to correct deficiencies.
 
Granting an investigator the exclusive use of data for a specified period was important to both NASA and the investigator.29 To the scientist the opportunity to publish his results and earn the acclaim of colleagues for what he had accomplished was a substantial part of his reward for conceiving and carrying out an experiment. Were NASA unable to grant a scientist the necessary time to claim his reward, the best researchers would surely have sought other scientific fields to plough. Yet from time to time this policy came under attack by Congress. The argument was that the taxpayer was putting out enormous sums for space research and, therefore, had a right to the data as soon as acquired. Most often this argument flared up when the data were spectacular pictures of the moon or Mars. Then a clamor from the press to issue the pictures at once would be echoed by members of Congress, no doubt inspired to speak out by a few well placed phone calls from enterprising reporters. Little concern was expressed over release of ionospheric measurements or data on magnetic fields in space.
 
NASA held its ground on the basic policy. Setting aside the question of the scientists pay for contributing his original ideas and carrying out the experiment, NASA pointed out that only the scientist who had [126] conceived the experiment and had personally struggled with the intricacies of calibrating the measuring instruments, could reduce the data properly to remove ambiguities and errors that would otherwise make the data useless to other researchers. In return for the exclusive use of data for a mutually agreed time, NASA required an experimenter to put his data in suitable form for archiving and use by other researchers. This was the taxpayer's quid pro quo; without such an arrangement, the taxpayer would not be getting his money's worth.
 
The time required to put data in order varied from case to case and was negotiated between the agency and the experimenter. For a simple experiment, perhaps a repetition of a previous one, a few months might suffice. A more complicated, more subtle experiment might take the investigator a year or more to work up the data and publish his first paper. As an illustration, NASA could point to the ionospheric experiment devised by J. Carl Seddon and colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory for sounding rocket experiments at White Sands.30 Simple in concept, the experiment ran into tremendous difficulties in practice. The idea was to measure the effect of the ionosphere on radio signals from a flying rocket and to use that effect to deduce the electron densities in the ionosphere. But the influence of the earth's magnetic field, the splitting of the radio signal into separate components, and reflections of the signal from inhomogeneities in the ionosphere required many years to decipher. Until that was done, the data would have been useless to other researchers. But once the various physical processes were understood and could be unraveled, the analysis of data from a new set of measurements could be accomplished in a few months.
 
Pictures were a special case. That was where the greatest public interest lay, and NASA adopted a policy of releasing pictures as soon as they could be put in suitable form. Often this was virtually immediately, as with much lunar photography. But pictures of Mars received with low signal-power usually took a great deal of electronic processing to bring out all available detail and it could be many weeks or months before they were ready for release.
 

* NASA scientists pointed to this statement of policy as logically inconsistent. How could the policy be adhered to if, on the basis of merit, the center proposals surpassed all those from outside?

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