Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
Preface
 
 
 
[xiii] From the rocket measurements of the upper atmosphere and sun that began in 1946, space science gradually emerged as a new field of scientific activity. In the United States high-altitude rocket research had developed a high degree of sophistication by the time the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite of the earth in 1957. That surprise launch proved that the USSR had been pursuing a similar course.

During the period between the orbiting of Sputnik I and the creation of NASA, these activities-scientific research in the high atmosphere and outer space-began to be thought of as space science. The first formal use of the phrase that I recall was in the pamphlet Introduction to Outer Space prepared by members of the President's Science Advisory Committee and issued on 26 March 1958 by President Eisenhower to acquaint "all the people of America and indeed all the people of the earth" with "the opportunities which a developing space technology can provide to extend man's knowledge of the earth, the solar system, and the universe." A few months later the phrase appeared in the title of the Space Science Board, which the National Academy of Sciences established in June 1958. Use of the term spread rapidly. From the start NASA managers referred to that part of the space program devoted to scientific research by means of rockets and spacecraft as the space science program.

 
The researches that came under the new rubric were themselves not new. Space science initially consisted of researches already under way that the new tools of rocketry promised to aid substantially. The large number of disciplines-such as atmospheric research and meteorology, solar physics, cosmic rays, and eventually lunar and planetary science-and the recognized importance of many of the problems that could be attacked with the new tools, attracted large numbers of scientists, giving the field of space science broad support at the outset. Even in the life sciences, where the potential contributions of space techniques were less obvious than in the physical sciences, quite a few leading researchers showed a lively, if tentative, interest.
 
As the program unfolded, the wide range of interest became both a source of strength and a cause for tension. For those able to penetrate beneath the impersonal exterior that science so often seems to present to the outsider, the whole gamut of human emotions is to be found. The pursuit of scientific truth gets caught up in a struggle not only with nature [xiv] but also with oneself and one's fellow beings. Ambition, cooperation, strife, humility, arrogance, envy, admiration, frustration, and courage undergird and overlie the scientific process, making it more important as a story of human endeavor and achievement than as a mere accumulation of human knowledge. So it was with space science; there appeared to be a continual clash of opinions over what to do first, or next, or instead of what was being done.
 
To the normal attraction of probing the unknown were added the excitement bestowed by roaring rockets and speeding spacecraft and the awareness that these had opened a vast new region to the presence of man. Moreover, circumstances placed space science to a considerable extent in competition with other aspects of the space program. Congressional concern over the serious questions of national defense raised by the Soviet accomplishments in space focused attention on the nation's launch capability and technological strength rather than science. Understandably, most onlookers displayed more interest in the glamour and excitement of the Apollo program to land men on the moon than in studying cosmic rays or the earth's magnetosphere. Nevertheless, partly in its own right and also as an important supporting element to other activities in space, space science enjoyed a recognized place in the program from the outset.
 
In telling some of the space science story-particularly the early years when it was emerging as a vigorous new field of activity-I hope to relate this new activity to the rest of the space program on the one hand and to science in general on the other. It is a multifaceted tale, ranging from the very technical to the highly political, from the intensely personal to the institutional, from the national to the international. For long periods the participants are weighed down with the routine drudgery of calculations, painstaking testing in the laboratory and the field, and seemingly endless paper work. Then comes the reward-lifting one to the very pinnacle of excitement-when a spacecraft lands on the moon and its amazing appendages dig into the ancient soil, or from a quarter of a million miles away a breathlessly awaited voice announces, ". . . the Eagle has landed," or when yet a different spacecraft visits a distant world like Mars and photographs craters, volcanic peaks, and huge rifts never before seen by man. The whole world-nay, the solar system-is the stage, and the drama is played now in the comfort and safety of the computer laboratory, now amid the rigors and dangers of the launching pad, at times in the whirl of intellectual challenge in the international conference hall, at times face to face with the physical challenges of the high seas, the polar wilderness, or the ominous loneliness of the lunar wastelands.
 
I hope to convey some of the flavor of this complex program. To do this I shall trace several main threads as they weave their way through the story. First, of course, there is space science itself, what results have been obtained from the use of rockets and spacecraft-including manned [xv] spaceflights. What progress in various scientific disciplines can be credited to what is now called space science? It is not my intention, however, to produce another textbook on space science. Such a survey would carry well beyond the planned scope of this book. I seek rather to bring out in broad perspective the main lines of advance in major areas of research, to highlight new areas of investigation, and especially to dwell on changed and changing concepts in the different disciplines. Seeking guidance in this aspect of the task, I sent a questionnaire to a number of the foremost workers in the various disciplines of space science asking for their insights as to what the most significant contributions of space science have been. More than 60 scientists responded, and their views are incorporated into chapters 6, 11, and 20, the chapters that deal with the technical side of the story. I wish to convey here my thanks for that assistance.
 
The flavor of the story cannot be conveyed in isolation from the context in which the research was done. It will be necessary, therefore, to trace several threads other than space science results. On one side was the relationship of space science to science in general, while on the other were its relationships to the rest of the space program and to the social, political, and economic context.
 
Space science, while cohering strongly as a new activity, nevertheless is quite correctly viewed as simply a continuation and extension of numerous traditional scientific disciplines. To appreciate the significance of this observation, it is necessary to pay some attention to the meaning and nature of science.
 
Very little of modern science can be carried out in isolation from other activities of society-certainly not space science. Much of science today requires large pools of manpower, special facilities, and expensive equipment that private sources often cannot afford. When industry does support research, its relevance to the profit-making objectives of the company is always in mind. When government furnishes the support, relevance to national needs and objectives must be taken into account. The years of political struggles to obtain approval and funding for the National Science Foundation; the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Greenbank, West Virginia; the Enrico Fermi high-energy particle accelerator in Illinois (which the proponents first appeared to lose, but then won); and the Mohole project to drill through the earth's crust (which the scientists first won and then lost) provide classic examples of the difficulties encountered in seeking support of large-scale, expensive scientific undertakings.
 
So it was with space science. In the early years, when a few sounding rockets were launched, the field received but little attention and meager support. With the appearance of Sputnik, however, space science was precipitated into prominence as an important part of a broad space program that the country suddenly found itself compelled in its own interest to undertake. Almost overnight dollars to pay for the research were no longer [xvi] a problem, and numerous individuals and institutions, both at home and abroad, became interested in taking part in the program.
 
Two other main threads in the narrative-organization and management, and institutional relationships-concern such aspects of the space science story. Organization and management include leadership, planning techniques, budget preparation and defense, and organization and management of teams of specialists. Institutional relationships include those with the many groups that played important, often essential, parts in the program. This thread will weave into the story the roles of universities, industry, the military and other government agencies, the National Academy of Sciences, and the President's Science Advisory Committee. Working with the Congress was an essential element in securing and maintaining support for the program. As with NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, advisory committees played an important role in the planning and conduct of the space science program.
 
Paradoxically these aspects appeared as both a hindrance and a help to space scientists. The necessity to fight continually for resources, to compete with other elements of the space program, to labor on advisory committees, and to wrestle with the mountains of paper work required by management interfered with the research. On the other hand, these distractions were necessary, for without proper organization and management, substantial resources, and far-flung teams, space science could not have expanded into the intensive probing of the solar system and the universe that it became. Moreover, one sensed the possibility of a salutary effect in having continually to be on one's toes.
 
From the time of the earliest sounding rockets in 1945-1946 to the end of 1973 when I left NASA, I was a participant in the space science program. It was my good fortune to take part in the pioneering work of the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, in the International Geophysical Year rocket and satellite programs, and in organizing and conducting NASA's space science program. Inevitably what I write is colored by my own experiences. Nevertheless, this book is intended to be something more than a memoir.
 
I have attempted to survey the field in retrospect, consulting the literature, files, and records in an effort to discern the course of the space science program in proper perspective. It has been interesting to note that sometimes matters were not as I perceived them at the time, and occasionally were quite different. Particularly in telling of controversies in which I was among the disputants, I have tried neither to overemphasize nor to shortchange my own views. Writing the text in the third person has helped, I believe, to be objective.
 
There are, of course, many vantage points from which a valid picture of the space science program could be drawn. One appropriate aspect [xvii] would be the story as seen by scientists outside of NASA-in the universities, the National Academy of Sciences, and elsewhere-for these comprised the greater part of the scientists in the program. A different and significant view would be obtained from scientists in other countries who took part in NASA's international cooperative program. The engineers could be expected to tell it quite differently from the scientists. A revealing, not always flattering, picture would likely come from those in industry whose talents provided much of the hardware and operations that lay at the heart of the country's space science missions. Within NASA itself a writer from the research and development centers and field stations-where lay most of the technical and operational strength of the agency-would certainly provide a decidedly different slant from that which a headquarters writer would find natural. I have, of course, tried to capture some of the flavor of all these points of view, but the principal orientation is that of headquarters management.
 
Another aspect of that vantage point must be considered. Most of this book deals with NASA and its program. How legitimate is this? After all, the military services, particularly the Air Force, were active in space research-through sounding rocket research, study programs, and exploratory development-before there was a NASA, and continued after NASA was established to expend billions of dollars a year on space. Also there were those other participants alluded to in the preceding paragraph. And very much in the foreground has been the Soviet Union, which precipitated worldwide interest in space by launching the Sputniks.
 
I believe the concentration on NASA to be legitimate, for as time went on scientists in the United States came to view NASA as the prime source of support for space science, as they had come to look to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for general support of science. The legislators who created NASA as a civilian agency intended it to be the aegis for the U.S. national space program, which, especially on the international scene, it quickly became. Other countries interested in space research turned to NASA with their proposals to cooperate on space science projects. In the United States, in only a few years "the space science program" and "the NASA space science program" became almost synonymous.
 
In the USSR the situation was different. There the space program and the military space program were equivalent. Space science, like all other aspects of the program, was cloaked in military security and came into view only well after the fact, when the Soviet Union felt ready to report the results of a successful mission. Yet it would be erroneous to characterize the Soviet space science program as purely military in its import. Considerable attention to lunar and planetary research contributed to an image of Soviet scientific and technological strength, but could hardly be accorded any great military value.
 
[xviii] While it is necessary to say enough about Soviet space science to show its more important contributions, and particularly to highlight relationships to the overall field, the main emphasis of the book is on the U.S. program. Even here there is no attempt to be exhaustive. Rather, I intend to select examples that illustrate the interplay of personalities and opinions and the steady advance of ideas that characterized the program, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
 
Overlying the space science story is a most important factor, which I like to refer to as the inexorability of the scientific process, a factor that applies not only to space science, but to all science. In the turmoil of human relations-while the battles rage over funding, priorities, control of programs, personal recognition, bureaucratic despotism, and individual shortcomings-the scientific process, as long as it is sufficiently nourished, steadily, I say inexorably, adds to the store of knowledge. To appreciate the role of the scientific process, one must begin by considering, at least briefly, the meaning and nature of science and the context in which scientists pursue their profession in the modern world. Those are the subjects of part I.
 
I would like to express my appreciation to the staff of the NASA History Office for the extensive encouragement and assistance I received throughout the time I worked on this book. I must single out archivist Lee Saegesser; his tireless efforts deserve special thanks. Thorough reviews of the manuscript by Dr. Norman Ness and Dr. John O'Keefe of the Goddard Space Flight Center, and many personal conversations with Dr. O'Keefe, were most helpful. Indeed, a large number of reviewers generously furnished comments on parts or all of the manuscript. Their criticisms were an invaluable aid, for which I am grateful.
 
Homer E. Newell
 
Alexandria, Virginia
January 1979
 

 
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