FIRST AMONG EQUALS : THE ORIGINS OF NASA

 
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958
 
The Space Act created a civilian space agency and gave it certain objectives. It did not create a space science program. What it said, and what it did not say, about space science strongly influenced the immediate reaction of the National Academy of Sciences. The Act gave the NASA administrator almost complete control over the civilian space science program.
 
As written by a group under the Bureau of the Budget and amended by Congress, the Act was a carefully crafted document that specified certain policies and procedures and left others deliberately ambiguous. 52, 53 The ambiguities provided room for the administrator of NASA and his staff to maneuver and capitalize on the opportunities and to deal with problems that those who drafted the document could not foresee.
 
The Preamble to the Space Act states that it is
 
An act to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.
 
The Preamble does not mention space sciences except in the tacked-on "for other purposes" part of the statement. Fortunately, other parts of the act specify the "other purposes" and provide strong justification for a vigorous space science program.
 
In Section 102, "Declaration of Policy and Purpose," the Act states
 
The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.
 
Further, the Act describes the kinds of activities and their purpose: 54
 
The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:
 
(1) The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.
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(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and is the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
 
Men and women who work as scientists and use sounding rockets, satellites, or space probes in their research "expand human knowledge of the atmosphere and space" and are called space scientists. Their work is known as space science. Here, the Act was very clear; not only was the pursuit of space science an objective of NASA, but NASA was legally obligated to preserve the United States as a leader in that field.
 
Pursuing space science, however was not the only objective of NASA. The third objective was 55
 
The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space.
 
This objective, together with a decision by President Eisenhower on August 18, 1958, to assign the responsibility for manned space flight to NASA, put the new agency into the glamorous, highly visible and highly competitive realm of manned space flight. 56
 
Manned Space flight was not space science, although the media sometimes confused the two. The objective of manned space flight was to fly humans into space and recover them-not to expand human knowledge of phenomena in space. Space science (and life science) must compete with manned space flight for resources and for the attention of NASA management. Cool, abstract studies in space science could not generate the same kind of public excitement as the death-defying flight of an astronaut into space. Neither could manned flight eradicate the idea that its sole purpose was to excite the public and generate work for aerospace companies. Yet the Space Act mandated both functions and Congress expected NASA to lead the world in both.
 
Section 203, "Functions of the Administration," is the final section in the Act of significance to the selection and role of space scientists. It specifies three functions for the Administration of the new agency: 57
 
(1) plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities;
(2) arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations; and
(3) provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.
 
The first function placed the administrator of NASA in charge of all NASA activities. The second function, which concerned space science, was deliberately ambiguous. It left the administrator of NASA free to decide how to conduct the space science program. The administrator could, if he or she chose, conduct it entirely in NASA laboratories with government scientists. The NACA had successfully operated this way for 40 years; and many former NACA people thought NASA should operate in this same way. Alternatively, the administrator could operate the NASA space science program as the Vanguard program had operated. He or she could turn to academic scientists, delegate the planning of the program and the selection of the scientists to the National Academy of Sciences, and transfer funds to the National Science Foundation to purchase the scientific instruments. The other option, and the one that all NASA administrators have chosen, was to open the space science program to all scientists, whether located at universities or in government or industrial laboratories, and let them compete for the right to place their instruments on NASA spacecraft. As long as the administrator arranged to let the scientific community participate in the planning of the space science program, and widely disseminated the results, the Act left that person free to choose how he or she wanted to operate. Any provision for formal advisory boards or committees such as those of the NACA, NSF, or the Atomic Energy Commission, were conspicuously absent from the Space Act.
 
Just as the ambiguity in the Act left the administrator free to choose his or her course, it left other partisan groups free to pursue theirs. Even before the President signed the Space Act, the National Academy of Sciences created a Space Science Board and it immediately began to operate as the old Technical Panel for the Earth Satellite Program (TPESP) had operated in the Vanguard Program. The Board began preparing a national space science program and selecting scientists to conduct it.
 
Under the Act, only the administrator of NASA had the authority and responsibility to decide how NASA would conduct the space program. From March 5, 1958, when President Eisenhower submitted the legislation that designated the NACA as the nucleus of the new space agency, through August 8, 1958, when he appointed the first NASA administrator, Dr. Hugh F. Dryden, the director of the NACA, acted as the administrator of, and directed the planning for NASA.
 
From March through April most people in Washington, including Dryden himself, expected the president to name him administrator of NASA. This was not to be. On April 16, while testifying before the House Select Committee, Dryden denigrated manned space flight and the race with the Soviets, thereby alienating powerful members of the Committee. A week later Dryden returned to testify before the Committee where he was given an opportunity to modify his original position. He did not, at least not to the Committee's satisfaction. The members of the Committee informed the White House that they opposed Dryden's appointment as administrator. 58
 
It is clear from the actions Dryden took, and the decisions that he made, that he intended to depend heavily upon the National Academy of Sciences, and its Space Science Board, and the National Science Foundation for help in NASA's space science program. In March, immediately after the President's decision, Dryden began to transform the NACA into NASA. He brought a propulsion engineer into Washington to lead steam of young aerospace engineers in the planning of the space flight program. Dryden placed no scientists on this planning team. By mid-July the team had planned and budgeted for sixteen scientific satellites, four lunar probes, three communication satellites, and four manned space capsules.
 
Although the members of this team did not include any scientists, it is clear that they were planning for a major space science program. 59 As discussed in the next chapter, Dryden helped create the Space Science Board and attended its first two meetings. He expected the Space Science Board to help plan the space science program, and, at least initially, to solicit and evaluate scientific proposals.


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