FIRST AMONG EQUALS : THE SPACE SCIENCE BOARD

 
 
Formation of the Board
 
Space science was a hot topic in Washington in the spring of 1958. Scientists, busy trying to understand the origin and implications of the Van Allen belts, prepared experiments to study the effect the explosion of an atomic bomb in space would have on the magnetosphere and prepared instruments for the Pioneer missions to the Moon. It became a good deal hotter on June 2, when (as discussed in chapter 2) John W. McCormack, chairman of the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, introduced the Space Act of 1958. Not only did the House overwhelmingly approve the Act, but during the debate Leslie C. Arends, Republican Whip and a member of the same Select Committee, argued for a budget of $500 million to launch the new space agency and $1 billion a year thereafter. 60 In 1958, $1 billion was a lot of money and a good deal of it could go for space science.
 
Dr. Detlev W. Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences, must have had mixed feelings about the Space Act. It created a new agency NASA, and made space science one of its major objectives. Bronk should have felt good about that. The Act, however, did not provide for any kind of scientific group to advise the NASA administrator or to oversee NASA's space science program, such as the National Science Board that guided the work of the National Science Foundation. The Act abolished the existing National Advisory Committee that had managed NASA's predecessor, the NACA. And it gave the NASA administrator complete control over NASA's space science program. Bronk would have been concerned about that, particularly since his friend, Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, the director of the NACA, was not likely to become the administrator of the new agency.
 
If Dryden were eliminated as administrator and the President appointed an administrator who would emphasize manned space flight, how could the Academy be sure that NASA would provide adequate funds for or give sound direction to its space science program? Bronk also had another, more practical and very pressing, concern. A week earlier, he had been informed that the ICY satellite budget was down to its last $4000. Academic scientists needed additional funds immediately, otherwise they must stop preparing their instruments for the Pioneer missions. Dryden and Dr. Alan T. Waterman, director of the National Science Foundation, were also concerned about continuing the space science program that had been started during the ICY .61, 62
 
Two days later, on June 4, Bronk invited Dryden, Waterman, Dr. Herbert F. York *, and Lloyd V. Berkner ** to his office to help create the Space Science Board. 63 Dryden, Waterman, and York served as senior officials in the three agencies involved in space research. Berkner, creator and organizer of the ICY, president of the International Council of Scientific Unions, was deeply concerned about the competitive position of the United States in space science, not to mention the shortage of first-class space scientists, and was interested in the institutional and international aspects of science. He was a logical person to get things moving.
 
Gathered around a large conference table in their shirt sleeves with a portable blackboard to write on, these five people organized the Space Science Board. They designated Berkner chairman and Dr. Hugh Odishaw executive director and selected ten of the sixteen members of the Board. They divided space science into seven scientific disciplines, assigned the Board five tasks, and outlined a protocol to help the Board accomplish them.
 
The group seated around the table wanted the Board to attract some of the nation's best scientists into space science. It expected those scientists to prepare research proposals that the Board could evaluate. The group expected all three agencies, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense to continue to be involved in space science. The Board would coordinate the work of the three agencies, just as the Technical Panel had coordinated the work of several government agencies during the ICY. What the members did not anticipate was that NASA would create a strong technical group in Washington to manage all civil space science activity.
 
Later that same day Bronk sent telegrams to the people they had selected and invited them to serve on the Board. This day's work demonstrated the intense attention space science commanded in Washington in the spring of 1958.
 
On June 26, 1958, Bronk wrote to Berkner to give the Board its charter. He charged the Board to "give the fullest possible attention to every aspect of space science, including both the physical and life sciences." Bronk's letter made it clear that the Board was to work with the three agencies NASA, NSF, and ARPA, but as an advisory body, not an operating agency. Unlike the Technical Panel, the Board was not to conduct any space science program or formulate budgets. 64
 
The First Meeting of the Board
 
Berkner called the fifteen members of the Board together for their first meeting in New York on Saturday, June 27, 1958. He probably picked Saturday as the only day he could gather the Board on such short notice. Borkner assembled a distinguished group of senior scientists. Twelve were from academia, ten were members of the National Academy of Sciences, and one, Dr. Harold C. Urey, was a Nobel Laureate. None came from military laboratories. Only two, Dr. James A. Van Allen and Dr. Richard W. Porter, were members of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel and the Academy's Technical Panel for the Earth Satellite Program. Dr. Hugh E. Dryden, the only person present associated with the NACA and the only one who would be associated with NASA when it came into existence, attended as an invited participant, not as a member. Four members, Dr. Leo Goldberg, Dr. Bruno B. Rossi, Dr. John A. Simpson, and Dr. James A. Van Allen, were already engaged in space research. 65 Thus, space science moved away from the military laboratories and toward the universities and civilian government laboratories. It was also moving from the care of the self-constituted Rocket and Satellite Research Panel and the United States National Committee for the IGY (USNC-IGY) into an uncharted domain controlled by the Space Science Board and NASA.
 
Berkner's "4th of July Telegram"
 
Worried about the competitive position of the United States in space exploration, Berkner wanted to encourage the most highly qualified scientists in the country to become immediately involved in space research. There was no hesitation about soliciting proposals. During its first meeting, the Board decided to send telegrams to scientists all over the United States that requested them to send research proposals within a week. The Board sent over 150 copies of Berkner's "4th-of-July telegram," so-called because it reached many scientists on July 4,1958. More than 200 scientists responded. 66
 
Berkner's telegram had an immediate impact on scientists. As Dr. Kinsey Anderson, then a young scientist just starting his professional career, recalls: "It came as a bolt out of the blue, to this young scientist. I have a vivid memory of it-someone actually asking me to do science in space." He accepted the invitation and more than thirty years later he is still an active space scientist. 67
 
The Board Selects Its First Space Scientists
 
Borkner asked Porter to review those proposals that required satellites or space probes and Van Allen to review those that required sounding rockets. Each was to come to the next meeting of the Board with a list of proposals worthy of support. Borkner also asked them to come with plans for research programs for the next two years.
 
Berkner's telegram eliminated most of the confusion in the process for selecting space scientists and opened space science to all scientists, not only to those involved with the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel or the USNC-IGY. The telegram outlined opportunities for space research, invited proposals, imposed a deadline for the response, and stated that the Board would evaluate the proposals and set priorities. The invitation gave every American scientist an opportunity to participate in the nations's space science program. In the jargon of today's space scientist, it was the first "AFO" (Announcement of Flight Opportunities) of the space science program It was several years, however, before NASA began to issue its own AFOs.
 
Early Bad Recommendations
 
On July 19, 1958, during its second meeting, the Board approved the recommendation of Porter and Van Allen. On July 24, Dr. Hugh Odishaw, executive secretary of the Board, wrote identical letters to Dryden, York, and Waterman. 68 Odishaw urged immediate support for the development of six experiments: a proton-precession magnetometer to measure weak interplanetary magnetic fields; an atomic clock to measure the change in frequency of the clock caused by the smaller gravitational field at the orbit of the satellite; a flashing light to be carried on a satellite and tracked by ground-based telescopes to determine the orbit of the satellite and measure the relativistic precession of the perihelion of the orbit; a bolometer to measure, from orbit, the energy radiated by the Earth; a combined Geiger counter and scintillation detector to study auroral radiation; and an inflatable sphere to measure the atmospheric drag on the satellite and determine the geoid of the Earth.
 
Odishaw's letter did not specify either institutions or scientists to conduct these experiments. Odishaw enclosed a letter from Porter that specified institutions but not scientists. For example, Porter's letter recommended "NRL and Varian" for the magnetometer experiment, NRL as the institution where scientists would analyze and publish the results of the experiment, and Varian as the industrial contractor where engineers would build the instrument. Earlier, the Working Group on Internal Instrumentation, the Academy group that evaluated the experiments for the Vanguard satellites, used the scientific competence of the scientist as one of the criteria for evaluating experiments and specified the scientist responsible for each experiment.
 
Porter's letter also recommended a short-range program consisting of thirty experiments that he believed could be ready for flight between 1958 and 1980. He was somewhat optimistic. It took NASA ten years to complete his "short-range" program.
 
In less than a month, between June 27 and July 24, Berkner organized the Board, solicited and evaluated proposals, and recommended roughly a decade of work for the yet-to-be- formally-created Space Agency. In his letter, Porter regretted "the haste with which this report was prepared; . . . it is particularly important to remember that this information is suitable for budgetary purposes only, and should not under any circumstances be used as a final definitized program." He recommended that "the Board assign to appropriate committees the job of writing a better description of each desired experiment and then request all potentially interested agencies to prepare firm proposals." 69


* Chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the agency responsible for all U.S. space projects until NASA could take over the civilian projects.

** President Associated Universities, Inc.


PreviousIndexNext