AMONG EQUALS : 1959 A YEAR OF TROUBLE AND CONFLICT
- Newell's Hybrid
Space Science Organization
- By January 1959, Dr. Homer E. Newell
already had his hands full. He had to plan a national space
science program even as he worked to organize the scientists from
academia and NASA into a coherent force to carry out the program.
To help him with this formidable task, he had only two people on
his staff at NASA Headquarters. Although Newell needed the help of
scientists, scientists did not want to give up their research work
to come to Headquarters to push paper, even for a program as
exciting as space science.
- Newell thought he had a solution. He would
augment his staff with senior scientists from the Goddard Space
Flight Center.* When they were needed, these Goddard scientists
would work part time at Headquarters. If there was a proposal that
needed reviewing or if the Bureau of the Budget or Congress
requested a technical briefing, then a Goddard scientist could
drive into Washington and do the work. These people could use the
rest of their time to conduct their own research at the Center.
Such an arrangement gave Newell access to the scientists he sorely
needed and required a smaller number of scientists to give up
their research careers to work full time at Headquarters.
- Before the year was out, Newell
encountered such serious problems with his hybrid organization
that he was forced to eliminate it. In January 1959, however, he
did not foresee what would happen and he proceeded with his plan.
He turned to his old friend and former colleague from NRL, John W.
Townsend, Jr., the newly appointed director of the Space Science
Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and asked for help.
Early in February, Townsend wrote a long, careful letter to Newell
to confirm the arrangements. Townsend outlined two missions for
his division. The primary mission was 102
- to plan, organize, and conduct a broad
program of basic research in space science through the use of
experiments flown in sounding rockets, Earth satellites, and space
probes. The program is to be pursued vigorously with all available
assets and is to be forward looking in its objectives. This broad
based program will be a part of the NASA national program in space
science formulated by the Office of the Assistant Director for
- Townsend's use of the phrase "formulated"
by the Office of the Assistant Director" rather than "approved by"
specified a role for NASA Headquarters quite different from the
role that the old NACA Headquarters had played for forty years.
This new role for Headquarters would lead to considerable friction
between Newell and powerful center directors accustomed to the
role of NACA Headquarters. In the NACA, center directors planned
programs and sought funding from a technically weak headquarters
staff. Townsend's letter was prescient, and after some bruising
battles, NASA Headquarters began to formulate and control NASA's
- In the meantime, who would help Newell
formulate the national program in space science? Townsend's letter
listed a secondary mission for the Space Science Division:
- to provide the Assistant Director for
Space Sciences with support, in the form of staff consultants,
project managers. working group members, and contract monitors, is
the formation and conduct of the NASA national program in the
space science area.
- Townsend's letter carefully distinguished
between "staff consultants" and "project managers, working group
members, and contract monitors." Staff consultants would report to
Newell or a member of his staff at Headquarters; the others would
report to Townsend at Goddard. According to Townsend's letter,
Newell's staff would select scientists on a competitive basis from
all proposals submitted.
- Despite Townsend's careful specification
of the secondary mission for the Space Science Division, it placed
the senior Goddard scientists, who worked part time at
Headquarters, in a conflict of interest-a scientific, rather than
a legal conflict of interest. At the Center, they wore "Center
research hats" and conducted their own research projects; at
Headquarters they wore "Headquarter's scientific-statesmen hats"
and helped Newell formulate the national space science program. At
the Center they worked on their own, or managed their
subordinates' research projects, yet at Headquarters they were
expected to make objective decisions about the research programs
of other scientists-who were in direct competition for the same
resources in NASA's national space science program. In addition to
placing these Center scientists in a scientific conflict of
interest, this arrangement also made them vulnerable to charges
that, in their review of proposals at Headquarters, they could
steal a competitor's ideas and incorporate them into their own
- Despite the scientific conflict of
interest, Newell's and Townsend's arrangement might have worked if
space scientists had continued to be in short supply. Then the
Goddard scientists would have spent their time trying to persuade
scientists to undertake space experiments. Unfortunately for the
success of Newell's plans, by the fall of 1959, he had far more
space scientists than he had spacecraft to carry instruments. He
needed scientists free of any scientific or legal conflict of
interest to evaluate proposals and set priorities.
- Newell could have turned to the Space
Science Board for help but it is clear from his book that he did
not want the Board to be involved in the day-to-day operation of
the program. According to Newell, Dr. Hugh Odishaw, executive
director of the Board, urged NASA to use the Board to plan the
space science program and to use academic scientists rather than
hiring more NASA scientists. Newell resisted, arguing that NASA
needed to have increased scientific competence in order to work
with the outside scientific community. 104
- In order to control the program and carry
out the wishes of Congress and the Administration, Newell had to
be in charge-something he could not accomplish if the Space
Science Board planned the program and selected the scientists. The
Board deliberated, made motions and consumed valuable time, while
the Russians sprinted further ahead and Congress berated NASA for
its failure to catch up.
- The Unmanned Race
to the Moon
- During 1959, the United States and the
Soviet Union raced to send unmanned spacecraft to the Moon. The
United States kicked off the race in the fall of 1958 with three
unsuccessful attempts to fly a spacecraft past the Moon. On
January 2, 1959, the Soviets responded to the American challenge.
On their first attempt, the USSR launched Luna I. It flew out of
the Earth's gravitational field, sailed past the Moon and drifted
into orbit around the Sun. Two months later, on March 3, 1959,
NASA's Pioneer IV followed Luna past the Moon and on into a solar
orbit. Although Pioneer IV provided valuable information on the
radiation belts, it gathered no information about the Moon and did
little to restore American confidence in its space
- In January 1959, embarrassed by the
failure of the first three Pioneers to fly by the Moon and
startled by the Soviets' success on their first attempt, Dr. T.
Keith Glennan, NASA administrator, approved the first NASA lunar
project. ** This was to be a crash project to capture the lead
in the race to the Moon by launching a spacecraft into lunar orbit
by the fall of 1959. Glennan approved a proposal by the Space
Technology Laboratories (STL) to use a new launch vehicle, the
Atlas-Able, to place a 120-kilogram spin-stabilized, solar-powered
spacecraft in orbit about the Moon.
- NASA wasted no time soliciting proposals
from scientists for these four lunar missions; STL proposed the
scientists and NASA accepted them.
- The Soviets, the fates, the media, and the
Congress all lashed NASA in 1959. Even as NASA and STL struggled
to prepare the lunar orbiter for launch, the Soviets extended
their lead in lunar exploration. On September 14, 1959, they
scored another first when Luna II struck the surface of the Moon.
Two days later, the New York
Times carried three stories on
space. One quoted Nikita Khrushchev, who spoke at the Press Club
in Washington, and hailed "the victorious USSR rockets." Another
described an explosion at Cape Canaveral of a Jupiter rocket
carrying 14 pregnant mice and two frogs. A third quoted President
Eisenhower telling 600 foreign exchange teachers that it was more
important to orbit ideas than satellites. 105 On September 20,
the New York Times carried the headline, "Russia's Moon Shot again
demonstrates its lead in space race." 106
- A month later, on the second anniversary
of Sputnik I, the USSR launched Luna III. Three days later, they
scored again when Luna III photographed the back face of the Moon,
the face that is invisible from the Earth. On October 10, the New
York Times carried another article on space with the headline "US
Space Program Far Behind Soviets." 107
- Two months later, almost exactly two years
after the first disastrous Vanguard launch, the international
media once more assembled at Cape Canaveral to watch the Americans
humble the Soviets. Once more America took a mighty swing and
fanned out. At 1:32 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1959, the
first Atlas-Able carrying a lunar orbiter roared ponderously off
the pad. Forty-five seconds later, the fiberglass shroud covering
the spacecraft blew off and the rocket broke up, dumping the lunar
orbiter into the Atlantic.
- Again Americans had a long weekend to
worry about their position in the space race. The media made sure
they understood their position. On November 29, the
Washington Star proclaimed, "U.S. Out of Space Race for at Least 2
- This crash project to beat the Soviets
irritated the scientists involved. The Scientists had wasted their
time; they had developed their instruments, battled the STL
engineers for the right to build and test them, and now the
instruments lay on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The
frustrated scientists complained to Lloyd V. Berkner, chairman of
the Space Science Board. Their complaints helped precipitate the
major review of NASA's policies that is discussed in chapter 6.
- With a presidential election approaching,
the Democrats took off in full cry after an elderly ailing
President and his party. On October 28, 1959, Congressmen Overton
Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Science and
Astronautics, announced his intention to hold hearings on why the
United States was lagging behind the USSR in space. On December
17, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate Majority Leader, made a
speech blasting the Administration for America's lack of progress
in space. He said, "We cannot concede outer space to communism and
hold leadership on Earth." 110, 111
- Not all U.S. launches failed in 1959. Out
of the glare of publicity over the race to the Moon, Silverstein
and his team quietly moved ahead in several areas. On February 17,
Vanguard II carried a camera into orbit so photograph clouds.
Although the satellite did not operate properly, and was unable to
transmit daily pictures of the clouds, it was the interest in the
Vanguard II photographs of the Earth that led to the daily cloud
cover maps shown on today's TV news. On August 7, a Thor-Able
rocket placed a 64-kilogram spin-stabilized, solar-powered
satellite, Explorer VI, in an eccentric orbit around the Earth.
Although the power supply for this satellite failed two months
after launch, scientists obtained excellent data on the properties
of the radiation belts and the effect of solar activity on cosmic
- In 1959, NASA succeeded in eight of its
fourteen launch attempts. Of the ten space science launches,
however, only four were successful Space science lagged behind
badly in 1959. The other four successful launches tested the
Mercury capsule, the spacecraft destined to carry the first
American astronaut into orbit.
Recognize the Potential of Space Research
- Meanwhile, during NASA's first troubled
year, many scientists came to recognize the potential and
understand some of the problems of space science. Scientists left
their quiet laboratories in increasing numbers during 1959 to seek
the opportunities and brave the uncertainties of research using
instruments launched atop a roaring rocket.
- Physicists and astronomers wanted to
station their detectors and telescopes outside the Earth, beyond
its atmosphere and its magnetic field. Planetologists, geologists,
and atmospheric physicists wanted to fly their instruments to the
vicinity of, or place them on the surface of, the Moon and the
- Physicists also wanted to answer questions
about cosmic rays, the energetic electrons and atomic nuclei that
continuously rain down on the Earth. Where did they come from? How
did they get their enormous energies? What caused the variations
in their flux? What could they tell us about the origin of the
Earth, the solar system, and the universe?
- During the decade prior to Sputnik, these
cosmic ray physicists, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research,
used balloons and aircraft to carry their instruments as close to
the top of the atmosphere as possible and to the poles and the
Equator. They pushed an unreliable balloon technology, through the
use of ever thinner materials and ever larger balloons, to reach
higher and higher altitudes. They needed the higher altitudes and
longer exposure times to study lower energy and more pristine
cosmic rays whose properties had not been changed by passage
through the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field. Accustomed to
an studying results from eight-hour flights using unreliable
balloons once or twice a year, these physicists desperately wanted
to put their detectors on a spacecraft that would fly for months
or years in interplanetary space and be completely free of any
disturbance from the Earth.
- Van Allen's discovery of the radiation
belts in 1958 and his instant global acclaim further whetted their
appetites. Already experienced in designing and building their own
instruments to work unattended on a balloon, they flocked to NASA.
They were accustomed to spending a year or more preparing an
experiment and conducting joint balloon-flying expeditions with
their colleagues. Some believed that a satellite would be like
using a larger more reliable balloon-they sometimes forgot that
whereas a balloon rises slowly and majestically from the ground,
gently floating its payload into the sky a rocket blasts its
payload into the sky and tries to shake it to pieces.
- Astronomers wanted to put their telescopes
into orbit. Throughout the centuries they had climbed the highest
mountains and scanned the darkest skies to make their
observations. To an astronomer, a satellite provided the ultimate
mountaintop. After World War II, a small group of astronomers at
the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) began to use Sounding rockets
to carry their instruments above the atmosphere for a momentary
glimpse of the solar or stellar radiation absorbed by the
atmosphere. Another group at Princeton used balloons to carry
telescopes into orbit. Some of the NRL astronomers moved to the
Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in late 1958. The rest stayed
at NRL, continued their work using Navy-supplied rockets, and
sought opportunities to fly their instruments on NASA satellites.
During 1959, because of the interest generated by the Space
Science Board and by astronomers at Goddard, many astronomers
switched from ground-to space-based astronomy. A few joined the
space science divisions at Goddard or JPL, but most stayed at
their original observatory.
- Space flight created a new discipline,
planetology, and revived a moribund branch of astronomy: planetary
astronomy. At the turn of the century, astronomers lost interest
in the planets when they realized that no matter what they did
with telescopes, their ability to view objects on the surfaces of
planets was limited by the distortion of the image as it came
through the Earth's atmosphere. Space flight offered the
opportunity to physically send instruments to orbit the planets or
land on their surfaces. Planetologists wanted to study the planets
to answer such questions as, What was their present state and how
had they evolved? What could they tell about the origin,
evolution, and future course of the Earth? Where did they come
from? What kind of atmospheres did they have? In 1959, one of the
most exciting questions was whether life existed on the other
planets. Were the "canals" on Mars from an ancient civilization?
Did an exotic civilization exist under the clouds of Venus?
Planetology, as a scientific discipline, did not exist prior to
space flight. Geologists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists
all became planetologists.
- Unlike the physicists and astronomers,
planetologists had no cadre of experienced scientists to show them
the way. They found powerful allies, however, among the media and
aerospace engineers, particularly those at JPL. In 1959, designing
a spacecraft to fly to a planet was a formidable engineering
challenge. To arrive there would demonstrate exquisitely honed
engineering and management skills. The first photographs taken at
close range of the Moon's surface or of a new planet dominated the
front pages of newspapers and flashed on the evening television
news programs. The question of the existence of life on other
planets fascinated scientists, the media, religious leaders and
philosophers alike. The public too, could comprehend and identify
with a picture-taking mission to Mars or Venus but had little
interest in a graph that showed the flux of cosmic rays as a
function of the distance from the Sun.
- Scientists Discover
the Problems in Space Research
- Scientists entering the field of space
science soon learned what the pioneering members of the Upper
Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel had learned during the preceding
quarter century-research using rockets was a hazardous and
uncertain profession. To scientists who worked in the quiet of
their laboratories, research was a continuous process. One made
measurements, analyzed the data, published the results. Out of
that work one gained new insights, asked new questions, modified
the existing experimental apparatus, and started the whole process
over again. The process continued from month to month and year to
year. Scientists who moved from the laboratory into space science
found their research work broken into discrete missions and the
weight of their instruments severely restricted by the launch
vehicle's limited weight-lifting capability. They learned that a
mission, after a year or more of preparation, inundated them with
an ocean of data that NASA and the media wanted analyzed and
interpreted immediately. They also learned that the rocket might
explode, or NASA might cancel the mission and leave them with
nothing to show for a year's work.
- The nature of space science required
scientists to plan their experiments in great detail. Scientists
had to design rugged instruments that would fit within the
confines of the rocket and endure the shock and vibration of a
launch. In addition to the flight instrument itself, a NASA
project manager might require an "engineering model" of an
instrument so his engineering team could figure out how to fit it
on the spacecraft, a "thermal model" so they could check for hot
spots, a "breadboard model" so they could eliminate any electrical
interference with other experiments or the spacecraft itself, and
finally a "brassboard model" to check the fittings on the
spacecraft prior to integrating the actual flight instrument.
Scientists found that they needed a small engineering staff or a
contractor to build all of these models and work with the project
- If it survived the shock and vibration of
launch, then an instrument had to operate unattended for months,
in the heat of the Sun and the cold and vacuum of space. The radio
signals from the spacecraft had to be collected by ground stations
scattered around the world and then converted back into physical
measurements. After this if the instrument operated properly, the
scientist began to analyze the data and, finally, published some
- A scientist from a university accustomed
to having his or her instruments built in his or her laboratory,
and a project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
accustomed to the schedules and constraints of a military
aerospace project, each was appalled by the work habits of the
other. A harassed project manager hated to depend on an eccentric
scientist soldering away in the basement of a physics department
to produce reliable space hardware and meet tight schedules.
Scientists were loath to turn their precious instruments over to
engineers who were interested in whether the instruments could
pass their environmental tests rather than whether the instruments
could measure the phenomena. Some hard-nosed project managers,
primarily from JPL and aerospace contractors, directed scientists
to give designs of their instruments over to contractors who could
"build space-qualified hardware" but who, in fact, might build
instruments that worked in space but produced useless data.
- Academic scientists who worked with the
Goddard Space Flight Center in 1959 were more fortunate. Most of
the Goddard project managers were ex-NRL scientists who had built
instruments to fly on rockets or satellites. They understood and
were sympathetic to the objectives of the academic scientists.
They demanded as little paperwork as possible.
- Elsewhere, particularly at JPL, scientists
and project managers quarreled over the purpose of a mission. Was
it to return scientific data to scientists or demonstrate to the
world that NASA could design, build, and send a spacecraft to the
Moon or one of the planets? In the first year of NASA's existence,
the NACA engineers, who had spent their careers studying and
improving the behavior of machines in the atmosphere and space,
focused their attention on the hardware, not space science.
Aerospace engineers, accustomed to building and making missiles
work, and operating under the glare of the media, focused their
attention on the spacecraft and resented the interference of
scientists with experiments that might delay the launch schedule
and cause the United States to lag further behind the Russians.
- In 1959, in spite of mounds of paper,
acrimonious debates, delays, exploding rockets, and NASA
cancellations, scientists continued to flock to space science.
Scientific discoveries, a place in history, prestige, power,
membership in the National Academy of Sciences, ample funds, and
enthusiastic graduate students all drove scientists to fight to
find a place for their experiments on NASA missions.
- * Although from its
creation in 1958 through May 1960, it was the Beltsvillle Space
Flight Center, hereafter lit will be referred to as the Goddard
Space Flight Center (GSFC).
- ** The first four
Pinoneers were started by DOD's Advanced Research Projects Agency
prior to the formation of NASA.