FIRST AMONG EQUALS : 1959 A YEAR OF TROUBLE AND CONFLICT

Glennan Cancels Vega and Reorganizes NASA

 
Early in 1959, NASA had directed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build a new Vega rocket. Vega was to be placed atop the Atlas to provide the additional velocity needed to place a spacecraft in orbit about the Moon or fly it past Mars or Venus. NASA intended the Atlas-Vega to be the workhorse for lunar and planetary exploration for the next several years. JPL prepared a five-year plan for its use. At about the same time, the Air Force started work on the Agena, a classified upper stage for the Atlas, to be used to launch reconnaissance satellites. This Atlas-Agena combination could launch a lunar orbiter or send a spacecraft by Mars or Venus. Ten months later, NASA found out about the Atlas-Agena rocket, and, faced with a constrained budget, arranged to use the Atlas-Agena to launch its lunar and interplanetary missions.
 
On December 11, 1959, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, reorganized NASA and arranged to transfer the Army's Development Operations Division * and the Saturn Project to NASA. No longer needing the Vega, Glennan also canceled that project, much to the consternation of the several hundred JPL engineers who were working on it and the scientists who were building instruments to fly on the six test flights of the Atlas-Vega. 132 These actions increased the tension between JPL and NASA Headquarters, added to the irritation and confusion of space scientists, and helped force Newell to abandon his hybrid space science organization, establish a strong space science organization at NASA Headquarters, and bring the process for the selection of space scientists into NASA Headquarters.
 
On December 16, 1959, Richard E. Horner, associate administrator of NASA, wrote to Dr. William H. Pickering, director of JPL, to inform him that the Vega Project had been canceled. In the same letter, Horner assigned Pickering the job of planning and executing NASA's lunar and planetary space exploration program. 133 Pickering promptly seized upon this new assignment to resolve his conflicts with Newell over the selection of scientists for lunar and planetary missions. He requested Silverstein to remove Jastrow as chairman of the Working Group on Lunar Exploration and replace him with Al Hibbs, director of the Space Science Division at JPL. 134 Silverstein ignored Pickering's request and on December 21 sent him a letter that started with the words: 135
 
Based on a study by the several groups in the Headquarters staff participating in the lunar and deep space program, the following tentative flight program and mission designations have been established as a starting point for determining a post-Vega program.
 
Silverstein's letter specified five lunar missions, two missions to Venus in 1962 and two to Mars in 1963. It directed the laboratory to develop a system to transmit high resolution pictures of the lunar surface back to the Earth. Silverstein's letter made it clear that NASA Headquarters would formulate the lunar and planetary program and decide which experiments would be flown. He notified Pickering that several people from his staff would visit JPL on December 28 to work out any problems that JPL had with the program.
 
 
A Crucial Meeting at JPL
 
With all these issues coming to a rolling boil, Newell and three members of Silverstein's staff flew to California on December 27, 1959 to meet with Pickering to resolve the problems between NASA Headquarters and JPL. The following material is based on the lengthy memo that Newell prepared after his return to Washington.136
 
Using Silverstein's December 21 letter as an agenda, the group considered problems of spacecraft, launch vehicles, and schedules for lunar missions and agreed that JPL should immediately start work on what would become the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon.
 
After a long morning session, Newell, Pickering, Goddard, and Hibbs held a rump session to battle out the method of selecting scientists to conduct experiments on JPL lunar and planetary missions-issues raised by Pickering's letter to Silverstein. The group agreed on a policy for the selection and role of space scientists. Under this policy, NASA would establish a mission and Silverstein's Office of Space Flight, in collaboration with JPL, would select a tentative group of scientists for it. They would select more experiments than the spacecraft could carry. Subsequently, the excess scientists and their experiments would be eliminated prior to Silverstein's approval of the final selection. The experimenters would build prototype models of their experiments that JPL would then examine to determine if they were suitable for flight. With the advice and concurrence of Newell's office. JPL would make the final selection of experiments and experimenters for the mission. JPL would build the experiments. or directs contractor to build them, based on specifications prepared by the experimenter.
 
This policy, as described in Newell's memo, would have made NASA Headquarters responsible for the initial selection but allowed JPL to determine if the experiment and the spacecraft were technically compatible. Thus, during the evaluation process, JPL could eliminate experiments it did not like. In addition, the policy would have made JPL responsible for building the flight version of the experiment, one of the procedures Berkner had complained about in his report to the President's science advisor. The policy would not have cut the scientist completely out of the fabrication process: he was to "assist JPL."
 
Experienced space scientists did not like this kind of arrangement because they knew they had to build their own apparatus to be sure the experiment made the measurements to the accuracy they wanted. Eventually, they would win the right to build their instruments but they did not win it in this particular meeting at JPL. One group, however, the University of Chicago Group under Dr. John A. Simpson, after their disastrous encounter with STL's engineers on Pioneer insisted upon building their own flight instruments and overseeing their integration into JPL spacecraft.137 In contrast to JPL, Goddard, the other space flight center, insisted from the beginning that scientists should build their own flight instruments, deliver them to Goddard, and then work with the project team to ensure that their instruments were properly integrated into the spacecraft.
 
According to Newell's memo, the group next considered the question of the chairmanship of the lunar science committee. While the chairmanship and membership of a committee were the immediate problems, the issues ran much deeper. A NASA Headquarters Lunar Science Committee existed. It was chaired by Dr. Robert Jastrow, theoretical physicist at Goddard. To Newell, Jastrow represented NASA Headquarters, not the parochial interests of the scientists at Goddard. To Pickering, Jastrow represented the Goddard scientists clamoring for space for their experiments on JPL missions. Such an arrangement-a Goddard scientist chairing a committee that planned the scientific program for JPL's lunar missions-was unacceptable to Pickering. Furthermore, Jastrow's committee had just recommended gamma-ray experiments for a lunar orbiter, a mission that, at that time, was not even in NASA's space science program. Clearly, to Pickering, a committee that was not close enough to the program to know what missions were scheduled could not be much help to JPL. Furthermore, as chairman of the committee, Jastrow reported directly to Newell at Headquarters.
 
Pickering cited Horner's week-old letter, which assigned JPL the responsibility for planning and executing the lunar program, and proposed, as we have noted, that Hibbs replace Jastrow as chairman. Newell disagreed with Pickering's proposition: overall program planning was the responsibility of Headquarters. He, Newell, had already taken steps to set up such a committee, which he would chair. It would be an internal NASA committee and JPL would be invited to name a member. The group discussed the matter, and finally Newell agreed that a Goddard scientist should not chair a committee that established the scientific objectives or picked the scientists for JPL missions. Pickering agreed to a chairman from Headquarters and to limit the membership to people from NASA and JPL, while both agreed that it was important that the views of lunar and planetary scientists be heard by the committee.
 
Although neither Newell nor Pickering got exactly what he wanted out of the discussion and later events changed some of their agreements, this meeting did lead Newell to begin to abandon his hybrid space science organization and ultimately to formulate the policies and procedures that NASA has used for several decades years to select space scientists.
 
Newell returned to Washington and typed out a ten page "Memorandum for the Record" that described the meeting and the agreements he had reached. He signed about thirty letters and memoranda and went home to welcome a new year and a new decade of space science.
 
Lessons Learned in 1959
 
Abe Silverstein and his team at NASA Headquarters learned several important lessons about space science during NASA's first faltering year. They learned that a space science program had to be broken into discrete missions and each mission assigned to a specific center. Each mission should be assigned to a specific scientific discipline or possibly, to two or three scientific disciplines, provided they all had similar requirements for the orientation of the spacecraft and the orbit in which it traveled. Each mission must have a group of scientists dedicated, for the duration of the mission, to accomplishing the scientific objectives. Each mission must have a project scientist who could work with the scientists selected for the mission and with the project engineering team responsible for developing, launching and operating the spacecraft. The project scientist was needed to understand and interpret the legitimate requirements of the scientists to the project team and to interpret and explain the project team's requirements to the scientists. One person, a project manager, must oversee the whole operation, get the instruments, spacecraft, and launch vehicle built, tested, and assembled and ready for launch. The project manager and the project scientist must work together to accomplish the objectives of the mission. Silverstein's team learned that the scientific objectives, technical requirements, and cost of a space science mission were interdependent and could not be separated at any management level.
 
At the end of 1959, it was clear that NASA needed a better process, and as well-documented process, for selecting scientists for its scientific missions. Competition among scientists was fierce. Academic scientists did not trust their competitors on the Space Science Board or those at the NASA field centers to make a fair selection. Scientists at JPL and at Goddard did not trust the Space Science Board or each other to make the selections for the missions assigned to their respective center. NASA needed a process that would establish the United States as the leader in space science and that NASA and academic space scientists, the President's Science Advisory Committee, and the Space Science Board all had confidence in. It also had to be one that NASA center directors, project managers, and procurement officials could accept.


* Wernher Von Braun's organization, which had launched Explorer and was responsible for developing the Saturn.

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