PART III : 1958-1959

10. Early High-Energy Upper Stages



Transfer of Centaur


[200] In October and November 1958, the Air Force let contracts with Pratt & Whitney and Convair to develop Centaur, the hydrogen-oxygen upper stage for Atlas. Also in October, NASA Administrator Keith Glennan requested ARPA Director Roy Johnson to transfer Centaur to NASA. This was agreed upon in principle by Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles by November. The Air Force, however, had missions requiring the Centaur vehicle and wanted to retain management control. As a consequence, both the Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force [201] mounted strong efforts during the first part of 1959 to reverse the initial transfer agreement. NASA was well aware of the problem and on 6 May 1959, Glennan proposed a compromise to Quarles. Glennan's plan kept the contracts in the Air Force's name with NASA supplying the funds. The Air Force management team was to remain in the Air Force's pay but be physically located at NASA headquarters and report to NASA. Since the Vega and Centaur space vehicles both used an Atlas as the first stage, Glennan further proposed a coordinating team consisting of a NASA chairman and a representative from each of the following: ARPA, Air Research and Development Command, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, plus the Vega and Centaur project managers. NASA accepted responsibility for developing six Centaur upper stages and launching the Atlas-Centaur vehicles; payloads remained the responsibility of the mission agency.28


Glennan's plan required very close cooperation between NASA and the Air Force. What remained utterly inconceivable to some Air Force officers, however, was a military project essentially in the hands of civilians. They urged that control remain with ARPA and the Air Force. The stalemate remained until 10 June 1959 when Richard E. Horner, then NASA associate administrator, wrote to Herbert York, director of research and engineering, with a new plan to resolve the differences. Horner proposed that the Air Force establish the position of Centaur Project Director, filled by an Air Force officer, to be located at the Ballistic Missile Division of the Air Force at Los Angeles. The director would report to a Centaur program manager in NASA headquarters. The Ballistic Missile Division would provide only office space and administrative services. NASA would provide the Air Force project director with technical assistance and assign technical experts to him. Horner emphasized the need for a single line of authority from NASA headquarters to the project director. He also proposed a joint program management coordinating committee made up of a NASA member, an Air Force member, an ARPA member, and the project directors of Vega and Centaur, with Abe Hyatt of NASA as the chairman. This committee would periodically review the progress and resolve interface problems in addition to serving as a communication channel to the organizations involved. On 19 June, J. B. Macauley, York's deputy, responded to Horner and essentially agreed to his proposal. He assumed that the FY 1960 budget provided for six Atlas vehicles and recommended that the director of the military communications satellite program at the Ballistic Missile Division be an ex officio member of the coordinating committee. Horner quickly agreed and on 1 July 1959 Centaur was transferred from ARPA to NASA with scarcely a ripple. Lt. Col. John D. Seaberg remained the project director and Milton Rosen, the NASA program manager.29 About the same time, Pratt & Whitney ran the RL-10 engine using liquid hydrogen and oxygen for the first time.