PART III : 1958-1959

9. The Early U.S. Space Program



NACA Takes the Initiative


[180] During its 43-year life, the NACA had been content to be a government aeronautical research organization. At the end of World War 11, there were three major research laboratories with a staff of about 8000. It contracted a modest amount of research with universities and non-profit institutions. As a non-competing service organization, the NACA was close to and strongly supported by both the military and the aeronautical industry. In the 1950s, the laboratories had started research on missiles; by 1957, such work constituted from a quarter to a third of total research.15 Among the staff were rocket and space enthusiasts who saw Sputnik as merely an endorsement of what they had been advocating. The majority of the staff, however, were deeply committed to aircraft powered by air-breathing engines, and Sputnik produced an ambivalence. As Bruce T. Lundin, then a division chief at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory and now its director, saw the situation, "we were divided into two strong camps . . . half were afraid we were going to get sucked into space [research] and the other half were afraid that we were going to get left out." Lundin's view was that the future of the NACA lay in responding to the national need and to "use our unique capability to bring our nation into space. It was either us or the military and I really felt that the United States should go into space as a peaceful civilian activity rather than carrying a sword."16


Early in December 1957, Hugh Dryden, NACA's director, summoned the directors and associate directors of the research laboratories to Washington to discuss the future posture of the NACA with respect to space. Abe Silverstein, associate director of the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, went with Ray Sharp, the director. Silverstein asked Lundin,- who had been expressing his views freely, to put them in writing as the Lewis position. Lundin spent a Sunday afternoon writing a paper which Silverstein used, with minor revisions and additions, at the Washington meeting. Dryden opened the meeting with some introductory remarks about the possible courses for the NACA and then asked the research directors for their opinion. The Lewis position was the most enthusiastic response that Dryden got from the Center people. Henry J.E. Reid and Floyd Thompson from the Langley laboratory were not very enthusiastic about building up the NACA to move into space activities. Smith DeFrance from the Ames laboratory was opposed to it, fearing that it would destroy the whole concept on which the NACA was based.17


[181] The Lundin-Silverstein paper presented compelling arguments for an active role in space activities. After discussing and discarding two possible roles, the suggested one was:


....a bold and visionary approach based on (a) the importance of space exploration, (b) its urgency and importance to our national survival, (c) the importance of research at this time, (d) our traditional role of leadership in independent aeronautical research, (e) the obvious need for consolidating present Governmental research on space problems into a single agency, (f) our future needs in the way of staff and facilities, and (g) examples of what new knowledge is needed and how the foregoing would provide it.18


Following the meeting of the laboratory directors, the chairman of the NACA, James Doolittle, and Dryden took a very unusual step. They invited about 30 research laboratory middle managers-division chiefs in the main-to Washington for cocktails and dinner and an unfettered discussion of what they thought the course of the NACA should be. The 18 December 1957 event, known as the Doolittle dinner by some and the Young Turks dinner by others, was an affair with no holds barred. One or two took the opportunity to berate NACA management for their ultra-conservative position in the past and to air old grievances. Most, however, were with Walter T. Olson, chief of the fuels and combustion division at the Lewis laboratory, when he stood up and made a strong argument for moving boldly into space. Doolittle and Dryden got the message: the younger NACA staff members were enthusiastic for space. 19


The long established procedure of the NACA, when faced with the prospect of entering a new field, was to form a special advisory committee to look into the matter. This not only obtained the services of prominent and knowledgeable people but formed a basis of support. In November 1957, NACA authorized a special committee on space technology which was organized in January 1958. H. Guyford Stever, associate dean of engineering of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the chairman.* This committee formed seven working groups involving many persons who later became prominent in space activities.


The NACA staff also began its own studies of space technology and desirable research objectives. On 14 January 1958, Dryden released a NACA staff study entitled "A National Research Program for Space Technology." It called for a space effort based on cooperation between government agencies. NACA would step up its space activities, build new facilities, and add to the staff, but would limit its work to basic research. Large vehicles would be flown by the Department of Defense with technical assistance by NACA. This was similar to past arrangements, particularly for research [182] aircraft such as the X-15, and would offend no one. Two days later, the main committee of the NACA met and passed a resolution on space flight calling for a national program involving research in space technology, development of scientific and military space vehicles, and research on higher atmosphere and space phenomena. A cooperative program between NACA, DoD, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation was seen as the best way to implement the program. The resolution emphasized that the NACA role in space was one of coordination and research on space technology requiring expansion of its current activities and called on the special committee on space technology to review needed research and help formulate a program for the NACA.


On 10 February 1958, the NACA staff reinforced the resolution with a report entitled "A Program for Expansion of NACA Research in Space Flight Technology: With Estimates of the Staff and Facilities Required." The report described a program bold in concept and broad in scope.**


The implications of Sputnik for civil space activities were considered by the Congress, and by early 1958, several proposals were pending-including one that would put the space program under the Atomic Energy Commission. None of these suited the administration and in February, President Eisenhower asked his scientific advisor, James Killian, to devise a plan. The result was a recommendation in March, approved by the President, to give the civil portion of the space program to the NACA and strengthen and rename it. On 2 April, less than a week after giving the ARPA the green light on its space plans, Eisenhower sent Congress a bill to establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At the same time. he directed NACA and DoD to discuss current space programs and decide which should be transferred to NASA when it came into being. The Bureau of the Budget thereafter took a very active role in pressing for decisions on the transfer of programs and funding from DoD to NACA-NASA. Thus, in the period from 2 April until NASA was formally in business on 1 October, the new organization had plenty of clout to contend with the ARPA, Army, and Air Force in jockeying for a role in space.


Following the President's 2 April directive, ARPA's Roy Johnson and Herbert York met with NACA's J.W. Crowley, Ira Abbott, and Robert Gilruth to discuss the .transfer of programs. It was obvious that purely scientific space programs would be transferred and that reconnaissance satellites would remain with the military, while the disposition of manned spaceflight and launch vehicles was uncertain. Both the military and civilian sides saw a need for large launch vehicles and both included such vehicles in their planning, leaving the precise responsibility for later resolution. It was inevitable, however, that ARPA and NACA were on a convergent course with respect to launch vehicles and propulsion.


[183] During the spring of 1958, NACA's director of research Hugh Dryden sought a strong leader within the NACA staff to come to Washington and help him formulate a civilian space program. He found his man in Abe Silverstein.***


Silverstein (1908- ) was a sharp, aggressive, imaginative, and decisive leader. He could be charming or abrasive. He was a hard bargainer at the conference table in technical and management matters but very warm-hearted in personal relationships. He could cast work aside like a cloak and radiate such warmth and empathy for people that those who had felt his lash in a technical discussion earlier could forget their chagrin and respond to him with equal warmth. Many damned his ways but liked the person. He had an uncanny technical intuition, or feel, for the right approach; and those who were dismayed at his methods could scarcely question his judgment. To a casual observer he might appear to be a one-man show, one who would not delegate, or one who liked to participate in all technical decisions, large and small. Yet this is not a complete picture, for Silverstein and his methods were far more complex. In conferences with his superiors or peers, Silverstein was a restrained yet highly skilled proponent for his cause. He was a good moderator or chairman. On the other hand, in conferences on matters where he was directly responsible for the outcome, he was far more direct and aggressive. At the latter, he liked to gather together a group of his subordinates-and, later, contractors-about the conference table and engage in a free-for-all argument over various technical merits or weaknesses of a program or proposed action.


Sometimes he displayed a near-mania for winning the argument, especially on rare occasions when it became rather obvious that he was on the wrong side. Wise associates never pressed him too hard when he painted himself into a corner, for he would never admit it and more time would be lost. Even then his amazing sixth sense in engineering was functioning and absorbing all inputs, and he never followed a bad argument with a bad decision. He respected those who stood up to him and stoutly made a good technical point. but woe to him who made a weak argument, for Silverstein could be relentless. Strangely enough, this dominant personality seldom produced lasting antagonism and did not diminish the growth of strong and competent subordinates; many went on to distinguished careers.****


Silverstein strove always for excellence and he inspired the same in those who worked with him. He attributed this trait to his mother, whom he described as "ideally trained to do space work because she knew the importance of perfection." He eschewed politics, or its equivalent, in management and disdained image building, which is probably why he did not regard himself as a "headquarters-type" person.


Abe Silverstein

[184] Fig. 48. Abe Silverstein, director of space flight programs. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1958-1960, who had a decisive role in the use of liquid hydrogen as a fuel in the upper stages of the Saturn launch vehicle, (Photo ca. 1955.)


[185] In the spring of 1958, Silverstein transferred to NACA headquarters and began to assemble a staff to help him plan a space program. Others from the three laboratories joined in to help as called upon. By mid-ycar, pcrsonnel at the laboratories and at headquarters were assigned to 11 program elements.***** By mid-July, a FY 1960 budget proposal had been prepared by Silverstein, Robert Gilruth, Morton Stoller, Edgar Cortright, and Newell Sanders. The space vehicle portion was $349 million and included vertical probes, 12 small satellites and 3 larger ones for scientific experiments, a satellite for an astronomical telescope, 3 communications satellites, 4 lunar probes, inter-planetary probes, 4 manned space capsules weighing 1140 kilograms each, a 4450 kilogram manned satellite for biological and life science studies, and a winged vehicle for a recoverable space vehicle. The budget called for $80 million for propulsion systems, including $30 million for a single engine of 4.5 meganewtons (1 million lb. thrust), $15 million for nuclear rockets, $12 million for high energy propellants, $15 million for a clustered rocket of 4450 kilonewtons (one million lb thrust), $5 million for solid rockets, and $3 million for solid propulsion components. The budget also called for $26.7 million for a spaceflight staff of 1700 and $50 million for facilities, including a space projects center.20 On 29 July 1958, President Eisenhower signed H.R. 12575 making it the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The NACA was absorbed, along with its laboratories and personnel, when NASA officially began operations on 1 October 1958. The new space agency was humming with activity and Silverstein was its chief planner and director under administrators Glennan and Dryden.


* Among its sixteen members were Norman C. Appold, the manager of the Suntan project; Wernher von Braun, technical director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency; and Abe Silverstein, associate director of the NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Also on the committee were J. R. Dempsey, manager of General Dynamics-Astronautics and responsible for developing the Atlas, and S.K. Hoffman, general manager of the Rocketdyne Division, North American Aviation.

** Among the facilities proposed was one for chemical rockets up to a thrust of 4.5 MN ( 1 million lb). A smaller test stand equipped with an ejector to reduce ambient pressure at the nozzle for altitude simulation was also proposed. Other facilities included nuclear rockets, pumps, gas generators, and smaller-scale rocket stands. Liquid hydrogen was named as one propellant to be used. These facilities, estimated to cost $380 million, would be built over a 5-year period. The plan also called for an operating budget increase of $100 million annually and more than doubling the staff (to 17 000).

*** Silverstein allmost lost the opportunity. He recalls that very early in 1958 Dryden asked him to work with him on space planning, but Silverstein refused because he was "not a headquarters-type person." Silverstein, however, was intrigued with the opportunities offered by space and about a month later, approached Dryden with an organizational part for NACA. He remembers Dryden looking at him coldly and saying in effet: :"Silverstein, I invited you up here to work with me on this thing. If you are willing to come up, fine, otherwise, forget it . " Silverstein took the job. Silverstein interview, 29 May 1974.

**** Three of the best known are: George M. Low, past deputy administrator of NASA and now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Edgar M. Cortright, past director of the Langley Research Center and now an executive industry; and Bruce T. Lundin, director of the Langley Research Center and now an executive in industry; and Bruce T. Lundin, director of the Lewis Research Center.

***** Unmanned satellites: P. Purser, A. J. Eggers, A Zimmerman, F. OíSullivan;. manned spacecraft: M. Faget, H. Henneberry, Eggers; astronomical telescopes: Zimmerman, OíSullivan, R. T. Jones; meterology: E. Cortright, M. Stoller, Zimmerman, O'Sullivan; communications: N. Sanders, Stoller; lunar probes: Brown, Stoller; internal power: Cortright, O'Sullivan, von Doenhoff; advanced rockets: A. O. Tischler, G. Thibodaux; range: E. Buckley, Stoller, F. Smith: guidance: Stoller; other projects: Zavasky, Cortright.