Mercury Team Takes Shape

Although Robert R. Gilruth's Space Task Group was growing rapidly, it remained small enough and intimate enough throughout 1959 to make everyone feel his worth. The creative engineering challenge of the project inspired an esprit that could be measured by the amount of voluntary overtime and vacation time relinquished by the members of STG. Gilruth's administrative assistant for staff services, 46-year-old Paul D. Taylor, died of a heart attack in May and was mourned by his colleagues as a martyr who overworked himself in the cause.3

According to its own estimates of present and future manpower requirements, the Task Group was hard pressed to meet all its commitments in mid-1959. At the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, NASA authorized the Task Group to hire another 100 persons, mostly recent college graduates. A total of 488 authorized positions was to be filled by the end of the calendar year. But STG argued that only one of its three major divisions at work on Mercury - Operations, under Charles W. Mathews - was fairly equal in numbers to the tasks at hand so far. The Flight Systems Division, under Maxime A. Faget, was called "greatly understaffed," and the Engineering and Contract Administration Division, now under the acting leadership of the Canadian James A. Chamberlin, was in "such urgent need" of more technical and administrative help that the Space Task Group requested 200 additional positions, to be filled within the next three months. Estimates of increased Langley and Lewis support activities for Project Mercury almost doubled this personnel request. The sheer size and immense scope of industrial and military personnel required to support Mercury stirred STG to a premonition of precarious control:

In summary, a detailed study of staffing requirements for Project Mercury shows that the presently authorized complement of 388 should be increased by 330 positions during fiscal year 1960 in order to maintain the project schedules. This staff of 718 should be available by September of 1959, but orderly recruitment and integration of the additional staff would defer the filling of the complement until April of 1960. It is believed that everything practicable in the line of contracting on Project Mercury has been done without going to the extreme of effectively relinquishing control of the project. Failure to obtain the additional personnel shown must result in either major slippage of the schedule or in NASA effectively losing control of the project to the military or to industry.4

Because there was still no official commitment to manned space flight programs beyond Mercury and because hope was still high that manned orbital flight could be accomplished by the end of 1960, the Task Group accepted its temporary status and planned to phase out the people working on Project Mercury beginning in June 1961. Such plans were tentative, of course, and did not reckon with the technical and organizational problems that were to stretch out the program, nor with the astronautical and political events that were to change the course and expand the role of NASA's manned space flight efforts in 1961.

[170] Nevertheless, by early August 1959, Gilruth was able to put his own field element of the Goddard Space Flight Center in much better order through a major reorganization.5 His new title, Director of Project Mercury, was indicative of the expanded size and activity of the Task Group. The functions of "project manager" for engineering administration devolved upon Chamberlin, who also headed the new Capsule Coordination Committee. Addition of staff services and elaboration of branch and section working group leaders after August 3 made STG's organization charts much more detailed. But the block diagrams, while helpful to new recruits and to industrial visitors at the crowded old brick administration building at the eastern entrance to Langley Field, showed rather artificial separations of activity and authority within STG. The intimacy of the original group had suffered inevitable attrition as the result of an eightfold increase in size in less than a year, but the "inner circle" still operated personally rather than formally. Outside relationships, even those with Langley Research Center, on the other side of the airbase, were rapidly demanding more formality.

A partial solution to these problems, which in time grew to be one of the most important organizational decisions ever made for Project Mercury, was the informal agreement made in August 1959 between the Defense Department and NASA to select two men to act as "single points-of-contact." DOD appointed Major General Donald N. Yates, Commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center, to become in October its representative for military support activities for Project Mercury. The job of mobilizing and coordinating such diverse activities as Air Force prelaunch and launch support, Navy search and recovery operations, Army tracking and communications facilities, and joint service and bioastronautics resources demanded systematic, formal organization.6 In turn, Hugh L. Dryden for NASA asked the chief of the High Speed Flight Station, Walter C. Williams, to join Gilruth to act as the contact point with Yates. Effective September 1, 1959, Williams and his colleagues Kenneth S. Kleinknecht and Martin A. Byrnes accepted transfers from NASA's High Speed Flight Station - shortly to be renamed the NASA Flight Research Center - to the Space Task Group. Having pioneered since 1945 in airborne launches of rocket research aircraft, Williams was a senior convert to the vertical ground launch cause of Mercury. Faget especially welcomed him. A personable and forceful leader, Williams took a position on a level with Charles J. Donlan. Each was an associate director for Project Mercury, Williams specializing in operations and Donlan in development. Williams had guided the NACA-NASA role in the flight operations of the X-15 rocket plane to a point just two days short of its first powered flight, on September 17, with North American Aviation's test pilot A. Scott Crossfield at the controls. When Williams, Kleinknecht, and Byrnes took up the higher national priority and professional challenge of working with spacecraft rather than aircraft, they brought to STG valuable operational and development experience with the highest-performance manned flight vehicles then in existence.7

[171] Although there was pressure to get on with operations planning, engineering the Mercury capsule was still the primary task during these days. McDonnell and STG had swapped permanent field representatives during the spring in the persons of Frank G. Morgan and Wilbur H. Gray. Morgan came to live in a motel at Langley. Gray found a residence in St. Louis near the north side of Lambert Field, where the McDonnell plant was spread around the perimeter of the municipal airport. Though their technical liaison work was heavy, Morgan and Gray acted as hosts and guides as much as consultants, because visits by exchange delegations of engineers were so frequent. Just as the coordination of these meetings and trips for the development of the capsule became imperative among the aircraft and spacecraft designers and developers, so were closer, more orderly relations required with the developers of the ballistic missile boosters. Aerospace engineers often used one word to express the adaptation of systems, modules, organizations, and even technologies to one another: that word was "interface"; it connoted problems of integration, convergence, and synthesis of indeterminate magnitude.


3 Obituary for Paul D. Taylor, Airscoop, Langley Research Center, May 15, 1959. Regarding overtime, see Ms., Paul E. Purser, "Discussion of Project Mercury History and Schedules," Aug. 1960.

4 "Complement Analysis," STG, Appendix C of confidential staff study, July 10, 1959, C-10.

5 See James M. Grimwood, Project Mercury: A Chronology, NASA SP-4001 (Washington, 1963), 215 . Cf. memos, Robert R. Gilruth to staff, "Appointment of Associate Directors," Sept. 15, 1959; and "Organization of Space Task Group," Aug. 10, 1959.

6 For most of the preliminary operational planning, see the appendices and annexes to Ms., "Overall Plan: Department of Defense Support for Project Mercury," undated [ca. Sept. 1959]. See also DOD Representative for Project Mercury Support Operations, Final Report to the Secretary of Defense on Department of Defense Support of Project Mercury: For the Period 1 July 1959 through 13 June 1963; approved by Leighton I. Davis, Maj. Gen., USAF, 11 Sept. 1963. The major exceptions to Maj. Gen. Donald N. Yates' responsibility for military support activities for Mercury were in the areas of man-rating the Atlas and bioastronautical research and training.

7 Maxime A. Faget recalls Walter C. Williams' being adamantly opposed to vertical manned rocket launches in 1957, but by mid-1958Williams was supporting the Langley plans on the joint NACA-Advanced Research Projects Agency panel. Faget, interview, Houston, Aug. 4, 1964, and Williams, Aug. 23, 1965. See also memo, Gilruth for staff, "Appointment of Associate Directors," Sept. 15, 1959.


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