Challenge From the Field

Although rendezvous ceased to seem very important to NASA Headquarters, 1960 saw that viewpoint challenged in the field. Several NASA field centers had begun to look more closely at the possibilities, and two, in particular, began to urge strongly an open-minded reassessment of the merits of rendezvous. One was the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama; the other was Langley.

Marshall was unique in NASA for its background and outlook. It was the former Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which joined NASA and received its new name in March 1960.41

Marshall's Director, Wernher von Braun, and his chief lieutenants had been responsible for the German Army's rocket development programs before and during World War II, coming to the United States after the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945.42 They had known the heady atmosphere of Weimar Germany's dreams of space travel, [11] and they had a long head start on their American colleagues in the hard, practical work of making these dreams real. They had studied space stations long before they joined NASA. Von Braun had moved on to the notion of orbital operations. As early as December 1958, he was urging NASA to base its lunar mission planning on rendezvous techniques. In a presentation to top-level NASA officials, von Braun dismissed direct flight as very difficult, then described four alternative rendezvous schemes, two requiring only Earth orbital operations and two calling for rendezvous in lunar orbit as well.43

Von Braun and his colleagues had been working since 1957 on the concept of using a cluster of relatively small rocket engines to build a booster of 6.7 meganewtons (1.5 million pounds of thrust) as the basis for a space flight program leading to manned lunar landing.44 The booster project was approved by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense in August 1958.45 Then known as Juno V, the vehicle became Saturn in February 1959 and studies began on suitable upper stages in a complete system for a military lunar mission.46 Whether there was any military need for Saturn was the question of 1959, and the answer was no. The decision to shift Saturn to NASA was behind the transfer of von Braun's group.* 47

Spokesmen for von Braun's group led the defense of the "assembly-in-orbit approach" at Goett Committee meetings during 1959, with strong backing from George M. Low, who urged study of "vehicle staging so that Saturn could be used for manned lunar landing without complete reliance on Nova." The committee supported von Braun's request for a NASA contract to study orbital operations (his group then still belonged to the Army), and Low, who was highly placed in the NASA Headquarters Office of Space Flight Development, helped push it through.48 Von Braun's group studied Saturn's role in lunar landing missions, both manned and unmanned, under NASA auspices during the last half of 1959. The new findings confirmed what an earlier report had concluded, "that a manned circumlunar satellite could be launched from the earth's surface, but some other technique will have to be used for a manned lunar landing with the present state of the art." Most of the chapter on "Manned Circumlunar Flights and Lunar Landings" in the 1959 study report was devoted to the role of orbital operations in these missions.49

Joining NASA did nothing to alter this Center's viewpoint. Until well into 1960, however, Marshall's leanings toward orbital operations produced little work specifically on rendezvous.50 [13] Concerned mainly with development programs, especially Saturn, Marshall had few resources to devote to the kind research needed to locate and solve basic problems of technique. Such studies, in any case, more properly fell to one of NASA's research centers, which could focus on rendezvous itself rather than on the missions that the technique might open up. This was where Langley entered the picture, for whatever these missions might be, in true space flight "there will undoubtedly be space rendezvous requirements."51

Rendezvous research centered on guidance and propulsion at Langley, where two groups were working more or less independently during 1959. In the Aerospace Mechanics Division, John M. Eggleston and his colleagues were looking at the mechanics of orbital rendezvous. And in the Theoretical Mechanics Division, a group headed by John D. Bird was studying launch windows and trajectories for rendezvous.52 The spokesman for Langley in the Goett Committee agreed that lunar landing ought to be "the `ultimate' manned mission for present consideration." But he also voiced Langley's belief that some form of manned space laboratory was "a necessary intermediate step" as a focus for research. That meant a space ferry, and a space ferry meant rendezvous.53

Late in 1959 this concern generated a space station committee at Langley, with a subcommittee on rendezvous headed by John C. Houbolt, then assistant chief of the Dynamic Loads Division. Houbolt was fresh from a successful attack on the problems that had caused several Lockheed Electras to crash. Despite, or perhaps because of, his inexperience in spacecraft technology, Houbolt zealously espoused rendezvous. Although his subcommittee had been formed to look at rendezvous in the context of space stations, Houbolt insisted from the start that it study rendezvous in the broadest terms, since that technique would play a large role in almost any advanced space mission. Loosely organized and largely unscheduled, the subcommittee became a meeting ground for everyone at Langley concerned with any aspect of rendezvous.** 54

When Langley hosted the Goett Committee in December 1959, Houbolt was among the space-station committee members invited to describe their work. He concluded by urging a rendezvous-satellite experiment "to define and solve the problems more clearly,"55 the first of many such pleas Houbolt was to make with as little response. Space station thinking still guided rendezvous work at Langley over the next six months.

In May 1960, Langley was once more host to a meeting, [14] this time of lesser scope but greater impact. Bernard Maggin, from the Office of Aeronautical and Space Research in NASA Headquarters, had called the meeting to discuss space rendezvous and served as its chairman; he was the only member from Headquarters. Maggin had intended to invite to the meeting only the NASA research centers - Langley, Ames, and Lewis - which his office directed. He soon learned, however, that rendezvous had excited wider interest, so he invited the development centers - Marshall and Goddard - as well. The meeting was designed to give the centers a chance to acquaint each other with current research and to exchange thoughts on future prospects.56

Most of the first day was given over to a series of technical papers on propulsion, guidance, and trajectories, which mainly reviewed work in progress.57 They revealed two salient facts about NASA rendezvous research in mid-1960: work centered on rendezvous between space station and ferry, and Langley was doing most of it.

All NASA rendezvous research was in-house; NASA had yet to provide contract funds for industrial or academic studies. This was one of the chief topics at the round-table talks on future rendezvous requirements that took up the second day of the meeting. Lack of funding was ascribed to strong resistance within NASA to any program aimed solely at the modest goal of proving a new technique or advancing the state of the art. To win funds, a research program on rendezvous needed larger ends. Everyone at the meeting believed that NASA ought to begin to develop and prove rendezvous techniques, because all were convinced that the need for rendezvous was going to become urgent within the next few years. What had to be done, then, was to find a context for rendezvous, and the best choice for the task was Marshall, since "resistance to . . . rendezvous [was] currently strong" in both Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Task Group, NASA's other two development organizations.58

This may have been the most important by-product of the conference - the conclusion that Marshall had both the capacity and the desire to carry through an orbital operations and rendezvous program. In September 1960, Marshall's Future Projects Office was able to tell a gathering of industrial representatives that it had $3.1 million in study contracts to award during fiscal year 1961, a number of them related to rendezvous and orbital operations.59 By the end of the fiscal year, the office had issued $817,422 in contracts to ten corporations and four universities for studies ranging from the broad problems of satellite rendezvous to the design of orbital refueling systems for Saturn.60

Marshall's commitment to the principle of orbital operations began to produce in late 1960 specific studies of rendezvous and orbital mechanics, much as the first proposal of the idea in 1949 had done. As befitted a development center, Marshall's research was mission oriented. Its role in the study of rendezvous hinged on how the technique [15] might best be used in manned space missions, in particular a manned landing on the Moon.

The focus of work at Langley also shifted, as Houbolt and his coworkers succumbed to the fascination of a novel application of rendezvous technique, rendezvous in lunar orbit. The essence of the idea was to leave that part of the equipment and fuel needed for the return to Earth in lunar orbit while only a small landing craft descended to the lunar surface, later to rejoin the orbiting mother ship before starting the trip home. In one form or another, this idea had appeared in the work of Oberth, Kondratyuk, and the British Interplanetary Society, to say nothing of later writers. But it reached Langley's rendezvous subcommittee via a brief paper by William II. Michael, Jr., little more than a week after the rendezvous conference at Langley had adjourned.

Michael was part of a small group in the Theoretical Mechanics Division that had been working on trajectories for lunar and planetary missions. The group outlined some of its findings in a pamphlet that made the local rounds near the end of May 1960. Michael's contribution was a brief calculation of the amount of weight that might be saved in a lunar landing mission by parking the return propulsion and part of the spacecraft in lunar orbit.61 The idea hit Houbolt like revealed truth:

I can still remember the "back of the envelope" type of calculations I made to check that the scheme resulted in a very substantial savings in earth boost requirements. Almost spontaneously, it became clear that lunar orbit rendezvous offered a chain reaction simplification on all back effects: development, testing, manufacturing, erection, countdown, flight operations, etc. . . . All would be simplified. The thought struck my mind, "This is fantastic. If there is any idea we have to push, it is this one!" I vowed to dedicate myself to the task.62
And dedicate himself he did. Houbolt and a band of disciples embarked on a crusade to convert the rest of NASA to the truth that lunar orbit rendezvous was the quickest and cheapest road to the Moon.

Rendezvous found an important ally in NASA Headquarters late in 1960, when Robert C. Seamans, Jr., arrived in Washington to fill the post of Associate Administrator. Seamans, whose formal appointment dated from 1 September, came to NASA from the Radio Corporation of America, where he had been chief engineer of the Missile Electronics and Controls Division in Burlington, Massachusetts.63 Seamans' division had been one of two Air Force contractors to study requirements for an unmanned satellite interceptor (Saint) during 1959. In 1960, when Saint moved from study to development, RCA got the Air Force contract to develop its final stage and inspection payload and to demonstrate its rendezvous and inspection capability.64

[16] Saint was part of a quiet but far-reaching Air Force program, much of it concerned with rendezvous and orbital operations, intended to carve out a larger military role in space. Reading the minutes of a November 1960 meeting of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, at which both the Air Force and Marshall reviewed rendezvous work and plans, convinced a Space Task Group observer that Air Force planning and progress toward orbital operations "is much further ahead (2 to 3 years) than the NASA Program at MSFC."65

Seamans thus came to NASA with a solid background in rendezvous work. He spent most of his first month as Associate Administrator touring NASA's field centers. At Langley, he talked to Houbolt. Seamans was deeply impressed by Houbolt's account of the weight savings to be achieved even if only the spacecraft heatshield remained in a lunar parking orbit.66 Seamans invited Houbolt to Washington for a more formal hearing before the Headquarters staff. Houbolt and some of his Langley colleagues presented the case for putting rendezvous into the national space program in a mid-December briefing at NASA Headquarters.*** 67

So by the end of 1960 NASA Headquarters had been exposed to the idea of orbital operations, to the potential value of rendezvous techniques in manned space missions other than those related to space stations. It had also been introduced to the case for lunar orbit rendezvous as a basis for manned flight to the Moon. These ideas had worked their way up from the field, chiefly from the von Braun group at Marshall and Houbolt and his colleagues at Langley. The once unchallenged assumption that a lunar mission, if it were to be undertaken, would be launched directly from Earth's surface had now been called into question; and the questions multiplied in the following months.

* The clustered-small-engine booster eventually became Saturn I, then Saturn IC. Saturn V, which lifted Apollo to the Moon, clustered five of the much larger F-1 engines in its first stage, making it a kind of small Nova.

** This included, among others, John M. Eggleston, John D. Bird, Arthur W. Vogeley, Max C. Kurbjun, John A. Dodgen, William c. Mace, W. Hewitt Phillips, and Clinton E. Brown.

*** Houbolt stressed the general utility of rendezvous in future space missions; John Bird, the advantages of orbital operations; Max Kurbjun, the problems of visual rendezvous; and Clinton Brown, the lunar-orbit-rendezvous concept. In addition to those who spoke formally, the Langley delegation included Eggleston and Phillips. Besides Robert C. Seamans, Jr., Headquarters was represented by Ira H. A. Abbott, Milton Ames, Hermann H. Kurzweg, and Bernard Maggin of the Office of Advanced Research Programs; Eldon W. Hall, Launch Vehicle Programs; George Low, Space Flight Programs; Berg Paraghamian, Program Planning and Evaluation; Alfred M. Mayo, Life Sciences Programs; and Donald H. Heaton, Seamans' assistant.

41 Rosholt, Administrative History, pp. 4647, 107-15, 117-23; David S. Akens, Historical Origins of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, MSFC Historical Monograph No. 1 (Huntsville, Ala., December 1960), pp. 67-80, and Appendices A, B, and C; U.S. Congress, Senate, NASA Authorization Subcommittee of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Transfer of von Braun Team to NASA: Hearings on H.J. Res. 567, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 1960.

42 Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (2nd rev. ed., New York,1961); Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III, History of Rocketry & Space Travel (New York, 1966), pp. 86-119; Walter Dornberger, V-2, trans. James Cleugh and Geoffrey Halliday (New York,1954); idem, "The German V2," in Eugene M. Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology: Essays on Research, Development, and Utility (Detroit, 1964), pp. 2945; Clarence Lasby, Operation Paperclip: German Scientists in the Cold War (New York, 1971).

43 Von Braun's early thinking is probably most clearly shown in his often reprinted "Survey of Development of Liquid Rockets in Germany and Their Future Prospects," written at the behest of his American captors immediately after the war. Nearly half the paper was devoted to the prospects for space travel. Wernher von Braun, Ernst Stuhlinger, and H. H. Koelle, "ABMA Presentation to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," ABMA Rept. D-TN-1-59, 15 Dec. 1958, pp. 63-125; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Missile Development and Space Sciences: Hearings, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pp. 220-21.

44 "Proposal: A National Integrated Missile and Space Vehicle Development Program," Development Operations Div., ABMA Rept. DR-37, 10 Dec.1957, p. 6; "A National Integrated Missile and Space Vehicle Development Program," Report to the NACA Special Committee on Space Technology, 18 July 1958, p. 35.

45 H. H. Koelle et al., "Juno V Space Vehicle Development Program (Phase I): Booster Feasibility Demonstration," ABMA Rept. DSP-TM-10-58, 13 Oct. 1958, p. 2.

46 Manned Space Flight Program: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, p.165; Saturn Illustrated Chronology, April 1957-June 1964, MSFC MHR-3, updated by Evelyn Falkowski (Huntsville, Ala., 10 Aug. 1964), p. 5; "A Lunar Exploration Program Based upon Saturn-Boosted Systems," Army Ordnance Missile Command (AOMC) RCS ORDXM-C-1004, 1 Feb. 1960 (ABMA Rept. DV-TR-2-60), pp. 234-59; "Project Horizon, Phase I Report: A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Military Outpost," 4 vols., AOMC,-8 June 1959, especially vol. II: "Technical Considerations and Plans," pp. 61-163.

47 Eugene M. Emme, "Historical Perspectives on Apollo," NASA Historical Note No. 75, 24 Oct. 1967, p. 17.

48 May, "Minutes, May 25-26, 1959," p. 6, and "June 25-26, 1959," p. 10; Goett memo, 17 July 1959, p. 3.

49 James P. Gardner, Harry O. Ruppe, and Warren H. Straly, "Comments on Problems Relating to the Lunar Landing Vehicle," ABMA Rept. DSP-TN-13-58, 4 Nov. 1958, p. 2; "A Lunar Exploration Program Based upon Saturn-Boosted Systems," pp. 234-59.

50 See, however, H. H. Koelle, "On the Development of Orbital Techniques: A Classification of Orbital Carriers and Satellite Vehicles," Proceedings of the IXth International Astronautical Congress, Amsterdam, 25-30 Aug. 1958 (Vienna, 1959), pp. 702-46; C. L. Barker and W. H. Straly, "Rendezvous by the Chasing Technique," ABMA Rept. DSP-TM-15-59, 30 Oct. 1959; James M. Horner and Robert Silber, "Impulse Minimization for Hohmann Transfer between Inclined Circular Orbits of Different Radii," ABMA Rept. DATR-70-59, 2 Dec.1959; R. F. Hoelker and Silber, "The Bi-Elliptical Transfer between Circular Coplanar Orbits," ABMA Rept. DA-TM-2-59, 6 Jan. 1959; Silber and Horner, "Two Problems of Impulse Minimization between Coplanar Orbits," ABMA Rept. DA-TM-23-59, 12 Feb. 1959.

51 May, "Minutes, May 25-26, 1959," p. 6, and "June 25-26, 1959," p. 6.

52 John M. Eggleston, interview, Houston, 7 Nov. 1966; May, "Minutes, June 25-26, 1959," p. 6, and "December 8-9, 1959," p. 6.

53 May, "Minutes, June 25-26, 1959," p. 6.

54 May, "Minutes, December 8-9, 1959," pp. 9-10; Eggleston interview; Houbolt, interview, Princeton, N.J., 5 Dec. 1966; John D. Bird, "A Short History of the Development of the Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous Plan at the Langley Research Center," 6 Sept.1963 (supplemented 5 Feb. 1965 and 17 Feb. 1966), p. 3; Bird, interview, Langley Research Center, Va., 20 June 1966; John C. Houbolt, "Lunar Rendezvous," International Science and Technology 14 (February 1963), pp. 62-65.

55 May, "Minutes, December 8-9, 1959," p. 10.

56 Eggleston, "Inter-NASA Research and Space Development Centers Discussion on Space Rendezvous," 16-17 May 1960, pp. 1-2.

57 The papers presented are abstracted, ibid., pp. 2-6. The Langley presentation (pp. 2-4) was the most elaborate, as the Langley delegation was the largest. It included a general introduction and conclusion by Houbolt and papers by David F. Thomas, Harold D. Beck, Eggleston, Terrance M. Carney, Richard A. Hord, Bert B. Burton, and Wilford E. Sivertson, Jr.

58 Eggleston, "Inter-NASA Discussion on Rendezvous"; Eggleston and Houbolt interviews.

59 Heinz H. Koelle, "Future Projects at Marshall Space Flight Center," in "NASA-Industry Program Plans Conference, September 27-28, 1960," MSFC, pp. 39-40; Edward H. Kolcum, "NASA Re-Emphasizes Role of Contractors," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 3 Oct. 1960, pp. 32-33.

60 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Orbital Rendezvous in Space: Hearing, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 23 May 1961, p. 30.

61 William H. Michael, Jr., "Weight Advantages of Use of Parking Orbit for Lunar Soft Landing Mission," in Jack W. Crenshaw et al., "Studies Related to Lunar and Planetary Missions," 26 May 1960, pp. 1-2; Bird, "A Short History," pp. 1-2.

62 Houbolt, "Lunar Rendezvous," p. 63.

63 Seamans, interview, Washington, 26 May 1966; Houbolt interview.

64 "Satellite Interceptor Study System: Final Report," RCA Rept. CR-59-588-39, 31 Jan. 1960; "Saint Phase I Technical Proposal," Space Technology Laboratories, Inc., Rept. STL/TR-59-0000-09917, 21 Dec. 1959; Norman E. Sears, "Satellite-Rendezvous Guidance System," MIT Rept. R-331, May 1961, p. 295; "USAF Launches Anti-satellite Program," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 14 Nov. 1960, pp. 26-27; "RCA Will Develop Saint Payload," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 5 Dec. 1960, p. 27; testimony of Harold Brown, DOD Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 12 June 1961, in U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1962: Hearings on H.R. 6874, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, p. 186.

65 Thomas A Sturm, The USAF Scientific Advisory Board: Its First Twenty Years, 1944-1964 (Washington, 1 Feb. 1967), p. 96; memo, J. Thomas Markley for Assoc. Dir., "Meeting between MSFC and STG on mission for Saturn C1 R and D Program and summary of MSFC trips by J. T. Markley," 8 Dec. 1960, enc. 2, "Trip Report R-60-9," 1 Dec. 1960, p. 3. For a list of Air Force projects related to rendezvous and orbital operations, see "Guidelines for a Program for Manned and Unmanned Orbital Operations," NASA Staff Paper, May 1961, p. 16; memo, Donald H. Heaton for record, "Minutes of the Executive Meeting at AFBMD on October 28, 1960," 2 Nov. 1960; Larry Booda, "Air Force Outlines Broad Space Plans," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 5 Dec. 1960, pp. 26-28.

66 Memo, Seamans to Dir., Office of Advanced Research Programs, "Programs relating to rendezvous and orbital control," 12 Sept. 1960; Seamans interview.

67 Bird, "A Short History," p. 2; Bird and Houbolt interviews; memo, Bernard Maggin to Assoc. Adm., "Staff Paper-Guidelines for a Program for Manned and Unmanned Orbital Operations," 23 May 1961, enclosed in staff paper.

Previous Next Index