Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[203] Congress put the national space program in the hands of the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration without prescribing exactly what the program should be. Objectives of the space program as articulated in the NASA Act of 1958 left a tremendous leeway-in fact, a considerable responsibility-to NASA and the military to decide what should be done.1 Not that NASA could decide such questions unilaterally, for as with all such complex programs there were many levels of decision, from within the agency to the Bureau of the Budget and the president, to the Congress, and back to the president. But assuming a reasonable amount of wisdom and attractiveness to what NASA proposed, the agency could expect approval of much of what it asked for, especially in the climate of competition with the Soviet Union that characterized the years immediately after launch of the first Sputnik.
While ultimate authority in such matters rests with Congress and the president, the initial stages in which a salable proposal is being developed may be all-important. The scientific community wanted to participate in the initial stages-not only in the conduct of experiments. Indeed, the firm determination to do so was a major force in the relations between NASA and scientists. While this desire made it easy to bring first-rate scientists into the planning of the program, it also generated tension when NASA undertook to make the decisions as to what to propose to the administration and Congress.
Many felt that the National Academy of Sciences as representative of the nation's scientists should call the shots in the national space science program. Immediately upon its creation in mid-1958, the Space Science Board solicited proposals and suggestions from the national scientific community for space science projects that should follow the accomplishment of the International Geophysical Year satellite program.2 After assessing about 200 such proposals, the board sent recommendations to NASA shortly before NASA opened.3 NASA managers were pleased to have these recommendations and incorporated them into program planning. But NASA was not willing to accept any implication that space science proposals [204] should normally come to NASA through the Academy of Sciences, or that the Space Science Board should decide what experiments to conduct in the NASA program.
NASA's position was that operational responsibilities placed by law upon the agency could not be turned over to some other agency. Moreover, decisions concerning the space science program could not be made on purely scientific grounds. There were other factors to consider, such as funding, manpower, facilities, spacecraft, launch vehicles, and even the salability of projects in the existing climate at the White House and on Capitol Hill-factors that only NASA could properly assess.
So there followed a brief skirmish between the Academy and NASA as NASA insisted on deciding what space science it would include in its proposals to the administration and Congress.4 Hugh Odishaw, executive director of the Space Science Board, pressed even further, urging that NASA rely entirely on the outside scientific community for its science program, and not create any NASA space science groups. The author-heading NASA's space science program-resisted and was supported by Silverstein and Dryden on the grounds that, aside from wanting to be involved in the scientific work, the agency had to have a scientific competence to work properly with the outside scientific community. Were NASA to limit itself only to engineering and technical staffs, day-to-day decisions in the preparation of satellites and space probes would have to be made without the insights into basic and sometimes subtle scientific needs that only working scientists could provide.
NASA created space science groups in a number of the centers, especially in the Goddard Space Flight Center and the jet Propulsion Laboratory. A few years later John Simpson, physicist at the University of Chicago, confided to the author that he had been one of those who had opposed the idea of NASA's having in-house space science groups. He had, however, completely changed his mind after seeing how valuable it was for the outside scientists to have, as it were, full-time representation at the centers, and to have an understanding ear to turn to when problems arose. Simpson specifically cited the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform-an Explorer-class satellite conceived by Goddard Space Flight Center scientists for investigating cislunar space as-extremely valuable for space science, particularly for his own scientific interests. Yet he and his colleagues in the universities, working only part time on space research and without extensive engineering support, were unlikely to have created any such vehicles.
The first skirmish with the Academy and the outside scientists was not long lived, and NASA emerged firmly in control of space science as well as in other aspects of the space program. Nevertheless, NASA managers intended that the space science program be what the scientific community felt it should be. It was the firm conviction of NASA scientists that a high-quality science program could be attained only by supporting the research [205] of top-notch scientists. The agency proceeded, therefore, to seek and to heed the best scientific advice it could get. In various ways NASA sought to bring scientists intimately into the planning as well as the conduct of the program. With NASA in the driver's seat, but the scientific community serving as navigator, so to speak, a tugging and hauling developed, with a mixture of tension and cooperation that is best described as a love-hate relationship.