Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[205] Certainly "love-hate" aptly describes relations between NASA and the Academy of Sciences. Given its role in bringing a space program into being, the Academy could claim the rights, if not of a full parent, at least of a godparent. After failing in its bid to prescribe the space science program, the Academy, through its Space Science Board, advised and served as watchdog for the scientific community.
On its part NASA strove to assimilate into its program the recommendations of the Space Science Board. That NASA and the Academy were setting the same course is plain from a comparison of the makeup of the space science program set forth in NASA's work papers of February 1959 and the book Science in Space, which the board sponsored and which set forth the areas of space research that board members considered promising.5 But the scientists were impatient and more inclined to complain about deficiencies than to acknowledge what was acceptable in NASA's efforts. After the first year Berkner, as chairman of the Space Science Board, felt it necessary to direct his criticism to George Kistiakowsky, the president's science adviser (see pp. 124, 212). That criticism ranged over virtually all aspects of the space science program.6 NASA people felt that Berkner had probably been moved by Hugh Odishaw, executive director of SSB, to complain to the president's science adviser instead of directly to the space agency. Odishaw had developed over the years a distrust of government and felt it incumbent upon himself to ensure that the Space Science Board properly discharged its watchdog function.
Berkner's missive elicited a response from Glennan, which the NASA administrator addressed to Kistiakowsky, agreeing in general with Berkner's objectives but taking exception to some of the allegations.7 Nevertheless, space science managers were goaded into renewed efforts to shape the program to the satisfaction of the scientific community. The going was difficult, and criticism continued until in June 1960 the author felt impelled to put out a workpaper on the subject.8 Specific criticism of NASA included officials' not visiting outside institutions enough, fear that the in-house publication policy of NASA would be followed rather than open publication in the scientific journals, inadequate involvement of the scientific community, too much emphasis on projects and not enough support to [206] long-range university research, fear that NASA would release basic research data prematurely, desire that NASA provide engineering support to university scientists, a charge that NASA gave too much emphasis to vehicles (which in the jargon of the day included both launchers and spacecraft) and not enough to the experiments, concern that NASA scientists, much younger than their professional colleagues in the universities, were not sufficiently seeking and heeding the advice of the university scientists.
The author's paper outlined NASA's mode of working with the scientific community, a mode designed to foster broad participation by the scientific community. The intent was to work with the Space Science Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, then chaired by E. M. Purcell, and with the Space Science Board under Berkner. By this time the space scientists in NASA had become aware of the extensive use NACA had made of advisory committees, and by way of reassurance to outside scientists reference was made to this past practice. The paper referred to the creation of the Space Sciences Steering Committee in the Office of Space Flight Programs, with seven subcommittees containing outside consultants. It specifically referred to the list of suggested experiments sent to NASA by the Space Science Board in its first days; most of those proposals had been included in the space science program in one form or another. As to breadth of contact with the scientific community, through various channels-PSAC, the Space Science Board, and NASA's own committees-the agency had contact with about 200 scientists in a wide range of disciplines. Moreover, the author's paper stated it was NASA policy that no more than about 20% of the experiments in spaceflight missions be provided by NASA scientists, the remaining 80% to be provided by outside experimenters. It was felt that the recurring complaint that outside scientists did not know what NASA was planning stemmed less from an actual lack of communication than from disagreements over some of NASA's decisions.
If it did nothing else, the paper showed that NASA's space science managers were aware of the criticisms and were working to overcome them. In retrospect it can be seen that NASA's people did move steadily in the direction of making the space science program a creature of the scientific community. But it was a rocky road to travel and for a long time criticism outweighed approbation. Then success brought its own problems. As the program began to produce exciting scientific results, interest in the program grew, generating a new difficulty-the problem of the "ins" versus the "outs".
In the fall of 1961 when the Office of Space Sciences was formed at NASA Headquarters, the chairman of PSAC's Space Science Panel, Donald F. Hornig, wrote to Hugh Dryden ex pressing pleasure at the new organization, but at the same time referring to a "crisis of confidence between NASA and members of the scientific community who participate in the NASA program."9 The author responded to Hornig's criticism pointing out that [207] growing interest in the space science program had outrun NASA's ability to accommodate within the budget and the flight program all the good experiments that were being proposed and expressing the hope that the problem of limited flight space would soon be relieved with the appearance of observatory-class satellites.10
This difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that an experimenter in the NASA program usually had in mind an investigation, not just a single experiment. No sooner were the returns from one experiment in, than the experimenter was back with a follow-up proposal that was necessary to make the most of the experiment he had just completed. It made good scientific sense for the scientists on the advisory subcommittees to support such requests. In addition, there was a natural tendency for NASA to reappoint to these subcommittees those who had worked hard and had acquired a ready familiarity with the problems of planning and funding space science experiments. Thus, to those not yet in the program, the setup looked very much like a closed corporation.
It was in this climate that NASA asked the Space Science Board to conduct the first of what became a continuing series of summer studies of the NASA space program (app. G). The first study, at the State University of Iowa 17 June to 31 July 1962, essayed a comprehensive review of the entire NASA space science program, including some side glances at what the Department of Defense was doing or might do in space science.11 The opportunity for the scientists to lay their various concerns not only before NASA officials but also before their scientific peers served to clear the air. When the smoke of battle settled, it appeared that the scientists approved of much of what NASA had been doing, but urged more attention to problems of a kind that continued to be a worry throughout the years. A few examples will illustrate.
NASA leadership, Abe Silverstein especially, had favored the development of large, observatory-class spacecraft. As Silverstein pointed out, the large-capacity spacecraft would permit a comparative study of many different quantities by measuring them simultaneously to seek relationships among them. Also, Silverstein thought that the larger spacecraft would probably give more science per dollar than the smaller ones (years later he expressed some doubt about this latter point).12 But the scientists preferred small spacecraft (p. 149). Early in the summer study Herbert Friedman of the Naval Research Laboratory brought up this issue, stating that NASA's Orbiting Solar Observatory was more complicated than necessary for a number of scientific needs, such as the continuous monitoring of the sun. Also, more effort should go into providing cheaper, capable sounding rockets, which would be of great use in university research. Subsequently the Naval Research Laboratory developed and used to good advantage the Solrad, a smaller, simpler satellite than the Orbiting Solar Observatory. Also, with NASA support Van Allen's group at the State University of [208] Iowa built and used a small Explorer-class satellite, which they called Injun, for studies of the radiation belt and the aurora.
The astronomers supported Friedman in the bid for small satellites. But they also urged use of Orbiting Solar Observatories for many years to come and, looking beyond OSO, pointed to the future need for a more advanced observatory capable of obtaining resolutions of one arc second. The astronomers provided an interesting insight into the complex psychology that entered into relations between NASA and the scientists. While endorsing NASA's astronomy program, they nevertheless were uneasy about their own roles in the program. As Martin Schwarzschild, professor of astronomy at Princeton, confided to the author and some of his colleagues, the astronomers found it distasteful that NASA, not they, should be making the decisions. He added that the astronomers found it doubly infuriating-and infuriating was the word he used-that NASA managers appeared to be making the right decisions.
In his instructions to the summer study working groups, Berkner told the participants to concentrate on maximizing the science in the space program. He pointed out that the question of whether there should be a space program, or a space science program, was not an issue for them to debate-those questions had already been decided by the country. Yet the participants found it impossible to stay away from such matters, particularly when it came to manned spaceflight. Many expressed disapproval of the manned program, along with the wish that the monies going to Apollo might be diverted to space science. Some expressed concern that not only was Apollo going to proceed but that NASA would even seek to justify the program on the basis of science, and this the scientists strongly objected to.
In a lengthy and lively exchange, the author and his colleagues sought to direct the discussion into the channels indicated by Berkner. Study members were urged to recognize that the Apollo program would be carried out, that it concerned important national objectives other than science, a major one of which was the development of a strong national capability to operate with men in space. Since Apollo was going to be done, it behooved the scientists to take advantage of the opportunity before them and to help ensure that the science done in Apollo was the best possible. The Space Science Board had, after a lengthy discussion at its 10-11 February 1961 meeting, adopted a formal position supporting man in space, which position was communicated to the government on 31 March. Following President Kennedy's announcement of the Apollo program, the National Academy of Sciences had issued a release for 7 August 1961 in which it was stated that the Space Science Board had "recommended that scientific exploration of the Moon and planets should be clearly stated as the ultimate objective of the U.S. space program for the foreseeable future.... From a scientific standpoint there seems little room for dissent that man's participation in the exploration of the Moon and planets will be essential . . ." [209] In keeping with this position, at the closing plenary session of the summer study, 31 July 1962, Berkner stated that man in space was a good thing and that exploration was science.13
But the debate went on many years thereafter, furnishing one of many examples that the scientific community is not of one mind, and that the Space Science Board did not necessarily speak for the community in some of its recommendations. Among others, Philip Abelson, distinguished chemist who during World War II had devised one of the methods for separating uranium isotopes, continued the battle against the Apollo program. Abelson urged that much more of value could be achieved by devoting to unmanned space science only a small fraction of the monies going into Apollo. As former editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research and editor of Science, Abelson had a ready outlet for his views. At one point he polled some 200 scientists, asserting that the results gave overwhelming Support for his position.14 The Christian Science Monitor in April 1965 devoted a page to the space program, in which Abelson attacked the manned program as not worth the cost and effort, while the author argued for a balanced program of both unmanned and manned missions.15 The issue was, of course, not settled by argument, but by the final successful accomplishment of the Apollo missions.
Although the debate over Apollo was not ended at the summer study, some recommendations were made. Perhaps the most significant was that scientist-astronauts should be included in the program. The group also recommended that a scientist-astronaut be included on the first landing mission to the moon and that NASA create an institute for the training of scientist-astronauts to be administered by a university, or if not by a university by that part of NASA responsible for the space science program. The latter recommendations did not have the slightest chance of being accepted by NASA, but in time the agency did select scientist-astronauts.
In October 1964 a NASA press release announced the recruitment of scientist-astronauts for future manned flights. The more than 1000 applications received by NASA settled emphatically the question "of whether any scientists were seriously interested in the manned spaceflight program. A preliminary screening reduced these to about 400 applications, which NASA then sent to the National Academy of Sciences. From these a special Academy committee chose, on the basis of scientific potential, 16 nominees to recommend to NASA. Of these, NASA selected 6. In the fall of 1966, NASA and the Academy of Sciences announced that more scientist-astronauts would be chosen. Following a process similar to that of the first selection, NASA chose 11 scientist-astronaut candidates from almost 1000 applicants.16
The new astronaut trainees started out with great optimism and hopes for the future of manned science in space. But they soon ran into difficulties that put another strain on NASA's ties to the scientific community: the [210] Johnson Space Center was not particularly enthusiastic about having scientist-astronauts in the program. The center certainly had not wanted the second batch, which overstaffed the center in scientist-astronauts, considering the probable number of manned space science missions. As the Apollo lunar landings approached and as plans were being developed for the Skylab space station missions, scientists increased their pressure on NASA to include scientist-astronauts on the missions. The Johnson Center resisted. Considering the newness and danger of the missions the center, out of a conviction that only astronauts with extensive test pilot training and experience could safely fly the spacecraft, was unwilling to consider the scientist-astronauts for any of the early missions. Even after the first successful landings on the moon, the scientists continued to have difficulty securing berths on flights. Discouraged and in protest, some resigned from the program. In a series of frank discussions with the author, these men described their frustrations, expressing the hope that something could be done to improve their lot in the program.17 With continuing pressure from the Academy and with strong support from Deputy Administrator George Low, a few scientist-astronauts at long last did fly, geologist Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17 and one scientist-astronaut on each of the manned Skylab flights. Their experience in the Apollo and Skylab programs, however, emphasized the need for NASA managers to give careful thought to how manned space science would be accomplished in the 1980s with the Space Shuttle.18
The 1962 summer study surfaced a number of problems that recurred in one form or another over the years. One of these concerned space biology and medicine. Although there were recommendations for a life sciences program, interest was spotty, with considerable disbelief that much of real value for biology could be expected. Nevertheless, somewhat inconsistently, the life scientists made two recommendations that they continued to press for the next decade. One was that life sciences be elevated to a high level in the NASA organization. Scientists suggested that NASA might invite a respected person from the life sciences community to spend a quarter or a half year reviewing the setup within NASA and make recommendations. The hope was that this might lead to NASA's creating a life sciences directorship reporting to the administrator.
The second recommendation had to do with the selection of research for NASA to support. Accustomed to the peer review panels of the study sections of the National Institutes of Health, the life scientists recommended that NASA adopt such a procedure. The issue of how to work with the life sciences community and where to locate the program within the NASA organization burned for years. These topics are pursued in chapter 16.
Of prime concern to many of the summer study participants was NASA's relationship to the universities. James Van Allen, chairman of the summer study, had assembled an Ad Hoc Committee on NASA-University [211] Relationships, a draft report of which was presented during the Iowa City study.19 "The Committee was unanimous in its favorable general impression of the NASA program.... It was ... impressed by NASA's intention to perform its mission in such a manner as to strengthen existing universities...;" At the summer study the discussion ranged widely without always yielding specific answers to problems. NASA's Space Sciences Steering Committee and its subcommittees came in for a great deal of comment. Van Allen felt that the process of reviewing experiment proposals in the subcommittees, which required the experimenter to be more specific well in advance of performing his experiment than perhaps he could be, tended to erode the independent way in which the scientist worked. Others felt that the system had developed a group of ins and outs, although Van Allen didn't think so. In this connection the question arose again as to whether NASA centers should be participants in the actual science or only be service centers to the rest of the scientific community. In-house versus outside review and evaluation of proposals kept coming up, with the life scientists pushing for outside peer review groups. There resulted a rather confused recommendation to NASA to consider modifying its method of proposal review and experiment selection. Many people did not favor NASA postdoctoral fellowships, but both Fred Seitz, president of the Academy, and Berkner strongly supported them. Industry wanted more support for its space scientists, but the university scientists thought that this was a bad idea, since the higher industry salaries would draw researchers away from teaching posts.
All in all, on the university question (which is considered further in the next chapter) NASA came out in the best possible position. With a general agreement as to the soundness of NASA's approach and a diversity of views on many of the specifics, NASA could find ample support for a variety of courses the agency might wish to follow.
Once initiated to the ways of summer studies, NASA space science managers found them a useful device for examining many kinds of problems. Through the years NASA sponsored a considerable number of studies, some of them narrowly directed, others of broad scope. For many years the studies were concerned primarily with the content of the NASA program-what fields to support, which problems to attack, and sometimes which experimenters to support. The recommendations to NASA amounted to a list of good things to do, but when not all of them could be funded it was NASA's task to make the choices-as NASA had insisted in the first place.
But NASA people began to feel that it would be helpful if scientists would furnish additional advice as to priorities to observe in choosing among different researches when all were intrinsically desirable. In the summer study conducted by the Space Science Board at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, during July 1965, NASA spokesmen urged the participants to face up to the question of priorities, with little real success.20 While [212] scientists were willing to establish some order of preference within a single discipline, they shied away from doing anything of the sort for a mixture of disciplines.
Not until the summer study of 1970, also at Wood's Hole, which was devoted specifically to the question of priorities, did a genuine effort emerge on the part of the scientists to face up to the frustrations of making almost impossible choices.21 The study group did an excellent job, but not without generating serious strains within the community. By choosing to ease off on magnetospheric and fields and particles research in favor of planetary research, it alienated the affections of the fields and particles workers. By emphasizing high-energy astronomy in preference to classical optical astronomy and solar physics, it created more dissidents. In the planetary field itself, which the group strongly supported, participants came close to reversing the support of earlier years given to the Viking project, because its costs were proving to be much greater than expected and were threatening other projects considered more desirable. NASA participants strove mightily during these discussions to bring home the disastrous consequences of withdrawing an endorsement of a project already well under way-largely because of their earlier endorsement-and on which a great deal of money had already been spent. NASA's concern was heightened by the fact that Congressman Karth himself was questioning Viking and showing signs of being willing to recommend canceling it. In the end the study participants agreed with NASA managers on this issue, but there can be little doubt that free of such concerns they would have scrapped Viking in favor of smaller missions such as Pioneers to Venus.
The association between NASA and the Space Science Board endured. Yet at times relations were precarious. The complacent assumption of the superiority of academic science, the presumption of a natural right to be supported in their researches, the instant readiness to criticize, and the disdain which many if not most of the scientists accorded the government manager, particularly the scientist manager, were hard to stomach at times. When Lloyd Berkner undertook in person to lay before NASA's first administrator some of the criticisms and demands of the Space Science Board, Glennan could not restrain an outburst of indignation at the arrogant presumptuousness of the scientists. His vexation was shared by Silverstein, who from time to time cautioned NASA's space scientists to guard against losing control of their destiny, a danger that Silverstein felt was being fostered by drawing outside scientists too intimately into the planning process.
Especially frustrating was the apparent unwillingness, or perhaps inability, of outside scientists to appreciate the problems with which NASA scientists had to wrestle. The complex array of emotions was best illustrated in Harold Urey, Nobel Laureate, enthusiastic supporter of the space program and severe critic of NASA. Periodically Urey would burst forth in the Space Science Board on the scientific platform and in the press with [213] a sweeping polemic against the agency's handling of space science. Urey's most persistent complaint concerned NASA staffing. In May 1963 he wrote to the author to discuss remarks he had been making in the press about incompetence of NASA staffing in science, in particular lunar and planetary science.22 Urey urged the author to drive out the second-raters from NASA and replace them with older, more experienced men who could give proper advice. He stated that he had talked about this matter with people from Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Pasadena, and Los Angeles and regularly got the view that NASA people are second-rate by and large. Two years later, after taking violent exception to a paper presented at a space science symposium held by the Committee on Space Research at Mar del Plata, Argentina, Urey protested to the National Science Foundation and NASA. Since the objectionable paper had been given by a university scientist whose researches were supported by NASA, Urey wrote that "a serious consideration of personnel connected with the entire NASA program is in order."23
With regard to the outside scientists, whose research proposals had been reviewed and endorsed to NASA by experts in the field, Urey did not always seem willing to let the scientific process weed out those who were on the wrong track. As to NASA staffing, NASA people saw in the complaints of Urey and others a lack of understanding of what was involved in managing the space science program. Undeniably most of the managers in NASA Headquarters were not the top-notch scientists whom the critics said they would like to see there. But repeated efforts throughout the years to lure working scientists into NASA management only occasionally bore fruit. In spite of the enticement of top positions in the program, none of the senior "establishment" came. The administrative burden at headquarters was fearful, and the climate such as to devour whatever scientific and research competence an expert might bring with him, affording little opportunity for replenishment. Those experts most needed to help direct the evolving space science program were reluctant, especially in an era when university salaries were rapidly catching up with those of industry and government, to exchange the advantages of academia their students and the independence to follow personal research interests-for a never-ending round of headaches plus an ambience that was bound in time to destroy the very competence for which they were sought out in the first place. To continue a scientific career in NASA one had to work in the centers.
Those scientists who did come to headquarters became resigned to a vicarious enjoyment of the research achievements of the program. Their personal satisfaction came from having contributed in an absolutely essential way to the program, and thus to the advancement of science. That, and the excitement of being at the center of action in one of the greatest of human dramas, was their reward.
The incessant criticism and insatiable appetites of the scientists put a [214] severe strain on the tie between NASA and the Space Science Board. At times during the first years it seemed to the author as though, at the top management levels, only Hugh Dryden, Arnold Frutkin (head of the International Programs Office), and the author favored keeping the association. The rest of NASA seemed willing to cut the Space Science Board adrift, and to rely on NASA-sponsored committees for outside advice.
But the tie became stronger as time went by, particularly when the second chairman of the Space Science Board, Harry Hess, took over from Berkner. Hess, professor of geology at Princeton and originator of the revolutionary new concept of sea-floor spreading, brought with him from years in the Navy and working with the government a better appreciation of what agencies like NASA needed in the way of support from its advisers. Hess fostered a policy of not just tossing lists of recommendations at NASA and then leaving the agency to its own devices, but rather of assisting to realize the desired objectives. When Hess took over, the Executive Committee of SSB began to meet monthly with NASA representatives to provide more continuing assistance to the space science program. When Hess died in 1969, his successor, Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, continued the policy of working personally with NASA to accomplish SSB recommendations.
But in the early 1970s the Academy of Sciences began to show great concern over questions of conflict of interest and potential charges of being captive to those it advised. Thus, when a new chairman was needed for the Space Science Board, instead of consulting with NASA on possible choices as had been the custom, the Academy unilaterally-as it had every right to do-selected a candidate. James Fletcher, the fourth NASA administrator, had doubts about the choice-doubts that were shared by the author-since the proposed chairman had previously shown little evidence of giving thought to the negative effect that his outspoken criticism of various space science projects could have on NASA's efforts to defend its budget on the Hill. NASA objected to the choice; the Academy stood firm; and Fletcher gave serious thought to withdrawing NASA's financial support from the board and relying on NASA's own committees for advice. In the end NASA fortunately did not sever the relationship with the board, and the new chairman did an excellent job. Perhaps NASA's expressed concerns stimulated the Academy to special efforts to prove that NASA was wrong.