Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[214] Next to being personally involved in space research, the best way o keeping close to the space science program was to serve on one of the NASA advisory committees. In fact, a prime motivation in the creation of in-house advisory groups, in addition to securing the advice of knowledgeable [215] scientists, was to cement relations with the outside scientific community. After muddling along for a year with the several working groups established in early 1959, NASA put together the more systematized Space Sciences Steering Committee and subcommittees.24
In doing this the intention was not to undercut the role of the Space Science Board, but NASA managers felt the need for more frequent and intimate advice than could be expected from the board. Moreover, some operational tasks, such as assisting in the selection of experiments and experimenters, were not appropriate for a non-NASA group. Still, board members felt at first that NASA was weakening the ties to the Space Science Board and for a while questioned the need for the NASA subcommittees. To counter the disquiet, NASA management invited the board to name liaison representatives to attend and participate in the discussions of the subcommittees. Similarly by invitation from the Academy, NASA observers attended meetings of the board's committees, while Hugh Dryden and the author had a standing invitation to be with the board at its sessions.
Once under way the subcommittees began to develop a systematic approach to advising NASA on its planning, and particularly on the choice of experiments and experimenters for flight missions. For the flights, formal criteria were established and over the next few years refined from experience.25 Through appropriate announcements, which later in the decade became quite formalized, NASA informed the scientific community of the existence of flight projects for which experiments were needed.26 When proposals for experiments to go on these flights came in, they were reviewed by the appropriate subcommittees.
The NASA subcommittees sorted the proposals into four different categories. At the top went the proposals of outstanding merit, well conceived, addressing a critical problem of space science, and likely to yield significant new information, Proposals which were good, but not outstanding, were assigned to category 2. Category 4 experiments were those that the group advised NASA to reject as either unsuitable for-spaceflight or incompetent. The third category was special, reserved for proposals that the subcommittees judged to be potentially of category 1 quality, but which needed a great deal of work before the experiments could be assigned space on a flight.
In rating the proposals the subcommittees were asked to consider a number of points:
Once the subcommittees had completed their ratings, the proposals were further reviewed by the NASA divisions and center project people to consider whether the spacecraft to be used could house the experiments and provide the necessary power, telemetering, orientation, or other special requirements. The ability of an experiment to fit into the spacecraft along with other experiments without undue interference had to be determined. After this engineering review, the division responsible sent its recommendations to the Space Sciences Steering Committee-later the Space Science and Applications Steering Committee-where the recommendations from the subcommittees and those of the division were compared. Then the steering committee sent its recommendations to the Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications for final approval.
NASA customarily flew only category 1 experiments, a policy intended to maintain high quality in the space science program. Moreover, flying only experiments that respected members of the science community had judged to be outstanding blunted possible criticism. With an eye to the future, NASA often funded the research and development needed to raise a category 3 experiment to category 1.
NASA received a great deal of help from the discipline subcommittees, and the outside scientists seemed to appreciate the importance of what they were doing for space science. But, since much of the time of the meetings was taken up in evaluating proposals, there was a lot of drudgery, and little time was left for stepping back and viewing the whole program in perspective. Under the routine the consultants became restive and questioned how much they were influencing the overall planning of the space science program. In contrast, many not on the subcommittees felt that these groups were having too much influence. Since most subcommittee members were also participants in some of the projects on which the subcommittees made recommendations, it was felt that there was too much occasion for conflict of interest. NASA procedures for guarding against such conflicts of interest, such as asking a consultant to leave a meeting at which his proposals or those of a colleague were discussed, did not put the concerns to rest.
The growing dissatisfaction of NASA's advisers with their role, continuing concern over conflicts of interest, the increasing pace and scope of the space science program under Webb's administration, and the expanding involvement of the universities with NASA, led to the conviction that some changes were in order. Once more it appeared wise to secure outside [217] advice, and in early January 1966 Administrator Webb wrote to Norman Ramsey, professor of physics at Harvard University, asking if he would chair an ad hoc advisory committee for NASA.27 Among the questions on which NASA would appreciate having advice, Webb listed: how to organize major projects so that scientists and engineers could participate effectively; how to make it possible for academics to take part without damage to their academic careers (e.g., how an academic scientist could devote six to eight years helping to create an advanced biological laboratory or a large astronomical facility in space and still continue his academic career); what mechanisms to use for picking scientific investigations for the space science program; whether the orientation of some NASA centers should be changed; and how to improve the scientific staffing of the program.
Ramsey accepted, and the committee was formally established in February. Its task was different from that of former advisory groups, which had dealt primarily, though not entirely, with the content of the NASA program. This new committee was asked to advise not on what science to do, but on how to conduct the program. After numerous sessions both in Washington and elsewhere, in which the author and some of his colleagues had the benefit of hearing thorough discussions of Webb's questions and more, the committee submitted recommendations concerning advisory committees, NASA-sponsored research institutes, and relations with the universities and the scientific community.28 Some of the recommendations NASA accepted, some not. Nevertheless, the agency felt that the value derived had been such that the committee, even though initially ad hoc, should be continued. Roger Heyns, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, succeeded Ramsey as chairman.
The most far-reaching of the recommendations that NASA did not accept was the creation of a general advisory committee-not purely scientific-for the administrator. Years before, the first administrator, T. Keith Glennan, had "strongly desired a broadly based General Advisory Committee-a consultative group analogous to a corporate Board of Directors in place of the Space Council chaired in those days by President Eisenhower, who did not want the Space Council to be active."29 The ad hoc committee was convinced that NASA should have a general advisory committee and that such a committee would go a long way toward cementing relations between NASA and the outside community. But Webb was even more convinced that NASA should not set up a general advisory committee, which he averred would compromise the administrator's freedom of action. Such compromise could only be detrimental to the management of a hard-hitting, fast-paced program like NASA's. On the other hand, the continuation of the Ramsey committee under Heyns was a partial accommodation to the committee's views.
Among the recommendations that NASA did accept were two of considerable importance: modification of the agency's advisory structure [218] and creation of a lunar science institute in Houston, adjacent to the Johnson Space Center. It is the former that is of concern here.
Even as the Ramsey committee deliberations were in progress, NASA was taking steps to create two broadly interdisciplinary advisory groups: the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board and the Astronomy Missions Board.30 The strongest motivation in setting up the boards was to provide consultants with a forum in which they could view the NASA program in the perspective they had missed in the discipline subcommittees. Advice from such interdisciplinary boards was expected to help produce a more coherent, better integrated space science program. Because of the scope of each board's purview, panels or committees of specialists were expected to be set up under the boards. The Astronomy Missions Board, for example, would be considering a program including solar physics, optical astronomy, radio astronomy, x-ray astronomy, gamma-ray astronomy, and cosmology, for each of which a specialist group might be needed. Disciplinary groups would continue to review and recommend on specific experiment proposals, but by arranging suitable overlapping memberships with the boards and their committees, discipline committee members would be afforded an opportunity to take part in the broader programmatic discussions.
Characteristically, advisory groups want to report to the highest possible levels, in NASA preferably to the administrator himself. But the administrator was not in a position to assimilate all the recommendations that might be given to him by the highly technical groups or to appreciate the significance for the space science program of the more specialized recommendations. In contrast, the program offices, where the programs were formulated in the first place, could be expected to understand the nuances as well as the major thrusts of board recommendations. To make the boards as effective as possible, NASA managers conceived a double-pronged connection to the agency's management. The boards reported formally to the associate administrator, but worked with the space science program office, which also furnished the administrative and secretarial support for them. When desired, the boards could be heard at the administrator's level. But working with the program people they were continually feeding their ideas and recommendations into the agency at the working level, where those ideas could have greatest impact. Board discussions were lively, interesting, and productive, and for several years their reports fed into the NASA planning process a great deal of valuable advice, which for the most part was assimilated into going program plans.31
Toward the end of the 1960s, however, the cycle of discontent repeated. The immediate cause was a mistake by the author and some of his colleagues in material for a report to President Nixon recommending directions for the future of the space program. After taking office, Nixon had established in February 1969 a Space Task Group consisting of the vice [219] president as chairman, the secretary of defense, the acting administrator of NASA, and the science adviser to the president, to provide him with a "definitive recommendation on the direction which the U.S. space program should take in the post-Apollo period."32 The Department of Defense and NASA provided extensive material to go into the report, which came out in September.33 As the deadline approached for the completion of the report, often only hours were available for making hasty revisions requested by the report staff. In the course of one of these quick changes, part of the planetary program was modified. NASA people supposed that the change was in keeping with the desires of the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board-but it wasn't.
The board reacted strongly, and for a while there was talk of the members' resigning en masse. Actually the NASA error was not in itself enough cause for such a strong reaction on the part of the advisers. The problem had been growing for some time. In a period when the entire NASA program was under scrutiny, the board no longer felt that it had the necessary perspective to make proper recommendations. In fact, the chairman, John Findlay, confided to the author that if the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board had known of all the program possibilities that were being considered in the Space Task Group planning-in other areas as well as for the moon and planets-some of the board's recommendations would have been quite different.
As a first order of business, the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board was pursuaded not to resign, and NASA managers committed themselves to working out some better arrangements for the advisory structure. After much discussion within the agency and with consultants, NASA decided to create a Space Program Advisory Council.34 The council was asked to advise on the entire space program-science, technology, and engineering, manned and unmanned. Under the council were four interdisciplinary committees: physical sciences, life sciences, applications, and space systems. The chairmen of these interdisciplinary committees made up about half the membership of the council, the rest consisting of the council chairman and members at large. It was the author's intention that the committees would themselves have specialist panels working with and reporting to them, so that the committees and their panels would be analogous to the previous missions boards and their committees. The new element was the council, which was supposed to provide the across-the-board perspective that the missions boards had lacked. Once more, to make the advisory structure as effective as possible, a two-pronged connection with the agency was established. The council reported to the deputy administrator of NASA, but was expected to work with the program offices, the Office of Space Science and Applications providing administrative and secretarial support. The committees reported to the associate administrator and were expected to work directly with the appropriate offices-the Physical Sciences Committee [220] with space science divisions, the Applications Committee with the applications groups, Life Sciences with space biology and space medicine people, and the Space Systems Committee largely with the Office of Manned Space Flight.
Although the council had grown out of discontent with the previous advisory structure, and although it had been designed especially to provide consultants with a deeper insight into NASA programs and planning, it was not as effective as the missions boards had been. The arrangement was unwieldly and required a tremendous amount of attention from NASA personnel just to provide the necessary secretarial and administrative services. But most important, the council and its committees lost touch for a while with the divisions in the program offices. Program managers and program scientists did not understand the arrangement. Sitting at the top of an imposing hierarchy, the council appeared too much as an arm of the Administrator's Office, remote and not easily accessible to program planners. The same was true of the interdisciplinary committees, though to a smaller degree. As a consequence, when program divisions needed specialized advice, they created their own working groups-like the highly successful Planetary Sciences Planning Committee set up by the lunar and planetary people in the Office of Space Science and Applications. The existence of these proprietary working groups further separated the top-level advisory groups from the lower ones. Thus, while the council might have a grand perspective, it was in danger of losing touch with the realities of detailed program planning. A great deal of management time was required to keep these centrifugal forces under control.
The effectiveness of the Space Program Advisory Council and its committees was improved with the passage of time. But the unwieldiness was intrinsic and constantly invited reconsideration of the advisory structure.