Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[223] For several reasons the universities were important to NASA, particularly to the space science program. First, much of the research embraced by space science-such as astronomy, relativity and cosmology, atmospheric studies, and lunar and planetary science-was done in or in conjunction with universities. As a consequence the best informed and most competent researchers important to space science were to be found on campus. While many of the investigators would have to spend long hard hours learning to use the new rocket and spacecraft tools, their years of working with the problems to be solved would give them a substantial head start.
Second, the university was the only institution devoted extensively to the training of new talent. As the space program was getting under way, various groups outside of NASA expressed concern that the new endeavor would lure scientific and technical expertise away from other areas of more immediate national concern. NASA managers argued that many researchers entering the space program would continue their ongoing research, except that now they could apply powerful space techniques to their investigations. In space science the argument was easy to make. Astronomers, would continue to do astronomy, and solar physicists would continue to study the sun, but with the inestimable advantage of having their instruments above the atmosphere, which hitherto had hidden most of the wavelength spectrum from the observer on the ground. Atmospheric and ionospheric researchers would continue their investigations, but having their instruments in the very regions of study would shorten considerably the long chains of reasoning previously needed to go from ground-based observations to conclusions. And sending instruments to the moon and planets would furnish new data, the lack of which had for decades stymied efforts to understand these bodies.
But in applications and technology, the argument was not as persuasive. While one might grant that satellites should contribute to the observation and forecasting of weather and to the improvement of long-distance communications, still there was the usual feeling that conventional approaches needed the more immediate attention. As to the usefulness of [224] space technology, the connection was even less direct and the value of diverting manpower to space technology research more doubtful.
A significant effect of the Soviet Union's precedence in space was to set aside such arguments for a number of years. But those arguments were bound to recur unless steps were taken to counter any imbalances the space program might generate through the absorption of highly trained manpower from other activities. As a remedy, NASA undertook to support the universities in training substantial numbers of graduates in science and engineering, and even in aspects of law and economics related to space.
In providing support to the universities for research and the training of graduate students, NASA created a staunch ally. For space science especially, as the agency sought to bring university experts into planning the program as well as into the research, relations became quite intimate. But by simultaneously establishing space science groups of its own at NASA centers, NASA generated a substantial strain on the growing tie with the universities. For it was inevitable that the NASA space science groups would appear to have the inside track to funding and space on NASA's rockets and spacecraft.
Although in time NASA space science groups came to be seen by outside scientists as important points of contact, university researchers continued to worry that, in the face of budget cuts, the continuity of NASA space science teams would be ensured while university groups would be in jeopardy, and that university projects would be more likely to suffer from whims of NASA administrators than would those in the centers. Thus, while the alliance between NASA and the universities strengthened as the program unfolded, the element of rivalry was also there, a rivalry that at times displayed hues of outright antagonism when hard decisions had to be made-like the cancellation of the Advanced Orbiting Solar Observatory, which terminated important university research projects. It was a classic example of a love-hate relationship in which mutual interests and respect conflicted with a natural competition for support and position. For space science, at least, this element of ally and rival must be kept in mind as an important feature of the NASA university program.
The program itself got off to a slow start. NASA inherited little in the way of a university program from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Oriented primarily toward in-house research, NASA's predecessor supported only a limited amount of university research.1 At first NASA's relations with the university community assumed an administrative complexion and during Glennan's years the group responsible for handling university matters remained on the administrative side of the house. When Administrator James E. Webb took over, the Office of Grants and Research Contracts, which had prime responsibility for NASA's university affairs, was still under Albert Siepert, NASA's director of administration.2
[225] Only gradually did the idea of a university program as such emerge. From the provisions of Public Law 85-934, which went into effect in the fall of 1958, NASA acquired the authority to make grants in support of research pertinent to the NASA mission.3 But for a time NASA did not have the authority to provide for building research facilities on campuses. In May 1959, when Glenn Seaborg, Edward Teller, and some of their colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley met with Hugh Dryden and the author seeking funds to construct a building to house a space institute, Dryden had to tell them that NASA lacked authority to provide such support. The agency was, however, seeking to remedy this situation in the authorization request then before the Congress.4 But, not until the summer of 1961 did the agency gain the legal basis for making facilities grants to universities.5 In spite of its slowness, NASA in its first two years laid the basis for what might be called a conventional program to support space research on university campuses. Webb, the second administrator of NASA, added some decidedly unconventional elements to the program.