Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[225] To meet NASA's own needs, and under prodding from Lloyd Berkner and the Space Science Board, NASA space science managers during 1959 and 1960 gradually evolved a program for support of space science in the universities. By the fall of 1960, a policy for the program had taken shape. In November 1960 the author set forth some elements of policy to be followed with universities and nonprofit organizations. NASA would support basic research in these institutions for the purpose of developing space science, but could not support science in general. NASA would use multiyear funding and would seek to provide continuity of support to academic research groups.6 With these thoughts the shape of the conventional part of the university program was beginning to emerge. It remained to match the size of the program to the need.
During the spring of 1961 the determination grew to strengthen NASA's association with the universities. Meeting with his staff on 22 June 1961, Webb decided that NASA must encourage university participation in the space program and, moreover, must share in the necessary funding to make it possible for universities to take part. Webb assigned the author the task of organizing an intra-NASA study of how to proceed and to assemble an outside group of consultants. The very next day the author and his associates began to develop a list of topics to take up in the proposed studies, such as support of research, the differing requirements of laboratory research versus spaceflight research, the development of graduate education, the development of schools, the use of grants as opposed to contracts, fellowships, and the construction of facilities on campuses.7 Simultaneously [226] a panel of university presidents, deans, and department heads (app. H) was lined up to meet on 14 August 1961 on the questions NASA posed and other questions that they themselves might bring forward.
On 30 June the author chaired a meeting of representatives from interested offices in the agency to review plans for the meeting.8 A number of the university consultants came to NASA Headquarters in early July for a preliminary look at the questions to be taken up in the August session. Thus, by the time of the meeting, considerable thought had already been devoted to the problems of concern.
At the August meeting, to set the stage for the discussion, Richard Bolt of the National Science Foundation presented some statistics on basic research in universities. Total basic research in the United States, he said, amounted to $1.8 billion annually, of which half was spent in universities. The government provided two-thirds of the university share $600 million. According to Bolt, universities direly needed money to build new facilities, with an immediate requirement of $500 million and a total over the next 10 years of $2.8 billion.9 It was certainly not NASA's responsibility to provide these huge sums, but any funding would help to relieve the total problem.
Predictably the advisory committee recommended that NASA enhance its university program, providing money for research, graduate training, and construction of new laboratories. With the committee's welcome endorsement, NASA stepped up the pace of its program. Much of the research supported in universities was funded by the various program offices. Although in the long run such funding proved to be more stable than that from the university office itself, university officials saw serious shortcomings in this procedure. NASA program managers naturally tied their dollar support to specific projects with prescribed objectives, and with firm deadlines for flight experiments. For researchers engaged in such projects, the funding was essential and the imposed requirements unexceptionable. But the question remained of how advanced work, the exploratory research that was needed before an investigator could propose a flight experiment, would be supported.
Out of the need to do advance work grew the concept of the sustaining university program. This terminology was never much liked either in NASA or on the Hill, since it seemed to denote a program to sustain the universities, which was not NASA's legitimate business. But no better language was devised to describe that part of the university program that was designed to make possible university participation in spaceflight research. For example, the sustaining university program would provide long-term funding of a rather broad nature that would permit the university to build up and maintain a continuing research group and to pursue the ground-based research prerequisite to spaceflight investigations. The broad-based support was achieved by funding research in very general areas pertinent to [227] space sciences, leaving the choice of specific research problems and the setting of schedules largely to the investigator himself.
Continuity of support was achieved by step funding.10 At the initiation of a grant, two years' funding was committed, one full year's worth to be applied to the first year, two-thirds of a year's worth assigned to the second year, and the remaining one-third of a year's funding to be used in the third year (fig. 44). Each year thereafter adding a full year's funding would continue the arrangement for the next three years. Thus, if at any time NASA had to, or chose to, discontinue the grant, enough money and time would remain so that the work could be phased out in an orderly and rational way-or perhaps support found from some other source. The program offices were also encouraged to use step funding whenever they could see their way clear to do so.
Mindful of the criticism that NASA was using persons critically needed elsewhere, the agency put together a program to fund the training of graduate students in areas related to the space program. During 1962, as NASA managers were trying to determine how large a training program to support, the so-called Gilliland report on the nation's need for scientific and technical people was in preparation. Although the report did not appear until December 1962, many of its conclusions were widely known well before that time and had a decided impact on NASA's planning. The report stated that to meet the nation's needs, the country would have to double by 1970 its production of engineers, mathematicians, and physicists.11 This equated to adding about 4000 persons at the doctorate level to the work force each year. Comparing its total budget with those of sister agencies like the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, NASA arbitrarily adopted one-fourth of the goal as its fair share. Finding itself unable to meet this goal, the university office ultimately aimed at a steady-state level of 1000 trainees in its program.12 Before many years had passed NASA trainees could be found in universities and colleges of almost every state in the Union. This geographical spread in the program earned the agency considerable praise from members of Congress, although one or two legislators held that....

Line graph of step funding
Figure 44. Step funding. At the start, two years' funding was assigned, of which one year's worth was allocated to the first year, two-thirds of a year's worth to the second year, and one-third of a year's worth to the third year. At each annual renewal, one year's funding allocated in thirds to the next three years restored the original funding status for another three years.

[228].....NASA had exceeded its authority in entering upon any such training program. By leaving the administration of the training program, including the selection of trainees and their research projects, to the universities-NASA's prime requirement was that the research be clearly related to space the agency also earned the appreciation of the universities.

A most important aspect of the sustaining university program was building laboratories for universities interested in the space program. The magnitude of the national need for new university construction had been indicated in Bolt's brief resume for NASA's ad hoc advisory committee. From all over the country university administrators came to see NASA officials about the possibility of obtaining funds to construct new buildings. As indicated earlier the pilgrimages had begun even before NASA had the necessary authority to help. Always the story was the same. University interest in doing space research was running high, but facilities were already overloaded by other research and by teaching requirements. To take advantage of the opportunities presented by the space program and to help NASA conduct the space science and other space programs, the university required additional facilities and equipment. Out of this need grew the facilities portion of NASA's sustaining university program.
By the end of Webb's first year and a half in office, NASA's university program had begun to take the shape it would display throughout the 1960s: a component supported by the technical program offices and the sustaining university program supported by the Office of Grants and Research Contracts. The former supported research closely connected with specific programs and projects of the agency, while the sustaining program provided funding for graduate training, the construction of facilities, and continuing research in rather broad areas. As the program was expanded, the underlying policy was also firmed up. To the points listed in the author's memorandum of November 1960, Webb added an important guideline: NASA was to work with universities in such a way as to strengthen them while at the same time getting NASA's job done. This particular policy of Webb's, often repeated in conversation and writing, evoked approbation from the Space Science Board's Ad Hoc Committee on NASA-University Relationships in the spring and summer of 1962.
Once launched on a path of renewed growth, the university program increased steadily to more than $100 million a year (fig. 45). The sustaining university program flourished for a number of years before running into peculiar problems that markedly altered its character and greatly reduced its size. To run the program Thomas K. L. Smull had taken over from Lloyd Wood, its initial mentor. Smull, formerly of the NACA, had a broad acquaintance with university administrators and a keen sense not only of the capabilities of universities but also of their needs. He was not an easy conversationalist, and his writing tended to be labored, but these shortcomings were overcome by his imaginativeness and the soundness of....

Figure 45. Funding NASA's university program. The sustaining program had a special importance; nevertheless, the major part of the funding came from the technical program offices. NASA University Affairs Office, chart P77-158(1), rev. 1, 1978.

[230].....his thinking. Because of his obvious interest in the welfare of the universities with which he dealt, a welfare which he put on a par with that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration which he represented, Smull gained a solid acceptance in the university community.

To assist in the management of the program Smull brought in a number of key persons. John T. Holloway, a physicist of notably sharp intellect and equally cutting tongue, brought years of experience with universities from the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Defense Research and Engineering. Holloway was effective in promoting all parts of the sustaining university program, and in time became deputy to Smull. Frank Hansing from Agriculture, Donald Holmes from Defense, and John Craig from the Central Intelligence Agency were other new recruits to the office. Almost single-handedly Hansing managed the training grants program, earning the great respect of both colleagues and outsiders. Holmes wrestled in respectable fashion with the more tricky facilities grants, where he encountered a number of vexations not experienced in other parts of the program. Craig took responsibility for the research grants.
Having launched the NASA university program on a career of expansion, Webb continued to give it his personal attention. As part of the reorganization of NASA in the fall of 1961, Webb moved the Office of Grants and Research Contracts from its obscure location in the Office of Administration to the new Office of Space Sciences, where an intimate association with the universities was an important feature of the operating program.13 Following the ad hoc advisory meeting of August 1961, the administrator engaged John C. Honey of the Carnegie Corporation of New York to continue to review and advise on the agency's program with the universities. While Honey added little to the substantive recommendations of the ad hoc group, he took pains to emphasize that if NASA was serious about elevating the university program, adequate staffing had to be provided. Honey's judgment was that at the start of 1962 NASA was grossly under-staffed for its projected plans in the university area, and in particular to match the performance of the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health in working with universities. For proper effectiveness, Honey advised one manager for each $4 million of program.14 By Honey's standards, NASA's university Program was permanently understaffed.
As the program unfolded NASA made a practice of seeking outside evaluations. It was difficult to assess and assimilate such evaluations, for they tended to be highly flavored by the personal views and bents of the evaluators. In June 1964, Sidney G. Roth of New York University turned out a report on NASA-university relations which seemed to show greater concern about how to enhance the benefits of NASA's program to the universities than about how NASA might get what it needed from the [231] program. It gave much attention to the mechanics of operating the university program. Roth recommended that NASA establish discipline divisions-a biology division, a physics division, etc. -for dealing with universities and make use of corresponding evaluation panels in deciding on grant awards.15 NASA could not use such a recommendation, which failed to take into account the agency's need to organize along project lines. There just wasn't a definite sum set aside to go into university research in biology, and another sum for university physics, and so on. Rather, NASA's monies were earmarked for projects in lunar exploration, satellite astronomy, space communications, and the like. Money was directed into the academic disciplines as they appeared directly or indirectly to support the agency's assigned projects.
A year later, in a similar study for NASA, D. J. Montgomery of Michigan State University found almost no desire in his widespread discussions to have NASA change its methods of evaluating research proposals.16 A key problem cited by Montgomery was that of communicating adequately to the university community NASA's intentions and the opportunities NASA could offer for university research.
In 1965 the NASA university program was in full swing.17 The Office of Space Science and Applications was devoting about $30 million a year to the support of university research related to the space science and applications programs, and other program offices were also pouring sizable sums into the universities. In the sustaining university program, the training grants, which now consumed about $25 million a year, had attracted high-caliber students who appeared to be doing good research on important space problems. Twenty-seven research facilities grants had been awarded, and these with the broad research grants were enabling many of the major universities the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, the University of Wisconsin, and various campuses of the University of California, for example-to establish interdisciplinary space research activities. The sweep of the program and the widespread university interest was brought out in a NASA-university conference held in Kansas City 1-3 March 1965.18 The conference was held to inform the universities of NASA's plans and to hear university reports of progress in their projects. Those attending comprised a veritable Who's Who of the university community.19 The meeting evoked both praise and criticism of NASA's program. Illustrating the praise was a letter from Professor Martin Summerfield of Princeton University.20 Summerfield wrote to compliment NASA both on the conference and on the substance of the NASA university program. He said that he found the same enthusiasm in his talks with colleagues at his university. Most appreciated was NASA's policy of supporting a university in what the institution found to be in its own self-interest,
[232] But the glow of success blinded one to some serious defects. In the sustaining university program were problems that would soon destroy the program as originally conceived, replacing it with one of quite different thrust.