Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[237] NASA's evident willingness to experiment with new relationships and management devices antedated Webb's administration. In this a prime mover with regard to academic ties was Robert Jastrow, a physicist who had come to NASA from the Naval Research Laboratory in November 1958. An imaginative theorist, Jastrow over his years with NASA interested himself in atmospheric and magnetospheric physics, meteorology and atmospheric predictability, the origin of the moon and planets, and astrophysics and cosmology. He was a superb speaker, able to hold both lay audiences and professional colleagues spellbound with his descriptions of space science topics, an ability that served NASA well when Jastrow appeared before congressional committees in defense of the agency's space science budget request. He produced numerous books and articles of both technical and popular level.30 On television he was a frequent exponent of the many benefits mankind was receiving from the space program.
Immediately upon joining NASA Jastrow busied himself with promoting space science. He joined forces with Harold Urey to agitate for an early start of a lunar program. But Jastrow was also convinced that the best minds could be attracted into the space program only if the agency could establish the right atmosphere in dealing with university researchers. He set about trying to establish such an atmosphere.
In December 1958 Jastrow suggested to Administrator Glennan the establishment of a NASA fellowships program to be administered by the National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences.31 Jastrow urged that the fellowship provide a large enough stipend that a post-doctoral researcher could afford to take advantage of it. The fellow would come to NASA to work on a problem of his own choosing, NASA's only requirement being that the problem be pertinent to space. Having the program operated by the National Research Council might free it, in the minds of prospective fellows, from the taint of bureaucratic bias and parochialism. The suggestion was approved, and a formal announcement of the program appeared the following March.32
The program attracted national and international interest and brought many first-rate researchers to NASA. From the Goddard Space Flight Center, where it started, the fellowship program spread to other NASA centers [238] including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.33 In this way NASA developed an association with hundreds of competent scientists throughout the United States and the rest of the world, and these scientists became personally interested in space research.
Jastrow soon came to feel that continuous attention to the theoretical basis for space investigations wits essential to a sound and productive program. He therefore joined the newly formed Goddard Space Flight Center, where he took on the task of assembling what eventually became the Theoretical Division of the center. Still not satisfied with this setup, because it lacked the drawing power to attract the best minds, Jastrow then proposed that a small study group be in a location more easily accessible to visiting scientists. He chose a set of offices in the Mazor Building in Silver Spring, Maryland, which was not too difficult to get to from downtown Washington or the National Airport. Here, supported with contracted computing capabilities, he initiated what was to become one of the most interesting experiments in government relations with the scientific community and academia. Visiting researchers were welcomed to work on space science problems, and such luminaries as Gordon MacDonald, a leading geophysicist, and Harold Urey, lunar and planetary expert, came. MacDonald remained for more than a year. Leading experts from around the world were invited to frequent work sessions on important space science topics, like particles and fields in space, the solar system, and cosmology. Presentations treated the most advanced aspects of their fields and were thoroughly discussed by the attendees. These sessions and the ongoing work of Jastrow's group were the source of numerous ideas for space science experiments.
An important element of Jastrow's concept was close working relations with local universities, for teaching and working with doctoral students was considered one of the best ways to keep a researcher on his toes and was one of the best stimuli imaginable for generating research ideas. In this respect Jastrow found the Washington area deficient. Although good relations were established with the University of Maryland, Catholic University, and others, still the quality of their contributions was not up to what Jastrow sought. In October 1960 Jastrow wrote to Abe Silverstein head of the Office of Space Flight Programs, which housed the space science office-proposing that NASA create a center for theoretical research. By 13 December the proposal had evolved into one to establish an Institute for Space Studies in New York City, where close relations could be developed with leading universities like Columbia, New York University, and Princeton. With support from both Silverstein and the author, Glennan quickly approved the proposal.34
Whether the Institute should become an independent center or remain part of the Goddard Space Flight Center was seriously discussed. In the end, the tremendous obstacles that would stand in the way of creating [239] another new NASA center, and the uncertainty that in the face of political jockeying NASA could sustain the choice of New York City for its location, led to abandoning the notion of a separate center. The Institute for Space Studies was set up in New York, in rented quarters, as an arm of the Goddard Space Flight Center, but with considerable autonomy over the choice of its research activities.35
The permanent staff was intentionally small, a half-dozen key researchers plus secretarial and administrative help. Most of the researchers on site were to be visiting experts who would spend from a few weeks to as much as a year at a time at the institute working on space science problems and joining in the discussions of the frequent work sessions. A large computer was rented with programming staff, and later purchased. As time went on the computing capability was enlarged and improved, giving the institute one of its most attractive features.
Among those who came to the institute for extended stays were the ubiquitous Harold Urey, who seemed to turn up wherever exciting space topics were being pursued; H. C. van de Hulst, astronomer, solar physicist, and first president of the international Committee on Space Research; and W. Priester, pioneer worker in high atmospheric structure, who did much to determine seasonal and other variations in upper air densities.
In New York it was possible to arrange the kinds of university faculty appointments needed to give the institute the desired academic ties. Visiting professors lectured at the institute. Institute members taught at Columbia and other universities and became faculty advisers to doctoral candidates working on space science topics. With contracts the institute gave several hundred thousand dollars worth of funding support annually to university research of mutual interest. Through these associations the institute became a unique experiment in government-university relationships.
Among the early areas of interest at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies were lunar and planetary research, the origin of the solar system, and astrophysics and cosmology. Studies of energy balance in the earth's atmosphere occupied a great deal of attention, and later considerable work was done on predictability in the earth's atmosphere, a topic central to making long-term forecasts of weather and climate. When the exciting possibilities of infrared astronomy became apparent, the institute, although predominantly devoted to theoretical research, set up a small experimental activity alongside the theoretical work.36
`Papers flowed into the journals. Many of the work sessions gave rise to books on frontier topics, like Jastrow's Origin of the Solar System. 37 A. W. Cameron published prodigiously on theoretical investigations into the origins of the solar system, stars, and other celestial objects.
The Goddard Institute gave NASA a firm connection with a number of important universities and with a broad spectrum of working scientists; [240] but key members of what one often referred to as the scientific establishment remained aloof, apparently not hostile so much as indifferent. So Jastrow proposed still another experiment, a meeting of top NASA people with foremost leaders of the scientific community. On 20-21 June 1963, at Airlie House near Warrenton, Virginia, James Webb, Hugh Dryden, Harry Goett, and the author listened as Jastrow, Gordon MacDonald, and others presented to the elite of physics in the United States (app. I) an exciting review of the kinds of problems that could now be attacked with rockets and spacecraft. An interest was aroused, and the group agreed to meet periodically to keep in touch with the space program. Formally designated as the Physics Committee, the group operated more as a colloquium than as the usual advisory committee. Robert Dicke of Princeton, expert on relativity and cosmology, became its first chairman.38 Some of the most exciting experiments for the NASA space science program-in such areas as x-ray astronomy, relativity, and cosmology-were on the bill of fare. As time went on ideas from the many discussions found their way into the flight program of the agency. One may cite as examples Bruno Rossi's work on high-energy astronomy, the work of Stanford University on the relativistic precession of accurate gyroscopes in orbit, and the corner reflectors; implanted on the moon by the Apollo astronauts to support precise geodetic measurements.
With the NASA fellowship program, the establishment of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the formation of the NASA Physics Committee, Jastrow had contributed immeasurably to providing NASA with a well rounded tie to the university community, particularly in physics and cosmology. Many came to hope that the Goddard Institute could serve as a pattern for other space institutes-for example, in lunar research, planetary studies, and astronomy, as the Ramsey Committee seemed to favor (p. 217). But in the late 1960s conditions were different from those prevailing when the Goddard Institute had been established. Setting aside the question of how much the institute's success owed to Jastrow's leadership, special difficulties were encountered. Budgets were rising in the early 1960s, falling in the latter half. The pattern of associations with the newly formed NASA still had to be developed in the early years of the agency, while in the late 1960s working patterns and vested interests had already been established which outside scientists would be loath to disturb. Nevertheless, following the report of the Ramsey Committee, Webb wished to experiment once more, this time introducing a new element, that of the university consortium.
Recognizing that there would be a vast store of lunar samples and other lunar data housed at the Johnson Space Center and that the center would have facilities and equipment needed to analyze and study these data, Administrator Webb desired to evolve some mechanism for facilitating the use of those resources by outside scientists, particularly university [241] researchers. The success of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggested that a lunar institute might be set up as an arm of the Johnson Space Center. But the image that the center had acquired of not understanding the needs of science or being particularly interested in science made such an arrangement unattractive to many outside scientists-and also to the Office of Space Science and Applications in NASA Headquarters.
Instead of an institute managed by the center, Webb turned to the possibility that an institute might be managed by a university or a group of universities. Fred Seitz, president of the National Academy of Sciences, showed an interest. An existing consortium, University Research Associates, considered setting up and managing an institute for NASA. The possibility that Rice Institute might either by itself or as one of a number of universities provide the desired link between academia and the resources of the Johnson Space Center was also weighed. In the end a group of universities on 12 March 1969 formed a new consortium called the University Space Research Association and took over management of the Lunar Science Institute, which in its impatience NASA had already set up with the aid of the Academy of Sciences.39 The new institute was housed in a mansion adjacent to the Johnson Space Center, provided by Rice Institute and refurbished by the government. At once the Lunar Science Institute began to hold scientific meetings, invite visitors to use its facilities, and foster lunar research.
The pattern of activities at the Lunar Science Institute was, at least on the face of things, similar to that that had proved so successful with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, But the LSI at the end of the 1960s faced a number of vicissitudes that the Goddard Institute had not encountered. For example, after 10 years of working with NASA, some academic scientists had already managed to overcome the previously mentioned difficulties to establish personal ties with the Johnson Space Center and did not wish to see a new organization interposed. In contrast foreign scientists who did not have such close associations with the space center found the LSI a boon.
On its part, the Johnson Space Center was ambivalent about LSI. Such an institute could be useful in working with the scientific community, serving as a buffer when difficult issues had to be wrestled with. But when the institute's managers pressed for an independent research program plus rather free access to such resources as Apollo lunar samples and various lunar data, there was trouble, which occasional personality clashes enhanced.
Most fundamental, however, was the decline of NASA's budgets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a number of times NASA's space science managers considered withdrawing financial support from the Lunar Science Institute. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies was also beset by [242] similar financial pressures, but its established position in the NASA family made it easier to weather these storms than it was for the Lunar Science Institute, which still had not had enough time to prove itself.
Thus, while the Lunar Science Institute could not be called a failure, its success in the severe climate in which it was launched, was an uneasy one. There could be little question that when time came to consider establishing an astronomy institute in support of an orbiting astronomical facility, or a planetary institute in support of more intensive exploration of the solar system, such propositions would receive long and searching scrutiny before being implemented.