Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[243] As with its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's principal technical strength lay in the field centers. At the time of the metamorphosis into an aeronautics and space agency, NACA had three principal centers: the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory near Hampton, Virginia; the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory at Moffett Field, California; and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland. In addition there was a High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California and a small rocket test facility on the Virginia coast at Wallops Island.1 The first four of these became under NASA the Langley, Ames, Lewis, and Flight Research Centers, the research orientation of which Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden was so desirous of protecting. Wallops Station was assigned primarily to the space science program.
To the former NACA installations, NASA added six more: the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena; the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Merritt Island, Florida; the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (which for many years was known as the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston; and, briefly, an Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was transferred to the Department of Transportation.2 A sizable facility for testing large rocket engines was established in Mississippi not far from New Orleans and placed administratively under Marshall, which had prime responsibility for the Saturn launch vehicles used in the Apollo and Skylab programs.3 The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Marshall were transferred to NASA from the Army; the others were created by NASA. As its original name suggests, Johnson was in charge of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft and most of the research and development was related to those programs.4 Kennedy, originally the Launch Operations Directorate of Marshall, provided launch support services for both manned and unmanned programs, but the former required by far the greater capital investment and manpower.5 Both Goddard and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were [244] principal centers for the space science program, the former for scientific satellites, the latter for planetary probes.
Management at headquarters guided the space program, directed the overall planning, developed and defended the budget for the agency, and fostered the kinds of external relations and general support that the space program needed. In a very real sense headquarters people labored at the center of action where the political decisions were made that permitted the space program to proceed. Yet the story of headquarters activity is mostly one of context, of background-essential, indispensable, but background nevertheless-against which the actual space program was conducted. Research, the essence of the space science program, was done by scientists at NASA centers, in universities, and at private and industrial laboratories.
It follows that the mainstream of space science must be traced through the activities of these institutions. The important role of the universities was the subject of the preceding chapter. With occasional exceptions, like the upper atmospheric research of the Geophysical Research Corporation of America and the pioneering work of American Science and Engineering in x-ray astronomy,6 the contribution of industry was more to the development and flight of space hardware than to conducting scientific research. It remains, then, to take a look at the part played by the NASA centers.
The principal space science centers were the Goddard Space Flight Center and the jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL being operated by California Institute of Technology under contract to NASA). Wallops Island, which for a time was placed administratively under Goddard, provided essential support to the sounding rocket and Scout launch vehicle programs.7 But not all NASA space science was done at these centers. The Ames Research Center managed the Pioneer interplanetary probes and took the lead in space biology and exobiology-a term coined to denote the search for and investigation of extraterrestrial life or life-related processes. Langley had responsibility for the Lunar Orbiter and later the Viking Mars probe. Most notable was the lunar research fostered by Johnson in the early 1970s with the samples of the moon and other Apollo lunar data, which for a time made Houston a veritable Mecca for lunar scientists.8 But Apollo lunar science was an exception generated by the special nature of the manned lunar exploration program; and, generally, Dryden's policy stood in the way of more than a limited participation of the research centers in space projects.
Over the years the NASA centers built up an enviable reputation of success on all fronts, in manned spaceflight, space applications, and space science. In the last mentioned, by 1970 Goddard had flown more than 1000 sounding rockets, more than 40 Explorer satellites, 6 solar observatories, 6 geophysical observatories, and 3 astronomical observatories, most of them successfully. In applications Goddard enjoyed comparable or better success rates with weather and communications satellites. The experience of the [245] Jet Propulsion Laboratory was similar. By the end of the 1960s JPL had sent 3 Rangers and 5 Surveyors on successful missions to the moon and dispatched 5 Mariners to Mars and Venus.9 These achievements are bound to be recounted repeatedly and will rightfully be judged as success stories. Success, however, was not bought without a price of some mistakes, temporary failures, and occasionally severe personal conflict, which form an instructive part of the total history. In reviewing the struggles and problems that preceded the achievements, a proper sense of perspective is important, for troubles often tend to magnify themselves in the eye of the beholder. The difficulties were, after all, overcome in the ultimate successes that were achieved. Still, as part of the total story, perhaps as illustrating the natural and usual course of human undertakings, those difficulties are important to the historian. They should also be instructive to later managers. Thus, without at all deprecating their splendid achievements, it is appropriate to delve briefly in this and the next chapter into some of the trials endured by the Goddard Space Flight Center and the jet Propulsion Laboratory.