Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[247] Headquarters and field in any effective and productive organization support each other, working as a team in the pursuit of common goals-those of the organization. Yet many aspects in even the most normal of headquarters-field relationships serve to pit one against the other at times. When circumstances exacerbate those normal centrifugal tendencies, serious trouble can arise. To understand the nature of the problem, a few words about the difference in headquarters and center jobs in a technical organization like NASA are in order.
At the heart of the difference is the matter of programs and projects. The raison d'être of an agency is reflected in its various programs, where the term program is used to mean a long-term, continuing endeavor to achieve an accepted set of goals and objectives. NASA's overall program in space included the exploration of the moon and the planets, scientific investigations by means of rockets and spacecraft, and the development of ways of applying space methods to the solution of important practical problems. Each of these programs could be, and when convenient was, thought of as a complex of subprograms, such as a program to develop and put into use satellite meteorology, a program to improve communications by means of artificial satellites, or a program to investigate the nature of the cosmos. Barring an arbitrary decision to call a halt, one could foresee no reason why these programs, including the subprograms, should not continue indefinitely. Certainly, if past experience is a good indicator, the effort to understand the universe must continue to turn up new fundamental questions as fast as old ones are answered. As for exploration, the vastness of space, even of that relatively tiny portion of the universe occupied by the solar system, is so great that generations could visit planets and satellites and still leave most of the job undone. And it would be a long while before diminishing returns would call for an end to applications programs.
Unlike a program, a project was thought of as of limited duration and scope, as, for example, the Explorer 11 project to measure gamma rays from the galaxy and intergalactic space. A program was carried out by a continuing series of projects, and at any given time the agency would be conducting [248] a collection of projects designed to move the agency a number of steps toward the agency's programmatic goals and objectives. The Explorer 11 project contributed to the programmatic objective of understanding the universe by determining an upper limit to the rate of production of gamma rays in intergalactic space, which eliminated one candidate version of the continuous creation theory of the universe. A project like a sounding rocket experiment might be aimed at only a single specific objective, last only a few months or a year, and cost but a few tens of thousands of dollars. Or a project could require a series of space launchings, many tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and take years to accomplish. The Lunar Orbiter, with five separate launching to the moon, and the Mariner-Mars project that sent two spacecraft to Mars in 1971 were examples. Some projects were huge in every aspect, as was Apollo. In fact, because of its size and scope, Apollo was more often than not referred to as a program, although more properly Apollo should be thought of as a mammoth project which served several programs, among them the continuing development of a national manned spaceflight capability, the exploration of space, and the scientific investigation of the moon.
With these definitions of program and project in mind, one can describe rather simply the difference between headquarters and center jobs. Headquarters was concerned primarily with the programmatic aspects of what NASA was up to, whereas the task of the centers was mainly to carry out the many projects that furthered the agency's programs. The distinction is a valid but not a rigid one. Occasionally headquarters people participated in project work, but this was an exception to the general rule. The most notable exception was Apollo, the size and scope of which were such as to make the administrator feel that the uppermost levels of management for the project should be kept in Washington. Nevertheless, the prime task of headquarters, working with the centers and numerous outside advisers, was to put together the NASA program, to decide on the projects best designed at the moment to carry out the program and assign them to the appropriate centers for execution, and to foster the external relationships that would generate the necessary support for the programs and projects. As an essential concomitant to programming, much time was occupied in preparing budgets, selling them to the administration, and defending them before Congress.
Also, each center, while project-oriented, had its center programs toward which the center directed its own short- and long-range planning. Thus, the research centers conducted programs of advancing aeronautical and space technology. In addition to a program of space science, the Goddard Space Flight Center pursued extensive programs of space applications and space tracking and data acquisition, with tracking and acquisition [249] occupying almost 40 percent of the center's manpower. Unmanned investigation of the solar system was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's principal program.
Although the qualifications should be kept in mind to have the correct picture, nevertheless the main distinction between the responsibilities of headquarters and those of the centers is clear. Center personnel members were primarily occupied with project work, while headquarters people spent-or should have spent-their time on program matters. That is where difficulties arose, for numerous pressures drove headquarters managers to get involved in project or project-related work. Such actions could only be regarded by a center as undue interference from above.
Naturally, NASA space science managers were vitally interested in what was happening in the various space science projects. They were responsible for proper oversight. But there was more to it than that; project work was where the action was. That was where interesting problems were being attacked and where exciting results were being obtained. Alongside project work, programmatic planning often seemed like onerous drudgery. As a consequence oversight tended to degenerate into meddling, to the distress of project managers and center directors. Even when headquarters managers took pains to couch their thoughts in the form of mere suggestions, their positions in headquarters made suggestions look more like orders. That program chiefs in headquarters occupied staff, not line, positions often was lost sight of in the shuffle, and some headquarters managers became adept at wielding what amounted in practice to line authority.
To this natural tendency to get into the act were added the pressures of the job. As the NASA program grew in size, scope, and expense, upper levels of management demanded more and more detail on schedules, costs, and technical problems. Nor was the demand for information confined to NASA management. Becoming increasingly familiar with the programs and their projects, the legislators also demanded what seemed an impossible amount of detail, either to provide while still getting the job done or for the congressmen to assimilate. On the science side, members of the authorizing subcommittee in the House, under Chairman Joseph Karth of Minnesota, frequently concerned themselves with the details of engineering design decisions and were not loath to second-guess space project engineers on matters that seemed to NASA people to lie beyond the competence of the legislators to judge. An example of this searching interest was furnished by the investigation of the Centaur liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen fueled rocket stage which Karth's subcommittee undertook in 1962. NASA and contract engineers found it difficult to defend the propellant feed system which they had chosen and which could be shown to be most efficient for a rocket the size of Centaur, against a different system for which the [250] congressmen expressed a preference and which admittedly would likely have more growth potential.12
Because of this increasing demand for information of various kinds, headquarters in turn demanded of the centers the detailed reporting that centers felt was appropriate for project managers but went far beyond what headquarters really needed. While program managers were willing to concede that the information they were calling for was more than they ought to need, yet they were caught in the middle; to do their jobs as circumstances were shaping them, they did need the data. They were forced, therefore, to insist, and the extensive reporting required, with its implied involvement of headquarters with what were strictly center responsibilities, remained as a continuing source of irritation.
The irritation transferred to headquarters when centers were late or deficient in their reporting, especially when a center simply refused, sometimes through foot dragging, sometimes in open defiance, to supply the information requested. A center might be reluctant to respond when it felt that the request was premature, that the data were not yet properly developed, and that the center might later be called to task if the information supplied prematurely turned out to be incorrect.
A related source of irritation arose in connection with the center's management process. At almost any time throughout the year a program manager might be called upon to furnish information about projects in his program. It was essential, therefore, for him to be continuously aware of the status of projects on which he might have to report. For this it was not enough to rely on written reports which came only so often. In addition, space science program managers kept in close touch with the project managers and attended many of the meetings held by the project managers with their staffs and with contractors' representatives. This practice came to be a particularly sore point with the management of Goddard Space Flight Center.