Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[258] In the summer of 1958, before NASA had begun to operate, the author flew to California to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The purpose of the visit was to talk with the director, William Pickering, and his key staff members about the possibility that a group from the Rocket Sonde Research Branch of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington might transfer to JPL. Discussions within the Department of Defense that had accompanied the congressional debate on the nation's space program during the first half of 1958 had made clear that the Navy, in spite of its pioneering contributions in the rocket exploration of the upper atmosphere and in developing the Aerobee, Viking, and Vanguard rockets, would probably not have a key role in space research and development. Some members of the Navy's high-altitude rocket research group were, therefore, casting about for a more promising situation for pursuing their research in the years to come.
There was good reason for the NRL researchers to consider the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a possibility. Since the 1930s it had been at the forefront of rocket research and development in the United States. During the pioneering years of the 1940s and 1950s, the laboratory had furnished strong leadership to the country in rocket propulsion, making numerous contributions to the development of solid propellants and of rockets like the Army's Corporal and WAC-Corporal. Moreover, JPL had furnished the Explorer satellite that rode the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's Jupiter C rocket in the country's first successful response to the Sputnik challenge.1 It seemed logical that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would be deeply involved in rockets and space research as it had been in the past.
The laboratory staff expected to play a role, but Pickering and his associates were not sure just what role. The summer of 1958 was primarily a time to wait and see, and anyone who joined the laboratory would have to recognize the uncertainties and take his chances along with the rest of JPL.
[259] Back in Washington the author reported to his NRL colleagues that JPL would probably have much to do with the space program, including space science, but that there was no assurance that the space science at JPL would be the atmospheric and solar research that the Naval Research Laboratory investigators had worked on for the past decade. Moreover, the real center of action on space would doubtless lie with the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration itself. As a consequence the thought of joining JPL was shelved, and the author and his colleagues pursued the idea of going to NASA, where over the next half year many of them found positions either in headquarters or in the newly formed Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory also joined the NASA family, transferred by presidential order on 3 December 1958.2 Once fully under way, having cleared the initial hurdles of switching from largely ground-based research to primarily spaceflight projects, the laboratory proceeded during the 1960s and early 1970s to add luster to its already enviable reputation. Although there were mistakes and various kinds of problems to overcome, in time these minuses were greatly overshadowed by the pluses of spectacular achievements with Rangers and Surveyors to the moon; Mariners to Mars, Venus, and Mercury; and amazing feats in space communications using the JPL deep-space tracking network. The network included ground-based radar sounding of the planets. Most of what JPL did during NASA's first decade and a half concerned space science-the scientific investigation of the moon and planets with unmanned spacecraft-a natural extension of the laboratory's work in the 1950s, when its director was a member of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel.3
A detailed review of these activities is beyond the planned scope of this book. Here only one issue will be treated, that of developing an effective working relationship between NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The complex and frequently emotional matter consumed a great deal of time on the part of NASA space science managers on the one side and people of JPL and the California Institute of Technology on the other. The subject is important in illustrating how nontechnical issues can often make the accomplishment of technical objectives far from straightforward.
Singling out one topic from a rich and varied story like that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory could distort the overall picture by undue emphasis on the one aspect. The reader should remember in what follows that even as the participants wrestled with knotty issues in human relations, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's engineers and scientists were laying the groundwork for the phenomenal successes that were later achieved in investigating the moon and planets. While the very human strife between NASA Headquarters and the laboratory in the first half of the 1960s loomed large [260] at the time in the minds and emotions of those involved, it was a passing phenomenon. The real and permanent image of the laboratory was to be seen in the utter dedication and superlative competence of its people and in their achievements.