Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[260] Part of the problem was rooted in the unique status of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the NASA family. While the laboratory grounds, buildings, and equipment belonged to the government, the laboratory itself as an organization, a working team, was a creature of the California Institute of Technology. Within NASA a frequent question was whether the laboratory should be regarded as another center in the NASA complex-that is, as an insider-or be treated purely as a contractor-that is, as an outsider. For its part, JPL took great pride in its connection with Cal Tech, tenuous and neglected as this connection was. The association gave JPL a special access to the academic world. Also, in true academic fashion, Cal Tech accorded the laboratory a great deal of independence to plan and carry out its own research programs, although, as JPL Director Pickering later complained, Cal Tech's desire to have space science done on campus rather than at JPL sometimes stood in the way of JPL's developing the kind of program that NASA wanted.4 It was an independence that the Army had accommodated and to which the JPL staff had become thoroughly accustomed.
In taking possession from the Army, NASA kept the arrangement under which Cal Tech would continue to exercise administrative oversight over the laboratory-for a substantial fee, "which in the early years of the association [with NASA] Cal Tech did very little to earn," as the first administrator, Glennan, put it.5 But the space program would have an entirely different dimension from that of the projects previously engaging the attention of JPL, and NASA would request many things that the laboratory had previously shunned. The question quickly arose as to whether the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would accept program direction from NASA Headquarters or would negotiate a mutually acceptable program with NASA. Space agency managers like Abe Silverstein assumed without question that it would be the former, while the laboratory's management was determined that it be the latter. In fact, JPL people thought there should be no question about it, since the contract just signed with NASA actually did contain a mutuality of interest clause that called for NASA and PL both to agree on programs and projects assigned to the laboratory.6
For years, until it was finally eliminated, this mutuality clause in the NASA-Cal Tech contract was a source of disagreement. From the very first, NASA Administrator Glennan, Deputy Administrator Dryden, and Associate [261] Administrator Richard Horner were faced with a showing of independence and what headquarters viewed as a lack of responsiveness by JPL. These administrators had to spend what they regarded as an inordinate amount of time on questions of prerogative, time that would have been better spent on getting ahead with the space program. As Glennan would write years later:
I think that JPL was the beneficiary of tolerance by NASA peers, was not really thought of as a responsibility by Cal Tech. I suppose that the payoff of success is the final answer-but did it need to cost so much in dollars, in tolerance and accommodation by Newell and others?7
As will be seen, the problem was not quickly resolved and if anything was even more intense when the second administrator, James E. Webb, took over in January 1961. Hugh Dryden and Robert Seamans, who had succeeded Richard Horner as associate administrator, continued to strive for a resolution of the problem.
But to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mutuality clause was essential to preserve a cherished way of life that the laboratory viewed as a right, not only inherited from the past but also earned by competence and achievement. Moreover, JPL personnel could hardly be chided if from time to time they told themselves that it was circumstance rather than any previous history of leadership in rocketry that had put so many employees of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the driver's seat in the space program. To NASA managers, however, being in charge imposed responsibilities upon the agency. Were the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a Civil Service center, there would be no question about the authority of NASA Headquarters to decide on project assignments to the center. As a contractor the laboratory should be no less responsive to NASA direction.
Thus, while NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began their association with enthusiasm and great expectations, they also started with an arrangement that was interesting, to say the least. Add to this the principal players in the drama that was about to unfold, and conflict became a virtual certainty. Abe Silverstein, self-assured and customarily certain about what was the right way to go, would run a taut ship. He would welcome ideas and suggestions, but, once the decision was made-by NASA-he would expect his team to fall in line.
William Pickering was as stubborn as Silverstein was domineering. He had worked in cosmic ray physics at the California Institute of Technology, had been a charter member of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel, and had shared in the pioneering of rocket instrumentation.8 In 1954 he became director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. More than almost anyone else in NASA, except perhaps Wernher von Braun, he had a keen sense of his role as champion of his team, and he was not about [262] to relinquish any of the laboratory's traditional independence without a fight.
When James E. Webb became administrator of NASA, the potential for conflict between NASA and the California Institute of Technology was substantially increased. Webb saw in the unique setup with JPL an opportunity to pursue within the NASA sphere itself the kinds of objectives he sought with individual universities in the memoranda of understanding he later attached to NASA's facility grants (pp. 232-35). Webb expected Cal Tech, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a powerful drawing card, to foster and facilitate in the university community-particularly in California-interest and participation in space research. In this Webb would be pressing his hopes upon Lee DuBridge, president of the California Institute of Technology.
DuBridge, with an illustrious career in physics to point to and the successful management of the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during World War II on his record, had no doubts about his ability and that of Cal Tech t o run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory properly. An extremely sensitive person, DuBridge found any expressed or implied criticism of his institute or its laboratory distressing, and not always understandable. But he also found it difficult to satisfy Webb, or even to understand what the administrator wanted.
So the stage was set, and the story began to unfold in the fall of 1958.