Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[262] From the outset most assumed that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would concentrate on the investigation of the solar system. This was much to the laboratory's liking, but the real interest was in the planets, not in the moon. In this, JPL immediately came into conflict with Administrator Glennan's desire to tackle the moon first. just as the earth sciences had come before the moon and planets in the orderly and moderately paced development of space science, so in Glennan's view the moon should come before the planets. The JPL managers were, however, convinced that the Soviet Union, with the great lead it had already gained in space exploits, would quickly move ahead in the investigation of the moon also. America's only chance of recapturing the lead, they felt, would be to proceed at once to the planets.
This and other differences of view came out in a series of meetings of Abe Silverstein, the author, and other NASA representatives with William Pickering and his associates. The meetings at JPL in mid-January 1959 were devoted to a discussion of plans and policies,9 the hope being to found a close working partnership between NASA and the laboratory.
Pickering made it clear that JPL would like to do nothing in 1959 that did not contribute to deep space probes. In particular he urged the development [263] of a spacecraft fully stabilized in three axes, which would be a most effective vehicle for investigating deep space and the planets. The laboratory would do the engineering itself, using outside firms as subcontractors. The laboratory's past experience lay on the experimental side, and JPL wished to continue being the doer, keeping the supervision of other NASA programs to a minimum.
In turn, Silverstein emphasized the rugged job that lay ahead of NASA in monitoring the national space program and the hope that JPL would consider itself a part of NASA, not an outsider. As a member of the NASA family the laboratory would have to bear its share of monitoring outside contracts. Pickering responded that the laboratory would be glad to participate in headquarters committees, analyses, planning, and the like, but would refuse to undertake the detailed technical supervision of contracts. In that reply can be seen the underlying insistence on negotiating mutually acceptable work assignments that would be a central issue for the next several years.
In spite of the differences, the laboratory moved out on its assigned work and during the next two years well into the development of the Ranger lunar spacecraft and the planetary Mariner, largely in-house with assistance from outside subcontractors. For its part, NASA supplied the resources for expanding the laboratory's facilities and equipment and for increasing the staffing. NASA also undertook to reestablish the military channels previously open to JPL when it had worked for the Army-for example, to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville and to Cape Canaveral. In addition NASA continued to press JPL to expand its productivity through outside contracting. When work was begun on a Surveyor spacecraft to be soft-landed on the moon, a contract was given to Hughes Aircraft to do the job under the supervision of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 10
With JPL, as with the rest of NASA, the first year produced both progress and wasted motion. It was a period of learning. At the request of the JPL leaders, the Vega upper stage intended for deep-space missions was assigned to the laboratory in the first months, only to be canceled within the year in favor of the Centaur stage.11
By the end of 1959, NASA management found it necessary to restrain its centers from diversifying their activities too broadly. Centers naturally tended toward self-sufficiency. An interesting line of research was often followed beyond the initial goal, even when this led a center into an area in which some other center was already competent. NASA management decided, therefore, that centers should be required to specialize more than they appeared to be doing and to avoid gross duplications. To this end Associate Administrator Richard Horner sent out letters assigning roles and missions to each center. The letter that went to William Pickering on 16 December 1959 confirmed that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would [264] have responsibility for lunar and planetary missions. On 21 December Abe Silverstein wrote Pickering, giving guidance on lunar and planetary missions for the immediate future. A week later the author with several of his colleagues from headquarters visited JPL to discuss the guidelines.12
Pickering quickly pointed out that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had recommended emphasizing planetary investigations, whereas Silverstein's guidance seemed to start with a great deal of lunar work. Much to the displeasure of the JPL people, the NASA representatives made clear that the agency indeed was stressing the lunar work initially. In a lengthy discussion of policy for the space science program, it was agreed that NASA Headquarters would make tentative selections of experiments and experimenters for JPL missions, with the collaboration of the laboratory. The scientists would then develop prototype models or experiment designs and deliver them to the laboratory for evaluation. Final selection would be made on the basis of the JPL evaluation. Although this procedure was followed for awhile, actually it assigned to the laboratory more authority in allocating space on NASA payloads than was eventually permitted in NASA policy.
In this discussion the ever recurring issue of how to work with university and other outside scientists came up. Here the problem was how to meet both the needs of the project engineers who wanted to pin specifications down and fix schedules as early as possible and those of the scientists who wished to polish their experiments until the very last minute. NASA people sensed an inflexibility in this matter on the part of JPL engineers that boded trouble for the future.
Another topic that would recur many times over the years was how to attract the scientific community into the program. For the lunar and planetary areas JPL proposed to set up a committee along lines Pickering had suggested in an earlier letter to Silverstein,13 but the NASA representatives indicated that headquarters would do this. After some debate it finally emerged that the laboratory was afraid that NASA would use the committee already established under Robert Jastrow for this purpose. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory would find it anomalous and disturbing to have a man from another center-the Goddard Space Flight Center-chairing a committee in a field that had been assigned to JPL. Once they appreciated what was disturbing the JPL members, the NASA people agreed to find a headquarters person to chair the committee.
That, however, was not the end of the matter. On 22 March 1960 Pickering returned to the subject in a letter opposing the idea of scientific discipline subcommittees to the Space Science Steering Committee in headquarters.14 Pickering recommended that NASA get its advice on experiment proposals directly from the centers. JPL felt that the centers could, through their contacts with the scientific community, adequately represent [265] the interests of that community. Pickering's proposal failed to recognize that NASA centers would also be competitors with outside scientists in seeking space on NASA spacecraft, and that there was a need to shield the centers from charges of conflict of interest-or even theft of ideas as was alleged on a few occasions-by having headquarters groups ultimately responsible for the selection of experiments and experimenters.
As work progressed, trouble continued to brew. NASA managers came to feel that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's traditional matrix organization, which might have been fine for general research and smaller projects, was totally inadequate for large-scale projects with pressing deadlines. NASA also found the laboratory's record keeping, contract administration and supervision, and reporting inadequate. As a result NASA began a campaign to get Pickering to tighten up the organization and to improve the administrative side of the house. Since Pickering spent a great deal of time on outside matters-for example, with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in whose establishment he had played a leading role, and with the International Astronautical Federation and the International Academy of Astronautics-headquarters at first urged and later demanded that Pickering appoint a deputy to give continuous attention to the internal running of the laboratory. This last suggestion was especially disturbing to Pickering, who, despite NASA management's doubts about the quality of his leadership,15 felt keenly his role as defender of his people. The question of a deputy for the laboratory remained a bone of contention for a long time, and even when one was appointed NASA felt that Pickering did not make proper use of the position.
The laboratory had its own complaints. At the NASA management meeting at the Langley Research Center in October 1962, at which Harry Goett had lashed out at headquarters for meddling too much in center affairs, Brian Sparks of JPL ran through an almost identical list of charges, showing that headquarters looked pretty much the same to the different centers. Sparks said that the laboratory felt headquarters took on too much project as opposed to program responsibility. For example: JPL did not have any real say on the matter of launch vehicles to be used; headquarters program chiefs dealt personally with individual project personnel instead of going through the project manager; the program office inserted itself into contracting matters and even asked contractors to quote prices for additional units on contracts managed by JPL; and headquarters insisted on approving the use of assigned construction funds. Additional complaints were that the Office of Space Sciences insisted on passing on the acceptability of every project the laboratory undertook, including study contracts, while the Office of Advanced Research and Technology similarly insisted on approving all advanced research before any funds could be released. JPL found it particularly irritating that other centers had been [266] encouraged to compete with JPL for planetary projects, especially when the planetary area had long since been assigned to the laboratory. Wernher von Braun echoed Sparks on behalf of the Marshall Space Flight Center.16
In the debate that ensued headquarters people undertook to rationalize their actions, but the important point had been made that headquarters had to set its own house in order even as it pressed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make improvements. Each side worked hard, and with sincerity, on these problems. But accommodation was difficult since two different philosophies were involved. The laboratory continued to insist on its independence and fell back on the mutuality clause in the contract with NASA to sustain its position. NASA insisted that JPL was a member of the NASA team with the same responsibilities to headquarters that other NASA centers had.
As time passed, technical problems-not unexpectedly-arose in JPL projects, piling additional stress on that caused by the philosophical differences. The successful flight of Mariner 2 to Venus in 1962 was encouraging, but the momentary elation was muted by a series of failures in the Ranger project.17 JPL might take some consolation in that it was the launch vehicle, not the JPL spacecraft, that was the culprit in the first several Ranger failures, but could hardly evade overall responsibility for the missions. Both launch vehicle and spacecraft had to work to achieve a successful mission, and until that happened both the laboratory and NASA were on the spot.
To add to the difficulties JPL was also getting a reputation among scientists of being intolerably difficult to work with. A subtle issue was the construction of flight equipment to go on JPL spacecraft. JPL usually insisted on taking prototype instruments developed by the scientists and having the flight hardware made itself.18 The logic of this procedure was obvious, but the potential impact on the scientific experiments was serious, and experimenters usually objected. Many of the instruments were new, developed specifically for the experiments to be performed. Only the experimenter and original designer of the instrument, who thoroughly understood the principles and details of the experiments to be performed, could sufficiently appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the equipment to ensure suitable calibration. It was essential, therefore, that experimenters participate in the preparation not only of prototypes but of flight hardware as well. Indeed, in recognition of these points NASA policy was that experimenters be held responsible for the proper functioning of their equipment. The JPL approach kept the experimenters at arm's length and tended to frustrate their attempts to discharge their responsibilities.
Illustrating the difficulty of working with JPL as the scientists saw it were complaints that Herb Bridge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Simpson of the University of Chicago aired in the fall of [267] 1963.19 Both scientists had similar stories of extreme difficulties in trying to work with JPL: no focal point for getting timely decisions; too many people in the loop; delays at JPL in meeting requirements of the scientists making the laboratory for all practical purposes the selector of experiments to go on a payload, rather than the Space Science Steering Committee in NASA Headquarters; intolerable delays in getting contracts out and money flowing to the experimenters so that they could get their work done on time; correspondence unanswered; a mixture of arrogance and rigidity, as, for example, when JPL considered itself sufficiently competent to try new instruments and techniques but would not allow the experimenters to do so. Van Allen of the State University of Iowa told of the frustration of having Iowa-built equipment pass all the tests that had been prescribed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory only to have JPL people open up the equipment and then reject it because the construction techniques used were not those employed by JPL. If the tests prescribed by the laboratory were valid, then equipment that passed the tests, Van Allen insisted, should be accepted for flight.
JPL difficulties with the university community were of special concern to Administrator Webb. As pointed out earlier, he expected the connection with the California Institute of Technology to enable the laboratory to do a superior job in dealing with the university scientists and thus in making the opportunities to do space science more readily available to academic institutions than might perhaps be possible in the government centers. In fact, the administrator made much of this expectation in justifying to Congress NASA's paying Cal Tech more than $2 million a year to manage the JPL contract. Webb spent a great deal of time with Cal Tech President Lee DuBridge trying to get him to appreciate the importance of producing more for the annual fee than the mere routine administration of a contract, which NASA could have done for itself more cheaply.
As 1963 drew to a close, NASA stepped up its efforts to get the management of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to improve performance and to strengthen the organization for managing big projects. Earl Hilburn, deputy to Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, was assigned the task of working with Cal Tech to resolve some of the fundamental differences. Hilburn, a technical man himself and a hard- nosed businessman to boot, insisted, with the weight of the Administrator's Office, that the laboratory find a suitable general manager. On 24 December 1963, Pickering informed the author by phone that he was in the process of setting up a new position of assistant laboratory director for technical divisions. Brian Sparks would be the new assistant director.20
This was progress, but in NASA's view fell far short of what was needed. An assistant director would not be the equivalent of a deputy director responsible for the internal management of the laboratory and empowered [268] to make decisions binding on the director. But for the moment this appeared to be about as far as Pickering would budge. It took the dramatic failure of Ranger 6 to break the logjam.