Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[268] When Ranger 6 separated from its launch vehicle on 30 January 1964 and slid onto a perfect trajectory toward its intended target on the moon, spirits ran high. As the telemetry record continued to show that the spacecraft was operating properly, success at long last appeared to be at hand. Three days later project people, NASA and JPL managers, contractors, experimenters, congressmen, and numerous visitors followed the progress of Ranger 6 as it approached the moon; and when in the last seconds of the flight the signal was sent to turn on the television cameras, all were prepared to heave a sigh of relief. But then the unbelievable happened. The cameras didn't work!21
The dejection of JPL and NASA personnel was complete. Although Congressman Miller, chairman of NASA's authorizing committee in the House of Representatives, expressed confidence in the Ranger program and congratulated NASA and JPL on hitting the target aimed at, there was no avoiding a thorough review of the project by the Congress. The author, at NASA headquarters, forwarded Congressman Miller's letter to Pickering with a note assuring JPL that NASA would work vigorously alongside the laboratory and expressing confidence that Ranger would succeed.22 To determine what had gone wrong and what was needed to fix the spacecraft, NASA set up a review board under the chairmanship of Earl Hilburn.23 On the Hill, Joseph Karth, chairman of the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications in the House, got the job of probing the Ranger failure. From 27 April to 4 May 1964 the author and his colleagues in NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory managers, and JPL contractors -particularly the Radio Corporation of America, which had been responsible for the television equipment-were on the carpet.24
Although the congressmen were deeply interested in the technical side of the story and delved deeply into what had gone wrong, they gave their most serious attention to management matters. Karth, well aware of the mutuality clause in the NASA contract with the laboratory, appeared to feel that laboratory unresponsiveness to NASA direction might be the underlying cause of the trouble. Moreover, he wondered what, if anything, the government was getting in return for the large management fee paid to the California Institute of Technology. Although these were the very questions that NASA continually debated with Cal Tech and JPL, during the congressional inquiry NASA and the laboratory closed ranks in mutual defense. During the hearings the author tried to make the point that at the heart of the so-called unresponsiveness of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [269] lay the sort of individual competence and self-reliance that NASA was seeking to use in the space program. Testimony also pointed out that the kinds of problems that NASA was having with JPL at the moment stemmed from the very difficult undertakings being attempted, and in the nature of things the agency had the same kinds of difficulties with its Civil Service centers. When the chairman observed that if relations with NASA's centers were as bad as with JPL, then perhaps the investigation ought to be broadened to include the management of all NASA centers, the author replied that the proper point of view was that management relations with JPL were basically as good as with the other centers. But it had become clear that that line of defense was one to abandon as quickly as possible.
As a result of the investigation, the congressmen made clear to NASA that they were unhappy with the management arrangements between NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They expected NASA to tighten up the government's control and to get rid of the mutuality clause in the contract with Cal Tech and JPL. Moreover, they were not at all convinced that the government was getting its money's worth for the $2 million annual fee to the California Institute of Technology. Considerable pressure was put on NASA to eliminate that fee, one way of doing which would be to convert the laboratory to Civil Service.
The pressure to remove the fee was excruciating to Lee DuBridge, for over the years Cal Tech had built the fee into its funding structure so that now it formed about 10 percent of the university's basic support. Sudden withdrawal of that sum would cause considerable difficulty. This possibility, and the publicity generated by the Ranger investigation, finally drew the attention of the Cal Tech Board of Trustees, who pledged themselves to help find a solution to the problem.25
Fortunately for Cal Tech, Webb was not in favor of pulling out. As mentioned earlier, the NASA administrator saw in the Cal Tech-JPL arrangement great possibilities for the kind of university-government relationships he was hoping to develop in the broader aspects of the agency's university program. Webb, therefore, stood firm against the outside pressure to change the management arrangement and renewed his efforts to wrest from DuBridge and Cal Tech the benefits he sought. As long as DuBridge was at the helm at Cal Tech, Webb strove in vain, for if ever two people spoke the same language with different meaning, those two were Webb and DuBridge. In whatever he said, Webb had in mind the broad, sweeping contribution that he thought a university should be able to make to government in expertise and wise counsel, while DuBridge never relinquished his dedication to the traditional independence of academic institutions and of the individuals within those institutions.
In his hopes Webb was repeatedly disappointed. Cal Tech showed little interest in broadening the use of the JPL capability by other universities, which Webb very much hoped to bring about in the national interest. [270] To make matters worse, JPL proved to be pretty good at antagonizing outside experimenters assigned by NASA to JPL spacecraft, by keeping them at arm's length and imposing unreasonable schedules and what seemed to the experimenters to be arbitrary and unnecessary construction and test requirements for their instruments.
Having got through the congressional inquiry, the Ranger managers bore down again on preparations for another flight. Oran Nicks, head of the Lunar and Planetary Program Office within NASA Headquarters, and his people-who through all that had happened had remained unshakable in their faith in and esteem for the laboratory-redoubled their efforts to assist JPL in whatever ways they could. Walter Jakobowski, Ranger program manager, did what he could to facilitate the work. Benjamin Milwitsky, program manager for Surveyor, which was having plenty of troubles of its own, worked assiduously to keep Surveyor from repeating the Ranger 6 fiasco. But it was the JPL engineers and their contractors who pulled it off. They left no possibility for trouble unprobed, no component, no subsystem unchecked, no test undone, to ensure that the next flight succeeded.
The going was not easy. Troubles continued to turn up in ground-based tests, so that in June 1964 the Office of Space Science and Applications set up its own review board separate from that chaired by Hilburn, it; purpose to leave no stone unturned in the effort to make Ranger succeed.26
Simultaneously pressure continued for JPL to tighten up its management and to be more responsive to NASA direction. After all that had happened following the Ranger 6 failure, after all that had been said about the need to tighten up management and improve responsiveness, one would have thought that JPL had the message. The author and his deputy, Edgar Cortright, were shocked, therefore, to learn in a conversation with Pickering in early July of 1964 that JPL considered Surveyor a low-key project which could be kept on the back burner, with the contractor left pretty much to his own devices. Cortright and the author disagreed on the spot, and on 13 July a letter went out to Pickering underlining that Surveyor was considered one of the highest priority projects in the space science program and that the project had to have proper management attention. The letter asked that Pickering be certain "that JPL is properly staffed and organized, the Hughes contract is adequately monitored, and NASA Headquarters appropriately informed of Surveyor needs, to insure the earliest and fullest possible success of the Surveyor program."27
The following day a second letter to Pickering dealt with management problems. It requested that JPL develop a more formalized discipline in both business and project management. In particular NASA requested that the rather loose matrix organization that JPL had favored be tightened into a more direct project organization. The letter expressed concern that space science had a fuzzy sort of place in the laboratory structure and asked [271] that it be given a firmer, more independent status. NASA asked that JPL work on improving relations with experimenters. The following September the author repeated these requests to Lee DuBridge, president of Cal Tech and accordingly Pickering's boss.28
The continuing lack of response to NASA's requests led NASA management to give serious consideration to insisting that Cal Tech remove Pickering as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But Pickering had too much to offer to make this a palatable move. Another option seriously considered was that of converting the laboratory to Civil Service as some congressmen had favored. But again the administrator considered this too drastic. Setting aside the question of whether the necessary personnel authorizations could be obtained from an administration that was trying to reduce the total number of government employees-and ignoring the dislocations that would be generated in adjusting to Civil Service salaries, retirement plans, and fringe benefits-there was still the question of how many of the employees would stay. The fierce pride that JPL people took in their heritage as part of the Cal Tech family left grave doubts as to whether the laboratory could be converted without seriously disrupting the ongoing program.
At any rate, none of these unsavory options was adopted. Instead the contract with the California Institute of Technology was revamped.29 The mutuality clause was removed, and JPL was required to be responsive to NASA direction. Specific organizational and management arrangements were required, including the strengthening of contract administration and provision for adequate accounting, record keeping, and reporting. On Webb's insistence the new contract called for NASA managers to evaluate semiannually the performance of Cal Tech and JPL, with the total fee to Cal Tech depending on the rating received in the evaluation. Of all the provisions in the new contract, the one requiring the institute and the laboratory to undergo periodic evaluation-an indignity that DuBridge pointed out was not imposed on other NASA centers-rankled the most. Sweetening the pill, however, NASA agreed to provide a small fund (a few hundred thousand dollars annually) for the director of the laboratory to use at his own discretion to support research he deemed especially important.
The new contract provided no magic solution. Much still had to be done to settle the dust of battle and to establish a smooth working pattern. That occupied an appreciable amount of management time during the next several years. But the road had been cleared and it was a matter of bending to the task. Moreover, with the Ranger hurdles behind, successes became the rule, failures the exceptions, on JPL missions. In the light of these successes the earlier troubles faded farther and farther into the background. On 28 July 1964 Ranger 7 took off from Cape Kennedy for the moon, matching Ranger 6 in the flawlessness of its flight. But this time the [272] television worked perfectly. The cameras returned superb pictures of a lunar mare-later designated Mare Cognitum, or "Known Sea," by the International Astronomical Union. Those pictures taken just before the spacecraft hit the moon were a thousand fold more detailed than any that could be obtained through ground-based telescopes. On 31 July, three days after the launching and immediately following the completion of the mission, Dr. Pickering and a beaming JPL team held a happy press conference in which some of the Ranger pictures were shown and their scientific value discussed. Then Pickering and the author flew to Washington to brief President Johnson, who expressed his great pleasure in the achievement. On 11 August Congressman Karth, who half a year earlier had dug so grimly into the Ranger troubles, inserted into the record of the House of Representatives a paper by the U.S. Information Agency describing the worldwide admiration that Ranger 7 had evoked.30
Ranger 8 (20 February 1965) and 9 (24 March 1965) were equally successful and more visible, since they were covered on live television. Then, after excruciatingly troubled years of development and testing, the very first Surveyor landed gently on the moon's surface on 2 June 1966 and began to send pictures and other lunar data back to earth.31 Not a vestige of doubt remained that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory could match technical performance with the best that the country had to offer.
Not that the laboratory itself or those in NASA's lunar and planetary office had ever doubted that they could do it. Oran Nicks and his people would frequently say that they were working with the most competent team in the space science program. In the end, results were eminently satisfying.
At the division level much effort had been invested in trying to understand each other's needs and aspirations. NASA representatives had spent a great deal of time at JPL keeping in touch with what was going on. In return JPL members had been invited to spend tours of duty at NASA Headquarters to become familiar with the problems on the Washington end. Without doubt this was helpful. On returning to JPL, Gregg Mamikunian wrote the author in May 1966 expressing appreciation for the opportunity to work at NASA Headquarters for a while. He expressed his painful realization and awareness that decisions in regards to projects or missions at headquarters are not arbitrarily or whimsically arrived at (as is the ... consensus at the centers and universities) but with ... regard ... to the objectives of the scientific community at large and of the nation."32
Webb's new contract requirement for a periodic evaluation of the laboratory was intended to generate at the upper management levels the kind of familiarity with each other's views that those at the working level had already achieved to some extent. In this the device was successful. A pattern developed in which, before the actual evaluation, NASA and the laboratory agreed on the items to be rated, on both the technical and [273] administrative sides. Then a preliminary written evaluation was drawn up from suggestions from the various NASA managers. Cal Tech and JPL were given an opportunity to review the preliminary evaluation and prepare for a face-to-face meeting with NASA, where JPL and Cal Tech could take exception to ratings they deemed unfair. Following the meeting the Office of Space Science and Applications revised ratings as appropriate and submitted the resulting evaluation to the administrator for approval.
Fortunately, by the time of the first evaluation in June 1965 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had a number of items on which it could be given a rating of outstanding, including recent Ranger successes.33 But it was quite a while before many outstanding ratings could be handed out for the administrative side. Nevertheless, as time went on the ratings improved.34
The process forced a continuing attention to the many administrative problems that had dissatisfied NASA in the past, and the ratings provided JPL and Cal Tech with a measure of how well they were meeting the NASA requirements. Thus, as the 1960s drew to a close and JPL was preparing for the spectacularly successful flights of Mariner to Mars in 1969, administrative relations between the center and headquarters were on an even keel. Not that all problems were solved, but the most significant matters were now the technical ones, as one would want.
In retrospect, given the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's former style of in-house engineering and distaste for much that was required in contracting with industry for projects, given also the laboratory's priority over the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in rocket research, and considering the strong personalities involved, an intense struggle between JPL and its new bosses was predictable. No doubt, in time some sort of accommodation would have been worked out by degrees. But the Ranger 6 failure did not permit the gradual course. To preserve the arrangement that Administrator Webb wished to exploit in the university community, NASA had to tighten up management and insist on a visible improvement in performance. A revamped contract provided the basis for working out a solution. Strong efforts by men of good will on both sides made it work.