Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[283] Like Glennan before him, the second administrator, James E. Webb, strongly supported a balanced program of science, technology, application, and exploration. His policies assured each of the areas a place in the overall program. On the space science side relations with the scientific community continued to follow the patterns established during Glennan's tenure. The principal changes were those brought about by the expansion of the program that took place under Webb, in which Gemini and Apollo were undertaken, the university program was increased, and the pace of the space science program was stepped up.
All in all, the course of leadership during Glennan's time and in the first years of Webb's tenure was relatively smooth. Reasonably well thought-out projects were relatively easy to sell. With rapidly increasing budgets it was not too difficult to maintain a respectable balance among the various areas, even though different interests might quarrel with the relative emphases NASA gave to the different parts of the program.
The problems facing the agency were those having to do with getting on with the program.1 Manned spaceflight people had to decide on the mission mode for Apollo: whether to use direct ascent, which Abe Silverstein favored; or to go first into a near-earth parking orbit and then on to [284] the moon, which the President's Science Advisory Committee strongly urged; or to go into a lunar parking orbit from which to land on the moon, which the agency finally chose. Applications managers had to work out relations with industrial users of space technology and with other government agencies like the U.S. Weather Bureau and the Department of Defense. Decisions were to be made on the kinds of weather and communications satellites to develop and who would operate them. On the space science side, it was necessary to determine what balance to maintain between observatory-class spacecraft, which Abe Silverstein favored, and the smaller, cheaper ones that the scientific community preferred. Experiments and experimenters had to be selected for the missions to be flown. How much ground-based work should be funded as preparation for later flight experiments had to be decided. Much management time was devoted to resolving conflicts between the manned flight and space science programs-for which purpose George Mueller, associate administrator for manned spaceflight, and the author, associate administrator for space science and applications, finally agreed on the creation of a special manned space science division. It was headed by Willis Foster, one of the scientists who had come to NASA from the Office of Defense Research and Engineering in the Pentagon. Contrary to one of the cardinal principles of organization and management, Foster was to have two bosses-Mueller and the author-an arrangement that was intended to give his division equal access to both the Office of Manned Space Flight and the Office of Space Science and Applications.2 Foster's was an extremely difficult role to play, for the manned spaceflight office tended to view science as something that might support the achievement of the Apollo missions, whereas the space science managers wanted the agency to view manned spaceflight as a technique that could serve pure science and other primary objectives of the agency.
Yet, difficult though they were, these problems, including those of Foster's division, were relatively straightforward. In a climate of positive support to the space program, they were part of the price to pay for accomplishing established goals. But in the late 1960s, demands on leadership changed severely in character. Under the best of circumstances the Apollo 204 fire on 27 January 1967 would have been difficult to live down.3 But coming at a time when the country was becoming more concerned about a variety of problems other than whether the United States was or was not ahead of the Soviets in space, the impact of the accident upon the agency was immeasurably increased. A great deal of Administrator Webb's time was taken up in recouping for NASA the respect it had been building up in the Mercury, Gemini, and other programs, and in regaining the confidence of the Congress. That in Apollo the United States was on trial, as it were, before the whole world had much to do with the program's continuing to receive support. But in the aftermath of the congressional hearings and [285] internal NASA reviews, Webb began to sense a slackening of support for, the space program.
After peaking in 1966, NASA's annual expenditures began to decline sharply as spending on the building of the Apollo hardware passed its peak. Normally one might have expected at this stage to begin a small amount of advanced work on some new project to replace Apollo after it had been completed. And after the considerable effort put into selling Apollo as a project to develop a national capability to explore and investigate space, it was natural for NASA managers to think of putting the Apollo and Saturn equipment to use. NASA planners began to talk of an Apollo Extension System.4 But when the idea of extending the Apollo project did not go over too well, a new concept was introduced: the Apollo Applications Program.5 The name was meant to emphasize "applying" the Saturn and Apollo capability to other research, thereby capitalizing on the very large investments the country had made to bring that capability into being.
During the muddy period of planning for an Apollo Applications Program that was not going to sell, Webb often stated to his colleagues in NASA that he did not sense on the Hill or in the administration the support that would be needed to undertake another large space project. When NASA managers wanted to come to grips with the problem, to decide on some desirable project like a space station or a manned base on the moon and then work to sell the idea, Webb preferred to hold back and listen to what the country might want to tell the agency. It was his wish to get a national debate started on what the future of the space program ought to be, with the hope that out of such a debate NASA might derive a new mandate for its future beyond Apollo. But no such debate ensued. In a country preoccupied with Vietnam and other issues, the space program no longer commanded much attention. If any leadership was to be provided, NASA would have to do it, since that vague "they" out there were not going to.
In this climate the administrator became increasingly concerned about the timing of the decision to send astronauts off on their first flight to the moon. Added to the Apollo fire, a disaster out in space in which astronauts were killed in full view of the world might well destroy not only the Apollo project, but NASA itself. In the summer of 1968, as the Manned Spacecraft Center people were coming down the final stretch in their preparations for a circumlunar flight, Webb was in Vienna attending the international symposium on space applications sponsored by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (p. 300). Thomas O. Paine, who had been appointed deputy administrator when Robert Seamans decided to leave the agency,6 was at home in Washington minding the shop, and it fell to him to guide the agency toward the first manned lunar flight. When Webb resigned in October,7 the final go-ahead came from Paine as [286] acting administrator. While mindful of the hazards, still it was clear to Paine that the flight had to be attempted some time, and if the Apollo team was ready it should be now. When Apollo 8 came through with flying colors, the decision was fully justified and NASA recaptured for the time being the admiring attention of the world.8
Webb's resignation had anticipated the change in administrations that would bring a searching reappraisal of the space program. Although prepared to reap political harvest from each Apollo success, incoming President Richard Nixon was committed to an all-out attack on inflation that would call for some painful belt tightening. To those who chose to read the signals, it was clear that the Republican administration was not about to let the space budget climb again to its mid-1960 levels. The big question in the minds of space planners was how low Nixon would let the budget drop.
As an early step in assessing the space program, on 3 December 1968 President-elect Nixon asked for recommendations from a group of outside consultants under the chairmanship of Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who was chairman of both the Space Science Board and NASA's Space Technology Advisory Committee. Nixon received the report of the task force on 8 January 1969, but did not at the time choose to release the document.9 The report recommended continuation of a $6-billion-per-year space effort, with one-third of the funding for the Department of Defense and two-thirds for NASA. The task force disapproved of any commitment to a large, orbiting, manned space station, but supported the development of a space shuttle. The scientists urged a strong program of unmanned planetary probes. Of major importance would be a reorientation of the NASA organization away from the manned-unmanned dichotomy that had existed throughout the 1960s. The report strongly recommended that, in any mission, NASA plan to use whatever mode-manned or unmanned-would be most effective in achieving the objectives sought. To this end NASA should stop flying men just to fly them, and should focus on a search for the most appropriate role for human beings in the system.
With the recommendations of the outside scientists in hand, the president then called for a governmental study of future possibilities for the space program. On 13 February Nixon sent a note to the vice president, the secretary of defense, the acting administrator of NASA, and the president's science adviser, asking them to meet as a task group and to provide "in the near future definitive recommendation on the direction which the U.S. space program should take in the post-Apollo period."10 The president said that he would like to receive a coordinated proposal by 1 September 1969.
At the president's request, Vice President Spiro Agnew acted as chairman. The secretary of defense appointed Robert C. Seamans, secretary of the Air Force and formerly deputy administrator of NASA, to represent the [287] Department of Defense on the Space Task Group. Invited observers were U. Alexis Johnson, under secretary of state for political affairs; Glenn T. Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; and Robert P. Mayo, director of the Bureau of the Budget. The group immediately arranged for their respective staffs to conduct the necessary background studies. The science adviser, Lee DuBridge, with personnel from the Office of Science and Technology, served as coordinator of the staff studies.
Both Paine, whom the president appointed in March to the post of NASA administrator, and the vice president favored an expanded space program, Agnew speaking out a number of times for sending men to the planets. Paine felt the country could well afford many times what it was spending on space and pressed for a program that would include large manned space stations, lunar bases, and the development and use of a reusable space transportation system to replace the older, expendable boosters used during the 1960s. In these views Paine came into conflict with those of the Townes committee, the President's Science Advisory Committee, and Secretary Seamans. In spite of his former NASA connection, Seamans was strongly opposed to an expansion of the space program in times that called for fiscal conservatism. He would not support a large space station, and the shuttle could have his endorsement only if it could be shown that it would indeed generate the economies claimed for it.11 The President's Science Advisory Committee called for a program of lower costs that would focus on using space capabilities for benefiting the nation and the world. The committee placed great emphasis on expanding the use of unmanned, as opposed to manned, techniques in space research and application. It also recommended studying, "with a view to early development, a reusable space transportation system with an early goal of replacing all existing launch vehicles larger than Scout with a system permitting satellite recovery and orbital assembly and ultimately radical reduction in unit cost of space transportation."12
During this period Thomas Paine worked continuously to revive national interest in a bold and imaginative space program. He described the large space station in near-earth orbit as "the next logical step" in the development of space. A lunar base would continue man's exploration of his corner of the universe, provide the means for doing much valuable science, and capitalize on the extensive investments already made in Apollo. A reusable space transportation system, consisting of a shuttle and various auxiliary stages for orbital and deep-space operations, would tie all the endeavors together and make space stations, lunar bases, and other advanced space missions economically attractive. Seeking additional support, Paine traveled to Europe pressing for international cooperation in the development and use of a space shuttle system.13
As contributions to the staff studies for the Space Task Group, the President's Science Advisory Committee, the Department of Defense, and [288] NASA prepared reports of their own.14 Within NASA the study staff drew on planning material from the agency's Planning Steering Group (p. 378). When the output from that activity, reflecting a judgment by the planners that only a modest program had any chance of selling, proved to be too conservative for Paine, the administrator asked the author to include among the NASA options a program that would rise to $8 billion a year by the mid-1970s.15 While this option was conveyed to the president in the Space Task Group's report, it received no serious consideration from the administration. Indeed, NASA's lowest option, which would rise to above $5 billion a year by 1976, was more than the White House planners were ready to bargain for.16 All in all the Space Task Group's report did not show the conservatism the White House desired and was not adopted as the president's blueprint for the future in space.
NASA accordingly continued to seek some sort of guidelines from the president under which to plan for the future. After a period of negotiation the sought-after guidelines appeared in the form of a statement from President Nixon on 7 March 1970 (app. J).17 Pointing to the many critical problems on our own planet that needed attention and resources, he nevertheless stated that the space program should not be allowed to stagnate. The nation's approach to space should continue to be bold, but balanced, and the country should not try to do everything at once. The general purposes of the space program should be exploration, the acquisition of scientific knowledge, and practical applications to benefit life on earth. In support of these general purposes he set forth six specific objectives: lunar exploration, planetary exploration including eventually sending men to Mars, reduction in the cost of space operations, extension of man's capability to live and work in space, expansion of practical applications of space technology, and encouragement of greater international cooperation in space.
By now the administration's conservatism as far as space was concerned was patent. It was to be seen in the qualifying language of the presidents space message. Yet Administrator Paine chose to focus on the president's call to be bold, rather than on his admonition to proceed at a measured pace. Paine likened the space program to the great voyages sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator, and encouraged his people to swashbuckle, as he put it (although years later Paine would question the appropriateness of that term).18 The responsibilities of leadership, he felt, required him to get approval for as large a space program as the traffic would bear, and to this end he pressed for a wide variety of new starts with budgets that would quickly mount up in the years ahead to levels exceeding those of the Apollo era. To raise NASA planning out of the conservatism to which it had been depressed by the political climate, in June 1970 Paine assembled NASA center directors, program directors from headquarters, and other key persons for a five-day meeting at Wallops Island, Virginia, to consider NASA's future. Arthur Clarke, whose book The Exploration of Space had been in the [289] 1950s a kind of blueprint for the future, was invited to be the keynote speaker in the hopes of starting the discussion on a sufficiently imaginative level.19
But NASA talking to itself this way had little effect, certainly none in raising budgets that continued their downward plunge. It was not in the cards to escalate the space program at that time. NASA was outvoted at every turn. The administration was absolutely dedicated to cost cutting. Industry was dubious about the value of increased expenditures in space and communicated its doubts to the White House. The Department of Defense, potentially NASA's strongest ally, was having budget troubles of its own and would not encourage a large competitive drain on national resources. The scientific community, not about to endorse another large, manned spaceflight project, preferred to phase out manned spaceflight-save only a possible shuttle program-in favor of more automated missions. There was much sympathy for Van Allen's call for a severely reduced space budget, $2 billion or less annually, devoted primarily to applications and science. Although Van Allen and Thomas Gold (the latter noted for his role in propounding the theory of continuous creation of matter) were opposed to the shuttle,20 other scientists would support a shuttle if it was really to be developed and used as a tool to improve space operations and reduce their costs.21
There is a difference of opinion as to whether Paine's attempts to force the space budget far above the levels the administration wanted to see kept it from falling lower than it did, or were counterproductive. At any rate, after Paine resigned in September 1970,22 Acting Administrator George Low made a conscious and visible effort to accommodate to the administration's desires to keep spending down. The new administrator, James C. Fletcher, not only continued Low's policy, but moved toward a constant level budget, which made the process of getting White House approval much easier. One of the great difficulties NASA had been experiencing in introducing new projects was the shape of the funding curve in the years ahead. While the initial funding for a new project might fit into the current year's budget, increasing costs in future years often called for the total budget to rise again. If the budget rise was not approved, then projects recently started would have to be canceled-a painfully difficult thing to do. By eliminating this future bow wave in the funding curve, Administrator Fletcher was in a much stronger position than Paine had been to ask for assurances that NASA would be able to follow through on new projects that the agency started.
This was important in selling the Space Shuttle. In the cost-conscious climate of the Republican administration, the Space Shuttle became the only salable manned spaceflight project. After the Skylab flights in 1973 and the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, it would not be possible to gain support for more of the very expensive missions, any of which would drive [290] the NASA budget skyward again. In contrast, the Space Shuttle costs as finally approved would fit into a budget profile for the 1970s which, when computed in 1971 dollars, would allow only a slight rise in the first half of the decade.