Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[299Sputnik I got the attention of an entire world. In various ways political and scientific organizations made their interests in space research and applications known. It seemed natural, for example, for the staff of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to suggest cooperative efforts in space under the aegis of NATO. In spite of their superficial reasonableness, these overtures were not supported by Department of State or NASA managers, primarily because a cooperative program under NATO would reintroduce those military overtones Congress had already rejected in not assigning the [300] U.S. space program to the Pentagon. Thus, in spite of his long association with NATO's Advisory Group for Advanced Research and Development, Dryden, with guidance from the State Department, turned down these suggestions from the NATO staff, pointing out that individual NATO countries could cooperate with NASA on their own initiative without invoking the NATO name.
The United Nations was another matter. Here among a large number of the world's nations, a deep interest was to be expected in activities that would fly rockets and spacecraft over the sovereign territories of U.N. members. On 19 November 1958, the United States and 19 other countries jointly introduced a resolution into the General Assembly of the United Nations calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee on the peaceful uses of outer space.1 The committee was established in December and met from 6 May to 25 June 1959 at U.N. Headquarters in New York City to discuss a variety of subjects related to international interest in space matters.2 It was soon realized that the United Nations was in no position to assume operational responsibilities in a space program -although for a brief period there was some discussion of such things as launching sites run by an organ of the United Nations. International competence in science resided in the International Council of Scientific Unions and its unions, while many aspects of practical applications of space would apparently fall under already existing U.N. organizations such as the World Meteorological Organization and the International Telecommunications Union. As a consequence the ad hoc committee recommended against the creation of either a new agency or any sort of central control for space activities. Instead it was suggested that there be a focal point-in the nature of an international secretariat-to facilitate international cooperation in the peaceful uses of space.3
Differences of view between the United States and the Soviet Union tended to dominate the discussions in the committee for the first two years or so. The Soviet Union wished to establish at the outset a set of general principles to guide space activities, while the United States preferred to develop an international policy by practice, moving step by step with individual, limited agreements. After extensive exploratory discussion, the way was clear to move ahead on a firmer basis, and General Assembly resolution 1721 created a permanent Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space with 28 members.4 The resolution became a basic document on space, among other things commending to member states that international law apply to outer space and celestial bodies, that both space and celestial bodies be free to all and not subject to national appropriation, and that member states should report space launchings to the U.N. for registration.5
The permanent committee provided for two subcommittees, one legal, the other scientific and technical. Although the deliberations of the Legal Subcommittee occasionally touched upon the interests of the scientists, the [301] other subcommittee usually provided the forum for space science matters. The function of the committee and its subcommittees was regarded as one of aiding and encouraging members rather than one of getting into operational programs. In this vein, at the meeting of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in Geneva in May and June 1962, the subcommittee gave special attention to helping the less developed countries to pursue some of their interests in space. Much discussion was devoted to training and education for scientists and engineers of the smaller countries, and various means of meeting this need were recommended. The subcommittee recommended publication of information on national space programs and of technical information needed by nations just beginning space research. A major recommendation asked for United Nations sponsorship of sounding rocket ranges that met prescribed conditions, including openness and accessibility to all member states.6
By the next year India, with assistance from a number of countries in supplying launchers, tracking equipment, computers, and aircraft, was well along in construction of a sounding rocket range on the geomagnetic equator at Thumba. Since the range was to be operated in keeping with the principles laid down by the United Nations, U.N. sponsorship was accorded the range, under which aegis India hosted a great many launchings by other nations.7
When, half a decade later, in August of 1968, the committee sponsored a symposium on the peaceful uses of outer space, space had become big business; and almost fourscore countries participated in one way or another. Administrator Webb considered the symposium of sufficient importance to attend in person. The United States, the Soviet Union, and numerous other countries could report on a wide variety of space science results. As a prelude to the imminent American manned flights to the moon, both the U.S. and the USSR reviewed results from their unmanned lunar spacecraft. On the science side problems were minimal; but some knotty questions were raised in space applications, such as international cooperation in commercial space communications systems and the delicate subject of space photography for earth-resource surveys. In earth-resource photography, the prospect of substantial benefits to themselves led the countries to acquiesce, at least as far as accepting research satellites. Operational satellites were a question that could be resolved later.8 These questions, bearing on international relations in space applications, are beyond the scope of this book.
The natural arena for international cooperation in space science was that of the International Council of Scientific Unions, which had sponsored the International Geophysical Year. As might have been expected, IGY spawned a number of continuing activities, for which special committees were formed, such as the Special Committee for Antarctic Research and the Special Committee for Oceanographic Research. Among them was the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).9
[302] For a brief period substantial difficulties loomed. Miffed at the high proportion of Western representation on the committee, the Soviet Union chose to introduce political considerations into sessions of the nonpolitical COSPAR. At the March 1959 meeting in The Hague, Prof. E. K. Federov a tough, hard-line negotiator, showed up instead of Anatoly Blagonravovto represent the USSR. Federov's insistence that not only Soviet bloc countries, but also the Ukraine and Byelorussia, should be admitted to COSPAR as independent members evoked a general consternation. American attendees pointed out that this was like asking that a couple of states like Texas and New York be members in addition to the United States. The committee would not go along, and Federov read what was apparently a prepared statement that under the circumstances the USSR would not be able to participate in the Committee on Space Research.10
It looked as though COSPAR might have to proceed without the participation of one of the two major launching nations. But the U.S. delegate, Richard Porter, put forth a counterproposal that any nation interested in and engaged in some way in space activities could be a member of the committee. Porter's motion was adopted, paving the way for admitting Soviet bloc countries. Also the committee agreed to accept on its Executive Committee a Soviet vice president and a U.S. vice president, thus assuring both countries of permanent positions on the executive body of COSPAR. With these compromises, the Soviets did not pull out, and for future meetings Blagonravov returned as the Soviet representative.
There were two kinds of membership in COS PAR-representation from a number of interested scientific unions, like the Unions of Geodesy and Geophysics, Scientific Radio, Astronomy, and Pure and Applied Physics; and national members. The former provided the ties with the international scientific organizations. But the ultimate strength of COSPAR lay in the national memberships, for, as with the International Geophysical Year, the individual countries would pay for and conduct research. When at the same March 1959 meeting attended by Federov the United States offered to assist COSPAR members in launching scientific experiments and satellites, the future of COSPAR seemed assured.11
COSPAR met annually, varying the place of meeting to give different countries the opportunity to act as host. The sessions consisted normally of two parts, a scientific symposium on recent space science results or on some topic of importance to space science,12 and discussions of plans and problems. To facilitate the latter, working groups were established with appropriate representation from interested countries and unions. Perhaps the most notable, and controversial, of these was the group set up to look into undesirable side effects of space activities. Because of concerns in the scientific community over possible compromise of other scientific activities by space research-for example, interference of radio signals from satellites with ground-based radio astronomy-the International Council of Scientific [303] Unions passed a resolution in 1961 calling on COSPAR to examine proposed experiments that might have potentially undesirable effects on scientific activities and observations, and to make careful analyses and quantitative studies available to scientists and governments.13 COSPAR responded with resolution 1 (1962) setting up a Consultative Group on Potentially Harmful Effects of Space Experiments, under the chairmanship of Vikrarn Sarabhai, physicist and later head of India's atomic energy agency.14 There were representatives from the two major launching countries, Russia and America, and several "neutral" members. The president of COSPAR, H. C. van de Hulst, felt the consultative group's task sufficiently important that he himself should also serve. The group plunged into a study of such matters as the effects of rocket exhausts on the atmosphere and of high-altitude nuclear explosions on the earth's radiation belts.
The purpose of the consultative group was initially scientific but the subject was bound in time to bring in political considerations. At the May 1963 meetings of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Soviet Delegate Blagonravov kept bringing up the matter of U.S. high-altitude nuclear tests and the West Ford experiment, which placed clouds of tiny copper needles in orbit to test their usefulness for reflecting radio signals from one point on the ground to another.15 On 20 May 1963 he delivered a blast against the United States, accusing it of fostering war and ignoring the welfare of the world and world science. His remarks were utterly cynical in that the Soviet nuclear tests had put much more radiation into the lower atmosphere than had U.S. experiments. Also, careful analyses of West Ford had shown that the metallic dipoles would not adversely affect ground-based radio astronomy, a conclusion that the Soviet Union did not refute. Continuing to press the matter, on 21 May 1963 Blagonravov submitted a paper on contamination of outer space, urging that the U.N. committee ask the Committee on Space Research to study the harmful effects of such experiments in outer space.16 Again the cynicism of the Soviet delegates was apparent in that they consistently showed little interest in the COSPAR consultative group and had a very poor attendance record at its meetings. Their greater concern with the political issues than with the scientific aspects of the subject was apparent.
The most persistent task of the consultative group had to do with the protection of the moon and planets from biological contamination. If there was life, or evidence of past life, or evidence of how the chemistry of a planet evolves toward the formation of life, on any other planetary body, life scientists wanted to preserve the opportunity to study that evidence uncompromised by any form of terrestrial contamination.
In this matter the consultative group by no means had to start from scratch. As far back as 1956 the International Astronautical Federation had begun to worry about interplanetary contamination. Sputnik I called forth [304] similar concerns in the U.S. Academy of Sciences, and on 8 February 1958 the academy passed a resolution urging that "scientists plan lunar and planetary studies with great care and deep concern so that initial operations do not compromise and make impossible forever after critical scientific experiments." Lloyd Berkner, president of the International Council of Scientific Unions, carried the resolution to ICSU, which in March of 1958 established an ad hoc Committee on Contamination by Extraterrestrial Exploration, with Marcel Florkin, Belgian biologist, as president. The committee developed a code of conduct for space missions and continued for a number of years to work and advise on problems. The COSPAR consultative group inherited the mantle along with the work and thinking of the ad hoc committee.
The aims were simple, but the problems were exceedingly complex and difficult to resolve. One could not ask for 100 percent sterility in planetary and interplanetary spacecraft. To seek such an unachievable goal would be prohibitively expensive. It was necessary, therefore, to deal with probabilities, and to seek to keep at an acceptably low figure the probability that planets of interest might be contaminated. The scientists had to work out a compromise between asking for so low a probability that the costs of engineering spacecraft to prescribed standards would be forbiddingly high and allowing so high a probability that the chances of compromising scientific research were too great. Unfortunately, as with many questions dealing with probabilities, there were a great many opinions as to what probabilities were reasonable and as to how to go about the engineering. The interminable discussions of the scientists were a vexation to the engineers who had to translate prescribed standards into engineering criteria. All in all, it took a decade to agree on an international set of objectives. At its 12th plenary session in Prague, 11-24. May 1969, the Committee on Space Research reaffirmed the basic objective of keeping the probability of contaminating Mars and other planets at or below one part in a thousand an anticipated period of biological exploration. The period was taken or to be 20 years, extending through 1988, during which period it was estimated that approximately 100 missions would be flown.17
Requirements were more easily stated than met. Unsterilized. Space probes meant to fly by planets in the period concerned had to be so aimed that their combined probabilities of hitting and contaminating the planets should remain within the stated limit. Also, spacecraft to land on a planet had to be so designed and treated-by exposure to lethal radiations, chemical cleansing, or heating-that again the combined probabilities of producing contamination for all spacecraft landed during the period should remain within the established limit.
Opinions differed considerably as to how the evolving requirements should be translated into engineering criteria for the construction and processing of spacecraft. The United States tried to facilitate the discussion of [305] this complex subject at COSPAR meetings by describing in detail the processing of its spacecraft. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, consistently refused to give details, saying only that it would decontaminate its spacecraft. This refusal to participate openly generated considerable uneasiness among scientists from the other countries, for proper protection of the planets from contamination could be achieved only by the full cooperation of all. Laxness on the part of only one country could vitiate the efforts of others to preserve this scientific opportunity, which once lost could never be recovered.
The United States spent many millions of dollars developing materials, components, and techniques for producing planetary spacecraft that were as close to sterile as possible. One had to accept on faith that the USSR was doing the same sort of thing. But when it came to the moon, after some initial attempts to develop sterile or nearly sterile spacecraft, a revolt set in. The extremely low probability of finding any lunar life, or of propagating any terrestrial life deposited on the moon, led NASA, vigorously supported by the physicists, to insist that "cleanliness" as opposed to sterility was enough. Although the life scientists objected, this policy prevailed for the moon.
Such were the problems taken up in the various COSPAR working groups, although most problems did not have the drama associated with them that those of the consultative group displayed. Members developed plans for cooperative meteorological programs, solar studies including eclipse expeditions, geodetic observations, and the like. But, as with the International Geophysical Year, it would be the member nations that would carry out the planned programs. Accordingly most actual cooperative projects took place between pairs or small groups of nations.