Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[319] In many ways space science contributed to the realization of important space applications-which may be defined as the use of space knowledge and techniques to attain practical objectives. Indeed, at the start of the program numerous potential applications required much advance research, including some space science, before their development could begin. Moreover, to many persons the development of applications appeared as the ultimate payoff of investments in the space program. Although the scientists would probably not have put it so strongly, nevertheless they could appreciate that point of view. As a consequence space scientists often pointed to potential applications of their work as one of the justifications for giving strong support to science in the space program.
Yet, in pointing to ultimate applications as one of the benefits to expect from their research, the scientists encountered a strange paradox. Although not appreciated for most of the 1960s, it finally became clear that in many respects applications-the "bread-and-butter work" of the space program-found it more difficult to gain support, especially on the executive side of government, than did space science.
Most space applications depend on or are affected in some way by properties of the atmosphere or conditions of space, which are subjects of the investigations of space science. For example, weather forecasting and the prediction of climatic trends depend on a knowledge of atmospheric behavior. The atmosphere is an exceedingly complex mechanism, a heat engine that receives solar heat which it reradiates into space. In the interval between receiving the energy and returning it to space, the atmosphere displays a bewildering variety of phenomena. The energy is converted into mechanical energy of winds and giant circulations that transport the excess energy received at the equator toward the polar regions. Clouds form and dissipate, storms are generated, water is taken up into the atmosphere from oceans, lakes, and rivers and released again in some form of precipitation. Interactions between the atmosphere and the land and oceans account for [320] much of the complexity of weather phenomena. Weather forecasting consists of deducing from current data on the state of the atmosphere, and an imperfect knowledge of how the atmosphere behaves, the state of the atmosphere at a chosen time in the future. To do this requires knowing how long certain circulation patterns may be expected to persist, the ways in which energy exchanges are likely to occur within the atmosphere and between the atmosphere and the land and sea, and how all these are influenced by the continuous input of energy from the sun.
As a consequence meteorology assumes a dual aspect, the practical one of forecasting weather and climate and the scientific aspect of research on the atmosphere. Thus, when meteorological satellites were sent aloft to obtain pictures and other atmospheric data from around the globe-filling in tremendous gaps that had previously existed in weather data-the purpose was both practical and scientific. Because of its importance to both civilian and military needs, the practical aspect naturally stood out, and much progress in this phase of meteorology was achieved during the 1960s.
But exceedingly difficult scientific problems remained. The ground-based studies of decades had not unraveled the complexities of the long-term predictability of large-scale atmospheric circulations, of severe storm phenomena, of the puzzles of tropical meteorology, or of the causes of climatic change. It was hoped-expected-that space science and ground-based research together could move faster than ground-based studies alone.
When in the 1970s detailed study of other planets became possible, atmospheric scientists sought from the planetary atmospheres new insights into the difficult problems of the terrestrial atmosphere with which they were wrestling.1
Navigation satellites have great military and economic importance.2 The principle of operation is quite simple. The artificial satellite substitutes as a reference point for the moon, sun, or stars; but since the satellite can be tracked by radio day or night, in fair weather or cloudy, it is available to the navigator whenever it is above the horizon. As in using the natural celestial bodies, if the navigator knows accurately the position of the artificial satellite, radio sightings of it permit him to locate his position on the earth. But, just as the celestial navigator has a problem with refraction of light by the atmosphere, for which he has to make corrections, so the satellite navigator must worry about refraction of radio signals. For him, the ionosphere produces the major effects, which are large enough to render the navigation system useless were it not possible to make correction. Here is where the ionospheric physicist's knowledge of the spatial and temporal variations of both the normal and disturbed ionosphere are essential. Again, the tie between space science and an important practical application is close.
[321] Sometimes the connection between space science and a particular application was too close for comfort. The use of satellites for geodesy is a case in point.3 For the scientist, more accurate geodetic measurements would provide more information on the size and shape of the earth and could give clues to the distribution of mass in the earth's crust and stresses in the mantle. With a system of sufficient precision, the very slow motions of continents relative to each other could be measured. More accurate mapping of the earth's surface could provide a better basis for plotting important information, like geological data, geographic locations, crops, forests, water resources, and land-use patterns. But the very measurements that made geodesy important to the scientists were also invaluable to the military.
And there was the rub. The military applications, which are fairly obvious, seemed to call for classifying the satellite data and restricting their distribution. This gave rise to controversy between the scientific community and the military (pp. 117-19), in which NASA was caught in the middle, appreciating the needs of the military but wanting to meet the demands of the scientists. The President's Science Advisory Committee and his science adviser were drawn into the debate, as was the Space Science Board. Congressman Karth and the Space Science and Applications Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics took up the cudgels on behalf of the scientists. These various counter-pressures eventually forced an accommodation in which the distribution and use of data obtained in the geodetic programs supported by the military would be controlled by the military, while data obtained in NASA's open space-science program would be made available to the scientific community.
Just as intimate was the relation of science to the use of satellites for surveying and monitoring earth's resources. Here the geophysicist's study of the earth from space would furnish much of the basis for putting satellite observations of forests; agriculture, glaciers, oceans, geological formations, and mankind's use of land for cities, roads, farming, water storage, etc., to practical use.4 The scientist's knowledge and the user's need would be brought together in a system that would convert satellite data into information required by the forest manager, the civil engineer, the irrigation planner, or the crop expert.
These close relationships between space science and applications led Administrator Webb to speak often to the author and others of the value of having the two together in a single Office of Space Science and Applications. In many ways this association was a good one, from which both programs benefited.
Such, too, were the reasons why the Space Science Board took a strong interest in space applications from the start. It often criticized NASA for [322] doing too little scientific research to support the development and use of applications systems.5 The criticism was especially strong in connection with the earth-resources survey program, a new field opened by the availability of observational satellites.6 Because of its newness the field was highly scientific in character at the start, and there was concern in NASA that attempts to press these applications too rapidly before an adequate scientific basis had been laid, might prove abortive and seriously damage the ultimate prospects of what appeared to be a most promising area for practical returns. The Space Science Board's interest in space applications and the importance of space science for supporting those applications persisted. When the Academy of Engineering finally set up a Space Applications Board-an analog to the Academy of Sciences Space Science Board-in 1973,7 the SSB immediately took steps to arrange for an exchange of liaison representation between the two boards.
Although in general experimenters personally were concerned only with the fundamental science they were doing, many scientists were genuinely interested in practical applications of their work. The members of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel derived considerable satisfaction from the fact that properties of the atmosphere obtained from sounding rocket measurements contributed to the refinement and extension of the International Standard Atmosphere of the International Civil Aviation Organization,8 used in designing aircraft and calibrating aeronautical instruments. It was also regarded as something of a triumph when ionospheric experimenters learned that their data on the properties and temporal variations of the ionosphere were proving useful to radio operators in scheduling and conducting short-wave, long-distance radio communications.
But, aside from personal interests, the possibility of deriving important applications was used to justify many parts of the space program, including space science. Potential military uses accounted for the numerous studies on the launching and use of artificial satellites conducted by the various services during the 1940s and 1950s9 and for the military support of the sounding rocket program of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel. Panel members became quite adept over the years at pointing out practical returns the services might derive from their investment in high-altitude rocket research (pp. 41-42). Equally adept were members of the Space Science Board and other scientific committees advising NASA. The agency's science program managers devoted much time to providing Congress with examples of how space science results had produced or might produce practical benefits.10
In this attempt to relate science to ultimate practical returns, scientists were heeding what was considered an obvious lesson of history. The power of the products of science and technology in prosecuting World War II [323] was apparent. Following the war Congress was disposed to listen to the scientists and to give strong support to scientific research.* Scientific leaders took the opportunity to explain the nature and importance of science.11 Paradoxically, the support for science was more assured than was support for many specific applications that scientists continued to invoke as justification for their own researches.12
For the first decade of NASA's existence those in the space science program had a rather straightforward view of how space applications fit into the picture-and, for that matter, so did those managing the applications program. In the belief that an attractive idea for the practical use of some space technology would sell itself, the scientists were accustomed to presenting in broad outline possible applications that might come from their research, and let it go at that.13 But while space scientists were pointing to the support that they could give to applications as one justification of their own research, those in the applications program were experiencing strange difficulties selling their wares, especially in the latter half of the 1960s. Indeed, it often seemed that space science was easier to sell for its own sake than space applications were for their practical worth.
It took many years for this paradox to be appreciated, even though indications of the fundamental problems faced by those seeking support for applications programs had appeared in NASA's first few years when meteorological and communications satellites were being developed. The Advanced Research Projects Agency had begun the work on meteorological satellites. Once NASA was operating, the work was transferred to the new agency, primarily because of potential civilian benefits and because of the long-standing tradition of the government's providing weather services to the public through a civilian agency, the U.S. Weather Bureau of the Department of Commerce.
Among NASA's earliest successes was Tiros-Television Infrared Observational Satellite-which formed the basis for the country's first operational weather satellite system.14 Tiros satellites were successful not merely because they worked technically, but equally because the Weather Bureau-later the Environmental Science Services Administration-could afford them.
[324] Not so with Nimbus, the proposed successor to Tiros, Nimbus was a large, observatory-class satellite intended to provide a wide range of meteorological data, worldwide, day and night. The military, the Weather Bureau, and NASA had agreed on Nimbus as the next logical step beyond the more primitive Tiros satellites. NASA managers were shocked, therefore, when the Department of Commerce suddenly withdrew its support from Nimbus, precipitating a crisis of confidence in NASA in its congressional committees. But to Commerce the problem was simple. The projected price tag of $40 million or more per satellite was far beyond what even future meteorology budgets would be able to accommodate. Of more immediate concern, schedules were slipping and cost overruns would exceed available funds. Then, too, there was the question of how soon NASA would release control of Nimbus satellites to the Weather Bureau, a matter of prime concern if Nimbus were to be a part of an operational weather service.
Following rejection of Nimbus by the Department of Commerce, NASA agreed to upgrade Tiros satellites in a series of steps to improve observational capabilities while keeping costs down. Nimbus would be retained, with NASA paying the costs, as a research platform for testing new instruments and for trying new operational procedures. The success of Nimbus, and the operational use made of Nimbus data by the Department of Commerce, attested to the technical soundness of the satellite. It was, however, not economically viable; at any rate, it was not acceptable to the principal intended user.
Although vexing to NASA managers who had considered Nimbus a particularly fine example of a valuable space application, the Nimbus case was relatively uncomplicated. More complex was the range of difficulties encountered in developing a communications satellite system.15 Whereas It had become traditional for the government to supply weather data to the public, industry provided most communications services-for a fee. The profit motive was a prime consideration and vested interests abounded. These complications were enhanced by international desires to share in the profits as well as in the technological benefits. The issue of how best to proceed was further beclouded by the military need for reliable and secure communications at its command. Congress, which consistently pressed heavily on NASA to push space applications, was torn between the desire to bring the benefits of satellite communications quickly to the country and its conviction that industry, if it was going to make a profit from providing satellite communications services, should bear its share of the development costs.
How the administration and Congress resolved these issues goes well beyond the subject of this book. But it is important to note that there was clearly going to be more to bringing a space application into being than [325] simply demonstrating its technological feasibility. For applications, the harsh realities of the market place had a controlling influence.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the field of earth-resource surveys. Here vested interests were to be encountered at every turn. Also, in many cases the new satellite approach came immediately into competition with previously established ways of operating. Land-use surveys had been made with the aid of aerial photography, and a small industry had grown up around this technique. Estimates of grain production were compiled from aerial photos and thousands of individual reports made by farmers to county agents. Although NASA was convinced that satellite photography would be not only more effective for many uses, but also far more economical than traditional ground and aircraft surveys, many disagreed, even to the extent of wanting to discourage research to test the point. A particularly vigorous stand was taken by those who favored the use of aircraft. Even when numerous technical studies by NASA contractors began to show that the satellite approach would be quicker, more economical, and as accurate, the agency's troubles were not over.
Many of these questions were being debated during the Nixon administration, which regarded inflation as the major problem to solve. In this climate the administration was not inclined to encourage investment in expensive new systems-even if they were better-when the old systems were adequate. Moreover, there was concern that the old ways would not be supplanted, but merely supplemented by the new, piling additional costs upon the old for gains that were not essential, valuable though they might be. A member of the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the White House shocked NASA managers into a realization of how serious these questions were considered to be by conjecturing that, if the meteorological satellite program had still lain entirely ahead, it might not have been possible in the Nixon era to get approval for proceeding. The administration managers were dead serious about this, even in the face of the eminent success and value of the existing Tiros program.
A little later, when the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis weighed heavily on the nation, NASA managers fully expected to be called on for extensive research and development on problems related to the emergency, and were prepared to forgo some of their space research to help. But, while NASA had developed an image of success and great technological capability in connection with its Apollo and other programs, there was great doubt as to how well the agency could cope with the practical problems the nation then faced.
In Apollo, it was pointed out, NASA had enjoyed a green light all the way. NASA was both the developer and user of its hardware and systems. To a large extent the agency set its own technological and operational objectives, and established its own criteria for success. In the commercial, [326] social, and political world, matters would be different. NASA might develop elegant systems for energy, transportation, health care, or what have you; but NASA would not be the ultimate user of these systems, and hence not the judge of whether they were acceptable. It would not be enough to establish the technical feasibility of an idea. There would still remain the necessity to match it to the way the user chose to carry on his business, and to make it economical. In the Office of Management and Budget there was serious doubt as to whether NASA could adapt to these realities, a doubt that was fostered by John Young, the division chief who handled various technical budgets, including NASA's. For many years Young had been a key figure on the administrative side of the NASA organization. The familiarity he had acquired of NASA's methods, plus numerous scars from vigorous encounters with Administrator Webb, had left Young with the conviction that NASA did not understand the very difficult problems in pushing applications from the laboratory to the market.16 He felt strongly that NASA was not the agency to put to work extensively on the nation's energy and resource problems, in spite of the widely prevailing, opposite view in Congress and elsewhere. Young expressed these views in no uncertain terms to the author during extended discussions between the Office of Management and Budget and NASA on the subject. It is not at all clear that Young and OMB were right in their assessment of NASA, but probably largely because of their opinions NASA was called on at the time for only a limited amount of help. Instead the agency was encouraged to pursue its work in space and aeronautics.
It is not within the scope of this book to probe into the problems faced by those responsible for developing space applications. Such matters are very complex and require a careful analysis to set them in their proper perspective. The subject does, however, bring out how the simplistic view of the scientists-both inside and outside of NASA-as to how their researches might lead to practical uses was extremely naive. For all the trouble scientists took to justify their work in terms of practical benefits, it can be seen in retrospect that, as far as science was concerned, Congress was prepared to take the long view. How else can one explain the sizable budgets approved for astronomical satellites, relativity studies, interplanetary investigations, and lunar and planetary exploration, the ultimate practical benefits of which surely had to lie in the very dim future? If the space scientists had appreciated the strength of their position, they might have felt more secure in letting space science, with its long-term implications, speak for itself.

* The salesmanship of the scientific community seems to have been successful, and a deep-seated conviction was established in Congress that a certain amount of scientific research- including pure science- was vital to the nation's interest. This conviction appears to have persisted even in the years following the Korean Was when support to science began to decline and legislators refused to give the scientists all they wanted. The key point is that Congress was unwilling to let the size of the science budget in the U.S. increase indefinitely year after year, or to rise above some "reasonable" level. For some reason, the acceptable level appeared to be about 10 percent of the total U.S. budget for research and development, with the other 90 percent going to work on military and other practical systems.