Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[376] In the first years after Sputnik, when the space program objectives were clear-or at least thought to be clear-planning was relatively straightforward. Administrator Glennan had a small planning group in headquarters under Homer J. Stewart, who earlier had chaired the Defense Department committee that had chosen the Navy's Vanguard for the International Geophysical Year satellite program. In December 1959 Glennan's planning group turned out a secret document entitled "NASA Long Range Plan," a confidential version of which was called the "NASA Ten Year Plan." 3 These early documents were directed more at estimating what advancing technology might permit in the distant future-a decade or more away-than at establishing a true plan. To create a valid plan in the usual sense, a firmer tie would have to be made with the current program and its prospective evolution into the immediate future.
Like most such products of centralized planning, these documents aroused the criticism of the program divisions and the centers, which felt that the projections did not do justice to their own recommendations. But the papers served to focus the attention of the agency on what was being thought about at the top, and central planning continued, later with the [377] aid of John Hagen, radio astronomer who had directed Vanguard at the Naval Research Laboratory, and Abraham Hyatt, pioneering propulsion engineer.
Space science documents described in chapter 8 provided one source of material for the central plan.4 But scientists were by nature opposed to long-range plans. Many felt that NASA's planning did violence to the way in which scientists worked. It was repeatedly pointed out that what might now be considered a very important project for 10 years later could lose its importance in the light of discoveries made in the interim. NASA managers found it difficult to get scientists to think seriously about scientific plans on the scale of 10 or more years ahead.
Instead, the scientists preferred to indicate broad areas of research that were likely to be important in distant years and to identify specific projects only for the immediate future. To accommodate the need of the agency for long-range planning while not pressing the scientists to be more specific in the long term than they felt they could legitimately be, space science planners evolved a style that differed from that in other areas in the agency. Instead of labeling their documents as specific long-range plans, they began to use such phrases as long-range planning or long-range thinking in titling the papers.5 By the fall of 1960 the space science office had settled into a routine of periodically issuing documents with titles suggesting a planning process rather than a firm plan.6 In September 1962, the author addressed a memorandum to the Space Sciences Steering Committee, its subcommittees, and space science division directors describing the long-range and short-range planning process to be followed for space science and specifying procedures for keeping the planning timely.7 An important tool of this planning process was the "Space Science Prospectus," which was updated at least once a year.8
Described as a source document for space science planners, the prospectus contained a large number of possible projects or scientific investigations that appeared sufficiently important to consider including in the program. The prospectus, however, contained many more projects than could be undertaken with the expected budgets. Nevertheless, to make the prospectus much more than just a list of potentially desirable projects-a mere "wish list" as some put it-the projects set forth in the prospectus were studied and analyzed to determine costs, manpower, schedules, launch vehicles, facilities, and supporting services that would be needed to carry them out.
Each year when the budget was prepared the prospectus was drawn upon for projects to put into the budget request. In the process, projects most likely to be candidates for the next year's budget were also identified. In this way the prospectus, while not a plan, became an important element in the space science planning process. Moreover, it furnished a mechanism for the scientists to engage in the long-range thinking of the agency [378] without doing too much violence to their natural reluctance to specify too far ahead.
NASA Administrator James Webb did not object to the Office of Space Science and Applications' use of the prospectus. But he was not in favor of publishing long-range plans, in spite of constant congressional pressure to get them. Webb preferred to reveal the agency's course year by year in the annual budget proposals. As he stated it, in putting out the current year's proposals one gears up to do battle for them. In the defense of the budget one has the immediate assistance of those ready to support the program. But publishing a plan that goes much beyond the current year invites adversaries to shoot the agency down at their leisure. Friends and supporters aren't prepared to come forward to defend the agency in what must for the moment seem largely an academic exercise. Meantime, enemies will seize upon different aspects of the plan-often out of context-to challenge and embarrass the agency.
Not being a true plan, the space science prospectus did not afford detractors the kind of leverage that a fixed plan would have. As a consequence Webb permitted the document to be updated and issued each year, although he periodically called attention to the dangers of being too specific too early.
When the author became associate administrator, the various program; offices had become accustomed to developing their own plans without too much consideration of the planning of the other offices. Webb asked that an agency-wide planning activity be developed. Working with the Planning Steering Group created for the purpose, the author intended to create a NASA prospectus much along the model of that used in space sciences. It was estimated that perhaps as much as five years would be required to do this; but before getting beyond the initial stages administrations changed, and the Republicans called for a specific space plan. Moreover, Thomas Paine, who took over from Webb, favored publishing specific plans and was willing to stand up and fight to defend them. Paine's view was that leaving options open for the future was simply an indication of not having thought through those options. Under Paine, and later under the fourth administrator, James C. Fletcher, NASA began again to develop and publish long-range plans for the agency and to use them in preparing short-range plans and budget proposals. Paine's plans turned out to be too sweeping and expensive to receive administration support, while Fletcher's more modest, almost constant-dollar-level plans did gain Nixon's backing and helped to launch NASA on the Space Shuttle development program.