Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

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Ovid, Metamorphoses

[393] Viewing events in retrospect one cannot but be impressed with the seeming inexorability of human progress toward spaceflight, particularly in the 20th century. There is a temptation to claim that once Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Berth, Von Braun, and their followers took aim at outer space, the large rocket and spaceflight were inevitable. Certainly by the time Sputnik 1 went into orbit, a substantial groundwork had been laid by a large number of pioneers working assiduously through many decades.
But the character of the space program that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s was not so predictable. Many, if not most, of the early workers were primarily interested in interplanetary travel and high-altitude research, but for the most part had to rely on the military for support. In providing support the services naturally were considering the potential military uses of space, and indeed the first major rocket to go into operation was a weapon, the V-2. Because of the importance of atmospheric and ionospheric data for applications of radio and radar, and in the design, construction, and operation of various military systems, the services supported a considerable amount of high-altitude rocket research during the 1940s and 1950s. In the normal course of events one could thus visualize a U.S. space program, including space science, as evolving over the years, emerging quietly as a part of military research and development. Under such circumstances the ability of space scientists to devote their research primarily to the most important scientific problems would have been hampered by the requirement to contribute in a demonstrable way to more immediate military needs. In addition as the experiences of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel during the 1940s and 1950s showed, there would have been [394] the constant threat of being pulled under the cloak of military secrecy-a restriction fundamentally incompatible with the scientific process.
Such limitations on the U.S. space program were avoided when the administration and Congress, reacting to the Sputnik challenge, decided that in the best interests of the country most of the space program should be conducted openly under civilian auspices. Moreover the vagueness and grand sweep of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 gave the NASA administrator a great deal of flexibility in specifying the content of the NASA program. As one consequence, under NASA management the space science program became very much a creature of the nation's interested scientists.
When the Soviet Union surprised the world by launching the first artificial satellite into orbit, the shocked reaction of the United States tended to distort the country's perception of what was happening. The weight of Sputnik 2 and 3 showed how advanced the USSR was in rocket payload capability, and it was easy to focus on this factor while underestimating the importance of the work that the United States had already done in the field. Looking back, it is now clear that America, while lagging in rocket propulsion, was more than competitive in communications, tracking, and telemetry, in guidance and control, and in sounding rocket research. Taking all factors into consideration the imbalance was not so great as had been imagined. Proceeding from its substantial state of readiness the United States built an enviable record of success in space over the next dozen years, culminating with the Apollo missions to the moon.
Space science contributed its share to the overall success. Indeed, for most of the 1960s applications and science missions provided most of the return on the nation's investment in space, and it was not until the Apollo lunar flights that the manned spaceflight program began to generate the prodigious quantities of data that continued to flow from it during the first half of the 1970s.
One can use several criteria in assessing the success or failure of the space science program. The simplest is whether the program achieved what its planners set out to do. By this criterion the space science program must be adjudged successful. In every area-earth and planetary sciences, solar physics, stellar astronomy and cosmology, and to a smaller extent biology-substantial progress was made, bringing a number of important discoveries. Successful unmanned scientific spacecraft missions were legion, including thousands of sounding rockets; dozens of Explorer satellites; solar, geophysical, and astronomical observatories; Pioneer space probes; Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor spacecraft to the moon; and Mariners to Mars and Venus. Sharing in some of these successes were many other countries, taking part in a quite extensive international cooperative program.
A more substantive criterion of success is whether what was achieved was worthwhile. This is more difficult to judge, but that hundreds of first-[395] rate scientists chose to devote their personal careers, or a substantial part of them, to space science is evidence of the program's success. The numbers of scientists working in the field and the voices of scientists raised in strong support of important projects and equally strong protest against proposed cuts had to be important considerations to the administration and Congress in deciding the extent of support to accord to space science.
Success in the space science program was not bought without some failures. Indeed, for the first two years failures seemed at times to eclipse successes, although before the end of the 1960s the success rate had risen well into the 90 percent range. Both failures and successes had their lessons to convey, and there was much to be learned by participants in the space science program, not only of a scientific nature but also concerning organization and management, and the perplexities of human relations.