Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[395] A great many of NASA's working hours were taken up in problems of management. Patient attention to detail was required to make the agency's complex projects succeed. The space team did a good job, evoking worldwide praise for NASA. But it must be remembered that the team was more than a single agency, consisting as it did of thousands of engineers, technicians, laborers, scientists, and administrators from government, industry, universities, the military, and even other countries. Furthermore, accomplishments were much more labored than one might suppose from a distance. The picture of a well-oiled machine purring along without a clank or a clatter is inappropriate. The space program endured the same kinds of personnel problems, development snags, labor disputes, schedules missed cost overruns, failures and temporary setbacks, and management mistakes that were the experience of the military and industry in the large weapon projects that might be pointed to as the closest analog to what NASA was trying to accomplish.
That NASA had to struggle through the same difficulties that beset other large-scale programs in no way diminished the luster of space achievements. On the contrary, to meet and overcome such difficulties was the nature of the task. NASA was eclectic in its approach, borrowing management ideas from various sources, especially the military. The agency was willing to experiment, to pioneer in the use of new management techniques in government-industry relations, incentive contracting, project planning, technical and cost reporting, management reviews, and quality assessment and control. By remaining flexible, reorganizing several times in the course of a decade, it was possible to accommodate changing needs of the program.
The management style of the agency reflected those of the several administrators who stood at the NASA helm through the 1960s. The first administrator, T. Keith Glean, came to NASA with a controlled enthusiasm [396] for space that served to prevent any explosive growth through over-reaction to Sputnik. Glenn's measured pace elicited a steady pressure from numerous quarters to move faster, particularly to get on to the planets, which in the minds of many scientists were taking on new importance with the possibility of investigating them at close range. In retrospect the situation seems to have been ideal, with a positive leadership setting forth on a substantive program, and a strong followership ready to go along and even to move faster and farther given the opportunity to do so. In this climate Glean was able to set the agency upon the course that it followed for many years afterward.
In February 1961, James E. Webb became the second administrator of NASA. The approval by President Kennedy and the Congress of the Apollo project gave Webb the opportunity to step up the pace of the space program. All aspects of space science were expanded. A primary concern of Webb, which characterized his style of management, was to maintain the independence of action of the agency. While working to build up the program, he was also careful to avoid becoming the captive of any group in industry, the administration, or the Congress.
Under Webb's vigorous leadership the agency's followership grew steadily and, by keeping a balanced program even under high-level pressure, to concentrate more on the Apollo mission at the expense of other parts of the program, the administrator maintained a broad base of support. Then tragedy struck, a fire in the Apollo capsule killing three astronauts-three of the nation's heroes. Had it not been for the race with the Soviet Union and the severe blow to U.S. prestige in the world that a failure to follow through on the Apollo commitment would have entailed, the lunar venture might well have ended at that point. As it was it took many agonizing months and Webb's considerable administrative and political skill to redress the situation, to pick up the pieces and move on again toward the lunar landing still years away. But from that point on support for the agency was permanently weakened, more tentative, more questioning. So, when the muddy planning for an Apollo Applications program to follow the manned lunar missions looked to outsiders more like an attempt on NASA's part merely to keep the Saturn and Apollo teams in business rather than to serve any genuine need, the necessary support could not be developed. While resistance was general, it was especially strong among the scientists, who protested that as far as science was concerned, the prodigious sums being asked for Apollo Applications could better be spent on any of a large number of important, unmanned scientific investigations.
In this climate NASA leadership faltered. Finding in his contacts with the administration, the legislators, and industry no strong support for large new initiatives in space, Webb shied away from making any specific proposals. He chose rather to encourage the nation to debate what the country's future in space should be, hoping that the agency could get some [397] guidance from such a debate. But the country did not move to fill the leadership vacuum left by NASA, and no great debate took place. It was left squarely up to NASA to recapture the leadership it had temporarily relinquished.
In contrast to his predecessor the third administrator, Thomas O. Paine, was eager to strike out on bold new paths, optimistic that he could generate the necessary support. Paine made the courageous decision to proceed with the Apollo 8 flight in December 1968, at a time when there were growing concerns and doubts about the ability of Apollo to accomplish its objectives and much fear that a serious failure in an early lunar mission might lead to a strong reaction against continuing the project. The outstanding success of Apollo 8 completely altered the mental climate for a while and set Apollo firmly on its final course to success. But, later, when Paine campaigned unrelentingly in the Nixon administration for a large-scale space program costing $8 billion or more a year, including shuttles, space stations, and manned spaceflight to the planets, he found himself completely out of tune with the conservative, budget-conscious mood of the time. In the face of distressing societal problems that impinged on the daily life and the pocketbook of the average citizen, the country was not in a mood to "swash buckle," as Paine had put it. Much of NASA's followership again shied away.
The fourth administrator, James C. Fletcher, who took over on 27 April 1971, recaptured the NASA followership with a policy of moderation and cost consciousness. An effort was made to project an image of applying space knowledge and capabilities to problems of concern to the man on the ground, and to do it economically. The Space Shuttle was sold largely on the basis that it would make it possible to use space more effectively and at far less cost than with conventional launch vehicles and space hardware. Fletcher's style was more like that of Glean; his willingness to proceed at a measured pace, as Glean had sought to do, made his approach acceptable. The image of conservatism and public responsibility that he projected made it possible for Fletcher to discuss publicly future exciting adventures that had appealed to Paine, like sending men to the planets or building space outposts in orbit or on the moon.
Under each of its administrators NASA had, of course, to engage in the usual activities of management. These included-in the jargon of the government manager-planning, programming, budgeting, and execution. Space science managers could no more escape these necessities than could any others, but differences of approach were worthy of note.
It is customary for a large-scale operation to maintain a series of plans for the activity-short term, intermediate, and long range. In theory the short-term plans are those largely in effect or being carried out, the intermediate plans those that are to be used in formulating the next budget proposals, while the long-range plans serve as a guide into the more [398] distant future. Properly worked out plans should include not only the objectives to achieve, but also suitable estimates of specific projects, their feasibility and promising approaches, funding, manpower, and facility requirements, schedules, an appraisal of the availability of suitable contractors, and some thought about organizational and management setups. Shorter-term plans would, of course, furnish such detail in greater depth than would long-range plans, which for the quite distant future might become rather general in treatment.
When NASA began operations, Administrator Glean required the agency to maintain both short-term and long-range plans. As did the other offices, the space science division contributed to those plans. The second administrator, James E. Webb, however, while requiring adequate planning on the part of the agency, did not favor publishing specific plans. His concern was that the issuance of specific plans for the more distant future would call forth attacks from NASA's opponents when neither the agency nor its supporters were prepared to engage in a suitable defense of the plans. Webb preferred to publish specific plans as he requested the next year's budget, at which point the agency wits prepared to put forth a strong defense of its proposals. Webb's approach placed upon the different offices in the agency the responsibility to maintain an adequate planning activity while refraining from publishing specific long-range plans.
While there was something to gain in not revealing NASA's intentions too early, there were also disadvantages. Potential participants in the program needed to know what was in prospect, so that they might plan and make proposals to NASA. In space science, especially, managers felt the need to inform individual scientists of the opportunities that lay ahead so that they might plan and work on experiments that often took years of advance preparation. Similarly there was a need to keep industry informed of the kinds of spacecraft and instrumentation contractors might be called on to provide. To meet the need for advance information on likely future space science projects while at the same time not committing themselves to specific future plans, space science managers devised what they called a space science prospectus.
The prospectus differed from an actual plan in that for each area or discipline the prospectus listed a variety of possible choices for future programs and projects. The choices were studied and analyzed in sufficient depth to ensure that they were feasible and to afford a suitable estimate of funding, manpower, and other requirements. In theory, the prospectus provided NASA people, industry, and outside scientists useful information about what NASA had in mind for the future without drawing the fire of critics that a firm plan might occasion. The prospectus did prove to be a useful planning device, and in the last two years of Webb's administration the author and some of his colleagues worked on such a prospectus for the whole agency. For a variety of reasons this effort did not succeed, the most [399] important of which probably was that Thomas Paine, who became administrator after Webb left, strongly favored specific plans and was willing to battle for it bold, long-range program for the agency.
In the jargon of government workers, programming is the process of putting together individual elements of it plan into a properly integrated program for an office or the agency to undertake. Then budgeting is figuring out the funds and other resources according to time required to carry out the proposed program. For space science managers, one aspect of planning and programming differed from the approach of other offices in NASA. That was the conscious effort to make the space program the creature of the nation's scientific community.
To achieve this end it was necessary to bring large numbers of outside scientists into the planning in some way that made their input effective, while NASA still made the required decisions. There was a narrow path to tread here, for the scientists would gladly have wielded the authority while leaving to NASA the responsibility for the actions taken. NASA managers took the approach of including the thinking of a series of advisory committees in their planning and programming. It was not an easy process to sustain, since advisers could never hope to be as fully informed of all the issues as NASA employees working full-time on the job. Moreover, at times other than scientific issues forced decisions that were unpalatable. In making such decisions NASA managers could not always get the help they needed from the scientific community, since scientists were reluctant to set priorities between different disciplines. Hence, when budget restrictions required a choice between projects in differing disciplines the onus landed on NASA people. Not until the end of the 1960s did outside scientists finally face up squarely to the problem of giving NASA specific advice on setting priorities among various disciplines, as well as within a specific one.
Nevertheless, except for this one lack, the scientific community supplied NASA with much advice on space science programs and projects, to the extent that the NASA space science program could genuinely be described as a program of the scientists. Supporting this program NASA was able to obtain sizable budgets, particularly during the first half of the 1960s. At the peak of support for NASA in the middle of the decade, space science was enjoying the lion's share of a science and applications budget that approached $1 billion a year and, although funding declined sharply toward the end of the decade, space science continued to command resources in the neighborhood of 1500 million annually.
As for execution, the space science program relied on NASA centers, industry, and the universities. For most of the 1960s the Office of Space Science and Applications was assigned the responsibility for the Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Wallops Station. Most of the internal support for space science was obtained from these centers, [400] but every other NASA center also provided support to the science program. In general, relations between NASA Headquarters and the centers were effective, but at times, particularly in the early years, there were severe strains. Illustrating these were difficulties with the Goddard Space Flight Center and with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The problems were similar, arising from conflict between the center's desire for autonomy and headquarters' responsibility to represent the agency to the administration and the Congress. But the circumstances were different in that Goddard was a Civil Service center while JPL was a contractor to NASA. In both cases accommodation on both sides was required to overcome the difficulties. With Goddard, headquarters had to take care to keep to its own job of program management, leaving the center free to handle the management of projects assigned to it. As for JPL, the laboratory had to recognize its responsibility as a NASA contractor to follow NASA direction, while NASA had to leave JPL sufficient leeway to exercise its own judgment with regard to basic research.
While the space science and manned spaceflight programs supported each other-the former furnishing advance information on the moon for the design of hardware and planning of mission operations, the latter eventually providing the most powerful method of investigating the moon-nevertheless there were serious strains for a variety of reasons. Many scientists were unconvinced of the worth of the manned spaceflight program in general or of the lunar landing project in particular. To these persons it seemed clear that a much greater return in scientific data could be had, sooner, in an unmanned program of far smaller cost. Leading members of the scientific establishment stated unequivocally that the real substance of the space program lay in science and applications. Accordingly it rankled that top priority and huge funds were accorded the Apollo project, whose principal missions were the better part of a decade away, while valuable scientific projects that one knew how to do and that would yield important data quickly had to wait for later funding. The distress increased when Apollo needs threatened ongoing projects, as happened from time to time.
A subtle complication arose when the agency urged scientists to put experiments in Gemini and Apollo flights, but then did not accord the experiments the kind of support or level of priority the investigators felt they deserved. One can appreciate the views of the Apollo managers, since they were attempting to achieve something never done before, something very difficult, very hazardous, and also important to the country's image in the world. Nevertheless there were many who felt that the Apollo engineers indulged in overkill, thereby precluding a great deal of valuable science that might otherwise have been done. Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, provided an extreme example in this respect, For many years Shoemaker worked intimately on the Apollo project, [401] helping to train astronauts and to prepare for scientific investigations during the Apollo landings on the moon. Yet after the first successful landing he left in disgust to spend more than a year excoriating NASA for shortsightedness with regard to Apollo science.
The strains between space scientists and the Apollo people were exacerbated by the fact that Apollo was principally an engineering project. Engineers and scientists differ fundamentally in their outlook and approach to their jobs. To engineers, trained in highly disciplined teamwork, the independence and individualism of the successful scientist looks like anarchy. To overcome these basic differences requires conscious and continuing attention from management. In the Office of Space Science and Applications an organizational device was used for many years to try to alleviate this problem. Instead of gathering the scientists into a single research group and the engineers into a separate service group, which is a traditional arrangement, engineers and scientists were intimately mixed in a number of smaller units. As head of the office, the author, himself a scientist, chose an engineer as his deputy. In the division for geophysics and astronomy, initially a scientist was in charge, with an engineer as deputy. Later when the scientist was promoted, the engineer became the head and chose a scientist as deputy. Scientists and engineers were paired at all levels throughout the organization. The arrangement sometimes evoked the criticism that it generated a collection of little "baronies" in the office, yet the organization appeared to promote its intended objective. Engineers and scientists came to appreciate each other's problems and to share enthusiasm for each other's triumphs. Several times in the course of the decade space science management considered the possibility of returning to the more traditional arrangement, only to reaffirm the original choice.
The effort to solve the problems that the Office of Space Science and Applications and the Office of Manned Space Flight had in working together by setting up a special Manned Space Science Division was less successful. For one thing, the problems were more severe. Manned Space Flight had the priority, and even was assigned, the funds for the manned space science for which the Office of Space Science and Applications was given the responsibility. Thus two fundamental management errors stood in the way. The Manned Space Science Division had two bosses to try to satisfy, which is universally recognized as unsatisfactory. Second, the Office of Manned Space Flight had the money for (hence in practice control of) manned space science. As a consequence the Office of Space Science and Applications long felt frustrated in putting together the kind of manned space science program the scientific community desired. Not until the initial lunar landing had taken place and the primary remaining motive for any further Apollo missions was science-to explore and investigate the moon-did these problems begin to resolve themselves. At that point lunar [402] scientists, in a tremendous surge of interest, working for the most part directly with the Johnson Space Center, generated the kind of science program they had long sought.
In the course of the space science program NASA managers relearned a number of management lessons others had learned before, such as not assigning two bosses to the same group and not assigning the money for one program to the control of another office. It ought almost to be axiomatic that objectives should be clear and reasonable, yet with the Centaur program NASA put itself through a period of considerable strain by trying to make the as-yet- undeveloped rocket stage satisfy at least four different sets of requirements. Only when the development was directed toward a single set of requirements, those of the Surveyor lunar spacecraft, did Centaur move smoothly toward its first successful flights. Once developed, Centaur was uprated to satisfy additional requirements.
Again, it should be clear that attempting too big a step in a new development is unwise. While the intended objectives may ultimately be achieved, the cost of overreaching can be too great. This point was illustrated by the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory in which snags were encountered in developing the guidance and control system that took inordinate amounts of time and money to solve. Moreover, the seven-year-long development time for the observatory adversely affected experimenters who had to mark time with their experimental programs while the spacecraft was being developed. In this connection it should be noted that a number of scientists had advised NASA to fly a less complicated observatory first.
To avoid such harmful over extension and costly overruns, NASA management introduced the device of phased project planning. While its use was rather fuzzy in NASA, nevertheless the policy of requiring a careful review and assessment of the size and appropriateness of steps to be taken in NASA projects was beneficial.