Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[402] Thousands of individuals and institutions were required to carry out the space program. NASA's relations with these took on many forms, some of them simple and uncomplicated, some very complex. All were important management concerns.
Basic to maintaining the necessary political support for the program were the often delicate and subtle relations with the administration and the Congress, neither of which has been dealt with in any depth in this book. As for space science, on the legislative side the program had both the strong support and continuing criticism of the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Astronauts, with more general support and somewhat less penetrating criticism from the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Within the [403] administration, primary attention came from the president's science adviser and the President's Science Advisory Committee, especially from the Space Science and Technology Panel of PSAC. Although a number of the PSAC members had devoted considerable time and effort helping to establish NASA with a strong scientific flavor, they did not choose to devote their own personal careers to space research. The science panel did, however, keep a watchful eye on the agency, especially for the first few years. Although the Science Advisory Committee and its panel had no direct authority over NASA, their position in the White House gave considerable weight to their views, and at times they served as effective safety valves for the scientific community when space scientists felt that their needs were not receiving the proper attention. The letter to Kistiakowsky from Lloyd Berkner, chairman of the Space Science Board, in November 1959 expressing concern that NASA might neglect ground-based scientific research related to space in favor of only flight experiments, and also might not publish scientific results in the open literature, illustrates the point. As a second example, astronomers sought similar help from the space science panel when they were dissatisfied with how work on an orbiting astronomical satellite was progressing. In both cases the science adviser and the panel used their good offices with NASA to help clear the air. More substantive was one science adviser's assistance in breaking the deadlock over classification that threatened to damage a long-planned program of international cooperation in geodesy.
After the first few years the science panel was more or less quiescent until widespread dissatisfaction over NASA's planning of the Apollo Applications program stirred the panel to renewed activity. Its concern and recommendations did much to help steer the thinking on Apollo Applications out of its preoccupation with merely keeping Saturn and Apollo alive toward the more acceptable Skylab program.
Also not treated in depth in this narrative were NASA's vital relationships with other government agencies. A particularly intimate partnership with the Department of Defense and the military services was essential. Indeed, mutual assistance between the two agencies was required in the NASA Act. But in other areas not specifically addressed in the NASA legislation, NASA also needed to work closely with sister government agencies. The use of satellites for monitoring the weather, of major importance to the Weather Bureau of the Department of Commerce, was one example. Others were the use of satellites for making a worldwide geological survey and for monitoring changing land use patterns, both of concern to the Department of the Interior. It soon became apparent that satellites could be of assistance in surveying and monitoring agricultural crops, forests, and grazing lands, bringing NASA and the Department of Agriculture together. In similar fashion the potential contributions of satellites to communications, air and marine navigation, and air traffic control invited still [404] other associations between NASA and the rest of the government establishment. Associations with private activities were legion, its industry designed, built, and operated most of the hardware that made space science, space applications, and space exploration possible.
NASA's relationship with the National Academy of Sciences, through the Space Science Board especially, was inherited from the International Geophysical Year along with the IGY sounding rocket and satellite programs that gave the agency its headstart in science. As the nation's most prestigious scientific body, the academy's advice carried extra weight and its support to the space program special significance. While there were rough spots in the association, on the whole the relationship was intimate and productive, and through the years Space Science Board recommendations, including those from a long list of special summer studies, weighed heavily in NASA's planning and programming.
But NASA soon learned that the scientific community was not monolithic, and that often important groups of researchers took exception to specific recommendations of the academy. Thus, while still placing high value on advice from the Space Science Board, NASA managers came to feel the need for a closer association with a broad segment of the scientific community. To this end the agency made use of a series of advisory groups, which throughout the 1960s proved to be a powerful means of involving outside scientists intimately in the planning and conduct of the space science program. At times more than 200 of the leading workers in space science were on NASA committees and working groups. Also, by periodically replacing A portion of these advisers with new recruits, NASA was able to keep infusing new thinking into the system.
The first advisory groups were subcommittees of the Space Sciences (later the Space Science and Applications) Steering Committee, which consisted of key managers of the NASA program. These subcommittees were highly specialized, furnishing advice in essentially a single discipline, such as particles and fields. They advised on program content, on the selection of experiments and experimenters for flight missions, and on what laboratory work to support to ensure a proper groundwork for future space missions. The disciplinary subcommittees were very effective, but in time scientists began to complain that there was a need for less specialized advisory bodies and a broader participation of the community. The Astronomy Missions Board and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board were established to meet this criticism, while retaining the subcommittees of the Steering Committee. When the missions boards came to feel that even they did not always have enough perspective on the NASA planning and programming, the Space Program Advisory Council, with subsidiary committees to the council, and subsidiary panels to the committees, was brought into being.
Since plans and programs began to take shape in the division and lower levels of the organization, that suggested advisory groups would be [405] most effective if they worked directly with the divisions-and this was done. At the same time advisory groups traditionally feel that they ought to make their views known directly to top management. Accordingly, while advisory groups were established to work with the divisions, they were also asked to report findings and recommendations directly to associate administrator and administrator levels.
This multipronged connection with NASA management worked well with the missions boards, but not so well with the Space Program Advisory Council. In the advisory council organization there was too much layering, and the divisions lost touch with the council, feeling little kinship with the council's committees and panels. To the divisions the council appeared too much as a special group for the administrator, so that the divisions began to set up advisory groups of their own with which they could work with the necessary intimacy. Even for those who had close contact with the council, the ponderous, multitiered structure was burdensome, requiring more labor to make the mechanism work than ought to be true with a properly functioning advisory arrangement.
After several years of operation it appeared, to the author at least, that the advisory structure should be streamlined, particularly to reestablish its usefulness to the division levels as well as to the administrator.
To work effectively with the scientific community NASA management considered it essential to have scientists both in headquarters and in the centers, center scientists also being experimenters in the program. Under the circumstances outside scientists found themselves both allies to NASA, helping to plan the space science program and writing and speaking in its defense, and competitors to the agency as they vied with scientists in the centers for space science dollars and for rides for their experiments on the satellites and space probes. To avoid such a situation, representatives of the Space Science Board had originally urged NASA to stick to engineering and operations, leaving the science entirely to the universities and other outside research groups. To a number of persons in NASA that proposition appeared too simplistic, and it did not seem that engineers bent primarily on producing and operating space hardware could always be counted on to work effectively with the scientists without some internal scientific guidance. As a consequence the agency proceeded to build up a small collection of scientists in the centers and in headquarters. To avoid severe conflict of interest for center scientists, headquarters was given the task of selecting experiments and experimenters to be supported in the space science program. In theory, at least, the center experimenters would have to compete on equal terms with the outside scientists for support.
Experience suggests that the NASA decision in this matter was the right one. The difficulty between scientists and engineers in the manned spaceflight program during the period of hardware development and test flights showed the importance of having a scientist's ear within the organization, [406] to which outside scientists could turn. Struggles with Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers made the same point. On a more positive note, scientists within NASA working full-time on the task of furthering space science began to conceive and bring into being highly useful spacecraft-like the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform and the Radio Astronomy Explorer. These were also a boon to the outside scientists, who put their experiments aboard such spacecraft but could not have afforded the time to conceive or create them.
In making the outside scientific community such an important part of the space science program, NASA managers had to recognize certain fundamental facts. For one thing, continuity of support to a researcher was essential. Most investigations in the science program were long term. Most experimenters had in mind an important problem or group of problems to solve-concerning the upper atmosphere, or interplanetary space, or the sun, for example-and this would usually require many years and many sets of measurements. It became incumbent on NASA to provide continuing support to these investigators and their groups in order that they might carry their work to a proper conclusion. Since many of the experimenters were in universities, it was necessary to accommodate funding to the university's special situation. A sudden withdrawal of NASA dollars from a university research group funded only by NASA could be catastrophic, particularly for students working toward a degree. The step-funding approach devised by NASA's university office was a highly acceptable way of funding research in the universities, allowing as it did at least two full years to phase down a research program that NASA could no longer support.
Continuity of support to investigators also called for NASA to follow through on productive projects. When the agency had created an especially effective tool-like Ranger or Surveyor-scientists assumed that NASA would make that tool available long enough for a reasonably complete series of investigations. This is, in fact, where NASA had some of its most serious confrontations with scientists. In the scientists' view Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor were all terminated much too soon, when the investigators still had in mind a long list of important problems on which to use them.
The amortization of an expensive development over a long period of continued use makes good economic sense. The follow-through on the scientific investigations for which the equipment was produced in the first place makes good scientific sense. That was the very reasoning that NASA later applied to the justification of the Space Shuttle.
Related to continuity of support was the scientists preference for smaller spacecraft and projects, a preference that continued in evidence throughout the 1960s. With small spacecraft of relatively short lead-times, experimenters could more easily follow up on new discoveries than they could with large, complicated spacecraft which took many years of [407] preparation and which to it large extent froze an investigation into a specific line for it considerable time. Moreover, large projects-like Apollo and Viking-were very expensive and in times of tight budgets threatened, sometimes actually precluded, smaller projects. Yet some investigations required the more complex, more expensive spacecraft-like planetary landers; and astronomical observatories. When budgets permitted both, the scientific community usually wits glad to have the more versatile spacecraft, as long as support wits also provided for the smaller projects. When both could not be supported, it is safe to say that most space scientists would opt for a varied program of smaller, cheaper projects.
On the whole NASA dealt most effectively with outside scientists in their own universities. There the researchers continued their teaching, producing new talent and drawing many of their students into the space science program. From time to time the agency considered setting up special institutes to draw investigators more closely into the program. But there were difficulties with institutes. An institute was an additional source of overhead and could easily tie up one-half to several million dollars a year. Moreover institutes could create undesirable competition with the universities for top-notch scientists, who might better be left in the educational system to teach the next generation. But there were also advantages, and NASA did set up two institutes. The first, the Goddard Space Flight Center's Institute for Space Studies in New York City, was a genuine success primarily because of its director, Robert Jastrow. By quickly establishing close working arrangements with nearby universities like Columbia and Princeton, Jastrow drew outstanding doctoral candidates into the institute's program. In this move he simultaneously removed the element of competition with the universities, replacing it with a mutually profitable partnership. The Lunar Science Institute in Houston was a more difficult proposition. Although regarded as a boon by foreign scientists working with the Apollo program and although useful as an interface between the scientific community and the Johnson Space Center, it is likely that its benefits might have been achieved more cheaply some other way.
Finally, NASA's ties did not stop at the nation's borders. The extensive program of international cooperation in space science brought with it numerous relationships with foreign academics of science, research institutions, and individual scientists. The effectiveness of the international science program may be attributed to a few guiding principles established at the start. These were: to engage only in programs of genuine substance and of start. mutual interest, to share (not necessarily equally) in the conduct of the program without an exchange of funds, and to publish the results in the open literature. In a program in which a nation was paying its own way, the cooperating country would take a deeper interest and could take greater pride than in one for which the United States paid all the costs. Cooperation with the Soviet Union was always difficult. Only in the 1970s when [408] the USSR felt it could deal with the United States on more or less equal terms and that it had something substantive to gain-as in the Apollo-Soyuz mission-did the difficulties abate somewhat. In the mid-1970s it remained to see how much more cooperation with the Soviet Union would be possible in the approaching era of space shuttles and orbiting space stations.