Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[34] Accordingly, at an organizing meeting at Princeton University 27 February 1946, a panel was formed of members to be actually engaged in or in some way directly concerned with high-altitude rocket research.1 The original members (see also app. A) were:
E. H. Krause (chairman), Naval Research Laboratory
G. K. Megerian (secretary), General Electric Co.
W. G. Dow, University of Michigan
M. J. E. Golay, U.S. Army Signal Corps
C. F. Green, General Electric Co.
K. H. Kingdon, General Electric Co.
M. H. Nichols, Princeton University
J. A. Van Allen, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University
F. L. Whipple, Harvard University
Because of his role in getting things started and because he would be devoting full time to upper-air research with rockets, Krause was elected chairman.
To Krause must go the-principal credit for getting the program under way. He was a physicist, with a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in spectroscopy, and a background in communications research. Both qualifications were pertinent to the development of techniques for the investigation of the sun and upper atmosphere. Krause's energy and drive were phenomenal, and his capacity for detail and thoroughness were ideally [35] suited to welding all the elements needed to get a sounding rocket program off the ground. When Krause left in December 1947 to participate in nuclear bomb tests, James A. Van Allen was elected to the chair, a spot he occupied for the next decade.2
Van Allen is by far the best known of the original members of the V-2 panel. A physicist, at the time the panel was formed he was employed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University on the Bumblebee Project, a Navy missile research and development project. He brought to the panel an intense interest in cosmic ray physics, an interest that led in time to his discovery of the earth's radiation belts that now bear his name.
The panel had no formal charter, no specified terms of reference from an authorizing parent organization, a circumstance that left the panel free in the years ahead to pursue its destiny in keeping with its own judgment. The immediate task was to provide Col. James G. Bain of the Army Ordnance Department with advice he had requested on the allocation of V-2s to the various research groups. This the panel proceeded at once to do, and in fact until the end of the V-2 program in 1952 continued to direct its reports to Army Ordnance as principal addressee. Thereafter the reports were issued simply to the members and to observers who attended the meetings, with copies to a selected list of interested persons and agencies (see app. B).
The panel's program, if it may be called that, consisted of the collection of activities engaged in by its members. As a forum for discussion of past results and future plans, the panel was a breeding ground for ideas; but whatever control it might bring to bear on the program was exerted purely through the scientific process of open discussion and mutual criticism.
For some time after its first session, the panel met monthly (see app. C.) There was a great deal to do, quickly; for Army Ordnance and its contractor, General Electric Company, intended to fire the rockets on a rather rapid schedule. Since the German warheads were not suitable for carrying scientific payloads, the Naval Research Laboratory undertook to provide the different groups with standard nose sections specifically designed for housing the research instrumentation. To send information to the ground from the flying rocket, NRL also furnished telemetering equipment to go into the rocket and erected ground stations at the White Sands range for receiving and recording the data-bearing signals. In short order the word telemetering, meaning the making of remote measurements by radio techniques, became a familiar part of the growing jargon of rocket sounding. To make the most of the large capacity of the V-2, NRL designed and built a large, complex telemeter. The first version supplied to the program could provide 23 channels of information; a later version provided 30. With characteristic preference for smaller, simpler instrumentation, [36] the Applied Physics Laboratory developed and use a much smaller, 6-channel, frequency-modulated telemeter.3
Radar beacons were installed in the missile to track it, providing information on where measurements had been made. The range also required that each rocket be outfitted with a special radio receiver that could cut off the motor should the missile begin to misbehave after launch. Arrangements had to be made for building and supplying this equipment. Also, to supplement the tracking information provided by radar and radio, theodolites, precise cameras, and other optical instruments were installed at strategic locations along the firing range to furnish both visual and photographic trajectory data. It also would be essential to know the orientation of the rocket in order to interpret properly such measurements as aerodynamic pressures or cosmic ray fluxes. For this, still more instruments-including photocells to observe the direction of the sun, cameras, and magnetometers-were brought to bear.4
Although much, perhaps most, of the scientific data would be obtained by telemetering, some measurements would require the recovery of equipment and records from the rocket after the flight was over, such as earth and cloud pictures, photographs of the sun's spectrum, and biological specimens exposed to the flight environment. For this purpose several techniques were developed, including the use of explosives to destroy the streamlining of the rocket, causing it to maple leaf to the ground; the deployment of parachutes to recover part or all of the spent rocket; and even the application of the kind of sound ranging techniques used in World War I to locate large guns.5
At first, operations at White Sands were an amorphous collection of activities. During the first year of rocket sounding the procedures and issues that would have to be dealt with in even greater detail years later in the space program emerged: safety considerations, provision for terminating propulsion of the missile in mid-flight, tracking, telemetering, timing signals, range communications, radio-frequency interference problems, weather reports, recovery of instruments and records, and all that went into assembling, instrumenting, testing, fueling, and launching the rocket. To cope with the seemingly endless detail, the range required formal written operational plans in advance that could be disseminated to the various groups. A more or less standard routine evolved with which the participants became familiar.6 In only a few years experimenters were harking back to the "good old days" when operations were free and easy and red tape had not yet tied everything into neat little, inviolable packages.
While the General Electric Company personnel, Army workers, and others labored to produce successful rocket firings, the scientists labored equally hard to devise and produce the instrumentation that would yield the desired scientific measurements. At first some of the instrumentation was tentative, even crude, as when Ralph Havens of NRL took an automobile headlight [37] bulb, knocked off the tip, and used it as a Pirani pressure gauge to measure atmospheric pressure in the V-2 fired on 28 June 1946. But even before the end of 1945 spectrographs were recording the sun's spectrum in previously unobserved ultraviolet wavelengths, special radio transmitters were measuring the electrification of the ionosphere, and a variety of cosmic-ray-counter telescopes were analyzing radiation at the edge of space. A portion of each panel meeting was devoted to reporting on experimental results, which accumulated steadily from the very first flight of 16 April 1946. Papers began to appear in the literature and attracted considerable attention as experimenters reported on measurements that hitherto were impossible to make.7 By the time the last V-2 was fired in the fall of 1952, a rich harvest of information on atmospheric temperatures, pressures, densities, composition, ionization, and winds, atmospheric and solar radiations, the earth's magnetic field at high altitudes, and cosmic rays had been reaped.8