Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[39] One of the most notable aspects of the panel record is the steadily increasing scope of activity. In the minutes of the organizing meeting, the secretary referred to the group simply as "the panel." By the third meeting Megerian was calling the group the "V-2 Upper Atmosphere Panel." This name continued for the next two meetings; but the appellation "V-2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel" appeared at the sixth meeting, in September 1946, and stuck for the next year and a half. These first titles reflected the panel's participation in the V-2 program, but the group's primary business was high-altitude research, not V-2s. The panel, well aware that the supply of V-2s would be exhausted in the not too distant future, gave early attention to finding alternative sounding rockets. Prodded by the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, at its March 1948 meeting the panel dropped the V-2 from its title and began calling itself the "Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel" (UARRP). This sufficed to describe activities until members had become so thoroughly involved in the International Geophysical Year scientific satellite program that another name change seemed appropriate. At an executive session, 29 April 1957, the panel adopted its final name: "Rocket and Satellite Research Panel." 17
Throughout most of its active life, the panel remained quite small. By restricting its rolls to working members only, and also by limiting the number of representatives from any one agency, the panel kept its size down--which made for more manageable meetings. Yet there was no desire to limit interest or participation in the meetings. A loyal cadre of observers attended the sessions throughout the years and joined in the discussions. From the first, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was [40] represented among the observers-an interesting fact in retrospect, although at the time there was no reason to suspect that one day NACA might play a central role in a suddenly emerging space program. Increasing interest in high-altitude rocket research over the years is also shown by the steady growth in the list of addressees to whom panel reports were sent. The minutes of the organizing meeting went to only about 30 persons; 10 years later some 118 copies were being distributed among 73 addressees.18 The composition of the distribution lists is illuminating (see app. B). The military was obviously interested. So, too, were other government agencies such as NACA and the U.S. Weather Bureau. The large number of university names on the list no doubt resulted from the pure-science nature of much of the panel's research.
For more than a decade the panel occupied a unique position in scientific research. In the United States its members represented all the institutions engaged in sounding rocket research. Attendees at meetings-members plus observers-comprised a substantial number of the individuals in the country who were involved. As one consequence of this unique position, the panel came to be regarded as the prime source of expertise in the field. In spite of the lack of any official charter, the panel soon acquired a quasi-official status. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics used data from the panel program in compiling and updating its tables of a standard atmosphere.19 The Defense Department's Research and Development Board made a practice of turning to the panel for recommendations regarding sounding rockets and high-altitude rocket research. The board-called the Joint Research and Development Board before the establishment of the Department of Defense in 1947-boasted a sprawling, complex structure intended to correspond in one way or another to the military research and development programs.20 From time to time its Committee on Guided Missiles took an interest in the rockets being used by the panel. When, in the spring of 1949, the Navy's Viking and the Air Force's MX774 rockets came into competition-it was not considered reasonable for the country to support two large, expensive sounding-rockets-UARRP was informed that a panel of the Committee on Guided Missiles endorsed Viking. The R&D board's Committee on Geophysical Sciences, and its subsidiary group for study of the upper atmosphere, took a continuing interest in what UARRP was up to. The subsidiary group endorsed the UARRP's research program and in November 1947, responding to a request for support, unanimously recognized "the importance of all phases of the well-coordinated V-2 rocket firings program and the grave consequences of any failure to give adequate financial support to all agencies involved in this program, since the lack of support of the program in any one agency would jeopardize the program as a whole." 21 At its April 1950 meeting, one finds the UARRP responding [41] to a request of the R&D board for views on requirements for upper-air research vehicles.22
But, while the endorsement was of help, association with the military also brought problems. At its 7 May 1947 meeting, the UARRP learned that the R&D board's upper-atmosphere group was considering assigning primary responsibility to different agencies for different kinds of upper-atmosphere research. Although nothing ever came of this, the thought of dividing the research into assigned parcels conflicted with the basic research instincts of UARRP members.
More serious, however, was the question of security classification that arose periodically. In defense of the research program, panel members were pointing out the many practical benefits to be gained from data and knowledge obtained. Over the years the list of potential benefits to the military grew, until a report issued at the start of the International Geophysical Year by a number of the panel members cited a dozen important applications:
But to the extent the salesmanship succeeded, it also raised the question of why the sounding rocket results shouldn't be classified if they were so valuable to the military, which was paying for them.
From the outset the panel had assumed that its program, being basic research, would be unclassified. In a memorandum to the White Sands [42] Proving Ground, Col. H. N. Toftoy of the Army Ordnance Department had written that V-2 firing schedules, rocket design, and flight information would be unclassified.24 This decision was important to the program, since the flight information was intimately related to the high-altitude data obtained from the rocket, and since design data were needed for interpreting measurements-for example, aerodynamic pressure curves were required in obtaining atmospheric densities from pressure measurements along the surface of the flying rocket. A serious threat arose when, at the October 1952 meeting of the panel, Earl Droessler of the R&D board announced that the military had again raised the question of classification of upper atmospheric data. The panel unanimously agreed to fight classification, citing the importance of the scientific process, in particular open publication and free exchange of information, to a basic research activity. While there was something to be gained by classifying certain specific uses of scientific information, there was much to be lost by classifying the purely scientific data. In these efforts the panel was successful, and the program remained unclassified.
The program called for a lot of work, but it was exciting. Panel meetings were enjoyable, with none of the tedium that so often weighs oppressively on committee meetings. For most of the members, after a period of preparation at home base-in Washington, Silver Spring, Cambridge, Ann Arbor, or elsewhere-there would be a period of some weeks or a couple of months working in the lonely beauty of the New Mexico desert. How exhilarating it was send a rocket roaring into the clear blue sky, watch the missile trace a brilliant white vapor trail against the azure background, a trail the stratospheric winds soon blew into complicated twists and knots, and then to jump into a jeep and race northward to retrieve cameras and instruments! On one such day in March 1957, with the sky as bright a blue as it ever had been, V-2 no. 21 landed in the heart of the White Sands National Monument. What a glorious hunt riding up and down over the snow-white dunes of gypsum sand that stretched as far as the eye could see! At the end of the day, with a solar spectrograph, cameras, and other instruments safely stowed aboard the jeeps, the impact party, as it was called, slowly worked its way out of the barren wilderness. As the group approached the edge of the monument, where the gypsum deposit has acquired a pinkish tint from the surrounding red sands of the Tula Rosa Basin, the sun was setting. An occasional yucca growing amid the pinkwhite dunes provided a display of incomparable beauty, which the glowing sun transformed into a fairyland. When the white sands were finally left behind, one could feel the emotional release.
The routine was frequently broken by bits of humor. Early in the program, before the range was properly instrumented for tracking the V-2s, von Braun often watched the flying rocket as it rose above the desert, judging by eye whether it was on course. If the missile strayed, von Braun [43] called for stopping the engines by radio. On one occasion, the eye failed to detect a tipping toward the south, and the missile landed in a cemetery in Juarez, Mexico, causing something of an international incident. Rumor had it that von Braun's lapse might have been related to his having some instruments riding on the rocket. At any rate preparations to track the missiles by instrument were accelerated.
The Naval Research Laboratory used radio signals from the flying rocket to measure the electrification of the ionosphere. For this purpose the laboratory installed ground stations uprange from the launching area. One day as the men were preparing one of the stations for an approaching flight, an Army jeep drove up, and a soldier got out and began driving a stake into the ground not more than a stone's throw from the station. Curious, the men asked what that meant. That, they were told, was the aiming point for some planned Honest John rocket tests. The men let it be known they didn't fully appreciate being made the target of rocket firings. "Not to worry," was the answer, "we never hit the target, anyway!"
Often there was frustration to struggle with. During the countdown for the firing of V-2 no. 16, something in the tail switch, which was supposed to turn the experimental equipment on after takeoff, was wrong. An effort was made to reconnect the switch there on the launch stand with the fully loaded rocket waiting to take off. After launch, however, instead of turning instruments on, the rewired switch proceeded to turn everything off. A postflight review showed that there were several ways in which the switch could have been connected to do the intended job, and only one way in which it would fail. The one and only wrong way had been chosen-an important object lesson regarding hasty, last-minute changes in the field. It turned out, however, that this rocket tumbled end over end in flight, which would have made the reduction of data an exceedingly complex matter. The scientist in charge later said it was probably a good thing that the equipment had been turned off, for otherwise the experimenters would surely have been unable to resist the temptation to try to interpret the measurements and probably would have wasted a lot of time on a futile exercise.
On another occasion, as a physicist watched a rocket carry aloft the cloud chamber over which he had labored long and hard, he remembered that he had forgotten to remove the lens cap from the recording camera. To add to the feeling of despair, the telemetering record indicated that the cloud chamber had worked perfectly during the flight.
Of course, it was always heartbreaking when the rocket failed to perform. It was difficult enough for some experimenters to reconcile themselves to the thought that the equipment they had struggled to perfect would often be destroyed on a single flight. There was consolation when the flight produced the data sought, but not when the rocket failed. After the program had been under way for some time, it was noted that the [44] rockets bearing the simplest payloads seemed to have the best success. The Applied Physics Laboratory group, which never attempted to load rockets to full capacity, had acquired an image of almost perfect success. In contrast, the Air Force Cambridge Research Center, which tried to conduct dozens of complicated experiments on a single flight-and even lengthened the V-2 by a whole diameter to make additional instrument space had developed an image of almost complete failure. The Naval Research Laboratory, which flew payloads intermediate between those of APL and AFCRL in complexity, succeeded about two-thirds of the time. There seemed to be an interaction between the experimenting and the launching operations, the more complex experiments tending to induce more problems with the rocket itself. The suspicion that this was actually happening was widely held, but never proved. On closer look, the evidence is not as clear as it seemed at the time, for the Princeton experiments were as simple as any, and yet all their rockets failed, which was no doubt the main reason for Princeton's early withdrawal from the program.
One cannot work with rockets without a certain amount of danger. Although the missiles were aimed away from them, the stations uprange were nevertheless exposed to some risk that the rocket might land on one of them. No direct hit ever did occur, but on a few occasions the wreckage from a failing rocket landed uncomfortably close. The greatest danger existed when the rocket was being loaded with propellants and people were still working around it, completing last minute preparations. When a spurt of hydrogen peroxide set a jeep afire, the industrial supplier was moved to assert publicly that the liquid was perfectly safe if only it were handled properly. Most distressing were accidents to personnel, as when a fuming sulfuric acid mixture being loaded into a V-2 prematurely ejected, spraying the face of a worker and endangering his eyesight. The acid mixture was used to generate visible clouds in the stratosphere, which were then tracked to measure stratospheric winds.
The author vividly remembers working with a companion on a platform 10 to 15 meters above ground, inserting live JATO* rockets into receptacles in the midsection of a fully loaded V-2. Tests had shown that JATO would ignite from the slightest applied voltage, and care had to be exercised not to generate any static electricity or to permit current to flow through the JATO igniter from the ohmmeter being used to check the circuits. Other workers had retired to a respectful distance. Slanting cables had been drawn between the work platform and the ground, down which-if things went wrong-one could slide and then run like hell to safety. The JATOs, which were intended to impart a spin to the rocket in the upper atmosphere, did not ignite during the loading. But, then, neither did they spin the V-2 in flight.

* Jet Assist Take Off rockets permitted heavily loaded aircraft to take off from short runways.