Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[46] Although individual members had long been interested in the use of artificial satellites for scientific research, the panel up to this point had recommended only a sounding rocket program for IGY. But simultaneously with the planning for rocket firings, enthusiastic advocates were pressing for the launching of scientific satellites. Inevitably-the panel was caught up in these proposals. To explore at length the usefulness of satellites for scientific research, the panel sponsored a symposium at the University of Michigan 26-27 January 1956. The proceedings were published in a book, 31 the sale of which generated a small treasury for the panel.*
Once aroused, interest in scientific satellites grew rapidly. Most members took part one way or another in the IGY satellite program. Gradually the idea emerged that the United States should go further and establish some kind of permanent space agency. In the summer of 1957, the author jotted down some brief notes outlining a "National Space Establishment" to be organized and funded to conduct unmanned space research and applications and manned exploration of outer space. Shortly thereafter the panel-which the preceding April had changed its name to Rocket and Satellite Research Panel-took steps to explore formally its potential interest in earth satellites and outer space. Report 47, 19-20 September 1957, records the creation of a Committee on the Occupation of Space, chaired [47] by the author. When Sputnik I went into orbit, the panel intensified its efforts on behalf of a civilian National Space Establishment. 32
On 21 November the group issued a paper entitled "A National Mission to Explore Outer Space." A different version, "National Space Establishment," appeared on 27 December 1957 (see app. D). The minutes of the 6 December panel meeting record that the earlier paper had been discussed with Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences. Copies had also been given to James Killian, the president's science adviser, and to Lee DuBridge, president of the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Killian referred the panel report to Herbert York, Emanuel Piore, and George Kistiakowsky, members of the President's Science Advisory Committee who were also exploring the question of the United States role in space.33
To this point the panel's policy of restricting membership to those working in the upper-atmosphere program had made good sense. But now the panel felt the need for additional weight behind its recommendations. During December 1957 the membership about doubled, adding key persons in the military research establishment, industry, the rocket development field, and the American Rocket Society (app. A). The society was also agitating at the time for the creation of a civilian space agency.34 The two groups agreed to join forces in promoting the idea, and on 4 January 1958 issued a summary paper supporting their joint proposal for a "National Space Establishment" to have responsibility for investigating and exploring space.
In addition to preparing that paper, the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel mapped out a plan to bring its recommendations to the attention of persons who might be in a position to do something. Members visited congressmen and officials in the administration and sought help from the Academy of Sciences. A small group, chaired by the author and including Wernher von Braun and William Pickering, called on Vice President Nixon, who seemed most receptive. Through his good offices a number of meetings were arranged for the group on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch: with the commissioners and general manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, with George Allen and key figures in the U.S. Information Agency, and with the staffs of the House and Senate committees that were considering how to respond to the Soviet challenge in space. William Stroud, von Braun and the author appeared before the joint Committee on Atomic Energy and shocked members by asserting that the proposed space program could very likely require as much as a billion dollars a year and could become comparable to the atomic energy program once it got going.35
Panel members of course seized on whatever news they could acquire about what was going on. They heard that the space program could go a number of ways: a new agency might be created, which the panel had naively recommended; or responsibility might be assigned to an existing [48] agency like the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; or the Department of Defense might get the job.36
Among panel members the NACA had an image of gross conservatism. In talking to Hugh Dryden, director of NACA, Whipple received the impression that NACA was "not prepared to undertake space research on the scale considered essential by the RSRP and by the American Rocket Society." Whipple had also talked with General Doolittle, NACA chairman, who declared his intense feeling that it would be a great error to set up any such organization outside of the Defense Department's jurisdiction.37 His opinion was disturbing to panel members, who had felt the pinch of budgets for sounding rocket research competing with budgets for purely military purposes and who would like to remove the periodic vexation of the classification battle. Although members recognized that the new agency would have to depend on the military for a great deal of hardware and logistical support, to a man-including those employed by the services-the panel was determined that the nation's space agency ought to be civilian
Doubts about the NACA did not lessen the feeling of satisfaction with the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. Members were prepared to give whole-hearted support to the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was to absorb NACA as its nucleus. Indeed, many joined the new agency. But the panel itself was now at loose ends. The purposes it had served for more than a decade would now be NASA's. For the next two years the panel devoted itself to colloquia on topics related to atmospheric and space research, but such colloquia could hardly serve the now explosively expanding field the way sessions of the scientific societies could. Members experienced a growing dissatisfaction where before a feeling of pioneering excitement had suffused the discussions. William Pickering submitted his resignation with a statement that he felt that the panel
no longer served any real purpose.38
Having existed for so long without any formal charter, the panel now found time to compose a constitution, which was declared adopted by a three-fourths vote at the meeting of 17 February 1960.39 After one more meeting, the panel suspended operations.
Thus, the panel's success in helping bring about the creation of a new agency devoted to the investigation and exploration of space also brought the demise of the panel. In contrast, the National Academy of Sciences, which the Rocket a Satellite Research Panel had drawn into the rocket research field, expanded its role in the program after the creation of NASA. The Space Science Board, which grew out of the academy's IGY panels on rocketry and earth satellites, was an immediate source of advice to NASA in its formative years, taking over the advisory role that the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel had once played. As a committee of the nation's prestigious [49] Academy of Sciences, the Space Science Board enjoyed a vantage point that the panel never had commanded. How the academy went into space science and events leading to the establishment of the Space Science Board as one of the prime sources of advice to NASA are dealt with in the next chapter.

* Having a bank account was a source of some perplexity not resolved until years later, when the money was donated to a small, nonprofit activity called Science Services. The income from the gift was to provide for an annual award to a student competing in the International Science Fair. The panel suggested that the award be for excellence in the field of space exploration, space science, space engineering, or space application. Megerian, minutes of panel, rpt. 1968-1.