Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[100] None of the traditional conservatism of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was evident in the autumn of 1958 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration got under way. Rather, the industry, care, and thoroughness that had earned for NACA the respect of Congress over the years could be sensed as the new agency geared up for the challenges ahead. A seemingly endless list of matters had to be taken care of in the first few months after NASA was formally opened by Administrator Glennan on 1 October 1958, and everyone had his hands full.
The agency showed no inclination to take its role in the nation's space program for granted. The debates during the previous year about the importance of the space program and the country's poor position relative to the Soviet Union demonstrated that Congress would take a deep interest in what NASA did. Also, the significance of the choice of a new man, T. Keith Glennan, as the first administrator, rather than Hugh Dryden, the director of NACA, was not lost upon former NACA employees. Even though the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 had given NASA extensive authority, the agency still felt the need to sell itself. As the staff prepared for NASA's first budget hearings, Abe Silverstein, director of spaceflight programs, admonished his people with words like the following: "Remember, it is not the program we have to sell. That has already been bought. What we have to prove is that we are the right ones to do it!"1
That was the mood of NASA as it bent to the tasks ahead. If anything stood out at the time, it was that everything seemed to be happening at once. In the white hot light of public interest, NASA had to establish its organization, expand its staff, acquire new facilities, find contractors for the work to be done, carry out Vanguard and the projects transferred from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, work out its relations with the military and other agencies, develop a budget, prepare for the first congressional hearings, and plan for the future-all while attempting to get a program immediately under way. Again it was Silverstein who put it into words: "Two years. It will take two years to get things really under control. After that you can begin to take it easy." As a prophet, Silverstein was half [101] right. It did take about two years to set NASA on the course it would follow for the next decade.
The jumbled character of NASA's first years is readily apparent in Robert L. Rosholt's review of the period;2 but in the midst of all the scramble, things were getting done. From hour to hour, and from day to day, NASA managers would move from topic to topic, keeping things moving on all fronts. Gradually the program began to take shape. Space science, even though it had the advantage of a head start from the previous sounding rocket work and the scientific satellite program of the International Geophysical Year, shared in the growing pains of the new agency. In addition, problems peculiar to a scientific endeavor had to be solved.
The following pages take up a number of subjects that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had to address itself to for all its programs, but here they are considered in the light of their bearing on space science. Although discussed under several topical headings, these matters were inextricably interwoven and were being worked on simultaneously.