Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[101] President Eisenhower's decision of 5 March 1958 to build a civilian space agency around NACA set in motion the train of events that led to the establishment of NASA. On 2 April, when the administration's draft legislation was sent to the Hill, the president instructed NACA and the Department of Defense to work out the necessary plans. For its part NACA set up an Ad Hoc Committee on NASA Organization, under Ira Abbott, NACA assistant director for aerodynamic research, which made a preliminary report in May.3
The committee's suggested organization showed four major divisions: Aeronautical and Space Research, Space Flight Programs, Space Science, and Management.4 The last named stemmed from a recognition that the prospective program would require substantial management attention, requiring, among other things, contracting for development and operations as well as for research. Aeronautical and Space Research would cover the advanced research of the NACA plus that pertinent to the investigation and exploration of space. The large development projects and operations required for the space program would be handled by Space Flight Programs.
Space Science remained a separate box on the organization chart through the tentative plan of 11 August 1958. In keeping with the plan that Dryden had proposed in January,5 it was specially noted on the charts that the space sciences program would use the services of the scientific community, including the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of sciences. On 19 August, Administrator Glennan met with key [102] NACA officials to go over the planning, and a provisional organization chart was issued on 21 August 1958, from which the space science box had disappeared. About this time the author began negotiations with Abe Silverstein for a number of the space scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory to join NASA. As an outcome of these negotiations, John Townsend, John Clark, and the author transferred to NASA Headquarters on 20 October 1958. A few days later, on 24 October, a tentative organization chart again showed a box for space sciences, but this time in the Office of Space Flight Development, under Silverstein. Glennan's first official organization plan in January 1959 retained space science in the Office of Space Flight Development.6
According to Glennan, one should not read too much into the shifting position and status of space science, which simply reflected the fact that "space sciences' was only one of many organizational elements to be fitted together." Moreover, the administrator looked to Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden to ensure that science was "accorded its appropriate role and status in the NASA family."7
Had the 21 August chart persisted, it is safe to say that the scientific community would have been most distressed. As it was, making space science a subsidiary of spaceflight development did not sit too well with key scientists, who did not hesitate to characterize science as one of the major purposes of the space program. At the 18 December 1959 meeting of the Space Science Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, for example, Chairman Purcell closed by declaring that "space science was the backbone of the American space program, the foundation of what we can do in applications."8 Space science may have been put where it was in the fall of 1958 because the scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory and elsewhere who came into NASA were unknown quantities to Dryden and Silverstein.
Space science again disappeared from the organizational nomenclature when in February 1960 the author was listed as deputy to Silverstein. In its place were two titles: Satellites and Sounding Rocket Programs, and Lunar and Planetary Programs. Almost two years later, in November of 1961, the second administrator, James E. Webb, announced his first major reorganization of NASA; at that time the author became director of a newly created Office of Space Sciences, giving science the kind of visibility in the NASA organization that the scientific community felt it should have.9
An often repeated statement of NACA people was that the strength of NACA lay in its centers.* That was where the trained people, who represented the research and technical competence of the agency, lived. The same would be true of NASA. But from the outset Hugh Dryden was especially [103] concerned that the research character of the NACA centers-on which NACA's reputation in aeronautical and aerodynamic research had rested-be preserved and protected against encroachment by the development and operational demands of the space program. Thus, the Office for Space Flight Programs had the dual purpose of providing new capability for space research and development, while leaving the old centers free to pursue the advanced research and technology that were their forte. This policy, which appeared in the earliest planning, persisted throughout the evolution of NASA, but weakened with the passage of time. Thus, to avoid overloading the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which was already struggling with the Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner projects), in the summer of 1963 management of the Lunar Orbiter was assigned to the Langley Research Center.10 This sizable project was followed in the latter half of the decade by the even more demanding Viking.11 When the Centaur rocket stage needed special attention to pull it through its development difficulties, the project was assigned to the Lewis Research Center.12 At the Ames Research Center, studies of an astronomical satellite undertaken in 1958 and 1959 became the basis for much of the planning for NASA's Orbiting Astronomical Observatory.13 Later Ames became the management center for the Pioneer projects.14 The urge to take part in the space portion of NASA's program, the need for additional support to important projects, plus the argument that a modest development work would provide insights into technological needs that would benefit advanced research, militated against keeping the research centers "pure." It eventually became a matter of keeping the development work at a modest level.
Given the policy of protecting the research character of Langley, Lewis, and Ames, an entirely new capability for the unmanned and manned space programs had to be built. On the 29 January 1959 organization chart, Glennan listed under the Office of Space Flight Development, as space project centers: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Beltsville Space Center, Wallops Station, and Cape Canaveral.15 Wallops Station had been an arm of the Langley Research Center and would now be devoted to a variety of test projects, including the launching of sounding rockets and the Scout satellite-launching vehicle.16 Cape Canaveral, of course, was the site of the Air Force's East Coast missile launching facilities, which would be expected to support NASA, as well as military, programs. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was transferred from the Army to NASA by executive order on 3 December 1958, giving NASA a substantial capability for spaceflight development. 17 By mutual agreement JPL was steered in the direction of lunar and planetary exploration. The Beltsville Center-which took its temporary name from its location on surplus government land near the Beltsville Agricultural Center in Maryland-grew out of planning that had started before NASA was activated. This center was to provide a satellite research and development arm for the agency.18 On the first of May 1959, just a [104] week after construction had begun, Glennan announced that the new center would be called the Goddard Space Flight Center in honor of Robert H. Goddard. By September the first building was fully occupied. The center was dedicated on 16 March 1961. Goddard, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Wallops Island were to become the principal NASA centers in the space science program, although as mentioned earlier, other centers contributed substantially.

* Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory and the High-Speed Flight Station in California, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Ohio.