Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[130] In seeking to bring the scientific community into the space science program and in insisting on publication of results in the open literature, NASA could hardly escape a close association with the scientific societies. The societies afforded the most common meeting ground of the scientists, and their journals formed much of the open literature.
A number of scientific societies soon became involved. The American Astronomical Society's interest was at first tentative, although a number of its leading members were fully committed to space astronomy-like Richard Tousey of the Naval Research. Laboratory, Leo Goldberg of the University of Michigan, Gerard Kuiper of Yerkes Observatory, and Lyman Spitzer of Princeton. Spitzer had been among the first, in the mid-1940s, to write about and advocate the use of satellites for astronomical research. In the sounding rocket program of the 1940s and 1950s, Tousey had been one of the pioneers in rocket astronomy. And no sooner had NASA opened its doors than Leo Goldberg was urging support of a solar astronomical satellite project which the McDonnell Aircraft Company had designed with advice from University of Michigan astronomers. Under the pressure of such widespread interest, the American Astronomical Society's participation grew steadily throughout the 1960s. Papers appeared in its journal and at its meetings, and the society began to promote important aspects of space astronomy. The spectacular results of planetary missions, particularly in 1969 and early 1970s, helped dispel the disdain and lack of interest with which astronomers had regarded the planetary field for decades.
Among the first learned societies to show strong interest were the American Physical Society and the American Geophysical Union. In April 1959-six months into NASA's first full year-the Physical Society sponsored, along with NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, a symposium on space physics, which was well attended.42 Anticipating the importance of space science for extending geophysics to other planets, the Geophysical Union went even further. In November 1959, AGU officers considered the question of providing a home for space science. Encouraged by the show of interest, NASA's Robert Jastrow and Gordon J. F. MacDonald, a brilliant young geophysicist, on 10 December 1959 wrote to President Lloyd Berkner recommending that the union create a section on planetary physics.43 After consulting with AGU officers, Berkner responded by inviting the author to become chairman of a Planning Committee on Planetary Science, with members Jastrow (secretary), Leroy Alldredge, Joseph W. Chamberlain, Thomas Gold, MacDonald, Hugh Odishaw, Alan Shapley, Harry Vestine, Harry Wexler, Charles Whitten, and Philip Abelson (and later Walter Orr Roberts), all of whom had had important roles in the International Geophysical Year program. For the next two years the committee organized sessions on space science for the union meetings, and promoted the interests of space science within the union. [131] For the summer of 1960 committee members prepared a series of papers reporting on progress in the planetary and interplanetary sciences for publication in the Transactions of the American Geophysical Union. The President's Page in the Transactions for September 1960 carried a note from the author pointing out the importance of space science to geophysics and calling attention to the existence of the Planning Committee on Planetary Sciences.44
Within the union there was a steady movement toward the creation of a new section on the planetary sciences. But space science was itself but an extension of the traditional disciplines, and there was opposition to the proposed action. The argument was that the existing sections of AGU could provide the desired home for the new activities in space. The section on meteorology, for example, could accommodate satellite meteorology. Any section dealing with an aspect of the earth sciences could house that same aspect of the planetary sciences. In fact, some feared that a separate section on the planetary sciences would become another little union within the overall union. Even members thoroughly involved in the space sciences-like John Simpson, experimenter on Pioneer and Explorer satellites, theoretical physicist Alexander Dessler, and Harry Wexler, director of research for the U.S. Weather Bureau-were opposed. Nevertheless, the strong coherence in the space sciences, generated by the peculiarities and demands of the space tools, sparked the push for a new section. The spring of 1961 saw a great deal of discussion of the matter, and at its 22 April 1961 meeting the council of the union approved in principle the formation of a new section-by a margin of one vote! The council asked that the entire organizational structure, activity, and nomenclature of the union be reviewed as a precaution against intolerable dislocations within the society from addition of the new section. The review concluded that no other changes were required, and on 25 April 1962 the council gave final approval for the formation of a section on planetary sciences (which later in the decade divided into several groups). The author became the first president of the section, and Jastrow its first secretary, thus symbolizing the close relations that NASA had developed with the American Geophysical Union.
The examples given here are only illustrative. The breadth of the space sciences generated an important association with many scientific and technical societies and institutes. The interest of the American Rocket Society and the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences-which soon merged into the new American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics-was an obvious one, as was that of the American Astronautical Society and the International Astronautical Federation, although their concern tended more toward the engineering and technology side of the picture. More directly concerned with space science were the Optical Society of America, the International Astronomical Union the American Meteorological Society, the Geological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and a [132] long list of others. For some of these, interest in space science flared up at the very start, while for others the interest gradually emerged as the program unfolded.
Inheriting so much from the International Geophysical Year, NASA had an international program from the outset.45 There were two main arenas, that of the international scientific circles such as the International Council of Scientific Unions and its newly formed Committee on Space Research, and that of a political nature, falling generally in the sphere of the United Nations. There were numerous political considerations relative to space, and NASA was immediately drawn into United Nations deliberations on space matters.
But the natural arena for space science was the international scientific community, and from the start NASA gave strong support to the Committee on Space Research. Among the unions of the council represented on COSPAR were the International Union of Scientific Radio and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, which had first recommended the use of scientific satellites during the International Geophysical Year. Following the organizing meeting convened by the author in London in November of 1958, COSPAR held its first full-scale business session in The Hague, 12-14 March 1959.46 At that meeting Richard Porter of the Space Science Board, U.S. representative to COSPAR, asked the author whether the United States might offer to launch space science experiments for COSPAR members. In a phone call to Washington, the author obtained Hugh Dryden's approval to inform the meeting that NASA would be willing to do so. Porter then wrote to President H. C. van de Hulst, saying that the United States would accept single experiments as part of larger payloads, or would launch complete payloads prepared by other countries.47 The response to the U.S. invitation was immediate, and before the year was out a number of cooperative projects had begun. With the Soviet Union, genuine cooperation proved to be difficult during the 1960s, less difficult in the 1970s climate of detente. These subjects are discussed at length in chapter 18.
As the leaders of NASA worked to reshape the NACA into an aeronautics and space organization, they also laid the foundation for the many relationships with other government agencies, industry, and the scientific community that played an essential role in planning and conducting the program. But none of this would have been of any avail without the principal tools, the rockets and spacecraft essential to the investigation and exploration of space. A first order of business as to provide for these tools. That NASA set about to do, striving to overcome as soon as possible the visible gap that lay between the United States and the Soviet Union in propulsion capabilities and launchable spacecraft weights. Because of the central importance of launch vehicles and their payloads, the next chapter is devoted entirely to them.