[xi] On July 20, 1969 millions of television screens captured a new image in the iconography of American history. To the familar icons that stirred patriotic sentiment-the fiercely protective American eagle, the elegantly scripted parchment of the Declaration of Independence, the solemn countenance of George Washington, and a majestically waving Stars and Stripes lofted over outstretched hands on the island of Iwo Jima-a generation of Americans added a truly new world image: a speckled black and white television picture of a man clothed in flexible tubes of white, with a reflective sphere over his head, springing over the alien, gray surface of our nearest planetary neighbor, thereon to plant a small, vacuum-stilled American flag.
As with all icons, what brought this image into being was somewhat less than the associated rhetoric claimed for it. The rhetoric with which John F. Kennedy introduced his challenge to the nation-"before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth"-is unmistakable in the meaning intended for the event: the United States was "engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind, or have alien ideals forced upon them." However, for the ordinary engineers who toiled for two decades so that Neil Armstrong could one day step onto the Moon-the culmination of the nation's Apollo program-the event turned out to mean something different than rhetoric promised it would be.
The text of Kennedy's May 25,1961 "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs" is replete with allusions to the Cold War and the Communist bloc's putative campaign to prevail in "a contest of will and purpose as well as force and violence-a battle for minds and souls as well as lives and territory." The "great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today is the whole southern
[xii] half of the globe-Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East-the lands of the rising peoples." The notion-which appears toward the end of Kennedy's Special Message-of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade, was offered as the winning climax of an epochal struggle against "the adversaries of freedom [who] plan to consolidate their territory-to exploit, to control, and finally to destroy the hopes of the world's newest nations, and they have ambition to do it before the end of this decade" [emphasis added]. As the 1960s drew to a close, the nation that stood for freedom (that, said Kennedy, was what the United States was) would be called to account.1 The Apollo program was John F. Kennedy's "moral equivalent of war." Sharing so much else with Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy found in the Apollo program what the earlier president had found in the Panama Canal.2
To be sure, the sight of Neil Armstrong taking his "giant leap for mankind" was a dramatic affirmation of the power of modern technology over nature, as well as the more timeless qualities of human questing and courage. In retrospect it was also an epiphenomenon, a shadow cast by a more fundamental transition in American life. This is the story less of heroes than of a generation of engineers who made Apollo possible. It is thus the story of the men and women who stood where the shadow was deepest. Their story is told largely in their own words, and it tells of the unraveling of the simpler notions of personal success and national purpose that had given common meaning to the lives of their parents.
When the Soviet union successfully launched the first man-made orbiting satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957, the Eisenhower administration and Congress promptly created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to orchestrate the United States' peaceful response to the Soviet challenge. NASA officially opened for business on October 1,1958 with a complement of nearly eight thousand paid employees transferred from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA). Established in 1915 by a rider attached to that year's congressional Naval Appropriations Act, the NACA had conducted research in aerodynamics and aircraft structures and propulsion systems for both industrial and military clients for forty-three years.3 The NACA was informally structured and overseen by its main committee and various technical subcommittees; its engineering research was done largely by civil servants at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton, Va. (established 1917), Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, Calif. (established 1939), the Flight Research Center, Muroc Dry Lake, Calif. (established 1946; renamed Dryden Flight Research Center in 1976), and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, Cleveland, Ohio (established 1940).
The NACA's closest precursors were the research laboratories of the Department of Agriculture (established 1862), the National Bureau of Standards (established 1901), and the Marine Hospital and Public Health Service (established 1902). Not until the end of World War II would Congress create a comparable institution, [xiii] the Atomic Energy Commission (established 1946), which, however, relied not on civil servants but on contracts with private organizations created to carry out its research programs.
What distinguished the NACA was the ethos that came to permeate its laboratories. With its emphasis on technical competence for engineering research, evaluation of work by technical peers, and an intimate, free-wheeling working environment thought conducive to engineering innovation, the NACA's research culture was poorly equipped to adjust to the bureaucratic controls of federal administration that began to coalesce in the 1940s. Centralized administrative procedures, hierarchical organizations, standardized job classifications, and tenure as a determinant of place and influence-such mechanisms of public administrative control were resisted by the NACA, which found itself in intense competition with the powerful Department of Defense (established 1947) and threatened by the intrusive politics that accompanied expanded congressional oversight.4
The NACA was thus transformed in 1958 into the federal civilian space establishment with a renewed and much enlarged mission. It began with the 7966 paid employees transferred from the NACA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. and its four research centers; by the end of 1960 its personnel rolls had nearly doubled to over 16,000. The principal increases occurred largely at NASA Headquarters (where personnel more than tripled), and with the addition to the agency of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (renamed the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center) and the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville, Md. and Wallops Station on Wallops Island, Va. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, a contractor-owned and -operated facility involved in rocket research since 1936, was transferred from the U.S. Army to NASA in 1958. By the end of 1960 the old NACA laboratories and Marshall Space Flight Center accounted for 49 percent and 33 percent, respectively, of NASA's employees. (The Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Tex. was added in 1961 and the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. in 1962.) 5
Thus a little over 80 percent of NASA's technical core-its engineers and scientists-during its first quarter century was acquired during the flush first days of the space program. A significant portion of that cohort held within its corporate memory the experience of working with the NACA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), and the organizations from which Goddard Space Flight Center had drawn much of its personnel [the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL)].6 Each group would bring with it a well-established culture-the NACA and NRL groups, the culture of in-house engineering research and science, and the ABMA group, the in-house technical development culture of the Army's arsenal system. (Engineers who worked on NASA's unpiloted interplanetary science programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have not been included in this study because their careers are as likely to have been the consequence of working for the California Institute of Technology as for NASA.)
In time the engineers from these communities would experience the gradual erosion of the institutional discretion and the ethos of in-house technical competence [xiv] that had characterized their previous careers, ultimately and inexorably defeated by the new organization and policies Congress imposed on them. First, in the future they would work for a centrally and hierarchically managed organization, split into two tiers to accommodate functionally disparate research centers and program offices. Second, their executive leadership would be chosen for them on the strength of political connections and managerial, as well as technical, experience. As experienced public administrators, that leadership would, and did, yield to the scrutiny and controls imposed by the Bureau of the Budget, the Civil Service Commission,7 and the congressional authorization process. Third, the encroachments of managerial competence and political salesmanship on technical competence as standards for the new organization's success would reach down into the very heart and soul of the agency's work.
The ideology of the Republican presidential administration under which NASA first took form militated against the creation of a large government establishment, requiring instead that as much work as possible be contracted out to the private sector. The notion of contracting out was, of course, not new with the Eisenhower administration. Since the early nineteenth century the military services had procured goods and services from private suppliers. What the military had not wholly relied on commercial suppliers for was ordnance-hence the U.S. Army's scattered armories, or "arsenal system." The experience of World War II suggested that effective innovation in weapons technology can make the difference between victory and defeat. In the twentieth century innovation in weapons technology was no mere Edisonian enterprise; it required systematic, institutionalized research and development programs.
Lacking a general research and development or production capacity of its own, the federal government has thus, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, periodically commandeered facilities in place in the private sector, but it commandeered them in such a way that the corporate integrity of private enterprises and chances for legitimate profit would not be compromised. So it was with NASA when it was given Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the Moon and return him safely: NASA would buy the know-how and the hardware it needed from industry; to ensure the flow of scientific knowledge into space technology, it would prime the pumps of university science and engineering departments around the country.8
The effectiveness of the operating structure the government chose for NASA, as well as its elaborate research and development procurement machinery (borrowed from the Department of Defense) would depend on the ease with which NASA's technical staff adapted to them. But that staff had been accustomed to working in the relatively autonomous, decentralized in-house research laboratories of the NACA, the NRL, or the ABMA "arsenal" that would produce the Saturn launch vehicle. The potential for cultural resistance among the NACA and ABMA engineers was not mitigated by the expansion of NASA's personnel during the next five years, for the "new men" would take their cues from those who had helped to establish the agency and, in the process, were establishing themselves. To have forged such a heterogenous [xv] cluster of research and development communities, sharing only a strong inhouse culture, should have daunted the greatest administrative genius.
The NASA Apollo era engineers interviewed for this profile were selected by two methods, peer selection and random selection.9 Both were used in order to verify whether the "typical" Apollo era engineer, as recognized by the agency's leadership, was in fact typical-as measured by a random sampling. To develop a candidate interviewee list by peer selection, NASA's second highest ranking executive 10 asked the agency's leadership in 1984 to nominate for our profile those individuals they believed were the most "representative" of the Apollo generation of NASA engineers. In all probability, those whom NASA's current leadership regarded as "representative" would embody those personal and professional traits which were most important to recognition and success within the agency. The 621 nominations received provided a small subgroup-the "nominee" group-which contained a higher preponderance of older men, top-ranking managers, individuals whose highest degrees were in engineering, and men who had entered NASA before 1960 (see Appendix B). Since almost 95 percent of NASA personnel when the agency opened its doors in 1958 came from the research centers of the NACA, engineers who shared the NACA experience contributed significantly to the composition of NASA's leadership in the 1980s.
A second, much larger population consisted of the 9875 engineers who entered the agency between 1958 and 1970 and were still with NASA in 1984 when this study was begun. Absent reliable or comprehensive data about engineers who left NASA during the period, we had to limit that demographic population to those who, because they were still with the agency in 1984, could be identified and located.11 Our demographic analysis of NASA's Apollo era engineers was also designed to identify three lesser cohorts: (1) those who entered NASA between 1958 and 1960, the eve of President Kennedy's manned lunar landing challenge; (2) those who entered between 1961 and 1965, when the agency underwent the massive expansion necessary to carry out the Apollo program; and (3) those who entered between 1966 and the end of 1970, a five-year period that opened as NASA's peak employment year and ended with a precipitous decline in agency resources (see Appendix B; NASA's annual budget plummeted from $5 billion in 1967 to slightly over $3 billion in 1974, not accounting for inflation.)
This profile is thus necessarily restricted to those engineers who, for whatever reason, preferred to work for NASA. Fifty-one engineers from NASA Headquarters and its seven principal installations 12 were selected for interviews at random from each of four groups: the "nominee" group and the three cohorts that comprised the "total population" of engineers who came to work for NASA between 1958 and 1970.13 None declined what was most often received as an opportunity to tell one's own story and thus surface from the depths of anonymity to which bureaucracy consigns most of its workers. The interviews clearly suggested that the career experiences of the "nominee" group were substantially similar to those of the "total [xvi] population" other than what I have noted above, which is indicated by a fairly straightforward demographic analysis (see Appendix B).
NASA personnel classifications have not and do
not distinguish between scientists and engineers; however, secondary
breakdowns of our total population of 9875 by highest degree fields
and occupational categories were possible. These
revealed that, of the aggregate numbers of scientists and engineers,
an average of 60 to 75 percent have been working in occupations
classified as engineering (although increasingly their actual work
would be engineering contract monitors). Management, and a miscellany
of non-aerospace technical occupations, claimed the rest. The
interviews strongly suggested that engineers who drifted into
management or non-technical jobs nevertheless began their NASA
careers as engineers.
The historian or journalist who wants to convey the experiences of others in their own words acquires the task of composing a coherent narrative out of the often broken and disorganized utterances of persons not always accustomed to talking about themselves. Only after many hours of listening can one begin to glean with any confidence the "truth" of a personal experience, distinguishing the perspectives of the subject and the observer. This is especially true of many of these engineers who, often by their own admission, are uncomfortable in a universe of words and feelings. Any solution to this problem must be faithful to the nature of the material itself, as well as the need to convey in an intelligible textual form the composite lives of numerous individuals whose aggregate experiences may not necessarily lend themselves to generalization.
My own solution has been to follow a few principles in attempting to convey the substance of these interviews. First, and above all else, I have attempted to let these engineers speak for themselves as much as possible. Second, I as writer have intervened only as necessary to sustain the narrative, establish an historical setting, or insert clarifications such as names, places, or dates. In some cases an engineer's own clarifications, drawn from the interview itself, have been interspersed among his or her own words. Every effort has been made to convey through punctuation the rhythms of the original speech. Ellipses have been used liberally to indicate when the actual sequence of a subject's speech has been broken or reordered. Finally, the text that unfolds from an engineer's own words has been "cleaned up" only to the extent of removing the "ums" and "ends" and rhetorical "buts" that litter the speech of all of us. Strict grammarians might have rewritten the original more than I have chosen to.
The chapters that follow do not necessarily incorporate the observations or reflections of every person interviewed on every single subject. Predictably, some engineers told good stories and others had few stories that they could or wanted to tell. Some simply had more interesting lives than others. Those whose comments were selected for inclusion were chosen because the experiences they related were relatively typical-that is, other engineers could have told of similar experiences. Occasionally an engineer's observations were selected precisely because they were [xvii] atypical; in those instances the reader is alerted to the exceptional nature of what follows. All of the engineers we asked to interview not only agreed to talk with us, but were as open about their experiences as their apparent individual levels of personal reticence seemed to allow. Although none requested anonymity, pseudonyms have been used throughout the text that follows (however, actual place names are used).
While the sequence of the following personal accounts follows the paths of various technological problems that were overcome during the emergence of the space program in the 1960s, these chapters do not pretend to provide an historical survey of aerospace technology in NASA during the period. Moreover, the chapters rely on recollections, which can be imprecise or incorrect. For example, in the early years of NASA, competition was rife among the engineers of the old NACA centers for priority in the solution of previously intractable engineering problems. This competition among the NACA (and after 1958, NASA) centers has remained an important ingredient in the organizational life of NASA. At the research level the competition has been considered salutary; it kept the engineers "on their toes." Thus any claims to priority in these chapters should be held suspect; such claims are difficult to prove or disprove. Modern institutionalized research is often an anonymous process. For the scientist or engineer, "who discovered it first" may be the most pressing historical question-the priority of discovery normally documented in dates of publications or patent awards. For the historian, how the discovery occurred, and its significance, may be the more salient question.
A final caution about what follows: I have tried to translate much of the engineering work into terms that could be readily followed by readers whose prior knowledge lies elsewhere than engineering. Thus certain technological puzzles and developments have been simplified-perhaps too much for more technically inclined readers.
The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger over Cape Canaveral on the crisp, blue morning of January 29, 1986 almost devastated NASA. Subject to seemingly relentless critical press comment, numerous studies, and the unflattering scrutiny of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident headed by former New York State prosecuting attorney and Secretary of State William P. Rogers, the agency struggled through the two plus years it took to return the Shuttle to flight. Did this event color our interviews, which spanned the Challenger accident? Interviews at NASA Headquarters, Ames Research Center, and Johnson Space Center were conducted before January 1986. Engineers at Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Langley Research Center, Lewis Research Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center were interviewed through 1987. We took some care in the post-January 1986 interviews not to focus on the accident. Its role as a variable affecting the content of these interviews remains an imponderable, since most of the subjects explored in the interviews appear to be largely independent of the immediate issues raised by the accident. Readers may, however, want to [xviii] keep in mind the time period during which interviews at particular NASA locations took place as they reflect on the observations that appear in the following chapters.
1. The bi-polar world that had dominated American foreign policy since 1945 persisted in Kennedy's rhetoric, the "free world's" side under the young Democratic president to be shored up by an ambitious liberal agenda: increased spending for economic recovery at home, "prudent fiscal standards," increased economic and military assistance abroad and especially in the Third World, increased funding for NATO's conventional forces and "our own military and intelligence shield," added funding for civil defense, nuclear disarmament, and then the trip to the Moon-all "to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny." See John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs," May 25, 1961, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), p.396-406.
2. The phrase "moral equivalent of war" was used by the American philosopher William James, who argued that mankind had evolved into a creature whose pugnacious instinct was so deeply ingrained that he required formidable obstacles to channel his energies into socially useful purposes (William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War," in Essays on Faith and Morals (New York, 1947). Theodore Roosevelt was a student of James's at Harvard College. See David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (New York, 1977).
3. For a history of the NACA, see Alex Roland, Model Research: The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958, NASA SP-4103 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), and James R. Hansen, Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917-1958, NASA SP-4305 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987).
4. For a detailed account of the NACA's (and later NASA's) struggles with the growth of centralized federal administrative policies and organizations (e.g., the Bureau of the Budget, the Civil Service Commission, and congressional authorization and appropriations procedures), see Roland, loc. cit., and Nancy Jane Petrovic, "Design for Decline: Executive Management and the Eclipse of NASA," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland, 1982 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1982).
5. The 157 personnel who had been working on the Navy's Project Vanguard, which became the nucleus of the Goddard Space Flight Center (established 1959), were transferred to NASA in 1958 from one of the Navy's own in-house research laboratories, the Naval Research Laboratory. They were soon joined by 63 more who had been working for the Naval Research Laboratory's Space Sciences and Theoretical divisions. The next large group to transfer to NASA was the 5367 civil servants from the U.S. Army's Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal, [xix] Huntsville, Ala. The ABMA had been essentially an in-house operation. The youngest NASA installations, the Manned Spacecraft Center (established 1961 and renamed Johnson Space Center in 1973) and Kennedy Space Center (established 1962), were initially staffed by personnel from Langley Research Center and the ABMA.
6. Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966). Source for personnel data: NASA Historical Data Book, 1958-1968. Vol. I: NASA Resources, NASA SP-4012 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976); NASA Pocket Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1971); Personnel Analysis and Evaluation Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., May 1986. Personnel data analysis available in the NASA History Office.
7. The Bureau of the Budget became the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1970, while the Civil Service Commission became the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 1979.
8. The growth of the complex and intricate devices by which the U.S. government has tried to procure research and development as well as standard goods and services is traced in Clarence H. Danhof, Government Contracting and Technological Change (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1968) and Merton J. Peckand Frederick M. Scherer, The Weapons Acquisition Process: An Economic Analysis (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1962). For an informed, incisive, and humorous view of the outcome of federal advanced technical systems procurement practices, see Norman R. Augustine, Augustine's Lazes, And Major System Development Programs, rev. (New York: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1983).
9. Much of what we know in any systematic fashion about engineers (or scientists) comes from studies combining demographic analysis, oral histories, and social theory-studies such as Ann Roe's The Making of a Scientist (Greenwood Press, 1953), Robert Perucci's and Joel E. Gerstl's Profession Without Community: Engineers in American Society (Random House, 1969), and more recently, Robert Zussman's Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Among American Engineers (University of California Press, 1985). In addition, see Robert Perucci and Joel E. Gerstl, eds. The Engineers and the Social System (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1969), a collection of essays exploring the occupational and work roles of engineering, recruitment, and socialization, and the social dimension of engineering careers. The value of insightful and informed readings of documentary sources is amply demonstrated by Edwin T. Layton, Jr., The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
10. Dr. Hans Mark, Deputy Administrator of NASA from 1981 through 1984. The agency's leadership was defined as current and past program administrators and center directors. See Appendix A.
[xx] 11. Given an average turnover rate of about 5 percent, the number of scientists and engineers who actually crossed NASA's threshold over the period was materially larger than 9875.
12. Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, John F. Kennedy Space Center, Langley Research Center, Lewis Research Center, and George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
13. Because of the small percentage of minorities and females among NASA's engineers (see Appendix B, table 7), a random sampling for the purpose of interviews would not, in all probability, have resulted in any interviews with non-white males. However, because the experiences of minorities who began to enter the agency in the 1960s could reflect the environment created by the majority in this (as in any other) organization, the "nominee" group includes a sampling of minorities and females supplied by NASA's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity.