SP-4102 Managing NASA in the Apollo Era

 

Chapter 2

The Making of NASA Policy, 1958-1969

 

[9] The organization and management of NASA cannot be understood apart from the circumstances that brought the agency into being. To grasp the relations between headquarters and the centers, one must know what brought the centers into being, how each center's mission related to those of the other centers, and how the missions tended to change over time. Similarly, the agency itself was not created out of whole cloth; it had an ancestry, several research installations, and a nucleus of skilled technicians before there was an entity called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The purpose of this chapter is to present a brief survey of the history of NASA and its predecessor agency up to 1969, to do this with a minimum of scholarly apparatus, and, incidentally, to introduce the officials, programs, and installations that recur throughout the book. Readers who are already familiar with the history of NASA may wish to proceed to chapter 3.

 

THE ORIGINS OF NASA

 

The two sources of the U.S. space program were the military services and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).1 Chartered by Congress in 1915, NACA was authorized to "supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution . . . to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked, and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions." 2 Unlike its successor, NACA was strictly a research, test, and advisory organization. NACA let no major development contracts, owned few airplanes, and manufactured no flight hardware. Its mission, as enunciated by two generations of Committee members, chairmen, and executive directors, was to conduct applied research into the nature of flight to the point where the research could be applied to the production of aircraft.

NACA's research history began with the establishment in 1920 of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory near Hampton, Virginia. In 1939 Congress [10] authorized another installation at Moffett Field, California, followed a year later by a flight propulsion laboratory next to the Cleveland Municipal Airport. In time the former was named after Joseph Ames, Main Committee Chairman from 1927 to 1939; the latter after Dr. George W. Lewis, NACA's Director of Aeronautical Research from 1919 to 1947. In 1945-1946 NACA added two more installations: one at Wallops Island on the coast of Virginia and the High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards Air Force Base, California.* The location of three of the five installations on or near military bases was not accidental. From an early date NACA worked closely with the services, as well as with airframe and engine manufacturers, in its research.

Over the years, NACA compiled a long list of significant achievements in aeronautics. In 1928 it developed the famous NACA cowling, which greatly increased the flight efficiency of air-cooled engines and which won NACA's first Collier Trophy. NACA research on laminar flow and the resulting low-drag wing contributed to the success of the P-51 Mustang in World War II. The research facilities built by NACA, such as the pioneering variable density wind tunnel and the award-winning transonic wind tunnel, not only set the pace for other research laboratories around the world, they also allowed NACA to conduct original and unparalleled research. Although drawn into testing and cleanup work in World War II, NACA returned to fundamental research after the war and developed important concepts in the new fields of supersonic and hypersonic flight. swept wings, the "area rule" of fuselage configuration, and the blunt nose cone for dissipating the heat of atmospheric reentry. By 1954 these achievements had earned NACA an enviable reputation.

Three features of NACA practice may serve to make its success comprehensible. Its mission made it complementary to, not competitive with, the services and industry; its research was only loosely coupled to its users; and its laboratories enjoyed a certain autonomy in the selection of specific research projects and the manner in which research would be conducted. The first of these features should not be taken to mean that NACA did no work to order; most NACA work was to order. Less than half of what the Committee did was the basic, fundamental research it preferred to do. To stay alive it had to keep its customers, industry and the services, happy. The laboratory directors did have considerable flexibility to concentrate on certain fundamental problems that appeared most promising to them, but always they had to do it within the context of job work for industry and the services and the broad guidelines established by headquarters. Incidentally, whatever the reasons for NACA's reputation, the level of salaries was not one of them. The agency's budget was austere; in fiscal year (FY) 1958, its last full operating year, NACA, with just under 8000 employees, had a budget of $ 117 million.3

[11] After World War II and the appointment of Hugh L. Dryden as Director in 1947, NACA began moving into new fields. Spurred on by young engineers who were critical of the agency's conservatism and concerned about the competing research facilities of the Air Force and industry, the Committee authorized work in such new fields as rocket propulsion, nuclear propulsion, hypersonic flight, and exploration of the upper atmosphere. In July 1952 the Main Committee directed its laboratories to begin research into flight beyond the atmosphere. This led in May 1954 to an agreement with the Department of Defense to develop a manned hypersonic rocket plane, later dubbed the X-15. Development work had been eschewed by NACA throughout most of its history, but, once committed, the agency pushed on. In February 1957 NACA established a "Round Three" Steering Committee to study the feasibility of a hypersonic booster-glider, the remote ancestor of what became the space shuttle in the 1970s. One year later NACA Chairman James Doolittle could tell Congress that "4 years ago, about 10 percent of our activities was associated with space; 2 years ago about 25 percent, and in . . . 1959, we will be devoting almost half of our time to missiles, antimissiles, and other space objectives."4 Thus NACA was well on its way to becoming a space agency even before sputnik.

While NACA was conducting research programs in the upper atmosphere, the services were exploring the military uses of space. The V- I and V-2 developed by Wernher von Braun and his technical team at Peenemunde had demonstrated the potential of guided missiles; the end of World War II witnessed a flurry of study proposals funded by the services. The Naval Research Laboratory developed the Viking sounding rocket, which later became one of the stages of Vanguard; the Army brought the von Braun team to work first at White Sands, New Mexico, and later at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama; the Air Force subsidized several projects for air-breathing (cruise) missiles, and one, under contract to Convair, for a ballistic missile, i.e., a missile that expends its fuel in its launch beyond the atmosphere, coasts through near-Earth space, and reenters the atmosphere approaching its target. In 1947 the Air Force canceled that contract, but Convair continued work on its own for several years, until the Cold War atmosphere revived interest in ballistic weapons. Specifically, by 1953 RAND Corporation scientists and an Air Force Strategic Weapons Evaluation Committee chaired by John von Neumann had concluded independently that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was technically feasible. In early 1954 the von Neumann committee recommended that the United States undertake an ICBM program on a highest-priority basis. By the end of 1955 all three services had ballistic missile programs: the Air Force was developing Atlas and Titan ICBMs and the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM); the Army's von Braun team was working on the Jupiter rocket; the Navy had initiated what was to become the submarine-launched Polaris IRBM. In addition, in September 1955 the Secretary of Defense authorized the Navy to develop a rocket for launching a small satellite as the U.S. entry for the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year.

[12] Well before sputnik, the United States had the beginnings of a sophisticated space program. The missiles that would serve as satellite launch vehicles were being designed and built; test facilities existed at NACA laboratories and elsewhere; and a number of proposals had been advanced, several of them by the RAND Corporation, for meteorological, communications, and reconnaisance satellites. All that was lacking was a sense of urgency and coordination. In particular, the future role of NACA was uncertain. The construction of new military facilities with Government funds ended NACA's near monopoly in aeronautical testing. Also, by the mid-1950s NACA was losing some of its best engineers to industry because the salary differential had increased. By 1957 NACA was facing in different directions. It could remain what it had always been, a small agency specializing in advanced aeronautical research, or it could move further into space research, with results that could only be guessed at.

The importance of sputnik to NACA's future was at first overshadowed by the profound blow to the self-esteem of the services, Congress, the White House, and the public. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet announcement of a satellite in near-Earth orbit caught the U.S. military and civilian leadership somewhat off-guard. The Soviet Union had announced the intention of orbiting sputnik, but it was the disparity between Soviet and American payloads-sputnik's 83.5 kilograms compared with Vanguard's 1.47 kilograms (Vanguard, the Navy's scientific satellite, was hardly larger than a grapefruit)-and the implication that the Soviet Union had an ICBM capability that surprised and alarmed the public. So far-reaching an event was perceived and acted on in different ways. President Eisenhower advocated a thorough reorganization of the Department of Defense (DOD), coupled with improvement in the quality of scientific advice available to him. On 7 November he announced the appointment of James Killian,Jr., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and on 27 November the transfer of the Science Advisory Committee from the Office of Defense Mobilization to the Executive Office. Reconstituted as the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) and enlarged to a membership of eighteen leading scientists (with hundreds of others consulted for part-time advice), PSAC gave the scientific community greater access to the White House than it had ever had before. With the Special Assistant as the chairman of PSAC and, in 1959, of the newly created Federal Council for Science and Technology (of which the NASA Administrator was a member ex officio), Eisenhower hoped to obtain a body of politically neutral experts to provide disinterested advice at all levels of the Government.

The congressional reaction to sputnik was compounded of apprehension, embarrassment, and the desire to make political capital of the failures of a Republican administration. Should the Administration policy be found seriously wanting, the Democrats would have the opportunity to pose as champions of preparedness and a national space program. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) and the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Armed Service Committee began to probe the weaknesses of U.S. military policy.

[13] Johnson's strategy was to use the subcommittee to question the defense posture of the Eisenhower administration. Johnson, as one student of defense has said, was "clearly able and anxious to take the initiative in policy-making for national security affairs, including space. His choice to do so, more than any other factor, guaranteed that the resolution of the space issue would take place in a broad political arena." 5 Both the Preparedness Subcommittee and the Special Committees on Space and Astronautics, established in both Houses of Congress in February 1958, emphasized the importance of a national space program and an agency-preferably independent and civilian-to administer it.

At the beginning of 1958 several agencies were in the running for the job of managing the U.S. space program, among them NACA, the military services, and the Atomic Energy Commission. The Army and the Air Force were preparing to take the initiative: the Army because its Jupiter program was being developed unofficially as a backup to Vanguard, the Air Force because the development and launching of space vehicles seemed a logical extension of its mission. On the other hand, Defense Secretary Neil McElroy and his staff were preoccupied with bringing the Vanguard program to a successful conclusion and in effecting a division of labor to satisfy the rival services. The humiliation attendant on Sputniks 1 and 2 was compounded by the failure of the early Vanguards on the launch pad. On 8 November 1957 DOD (with President Eisenhower's approval) authorized the Army satellite program as a backup to Vanguard; on 15 November Secretary McElroy announced that he would appoint a new director for advanced weapons development; on 31 January 1958 the von Braun team's Jupiter placed Explorer I in orbit, the first successful launch of a U.S. spacecraft; on 7 February McElroy established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to eliminate wasteful duplication of research and development in the services. McElroy hoped to defuse the issue of the military role in space: first, by giving ARPA responsibility for evaluating novel proposals during the earliest planning stages; second, by locating space programs at the level of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD); third, by setting up a research and development arm to deal with programs that were long range and possibly tangential to work in progress. 6 McElroy was no more prepared than the services to leave the field to a new civilian agency. The Air Force might protest the centralization of space programs in OSD, while the Army command might act as if any gain in Air Force funding must somehow be at the Army's expense. But "confronted with a civilian challenge to the freedom to determine what programs were to be considered militarily significant, the services closed ranks with the OSD." 7

The outcome was a check to DOD. During Johnson's subcommittee hearings, the Administration reviewed the available options. The decision to put the space program in civilian hands was made by a President whose strongest feeling about the space program was that it must be kept from military control, both to keep space activity peaceful and to avoid creating a new, large, and expensive program located in the Pentagon. This left open the question of where to locate the new agency. Should it be placed in an expanded Atomic Energy Commission, [14] a central Department of Science, or a reconstituted NACA? When the Administration decided on 5 March 1958 in favor of NACA, it did so not least because Dryden, Doolittle, and Main Committee members-in speeches, resolutions, and staff papers-had stated that they were willing to take on the job. NACA was already there. It had a specifically technical orientation, a highly trained research staff, a recent history of research on flight in the lower reaches of space, and excellent relations with DOD. Furthermore, NACA had outlived its mission and was in need of a new one. Interestingly, it was the Bureau of the Budget (BOB), not Congress, that proposed NACA as the organizational home of the new agency; the Administration's draft legislation was largely the work of analysts like William Finan of the Office of Management and Organization and Willis H. Shapley of the Military Division. They and Budget Director Maurice Stans preferred single-headed agencies reporting directly to the President, as opposed to independent commissions. The bill's objective, according to Stans, was "to build upon existing institutions and to avoid increasing the total number of Federal agencies involved in aeronautics and space matters." 8

The Administration bill, introduced on 14 April, modified by Congress, and signed on 29 July, contained two provisions particularly important to this study. First, the act made NACA the nucleus of the new agency, but not NACA as then constituted. Rather than NACA's proposal of a multiheaded executive branch, the act authorized an Administrator with wide powers, including the right to appoint 260 individuals exempt from civil service classification. The new agency would have power to contract out for hardware, support services, and university-sponsored research. Most important, the space agency was empowered to conceive and carry out major development programs, including the development of large launch vehicles.

Second, neither the Administration bill nor the Space Act settled the matter of one national space program or two. Once it became clear that the agency would be civilian controlled, DOD officials dropped overt opposition to NASA, concentrating instead on making it respond to their needs. The Air Force found NASA something it could live with; top officials saw the agency as merely NACA enlarged and somewhat strengthened but still responsive to Air Force interests and a convenient location for noncompetitive military projects. At the same time, the Administration bill contained almost nothing about coordinating military and civilian programs and provided no solution for the jurisdictional conflicts that were bound to arise. It was difficult to find the middle ground; officials like Herbert York, ARPA's chief scientist, argued that space was a region, not a program, and that DOD should be free to operate in any field-including space- that it found interesting.9 Carried to its logical conclusion, this view would have negated the distinction between civilian and military programs the Administration intended to safeguard. The Space Act represented a compromise. Being civilian, the agency accorded with the views of the Administration, PSAC, and the leaders of both Houses of Congress. At the same time, the new agency would have to depend heavily on DOD for launch vehicles, launch facilities, personnel-many [15] of them officers detailed from the services-and contract administration. To the extent that the Administration bill did not provide for NASA-DOD coordination, the space program would have been somewhat less than national. To remedy this, Congress moved in two directions. First, section 102(b) of the Space Act enjoined the civilian agency to make available to DOD those discoveries having military value or significance. Second, Congress added (sections 201 and 204) two coordinating bodies: the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a high-level policy-making body, chaired by the President, that embraced all Federal agencies with a major interest in space (NASA, DOD, the Atomic Energy Commission, the State Department) and a Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, which was superseded in 1960 by the Aeronautics and Astronautics Coordinating Board.** The success of these bodies would depend entirely on the willingness of agency heads and the President to use them; coordination assumed the existence of a community of interest.

 

THE TRANSFER OF PROGRAMS TO NASA

 

Within three weeks of the passage of the Space Act, President Eisenhower nominated and the Senate confirmed T. (Thomas) Keith Glennan, president of the Case Institute of Technology, to be NASA Administrator, with Hugh Dryden as Deputy Administrator. On 30 September NACA went out of existence; the following day, the President signed an executive order transferring to NASA the civilian personnel of the Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard division; several lunar probes relinquished by ARPA; and the 1.5 million-pound thrust F-1 engine, for which the Air Force had let a study contract to North American Aviation.

In December another executive order transferred to NASA the services of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, founded in 1944 and operated by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) under contract to the Army. In JPL, NASA acquired an institution whose future relations with it could not be precisely defined. Although JPL's facilities were owned by the Government, the laboratory was to be managed by CalTech under contract to NASA Indeed, NASA created a special Western Operations Office to administer the JPL contract.*** As a contractor-operated facility, JPL's status was equivocal: first, because of the contract's "mutuality clause," under which JPL and NASA agreed to undertake projects deemed of "mutual interest"; second, because the role of CalTech had yet to be determined; and third, because JPL was organized to [16] do most of its work in-house, including the testing and production of spacecraft. Although JPL was a major acquisition for NASA, its ambiguous status was to lead to serious difficulties over the next six years.

The last major transfer of facilities and programs took place in October 1959, when NASA acquired the Army's Saturn project and the Ballistic Missile Agency's Development Operations Division. The Army reluctantly acquiesced, mainly to prevent the Air Force from taking over the von Braun team, whose transfer to NASA gave the agency a launch vehicle capability it had hitherto lacked. NASA took over a portion of the Redstone Arsenal, renaming it the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in March 1960, although the transfer was not completed until July.**** It should be noted that DOD accepted these transfers because they did not jeopardize military programs and because the Saturn booster had "its primary place in space exploration and not in our missile program."10 Yet the completion of these transfers raised urgent questions about priorities. First, there were technical questions bearing on future programs. How should NASA choose between liquid- and solid-fuel boosters for first-stage use? Were nuclear-powered upper stages feasible? (NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission established a joint Space Nuclear Propulsion Office in 1960.) How far should NASA go in developing new launch vehicles or in adapting Air Force ballistic missiles for space exploration? Second, what was the proper division of labor between military and civilian programs? To what extent should NASA rely on DOD for launch and ground support or develop its own facilities at the risk of duplicating what was already available? Third, how should the agency plan in respect to manned spaceflight ? In October 1958 Glennan had established a Space Task Group ***** at Langley under Robert Gilruth to work on Project Mercury, the nation's first manned program. By 1960 a headquarters group had recommended that NASA plan a lunar landing for some time after 1970, a prediction soon to be overtaken by events. Mercury was plagued with technical problems, schedule slippages, and doubts about its sequel-if sequel there would be.

Yet it would be worse than misleading to look only at NASA's teething troubles while ignoring its accomplishments. By 1961 it had acquired new installations in addition to those inherited from NACA: JPL, Marshall, and the Goddard Space Flight Center at Beltsville, Maryland, established in 1959 with a nucleus of scientists transferred from the Naval Research Laboratory. In addition, the Office of Space Flight Programs, directed by Abe Silverstein, started work on many of the unmanned programs that flew five to seven years later: Ranger, designed to take photographs of the lunar surface before crash-landing on the [17] Moon; Surveyor, intended to soft-land on the Moon, take photographs, and analyze soil specimens; the Orbiting Observatories, which were designed to carry a variety of experiment packages; Nimbus, a weather satellite intended as a more advanced system than the Tiros spacecraft transferred from ARPA in 1959; and Syncom, a communications satellite designed (like the Army's Advent) to provide synchronous' twenty-four-hour coverage. What NASA lacked was program direction. But the arrival of new personnel, the accession of new programs, and the dramatic shift in national priorities following the presidential election of John F. Kennedy pushed NASA far indeed from the modestly funded, science-based agency contemplated by President Eisenhower.

 

THE LUNAR LANDING DEClSlON AND ITS AFTERMATH

 

The decision to go to the Moon was predictable, if not inevitable. Few things seem inevitable until after they have occurred.11 At the beginning of 1961 the future of NASA's manned program was uncertain. In December 1960 a PSAC committee had reported that a manned lunar landing was feasible but that it would cost between $26 and $38 billion.12 President Eisenhower refused to approve any manned program beyond Mercury, save for $29.5 million for a spacecraft for Apollo, as NASA's lunar landing program was designated in the summer of 1960. In addition, the Space Council met so seldom and accomplished so little that Eisenhower proposed abolishing it; nor would the Kennedy administration necessarily take a more favorable view. In a report of 10 January 1961, the Ad Hoc Committee on Space chaired by Jerome Wiesner, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, soon to become Kennedy's Science Advisor, had warned the President-elect of grave deficiencies in the national space program: "inadequate planning and direction . . . the lack of outstanding scientists and engineers. " 13 The report had further criticized NASA for emphasizing its manned spaceflight programs at the expense of the more scientifically productive unmanned probes. The report argued that Mercury exaggerated "the value of that aspect of space activity where we are less likely to achieve success.... We should stop advertising Mercury as our major objective in space activities. " 14 While it was hastily prepared and offered the President no new options, the report did make explicit the beliefs of many influential scientists. The worth of the civilian space program, their argument ran, was proportional to the scientific information obtained. This was only another way of saying what NASA officials would not have denied-that a manned program, especially a Moon mission, could not be justified on purely scientific grounds.

Why did President Kennedy commit the nation to a lunar landing as and when he did? The decision was shaped by many considerations: the knowledge that it was possible; the crucial role of Vice President Lyndon Johnson; the humiliating news of Yuri Gagarin's Earth-orbital flight of 12 April and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion a week later; and the conviction-strengthened by [18] NASA Administrator James Webb and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara- that a manned lunar landing w as the logical, inevitable way for the United States to demonstrate its superiority in space. Within NASA, the feasibility of lunar landing had been under study since 1959. The Space Task Group had worked out precise guidelines, and a headquarters study committee chaired by George Low had reported in February 1961 that "the manned lunar landing mission could be accomplished during the decade . . . at a cost of just under $7 billion through FY 1969." 15 Moreover, NASA was able to make a better case than the Air Force that it was the agency best equipped to manage such a program. Webb undercut the Air Force's attempt to take over the space program by negotiating jurisdictional agreements with McNamara and Deputy Secretary Roswell Gilpatric, both of whom wished to bring the services under tighter control.

Another ingredient in President Kennedy's decision was the role of Vice President Johnson. As chairman of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, he had been one of the prime movers behind the Space Act, and later of the "Johnson Rider," by which NASA had to seek annual authorizing legislation before requesting appropriations. On 20 April Congress revised the Space Act so that the Space Council, now located in the Executive Office and chaired by the Vice President, would "assist" as well as advise the President. Johnson then installed his own man, Edward Welsh, as the Council's Executive Secretary, rather than have the post filled by a NASA official, as President Eisenhower had done. Johnson was now the ex officio head of the national space effort; indeed, he was quicker than Kennedy to seize the political implications of space exploration. By revitalizing the Space Council and using it to review the space program, persuading Webb to accept the appointment to head NASA, emphasizing the importance of space for national prestige, and drumming up congressional support against the time when it would be needed, Johnson did more than anyone except Kennedy to make the lunar landing decision possible.

When Kennedy came before Congress on 25 May 1961 to request a $549 million supplemental appropriation for NASA, he outlined what were to be the principal features of the civilian space program for the next eight years. He proposed an advance on a broad front: a lunar landing within the decade (this was the language suggested by NASA), scientific investigations, worldwide operational satellite communications and weather prediction systems, and the concurrent development of liquid-fuel boosters (by NASA) and solid-fuel boosters (by the Air Force).

The steps taken by NASA officials were an adequate response to the challenge Kennedy presented. As is the way of organic decisions, this one tended to reorder all NASA's programs with reference to one central, all-important goal. Ranger and Surveyor, originally conceived as open-ended and predominantly scientific programs, were now to do the preliminary scouting of the lunar surface for Apollo. An even more important shift pertained to the role of NASA prime contractors. Instead of the centers doing most of the work in-house and using industry for support services, the roles were to be reversed, with industry handling [19] production and most of the design, while the centers approved or disapproved of changes and checked performance against schedules and cost. Alternatives were dismissed out of hand. It was obvious to Webb that industry and the universities had to be brought in, not only for the urgently practical reason that this was the only way to get the job done, but because it was a way of building support-by geographical area, by political affiliation, by economic interest.

Once Congress had voted the supplemental appropriation Kennedy requested, NASA started to negotiate the prime contracts of the Apollo program. By the end of 1961, NASA had chosen many of the firms with which it would negotiate the most important contracts: the Apollo guidance and navigation contract was awarded to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Instrumentation Laboratory on 9 August; the contracts for the three stages of Saturn V were negotiated respectively with Boeing, the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, and Douglas in September and December; and the contract for the Apollo command and service modules was awarded to North American by Webb, Dryden, and Seamans on 28 November. The awards were huge. They could not but affect the structure both of NASA and the aerospace industry; the command service module contract was the largest peacetime contract awarded by the U.S. Government up to that time.

Greatly expanded launch facilities, an engine and booster testing facility, and a launch vehicle assembly installation would be required. By December NASA had made the most important decisions: selecting a vehicle fabrication and test site at the Government-owned Michoud plant near New Orleans; choosing Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast as the launch site and the Army Corps of Engineers to build the launch facilities; and announcing the selection of Houston as the site for a Manned Spacecraft Center + to conduct research and development, train astronauts, and manage the flight missions.16 The core of the new center would be the Space Task Group, which would move from Langley to Houston. Finally, Seamans announced a new program, Gemini, to fill the gap between Mercury and Apollo. It would involve a two-man crew using a more advanced version of the Mercury capsule, and its main purpose would be to develop the capability for a spacecraft to rendezvous with a target vehicle in Earth orbit.

Concurrently, Webb faced the task of restructuring NASA and adapting it to the drastic changes made imperative by Kennedy's decision. To head the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF), he appointed D. Brainerd Holmes, an RCA engineer who had been project manager for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. In that capacity Holmes had performed the near miracle of finishing on time and within costs. If, in choosing Holmes, Webb had expected a conciliator in an organization rather well supplied with strong personalities, he was to be disappointed. Holmes was masterful, abrasive, and determined to get what he needed to carry out his assignment, even at the expense of other programs. His most pressing task was to build an organization that could handle both launch [20] vehicle development and spacecraft design; in Apollo, unlike most NASA programs, the launch vehicle was designed to be integrated with the spacecraft, not the reverse.

Between December 1961 and the end of July 1962, three decisions that were to prove of the utmost importance to OMSF were made: to establish an OMSF Management Council, chaired by Holmes and attended by the Manned Space Flight Center directors; to call in General Electric for testing and checkout services and American Telephone and Telegraph for systems analysis work, in the latter case establishing a separate corporation working solely for NASA; and to select lunar orbit rendezvous as the mission mode for Apollo. At its first meeting on 21 December the Council settled on what was to become the standard configuration of Saturn and assigned to Marshall the responsibility for integrating the three stages of the booster.17 The Management Council represented an early stage in the quasi-autonomy of OMSF. Within broad limits, the Council had the authority to make the fundamental decisions concerning vehicle and spacecraft configuration, reliability and testing standards, and the mission mode for Apollo.

The choice of lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) in July 1962 determined the design of the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn launch vehicles. On strictly technical grounds each of the three proposed modes-direct ascent, Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR), and LOR-was justified by internal task force studies. Direct ascent called for a super booster, the Nova, which NASA was developing concurrently with Saturn. EOR involved many launches into Earth orbit, assembling the lunar vehicle there, and landing it on the Moon. But in 1961 several Langley engineers, led by John Houbolt, argued for a third option: launching the Apollo spacecraft into lunar orbit and detaching a small craft that would land and then return to the parent ship. The OMSF Management Council considered mission mode from February to July 1962, and the decision was made on grounds that were as much political as technical. In its favor, LOR would cost 10 to 15 percent less than EOR and would require only half the payload weight; it was technically feasible with the specified three-man crew, although this was also true of EOR; it called for only one launch from Earth; and it was the only mode to include a lunar landing vehicle that would not have to face Earth reentry problems. This approach assumed that one member of the crew would remain to pilot the command module, while the other two visited the Moon.

The decision to use LOR was first announced by NASA on 11 July. More than two weeks later the PSAC Space Vehicle Panel issued a report criticizing LOR as "extremely ingenious but highly specialized . . . an isolated development" and arguing that "if a two-man crew is adequate for the most difficult part of the LOR mission . . . then it cannot be persuasively argued that three men must be landed in other modes." 18 The Panel preferred EOR because it seemed to offer a greater margin of safety. The issue was Jerome Wiesner's judgment that NASA could not justify its choice of mode on technical grounds and James Webb's contention that NASA had provided all the justification necessary. Commenting to Holmes on the PSAC report, Webb said that "we [i.e., NASA] were in a process [21] where our top people were considering all of the factors, and their minds moved steadily in the direction of LOR, and that it took some time for the documentation to catch up." 19 Whether the decision was "technical" or something else is a matter of opinion. NASA could not have developed two vehicles as large as Saturn and Nova at the same time. The development of Nova would have rendered Saturn, as well as the existing contractor structure, useless, and called for drastic alterations at Michoud. Furthermore, a decision could not have been postponed much longer. With NASA officials hinting at the possibility of a landing in 1967, the choice of mission mode came at the last possible moment.

Although the 11 July announcement was described as "tentative," its confirmation in November, when the Grumman Company was awarded the contract for designing and producing the lunar excursion module (later shortened to lunar module) surprised no one. In July 1962 NASA announced two more decisions that froze the design of Apollo. One, announced ten days after the LOR press conference, was to assemble the advanced Saturn vehicle and spacecraft inside a large building at the Cape, and to transport the assembled vehicle in a vertical attitude on a crawler-transporter, a sort of monster tractor, to the launch pad. The second, announced at the LOR press conference, was to produce an improved or "uprated" two-stage Saturn I, consisting of the modified first stage of the Saturn I and the third stage of the advanced Saturn, to test the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit. Early in 1963 the advanced Saturn was renamed Saturn V, and the uprated Saturn I became Saturn IB. Their configurations and the prime contractors for each stage are shown in figure 2-1.

 


Figure 2-1.-Apollo launch vehicles.

Figure 2-1.-Apollo launch vehicles.

 

[22] THE INITIAL PAYOFF, 1963-1966

 

The decisions of July 1962 marked the end of NASA's shakedown period. An account of subsequent program developments would go beyond the scope of a summary narrative, nor is such an account necessary. It will suffice to mention only a few of the most important events and to select several organizational problems for review.

In manned flight, NASA went from strength to strength. After unpromising beginnings, Mercury met all its goals with a steady increase in the scope of each mission, from Alan Shepard's suborbital flight of 5 May 1961 to John Glenn's three-orbit flight of 20 February 1962 to Gordon Cooper's twenty-two-orbit flight of 15-16 May 1963, which brought the series to a close. Gemini, with a similar start (and even greater cost and design problems), had similar results. In 1966 there were five Gemini launches, all successful. From its first manned flight in March 1965 to its last in November 1966, the program achieved its purposes:

 

Demonstration of ability to rendezvous and dock with target vehicle; demonstration of value of manned spacecraft for scientific and technological experimentation; performance of work by astronauts in space; use of powered, fueled satellite to provide primary and secondary propulsion for docked spacecraft; long-duration space flights without ill effect on astronauts; and precision landing of spacecraft.20
 

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Gemini was that it remained a NASA program in the face of attempts by DOD to make it either a joint program or one under de facto Pentagon management. The NASA-DOD agreement of January 1963 recognized Gemini as a NASA program, but one that would fly military experiments and respond to DOD's needs. A few days earlier DOD had recognized the land acquired by NASA at Cape Canaveral in 1961-1962 as a NASA installation. That facility, renamed the Kennedy Space Center in honor of the slain President, became NASA's spaceport on the East Coast. During 1964 and 1965 the Army Corps of Engineers continued to build at a furious pace, constructing launch pads 39A and B, the vehicle assembly building (166 by 220 meters) where the Saturn Vs would be assembled, and the 4.4-kilometer roadway along which a crawler would carry the assembled vehicle to the pad.

The unmanned science and applications programs were equally successful, nowhere more so than with the three lunar probes-Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter. After six consecutive failures, the last three Ranger flights in 1964-1965 returned thousands of accurate pictures of the lunar surface, with resolution to 30 centimeters. The success of the Surveyor program was even more surprising, what with two congressional investigations, the inexorable climb in the weight of the spacecraft, the difficulties with the second-stage Centaur vehicle that was to launch it, and the transfer of Centaur project management from Marshall to Lewis in October 1962. Yet Surveyor 1, launched on 30 May 1966, worked perfectly, as did four of the remaining six spacecraft. As for Lunar Orbiter, which had originally been a part of the Surveyor program, all five spacecraft in the series [23] were successful. It is interesting that the project manager for Lunar Orbiter was the Langley Research Center, a former NACA installation taking on development work.

One of the incidental effects of Ranger and Surveyor was to bring about changes in the relation between JPL, which managed both programs, and NASA Headquarters The failures of Rangers 5 and 6 were galling, the latter especially so; everything went perfectly until a few minutes before the programmed crash landing, when the TV cameras failed to turn on. Ranger 6 led to a NASA board of inquiry, an investigation by a House subcommittee, and a change in the contract with CalTech. NASA officials considered annexing JPL but preferred retaining it as an independent contractor. Yet JPL did become more like a NASA center. In particular, Surveyor was drastically reorganized; engineers who had worked on Ranger joined the Surveyor team, and most of them served full-time; the majority of the team was relocated in one building; and NASA instituted much more rigorous design reviews. 21 Under pressure, JPL hired a general manager and began to assign an increasing number of employees full-time to individual projects. 22 Finally, the December 1964 contract extension made two important changes. It superseded the mutuality clause with a proviso that NASA could assign tasks unilaterally and replaced the annual lump-sum fee with award fees based on performance. 23

All the while, NASA management sought that elusive entity, a balanced program. Although manned spaceflight accounted for nearly 70 percent of NASA outlays, there was an understanding that a limit existed beyond which it could not interfere with other programs. When Holmes asked Webb late in 1962 for an additional $400 million for the lunar landing program, Webb refused outright. The money could be obtained only by going to Congress for a supplemental appropriation, which Webb believed was inexpedient, or by reprogramming funds from other areas, such as space science. Webb was even more opposed to this course, since no reprogramming could be carried out "without decimating NASA's other vital programs by abandonment of projects well along in hardware development and extensive cancellation of contracts." 24 Webb and Holmes took their case to President Kennedy, who backed Webb. The Administration did not request a supplemental, no funds were reprogrammed, and Holmes returned to industry in the summer of 1963, to be succeeded by George E. Mueller.++

By the mid-1960s NASA officials had refined certain concepts for managing the space program. First, they stressed the concept of a balanced program, although, as one political scientist has observed, where you stand is where you sit. Second, they declined to overextend NASA beyond its existing commitments. As early as June 1961, NASA, DOD, and the Federal Aviation Agency had entered into an agreement to conduct feasibility studies on a civilian supersonic transport. But NASA managers, at Dryden's suggestion, refused to commit themselves [24] beyond the traditional NACA role of supporting research when President Kennedy in June 1963 asked Congress to authorize a supersonic transport program. Similarly, NASA entered into agreements with various user agencies that would transfer responsibility for managing certain applications satellites once they became operational. NASA was and would remain a research and development agency. In its 1964 agreement with the U.S. Weather Bureau, NASA undertook to procure a new weather satellite system, the Tiros Operational Satellite, launch it, and check it out in orbit. For its part, the Weather Bureau would finance the system, provide overall management, and be responsible for its operation.

Finally, top management delegated to the program offices and field installations the authority to get the job done. This was the rationale behind the reorganization of November 1963, when the centers were placed under the program offices, instead of reporting directly to Associate Administrator Seamans. In addition, NASA officials decided not to build up capabilities where the private sector could fill the need. The one partial exception was the decision to create an Electronics Research Center near Boston. This proposal was broached in the fall of 1962, introduced into the NASA budget in January 1963, authorized (after an intensive site survey by NASA) by Congress in July 1964, and formally implemented when NASA accepted the offer of a site in Cambridge in August 1964. With this exception, the NASA organization at the end of 1963 changed comparatively little during the next seven years.

 

FROM APOLLO 204 TO APOLLO 11

 

This record of success was brutally cut short by the Apollo fire. On 27 January 1967 three astronauts-Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee- were killed when a fire broke out in the Apollo 204+++ command module as it sat on a launch pad at the Cape for preflight testing. Although a NASA board of inquiry could not determine the precise cause of the fire, certain flaws in the spacecraft were revealed, especially in the number of combustible materials in the spacecraft at the time of the fire. Subsequent investigations by the House and Senate space committees uncovered two aspects of the history of the Apollo spacecraft not generally known outside NASA: first, that Apollo program manager Gen. Samuel Phillips had visited the North American Aviation plant late in 1965 and had discovered evidence of schedule slippage, bad workmanship, and a lack of direction from the senior management of North American; and second, that North American had been awarded the command service module contract despite a report by the NASA source evaluation board rating the Martin Company higher on technical performance. For several weeks Webb and Seamans (Dryden died in [25] December 1965) grappled inconclusively with the congressional committees, the latter demanding that NASA release the so-called "Phillips report," a collection of notes prepared by Phillips during his tour of inspection, while Webb and Seamans insisted that to do so would be a breach of faith with a NASA cotractor.25 In the end, the essential facts about the circumstances surrounding the fire became public knowledge. Errors had been made, but the design of the spacecraft was fundamentally sound. At a cost of an extra $410 million, a reorganization of North American's Space Division (carried out under pressure from NASA), and a slip of eighteen months in the launch schedule, NASA redesigned the block II Apollo spacecraft, removed combustible materials, brought in Boeing to integrate the spacecraft with the Saturn V, and made Grumman tighten up its management of the lunar module.

There were to be few failures thereafter. On 9 November 1967 Saturn V was launched, unmanned, for the first time. This marked the beginning of a sequence of launches designed to culminate in the lunar landing: Apollo 7 (October 1968), the first flight of the three-man crew (Saturn IB); Apollo 8 (December), the first flight to take astronauts out of the Earth's gravitational pull and place them in lunar orbit; the Apollo 9 launch in March 1969, which tested the lunar module in Earth orbit; and Apollo 10 in May, which accomplished every stage of the lunar landing except the landing itself. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969, it was the culmination of more than eight years of plans and organization. The mission that President Kennedy assigned to NASA had been accomplished on time and within Webb's estimate of about $20 billion as the cost of the manned program.26

Yet the future of NASA in 1969 was nearly as uncertain as it had been in the fall of 1960. Where would the agency go after the first landing? Would there be an extended program of lunar exploration, manned missions to the near planets, or a manned Earth-orbital space station serviced by a low-cost, reusable transportation system? When Apollo 11 was launched, planning groups at headquarters were considering all three possibilities. But in 1969 and for two years after, very little about the agency's long-term prospects was certain. Thomas O. Paine, who succeeded Webb as Administrator in October 1968, favored an ambitious long-range program with movement on all fronts: a manned mission to Mars, a new generation of automated spacecraft, and new programs in advanced research and technology. However, in 1969 the problem was less one of starting up new programs than of holding the agency together. At that time, NASA was in the middle of its third consecutive fiscal year of budget cuts and employee layoffs-cuts that eliminated the Voyager spacecraft for the exploration of Mars, the NERVA II nuclear rocket, a substantial portion of NASA's request for Apollo Applications (as the sequel to Apollo was called) and to the announcement at the end of 1969 that the Electronics Research Center would close, even as work on the unfinished complex continued. For NASA, the key problem of the 1970s would be to move from Apollo toward a program that the agency could sell to the Executive Office, Congress, and the American public.

 


* The Langley, Ames, and Lewis laboratories were designated "research centers" in 1958, when NASA was formed. Wallops Station became an independent installation in 1959 and was renamed "Wallops Flight Center" in 1974. The High Speed Flight Research Station became the Flight Research Center in 1959 and the Dryden Flight Research Center in 1976.

** The Space Council was reorganized in 1961 under the chairmanship of the Vice President. Although it participated in the lunar landing decision and in the bill that became the 1962 Communications Satellite Act, it never really played the coordinating role that Congress had in mind, and it was abolished by the President's Reorganization Plan No. 1 in 1973.

*** It was renamed the Western Support Office in 1966 and abolished in 1968, when its functions were transferred to the NASA Pasadena Office.

**** The center was named in honor of General George C. Marshall, chief of staff during World War II, Secretary of State from 1948 to 1949, and author of the Marshall Plan. As a rule, centers named after individuals will be referred to as Goddard, Langley, Marshall, and so on, to spare the reader an overgrowth of acronyms.

***** Not to be confused with the President's Space Task Group established in February 1969 by President Nixon to map out the U.S. space program over the next two decades.

+ Renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973 to commemorate former President Lyndon Johnson.

++ Pronounced "Miller." By coincidence, the chairman of the House Science and Astronautics Committee which authorized the NASA budget from 1961 to 1972 was Congressman George P. Miller (D-Calif.).

+++ Each Saturn IB and Saturn V vehicle had a code number, indicating its sequence. Thus Apollo 204 was intended as the fourth launch of the Saturn IB, the first three having been in 1966.


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