LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger

Part I. The Original Ranger


The decision to adopt the Atlas-Agena B as NASA's interim launch vehicle raised thorny questions. Which of the planned Air Force Agena B versions was best suited for the Ranger lunar project? What were the technical prospects for these Agena-based missions? And how would the Air Force effort for NASA be organized and directed? To consider these important questions, in the closing days of 1959 the NASA Director of Launch Vehicle Programs appointed an Agena Survey Team. 1


The Survey Team had little difficulty concluding that the Discoverer version of the Agena B could be adapted to the lunar mission, and that Ranger should proceed using this vehicle. It was mandatory, the members emphasized, that the civilian space agency acquire early experience with the next generation of American spacecraft for deep space missions-vehicles attitude stabilized on three axes and guided by means of midcourse and terminal (lunar or planetary approach) maneuvers-before trying to develop still larger spacecraft. Moreover, with Vega canceled, other available launch vehicles would not support the payload weights required for planetary research; finally, and more persuasive, if NASA elected not to use the Agena B for Ranger, then it could not hope to challenge seriously the Soviet program of lunar exploration until the more advanced Atlas-Centaur rocket became available in 1962 – a two-year delay.

To the Survey Team, such a delay was absolutely unacceptable. It appeared reasonable to expect Atlas-Agena B vehicles to perform useful spacecraft development missions during 1961 and 1962, and the members asserted that Agena flights were "justified on this basis alone." The estimates of success for the proposed lunar missions, nevertheless, were reserved. The two NASA lunar objectives specified closeup reconnaissance of the moon and the depositing of an operating scientific instrument on its surface. The Survey Team found "a smaller but still finite expectation that during five firings either or both [objectives]…may be met." 2 But the reason for this caveat was as much the untested state of the spacecraft and ground control systems as of the launch vehicles.

Emphasizing this reservation and the importance of developing the next generation planetary spacecraft and their guidance systems, the Team judged a lunar effort of five Agena flights to be a "minimum program." The first two of these missions were not even to be directed to the moon, but rather launched for the purpose of engineering development without the important features of midcourse or terminal guidance. NASA could attempt a lunar impact only on the third and following missions. The Survey Team's technical prognosis flashed a clear caution signal to NASA: road under construction, proceed with extreme caution, watch for falling rocks.

Management factors compounded the technical risk. Agena B meant more project participants. And in the conclusion of its interim report issued on January 15, 1960, the Team members found the overall prospects for Ranger uncertain at best. There simply was no assurance that additional agencies could or would work in harmony and for a common purpose in building NASA's lunar program. They informed Headquarters that the success or failure of the entire project would likely depend not so much upon technical complications as upon the "difficult managerial circumstances" anticipated. 3 These circumstances might be surmounted if responsibilities were clearly defined and if the major participating agencies could agree on the political importance of these missions. To ensure the timely accomplishment of the lunar missions, and to tip probabilities onto the side of success, the Team advised NASA to establish a tight management structure for this effort-a management structure "with sufficient authority," in the words of the report, to "assure rapid and effective action." 4

It was one thing to call for the creation of a suitable management structure for the program; but, given the old rivalries and new allegiances that swirled within and around the infant NASA, it was quite another to establish an effective one.


The Agena Survey Team's managerial apprehension in early 1960 stemmed from the complex organizational and working relationships that it anticipated. Project Ranger would incorporate four major groups, each with a separate institutional identity, each confident in its own expertise, and each with its own strongly held liking for bureaucratic independence. Each would also have a hand on some part of the project's tiller.

First, and most recently formed, was NASA Headquarters, which expected to direct the enterprise.

Second was Caltech's JPL, the space agency's contract manager for Project Ranger.

Third was the Army's von Braun missile team with its German World War II experience in rocketry, still smarting as a result of government decisions that favored Air Force control of intermediate-range missiles.

Fourth was the Air Force, which, with its launch vehicle contractors, controlled the lion's share of military space and missile developments, but which still nursed a deep resentment over a civilian space agency's preempting a field it called its own.

The management framework for Ranger forged among these agencies was indeed complicated; in fact, it was at first so complex that the overlapping skeins of authority, running up and down as well as across the organizational charts, almost defied understanding.

Titular responsibility for guiding the entire effort naturally rested with NASA Headquarters. Reorganized at the end of 1959, the space agency's most powerful office in terms of program content, scope, and dollars was the Office of Space Flight Programs. Its director, Abe Silverstein, a dynamic, frequently outspoken shirt-sleeves engineer, had served as Assistant Director of NACA's Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory in Cleveland before coming to Washington with NASA (Figure 9). He possessed an enormous capacity for work, and he had gathered about himself a staff of talented young engineers. Until he returned to Lewis as its Director in 1961, Silverstein’s influence was pervasive. Not overly concerned with the niceties of formal organization, he preferred to make or concur in all office decisions. Indeed, Silverstein so tightly centralized decision-making in his hands that even his superiors often felt they were left without any real choice of alternatives.


Fig. 9. NASA Space Flight Programs Director Abe Silverstein

Silverstein’s proclivity for centralized decision-making had provoked opposition among the staff at JPL. By the time Vega gave way to Ranger at the end of 1959, JPL Director Pickering already had made clear his opposition to Silverstein’s managerial practices, insisting that decisions on questions of a technical nature should be made by those at the field installation having mission or task responsibility this had been NACA and Army practice and not in Washington. 5

To meet Ranger and other deep space assignments for NASA and to bolster JPL’s technical responsiveness, Pickering had reorganized the Laboratory at the end of 1959 and in early 1960. Lunar and Planetary Program offices appeared for the first time on organization charts, superimposed upon JPL’s functionally arrayed and historic technical divisions. Pickering selected Clifford I. Cummings and James D. Burke, Vega Program Director, respectively for equivalent posts in the Lunar Program Office. 6

A Caltech graduate who had come to JPL after receiving his B.S. degree in physics in 1944, Cunnings worked directly under Pickering on the Corporal missile project before his appointment to head the Vega Program in 1959. Deeply religious and forthright, he was a man of unquestionable integrity with a firm belief in operating projects in a tightly structured, hierarchical fashion (Figure 10).


Fig. 10. JPL Lunar Program Director Clifford Cummings

During a fifteen-year career in missile research and development for the Army, Cummings had learned to depend and insist upon an explicit chain of command. To Pickering at JPL and Siverstein at NASA, he urged the importance of establishing a clear definition of authority and responsibility for all of the organizations involved in NASA’s lunar program. 7

In spring of 1960, Cummings devoted increasing attention to the Centaur-launch Surveyor soft-landing project; he turned Ranger affairs over to his deputy and long-time colleague, James Burke. By the fall of the year, still serving as Cummings’ deputy on the Lunar Program, Burke became the Ranger Spacecraft Project Manager at JPL as well. 8

Burke had graduated in mechanical engineering from Caltech a class or two behind Cummings in 1945. After a stint as a naval aviator he returned to the Institute for an M.S. degree, joining the Laboratory at graduation in 1949. With a bent for the theoretical , Burke combined a swift grasp of complex system and integrate the most promising mechanical and electrical features to achieve technical objectives. With two associates, he had solved the major guidance problem, velocity control, associated with solid-propellant ballistic missiles. 9 Soon recognized as one of the Laboratory's most perceptive research engineers, be had rapidly advanced to become deputy to Cummings on the Vega Program. Looking younger than his 35 years, often wearing an old naval aviator's jacket astride his bright green motorcycle, Burke could easily be mistaken for a Caltech student instead of JPL's manager of Project Ranger. Articulate, with a quick smile and hearty laugh, he galvanized those who worked with or for him by force of logic, persuasion, and sheer enthusiasm (Figure 11).


Fig. 11 JPL Ranger Project Manager James Burke

Burke the individual and JPL the institution remained responsible to Silverstein at Headquarters for three out of four of Ranger's system components: the new spacecraft, the deep space tracking and control network, and space flight operations and data reduction. 10 As the contract field center holding Project Ranger as part of its deep space mission assignment for the space agency, JPL was also accountable for the fourth component, launch vehicles. But authority in that area rested at Headquarters in the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs, which was directed by Major General Don R. Ostrander. Detailed to NASA from the Air Force, Ostrander was to facilitate the agency's relations in the crucial matter of launch vehicles with his fellow service officers who ran Cape Canaveral on the East Coast and procured Thor or Atlas-Agena vehicles on the West Coast. On his part, Ostrander had delegated the actual direction of NASA procurement of Agena and Centaur launch vehicles, including those for Ranger, to Wernher von Braun's Army missile team at the newly-formed George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Thus, whatever JPL's accountability for all of Ranger, it actually shared authority in the important area of launch vehicles with groups in Washington and in the field. This functional alignment of tasks apportioned responsibility between two field centers (Pickering's JPL and von Braun's Marshall) and between two Headquarters offices (Ostrander's Launch Vehicles and Silverstein's Flight Programs), thereby separating the spacecraft and launch vehicle components that together made up individual flight projects. Burke appreciated the management difficulties that might attend this division of responsibilities. So did the Agena Survey Team-of which Burke had been a member-whose interim report recommended to NASA a strong management structure for Agena flight projects. And so did an increasing number of NASA officials who were bothered by the emergence of general management difficulties throughout the agency.


New techniques were needed to organize and control the growing space agency and its diverse flight projects. To meet these needs, on December 29, 1959, Associate Administrator Richard Horner announced the creation of a Space Exploration Program Council. NASA’s leaders expected the new Council to establish the management mechanism for implementing space flight projects, and to reconcile in a timely fashion the differences between Headquarters and the field centers managing the projects. With Horner as Chairman, the Council would consist of only key center directors and Headquarters personnel: William Pickering of JPL (deep space missions), Harry Goett of Goddard Space Flight Center (earth orbiting missions), von Braun of the new Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville (launch vehicles) and, in NASA’s two offices now sharing operating responsibilities, Flight Programs Director Abe Silverstein and Launch Vehicle Director Don Ostrander. 11 At the first meeting in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 1960, Council members confronted the problem of managing NASA’s Agena B flight program.

Headquarters could not go along with the Agena Survey Team’s recommendation for a single flight project manager at one field center, 12 but two alternative approaches, Horner announced, had been examined. The first called for controlling NASA’s flight project activity by two coordinating committees chaired by Headquarters personnel, each with representation split between Flight Programs and Launch Vehicles along lines that approximated the existing Headquarters organization. In the second instance, a single committee or "Steering Group" would direct the effort. This group would consist of a Headquarters Chairman, but with representation from each of the three affected field installations - JPL, Goddard, and Marshall. Since no other forms of organizing NASA’s unmanned space flight projects were candidates for consideration, Horner recommended acceptance of the single steering group, together with appropriate subcommittees and technical panels, as the least complicated and desirable management mechanism.13 Of the two choices offered, the assembled field center directors opted for the single committee, though doubtless without enthusiasm, since all preferred field center control over individual flight projects.

Various members at the meeting certainly wondered how the Air Force would be fitted into the committee management scheme. Someone pointed out that with a committee as final authority, von Braun could expect problems in coordinating Agena procurement through the Air Force representatives stationed at the Lockheed plant in Sunnyvale, California. After discussion all around, attendees agreed that a resident project engineer would be assigned to Sunnyvale from the Huntsville staff to take care of matters involving the Air Force there. 14 Other Air Force personnel concerned with Ranger would be appointed to appropriate technical panels of the new coordinating committee.

In due course, on February 19, 1960, NASA Headquarters established an Agena B Coordination Board. Chaired by William A. Fleming, Silverstein's technical assistant in Flight Programs, the Board was to resolve "all technical problems arising in the execution of the missions within its area." 15 In point of fact, this interagency Coordination Board did not solve any of the important problems of flight, project management, but created new ones. In short order, whenever a dispute arose over what participating organization was to do exactly what part of the job, be it providing trajectory calculations for lunar missions or tracking equipment during launch operations, it was labeled a technical problem and referred to the Board for resolution. Month after month in 1960, questions of roles in and jurisdiction over mundane tasks appeared and were carried forward on the Board's agenda. As time went by, molehills assumed mountainous proportions for Ranger's schedules and costs. 16

Burke's project office at JPL, and similar offices at Huntsville, the Air Force office in Inglewood, California, and in Silverstein's shop at Headquarters, felt the effects directly. Each of these project-related organs held responsibility for some of the technical aspects or for overall guidance of Ranger. Inside or outside of the Agena B Coordination Board, none of them possessed the necessary authority to do its task.


Perhaps the most severe immediate problem resulting from this unusual division of authority and responsibility surfaced in spring and summer 1960 between the former rivals in missilery, the von Braun team at Huntsville and the Air Force headquartered in Inglewood. The Huntsville staff was primarily occupied with developing for NASA the Army-originated Saturn series; of super launch vehicles large enough to carry man into interplanetary space. To care for and nurture the Agena and Centaur launch vehicles inherited from the Air Force, von Braun appointed a long-time friend and coworker in the vineyard of rocketry, Hans Hueter, to head a Light and Medium Vehicle Office. To manage Agena Systems, Hueter obtained Friedrich Duerr. Educated in the classics, Duerr was an electrical engineer from Munich who had joined the Peenemünde rocket research center in 1941, where he designed the electrical checkout and firing equipment for the A-4 (V-2) missile. Like von Braun and Hueter, he had come to the United States under "Project Paperclip" 17 in 1945, had remained with the Army's missile program, and eventually transferred to NASA. Duerr was a cultivated man in the old world tradition. "Why," an impressed JPL engineer recalled, "he even spoke Latin" (Figure 12).


Fig. 12. Marshall Agena Systems Manager Friedrich Duerr

Hueter and Duerr were to procure, first, all Agena B Vehicles used by NASA and, second, all of the Agena's ground support equipment and the launch-to injection tracking and instrumentation. The second task would be worked out in a panel of the Agena B Coordination Board, with the Air Force and with Ostander’s newly formed launch Operations Directorate at Cape Canaveral. By agreement between NASA and the Air Force on the important first tasks, however, the Huntsville office was expected to confine itself to supervising the procurement of Agena B vehices; 18 the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in Inglewood would handle the actual procurement. Though NASA provided the funds, the Air Force would thus administer the contracts and direct Lockheed and General Dynamics Astronautics. The purpose was to minimize interference between NASA’s space program and the Air Force’s own high-priority military satellite projects that used the same Atlas-Agena launch vehicles.

This agreement went down hard in Huntsville. Accustomed to the tradition of "in-house" development of missile and space systems,* the German-Americans now found themselves responsible for work they could control only through the Air Force as a second party. Worse, it was a party that had bested them in the struggle for jurisdiction over the Army's intermediate-range ballistic missile a few years before, and disdained their arsenal procurement practices as obsolete. Von Braun and Hueter requested a clarification of roles in May. Launch Vehicle Director Ostrander replied that Marshall "will provide complete day-to-day technical, administrative and financial supervision of the industrial contractors participating in the various launch vehicle programs." 19 But when directives began to be dispatched from Huntsville to Inglewood and Sunnyvale under this mandate, counter complaints from the Air Force arrived at NASA Headquarters. 20

* "In-house" refers to the Army practice of undertaking research and development of a weapon system at a military arsenal. After building and testing the equipment, the design would be turned over to an industrial firm for production. The Air Force, on the other hand, preferred to contract for the complete package–research, development, and production–directly with an industrial firm.

By summertime, Ostrander was obliged to express the equation anew both to von Braun and to Major General Osmond J. Ritland, the Air Force Commander in Inglewood. Von Braun's group held responsibility for the planning and execution of NASA Agena projects, while the actual implementation of the projects was the task of the Air Force. General Ritland, happy to agree with Ostrander's clarification, 21 had detailed Major John E. Albert, in April, as the Air Force representative on NASA's Agena Program. 22 Albert assumed responsibility for all Air Force technical matters in Ranger, an assignment which rapidly led him to the peripatetic schedule of the NASA, Air Force Agena, and Ranger team in offices scattered from coast to coast. Quartered in Inglewood, he came in time to sign his correspondence and orders as Air Force "Director of Ranger." 23 But despite the misleading title, Albert's solid expertise, direct approach to technical problem solving, knowledge of Air Force "rules of the road," and his genuine interest in Ranger soon proved indispensable both to Burke at JPL and to Duerr at Marshall (Figure 13).


Fig. 13. Air Force Ranger Manager John Albert with James Burke

The Ranger-Agena group in the Light and Medium Vehicle Office in Huntsville, however, numbered no more than four men, including Robert Pace, Duerr's "resident project engineer" assigned to the Lockheed plant. That number would prove insufficient to "supervise" the far-flung Agena-related activities at Lockheed and Cape Canaveral, much less in Inglewood, where, above the level of Major Albert, Ranger and other NASA projects using Agena tended to be viewed as impediments to the timely prosecution of Air Force work in space. Newly embarked on a supervisory mission for NASA, with ill-defined responsibilities and authority, understaffed in the crunch to get on with Saturn, Hueter and Duerr found themselves unable to command further support for Agena affairs at the Marshall Space Flight Center.


At JPL, Pickering's reorganization had provided separate Lunar and Planetary Program Offices. The Ranger Project reported to the lunar organization. To meet the special demands anticipated in space flight operations, new technical divisions also appeared: Space Sciences, which coupled scientific experiments with spacecraft; Systems, which integrated spacecraft engineering and ran test operations; and Telecommunications, which handled spacecraft tracking, command, and control. JPL leaders reasoned that a small staff in each of the flight project and program offices could draw on the personnel in the technical divisions for the support they required. Project Ranger depended upon all of the JPL line technical divisions, new and old. By 1960, direct divisional support of Ranger had grown rapidly from 200 to nearly 600 engineers and technicians. Burke's project office counted two men and one secretary.

Under the JPL management structure, Cummings and Burke allocated the funds, planned, scheduled, and assigned Ranger tasks, and reviewed the progress of these efforts. They did not, however, possess direct supervisory authority over divisional individuals, groups, or sections. The divisions carried out the design and development of the spacecraft, scientific experiments, and tracking net and flight operations. They also directly monitored the various Ranger contracts. Each division chief and his line subordinates not only supervised but selected and placed engineers assigned to Ranger. Division managers could and did substitute key individuals at their discretion. By August 1960, as the Mariner planetary projects got up to speed at the Laboratory, personnel turnover on Ranger reached critical proportions. Cummings complained bitterly to all of JPL's division managers that the "alarming rate of loss to the Lunar Program of the talented personnel who had originally been assigned...and the breaking in of new and less qualified personnel has been detrimental to the program...and incompatible with the priority ... established for the Ranger Project." 24 The rate of turnover slowed, but the divisions’ closely guarded personnel prerogatives remained unchanged.

Key among the supporting divisions was the new Systems Division. Directed by Harris M. Schurmeier, Burke's Caltech classmate and friend, this division held three major flight project functions: systems analysis, which included flight trajectory, orbit, and the overall analyses to establish midcourse and terminal maneuvers; systems design and integration, which included spacecraft preliminary design, subsystem integration, and design studies; and operations, which covered spacecraft assembly and checkout, qualification and performance testing, quality assurance, and spacecraft launch and flight operations. This single division contributed the core of most engineering cadres for Ranger and JPL's other space flight projects; other technical divisions supplied additional specialized talents. 25 At the outset, in February 1960, Schurmeier appointed Gordon P. Kautz as the Systems Division's Project Engineer for Ranger. NASA's new spacecraft for deep space exploration would be, Schurmcier assured him, a challenging assignment. In fact, during the next five years, Ranger would become his life.

Kautz, a mechanical engineer, had graduated in 1941 from Fenn College (now Cleveland State University) in Cleveland, Ohio. Like the entire student body of this small engineering school, Kautz secured his diploma by means of the Cooperative Plan, alternating work and study for a B.S. degree. Employed with various eastern firms during the next fifteen years, he encountered Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the first time in 1955. Impressed by the competence and spirit of those he met, he resigned his position and was hired at JPL. Soon after the Ranger Project Office was formally established in October 1960, Burke named him Assistant Project Manager (Figure 14) 26 As Burke's deputy, in the absence of a concrete agency-wide project structure, Kautz found ways of tracking Ranger developments across the board, including the major contractors involved. He possessed a jugular instinct for potential trouble areas; Burke, on receiving unexpected phone calls from Kautz, often associated his scratchy Ohio voice with bad news.


Fig. 14. JPL Ranger Project Assistant Manager Gordon Kautz

Together, Burke and Kautz formed the linchpin of Project Ranger at JPL. Their Ranger organizational arrangement, which was characteristic of all of the deep space missions at the Laboratory, was assumed to combine the best of two worlds. It avoided large, ephemeral, "projectized" offices while maintaining permanent operating capabilities in the individual technical division, thereby approximating the separation of disciplines found in university departments. However, the small project office, short-handed, without direct supervisory control over personnel assignments or turnover, had to rely entirely upon the performance of the divisions. If something suddenly needed additional attention on short notice, the office staff, somehow, had to supply it. The work week of the Ranger "Spacecraft Project Manager" and his deputy quickly rose to sixty hours and more.

But in Pasadena the project staff and division personnel at least knew and understood one another. The same could not as yet be said for those groups beyond its confines, in the larger world of Project Ranger. By institutional default, Burke and Kautz found themselves enmeshed in an agency-wide policy question meant for higher levels than that of the project: Where did the field center Spacecraft Project Manager's authority end and that of the NASA Headquarters offices, Marshall, and the Air Force begin? When pressed by Cummings at JPL for an answer, Silverstein at NASA insisted that the matter simply was not crucial; with everyone anxious to make Ranger a success, he explained, these questions would work themselves out. 27

In July, Silverstein notified the Laboratory that his Lunar and Planetary Programs Division within the NASA Flight Programs Office would be the group directly responsible for the conduct of the project, and JPL's point of contact in guiding Ranger developments. 28 The Lunar and Planetary Programs Division originally had been formed in the autumn of 1959 , as NASA Administrator Glennan began emphasizing a moon flight program. It was headed by Edgar M. Cortright, formerly from NACA's Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory. Silverstein and Newell had moved this exceptionally capable aeronautical research engineer from meteorological satellites and charged him with forming the new office (Figure 15 ). Cortright promptly assembled a team, 29 and so far as NASA Headquarters was concerned, the Ranger project structure was now complete.


Fig. 15. NASA Lunar and Planetary Programs Chief Ed Cortright

The project management issue, nevertheless, was hardly solved. Cummings at JPL, intent on comprehending the position and roles of the numerous agencies, offices, committees, and panels involved, prepared what is probably the only organization chart ever made of the early Ranger project (Figure 16). Whatever the merits in capturing the elusive project organization on paper, the exercise offered small comfort to those obliged to live inside that framework. When Burke and Kautz operated beyond the confines of JPL, they lacked authority; diplomacy and appeals to reason and national honor proved the only available means for gaining compliance with requests for action. And these proved to be dull instruments with which to cut the hard schedules established for Ranger.


Fig. 16. 1960 Ranger Project Organization (JPL Organization Chart R-5, August 15, 1960)


The managerial faults were rapidly exemplified in the launch vehicle situation. Upon visiting Inglewood and Sunnyvale as early as February 1960, JPL engineers asked for details about Agena to support spacecraft development. They found that "official requests for and answers to NASA inquiries" were supposed to be sent through circuitous Air Force-to-NASA Headquarters channels. "The Inglewood and Sunnyvale people seemed perfectly willing to give us unofficial answers to our questions, but stressed that these could only be considered tentative answers." Incredulous, the JPL visitors asserted: "This situation could result in some serious bottlenecks in our program unless the future working relationship can bypass this long route." 30 But that long route and working relationship had already been agreed upon between NASA Headquarters and the Air Force in Inglewood. During 1960 it could be shortcut to a limited extent by those working at the engineering level, but it was not to be bypassed at Lockheed on task assignments, change orders, or schedules. 31

In March 1960 NASA and the Air Force agreed on Lockheed's task. The firm would provide three major launch vehicle components: the Discoverer 32 model of the Agena B, made standard for NASA use; a spacecraft adapter to fit the forward end of the Agena to which the Ranger spacecraft would be fastened; and an over-the-nose metal fairing, or shroud, modified from a standard version used for Air Force space missions, to protect the spacecraft during ascent through the atmosphere. A letter contract for sixteen Agena Bs and this associated equipment, issued through the Air Force on April 12, 1960, permitted work to proceed. 33

Herschel J. Brown, Corporate Vice President and General Manager of Lockheed's Missile and Space Division, selected Harold T. Luskin to manage the NASA Agena program. In the charged, often rapacious atmosphere that characterized space affairs in the early 1960s, Harold Luskin coupled technical expertise with integrity and decency; he commanded nearly universal respect – even affection – among members of the aerospace engineering fraternity. An American astronautical pioneer in his own right, he had as a young man contributed a chapter on spacecraft temperature control to the 1946 Rand earth satellite study. Now he would have a hand in the NASA unmanned lunar program (Figure 17).


Fig. 17. Lockheed Agena Manager Harold Luskin

However meritorious the selection of Luskin, the job did not come with a viable organizational base at Lockheed. NASA Agena work remained part of the Air Force satellite activities at the huge plant in Sunnyvale. His people few in number and physically scattered, Luskin found himself in a position all too familiar to Duerr in Huntsville and Major Albert in Inglewood: he had to meet a set of special NASA requirements amid larger, ongoing design and production efforts in which equally strong managers resisted change–from detailing personnel to allocating office space–that might interfere with their own programs. At the same time, established NASA–Air Force command complications were built into the job. The Air Force intermediaries attached to the Lockheed Air Force Plant Representative's Office stood between Luskin and NASA personnel, insulating the NASA effort from the higher–priority, classified Air Force programs. Representatives from JPL and Marshall found themselves unable to obtain Lockheed schedules and other vital Agena information, or even to discuss certain questions, because they lacked what the military liked to call a "need-to-know." NASA should submit its requirements, Air Force personnel insisted, and they would see that the necessary Agena Bs and other equipment fitted together and were delivered at Cape Canaveral in time for launch. 34

If Luskin needed any more difficulties, he got them in a major contract change. Late in July NASA Headquarters determined that it had firm mission requirements for only nine Agena Bs instead of sixteen. 35 On August 4, 1960, the space agency notified Lockheed of this reduction in numbers. Negotiation of a definitive contract, already well underway, halted. Agreement on a final contract, expected in August, would not be realized until February 1961. Among a growing number of Air Force satellite projects at Lockheed, the NASA work amounted to a very small piece of the action; whatever institutional leverage Luskin possessed with sixteen Agenas was reduced precipitously by an order for only nine. Luskin soon found that he could not command the needed Agena support for NASA in Sunnyvale.

First hardware deliveries testified to the dismal situation. In September JPL received a mockup of the forward portion of the Agena, the spacecraft adapter and nose fairing. Project engineers immediately returned all of the articles to Lockheed because they detected "inconsistencies in design and construction." 36 Burke called a meeting among representatives of the Air Force, Marshall, and Lockheed a few weeks later to evaluate the status of all three components, including the mechanization required to separate the nose fairing and the spacecraft from the Agena. During the meeting it became apparent that numerous deficiencies still remained. 37 Worse, any delay in applying corrective measures would jeopardize the entire Ranger schedule.

Under pressure from Burke at JPL and the Hucter-Duerr team in Huntsville, the Air Force agreed to a Board of Inquiry to investigate conditions in the NASA Agena B program at Lockheed. Inglewood assured Hueter that top management at Lockheed's Missile and Space Division would be directed to take whatever "positive corrective action" might be required to maintain the NASA Agena B program schedule. 38 Even before the Board convened, Burke, Hueter, and Albert J. Kelley, Ostrander's representative in charge of the NASA Agena B program at Headquarters, had no doubts about what was required. Among other things, establishing an immediate NASA need-to-know at Lockheed was imperative. 39 Around Christmas Hueter, writing for von Braun, reported the findings of the Board of Inquiry to Herschel Brown at Lockheed. Hueter candidly told Brown that the NASA program required more and better qualified engineers, increased authority delegated to Luskin as program manager, improved coordination among Lockheed design groups, and approval of direct engineer-to-engineer contact with NASA organizations together with a NASA need-to-know. 40

With the consent of the Air Force, Brown vigorously pushed through the needed reforms. Luskin, whose NASA Agena office had been given its own quarters and elevated to project status at Lockheed a few weeks before the findings were released, acquired the personnel and authority he needed. On February 6, 1961, the Agena contract was signed; then, on February 14, the Air Force approved direct contact between NASA and Lockheed personnel in the new NASA Agena B Launch Vehicle Program Management Organization and Procedures agreement signed by the Deputy Administrator of NASA and the Air Force Commander of the Air Research and Development Command. No longer an Air Force foster child, NASA's Agena work would become a full-fledged member of the Lockheed "family" with a legitimacy all its own.

With the new year, events in the launch vehicle department appeared definitely on the upturn. Luskin's shop delivered the reworked spacecraft adapter and nose fairing to JPL in January 1961. The equipment performed satisfactorily in "match-mate" tests with the spacecraft 41 –a hopeful sign that engineering and management problems at the Sunnyvale plant were truly a thing of the past.


All the while, officials elsewhere had been working to reorganize the entire NASA Ranger management structure, still frustratingly awkward, along the single project manager lines originally recommended by the Agena Survey Team. At its core, the Ranger management problem remained one between the NASA installations in the field and the Headquarters offices in Washington. Everyone liked to agree with Silverstein that there was universal dedication to move ahead with Project Ranger as rapidly and efficiently as possible. But events did not match either expectations or good intentions. "Each didn't understand the other's methods," Burke explained, "and there wasn't an agreed management under which we could dispute points and have them resolved by higher authority." 42 As conditions on the project deteriorated in 1960, JPL continued to press the question at Headquarters: Would authority for the technical control over flight projects be delegated to the responsible space flight center, or would it continue to be exercised by means of a Headquarters–chaired coordinating committee–attendant difficulties notwithstanding?

The smouldering discontent was brought directly to Administrator Glennan's attention on Bastille Day, July 14, 1960, at the third meeting of the Space Exploration Program Council. At JPL, Pickering had consulted with his lunar and planetary program directors preparatory to the meeting in Washington. Cummings, mincing no words, urged his superior to "denounce the continual fumbling over responsibilities and authority which has resulted in confusion and delays in getting organized..." The Agena B Coordination Board "should be dissolved and program directors clearly delegated full power to establish any management arrangement which has not already been determined." 43 At the Space Exploration Program Council meeting, Pickering, joined by his fellow center directors Harry Goett and von Braun, urged the "liberation" of NASA flight projects from management by committee. But despite the problems encountered by the committee in question, the Agena B Coordination Board, Glennan and his Headquarters cohorts rejected the recommendation. 44

But the Headquarters contingent was by no means unanimous. However desirable they might regard a Headquarter chaired coordinating board, the Board itself had obviously failed to resolve many of the disputes over the task assignments and responsibilities of the various project organizations in a timely fashion. Glennan, moreover, opposed increasing the staff at Headquarters to handle project details 45 and, contrary to Silverstein, he held no brief against the decentralization of delegation of authority. In the days that followed the July 14 meeting, Glennan permitted Albert Siepert, Director of the NASA Office of Business Administration and an attendee at the meeting, to consider alternatives for managing NASA flight projects, including direct delegation of the task to NASA space flight centers.

The fortunes of centralized control declined further on September 1 when Richard Horner, a proponent and architect of the Agena B Coordination Board, resigned his position at NASA to return to the business community. As his replacement for the agency’s general manager, Glennan selected Robert C. Seamans, Jr., a former professor of aeronautical engineering at MIT and the manager of RCA’s Airborne System Laboratory. Accustomed to delegating authority as a matter of course, Seamans chose to involve himself at NASA primarily with agency-wide management questions; Siepert now achieved active encouragement, and the support of Glennan, in drafting a formal agency proposal for flight project management.

During the next four weeks Siepert and an associate, Jack Young prepared a NASA Structure for Project Management. Completed shortly before NASA’s Fourth Semi-Annual Staff Conference–where agency policy, advance planning, and management issues were to be reviewed, discussed, and, it was hoped, resolved–Siepert’s brief called bluntly for decentralization. A few days before the conference convened in Williamsburg, Virginia, Glennan circulated the document to all those invited to attend. The management proposal, he declared, elaborated three general concepts "with which I agree":

  1. That the approach volume and magnitude of NASA projects will make it impossible to follow our present ad hoc approach to project management problems; a basic concept of project management is needed.
  2. That NASA intends to fix at the Space Flight Centers responsibility for the execution of NASA projects.
  3. That NASA needs to establish a method which assures a closer link between technical project direction and associated business interests. 46

The proposal specifically recommended approval of a General Management Instruction that defined project terminology and fixed the authority and responsibility for flight projects at the space flight centers. Marshall Space Flight Center, providing launch vehicles and launch operations under Ostrander's office, would support a project manager located at JPL or Goddard. Silverstein's office would allocate the funds, establish objectives, and review project developments. In the event of unresolved disputes, Associate Administrator Searnans–not a coordinating committee–would decide the issue. On October 19, 1960, NASA's leaders took up Siepert's proposal and endorsed it. 47

On January 19, 1961, one day before leaving office with the rest of the Eisenhower administration, Glennan signed NASA General Management Instruction 4-1-1, Planning and Implementation of NASA Projects. Judged by many to be the single most important management concept generated and adopted by NASA in its formative years, the instruction abolished the Agena B Coordination Board method of project management. It delegated to space flight centers direct authority and responsibility over their assigned tasks. Its central feature involved what was termed a Project Development Plan. As a controlling, written instrument signed by all participating organizations, the development plan came to be viewed at JPL as the "contract" or statement of commitment and understanding between the Headquarters offices and all NASA field installations having responsibilities for a system or major part of a project. 48

Coming about the same time as the resolution of Luskin's difficulties at Lockheed, the new mandate for project control cleared the managerial way for Ranger. Burke, now officially named Ranger Project Manager by NASA Headquarters, 49 was eager to get on with the assignment. But an entire year had elapsed since the Agena Survey Team first recommended decentralized project management. And though a sensible organizational structure was indispensable, achieving it had cost project officials valuable time that might otherwise have been spent on the technical details of the spacecraft and launch vehicle. Their development remained on schedule, at least on paper; however, only twenty-four months remained in the lifespan planned for Project Ranger. Official schedules pegged the flight of Ranger 1 in July 1961, a scant six months away. Time was running out-fast!

Chapter 1  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Chapter 3

Chapter Two - Notes 

The hyphenated numbers in parentheses at the ends of individual citations are catalog numbers of documents on file in the history archives of the JPL library.

1. Letter from Don Ostrander to Wernher von Braun, December 29, 1959 (2-582).

2. Interim Report of the Survey Team Established to Investigate the Use of Agena for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, January 15, 1960, p. 6. (2-604).

3. Ibid., p. 5.

4. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

5. NASA memorandum from Richard Homer to Albert Siepert and Abe Silverstein, subject: "Relationships with California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory," November 16, 1959 (3-314).

6. JPL Interoffice Memo 24A from William Pickering to JPL Senior Staff, Section Chiefs, Section Supervisors, and Group Supervisors, subject: "Program Director for Ranger," January 26, 1960 (2-233).

7. Clifford I. Cummings, Trip Report No. RPD-7, "Conference at Washington, D.C.," April 5, 1960 (2-1031); letter from William Pickering to Abe Silverstein, December 29, 1959 (2-469).

8. JPL Announcement No. 51 from William Pickering to JPL Senior Staff, Section Chiefs, Section Managers, and Supervisors, subject: "Appointment of Ranger Project Manager," October 14, 1960 (2-303a).

9. The technical fix, aerodynamic drag brakes that operated much like the blades of a camera shutter, proved as simple and efficient as the shutoff valves that performed the equivalent function on liquid propellant missiles. Cf., James D. Burke, et al., "Range Control for a l3allistic Missile," U.S. Patent 3,188,958, granted June 15, 1965.

10. Letter from Richard Horner to William Pickering, December 16, 1959 (2-471).

11. NASA memorandum from Richard Horner to Don Ostrander and Abe Silverstein, December 29, 1959, cited in Ivan D. Ertel and Mary Louise Morse, The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology (NASA SP-4009. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1969), Volume I: "Through November 7, 1962, " p. 34.

12. NASA memorandum from W. Schubert to Abe Silverstein, subject: "Agena Program Management, " January 15, 1960 (2-2256).

13. Minutes of the Space Exploration Council Meeting, February 10-11, 1960, p. 7 (2-1416).

14. Ibid., p. 8.

15. Friedrich Duerr, "Preparing Ranger for Operations," Astronautics, September, 1961, p. 28.

16. See the Reports of the Agena-B Lunar Committee to the Agena-B Coordination Board during 1960 (in 2-2512).

17. Project Paperclip brought German scientists and engineers to the United States at the end of World War II. See Clarence G. Lasby, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War (New York: Atheneum Press, 1971).

18. Letter from Richard Homer to Bernard Schriever, March 18, 1960. Enclosure: "Results of Centaur-Agena Management Conference, 1 March 1960 " (2-2264a&b).

19. Letter from Don Ostrander to Wernher von Braun, June 10, 1960 (2-1040).

20. TWX from ARDC (RDGN), Andrews AFR, to Don Ostrander, subject: "NASA Agena B Program," July 16, 1960 (2-2248).

21. Letter from Don Ostrander to Wernher von Braun, August 3, 1960 (22247a); letter from Don Ostrander to O. J. Ritland, August 3, 1960 (2-2260).

22. Air Force Ballistic Missile Division Headquarters Daily Bulletin No. 71, April 12, 1960 (2-2249).

23. Letter from John Albert to James Burke, July 14, 196 1 (2-1134).

24. JPL Interoffice Memo from Clifford Cummings to all JPL Division Chiefs, August 30, 1960 (2-1074).

25. JPL-Industry Conference Proceedings, conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and National Aeronautics and Space Administration October 26, 1960 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, November 18, 1960), p. 18.

26. Interview of Gordon Kautz by Cargill Hall, December 17, 197 1, p. 1 (2-2246). JPL Interoffice Memo from Clifford Cummings to Senior Staff, et al., subject: "Appointment of Ranger Assistant Project Manager," November 10, 1960 (2-1087).

27. Clifford I. Cummings, Trip Report No. RPD-7 (2-1031); see also JPL Interoffice Memo from James Burke to Brian Sparks, subject: "Visit by Dr. Glennan, "July 20, 1960 (2-519).

28. Letter from Abe Silverstein to William Pickering, July 5, 1960 (2-328).

29. The Cortright team was initially composed of Gerhardt Schilling and Newton W. Cunningham (Lunar and Planetary Sciences), Oran W. Nicks and Benjamin Milwitzky (Lunar Flight Systems), and Fred Kochendorfer (Planetary Flight Systems). Oran Nicks, a young aeronautical engineer from Chance-Vought Aircraft, and Ben Milwitzky, another aeronautical engineer previously with NACA's Langley Laboratory, would supervise developments in JPL's lunar program in the months that followed. Interview of Edgar Cortright by Cargill Hall, March 4, 1968, p. 1 (2-762).

30. JPL Memo for the Record from J. L. Starny, et al., subject: "Trip to Lockheed and BMD on Agena Funding," February 11, 1960, p. 1 (2-488).

31. NASA/AFRMD Management Procedures, signed by Major General O. J. Ritland and Abe Silverstein, January 1960 (2-1396a&b).

32. For a description of the Discoverer model, see Harold T. Luskin, "The Ranger Booster, Astronautics, September 196 1, p. 30.

33. Ranger Project Development Plan, May 24, 1961 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Revised July 5, 1961), p. 12 (2-621); also NASA, Minutes of the Space Exploration Program Council Meeting, April 25-26, 1960, p. 11 (2-1406).

34. Interview of James Spaulding by Cargill Hall, April 3, 1972.

35. Five for Project Ranger and four for use in Goddard satellite programs. NASA memorandum from William Fleming to Albert Kelley, subject: "Agena-B Launch Vehicle Requirements," August 3, 1960 (2-2303); NASA memorandum from Albert Kelley to William Fleming, subject: "Agena-B Launch Vehicle Requirements," August 5, 1960 (2-2302); NASA memorandum from Don Ostrander to Abe Silverstein, subject: "Reorientation of Agena-B Launch Vehicle Contract," August 9, 1960 (2-2301).

36. The Ranger Project: Annual Report for 1961 (U) (JPL TR 32-241.

Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, June 15, 1962), p. 87.

37. James Q. Spaulding and Frank A. Goodwin, Report to JPL Management on Ranger-Agena Interface, December 20, 1960 (2-1063).

38. Letter from Russell Herrington to Hans Hueter, November 10, 1960 (2-1086).

39. Letter from Albert Kelley to Don Ostrander, subject: " NASA-USAF

Relations on Agena, " October 2 4, 1960, p. 2 (2-2252)

40. Hans Hueter, Summation of Problem Areas Encountered with LMSA enclosure to letter from Wernher von Braun to Herschel Brown, December 28, 1960 (2-1153).

41. Space Programs Summary No. 37-7 for the period November 15, 1960, to January 15, 1961 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, February 1, 1961 ), pp. 4-5.

42. Interview of James Burke by Cargill Hall, January 27, 1969, p. 7 (2-1391).

43. JPL Interoffice Memo from Clifford Cummings to William Pickering, subject: " Recommendations as Subjects for Space Exploration Council Meeting, " July 5, 1960 (2-1045).

44. Minutes of the Space Exploration Program Council Meeting, July 14-15 1960, p. 6 (2-1418b).

45. Cf, for example, T. Keith Glennan, Transition Memorandum, January 1961 (2-1755).

46. NASA memorandum from T. Keith Glennan to Participants at the Williamsburg Conference, subject: "Staff Paper on Project Management," October 14, 1960 (2-1083a).

47. NASA, "Fourth Semi-Annual Staff Conference," Williamsburg, Virginia, October 16-19, 1960, pp. 56-59 (2-1428). This action coincided with a similar recommendation contained in the NASA report, "Report of the Advisory Committee on Organization," October 12, 1960 (2-1426).

48. JPL Interoffice Memo from Robert Parks to Leonard Frankenstein, subject: "Comments on 'Proposed Instruction on Planning and Managing OSS Program, "June 13, 1963 (2-1950).

49. Letter from Edgar Cortright to John Martin, March 27, 1961 (2-348); letter from Abe Silverstein to William Pickering, February 16, 1961 (2- 344); NASA memorandum from Abe Silverstein to Don Ostrander, subject: "Implementation of NASA Management Instruction 4-1-1," March 29, 1961 (2-346).


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