Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[307] A sizable portion of NASA's cooperative programs in the first decade-that is, programs with other countries in pursuit of common objectives, in contrast to activities like the operation of satellite tracking stations that were purely in support of NASA's own program-was devoted to space science. The tacit recognition that this would be true can be seen in the guidelines cited earlier, which were oriented toward scientific projects. Under those guidelines, which were sufficiently flexible to admit of a broad range of endeavors, many different kinds of cooperative projects sprang up. A few examples will illustrate.
Sounding Rockets
Sounding rockets were a popular medium for entering into space science. They were inexpensive, handling and launching them was simple compared to the large launch vehicles, and they afforded the means for accomplishing some significant research. As more than a decade of research in the United States and the USSR had shown, sounding rockets could be used to attack problems of the atmosphere and ionosphere, the magnetosphere, solar physics and astronomy, cosmic rays and interplanetary physics, and biology. Supplementing the U.S. and Soviet ranges, including that at Fort Churchill in Canada, throughout the 1960s new sounding rocket ranges appeared around the world-at Woomera, Australia; Sardinia in the Mediterranean; Andöya, Norway; Jokkmokk, Kronogfird, and Kiruna, Sweden; Chamical, Argentina; Natal, Brazil; Hammaguir, Algeria; Kourou, French Guiana; Thumba, India; Sonmiani Beach, Pakistan; and Huelva, Spain.
At the same time NASA joined with other countries in a variety of cooperative rocket soundings, some from U.S. ranges, others from ranges overseas. For example, in Australia in the fall of 1961 ultraviolet-astronomy experiments used the British Skylark rocket to obtain data on the southern [308] skies to compare with northern hemisphere data. During 1961 and 1962 NASA and the Italian Space Commission cooperated on a series of rocket firings in Sardinia to measure upper atmospheric winds by tracking glowing clouds of sodium vapor released at altitude from the rockets. Through out the 1960s and into the 1970s launchings at Andöya studied the aurora and also the ionosphere within and near the auroral zone. From time to time there were special expeditions, like that to Cassino, Brazil, in November 1966, in which 17 sounding rockets were fired to investigate solar x-rays and the effect of the solar eclipse of 12 November 1966 on the earth's upper atmosphere. Occasionally ships were used, as with the solar eclipse expedition to a spot near Koroni, Greece, in May 1966. All in all, by the early 1970s some 19 countries spanning the globe had engaged with NASA in a productive program of sounding rocket research, much of which required the special geographic locations afforded by the different ranges.21
Throughout the 1960s the United Kingdom also cooperated with the United States in conducting sounding rocket experiments at various locations around the world. But the scientific satellite exerted an even greater attraction than the sounding rocket, and the countries that could afford it quickly approached NASA with ideas for cooperative satellite projects. The United Kingdom was among the first to seek such cooperation, and the U.K. satellite Ariel 1 was the first international satellite that NASA put into orbit-on 26 April 1962.22 Every few years thereafter additional Ariels followed, the fourth going into orbit from the Western Test Range in California on 11 December 1971. In addition, British experimenters were successful in competing for space on U.S. satellites. By 1973, 13 British scientists had put experiments on Explorers; on solar, geophysical, and astronomical observatories; and on Nimbus weather satellites.23
NASA's association with the United Kingdom was typical of many of the international cooperative programs in that by and large the British experiments were primarily of interest to British scientists. The mutuality of interest was there, of course, and NASA considered the U.K. experiments to be a valuable supplement to U.S. space science. But the ionospheric research conducted in the Canadian satellites Alouette and Isis was more intimately related to the NASA program.
Alouette and Isis
For a time a race was on between Britain's Ariel and Canada's Alouette to see which would be the first in orbit. Ariel won, and Alouette 1 followed half a year later, going into a nearly polar orbit so that its revolution above the earth would bring it repeatedly in range of Canadian ground stations.24 Once in orbit Alouette proceeded to establish a record (for its time) of 10 years of successful operation on orbit.
[309] The major purpose of the Alouette experiments was to investigate the ionosphere, particularly by sounding the ionosphere from above. Following the experiments of Breit and Tuve in 1926,25 ionospheric sounding had been made from the ground by sending pulsed signals upward and recording the returned signal on film as a function of time after the initial transmission. The effect of the ionosphere was to spread the reflected signal out in time, and from the shape of the returned signal one could estimate ionospheric heights and ionization intensities. But the uppermost regions of the ionosphere could not be sounded from the ground. Also, the complexities of the ionosphere often produced confusing signals, and experimenters hoped that soundings from above would help to resolve some of the ambiguities.
This important research lay at the heart of NASA's plans for studying the ionosphere. Since the Canadians proposed to do it, NASA scientists proceeded to build their own ionospheric program around that of Canada. The Canadian work thus not merely supplemented, but actually supplanted research that NASA scientists would otherwise have done. In monetary terms the Canadian contribution to the ionospheric program freed some tens of millions of dollars that could be used on other projects. Moreover, the Canadian researchers working on Alouette added to the total competence of the ionospheric team.
Following a second Alouette in November of 1965, Canada and the United States moved on to Isis-International Satellite for Ionospheric Studies-an improved satellite that would carry the topside ionospheric sounders plus 8 to 10 additional experiments furnished by both Canadian and American scientists. The first Isis went aloft on 30 January 1969 into a polar orbit, the second on 31 March 1971 into a nearly polar orbit.
Pencil and Its Descendants
Cooperation with Japan was of an entirely different character from that with European nations. Although there were many meetings and much discussion about cooperation, it gradually became apparent that the Japanese were firmly committed, emotionally as well as politically, to developing a space capability for themselves. But the realization by NASA scientists that this commitment existed came only after extensive exchanges on various possibilities of working together. The first indication of possible interest in cooperative projects came from some exploratory discussions of William Nordberg and William Stroud of the Goddard Space Flight Center with Japanese scientists. The NASA scientists, who in their previous positions at the Army's Signal Engineering Laboratories in New Jersey had pioneered the use of grenade explosions at high altitude to measure upper-atmosphere temperatures, had aroused the interest of Japanese scientists in the possibility of a joint program of atmospheric research using sounding rockets carrying grenades. But they had also left the [310] impression that NASA might be willing to furnish funds to the Japanese for the work. NASA Headquarters was somewhat embarrassed, since the policy not to exchange funds on cooperative projects had already been established.
Since, however, there seemed to be considerable Japanese interest-above and beyond the grenade-rocket work-in the possibility of cooperating on space projects, the author visited Japan in May 1960 for a series of conversations with scientists and administrators. Professor Hideo Itokawa of the University of Tokyo showed some of the progress that had been made in developing Japanese sounding rockets. Starting with Pencil, a rocket about 30 cm long and 2.5 cm in diameter, and a miniature tiny roc launching range no bigger than some American back yards, the engineers had conducted horizontal firings, testing small-scale launchers, multistage combinations of Pencil, and techniques for separating stages during flight. From these exploratory tests engineers had gone on to larger rockets, which were being flown from a launching pad at Akita on the western coast facing the Sea of Japan. In step by step fashion, they planned to work up to the multistage Kappa, Lambda, and Mu rockets, some of which would eventually be capable of putting satellites into orbit. The first objective, however, was to produce a reliable high-altitude sounding rocket.26
On the political side were extensive conversations with members of the Science and Technics Agency. Minister Nakasone, head of the agency, was most desirous of working out some kind of cooperative agreement, and it seemed as though a great deal of progress were being made.27 Subsequent conversations with Professor Hatanaka, astronomer at the University of Tokyo, and other scientists, however, revealed that Japan was torn by internal strife between the Science and Technics Agency and the university community, which accorded its allegiance to the Ministry of Education.28 It suddenly became apparent that NASA could easily find itself in the middle, and one wondered what could come of the talks with Nakasone and his people. As it happened, within weeks after the author had returned to Washington Prime Minister Kishi's government fell, Nakasone was out, and negotiations with Japan were set back momentarily.
The talks, however, had cleared the air and NASA was in a much better position to understand the Japanese situation when delegations soon thereafter came to Washington. The groundwork had been laid in Tokyo for cooperating on some sounding rocket firings to compare results from American and Japanese ionospheric instruments, and an agreement was soon completed. The first firings took place at NASA's Wallops Island facility in Virginia in April and May 1962, and continued in the autumns of 1963 and 1964.29 Every few years thereafter the United States and Japan cooperated on rocket soundings, joint firings in 1968 and 1969 taking place from the Indian range at Thumba.
[311] Although Japan might have gained something from a joint satellite project with the United States, Japan preferred to go it alone. Work continued on a Japanese launch vehicle, and on 11 February 1971 a Lambda multistage rocket successfully placed the 0hsumi satellite in orbit, making Japan the fourth nation-France had been the third-to orbit a satellite with its own launch vehicle.30 The U.S. assisted in tracking 0hsumi and other Japanese satellites that followed in 1971 and 1972.31
San Marco
Italy also wished to launch its own satellites, but was willing to use an American launch vehicle for the purpose. Out of this desire Project San Marco was born. The project was conducted in three phases. In the first phase an Italian team, under the supervision of NASA engineers, became familiar with the Scout rocket by conducting suborbital launches from Wallops Island in April and August 1963. In the second phase the Italian team launched the satellite San Marco 1 on a Scout 15 December 1964, also from Wallops Island. For the third phase, the project moved to the coast of Kenya, where the Italians had constructed a launching pad on a towable platform of the kind used in drilling for oil beneath the ocean. Located on the equator, the San Marco platform was anchored off shore in the Indian Ocean. Here San Marco 2 went aloft 26 April 1967, and San Marco 3 24 April 1971, to investigate the atmosphere and ionosphere above the earth's equator.32
The San Marco platform had special value in making it possible to launch satellites directly into orbits above the earth's equator. For this reason NASA requested use of the platform for launching a number of U.S. satellites. With costs reimbursed by NASA, Explorers 42, 45, and 48 were sent up from the platform in 1970, 1971, and 1972. The first of these, named Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom, produced exciting data on celestial x-ray sources.33
Ground-Based Projects
Not all cooperative programs in space science involved direct participation in sounding rockets or spacecraft launches. Many countries cooperated in ground-based projects. A number of nations cooperated in ionospheric research by making observations from the ground, to be coordinated with satellite experiments. Twenty-seven foreign stations in 13 countries photographed GEOS and PAGEOS geodetic satellites to help improve the accuracy of geodetic results. France participated with NASA in analyzing data obtained by tracking French and U.S. geodetic satellites with lasers. Such ground-based cooperation was even more extensive in the applications area, where many countries undertook ground-based observations or the analysis and use of satellite data in meteorology, communications, and earth-resource surveys.34
[312] On the scientific side the outstanding example of this kind of cooperation has to be that associated with the analysis of samples of the moon obtained by the Apollo astronauts. In the United States hundreds of scientists turned their attention to deciphering from lunar samples and other Apollo data what could be learned about the moon and its origin and by inference about the earth. They were joined in these efforts by 89 principal investigators and more than 260 foreign coinvestigators from 19 different countries. The coinvestigators were associated with both foreign and American principal investigators. From 24 countries 97 foreign scientists took part in the lunar science conference held in Houston in January 1970; 90 from 16 countries attended the 1971 conference; and 108 from 15 countries plus the European Space Research Organization came to the third lunar science conference in 1972.35
For a while the study of the lunar samples made the investigation of the moon and planets appear like the hottest field in science. It was a far cry from the 1950s, when a graduate student in astronomy who confessed to an interest in studying the planets was inviting disdain. The big change, of course, was the abundance of new data. Some idea of the extent of the change can be obtained by looking at the almost overwhelming mass of results published in the proceedings of the lunar science conferences.36