Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[16] To divorce modern science, including space science, from other pursuits of society is impossible. What scientists do obviously and pervasively affects the rest of society. Reciprocally, the complex activities of society, its motivations and changing objectives, what it chooses to develop and use of technology, as well as the specific support that society-for a variety of reasons-provides to science, determines in large measure what researches scientists undertake. A properly rounded history of space science should treat of more than the technical subject matter of the science itself.
As might be supposed, scientists are usually moved to take up their researches by a curiosity that impels them to find out how nature works. The scientist is likely to be driven by his personal fascination with his profession. He is willing to devote long, physically and mentally taxing hours to his work and to endure hardships and danger-like the astronomer in the small hours of the night at the mountain top observatory, or the atmospheric scientist wintering over through the long Antarctic darkness, or the undersea explorer-if only he be given the necessary resources for pursuing his researches.
But why should society support an individual in what so often appears to be a highly personal endeavor, particularly when the price tag today can run into millions or hundreds of millions of dollars? Those seeking support for science have to wrestle with this fundamental question constantly. The answer for science often can be quite simplistic. From the knowledge acquired through scientific investigations, it is argued, come eventually many of the technologies and their practical applications that people want and will pay for in the marketplace (like radio, television, home appliances, modern textiles, better automobiles, and boats) or need and must pay for (like improved agriculture, health care, modern communications, and transportation of food, materials, and supplies). That is the principal reason why society finds it profitable to support a considerable amount of science.
But the simplistic answer gives no hint of the complexity of the vexing questions that arise when government and industry are asked to foot the bill, particularly for what is sometimes called pure science. What applications [17] will result? How long will it take? How much scientific research will be needed? What kind of research would be best for an optimum practical return on the investment? Where should the research be done-in industry, the universities, government laboratories, or research institutes? Who should decide what research to do?
There is no absolute answer to any of these questions, and circumstances can make some of them exceedingly perplexing. The literature on the subject is overwhelming, and any discussion of such matters demonstrates quickly that science has many aspects and complex relationships with other human endeavors. It becomes important, for example, to distinguish among science, technology, and application.
Technology is not science, nor is science technology, but there are important relationships between them. Technology is technical know-how, the knowledge and ability to do things of a technical or engineering nature, including the field of industrial arts. On the basis of considerable know-how, or technology, the Babylonians built and operated a remarkable irrigation system; equally remarkable was the technology of the ancients in construction. But neither technology derived from science as we know it. On the other hand a tremendous amount of technology does flow from the results of scientific research. Examples are to be found in electronics, synthetic materials, transportation, and medicine.
Technology also supports science. Electronics provides invaluable service to science in detection and measurement; the technology of materials is important in radiation-detection instruments; computer technology is a great boon to the theorist; and modern engineering is fundamental to the design and construction of modern astronomical telescopes, huge particle accelerators, and nuclear reactors. Rocket technology made space science possible; that technology in its turn rests on the results of considerable scientific research.
Application is the last step in the chain from technical know-how to actual use. Thus, the use of meteorological satellites for weather observations is an application of both scientific knowledge (of the atmosphere) and technology (of spacecraft construction, instrumentation, and operation).
The intimate relationships among science, technology, and applications give rise to many questions like those cited earlier. Some sort of rational response must be made to such questions when the public is asked to spend billions of dollars of tax money a year for scientific research and many more billions of dollars a year on civilian and military technical development. The need to respond to such queries has been a continuing requirement throughout the space science program, and most certainly will continue. These issues should be examined, therefore, in enough depth to understand how they influenced the space science program.1
Take, for example, the question: What applications will result? If the question is asked about applied research that is intentionally directed [18] toward a specific application already in the minds of the researcher and his supporters, then that specific application will be the end result if it turns out to be at all possible and economically sensible. For, as the researcher pursues his investigations, he will always be oriented toward the prescribed end. New scientific results that appear to lead in the direction of the desired application will be pursued, while avenues that appear to lead in some other direction will not be followed-though they may hold promise of answering very fundamental questions about nature, the answers to which might prove of more practical benefit than those the applied researcher feels constrained by his assignment to investigate.
Here is the crux of the matter. The uncommitted scientist will pursue the avenues that appear to offer the greatest promise of answering the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter, energy, physical laws, the universe; the committed orientation of the applied researcher will keep him always working toward the planned application. To the industrial manager, the legislator, the government administrator, the latter goal might seem preferable to get a specific job done-and very often it is. To invest funds in support of research that holds greatest promise of a specific desired application is the most easily justified and patently wise course of action.
Yet there is a pitfall. Time and again invaluable practical benefits have come from uncommitted research and could not have been foreseen or predicted. Pure science, almost by definition, precludes a clear prediction of results. It is the search for new knowledge. If the knowledge were known ahead of time, it would not be new.
The classical example, often cited, is the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen in 1895. Within a year of their discovery, x-rays were being put to practical use in medicine, and in time became of enormous value in medicine, industry, and scientific research. Roentgen's discovery resulted from experimenting with electron beams in evacuated tubes. Had he been directly seeking something of value for the medical profession, he would most likely have put away his electron beams and taken up some more "practical" line of investigation, and the discovery of x-rays would have been postponed.
Examples of practical returns from pure science can be multiplied almost ad infinitum; for example, James Clerk Maxwell's work on the theory of electricity and magnetism and the whole train of subsequent electromagnetic applications; Heinrich Rudolf Hertz's propagation experiments and radio; John Dalton's work on combining weights and modern chemistry; Christiaan Huygen's work on optics and the optical industry; and the years of purely scientific investigation into the atom and its nucleus that furnished the basis for the Manhattan Project, which in turn led to modern nuclear applications.2
The uncommitted researcher, while he cannot point to the future and say that his researches will produce this or that specific application as a [19] payoff, can look back and point to use after use that was eventually made of the results of his kind of nonprogrammatic, nonapplied, uncommitted research. Many have argued the historical record to justify support of pure science, including support of enough researchers free from the constraints of programmatic or applied research to provide the uncommitted frame of mind that is most likely to follow up interesting new discoveries wherever they might lead.3
The importance of uncommitted research goes even deeper. Even the applied researcher relies on the scientific paradigms that he has inherited from decades and centuries of research, and these are based on data and results, a large part of which came from uncommitted research. The truth of this assertion was borne out by a series of studies supported by the National Science Foundation and published as Technology in Retrospect and Critical Events in Science ("Traces").4 Several technologies or technological applications* were reviewed historically to identify scientific results that had been "key to the progress of research towards the innovation" under study. Without going too far afield, some of the Traces conclusions should be noted. The study found for each case that about a decade before the application-that is, about the time one was finally in a position to discern and define technically the potential application or technology-almost all of the basic research needed for the potential application had been done. ** What was most significant, however, was that all applications depended vitally, critically, on a long history of basic research, a substantial part of which was nonmission, uncommitted research; in the cases studied more than 70 percent of the key scientific results stemmed from such research. Moreover, the sources of the critical information were international in scope, and universities, industry, government, and private activities made significant contributions.
This kind of story the defenders of the space science program had to convey to the administration and the Congress to obtain funding. There was a narrow path to tread. Space science was largely pure science, and researchers were by and large uncommitted to specific practical applications, although many of them showed a keen interest in applications of their results to such purposes as meteorology, geodesy, and earth-resources surveys. To retain a free hand for the investigator was important, but if the research appeared too irrelevant to the immediate needs of society or, more [20] narrowly, to the interests of the legislator's constituency, support would be hard to come by. So a substantial effort was made to point to the potential usefulness of the space science research that was in need of support, 5 at times to such an extent as to distress members of the scientific community. The pressure to produce useful results quickly was always there, and the scientists were mindful of Vannevar Bush's caution that "applied research always drives out the pure." 6
The hazard was real, for if the importance of pure science for future practical uses was not communicated to the legislators funding could be difficult to obtain. On the other hand overselling could generate great expectations of immediate practical returns, with a day of accounting but a few years down the road in some future budget hearings. In general, the practical returns from pure science must be reckoned as being well into the future, 7 leaving the proponents of pure science with a very tricky selling job. An appropriate scale seems to be that the time from basic research result to its substantial, continuing use in practical applications is two or more decades. The author's view is that new knowledge begins to be applied extensively only when it has become second nature to the appliers and springs more or less readily to mind as needed. The time lag, then, is related to the period required for the new knowledge to diffuse through the field, become accepted, and enter textbooks, courses, and handbooks-to become a familiar element of the shared paradigm of the field.
In contrast, to develop a difficult, complex technology once the essential concept and underlying principles are known, a decade appears to be about the right time needed, while the final development of an actual application, once the basic research has been done and the pertinent technologies worked out, is a matter of some years. Examples of the development of applications in the space field are the meteorological and communications satellites which, relying on the research and technological development of previous decades, could be built and put into orbit in the first few years of NASA's history.
In the 19th century the time for new results to diffuse through the field and become accepted into the paradigm-in fields with developed paradigms-was about 50 years.8 Today, with the more rapid flow of information, constantly changing study courses, and frequent revision of textbooks and handbooks, the interval is down to perhaps 20 years, with many examples of applications of new results sooner than that. It would seem, however, that some practical minimum time must remain for new knowledge to flow throughout a field, gain acceptance, and become second nature to sizable numbers of practitioners. If so, the most effective way of speeding up the realization of practical returns from newly acquired information is to speed up the process of making it second nature to potential appliers of the information. Is not this what, on a small scale, industrial research groups and applied research institutes try to do?
[21] Space science was in the main pure science, and its researchers were uncommitted to the development of practical uses of the results they obtained. But administrations and congresses were committed intellectually and politically to the realization of genuine practical returns from investment of public money. Those who managed the program, therefore, had to strive to preserve and protect its pure science character, while making plain its ultimate practical worth, and to do this without undercutting the one aspect or overselling the other.

* Magnetic ferrites, the video tape recorder, the oral contraceptive, the electron microscope and matrix isolation.
** Traces dealt with a critical point raised by C. W. Sherwin and R. S. Isenson, "First Interim Report on Project Hindsight (Summary)," Dept. of Defense, Office of the Dir. of Defense Research and Engineering, 1966. The Hindsight report caused quite a stir among scientists and gave the National Science Foundation, NASA, and other government agencies supporting basic research trouble in the administration and on the Hill, because superficially the report appeared to show that only applied research was important for supporting the development and application of technology- in this case, military application.