Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[50] In the fall of 1957 the National Academy of Sciences in Washington was hosting an international conference on rockets and satellites. The mood was one of anticipation. The International Geophysical Year had begun officially on 1 July 1957 after several years of careful planning under the guidance of the Comite Speciale de 1'Annee. Geophysique Internationale (CSAGI). Now, during the week of 30 September to 5 October 1957, CSAGI was giving special attention to the continued planning of the rocket and satellite part of the IGY program.
The International Geophysical Year-IGY for short-grew out of a suggestion made in 1950 by Lloyd V. Berkner to a small group gathered at the home of James A. Van Allen in Silver Spring, Maryland, that in the period 1957-1958 there should be a Third International Polar Year. Two previous International Polar Years, the first 1882-1883 and the second 1932-1933, had demonstrated in some measure the value of international cooperation in earth science investigations.1 The group was heartily in favor of the idea.
No better promoter for such a project could have been found than Lloyd Berkner. A world-renowned geophysicist, he had long worked with problems of the ionosphere, the electrified region of the upper atmosphere that is responsible for reflecting radio signals around the world, making radio communications beyond the horizon possible. Berkner had been associated with G. Breit and M. A. Tuve who, at the Carnegie Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, had been among the first to measure the height of the ionosphere.2 Berkner was interested in the institutional and international aspects of science, serving as adviser to the Department of Defense and in the State Department, and becoming very active in a number of the unions of the International Council of Scientific Unions. Most notable was his boldness of vision, which in scientific circles was fully a match for that of von Braun in rocketry.
Immediately swinging into action, Berkner and Sydney Chapman conveyed the proposal to the joint Commission on the Ionosphere of the International Scientific Radio Union, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, and the International Astronomical Union. In time the [51] recommendation reached and was adopted by the International Council of Scientific Unions-parent body of the various individual unions-which in 1952 appointed a special committee to oversee the project. In the course of soliciting participation, the enterprise was enlarged to encompass the scientific study of the whole earth, a subject more broadly appealing than polar investigations.
Thus the IGY was born.3 The special committee was formally designated the Special Committee for the IGY, referred to in both speech and writing as CSAGI (generally pronounced kuh sah jee ), the acronym of its name in French. Chapman became the president of CSAGI, Berkner its vice president, and both labored tirelessly and effectively to make the project go. Eventually 67 countries joined.
Chapman gave some idea of the scope of the IGY as finally conceived by its planners and organizers in his general foreword to the first volume of the Annals of the International Geophysical Year:
The main aim is to learn more about the fluid envelope of our planet-the atmosphere and oceans-over all the earth and at all heights and depths. The atmosphere, especially at its upper levels, is much affected by disturbances on the Sun; hence this also will be observed more closely and continuously than hitherto. Weather, the ionosphere, the earth's magnetism, the polar lights, cosmic rays, glaciers all over the world, the size and form of the earth, natural and man-made radioactivity in the air and the seas, earthquake waves in remote places, will be among the subjects studied. These researches demand widespread simultaneous observation.4
Responding to the international call to countries to join in the IGY project, the National Academy of Sciences, through its National Research Council, established a National Committee for the IGY and selected Joseph Kaplan as its chairman (app. E). Kaplan, a geophysicist who had acquired a considerable reputation working in the laboratory on band emissions from various atmospheric gases, was noted for an inexhaustible supply of pleasant anecdotes. His genial personality was ideally suited to working with the difficult, dark, moody, sometimes abrasive Hugh Odishaw, executive director of the committee. Odishaw was the guiding genius behind the organization of the U.S. IGY program, and his influence could be felt in the international arena as well. He had a remarkable ability to foresee the future consequences of present actions, and was invaluable in mapping out strategy and directing tactics for securing support from the administration and Congress and in dealing with the inevitable conflicts and politicking on the international scene.
In putting forth his original proposal, Berkner had cited the great advances in technology and scientific instrumentation since the early 1930s-much of it generated in the prosecution of World War II-as a compelling reason for not waiting out the 50 years that had intervened between the [52] First and Second Polar Years. Shortening the interval to 25 years would put the proposed Third Polar Year in the period 1957-1958, which would afford the added advantage of being a time of maximum sunspots, in contrast to the sunspot minimum of the Second Polar Year.
Among the new technologies that could be applied to the detailed investigation of the earth and sun were those of rocketry, whose applications to geophysics had become patently clear from the work of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, some of whose meetings Kaplan had attended. When the panel proposed to conduct rocket soundings as part of the IGY program, the U.S. National Committee quickly approved. Steps were taken at once to include a sounding rocket segment in the U.S. program for the IGY.
The National Research Council established a Technical Panel on Rocketry as part of the IGY machinery, and the National Academy of Sciences informed the CSAGI of the U.S. intention to use sounding rockets for geophysical investigations during the IGY.5 By the time of the IGY planning meeting conducted by CSAGI in Rome during the week of 30 September 1954, rocket soundings had become an important element of the program.
But plans soon went beyond sounding rockets. When the U.S. sounding rocket program had begun in 1946, satellites were still deemed impracticable; now matters were different. The Navy, the Air Force, and other groups had continued to study the design and use of artificial satellites launched into orbit by large, powerful rockets, and by the early 1950s the feeling had developed that the satellite's time had come. Hidden by security wraps, some studies had moved fairly far along in the planning stage.6 Von Braun and his people had convinced themselves that they could succeed in short order in orbiting a small satellite, and it rankled that official approve could not be obtained.
Members of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel were aware of these studies, but those who were employees of the military did not feel free to press the issue. As has been seen, the panel recommended only a sounding rocket program to the Academy of Sciences. But geophysicist S. Fred Singer of the Applied Physics Laboratory, who had been conducting cosmic ray and magnetic field research in sounding rockets, felt under no restraints of military security. From some fairly simple calculations Singer concluded that it should be possible to place a modest (45-kilogram) satellite in orbit around the earth, and at every opportunity he urged that the country undertake to do so. Singer's conclusions were qualitatively correct, but his outspokenness generated some friction for at least two reasons. First, Singer's manner gave the impression that the idea for such a satellite was original with him, whereas behind the scenes many had already had the idea, and they felt that Singer had to be aware of this. Muzzled by classification restrictions, they could not engage Singer in debate. Second, being unable to speak out, those who had dug into the subject in much [53] greater depth could not point out that Singer's estimates overshot the mark somewhat, and that his suggested approach was not as workable as others that couldn't be mentioned.
Nevertheless, Singer did great service to those he made so unhappy. By making known the present possibility of placing artificial satellites in orbit, Singer aroused interest in this kind of device for scientific research.7 The IGY was to be the first beneficiary.
Singer gained international attention for his proposal when, in August 1953 at the Fourth International Congress on Astronautics in Zurich, he described his idea for a Minimum Orbital Unmanned Satellite Experiment-which he called Mouse. Mouse would weigh 45 kilograms and would be instrumented for scientific research.
The International Scientific Radio Union, at its 11th General Assembly in the Hague, gave its support to Singer's proposal. At the urging of both Singer and Lloyd Berkner, on 2 September 1954 the Radio Union adopted a resolution drawing attention to the value of instrumented earth satellites for solar and geophysical observations. Later that month, on 20 September, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics at its 10th General Assembly in Rome adopted an even stronger resolution, actually recommending that consideration be given to the use of small scientific satellites for geophysical research.8 Both the resolution of the Union of Geodesy and Geophysics and the earlier one of the Radio Union were conveyed to CSAGI, which held its third general planning meeting in Rome shortly after the close of the Geodesy and Geophysics Union meeting. Indeed, it is unlikely that these two resolutions could have been missed by CSAGI, since many persons attended all three meetings-radio, geophysics, and CSAGI-and even more attended both the last two. Also, the CSAGI-membership included representatives from a number of scientific unions, including radio and geodesy and geophysics. The combining of forces to promote programs of mutual interest is traditional among the scientific unions, where maneuvering has much in common with ordinary politics.
At any rate, on 4 October 1954 CSAGI agreed and issued its challenge to the IGY participants in the following words, which closely parallel the resolution adopted by the Union of Geodesy and Geophysics:
In view of the great importance of observations, during extended periods of time, of extra-terrestrial radiations and geophysical phenomena in the upper atmosphere, and in view of the advanced state of present rocket techniques, CSAGI recommends that thought be given to the launching of small satellite vehicles, to their scientific instrumentation, and to the new problems associated with satellite experiments, such as power supply, telemetering, and orientation of the vehicle.9
[54] It remained for interested countries to respond to the recommendation. The United States had already announced its intention to conduct sounding rocket flights as part of the IGY program, but the complexity and expense of an earth-satellite program needed careful consideration by the agencies that would be expected to carry out the necessary development and IGY operations. Moreover, at the opening session of the Assembly of the Union of Geodesy and Geophysics Sydney Chapman as president of CSAGI had found it necessary to point out that the Soviets had not yet seen fit to join the IGY program. It was the United States and the Soviet Union, of course, that were expected to respond positively to the CSAGI proposal.
The U.S. National Committee for the IGY gave careful consideration to the proposal during the spring of 1955. Support was not immediately unanimous. Clearly the dimensions of this undertaking would be of a different order from the sounding rockets already a part of the IGY planning. Doubts were expressed over the wisdom of including the project in the IGY. Technical aspects were not the only considerations. There was also the concern about what would be the reaction of people to the launching of an artificial satellite that could easily be viewed as an eye in the sky, could well be accorded some sinister import, perhaps even be equated with some kind of witchcraft. Memories of Orson Welles's Mars invasion had by no means vanished. Most, however, favored endorsing the project. Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the committee, was especially enthusiastic and jokingly coined the phrase "Long Playing Rocket" for the satellite, by analogy with the long-playing records newly on the market. He suggested that, since sounding rockets had become familiar, the idea of a long-playing rocket would prove less disturbing than the completely new concept of an artificial satellite.
After much thought the National Academy of Sciences, sponsor of the U.S. IGY program, and the National Science Foundation, which provided the money, agreed jointly to seek approval of an IGY scientific earth-satellite program. The two agencies were successful, and the U.S. intent to launch an earth satellite during the IGY was announced from the White House on 29 July 1955.10 A significant factor in administration support was the perceived need to develop and explore satellite capabilities for possible military applications. The Pentagon was assigned the job and, after a review of several possibilities, selected the Navy's Vanguard for the purpose.11
With scientific satellites now in the IGY program, the IGY committee established a Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program, to do for satellites what the rocketry panel was doing for sounding rockets. Richard Porter, the General Electric Company engineer in charge of the V-2 test program at White Sands, was asked to be chairman.12
[55] When the Fourth Assembly of CSAGI met in Barcelona, 10-15 September 1956, the Soviet Union had joined the IGY and was prepared to say something about Soviet rocket and satellite plans. On 11 September, Prof. I. Bardin, speaking in Russian, announced to the CSAGI delegates that the USSR would have a rocket program in the IGY, details to be given later, and also would use satellites for pressure, temperature, cosmic ray, micrometeor, and solar radiation measurements.13 Whereas the United States undertook to describe in considerable detail its sounding rocket and earth satellite plans, to aid those who wished to make correlated measurements by other techniques, the Soviet Union furnished little advance information.
Thus, when CSAGI convened the conference on rockets and satellites in Washington in the fall of 1957, there had been considerable time for work on the rocket and satellite projects, but it remained to be seen how much cooperative research could be done in association with those projects.
The subdued sense of anticipation that pervaded the sessions stemmed from the awareness that preparations had been under way for some time, that the IGY was already in full swing, and that the first artificial satellite must soon appear over the horizon. But those expectations did not diminish the surprise and dismay felt by U.S. scientists when the launching of Sputnik 1 was announced on the evening of 4 October 1957. At the time many of the conference attendees were guests at the Soviet Embassy. The news, which had been broadcast by Moscow Radio, was brought to Berkner, who shared it at once with those present. His announcement practically wiped out the party as the U.S. scientists, in particular, scattered to their home bases to take stock of what had happened. The author had gone home that evening from the planning sessions at the academy and was about to call it a day when Hugh Odishaw called. As executive director of the U.S. National Committee for IGY, Odishaw wondered if a few people shouldn't meet at the IGY headquarters-1145 19th Street, N. W -to discuss the turn of events. Once there, Odishaw, Richard Porter, the author, and others kept track of the Soviet satellite's course. From radio sightings as they were reported, the ground track of Sputnik was plotted on a map in the office, and in a few hours a pretty good idea emerged of the kind of orbit Sputnik was following.
As the group in imagination followed the course of the satellite across the heavens, the members tried to weigh the Soviet accomplishment against the fact that the launching of the U.S. satellite, Vanguard, was still some months away. They tried to estimate what the public reaction would be. Disappointment was to be expected, but they did not anticipate the degree of anguish and sometimes genuine alarm that would be expressed over the weeks and months that followed.
The next morning, Saturday, 5 October 1957, in the auditorium of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Anatoly Blagonravov took the floor to [56] speak at length about Sputnik. Understandable pride was evident in Blagonravov's bearing, but his words also bristled with barbs for his American listeners. The speaker could not-or at any rate did not-refrain from chiding the United States for talking so much about its satellite before having one in orbit, and commended to his listeners the Soviet approach of doing
While there was some measure of justice in Blagonravov's ungracious comments, his U.S. colleagues couldn't help feeling that he missed-perhaps intentionally-the point that much of the advance discussion of the U.S. IGY satellite program was to provide necessary information for planning by those who wished to cooperate in the tracking or other operational aspects of the mission. In view of the fruitlessness of CSAGI's efforts to elicit any such accommodation from the Soviets, either at Barcelona in 1956 or at the meetings in Washington, the remarks of their Russian colleague were doubly frustrating.14
Nevertheless, admiration for the Soviet achievement was genuine and universal, and his colleagues could heartily applaud when Blagonravov declared that he hoped that "this first step" would "serve as an inspiration to scientists throughout the world to accelerate their efforts to explore and solve the mysteries and phenomena of nature remaining to be explored."15
Reaction in the United States was strong and widespread. It was clear albeit intuitively to most, that a new dimension had been added to man's sphere of thought And action. Equally clearly, something had to be done about the fact that the United States had not been the first to put a satellite in orbit. One read and heard talk about Soviet technological supremacy, U.S. loss of leadership, the missile gap, and security and economic implications. In view of the impressively large weights of Sputnik 1 (80 kg) and 2 (508 kg, 3 Nov. 1957), and the multiton launch vehicles that they implied, the 8 1/2-kg payload of Explorer 1 launched on 31 January 1958 did little to allay such concerns. President Eisenhower attempted to downplay the Soviet achievement, but couldn't carry it off.16 Congress took the matter seriously, largely through apprehension over military implications, and began to crank up the machinery to respond to what was viewed as a crisis. On his part, Eisenhower created the post of science adviser to the president, elevated his Science Advisory Committee to White House level, and asked the committee to develop a national policy on space. The result was to be the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.
By now atmospheric and space science had moved far beyond the narrow confines of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel and had established a base from which the space science program could proceed following the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the summer and fall of 1958. From the membership of its technical panels on rocketry and on the earth satellite program, the academy established a Space Science Board in June 1958, to advise the government in what [57] promised to be a fast-growing and important field. Lloyd Berkner was named chairman of SSB (app. F).
Events of the next three-quarters of a year after the first Sputnik launching make a fascinating and educational story as Congress and the administration cooperated and wrestled with each other to hammer out a legislative response to the crisis.17 A number of circumstances combined to give scientists the civilian agency and open space program they favored. How this came about will be dealt with in chapter 7. But before proceeding to that part of the narrative, it is appropriate to pause and take stock of the rich harvest of scientific knowledge that a decade of rocket sounding had already produced before artificial earth satellites took on an importance that commanded the attention of the president and the Congress.