Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[116] Congress had shown great concern over how to ensure proper coordination between the civilian and military space programs. Space science was one of the areas of mutual interest between NASA and the Defense Department. Sounding rocket research had been supported by the military services during the 1940s and 1950s, and the services had participated in the scientific satellite program of the International Geophysical Year. The potential military applications (p. 41) were adequate motivation for such activity, and there was no reason to suppose that the creation of a civilian space program would end military interest.
Most of the space scientists who came to NASA -in the fall of 1958 had been associated with the Army, Navy, or Air Force rocket or satellite research programs. Their long-standing personal associations with people in the Department of Defense made coordinating the two programs relatively easy. The Civilian-Military Liaison Committee was too far removed from the day-to-day action to be as effective as informal personal contacts were. These personal contacts gradually led to a more formal arrangement. On 4 May 1959 a meeting on the subject was held in the office of Herbert York, director of defense research and engineering. Attending, in addition to York, were Samuel Clements and John Macauley of Defense, and John Clark, N. Manos, and the author from NASA. The participants agreed to set up a 10-man group with 5 members from each organization and to [117] meet monthly to exchange information. Named the NASA-DoD Space Science Committee, the coordinating group under the chairmanship of the author held its first meeting at NASA Headquarters on 11 August 1959.2 A month later, when Defense and NASA established the Aeronautics and Astronautics Coordinating Board, the Space Science Committee was renamed the Unmanned Spacecraft Panel of AACB.3
The deliberations of the Unmanned Spacecraft Panel were anything but monotonous. The panel quickly developed a mechanism for routinely tabulating, updating, and exchanging a great deal of information on space projects in the civilian and military programs.4 Since it was unnecessary to devote the time of the panel meetings to routine coordination, attention could more easily be given to special problems. The problems varied widely in substance and seriousness. One of the first was the question of how much space science the military would do. Many NASA members felt that the military services should look to NASA for their space science needs and devote themselves to researches specifically related to military applications. With this position the services violently disagreed, insisting that they had to be working in science to make the most effective applications of the science results. The author agreed with this position and had to take a bit of flak from his own colleagues, because they feared that arguments over duplication of effort might compromise the NASA program. Dryden agreed that it was not reasonable to try to stand in the way of a Defense Department space science program, particularly because of the benefit to military applications. The dispute was eventually turned in the direction of ensuring, by careful coordination, that the military and civilian space science work did not bring-in the jargon of the day-"wasteful duplication."
More serious were the disputes over questions of military classification. Such problems arose in connection with accurate observations of the earth's surface and in geodesy. Earth observations were directly related to military interest in reconnaissance and surveillance, and intelligence agencies were sensitive about revealing either their interest or national capabilities in the field.5 Applications people ran into this problem first in connection with weather pictures of rather gross resolution that were obtained from the Tiros weather satellites. There was concern over possible international sensitivity to U.S. satellite photography of foreign territories-even at resolutions of no better than 400 to 800 meters.6 Some feared that international reaction might precipitate a confrontation that could compromise U.S. ability to pursue legitimate defense interests in earth observations. This controversy was heightened in the late 1960s when NASA and other agencies began to push earth-resource surveys of much finer resolution.7
The space scientists also had their bouts with classification problems. The most knotty had to do with geodesy, the science of measuring the earth. The accuracy with which the gravitational field could be measured [118] and analyzed into its various components-or harmonics, as they are called-was important in determining the size and shape of the earth, the distribution of mass in the earth's crust, and stresses within the mantle below the crust. But such data were also essential for accurate guidance of long-range missiles. To the scientists the precise location of different points on the earth's surface relative to each other was vital for checking newly emerging theories about the movement of the earth's crust. But to the military those data would determine the position of potential military targets relative to missile launching areas. The conflict was fundamental. The scientists needed such information for their research and during the International Geophysical Year had entered into worldwide, multi-national, cooperative programs for making geodetic measurements from observations of IGY satellites. The IGY program had naturally extended into the NASA program and along with it went the tacit assumption that the scientific data obtained would be available to all participants. Indeed, as with all the IGY programs, the results were to be published in the open literature.
This policy was painful to the military people, who felt that data of such vital military significance should be kept under wraps and potential enemies forced to expend similar efforts to obtain the information. A muddle of exchanges began between NASA and DoD on the subject. Geodetic scientists complained about footdragging. At the March 1960 meeting of the Space Science Board, George Woollard urged NASA to start at once on the preparation of a satellite specifically for geodesy. A little over half a year later, the Aeronautics and Astronautics Coordinating Board was still discussing how NASA might obtain geodetic data for the scientific community.8 On 14 November the Department of Defense announced that the Army, Navy, NASA, and Air Force were jointly building a geodetic satellite.9 In that same period Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden was seeking clarification from the Academy of Sciences as to exactly what international commitments regarding open publication of geodetic data the United States had entered into. In reply he received a pile of paper three centimeters thick showing that, internationally, there was a general understanding that the United States would publish data from its IGY satellites that could be used for geodetic studies, with the necessary information on the precise location of tracking stations.10
The joint satellite, which acquired the name Anna from the initials of the cooperating agencies, did not end the controversy over classification. The rumblings reached the ears of Congressman Joseph Karth, chairman of the Space Science and Applications Subcommittee of NASA's authorizing committee in the House of Representatives. He plunged into a series of hearings on the subject. The Karth hearings, and pressure the president's science adviser received from the scientific community, forced a decision very [119] much like apartheid. It was finally agreed that the scientific geodetic program would continue, with open publication of results on the NASA side. Likewise, the DoD program would continue, and when appropriate the two agencies would cooperate, as with the Anna satellite. But DoD would decide unilaterally on the disposition of the data and results from its part of the program. Because of the knotty problems in this area, NASA, DoD, and the Department of Commerce-where the Coast and Geodetic Survey was located-set up a special Geodetic Satellite Policy Board for the difficult problem of coordination.11
It would be unfair to leave the impression that all the struggles with questions of classification were caused by the military. Within NASA a pressure arose to classify launch schedules. Some of the pressure came from the use of military hardware and launching ranges, but much of the desire to classify stemmed from the poor showing that NASA had made in its early attempts and from an embarrassing tendency of schedules to slip because of technical problems. One could not properly use classification to avoid embarrassment to the agency, but the argument was put forth that it was important to protect the already damaged national reputation in space exploration from any further damage.
After a year's experience Administrator Glennan felt it unwise to publish schedules with specific launch dates too far in advance. Past and imminent launches could be given by date, but Glennan suggested that launches over the next two years be announced only by quarter, and only by year thereafter.12 In March 1960 the author wrote to Ira Abbott, chairman of a committee dealing with matters of security classification, citing numerous problems that would arise in the space science area if blanket classification were applied to NASA launch dates.13 It did not seem appropriate to classify sounding rocket firings in which many universities participated-and for which schedules had been unclassified for more than a decade of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel program. For planetary shots the timing was specified by the celestial mechanics of the solar system and, if the existence of the mission was known, its date was more or less obvious. Even where nature did not reveal the date of a prospective mission, NASA had other problems to work out. A large part of the space science program was carried out by researchers in the universities, who did not ordinarily have security clearances. Also, the civilian, peaceful character of the national space program would appear to be compromised if an effort were made to operate under security restrictions. Baker-Nunn optical tracking stations, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, would not be welcome in countries like India and Japan, which opposed classified activities on their soil. It would be difficult or impossible to work with volunteer groups providing supporting observations of satellites if schedules could not be issued in advance. The same problem would arise [120] with groups assisting in telemetering satellites and space probes-various universities and the Jodrell Bank Radio Astronomy Observatory in England, for example.
Concern about this aspect of classification continued through NASA's first two years, but policy developed to meet the need. Those participating in a mission were furnished the necessary information for planning and meeting schedules; and, in space science missions, while experimenters generally did not have to wrestle with problems of security classification, they were expected to handle schedule information discreetly.