SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965


[303] Part III: THE LEAP TO SPACE : 1959-1965

[305] 1959-1962



The Environment




THE Space Age brought vast changes in the general environment of the former NACA laboratories. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was signed into law on July 29, 1958.1

The Act established, within the Executive Office of the President, the National Aeronautics and Space Council to advise and assist the President in matters relating to the establishment of space policy and to the administration of the Nation's space program. The Council was to be headed by the President (in 1961 changed to the Vice President) as chairman and was to include the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Act also created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the specified functions of which were to-


1. Plan, direct and conduct aeronautical and space activities.
2. Arrange for the participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through the use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct and arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations.
3. Provide the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.2


The Act called for the termination of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the transferral of its assets, duties, and powers to NASA. It also provided for the early transferral to NASA of any facilities, functions, officers, or organizational entities of any other Government [308] agency which related primarily to the functions of the new Administration.3

The transmutation of NACA into NASA was to take place 90 days after the passage of the Act or at any earlier date as determined and appropriately proclaimed by the new Administrator of NASA. It had quite generally been assumed that Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, Director of NACA, would be appointed Administrator of NASA. However, there were those who, though respecting Dr. Dryden's integrity and scientific abilities as everyone did, felt that his pursual of the space task would not be as bold as the occasion required. The matter was settled on August 8, 1958, when President Eisenhower nominated Dr. T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology, to be Administrator of NASA and Dr. Dryden to be Deputy Administrator. The nominations were quickly confirmed by the Senate and the two men were sworn in on August 19, 1958. Shortly Glennan gave notice in the Federal Register that, as of October 1, 1958, NASA would officially be in operation.4




Once NASA was in operation, certain transfers of functions, facilities, and organizational units from other Government agencies were quickly effected. These included:


1. Department of Defense responsibilities for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) scientific satellite program. Project Vanguard and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Vanguard Division which involved about 150 men. Also transferred was a group of nearly 50 NRL men who had been associated with the NRL Upper Atmosphere Sounding Rocket group.
2. Several lunar-probe and satellite projects which were being carried out for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), the latter located at Huntsville, Alabama.
3. Air Force program for the development of the F-l single-chamber rocket motor capable of developing up to 1.5 million pounds of thrust.
4. Together with the Army's space projects, Glennan sought to acquire the organizational units that were working on these projects. These units included the ABMA Development Operations Division, headed by the well-known Wernher von Braun, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, which was being operated for the Army by the California Institute of Technology. The Army readily relinquished JPL to NASA but fiercely resisted the [309] surrender of the ABMA unit. Increasing pressure was brought to bear on the Army and early in 1960 the transfer was effected. The transfer included about 4000 men, facilities at Huntsville and Cape Canaveral, and also the Saturn rocket-development project. The Saturn rocket was a cluster of eight "conventional" liquid rocket motors which together provided a total thrust of 1.5 million pounds.




The Army group and facilities which NASA acquired at Huntsville were augmented, to some extent reorganized, and in July 1960 given a new name: the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. In designating its research establishments, NASA chose to use the term "Center" instead of "Laboratory." The primary function of the Marshall Center was the development, assembly, and launching of large rocket-powered space vehicles.

Considerably earlier-in 1958-plans had been laid to establish a new space-projects center near Washington, D.C. The resulting organizational entity, at first largely composed of NRL groups occupying scattered temporary facilities, was in May 1959 named the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and in 1960 was moved into new facilities built for it near Beltsville, Maryland. The assigned functions of the Goddard Space Flight Center were the planning and construction of vehicles and payloads for scientific applications and manned-space-flight programs and the conducting of flight operations relating thereto. The Center would also have a major responsibility in the establishment and operation of a global tracking and data-acquisition network.

In 1961, in view of the growing magnitude and importance of the manned space flight program, plans were laid for the construction of a Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston, Texas. The intended functions of this Center were to conduct research and development in manned spacecraft and to plan and carry out manned space flight missions.

NASA at first depended on the military for launching operations but in 1960 established a Launch Operations Directorate to assume general responsibility for NASA launchings at both the Atlantic and the Pacific Missile Ranges. Originally connected with the Marshall Center, the Directorate in 1962 became a separate entity known as the NASA Launch Operations Center. The new Center, located at Cape Canaveral, Florida, soon had a staff of well over 1000 and was participating in the design of some immense assembly, checkout, and launching facilities which NASA was planning to build at the Cape for future manned space flight operations.




In building and administering NASA, Glennan had many people and agencies to satisfy. He operated under intense public and political pressures [310] while coping with monumental organizational problems. Never before had a major Government agency been fabricated so quickly out of so many diverse elements. The task, moreover, was made vastly more difficult by the public's expectation that the new agency should immediately perform miracles in a new and highly sophisticated field of endeavor about which a notable state of ignorance prevailed. Glennan attacked the problem with intelligence and vigor, but the organizational turbulence that developed in NASA Headquarters reached substantial dimensions and persisted throughout the period 1959-1962.

By the time, late 1960, that presidential elections were at hand, NASA's staff had risen to about 16,000 from the 8000 originally inherited from NACA. Glennan attempted to avoid unnecessary growth of NASA personnel. Following the practice of the Atomic Energy Commission, on which he had once served, he chose to deal with NASA's expanding research needs by letting research and development (R&D) contracts with outside agencies rather than by expanding in-house capabilities. As a result, the old NACA laboratories did not share in the growth of NASA's staff.

NASA's annual operating budgets had, prior to the election, also risen considerably. The approximate figures were: $340 million in fiscal year (FY) 1959; $500 million in FY 1960; $965 million in FY 1961. For FY 1962 NASA had asked for something over $1200 million but Mr. Eisenhower's Bureau of the Budget had reduced the amount to about $1100 million. At this stage the growth of NASA appeared to have reached a plateau at which it might remain. Despite the recognized importance of space research, there was obviously a limit to the amount of money the U.S. Government could prudently devote to it. Such a limit, the Eisenhower administration seemed to feel, lay between $1000 million and $1500 million per year. Moreover, the NASA administration was apparently willing, without too much struggle, to accept this limitation.

The presidential election in 1960 brought John F. Kennedy into office and Glennan, following earlier plans, submitted his resignation. He was soon replaced by James E. Webb, a very persuasive individual who, though lacking the technical background of Glennan, was a highly experienced and very powerful administrator. As a matter of form, Dr. Dryden also resigned but his resignation was not accepted.

During the transition from Mr. Eisenhower to Mr. Kennedy, there was a period of uncertainty concerning NASA's progress and fate. Then, on April 12, 1961, the Russians launched Vostok 1 carrying a man, for the first time, into space. The mortification which the people of the United States felt over this "defeat" in the undeclared space race was almost as keen as it had been in the case of Sputnik 1. Pressure for more rapid action quickly arose. In his State of the Union message on March 25, 1961, Mr. Kennedy declared that the time had come for the country to take longer strides in [311] space and he thereupon set as a national goal, to be accomplished before the end of the decade, the task of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. A similar task was indeed already on NASA's tentative agenda but scheduled for some indefinite period after 1970.

Mr. Kennedy's declaration, followed quickly by the flight of Vostok II, provided a powerful stimulus which galvanized the Nation into action. NASA's FY 1962 budget was quickly increased by 60 percent to about $1800 million and the FY 1963 budget, prepared in 1962, was in the neighborhood of $3500 million. Correspondingly, the agency's personnel complement increased to over 25,000 by the end of 1962. The rapid growth was, of course, accompanied by another period of organizational turmoil. An additional result of the Kennedy impulse, over which there was considerable complaint in scientific circles, was that more than 50 percent of the huge NASA budget was being spent on the man-on-the-moon "space spectacular."

Clearly, the great surges of U.S. effort in the space field were reactions to Russian achievements. Aside from launching payloads of impressive size, the Soviets had, in space, realized a number of important "firsts." These had included:



The United States, of course, was not standing still while the U.S.S.R. was accomplishing its "firsts" in space. During this period, NASA and the U.S. military services performed many outstanding space feats and U.S. efforts rose to an awesomely magnificent peak of scientific achievement at the end of 1962 with the Venus rendezvous of Mariner II.




The activities of NASA impinged on the interests of people and agencies throughout the world as NACA's activities never had. In respect to the military services, NASA was in the position of an equal rather than a mere technical adviser. NASA not only engaged in research but also actively competed with the military in the field of operations. While in earlier years the military had not hesitated in stepping into NACA's assigned field of aeronautical research, it was now reluctant to share with NASA any part of its operational role. Indeed in 1957-1958, when the space task assignment was being considered, it had fought very hard, though unsuccessfully, to maintain this traditional monopoly.

The Space Act declared the peaceful intentions of the United States in [312] space but, while giving the major assignment to a civilian agency, did, nevertheless, limit that assignment through the statement:


. . . except that activities peculiar to, or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations or the defense of the United States (including the research and development necessary to make effective provision for the defense of the United States) shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, the Department of Defense.... 5


Also arrangements were made for giving the needs of the military due consideration in NASA plans and for integrating the military into NASA space operations, particularly in the fields of policy making, broad technical planning, booster-rocket development and procurement, launch operations, tracking and data acquisition, and spacecraft recovery.

The military was never wholly satisfied with its somewhat limited space role and took every opportunity to enlarge it. This attitude was especially true of the Air Force which in March 1961 was assigned responsibility for all research engineering and flight testing in connection with DOD space projects.

NASA became a partner of the Atomic Energy Commission in the Rover nuclear rocket project which had been initiated by AEC and the Air Force. In August 1960 a joint NASA-AEC office was established to coordinate the activities of the two agencies in the field of nuclear-rocket applications in space flight.

The universities and the scientific community were also thoroughly integrated into NASA activities. The National Academy of Sciences and other scientific and technical bodies provided counsel and assistance to NASA while NASA undertook, on a large scale, the sponsorship of space-related studies in universities throughout the country. Many university groups, operating under contract with NASA, developed space experiments to be carried aloft in NASA satellites. NASA also sought advice and assistance from scientific groups abroad and collaborated with many countries in space projects. NASA activities were thus of worldwide scope and interest.

NASA's relations with industry were notably different than those of NACA had been. NACA had had no business to offer and its relations with industry were thus of a straightforward technical nature unaffected by considerations of money. NASA, on the other hand, had vast amounts of money to pay to industry for research, development, and manufacturing services. The advice it received from industry on R&D matters had thus to be scrutinized with care, and the welcome now given by industry to a NASA visitor would, unhappily, be a little suspect.

One of the more significant changes accompanying the transformation of NACA into NASA occurred in the field of public relations. NACA was [313] known to but a few people and its activities were relatively obscure. NASA, however' became widely known as its spectacular exploits appeared on the television screens of the world. Everyone from schoolchildren to corporation heads offered advice and passed judgment on NASA operations. Never before had day-to-day progress in the exploration of a new field been so accessible to public observation. Aside from the hundreds of millions who were merely interested in NASA activities, there were also large numbers who were actively involved in its functions. Estimates indicated that as many as 2 million people were participating, in some degree, in the man-in-space program and this estimate, of course, did not include the 190 million people each of whom was contributing about $10 per year to pay for the program.




A basic difference between the operations of NACA and NASA was in the nature of the research undertaken by the two agencies. The work of NACA fell almost exclusively in the field of applied research-research aimed directly at improving the performance and reliability of military and commercial aircraft. Pure research, aimed simply at satisfying man's endless curiosity about nature, was an activity which Congress had heretofore been unwilling to fund. But the end objective of much of NASA's research was pure in character; no one expected any early practical rewards for landing a man on the moon or for determining the temperature and the magnetic fields of Venus. The revolution in man's thinking produced by the Space Age was perhaps best revealed by the actions of congressmen in appropriating vast sums of money for pure research.


Congressman Albert Thomas of Texas

Congressman Albert Thomas of Texas, member of House Appropriations Committee from 1941 to 1965 and Chairman of the Independent Offices Subcommittee from 1949 to 1952 and 1955 to 1965.


[314] There were many who questioned the wisdom of spending so much money for such operations as going to the moon or to Venus and there were some who tried to rationalize the action by devious arguments of questionable validity. Still others appeared willing to accept without question or hindrance man's unique urge to learn more about the universe in which he lives. This great urge, like the one to procreate, is not benefited by attempts at explanation. The philosophy behind such feelings was well expressed in a statement attributed to the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen: "The history of the human race is a continuous struggle from darkness toward light. It is therefore to no purpose to discuss the uses of knowledge-man wants to know and when he ceases to do so he is no longer man."

Still unsettled, however, was the question of how much a man or a nation can afford to spend to satisfy human curiosity. About all that could be said on this point was that past investments of effort and funds in such activities had, on the whole, paid off handsomely for they account in large part for the difference in status between man and the lower animals.




This then was the nature of the organization and activity of which the Ames Research Center found itself an increasingly smaller part. Fortunately, the organizational commotion attendant on the formation of NASA was largely centered in the East. Ames was thus substantially isolated from these disturbing activities, and the transition from NACA to NASA was all the easier for Ames because it, together with the other former NACA centers (Langley, Lewis, and the High Speed Flight Station), continued, as before, to report to the same old NACA Headquarters group. This group was headed by Ira S. Abbott who in February 1960 was Director of the Office of Advanced Research Programs which, together with the Office of Space Flight Programs and the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs, comprised the main technical divisions in the NASA Headquarters organization.

The four former NACA centers were able to maintain some semblance of their old and close relationship and, as under NACA, their work received the coordination and advisory benefits of a group of technical committees. Coordination of activities was, of course, a much more complex function for NASA than it had been for NACA and required an effort of which the technical committees provided only a part. Likewise the executive function of a Headquarters technical division under NASA was the more difficult because it had to adjust to a more complex, heterogeneous, and fluid pattern of agency management than NACA had ever known or imagined.

Ames relationships with those NASA centers which were concerned with operations were not particularly close. Nevertheless, these centers were interested in the basic research being conducted by Ames and occasionally asked Ames to carry out specific research projects in support of their space [315] flight missions. Such support was, of course, arranged through Headquarters. NASA was a larger, looser, and more impersonal organization than NACA Increasingly, as time went on, the people employed within the agency's far-flung boundaries found themselves strangers to each other-both in person and in function. The intimacy that had characterized NACA's operations was forever gone.

NACA people had long felt that there was a basic incompatibility between research and operations and that whenever the two competed for attention' manpower, and funds, research was at a severe disadvantage. Thus as NASA got under way, concern quickly developed over the unfair competition the Administration's glamorous space operations would provide for the basic laboratory research upon which any successful space operations would surely depend. Dr. Dryden sincerely felt that basic laboratory research must be preserved and protected. Dr. Glennan seemed to agree but, despite their good intentions, a serious question remained as to whether it would be humanly possible to protect NASA's laboratory research from a starvation arising from public and political pressures for spectacular space achievements.

Ames management was steeped in the traditions of laboratory research and had little interest in undertaking space operations or space-project management. Indeed its attitude toward such activities was slightly disdainful. Within the Center, however, there were people who had a definite interest in space-project management and who, despite top-level resistance, pressed their point of view. Such divergent views had small effect and during the first year or two under NASA, Ames proceeded very much as it had under NACA. Money for facilities came a bit easier but from 1958 to the end of 1960 the Center was allowed no increase in manpower.6 The growth of manpower in NASA was largely concentrated in the area of space operations and space-hardware development, neither of which was significantly represented in the Ames program.

Research at Ames was little benefited by the Space Age transformation -at least in the early years. In fact it received a sharp setback in 1959 when NASA Headquarters decided that NASA flight research should be concentrated at the Administration's Flight Research Center at Edwards, California. The only flight-research activity left at Ames was that associated with the development of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. These projects were allowed to remain at Ames because it was felt that their prosecution would be greatly facilitated by the proximity of the 40- by 80-foot tunnel. The removal of Ames flight projects was regarded at Ames as an act of questionable wisdom. It was in any case a poor reward for the outstanding flight research which the Center [316] had carried out. Headquarters allowed Ames to retain one F-86 airplane so that the Center's pilots might maintain their flying proficiency and thus their ability to contribute to flight-simulation programs.

As earlier indicated, NASA was a Government entity having powerful acquisitive rights. When first formed, it had the authority to take over almost any Government property, facility, or activity for which it could prove a legitimate need. One of its smaller acquisitions at this time was the 76-odd acres of Navy-owned land on which the Ames Research Center rested.7 Prior to the takeover, NASA had been allowed to occupy this land on the basis of a "use permit" granted by the Navy. Now the land became NASA property but, inasmuch as it still lay within the Naval Base reservation, Ames administrative procedures had to be coordinated with Navy requirements. From past experience, this necessity presented no serious problem.


1 Public Law 85-568, 85th Cong., H.R. 12575, July 29, 1958.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Proclamation executed by Glennan on Sept. 25, 1958; published in Federal Register Sept. 30,1958 (23 F.R. 7579) .

6 See app. A.

7 75.6 acres transferred from Navy on April 2, 1962, combined with 39.4 acres obtained from several purchases of adjacent privately owned land brings total owned by NASA, on April 2, 1962, to 115 acres.