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


Part III: THE LEAP TO SPACE : 1959-1965





The Environment


[395] IN 1963 space exploration was a game for giants and the United States and Soviet Russia dominated the scene. Each had performed feats of astonishing scientific and technical virtuosity in the new field, but the exploits of the United States had been accomplished much more openly than those of Russia and the quantitative results were more voluminous and widely distributed. The Soviet Union in its space research had operated largely alone and secretively, whereas the United States in fostering space research had sought the collaboration of other countries-even Russia-and soon had cooperative space programs with as many as 50 countries.

NASA, commonly referred to as the Space Administration, had become known the world over. Its operations, which in 1961 appeared to be leveling out at an annual budget of about $1200 million, received a tremendous upward impulse from the Russians' first manned orbital flight in April 1961 and from the simultaneous declaration of national intent, by President Kennedy, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before 1970. Under the stimuli of the Russian feat and the Kennedy declaration, NASA's budget in 1964 and 1965 shot up to over $5 billion, and its staff, which in mid-1961 had been 18,000 rapidly grew to 30,000 in mid-1963 and to 34,000 in 1965. At this time, in 1965, the Space Administration appeared to have reached a new plateau of activity and expenditure above which President Johnson and the Congress were reluctant to have it go. From its very beginning, NASA had been in a continuous and extremely rapid state of growth. Truly efficient operation under these conditions was too much to ask for; all that could be expected, and what was actually realized, was a good degree of effectiveness achieved through the blunt instrument of dollars.

The Kennedy impulse gave high priority to the manned-lunar-landing effort and by 1964 it was absorbing something like 65 percent of NASA's total annual appropriations. Many scientists felt that the priority assigned to the lunar-landing program was too high-that the program was in the nature of a stunt and would not yield information in proportion to the money spent. Indeed, not a few scientists, and many laymen, suggested that the [396] space program as a whole was overblown and that the greater part of the money devoted to it could be spent with much more benefit to man on research in such fields as biology, medicine, earth sciences, or sociology. The cited fields of research, however, had never possessed the peculiar deep seated appeal 1 required to command financial backing in the amounts their proponents desired or in the amounts they undoubtedly deserved. Until such time, if ever, as a more rational distribution of Federal research funds might be arranged, some comfort could be taken from the fact that the space program was so broad in scope that it carried many of the other fields along with it. And probably true was the often-heard remark that, if space research were wiped out, the other fields of research would surely lose by it- not gain. This line of reasoning, however, had limited appeal for workers in the more traditional fields of scientific research who looked with a jealous eye on NASA's $5 billion annual appropriation and who considered the offer of a ride on the coattails of space research a rather poor solution to their problems. Better, they felt, that the widely flying coattails should be trimmed.

Ames by 1963 was caught up in the growing swirl of organizational and operational turbulence centered in NASA Headquarters. Long since, the Center had lost the warmth and intimacy of its early NACA days and now, as a part of a very large organization, it was subjected to the many trying rules and regulations which organizations of such size must establish to survive. Moreover, NASA Headquarters had gone through repeated reorganizations, all having the unsettling effects on the field centers. Originally the field centers reported to specific program offices in Headquarters-the old NACA centers, to the Office of Advanced Research Programs manned by a familiar group of former NACA people.2 In November 1961, however, the old arrangement was abandoned and all field centers, while continuing to receive technical guidance from the program offices, were required to report administratively to the Associate Administrator. Ames thus lost a familiar and useful intermediary in Washington and its relations with Headquarters became more complicated. The new arrangement lasted until November 1963 when, in a major reorganization, the field centers were reassigned to Headquarters technical divisions, or offices.

Following the reorganization of 1963, the research activities of NASA were carried out under the general direction of three program offices in Headquarters: the Office of Advanced Research and Technology (OART), which concerned itself largely with the operation of the old NACA labora-[397] -tories; the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) and the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF), which were largely concerned with spaceflight operations. DeFrance and the directors of the other old NACA laboratories reported to OART, but important segments of Ames activities were managed and funded by OSSA and considerable work was done for OMSF and the various research centers. The lines of management and control were thus somewhat tangled. Since the days of NACA, the Headquarters staff had mushroomed by over 1000 percent 3 and numerous individuals of uncertain position and vaguely defined authority were now issuing instructions to Ames, some even bypassing the Director and going directly to the Center employee. To Smitty DeFrance, whose whole management philosophy was built on running a tight, efficient operation, these developments were scarcely appealing.

Ames had long been a Center devoted exclusively to research in the physical sciences. The life scientists represented a distinctly foreign element at Ames. Their disciplines, their mode of operation, and their very language were sharply different from those of the Ames physical scientists and engineers. These factors had certainly, in some degree, been evaluated by the Ames management when it made its decision to seek to acquire the life-sciences activity. Indeed it had been expected that certain interdisciplinary benefits would spring from the arrangement. Both, at least, were intramural, laboratory-type activities sharing the normal aversion of their kind to anything called "operations." The integration problem was in no way insuperable and, in a spirit of cooperation, both sides made sincere efforts to adjust to each other. Nevertheless, complete compatibility between the Ames body and the new graft seemed unachievable and the bonds of attachment between the two were rather slow in developing.

While glamorous space operations increasingly dominated NASA's activities, Ames, perhaps better than any of the old NACA laboratories, resisted pressures to indulge in such operations and maintained its position as a research laboratory. But in 1963 pressures from both outside (Headquarters) and inside became too great to resist. The Center thus moved into the field of project management even though, in the minds of some, the quality of the Center's product must thereby be diluted. Those in the activity, however, regarded it merely as another form of research.

During this period it also became clear that NASA's policy of doing more of its work by contracting and less by in-house effort was having an impact on Ames. NACA had always run an in-house operation, but NASA Headquarters, by assigning more work while withholding personnel complement, was forcing Ames into an ever-growing contracting business. The danger of becoming mere contract monitors rather than research men was of...




San Francisco Bay region circa 1964. Buildings reveal population density.

San Francisco Bay region circa 1964. Buildings reveal population density.


[399] ...concern to most, but not all, members of the Ames staff. Some were sure that the practice degraded the staff and there were individuals who declared that, if Ames let a contract for research work they were presently doing, they would quit NASA and go to work for the contractor.

The environment to which Ames was exposed during this period was one which undoubtedly produced considerable internal strain. Moreover, the role of the Center, once well understood and supported by every member of the Ames staff, had now become so ramified and diffuse as to tax the comprehension of the management itself. Under these circumstances it was natural that Ames research men should become increasingly preoccupied with personal or group achievement in specific fields of endeavor and should show less concern for the performance and vaguely defined goals of the Center as a whole. Largely missing in the Center's staff therefore was that element of pride and esprit de corps which formerly had arisen from the feeling of being, collectively, a self-reliant and vital organ of a clearly directed enterprise.

The internal strain to which the Ames organization was now being subjected was accompanied by irritations of more common origin-the traffic and congestion arising from a rapid growth of population in the San Francisco Bay area. The pleasant fruit orchards with which Moffett Field had once been largely surrounded had given way to close-packed housing developments. Travel on the local highways and byways, once a happy experience, had become an exasperating fight with traffic. The density of population in the area had indeed provided considerable justification for the earlier transferral of the Center's airplane flight testing to the more remote and secure environment of the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards, California.


1 Space exploration is aptly described by Wernher von Braun as having sex appeal; but its appeal, fundamental and inexplicable though it may be, is surely less durable than that of sex. Clearly, also, the appeal applies far more to space exploration by man than to space exploration with instruments, and more to either than to laboratory space research.

2 See ch.1

3 Compared with 400 percent for the NASA staff in the field.