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

 

Epilogue

 

[509] As the author considers the writing of this closing statement, the need for an epilogue to the Ames history is not very clear. True, the present ending is rather abrupt, but that is the way it is: the record of a mighty stream of activity suddenly disappearing like a cataract plunging over a cliff. Better, perhaps, than letting it dribble off to an unheroic end.

If the epilogue is to be a forward projection, a common objective of such literary devices, the writer is in trouble. In an area of activity that is changing with the rapidity of the field of aerospace science, forward projections are likely to lead only to argument, and later embarrassment. Perhaps, as a reversal of common practice, the epilogue can be put in the form of a retrospective view of certain salient factors in the evolution of the Ames Research Center. The author should, indeed, like to talk about human beings and their relation to research. Yes, that might be worth doing and the results may be regarded as one man's opinion.

The evolution of the Ames Research Center at first closely followed the evolution of its parent organization, NACA. But as the parent organization grew and changed into NASA, Ames became a relatively smaller, and somewhat divergent, part of the whole. Its physical growth was by no means phenomenal. Indeed, in that respect it did not keep pace with its sister centers. Why? One can only guess. Langley, of course, was NACA's senior aerodynamics laboratory and NACA's management always had an eastern bent. To some extent the same sectional influences prevailed as those which originally delayed the formation of the Ames laboratory. But there was more to the matter than that. Ames destiny was strongly influenced by the character of the Center's management. The term "conservative" can truthfully be applied to Ames managers, but the current implications of the word do them an injustice. They were brought up in the exceedingly frugal environment of NACA's early years and became permeated with the old-fashioned notion that there should be a maximum return to the country for every dollar spent. They were not great entrepreneurs nor were they bubble artists. They wanted to expand the Ames research operation but only as required by clear-cut missions and only with such rapidity as would allow them to maintain a high degree of control and efficiency.

In matters such as described, the Ames managers were conservative and they were even more conservative in their predilection for fundamental laboratory research as opposed to hardware construction, contract monitoring, and glamorous space operations. Their experience, professional principles, [510] and tastes did not encourage their direct participation in some of the costly, highly publicized, spectacular events of the space age. They preferred activities closer to their fundamental interests-activities that could be pursued within Ames boundaries and over which they could themselves maintain control. In this they were somewhat isolationist-an attitude which, because of their detached western location and the continuing eastern bent of NACA management, may have been forced upon them. In any case they moved slowly into the non-research fields of space exploration; indeed they had to be pushed by NASA Headquarters and by a few of the younger members of the Ames staff.

The reluctance with which Ames managers moved into the new fields of space exploration undoubtedly resulted in smaller appropriations and personnel allocations for the Center. It was clearly impossible for NASA management, despite its good intentions, to protect Ames' basic laboratory research from a certain starvation arising from public and political pressures for spectacular space achievements.

While the Ames staff were slow in moving into non-, and extramural, research fields, they proceeded with brilliance and speed in their laboratory investigations of certain fundamental problems of aerospace science upon which the success of glamorous space missions often depended. Here there was no conservatism on the part of Ames management-only encouragement and support. At Ames there was, in laboratory research, a spirit of daring and adventure which enabled the Center to maintain its position at the forefront of a science that was developing with phenomenal speed.

Aerospace research has, since the founding of Ames, undergone tremendous growth both in magnitude and in sophistication. At the time Ames was established, NACA was "the" Government aeronautical research agency, accounting for most of the Nation's work in that field. This situation carried on to the end of World War II, at which time the field of aeronautical research literally exploded. With war's end came the realization that NACA could no longer, alone, handle the full burden of the Nation's aeronautical research. It would be necessary to seek appropriations much larger than NACA, typecast as a small agency, could command; it would be necessary to employ research facilities located elsewhere than in NACA laboratories; and it would be necessary to enlist research talent that preferred to operate in environments provided by universities, industry, and other Government agencies. Thus while NACA remained the single largest, most experienced' and best equipped agency devoted to aeronautical research, the burden of research after the war was shared by a growing number of public and private agencies largely financed, of course, by the Government. The beginning of the Space Age found NACA but one of many such agencies-and of that one, Ames constituted less than a quarter. The expansion accelerated during the space age and, under NASA, Ames became but a very small part [511] of an American aerospace establishment which stretched around the world.

More and more of NASA's research was now being performed under contract by private organizations. Such organizations, large and small, were generally not handicapped by civil service salary restrictions and were prepared and happy to undertake, at a moment's notice, research as desired on any subject in any field. As 1965, and this history, ended, one might well have asked, "Why does the Government continue to operate a small research center such as Ames? Why not let the research out on contract and allow private enterprise to do the laboratory's work?" To attempt an answer: perhaps the reason is to maintain the tradition of Government in-house research, or possibly it rests in the belief that such in-house research is more economical and controllable than is research conducted via contract. The answer may also lie in the obvious fact that contract research will yield results of the greatest value when it is administered and monitored by people who themselves carry on research.

But may not more subtle factors have been considered? Perhaps in the case of Ames, the reason is that over the years the Center has concentrated its efforts in certain important areas of aerospace research and in these particular areas its engineers and scientists have few, if any, equals and have provided themselves with unique facilities. Perhaps the reason is that Ames has, with care and attention, provided an environment which has attracted and held good men against the temptations of higher salaries offered from outside. Perhaps, more generally, the reason stems from the belief that a career Government research man, whose livelihood and activities are not subject to the vicissitudes and deadlines of contract procurement and completion, will be more likely than others less fortunate to find the relaxed, contemplative atmosphere which favors fundamental research. There is a continuity of effort in Government laboratories that often is not feasible or possible in private research centers. Such continuity may result in the development of a deeper understanding of scientific problems and a greater effectiveness in fundamental research.

I am speaking here of the work of the few at Government laboratories such as Ames. The work of the many could, indeed, be let out on contract with little loss of research quality though perhaps at considerably higher cost. But it is the work of the few exceedingly competent individuals, men who in the face of tempting offers from private industry choose to remain with their colleagues in the evocative environs of their own laboratories, that justifies the existence of the whole Center. A single original idea from one of these men may notably affect the world.

 

E. P. H.


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