SP-4304 SEARCHING THE HORIZON: A History of Ames Research Center, 1940-1976

 

8

HOW A RESEARCH DIRECTORATE WORKS

 

[161] Over the years the organization of a research institution continually evolves; identifiable, perhaps even dominant, organizational entities change shape and may even disappear. The directions of research also change; some investigations are completed satisfactorily, some are abandoned, others are modified. It is relatively easy to trace the organizational changes from published charts and changes in research activities by statements about projects and their progress, but understanding the motivation behind those changes is much more difficult. Yet it is in precisely this area that one may grasp the essence of the research and development process-what that process is and what factors can be identified as crucial. Anyone who has been a part of a research institution will recognize some common factors in the story, but others may find some interesting surprises.

Perhaps most surprising is the role of fortuitous circumstance. Chance seems an odd ingredient in research and development; one assumes that scientists and engineers know where they're going, or at least where they intend to go. However, though external needs and researchers' areas of interest define general trends in research, chance often provides an opportunity calling for an institutional response. That response may result in a new set of opportunities requiring further decisions. The process, we learn, is more a series of responses to evolving influences, rather than a predefined plan to which research adheres over long periods of time. Broad master plans may well exist, but they are themselves subject to the whims of circumstance, personality, and unforeseen developments. The research process, in other words, defies generalization and remains stubbornly recalcitrant when we try to pin it down to pat analytical formulas. For each research story, successful or unsuccessful, different factors combine, and often success rides on serendipity as well as intelligent planning and diligent research.1

Each research directorate at Ames has experienced evolutionary changes in both structure and areas of research. We have seen examples in the evolution of the Life Sciences Directorate. This chapter will examine more closely the Astronautics Directorate, seeking to answer such questions [162] as: How did the directorate change over a period of years? What were the reasons for those changes? What were the factors in some of its research decisions? How did those factors interact to affect the directorate and, eventually, Ames as a whole? The directorate changed substantially from 1969 to 1976. From that period we will examine three areas of research evolution. The details behind the origin and progression of research in each area underline the singularity of each research story. That, perhaps, is the crucial point to be made as we try to understand Ames as a working research organization: there are no general models for research success, but there are fortuitous combinations of forces and events that have led to success. Not all research progresses as successfully as the examples chosen, but all research has its own interesting life story-different origins, rhythm of progress, and different factors and personalities affecting its success or failure.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGES IN THE ASTRONAUTICS DIRECTORATE

 

The Astronautics Directorate of 1969 (fig. 1) would be strikingly different by 1976 (fig. 2). The modifications over the seven-year period illustrate a number of forces that are typical of those affecting any research organization governed by changing research demands, finances, and opportunities for changing research priorities.

In 1969 the directorate had consisted of three research divisions and an office that reported directly to the director. The most dramatic of the changes that occurred by 1976 were the addition of the Pioneer project and a support division for space projects, which was charged with advanced planning for future space projects and their developmental needs. In addition, significant alterations had occurred below the division level. Some branches no longer existed; some had been renamed; and some had been shuffled, more or less intact, to other locations. What combinations of factors had produced these changes?

In very general terms, the changes made in the organization of the Astronautics Directorate revealed the major influences affecting Ames in the years after Apollo.

During 1969-1971, Ames faced the threat of closure. Beginning his tenure as director under this cloud, Hans Mark made a point of emphasizing areas in which research activity was both visibly healthy and obviously salable. Activities that were not so easily justified were either redefined or dropped. Though some of the amputations seem drastic on paper, often what was involved was redefinition of major research directions, relocation of key research teams to different organizational elements where they could [163] continue their work, or reassignment of individuals to new tasks as their previous jobs ceased to exist.

While faced with the threat of possible closure, Ames also faced the reality of reductions in force ordered by Headquarters. The result of beleaguered budgets and changing government priorities, RIFs theoretically affect positions and not personnel; but the connection between a condemned position and its incumbent is undeniably real. Therefore, a standard reaction to RIFs or expected RIFs is to find new positions for the potential victims before the RIFs occur, or to redefine the positions so that RIFs are less likely to affect them. Some of the changes in the Astronautics Directorate represented management response to continuing RIFs that threatened research positions. The most dramatic of these was the abolition of the Vehicle-Environment Division, which Mark believed to be vulnerable. In 1971 he abolished a branch and a section of the division, and the next year he abolished the division altogether, relocating its personnel to other positions. The addition of Project Pioneer and the Space Projects Division resulted from less threatening factors. Originally located under the separate Development Directorate, both Project Pioneer and Project Biosatellite had.....

 


Figure 1.-Astronautics Directorate in 1969. From Ames Organization Chart, July 1969.

Figure 1.-Astronautics Directorate in 1969. From Ames Organization Chart, July 1969.

 


[
164]

Figure 2.-Astronautics Directorate in 1976. From Ames  Organization Chart, Sept. 1976.

Figure 2.-Astronautics Directorate in 1976. From Ames Organization Chart, Sept. 1976.

 

....been managed as separate entities, unattached to existing research divisions. By 1975 Biosatellite was completed and Pioneer had completed the most difficult stages of its mission. When the director retired in 1975, the Development Directorate was abolished. The Systems Engineering Division, which supported both projects, was absorbed into the Space Projects Division. The Astronautics Directorate was the logical place for both Pioneer and the Space Projects Division, although the problems of the research divisions and e problems of project management, being quite different, would complicate the job of the astronautics director.

New research directions and capabilities in the form of new facilities were responsible for some of the organizational changes, the most dramatic of which was creation of the Airborne Missions and Applications Division. While this change can now be seen as recognition that airborne science had [165] become of major significance to the center, at the time it seemed merely the culmination of a series of organizational shifts that gradually grouped the C-141 Starlifter, the Convair 990, the Learjets, and the U-2s under one programmatic umbrella. As the aircraft were acquired and their research programs grew more extended, the need for a separate division became apparent. The C-141 and the Convair 990 were organized into the Medium Altitude Missions Branch and the U-2s were assigned to the High Altitude Missions Branch. (Branches in the Space Sciences Division were responsible for experimental planning to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the C-141 and the two U-2s.) The User Application Branch provided liaison between the developing technology and potential users of satellite and aircraft data. The importance of Ames's role in expanding uses for Earth observation aircraft was underlined in 1972, when an Ames proposal to become the lead center was accepted by NASA Headquarters. With the later establishment of the Applications Aircraft and Future Programs Office, Ames assumed the coordination of not only its own Earth-observation aircraft, but also those at Johnson Space Center. This inter-center coup illustrates the effectiveness of Mark's plan to establish clear areas of excellence at Ames.

On the branch level, shifts within the three 1969 research divisions of the Astronautics Directorate illustrate how organizational changes accommodated the declining NASA budget, lower personnel ceilings, and the new research requirements of the post-Apollo period. Research areas that had been crucial to Apollo were not necessarily rendered superfluous, but priorities shifted. As old research tasks reached their maximum exploitation, they often exposed new problems and opportunities, thereby creating a new focus of investigation which in turn led to organizational changes. This process, common in any field of research, was especially striking in astronautics in the post-Apollo period.

The Space Sciences Division was transformed during 1969-1976 by two major forces: completion of the Apollo mission ended major activity in some of the division's areas, but acquisition of new research facilities opened opportunities in other fields. By 1976 the Electrodynamics Branch, the Planetology Branch, and the Space Technology Branch had been abolished, largely because of Apollo's running down. Researchers in electrodynamics and space technology were absorbed into other research groups, whereas the Planetology Branch was combined with the Theoretical Studies Branch. Planetologists had been concerned with hypervelocity impact phenomena, the origins of craters, and the study of meteoritic materials. With the culmination of their work in the lunar landing and the extensive data returned by the later Apollo missions, emphasis on planetology studies decreased, and many researchers left Ames. The rest were absorbed by the creation of a new branch, Theoretical and Planetary Studies.

[166] In contrast, the acquisition of two new and unique research tools led to the expansion of the Atmospheres and Astrophysics Branch. In the early 1970s Ames researcher Michel Bader and his colleagues developed the idea of mounting a large telescope in a flying laboratory and using it for astrophysical and astronomical research. The idea found support; in 1972 a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter arrived at Ames. When a 0.97-meter telescope was fitted, a new field of infrared astronomy was opened. So much work was generated around the C-141 that the Atmospheres and Astrophysics Branch was split into two branches; the new Astrophysical Experiments Branch used the C-141.

Likewise, the field of infrared photography from high altitudes grew from the acquisition of two Air Force U-2s, which will be discussed later in this chapter. As possibilities for using the U-2s expanded, the Atmospheric Experiments Branch was created. In both cases, initial research proposals had resulted in unique facilities that in turn inspired the expansion of the original research areas. By 1976, therefore, the Space Sciences Division had changed substantially. From Apollo-support work, the division had shifted to an emphasis on infrared research, and indeed had proposed to NASA and the IRAS Telescope Project, an infrared astronomical satellite to carry the work of the C-141 a step further into space.

In the Thermo- and Gas-Dynamics Division, similar forces had produced changes in organization. In 1969 the Theoretical Branch was dealing with a variety of research subjects, some of which had declined in importance after Apollo. Information concerning high-temperature radiation characteristics had been crucial to the lunar-landing mission; thereafter, that field had faded. In 1970 Division Chief Dean Chapman restructured the Theoretical Branch into the Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch, dedicating it to purely numerical work and redirecting its research into new fields. The Magnetoplasmadynamics Branch, which studied the behavior of high temperature gases in magnetic fields, was gradually abolished. Because it was a difficult area of study and an arcane one, Ames Director Hans Mark believed it was vulnerable to potential RIFs. In 1971 Chapman diverted all researchers in the branch into work on the newly approved large arcjet facilities. By renaming the branch the High-Enthalpy Research Branch and restructuring its research, Ames responded both to the threat of reduced manpower and to the challenge of organizing an efficient work force to develop the additional arcjet facility. When the new arcjets were finished a year later, the branch was disbanded and its members reassigned to the Thermal Protection Branch, which used the new facilities. By this time, as Chapman recalled, the Thermal Protection Branch -renamed the Entry Technology Branch in 1976-had become RIF-proof, since its research was connected with the Shuttle.2 In much the same manner, the Fluid Mechanics Branch was converted into the Physical and Gas Dynamics Lasers Branch, [167] eventually combining with the Materials Science Branch to become the Materials and Physical Sciences Branch.

The Hypersonic Aerodynamics Branch was also hardy, since its 3.5-foot hypersonic wind tunnel was NASA's largest such facility and much of its work in the 1970s was Shuttle-connected. To balance the new Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch, however, it was renamed the Experimental Fluid Dynamics Branch. The two branches represented the old and the new in aerodynamic research. While experimental wind-tunnel work sought data through actual tests on models, the computational approach attempted to duplicate wind-tunnel conditions numerically without actually running tests to acquire data. Finally, in 1976, the Thermophysics Facilities Branch was created to develop and operate division facilities.

The Thermo- and Gas-Dynamics Division had undergone radical changes during the 1969-1976 period because it had been so closely connected to Apollo during the 1960s. Apollo had also been the main concern of the Vehicle Environment Division, but it was perhaps less amenable to transformation than was Chapman's division. In 1972 Mark abolished the Vehicle Environment Division, moving Materials Research into the Materials and Physical Sciences Branch of the Thermo- and Gas-Dynamics Division. In contrast, the Structural Dynamics Branch was abolished, because Langley had always been strong in structural research, while Ames had had only a foothold in that specialty. Many members of the Physics Branch moved to Computational Fluid Dynamics, a field that Chapman was continuing to build, but the Hypersonic Free-Flight Branch was abolished and its personnel relocated. Some were assigned to the Development Directorate, at the time planning the Pioneer-Venus project; others were divided among the Research Support Directorate, the Aeronautics and Flight Systems Directorate, and the Airborne Sciences Office.3 Somewhat atypically, the division chief of the Vehicle Environments Division, Alvin Seiff, returned to active research after being in management for some years, a move most scientists find difficult to make.

Generally, the organizational changes within the Astronautics Directorate during 1969-1976 were caused by conditions that were new to Ames. In earlier years the occasional organizational alterations had resulted from more or less straight-line growth, such as larger facilities and increased bureaucratic complexity. In the post-Apollo period, however, organizational change reflected changed research directions and, sometimes, retrenchment. Strengths were consolidated, vulnerable areas abandoned or redirected. In most instances, management was anticipating problem areas and attempting to present alternatives to RIFs, as well as to establish visibly unique areas to ensure the center's future. Rather than a simple organizational shuffling to provide better management, the changes represented varying methods of dealing with shifting circumstances.

[168] The restructuring of the directorate was sound strategy. It was perhaps equally sound, tactically, to present an active and aggressive stance, initiated within Ames to deal with the future on its own terms. As Smith De France had changed Ames by adding a new research area in life sciences and a new project-management role with Pioneer, the Astronautics Directorate provides a good example of change within an existing research unit to provide for the future. As individual researchers shifted their careers to meet new research needs, the center's organization mirrored those changes on a larger scale.

Within a research organization, the routes by which research evolves vary just as widely as do the motivations behind organizational change. In an institution with the history, personnel strengths, and facilities of Ames, the means by which ideas grow into major undertakings differ dramatically. Such work is sometimes generated at the branch level and pursued for a time with a g-god deal of freedom from superiors. In some cases the decision to press ahead in a new research direction spurs the acquisition of new facilities that, in turn, influence the choice of future research projects. Lucky circumstances can have much to do with the selection of profitable research. The balance of this chapter will investigate three major research endeavors that originated in different ways.

 

REUSABLE SURFACE INSULATION-BRANCH-LEVEL INITIATIVE

 

A major problem facing the designer of a high-speed, high-altitude vehicle is the heating caused by reentry into the atmosphere. Harvey Allen's studies of missile nose cones and manned spacecraft ablation in the early 1950s had led to further exploration of the phenomenon. One field of study that grew out of interest in the ablation process was investigation of the surface of tektites-curious, button-like pieces of dark glass found in various places around the world. By reproducing the ablation process on synthetic tektites in a hypervelocity wind tunnel, not only was the process itself better understood, but the terrestrial origin of tektites was called into question. In the early 1960s, Dean Chapman and Howard Larson used the ablation patterns on natural tektites to calculate their trajectories. The researchers deduced that tektites were of lunar origin.4 In 1963 Larson was named chief of the Hypersonic Aerodynamics Branch and became involved in the ablation patterns of ICBMs and how ablation affected their {light behavior. In 1968, as chief of the Thermal Protection Branch, he continued his work on missiles and returned to the field of ceramic materials, a natural extension of the tektite work he had undertaken with Chapman.

During the late 1960s the initial planning that eventually led to the Shuttle prototype was also taking place. Obviously one important issue [169] was the reentry heating problem on a vehicle that was expected to be reusable. Unless an ablation shield was replaceable, the ablation process could not be used. An alternative presented itself in the idea of a heat shield that would not ablate, but would instead reradiate heat and insulate the vehicle.5

The idea was not new; similar plans had been a part of the Dynasoar project of the mid-1950s, though the shield envisioned for that spacecraft would have been metallic. In the late 1950s a beryllium heat-sink heat shield had been proposed for the Project Mercury capsule. Difficulties in producing acceptably pure beryllium in adequate quantity, as well as concern over the safety of a heat-sink heat shield on a manned spacecraft, resulted in the ablation shield being chosen instead.6 In the mid-1960s the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company began working on reusable surface insulation, eventually convincing Max Faget, the principal engineer and spacecraft designer at Johnson Space Center, that a reusable insulation system was preferable to a replaceable ablation system. The reusable system would be more economical in the long term and would reduce turnaround time between Shuttle flights. By the late 1960s the concept of reusable surface insulation was being pursued by a number of contractors besides Lockheed, among them General Electric, McDonnell-Douglas, Martin, and Grumman.

While Larson had become involved in the field originally by studying the ablation of meteorites, tektites, missiles, and laser targets, Howard Goldstein had spent much of his career working on heat shields for missiles and spacecraft. By 1968 he was working for a small contractor doing materials testing at Ames. A year later he became an Ames employee and was assigned to Howard Larson's branch. Thus two of the principal researchers who were to investigate possible reusable insulation materials began working together.

By 1970 Ames was conducting tests for the various NASA contractors who were developing possible insulation materials. Two things had become clear. First, facilities were inadequate for accurate testing at high temperatures using a large enough test section. The available arcjets at Ames, while producing the necessary temperatures, were inadequately powered for sustained high temperatures in a test section sized to accommodate large samples of the heat-shield materials that needed to be tested. Second, Larson's branch realized that the results of tests could not be analyzed satisfactorily Apparently not enough was known about the properties of the materials being tested. Both discoveries were crucial to later developments.

In 1970, as Thermal Protection Branch personnel were wrestling with these questions, the viability of the Shuttle was by no means universally accepted It was known throughout the center that Director Hans Mark had personal doubts about the concept. The testing of insulation materials that the branch was undertaking in support of industrial contractors was, there-[170] -fore, of relatively low priority at the center. But Larson-an accomplished researcher and effective branch chief-enjoyed the support of the astronautics director and ran the branch with little interference from Ames management. Larson's team needed larger facilities for testing and more work by Ames researchers so they could understand the heating phenomenon they were dealing with.

Facilities acquisition was, as we have seen, one of Mark's major goals for Ames, so two proposals for new testing facilities won his support in 1971. One plan, developed by Larson, called for a gas-combustion facility using carbon or methane as fuel to produce a hot airstream that could be directed through a nozzle into a test section. The other proposal, put forth by Dean Chapman, was for an arcjet facility with a 60-megawatt power source, three times as powerful as existing facilities. A combustion facility was less expensive, but Ames had the largest DC power source in NASA, which made a good argument for a large arcjet. If larger arcjets were needed, Ames was the logical place to build them. Both facilities were given preliminary approval by OAST in mid-1971.

Competition between Langley and Ames became highly visible over the following months. Ames was attempting to consolidate its position as a lead center for reentry materials testing, as well as to improve its general status by acquiring new and potentially important facilities. Langley management objected to the Ames proposals. On the grounds that any gas-combustion facility was really a structures facility and that Langley was the research center for structures work, Langley Director Edgar Cortwright argued that the gas-combustion facility should be built at his center. In due course the gas-combustion proposal was transferred to Langley. Ames was given approval to build arcjet pilot facilities and, eventually, the 60-megawatt arcjet.

With better testing equipment assured, Ames became more heavily involved in developing, as well as testing, new materials for the Shuttle's reusable surface insulation. What had been a sideline pursued without fanfare and without top management support expanded steadily. By 1972 Ames research in thermal protection materials had progressed to the point where in-house investigations were aiding the contractors in their work. As Larson's division chief, Dean Chapman, later observed,

 

The contractors can't admit that the technology [knowledge] isn't there. They have to [maintain that it's] just a question of developing the system. But the research workers often realized that there were going to be problems with the existing design, and with their technical understanding they started to develop solu-tions before [Johnson Space Center] said they had problems to the budgeting people.7

 


[
171]

1976. Space Shuttle tile being tested in the 60-megawatt  interaction heating facility.

1976. Space Shuttle tile being tested in the 60-megawatt interaction heating facility.

 

[172] A year later, when Lockheed had become the principal contractor for the surface insulation tiles on the Shuttle, Ames was able to use its accumulated knowledge to aid their development. By then the material that had proved most satisfactory was made of silica fibers, and Lockheed had subcontracted with another firm for their production. Those fibers had not worked well, and Lockheed was considering buying more expensive fibers abroad. Ames research showed that the American-made fibers could be made usable, and the Shuttle project was saved sizable amounts of money. By March 1975 the 60-megawatt arcjet facility was operational, and Ames had become heavily and visibly involved in Shuttle tile research.

Subsequently, new and better thermal protection materials were developed for the orbiter. In 1975 the branch developed a reaction-cured glass coating for the high-temperature tiles, which increased stability and resistance to cracking. Another Ames contribution was a second generation of basic tile material -the LI-2200 tile-which was to replace much of the original LI-900 tile developed by Lockheed. Over the next few years, Ames contributions substantially changed the whole thermal protection system for...

 


Figure 3.-Ames Materials adopted for Orbiter 102 (Columbia).

Figure 3.-Ames Materials adopted for Orbiter 102 (Columbia).

 

[173] ...the Shuttle orbiter, and what had been a branch-inspired research task evolved into a major contribution of the center (see fig. 3, p. 172). It was a unique situation: the branch manufactured, tested, and evaluated the new materials, a complete process of research and development, which is not typical of a research laboratory.8 Equally important, the research project had evolved from a sideline based on curiosity into a major effort, a result of the happy combination of interested researchers, specialized facilities, and the freedom that allowed Larson and Goldstein to pursue their work over a long period of time.9

 

COMPUTATIONAL FLUID DYNAMICS-MANAGEMENT DECISIONS

 

The process by which Ames developed competence in the field of computerized aerodynamic research provides an interesting contrast to the Thermal Protection Branch's entrance into orbiter insulation. In 1969, when Hans Mark became director and Dean Chapman became chief of the Thermo and Gas-Dynamics Division, Ames had the poorest computer facilities within NASA, an IBM 7094 machine that had been built in 1960. Despite that handicap, however, Harvard Lomax in the Theoretical Branch had been calculating supersonic flow over blunt-nosed bodies for some years. In the Hypersonic Free-Flight Branch, located within the Vehicle-Environment Division, Robert MacCormack was doing much the same type of computational work on viscous flow. Though tackling different problems, Lomax and MacCormack were working in the same new field that used equations of fluid motion to calculate the effects of high-speed airflow over various bodies under varying conditions. Their analytical approach contrasted sharply to the traditional use of wind tunnels to derive similar information.

Both Mark and Chapman were anxious for Ames to enter the new research field. As Chapman recalled,

 

I'd been out of fluid mechanics for eight or nine years when I took over the division in 1969. When I reviewed the field and saw what computers were doing even then, it became clear to me that they could do a lot of things that I as an experimentalist never dreamed about, so I decided to press into that area. Mark was a vigorous enthusiast of the same thing, for a different reason. As head of the experimental branch at Livermore, he [had seen] the computer take over. We both had the same idea as to what should be done.

 

[174] In 1970, after chairing a committee to define the future computer needs at Ames, Chapman created the Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch, using as a core the old Theoretical Branch. Harvard Lomax became chief, assisted by Robert MacCormack. Those two, plus two graduate students, had been the only researchers who could claim to be involved in computational fluid dynamics. Chapman's immediate task was to enlarge this cadre. "What we did," Chapman later recalled, "was to convert everybody in the branch whom we judged to be convertible to numerical work on the computer. It was also clear to me that since Hans was religiously enthusiastic about it . . . it would be a good haven for any bright employee who was willing to change his career around."10 He had to find other niches for Theoretical Branch personnel whom he judged could not make the transition.

As Chapman was gathering personnel for the new branch, Ames management was also investigating various computers and how they might be procured. Upgrading the computational facilities was crucial, and Mark - not to mention the new branch's researchers-meant to replace the old IBM machine as quickly as possible.

Mark once admitted that he had "sticky fingers for airplanes," losing no opportunity to acquire research aircraft for Ames. He might have said the same thing about computers. As he later remembered, "Government regulations for computer procurement would have taken forever, so we very early decided on avoiding normal channels in getting them." The first opportunity came when Mark learned that an IBM 360-67 system was about to be declared surplus. It belonged to the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory program and was almost literally next door, in Sunnyvale. Seeing opportunity and responding in a typically decisive manner, Mark moved quickly: "The day the MOL program shut down, we had our people over there with a truck, moving that computer out. I knew it would be declared surplus and moved into the [General Service's Administration] system, so I thought we'd better get it and install it fast.''11

Acquisition of the 360-67 opened the door for an aggressive research program by the new Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch. At the same time, it taught Ames management an effective method for improving their computer facilities. The early 1970s saw the retrenchment of many programs throughout the government, and Ames managers remained alert for other computer facilities that might be orphaned. They intended to "be there with a truck and lift them," as Mark put it, before the computers became officially caught up in government bureaucracy.12 The next Ames computer, an IBM 7600, was also from the Air Force, obtained by Director of Research Support Loren Bright, who found out that it was about to be declared surplus. The 7600 became the main Ames computer until 1976, when the Illiac IV became reliably operational.

[175] Ames acquired the Illiac IV under different circumstances. During its prime the Illiac was the largest computer in any aeronautical establishment and one of the most sophisticated in the United States. Three hundred times faster than the old 7094, its presence at Ames gained the center recognized preeminence in the field of computational fluid dynamics and practically guaranteed that when NASA bought better computer facilities, they would be placed at Ames.13 Even if the Illiac had never performed successfully, both Mark and Chapman saw its acquisition as the deciding factor in establishing Ames as the center for computational fluid dynamics.14

 


Computational fluid dynamics makes possible this simulated schlieren, reproducing the same type of information resulting from wind tunnel tests.

Computational fluid dynamics makes possible this simulated schlieren, reproducing the same type of information resulting from wind tunnel tests.

 

[176] The Illiac's arrival was the culmination of a series of lucky coincidences. Dr. Edward Teller, Mark's Long-time friend and colleague, knew he wanted to improve computer facilities at Ames. In 1970 Teller alerted Mark to a developing situation that involved the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the University of Illinois, and the Illiac, at that time in the conceptual stage. Planned as an ARPA research facility, the Illiac was being designed by the University of Illinois and would be located there and operated under contract with ARPA. As student unrest grew during the late 1960s, ARPA became increasingly nervous about the Illiac at the university.

Mark was happy to promise adequate protection for the Illiac if ARPA would place it at Ames. Again, Mark's widespread circle of acquaintances proved useful: "I'd gone to high school with Dan Slotkin, the Illiac's developer," recalled Mark.15 After a period of negotiations, ARPA agreed to place the Illiac at Ames, and in December 1970 NASA Deputy Administrator George Low approved the plan. Formal announcement of acquisition of the Illiac was made in January 1971.16

The Illiac arrived in the summer of 1972, and though initially troublesome, it eventually became one of Ames's great research strengths. By 1975 computational fluid dynamics had made such impressive strides that Mark, Chapman, and Melvin Pirtle, head of the Illiac program, argued in an Astronautics and Aeronautics article that the relationship between wind-tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics was shifting. While wind-tunnel research would always be necessary, the three authors believed that computational fluid dynamics would play an increasingly important role in the future.17 Expectedly, the article produced some howls of indignation from the experimentalists, who accused the authors of endangering the future of the wind tunnel. Though the alarmists had misread the article, the furor it caused was indicative of the influence computational fluid dynamics was beginning to have.

Creation of the Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch and the unconventional procurement policies followed in obtaining improved facilities for computational research illustrate another variation of the research evolution story. In this ease, upper management at Ames had clearly grasped the potential of a new field for the center and had moved aggressively in that direction. New and better facilities being essential, they were procured. This differed from Mark's motives in supporting the proposal for gas-combustion and arcjet facilities. These had been procured in line with his general principle of acquiring as many unique research tools as possible. While Ames grew into its role in NASA-wide thermal protection research through branch-level decisions, in computational fluid dynamics, higher management made a clear decision to proceed in a new direction and organized a strategy to support that decision. Facility acquisition followed a research decision, and both facilities and research grew together through mutual support.

 

[177] U-2 RESEARCH-FACILITIES LEAD TO NEW RESEARCH

 

High-altitude photography and remote sensing for Earth-resources investigations were not, originally, research directions that Ames had clearly defined. In 1970, however, the Air Force announced to other federal agencies that it was ready to make available two of its high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance aircraft for research purposes.18 Agencies, and even private industry, were invited to submit proposals for the use of the aircraft.

NASA was in the final planning stages of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) program, with the first launch planned for 1972.19 Researchers were becoming concerned that they would have trouble analyzing the data, since all available high-altitude visual-spectral-band and infrared photography came from altitudes where atmospheric distortion was minimal. The ERTS satellites would be recording radiation that had passed through the entire atmosphere, and distortion would certainly be greater. The possibility that NASA might acquire the U-2s as research aircraft added inspiration to a developing idea.

If photographs from above the densest part of the Earth's atmosphere could be obtained, the data should be similar to the data ERTS would produce. With U-2 photography, analysts should be able to prepare themselves to analyze the data the satellite would later produce. With this use for the high-flying U-2s in mind, NASA asked the Air Force to transfer the aircraft to them. Using infrared cameras, the aircraft, like the satellite, could measure the chlorophyll content of vegetation -a major feature of ERTS data. In infrared, the reddest portions of a photograph indicate high chlorophyll levels.

Anyone seeing a Lockheed U-2 might have immediately understood why an agency devoted to aeronautical research would have wanted one. Sleek and fragile looking despite its size, the single-seat aircraft had extraordinarily long, narrow wings attached to an equally streamlined fuselage. Even to the untutored eye it was the epitome of refined grace, a plane one might imagine would require a subtle touch. Designed by De France's old Lockheed colleague Clarence L. ("Kelly") Johnson in the mid-1950s, the U-2 remained, despite its age, a thoroughbred among aircraft, capable of reaching 21,000 meters in altitude.

The U-2, however, required almost a separate education in flying and maintenance Carelessly flown, it would "crumple into a ball of aluminum foil."20 Carelessly maintained, it would quickly become a hazard to fly. The Air Force, though impressed by NASA's proposed use of the aircraft, was convinced that NASA was completely naive about the complexity and sensitivity of the U-2s and was therefore reluctant to decide in NASA's favor [178] until it was certain that the aircraft would be suitably provided for with both expert flight personnel and careful maintenance.

After prolonged discussion between NASA and the Air Force, Martin Knutson, one of the first U-2 test pilots, was dispatched to NASA to tutor the agency on the intricacies of the U-2. With his help, the Office of Space Science and Applications devised a utilization plan that was acceptable to the Air Force, including strict requirements for flight crew selection and maintenance provided by crews from the Lockheed division that had developed and manufactured the U-2s.

While negotiations were progressing, NASA deliberated on where the aircraft should be based. Ames made a strong case for acquiring them. Long-lived rumors at Ames have it that Johnson Space Center, already operating high-altitude B-57Fs, maintained that the U-2s were too dangerous for routine work and should not be accepted. Whatever the JSC position, the result was that NASA Headquarters decided to place the aircraft at Ames. Knutson, ready to retire from the USAF, reconsidered a NASA offer and agreed to take charge of the U-2 project at Ames.21

In June 1971 the U-2s arrived at Ames, with a minimal maintenance crew and one other test pilot besides Knutson. The sensor system for the aircraft was still under development. A short two months later, however, a U-2 flew its first satellite simulation flight. Knutson's operation, under the Airborne Sciences Office, became the Earth Resources Aircraft Project (ERAP). At that time the plan for the U-2s went no further than ERTS simulation, with the expectation that once ERTS-A was in orbit, simulation flights would no longer be needed.

As circumstance would have it, the future of the U-2 project at Ames became assured through bad luck in another NASA quarter. ERTS-A was due to be launched in spring 1972; but developmental problems arose, threatening postponement of the launch date. In the case of EATS-A, this delay was catastrophic, since the satellite was to be short-lived and had been earmarked for a crop survey during the spring growing season. Those data were to delineate the benchmark against which later observations would be compared. Goddard Space Flight Center, managing the ERTS project, called Ames.

The ERAP staff, after hurried consideration, produced a plan that answered Goddard's dilemma. The Pre-ERTS Investigator Support program took the planned satellite survey and restructured it for the two U-2s. The data could subsequently be compared with information obtained by the tardily launched satellite. With a great deal of midnight oil and a certain amount of luck, over a three-month period the two U-2s made hundreds of flights and accomplished the mission originally assigned to EATS-A. "After that," Knutson recalled, "research branched like a many-limbed tree in every different direction."22 Not only did the U-2s continue to support satellite...

 


[
179]

1980. A U-2 image of Mt. St. Helens after its eruption helps researchers understand aerosol particle behavior and ash dispersal. The picture is cropped closely for detail.

1980. A U-2 image of Mt. St. Helens after its eruption helps researchers understand aerosol particle behavior and ash dispersal. The picture is cropped closely for detail.

 

....data for ERTS and later Landsat and Skylab, they also provided information in other resource surveys and were used extensively in disaster assessment. Using U-2s, NASA, cooperating with other federal agencies, provided, at a surprisingly low cost, information sometimes unobtainable by any other method.

[180] In 1974, for example, a U-2 surveyed the Dudaim melon infestation in the Imperial Valley at a fraction of what a ground survey would have cost. The melon, an alarmingly vigorous weed, was smothering the California asparagus crop. The melon was not only difficult to detect, but ground surveying was made even worse by dreadful heat, the rough vegetation, and rattlesnakes. By the time the Ames aircraft were employed, the melon had been indicted in federal court! The survey was not only successful in locating infestations, but it also cost little more than $3,000, where a ground-based investigation had been estimated at $64,000.23

The U-2s provide another variety of research pattern: their uses became apparent after they had been acquired. Contrary to the acquisition approach of the large arcjets and the series of increasingly powerful computers, Ames obtained the U-2s in an opportunity that presented itself. There was no existing program in high-altitude work and no plan to form one. Hans Mark indeed had sticky fingers for airplanes; but in this case he only responded to a set of fortuitous circumstances, to the definite benefit of the center.

This consideration of some activities in the history of the Astronautics Directorate has provided some insight into the workings of a research institution. Structural organization, as we have seen, reflects the ebb and flow both of larger agency goals and of the center's own research priorities. Economics and directives from Headquarters play an important role in the restructuring of research units. The examples of thermal protection materials, computational fluid dynamics, and the U-2s reveal the variation of research patterns and the different levels at which crucial decisions are made. Just as research decisions can originate at a higher management level, so they can also begin at a branch or section level. As often as conscious plans are developed, luck can provide a research route without a plan. The secret, then, seems to lie in meeting opportunity head-on.


[181] SOURCE NOTES

Chapter 8. How a Research Directorate Works

 

1. I am grateful to Dr. Dean R. Chapman, director of astronautics at Ames Research Center (1974-1980), now professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Stanford University, for much of this chapter. He was very generous with his time and invaluable in helping me to understand the research process.
 
2. Dean R. Chapman interview, 17 June 1982.
 
3. Ibid. Personnel moves were also traced through the Ames telephone directories for 1972-1974.
 
4. Dean R. Chapman and Howard K. Larson, "On the Lunar Origin of Tektites," Journal of Geophysical Research 68 (15 July 1963) pp. 4305-4358. NASA TN-1556 is an earlier version of this article.
 
5. I am grateful to Howard K. Larson and Howard E. Goldstein for much information regarding the development of reusable surface insulation in the Thermal Protection Branch. Both men played crucial roles in the research.
 
6. Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), pp. 138-142.
 
7. Chapman interview, 29 June 1982.
 
8. Chapman interview, 17 June 1982.
 
9. For a complete description of the Ames work on the Shuttle orbiter thermal protection system, see Howard K. Larson and Howard E. Goldstein, "Space Shuttle Orbiter Thermal Protection Material Development and Testing," in Proceedings of the 4th Aerospace Testing Seminar, Los Angeles, 2-3 Mar. 1978, pp. 1-5.
 
10. Chapman interview, 29 June 1982.
 
11. Hans M. Mark interview, 20 May 1982.
 
12. Ibid.
 
13. Chapman interview, 29 June 1982.
 
14. Mark interview, 20 May, and Chapman interview, 29 June 1982.
 
15. Mark interview, 20 May 1982.
 
16. Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1971: Chronology on Science, Technology and Policy, NASA TP-4016 (Washington, 1972), p. 23.
 
17. Dean R. Chapman, Hans Mark, and Melvin W. Pirtle, "Computers vs. Wind Tunnels for Aerodynamic Flow Simulations," Astronautics and Aeronautics 13 (Apr. 1975): 22-35.
 
18. I am grateful to Martin A. Knutson, former chief of the Air Missions and Applications Div., for information regarding the acquisition of the U-2s.
 
19. See Pamela E. Mack, "The Politics of Technological Change: A History of Landsat," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1983.
 
20. John Joss, "U-2: The Original Bear in the Air," Flying, no. 100 (May 1977), p.36
 
21. Ames's locale was the deciding factor in Knutson s decision, as it seems to been with many Ames personnel.
 
22. Martin A. Knutson interview, 29 June 1982.
 
23. NASA release 74-22, 10 June 1974.


previousindexnext