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




[xi] For those who know Ames, this history of one of the country's most interesting and important research institutions may seem woefully incomplete. In charting the growth and expanding interests of Ames Research Center, many of its research contributions have indeed been omitted. Instead, I have attempted to sketch a broad outline of Ames's technological achievements within the context of its operational and managerial development. This perspective has produced a narrative covering almost 40 years, in which the major changes Ames has experienced are clearly defined, traced chronologically, and analyzed for their various effects upon the research center.

There are several reasons for this broad approach. First, the overriding aim of this study is to present to the lay reader as complete a picture of Ames as is possible, and to portray the research laboratory in all its complexity as a combination of personalities, management philosophies, and research needs, acted upon by the pressures of economics, politics, and military necessities. The process, mode, and directions taken in research prove as fascinating and worthwhile a subject as the products of research, and it was these elements I hoped to capture in a profile of the institution.

Secondly, the scope and sophistication of the research done at Ames is in itself daunting. Had extensive technical detail been included, the resulting book would have been double the size of the present manuscript. It would also have been, I feel, forbidding in both appearance and style to my intended audience, interested readers not necessarily acquainted with Ames or involved in its technical fields of expertise. For those needing technical details on various research projects mentioned in the book, the NACA's and NASA's Technical Notes, Memoranda, and Reports provide clearly written, technically detailed summaries of Ames's work, written by those who accomplished the research; they surpass any treatment possible within the confines of this work.

During the process of researching and writing the history of Ames, I discovered the truth of many of the assumptions people make regarding successful research. Success, continued success in pursuing new ideas and possible solutions to major technological challenges lies, of course, with the calibre of men and women involved in that research. Ames, over the years, has been continually lucky in the people who have worked there; they have been among the finest in their fields. Beyond that, however, Ames researchers impressed me with their lack of confinement to narrow areas of expertise. They emphatically did not fit into the stereotypical mold of narrowly educated, immediately unintelligible technocrats whom outsiders [xii] like to think comprise the engineering professions. On the contrary, I was constantly struck, while talking with Ames-connected people, how wide their interests spread, and how many fascinating byways they had explored in their careers. The research flexibility Ames has displayed throughout its history is, I think, a phenomenon closely connected to the intellectual flexibility of its personnel. New ideas, however unorthodox, have always been given serious attention by Ames; alternative solutions to technical puzzles have been explored in refreshingly open-minded manners. Frequently it has been the unorthodox approach that has provided the answer to major hurdles. The most striking example of this was, without doubt, Harvey Allen's blunt body solution to the temperature problem of high-speed flight. On the face of it, the idea that a rounded body could not only survive atmospheric reentry heating but also lessen its effects appears curious, yet Allen's theory developed as a result of his preoccupation with the simplicity of the natural world and his ability to escape the dead ends of conventional thinking. This talent, both in research and management, has always blessed Ames.

Ames personnel also seem to be strikingly self-motivated in their work habits. It was perhaps easier to be self-motivated in Ames's earlier decades, when much less paperwork and fewer regulations intervened between the researchers and the task they were trying to accomplish. But today's engineers have educated themselves admirably in the art of plowing past the bureaucracy to productivity, and I see this feat as evidence of the high level of commitment to research excellence. No manager, however effective, could replace the self-motivating factor in research; it inspires as well as fuels the search for solutions and answers to research conundrums.

Finally, studying Ames revealed, in ironic detail, the lack of connection between large budgets, heavily structured bureaucratic procedures, and effectiveness. The budgets under which Ames operated during its early years are a literal drop in the bucket compared to present funding. The management and research process, a seemingly simple relationship in earlier decades, is now monitored at every turn. Large budgets and accompanying bureaucracy are probably inescapable in today's context; our goals have also become far more complex and sophisticated than they used to be. It is useful to remember, however, that Ames worked equally as effectively, albeit differently, when the modus operandi was what we might now call primitive. Large-scale funding and the increasing involvement of bureaucracy in the daily life of research are not reasons for Ames's success; dedication to creative thinking is. There is something to be learned from the history of Ames; I believe this is it.

Many people have aided me during this project. Ames management has helped me in every possible way. I am grateful to former Ames Director Clarence Syvertson and to Director of Administration Louis Brennwald for [xiii] easing my way on numerous occasions. In Washington, former Ames Director Hans Mark, later Deputy Administrator of NASA, was generous with his time and help.

I owe a great deal to many at Ames who donated their time and provided me with information I could not have acquired from printed sources. Not only did my interviewees aid in the writing of the book, many of them also read portions of the resulting manuscript, offered invaluable suggestions, and saved me from miscellaneous errors. John Dusterberry, coordinator of the manuscript's review process at Ames, accomplished a Herculean task with grace and good humor. Paul Bennett offered tangible assistance in choosing illustrations and in handling the technical production of the book's design. Darryll Stroud patiently tracked down a long list of needed photographs. Alberta Cox and her colleagues did a wonderful job typesetting the manuscript. Joyce Courtney provided needed details from Ames with professional competence. Mildred Macon, who assisted me initially in finding and retrieving necessary archival documents, became indispensable as a friend, typist, and proofreader. I owe her a great deal.

The NASA History Office has made my association with NASA a truly pleasant one. Monte Wright, former Director of the History Office, edited and much improved the original manuscript. Lee Saegesser, the NASA History Office archivist, helped with references and documents. Carrie Karegeannes coordinated details of the manuscript's completion. Sylvia Fries, present Director of the History Office, has helped greatly in coordinating the book's production. The list of friends and colleagues who helped to improve the book is long. I am especially grateful to Susan Cooper, Thomas Duesterberg, Edward C. Ezell, Linda N. Ezell, Georgie Gleim, Kenneth A. Lockridge, J. W. Mornington, the late Carl Proffer and Ellendea Proffer, Alex Roland, George and Deborah Schober, the late Michael Shaw, John Shy, Walter Vincenti, and W. E. Weaver.


E. A. Muenger
Colorado Springs
December 1984