SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION

 

12

The Cortright Synthesis

 

 

[393] A new era had already started. All I did was accelerate it. Thompson was wedded to the Langley way of doing things and under Tommy everything would be done well, but done their way and in their good time. All I did was speed it up, I think, what was bound to happen eventually.

- Edgar M. Cortright, Langley director

 

Cortright came down here with the idea that he knew everything and that he was going to control everything. And this made it very difficult for some of us. Some of us could adjust to it, some of us didn't. I'm one of those who didn't.

- Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., former Langley director of aeronautics

 

Every revolution needs its culminating figure, its rationalizes, its Napoleon, who synthesizes chosen elements of the old regime and the revolution to create a new order. Under the firm and confident direction of this dynamic leader, a revolutionary episode calms down, grows structured, becomes what is expected, and establishes norms. The revolution eventually becomes the social and intellectual world in which the new generation lives, awaiting the next major upheaval.

For NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California, this culminating - and dominating - figure was Dr. Hans Mark, who succeeded NACA Langley veteran H. Julian "Harvey" Allen as center director in February 1969.1 For Langley, it was Edgar M. Cortright, who would serve as Langley center director from May 1968 to August 1975. In the first 36 months of his tenure, Cortright put Langley through the most sweeping [394] reorganization in the center's history, be it NACA or NASA. At the end of it, Langley was not the same place it had been. Many of Langley's most vital links to the old culture of NACA research were eliminated or retired. In their place would be established a still very reputable and effective organization but one completely adapted to even tamed by - the criteria and standards set by the spaceflight revolution.

Putting a comprehensive treatment of the Cortright reorganization and its aftermath at the end of this long study of the spaceflight revolution at Langley, however, would be like piggybacking a complete study of the Napoleonic period on top of a history of the French Revolution from the fall of the Bastille to the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The two subjects, although intricately related, need to be treated separately because they are both so vast. In this conclusion, the reader will find discussed only a few of Cortright's changes and their ramifications. I include them to illustrate the dialectical process by which Cortright institutionalized the spaceflight revolution at Langley.

 

The Stranger

 

Up to the time of Cortright, whenever a Langley center director left his job, he had been replaced by someone already working at the laboratory. In 1925 upon the resignation of Leigh M. Griffith, young Henry Reid, an electrical engineer who had been working in Langley's instrument research laboratory since 1921, became the engineer in charge. In 1960 upon Reid's long-awaited retirement, Floyd Thompson succeeded him; Thompson had been working at Langley since 1927, and for the past several years he had been Reid's associate director. In office, Thompson immediately faced the problem of naming his own second-in-command. Prior to the spaceflight revolution, the director had always given this position to a close and trusted associate, someone who had been working at Langley for some time. But in the new political and bureaucratic environment of NASA, Thompson hesitated. For over a year, he acted as his own associate director, naming no one to replace him in his old position until he could thoroughly think through the appointment. Cagey Thompson was considering an unprecedented move: the appointment of a non-Langley person, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. By naming Stuhlinger, one of von Braun's rocketeers, Thompson would prove to NASA headquarters that he was not so parochial as to only consider Langley researchers for the job. Approached confidentially so that no one at Langley would hear about the offer until it was finalized, Stuhlinger eventually turned down the job. Thus, almost no one heard about or even now know of - the offer to Stuhlinger. Only after Stuhlinger's refusal did Thompson turn to his talented young friend at Langley, Charles Donlan. By selecting Donlan as [395] the associate director, according to Langley tradition, Donlan was anointed as Thompson's heir apparent.

Donlan, however, was never given the directorship because the spaceflight revolution would interfere with the tradition of succession at Langley. In March 1968, NASA named not Donlan but Edgar M. Cortright, a virtual stranger to Langley, as the center's new director. Donlan found himself out in the cold; he soon left Langley to serve as deputy associate administrator for manned spaceflight at NASA headquarters. Donlan did this even before Cortright named another outsider, Oran W. Nicks, his former assistant in the office of unmanned spaceflight in Washington, as his associate director. Floyd Thompson made a fuss over none of this; after all, eight years earlier, he had himself tried to bring in Stuhlinger as his number two man. Moreover, Thompson had not retired voluntarily as Langley's director. Instead, NASA headquarters announced unilaterally that "Dr. Floyd L. Thompson, Director of Langley Research Center, will retire when he reaches the age of 70 on November 25, 1968, and that Edgar M. Cortright, Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters, will replace him as Director of Langley Center on May 1, 1968." This would enable Thompson, NASA headquarters said, to "utilize a large part of his time on agency-wide planning and evaluation activities." His first extra-Langley task was to be as special consultant to the NASA administrator, Dr. Thomas O. Paine, who in March had succeeded James Webb.2

In certain respects the coming of Cortright was in keeping with the Langley tradition. Like Thompson and Henry Reid, he was an engineer whose first professional employment had been with the NACA. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1947, Cortright had gone to work at the NACA's Lewis laboratory, where he had specialized in the propulsion aerodynamics of supersonic aircraft and guided missiles. While in Cleveland, he had become protégé to Abe Silverstein, Lewis's dynamic associate director. Because Silverstein had worked at Langley from 1929 to 1943, Cortright became familiar with many of the traditions of the NACA's first laboratory.3

In keeping with the spaceflight revolution, however, the coming of Cortright also meant dramatic change. Unlike his two predecessors as director, he had never worked at Langley. Instead of making his way to a high position through leadership in the laboratory's general research program, Cortright had earned the directorship through his project management work at NASA headquarters. When Abe Silverstein came to Washington in the summer of 1958 to prepare for the transition to NASA, he had brought young Cortright with him. For most of his years in Washington, Cortright was associated with the unmanned space program - including the Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor projects. In that program, his boss was Homer E. Newell, the former chief scientist at NRL. (The core staff of Goddard Space Flight Center had come from NRL, an organization, as we have seen, that would often be at odds with Langley.) In 1963, Cortright became NASA's deputy.....

 


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Cortright appointment announced in the Langley Researcher .

Langley trumpets a changing of the guard, 22 March 1968.

 

[397] ....associate administrator for space sciences and applications. Just before coming to Langley, he became deputy associate director of the Office of Manned Space Flight under George E. Mueller.

Throughout his stay at NASA headquarters, which essentially spanned the era of the spaceflight revolution, Cortright had been involved with the management of an unmanned space program that, with the exception of the Lunar Orbiter project, did not involve Langley. To make matters worse, as far as Langley veterans were concerned, by the mid-1960s, Webb's organization in Washington had strong feelings that Langley had gone its own way too often under Thompson's paternalistic and rather closed NACA style of management. This group within headquarters, which included young Cortright, felt that Langley needed to be brought under tighter central control. When Webb picked Cortright to replace Thompson, he was essentially sending him to the center to ensure such waywardness did not continue to bring Langley into the fold.

Webb did not draft Cortright for the job; Cortright eagerly applied for it. His last assignment at NASA headquarters, as George Mueller's deputy in the Office of Manned Space Flight, involved "troubleshooting" for the Apollo program; this basically amounted to staying in Washington to stroke the troops during day-to day meetings at headquarters while the real excitement took place elsewhere. This did not satisfy the ambitious Cortright. "It was awfully hard to come in that late in Apollo and make much of an impact," he remembers. So Cortright went directly to Webb and asked him for the Langley job.* "I wanted my own ship. I always felt that the Center director was absolutely the best job in NASA, and it is." To him, filling Thompson's post would be "a career dream achieved."4

Webb gave the forty-five-year-old Cortright the job, apparently with little hesitation. In Cortright's view, Webb had a "gut feeling" that "Langley needed a shot in the arm" and that it had gotten "a little bit sleepy, a little bit complacent.... It needed to be brought up to speed." That was his broad charge to him. Webb gave him no specifics about what directorate or division needed attention; he only conveyed the message that Cortright, as a younger person and an outsider, might succeed in "putting more life" into the historic "Mother Langley."5

Langley employees were surprised but not shocked upon hearing the news of Cortright's appointment. "My reception was very cordial, very courteous Well, I say very cordial. It was certainly friendly but maybe a little standoffish because they didn't know me. I didn't know them and I was an unknown factor in the equation to some extent." 6 The only ones upset by Cortright's arrival were Charles Donlan's many close friends and associates, who believed the job should have been his, but not even they openly showed....

 


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Langley old guard welcomes Cortright, 1968.

The old guard welcomed Cortright to Langley politely but without real enthusiasm. From left to right: Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., Cortright, Charles Donlan, T. Melvin Butler, Clifford Nelson, Eugene Draley, and John Duberg. L-68-2747.

 

....their disappointment. Most people gave Cortright the benefit of the doubt. What little they knew about him and his reputation at NASA headquarters gave them reason to believe he was a dynamic leader and high achiever who might be successful in getting Langley more resources and more of NASA's project work. But as we shall see, the latter was not something that the research-minded at Langley wanted to see happen.

When Cortright arrived, he had no detailed master plan for restructuring Langley; thus, the reorganization that followed did not happen overnight. Cortright started his job as Langley center director on 1 May 1968, but he did not have all the major organizational changes formulated and ready to be announced publicly until September 1970. That is not to say that he did not hit the ground running. A dynamic man with tremendous self-confidence, Cortright believed that his project management experience at NASA headquarters had prepared him to take over Langley's direction. On his first day at the center, he met with the senior staff and the mid-level supervisors in the Langley Morale Activities building to discuss his plans for becoming more acquainted with the many aspects of his new position In his speech to them, he praised the center for its reputation as a "well...

 


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Edgar M. Cortright, 1970.

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On his first day as director (Wednesday, 1 May 1968), Edgar M. Cortright (left) met with the senior staff in the Morale Activities building (below). Many members of the senior staff believed that Cortright had arrived at Langley with preconceived ideas and plans for the center.

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Cortright speaks in the Morale Activities building.


 

[400] ....managed and smoothly operating organization" and expressed "pleasure at the opportunity to work with the Langley staff in moving forward as a team to continue to contribute to the advancement of flight."7 Because he was an outsider and largely unknown to most of the Langley staff, Cortright did what he could to reassure people that he had not come to Langley to make wholesale changes, but suspicions remained. Several members of the senior staff, in particular, worried that Cortright had been sent to Langley for the express purpose of bringing Langley into line under headquarters - a sentiment not far from the truth.

For at least the first year, however, no one at Langley could be sure what Cortright intended. During his first six months, Cortright spent two or three days a week in meetings in which every branch of the center reported on the status of all its facilities and activities. "I had every group at the center come in and brief me in depth on what they were doing so l wouldn't go off half-cocked. I think I got grudging respect out of that, for taking the time to learn that much about what was going on." From this thorough review, Cortright formed a better picture of Langley's strengths and weaknesses. "What I found was a high degree of technical competence. There was hardly anything in aeronautics that Langley was not expert in and didn't have at least a small pool of experts." In aeronautics Langley "didn't have to take second place to anyone in the country in almost any area one could think of." In space, however, Langley "didn't have quite that much capability." The staff had good project management capability from Lunar Orbiter and from Scout, but there were "quite a few areas of space technology that they had very little capability in," such as electronics (Langley did have electronics under IRD), which Cortright knew was not Langley's fault because NASA had not given the research center much opportunity to develop these areas.8

Overall, Cortright felt that the organization "could stand improvement in terms of the way the authorities were parceled out" inside the center and in the way Langley interacted with NASA headquarters. On both counts, he was a critic of the old NACA way of doing things. The NACA, in his view, was "a very loosely structured research organization where the power resided in the centers, with the center directors and the key researchers." NACA headquarters was "primarily a bookkeeping type of organization.... They were super people at NACA headquarters, starting with Hugh Dryden, but mostly they went in and fought for authorizations and appropriations." They did not control the centers much, which meant that the centers usually got what the centers wanted. "What the centers wanted to work on, they worked on."9 In other words, the engineers not the managers were in charge.

Under the demands of the spaceflight revolution, NASA had worked to invent a new system. "We did not delegate total management authority to the centers. We kept a rather strong management team in NASA headquarters." Every project had "program managers" in headquarters, along with a designated project manager at the centers. "When it worked right, those two guys worked hand in glove. When it didn't work right, frequently the [401] center directors got in the middle and resisted direct independent interaction between the program office and the project office." Floyd Thompson had done this more than occasionally, which was one of the main reasons that Cortright was given Thompson's job. And he was just the man to correct the situation. While working under Homer Newell, he had written the book on the relationship between the program manager and the project manager. Cortright now had the responsibility of leading Langley into a new age in which it would live by the book much more closely than it ever had under Thompson, who in Cortright's view was "not overly responsive" to following set procedures.10

Cortright also wanted to keep closer tabs on how research was being managed at Langley. In the old days of the NACA, research was allowed to take its time and run its course, which meant that many efforts were allowed to go on indefinitely awaiting clear results. But times had changed, and the uncertainty of such tortoise paced fundamental explorations could not be tolerated as in the past. About a year after coming to the center, one meeting in particular cemented Cortright's opinion of what needed to be done to invigorate the center. For this meeting, he asked the directors of all the divisions to put on the briefing and explain what their programs involved and where the most progress could be made.

That meeting, Cortright remembers, was a "disaster." First, he discovered to his dismay that some of Langley's research divisions were working on technology that was "95 percent soft," meaning that the researchers involved were "squeezing the last ounce out of it at a fair expenditure of time and money." More disturbing was that "it was very hard to get anyone to tell you what his program was under him. It was just a collection of miscellaneous things which he, the individual, may have known how to justify informally on a one-to-one basis, but was not very articulate at explaining." This poor performance fixed Cortright's feeling that Langley was indeed a sleepy place in need of new lifeblood. "I was very disappointed because the directors hadn't done their homework and gave some very bad presentations. And that set my mind at work that there should be some changes."11

 

The Reorganization

 

One of the goals of the major reorganization of the center that ensued was to make responsibilities and lines of communication clearer within Langley According to the NACA way, such things were kept informal and rather obscure. Dr. George Lewis, the NACA's longtime director of research (1919-1947), disliked formal organization charts, once saying to a young Langley industrial engineer interested in developing them that the only thing that boxes were good for was burying people. Henry Reid and Floyd Thompson agreed wholeheartedly with Lewis. The best way to set up an organization was to make things very fluid so that "shadow organizations" [402] could cut horizontally through the formal boundaries. Such an organization also made it hard for outsiders to know exactly what was going on inside the laboratory, thereby making it harder for them to exploit or manipulate its resources. Such thinking resulted in Floyd Thompson's creation of the Groups 1, 2, and 3 organization, which made it impossible to tell the players inside them without a scorecard.

Ed Cortright wanted none of this. In his own words, he was always "180 degrees opposite" from Thompson's shell game. Instead, he thought that a center director should "show everything and everyone, right up to the administrator, exactly how you were organized and everything you were doing." In other words, "total display" was his policy. Organization charts should be simple and obviously understandable, with "a good person in every box." Reporting procedures should be equally clear so that no surprises lurked in the wings. "If we were screwing up someplace, we'd learn it as we were going along - not at the end of the project when something bad has happened and a [government auditor] comes back and says that we've misperformed." At NASA headquarters earlier in the 1960s, Cortright had set up a reporting system for budgets and projects that guaranteed such total display. With the same bureaucratic purposes in mind, Cortright now set out to reorganize Langley and its reporting procedures. "We spent a lot of time putting together our presentations every year, of every project, every program area, with pictures and charts to show exactly where the money was going, how it was being spent." 12 Not everyone at Langley liked such visibility, and some may not have abided by it faithfully, but by the early 1970s, it had become standard at the center. Those people who did not like it "lumped it."

By the end of 1969, Cortright had bided his time long enough; he was ready to carry out the reorganization that had been germinating in his mind since he arrived. In typical Cortright fashion, he brought those who would be most affected by the changes into the process of making them so that they would feel that they had at least a part in determining the course of their own future. "I gave the problem to my directors," whether they liked it or not. He said to them, "Look, this is roughly what I want, and I'm not going to tell you how to do it." The only thing that he specified was that he did want basic changes, because "you get comfortable with your mistakes," and he wanted opportunities made "for creative young people to get a chance to lead.''13

In the director's main conference room - the "Brown Room" in the Administration building, which was next to Cortright's own office a small task force made up of the directors and a few hand-picked staff assistants, themselves mostly young, orchestrated the reorganization that the spaceflight revolution had made inevitable. On a large mahogany conference table, this task force laid out big sheets of paper and went to work reorganizing the center and everything and everyone who belonged to it. As the directors brought in their ideas and plans, the task force coordinated and massaged [403] them, keeping Cortright's agenda foremost in mind. When it was all done, in the summer of 1970, between 80 and 90 percent of all the supervisory positions at Langley had new faces in them. A few of the old supervisors left NASA through early retirements; some did not retire but became consultants on salary out of the line of command; most were shuffled into new positions and into new organizations. Only the people who really did not like where this rearranging landed them left.

On 24 September 1970, after months of planning, Cortright's office distributed a large 79-page report to all center employees. It was entitled "Reorganization of Langley Research Center." The report detailed all the organizational changes and provided charts outlining the new overall structure of the center. On its green-colored cover, Cortright explained the report's purpose and immediate history: "Several weeks ago I submitted proposals for the reorganization of Langley Research Center to the Administrator [Dr. Thomas O. Paine] and the Office of Advanced Research and Technology for review and consideration. These proposals have now been approved by Headquarters, and the organizational and personnel changes will be made effective October }, 1970.''14 Whether Cortright was aware of it or not - and no evidence exists to indicate that he was 4 October was the 13th anniversary of Sputnik. To Cortright, the day was just the start of a new fiscal year. (Coincidentally, or perhaps as part of some underlying pattern in the unfolding of revolutions, the birth of the Napoleonic Code in 1802 dates from almost exactly 13 years after the outbreak of the French Revolution.)

In his letter to Administrator Paine, the contents of which he reviewed in the "Green Paper" report, Cortright stated that "the proposed reorganization would accomplish a number of important steps toward effective prosecution of the projected research program of this Center during the coming decade." He then outlined the six principal advantages of the realignment: first, each of the major areas of research responsibility at the center would have a clearer "organizational focus"; second, all emerging R&D responsibilities would be recognized organizationally; third, new supervisory assignments would be tailored to the future opportunities for the center; fourth, personnel and facilities working on closely related problems would be more efficiently integrated; fifth, the center would strengthen its effort on institutional problems and work more effectively with NASA headquarters; and sixth, technical and administrative support of the research effort would be improved. More specifically, the reorganization would result in better integration of programs; greater stimulation of new program efforts as well as the enhanced development of supervisory personnel; more efficient use of manpower, equipment, and materials; and better interface between the center and other organizations.15

The new organization consisted of four major research directorates: Electronics, Structures, Aeronautics, and Space, thus eliminating Thompson's mysterious Groups 1, 2, and 3. Supporting these four were two other [404] directorates: Systems Engineering and Operations, and Administration. In addition, one other directorate was formed for center development. This final directorate, first headed by Gene Draley and later by Langley veteran T. Melvin Butler, ** was to report directly to the center director on matters that encompassed the interest of all or most of the other directorates, such as safety, reliability, and quality assurance.

Without a doubt, the overall layout was much cleaner and clearer than any during Floyd Thompson's term as director. Every aspect of the center that could be rationalized was rationalized. The reorganization drew a clear line between aeronautics and space. Aeronautics was split into three basic research divisions: one for low-speed aircraft, one for high-speed aircraft, and one for hypersonic vehicles, with two additional divisions focusing on advanced technology transports (most notably the SST, which was not canceled until the following year) and on the operation of flight research vehicles. The Structures Directorate also divided neatly into three divisions: loads, structures, and materials. Even after the reorganization, directors and division heads still exercised some crossover responsibilities but not nearly as many as before.

In addition, at Cortright's specific request, the new organization made room for and focused some of the center's newest R&D interests. Electronics, as Cortright had noted in his earliest staff briefings, needed beefing up, so it became its own directorate, with four divisions. Inside the Space Directorate, a new division devoted to the study of environmental and space sciences was formed. This represented a new focus of interest at Langley, one stimulated in large part by the growing international interest in the problems of environmental pollution and energy consumption. Under the direction of Cortright, who considered himself a pragmatic environmentalist, the atmospheric sciences ultimately proved to be one of the center's most productive and worthwhile areas of research.16

Another noteworthy item on the organization chart was the Viking Project Office. The goal of Project Viking was to land scientific payloads on Mars; this mission would be achieved in 1976. In December 1968, just a few months after Cortright took office, NASA gave Langley the overall responsibility for managing the project. The assignment made sense given Langley's management of the tremendously successful Lunar Orbiter project and Cortright's own experience in project management and in the OSSA, where he had been the first to propose a manned Mars mission. In a sense, Viking came to Langley with Cortright, and it went where he did even after it came to Langley. As can be seen in the 4 October 1970 organization chart, the Viking Project Office reported directly to Cortright. No one else, no other box on the chart, intervened. Before the reorganization, the Viking office was in the Office for Flight Projects, which meant an assistant....

 


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Organization of Langley, 1970, chart.

Organization chart of NASA Langley Research Center, effective 4 October 1970.

 


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Viking Lander model in Langley wind tunnel, 1970.

Reaching Mars with just an unmanned spacecraft meant overcoming engineering challenges greater in some respects than those posed by Apollo. Above, a scale model of the Viking Lander is tested in a Langley wind tunnel in 1970. L-70-7351.

 

.....director intervened between Viking managers and Cortright. But Viking was Cortright's baby, and with the reorganization he made sure it was pampered. As the Green Paper makes clear, "The Viking Project Office reports to the Center Director and thus occupies a unique position at the Center. This change recognizes the fact that Viking has the highest priority of any single undertaking at the Center and that authority has been delegated to the Viking Project Manager [James Martin] to exercise necessary direction and control over Center personnel who have been committed to the support of Viking within the research and engineering divisions." Such was not the case for the only other major project office at Langley in 1970 - Scout - which was still within a larger directorate.17

This clear preference for Project Viking disturbed several Langley researchers who feared that the big and virtually independent project office would dominate the general research programs. They worried that Viking would influence the center to a greater extent than Project Apollo had in the 1960s. Some feared a "Viking raid," and justifiably so.

Cortright was enthusiastically committed to Viking; by his own admission, it "probably took half my time as director." With his help, the project office built up a full-time staff of more than 250. Supporting them were an equal number of employees in systems engineering, the shops, and in administration. This did cause real problems at Langley. "The researchers felt I gave too much of my time to Viking and that it got too many resources Some even felt that it split the center. But my philosophy was simple. We....

 


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View of Mars from Viking Orbiter 1, 1976.

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Left, a Viking Orbiter 1 photo of the mysterious "Red Planet" taken in June 1976. In September 1976, the camera aboard Viking Lander 2 (below) shows a boulder-strewn field reaching to the Martian horizon approximately 2 miles away.

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The Viking Lander 2 on the Martian surface, 1976.


 

[408] ....had Viking. We had to make it succeed, period. There was no choice but to do it properly. And it did succeed, magnificently. It was the highlight of the whole space program, as far as I am concerned. Two orbiters around Mars; two landers on Mars. They all operated the way they were supposed to do. I never would have expected, in my fondest dreams, that they would have been that successful.... If anyone ever thought [Langley] was a sleepy center, they sure didn't while Viking was going on or when it succeeded." 18

Viking concerned researchers, but nothing upset them as much as the personal trauma of leaving old and comfortable jobs, moving into new and unknown ones, and perhaps even facing retirement. In concluding his executive summary of the contents of the reorganization report, Cortright stated: "It is realized that the changes outlined herein affect a large number of employees, many of whom will be relocated and working under new supervision. During the initial transition stages, some inconveniences will be experienced. This is to be expected and is a normal outgrowth of reorganization. However, I believe that the immediate and long-range future of Langley Research Center is of prime concern to all of us, and I feel confident that all supervisors and employees will make every effort to facilitate the transition.''19

Any executive officer wants to put together his own team of subordinates, and Cortright was certainly no exception. Long before the reorganization, he had made it clear that he would clean house. For example, when Donlan left Langley for Washington in early 1968 after being bypassed, Floyd Thompson had chosen 51-year-old Dr. John E. Duberg, a structures expert and Langley veteran since 1943, as the acting associate director. Thompson believed that Duberg should stay on as Cortright's associate director because he was just the person who could help a stranger learn everything he needed to know about Langley. Unfortunately for Duberg, Cortright came to realize that Duberg "liked the center the way it was," which marked him in Cortright's mind as "inflexible."20 Cortright eventually took him out of the post and made him chief scientist, a position in which Duberg performed well.***

In truth, Duberg just was not the kind of number two man Cortright wanted. He was looking for "a hard-nose driver who will implement and follow through." In Cortright's view, his own strongest suit had always been "understanding what needs to be done, being able to put teams together to do it, and providing the leadership, with the correct policies and decisions." He was not terribly good, however, at stepping on toes or being ruthless about getting things done; he was "too soft for that." For the "tough follow-through," he needed someone else a "hard-nose" deputy.21

As part of the September 1970 reorganization, Cortright found his man, Oran W. Nicks, the acting associate administrator of the OART at NASA....

 

 


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John E. Duberg, George M. Low, and Edgar M. Cortright, 1970.

John E. Duberg (left) became Langley's chief scientist after serving briefly as the associate director for Edgar M. Cortright (right). The man in the middle is George M. Low, former head of the Office of Manned Spaceflight at NASA headquarters. Low, at the time of this photo, was serving as acting NASA administrator following Thomas O. Paine's resignation in September 1970. L-70-176.

 

....headquarters. His choice was not a popular one at Langley, to put it mildly, in large part because Langley employees were just not used to having such a gunslinging honcho around. Thompson had been a tough number two for Henry Reid, and Donlan had been tough enough for Thompson, but no one ever cut quite as sharply into the flesh of employees as Nicks. This was especially hard to take from someone who did not know Langley. Like Cortright, Nicks had spent all his time up to then at NASA headquarters - and mostly in the management of the space sciences arena, and unlike Cortright, he did not have the time to acquaint himself with the center, or vice versa, before launching into action. Even Cortright admits in retrospect that "people either loved him or hated him, and there wasn't too much in - between He did step on toes. He was impatient with inaction, and research centers don't normally leap into action every time you suggest something." 22

The person who felt the bite of the reorganization and Cortright's hardnose deputy the most was Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., the sage head of Group 3 - and John Stack's successor as head of aeronautical research at the center. Loftin survived the reorganization and was made director of the Office of....

 


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Organization changes announced in the Langley Researcher, 1970.

Cortright unveils his sweeping reorganization.

 

[411] .....Aeronautics, but he did not last long. Loftin and Cortright represented different philosophies about research and how it could best be accomplished. Loftin had gone along grudgingly with the spaceflight revolution and had played a prominent role in both the early planning for Apollo and the space station. In this regard, he was typical of many of the former NACA researchers, but his heart had always remained true to airplanes and the golden years of NACA aerodynamic research. In the twilight of his career, he was not inclined to bow to Cortright's plans for Langley - and he was even less inclined to tolerate Oran Nicks, whose technical abilities he did; not respect.

In June 1971, Cortright replaced Loftin, who moved to a special assignment in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Air Force.23 Although the outward appearance of Loftin's job change may have looked; normal, Loftin in fact felt he had been fired. Cortright exacerbated the! problem at the center when he gave Loftin's old job temporarily to Nicks. This lasted for only three months, until September, when Robert Bower, director of advanced development for Grumman Aerospace Corporation in I Bethpage, New York (and Cortright's college fraternity brother), replaced I him. 24 Unfortunately, Bower proved no more popular at Langley than Nicks.

Part of what inspired the reorganization was Cortright's desire for a youth movement. "I wanted more youth," Cortright remembers. "I wanted people who had been in the same job for twenty years to move and do something a little different.... That's what I felt my charter was and I felt after that first year of studying the center and its people that it was justified." During Cortright's apprenticeship at NASA in the early 1960s, Abe Silverstein had told him, "You've got to keep the new blood coming in at the bottom all the time. If not, you have big gaps in your management later on." Cortright launched an aggressive recruitment campaign at the same time he was encouraging some of the older employees to retire early. He did this in the face of rather significant manpower reductions NASA-wide. Even the heads of the directorates had to go out and give talks at some of the major colleges and universities to recruit talented graduates.; Cortright himself went to Rensselaer, his alma mater, and to the California l Institute of Technology (Caltech), which he knew well from his days at NASA headquarters when he monitored studies being done at JPL.25

Cortright changed Langley's recruitment policy. Be found by asking the center's personnel department that Langley had been recruiting in the 1960s almost exclusively from a handful of schools, notably Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, North Carolina State University, and Georgia Institute of Technology. When he asked why that was the case, personnel; officer E. Townsend Johnson, Jr., replied, "Well, Mr. Cortright, we're sort of partial to southern boys." That displeased Cortright, and rightfully so, given the extent to which NACA Langley in the early years had built its talented staff on young people from northeastern and midwestern schools.;

[412] Cortright insisted on a nationwide search from then until the time he left in 1975.26

Cortright's youth movement was not designed just to fill slots at the bottom of the organization; he also wanted to give younger people the chance to take on additional responsibility and assume leadership positions. To make room for the new people, however, Langley needed to get rid of some of the old. As suggested earlier, Cortright asked for early retirements. A number of senior people felt that if anyone had to go because of the manpower reductions, it ought to be them because they already had enjoyed good careers and should give younger people a chance. These younger people moving up, of course, were happy with the reorganization and provided Cortright with a solid base of support lasting throughout his stay at Langley. Other senior employees, however, became dissatisfied because of Cortright's downscaling of many of the highest civil service salaries at the center. Instead of trying to get as much as he could for his employees, as Thompson had always done, Cortright felt that researchers, no matter how many years of service, should not make more money than the boss.

One group that strongly supported Cortright was the staff toiling in the shops. For them, Cortright rehabilitated facilities to provide better working conditions and, most importantly, air conditioning for the hot and humid Tidewater summers. In large buildings like the huge West Area airplane hangar where air conditioning was impractical, he found enough money to install large fans that hung down from the ceiling and blew cool air on the mechanics and other workers. "Boy, these shop people were my friends from then on," Cortright is proud to say. "And when I retired, they wrote in their shop news that they thought it was unfortunate that the best director they'd ever had had seen fit to retire.... I loved those folks. They're the salt of the earth. And I wasn't going to have them working in sweat-shop conditions while all the engineers sat in air conditioning."27

Cortright did other things to build support for his programs. He initiated the practice of giving an annual "state of the center" address, an affair that had no precedent at Langley. "I was a big one for getting people on my side and pumped up," he states. "Langley did so many great things before I got there under Reid and Thompson, that I just wanted to get more of the same. I didn't particularly want to do any better than they did, just to make sure that I did that well, at least." Besides giving this formal overview of the center's current programs and future directions to the Langley employees, Cortright also presented a simplified version of his state of the center address to the employees' spouses. "I gave them about an hour and a half lecture on what the center was doing, why their husbands were coming home late, and what they were accomplishing. That 'coffee and briefing program' worked out real well. It was just part of my style."28

Cortright also moved to stimulate NASA's popular appeal in the community at large by creating an official NASA Visitors' Center, which opened on site at the center in 1971. Such an attraction contrasted sharply with [413] the old NACA days prior to the spaceflight revolution when the low-key Langley installation was largely invisible to the American public. The leaders of the NACA wanted to keep it that way, but Cortright, following his philosophy of total display, wanted the center opened to visitors - as many of them as would come. "I built the Visitors' Center. I initiated a major program to communicate the good works of the lab. I got headquarters' approval for it and we designed it internally, put up all the displays, and opened it up in less than two years' time. It became the place for having outside groups and hosting receptions." (Axel Mattson, Langley's former secret agent in Houston, actually put the visitors' center together, along with many of its exhibits.) In fact, until its official closing in 1992 and its move to the multimillion-dollar Virginia Air and Space Center on the riverfront in downtown Hampton, this small visitors' center on site at Langley Research Center attracted (at least according to NASA statistics) more tourists than any other single attraction on the Peninsula, which includes the many historic and entertaining sites in the Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown triangle.29

In a similar vein, Cortright brought Langley and its surrounding community together by joining with the city of Hampton in the building of a unique steam-generating trash burner. "We saw where we could burn trash and get all of Langley Field's steam requirement and help solve the landfill problem." Put into operation in 1978, this unique facility worked well except for the release of some nitrogen oxides into the air, a problem that the plant engineers eventually solved. The incinerator, which remains in operation to this day, is a testimony to the kind of community program that Cortright sponsored.30

 

New Directions

 

Ed Cortright was not an unpopular center director. Nor was he unaccomplished. During his seven years at the center, Langley again built a solid record of R&D achievements.**** Topping the list, of course, were the successful landings of the Viking spacecraft, Cortright's pride and joy, on Mars in 1976. Nothing in the history of space exploration, except perhaps the manned lunar landing, was a more amazing feat or more difficult to carry out. Under Langley's expert project management and Cortright's general oversight, Viking accomplished its mission almost flawlessly.31

One of the technological developments that had made the spaceflight revolution possible was the arrival of powerful new computers with new integrated circuitry. Langley had made good use of this new technology [414] through Paul Fuhrmeister's ACD, but little had been done programmatically during Floyd Thompson's term as director to formalize and consolidate the opportunities made possible by the development of new electronic capabilities. During Cortright's directorship, Langley's computational skills grew much more sophisticated and organized. Early in his term as director, he sponsored the development of the Institute for Computer Applications in Science and Engineering (ICASE) at the center, which enabled leading professors from around the world to use Langley's Star computer to explore ways of applying their mathematical abilities to the development of new aerospace-related technologies. At about the same time, Langley's computational specialists refined a system called "NASTRAN," which stood for NASA Structural Analysis. This innovative computer system, first conceived at NASA Goddard in the mid-1960s, expedited analysis of many types of structures, including large launch vehicles, aircraft, bridges, and even automobiles. As part of the Cortright reorganization, a NASTRAN Systems Management Office evolved inside the Structures Division of the Structures Directorate. The office continued until 1978. 32

Cortright sponsored the development of a computer program that was not as successful - IPAD, or the Integrated Program for Aerospace-Vehicle Design. IPAD engineers were to help optimize aircraft design by creating interactive computer programs relating aerodynamics, propulsion, and structures. The computer program was to be set up with subroutines that would interact through a master central computer. At the master computer, in Cortright's words, "a group of whizzes can design airplanes in a quarter of the time" that it normally took. Ultimately, IPAD would give Langley researchers important insights into such questions as how a change in wing shape would affect the weight of an aircraft or how changing engine placement would influence the craft's aerodynamics.33

Unfortunately, the optimizing of an aircraft through computers was not an easy matter. Moreover, veteran Langley researchers were not accustomed to being put into the role of actual aircraft designers. By formal NACA policy, researchers were to provide the fundamental information that aircraft designers in industry would need to do their jobs; they were not to design particular airplanes. At senior staff meetings in the early 1970s, Cortright had it '"thrown" at him that "we were not a design center" but a place where researchers worked on the problems that those who were designing would encounter. Old-timers like Larry Loftin and NACA veteran and assistant director of the Structures Directorate Richard Heldenfels warned Cortright about IPAD: "That's too elaborate. The companies design; we do basic research." To which Cortright replied, "Well, how do you know you're doing the right basic research if you don't know anything about design? And who is going to do this type of advanced thinking of getting computers to play with each other?" After all, at that time computers were just becoming important in the nation's research centers.34

[415] In spite of the resistance from his senior aerodynamicists (who argued that they indeed did know a lot about design because they conducted fundamental research), Cortright went ahead with IPAD and eventually contracted Boeing for the system for just under $40 million. IPAD never achieved everything it set out to do, partly because its original goals were so elaborate, and NASA eventually canceled it when further developments in computer technology, including the development of personal computers (PCs) and individual work stations, made IPAD obsolete. Still, IPAD did have some positive results: it taught engineers in the aircraft industry and NASA how to begin conceptualizing an integrated aircraft design.

A more noteworthy Cortright program that was to incorporate new computational capabilities was the Terminal Configured Vehicle and Avionics (TCVA) program, which NASA co-sponsored with the FAA.***** In 1973, NASA bought Boeing's 737-100 prototype, a twinjet standard-body airliner, at a cost of only $2.2 million (the market value of a used 737 in 1972 was about $3.5 million) and outfitted the plane for research. The goal of the TCVA program was to provide improvements in the airborne systems (avionics and air vehicle) and operational flight procedures for reducing approach and landing accidents, reducing weather minima, increasing air traffic controller productivity and airport and airway capacity, saving fuel by more efficient terminal area operations, and reducing noise by operational procedures." More specifically, the program was to investigate the best approaches of airliners for noise abatement and improved airport acceptance rates, cockpit displays of traffic information, and computer-aided navigation for improved fuel efficiency and closer spacing of aircraft landings. Other experiments eventually carried out as part of the program explored such things as high-speed runway turnoffs and use of the new microwave landing system that the FAA was developing.35

In summary, the task of the TCVA program was to improve air operations in crowded airport areas, which was a goal in some ways as formidable (and certainly as worthwhile) as landing humans on the moon. As this program evolved, TCVA became concerned with the quest for "the cockpit of the future." This cockpit would incorporate the most advanced digital avionics, a subfield that proved to be among the most ambitious aeronautical applications of computer power. The program also was one way for the center to stay involved with technologies relevant to the operation of the supersonic transport, even after Congress's cancellation of the SST in 1971. In particular, TCVA funding allowed NASA researchers to continue investigating the advanced digital electronic displays and automatic guidance and control systems that Boeing, the former SST prime contractor, had been considering for its supersonic airliner.

 

 


[
416]

Model of the Boeing 737 in the Anechoic Antenna Test Facility.

A 1/11-scale model of the 737 airplane is prepared for testing in Langley's Anechoic Antenna Test Facility as part of an effort to develop a collision avoidance system for commercial airliners.

 

"I got the center into avionics," Cortright claims with pride, "which was totally new." Langley insiders, however, argue that veteran NACA/NASA test pilot John P. "Jack" Reeder and other researchers actually deserve the credit. Whoever was most responsible, the results were impressive, not just for Langley, which became perhaps NASA's foremost research center specializing in the application of microelectronics to aviation, but also for the FAA and the world of civil aviation. For Boeing specifically, TCVA led to sophisticated avionics systems incorporated into the company's new 757 and 767 jet airliners.36

Cortright also believes that he kept Langley active in supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics, which were two fields of high-speed performance that had lost national support by the early 1970s. "There was a huge effort to cancel hypersonics," he recalls, "but I fought for it all the eight years I was here, and kept it pretty much alive." The same was true for supersonics, which became something of a dirty word around the country following the controversies over sonic booms, noise, and environmental pollution, which prompted Congress to kill the national SST program in 1971. "We pushed supersonics even when we were told to drop all of it." In both these cases, Cortright had to back off his philosophy of "total display," because the only way to keep such politically sensitive work going in the early 1970s was by "bootlegging" it. "Sometimes you just have to survive. So we found ways to keep research going critical research on supersonics and hypersonics - even when Congress wanted anything labeled supersonic transport or the....

 


[
417]

Richard H. Petersen in the National Transonic Facility, 1984.

.

Cortright won initial funding in 1975 for what became the National Transonic Facility, but his successor, Donald P. Hearth (director 1975-1985), would spend considerably more time, energy, and money than expected to build the innovative new wind-tunnel design and establish its regular operation. Left, Hearth's successor, Richard H. Petersen (1985-1991), stands next to a model of the Boeing 767 prototype mounted in the NTF. Below, a tunnel technician checks the nozzles that inject nitrogen gas into the airflow.

.

The National Transonic Facility.


 

[418] ....like, struck."37 Cortright's critics, however, underplay the importance of his role in keeping these research areas alive.

Cortright initiated one last project before leaving office in 1975, and this project proved to be critical to Langley's future: he won NASA's approval for $250,000 to build a small pilot facility to prove the feasibility of an in-house concept for a large cryogenic, high Reynolds number wind tunnel. The pilot facility did prove the large tunnel feasible. In 1983 after a long and tortuous developmental period under Cortright's successor, Donald P. Hearth, this major new facility, the National Transonic Facility (NTF or "The Big Cold One"), opened at Langley to rave reviews, not to mention the audible sighs of relief.38

 

Critique from the Old Guard

 

Not everyone was happy with the Cortright reorganization or with the way the spaceflight revolution had been changing the character of Langley Research Center. Many of these critics were members of the old guard from the days of the NACA when the engineers were in charge and fundamental research was their bread and butter. This group was concerned that NASA Langley was heading in a dangerous direction: toward project management work, toward bureaucracy, toward contracting out, and toward less in-house capability. Some of the disenchanted were so frustrated and depressed by the changes taking place around them that they resigned and moved to new jobs or retired. Others stayed on to fight for their vision of Langley's future.

To nurture communication among his supervisory personnel, Ed Cortright had initiated the practice of holding brief "retreats" from the center. The first of these included three dozen people and took place in the summer of 1969 at Airlie House, a quiet resort lodge in the mountains of western Virginia. A second and third retreat followed at Airlie in 1970 and 1971, followed by annual retreats to Williamsburg, Virginia, which was much closer to Langley. On these occasions, some of the Langley veterans spoke up and exchanged opinions about the proper balance of research and project work. One of the retreat participants most concerned about the decay of the research effort at Langley was Macon C. Ellis, Jr., head of the MPD Branch, which Cortright would abolish as part of his September 1970 reorganization. (See chapter 5.)

Mike Ellis, however, was unhappy even before the dissolution of the MPD Branch. In January 1969, just months after Cortright took over, Ellis began putting down on paper what he called "Very Rough Thoughts on the Degeneration of Research-Mindedness at Langley and the Need for a 'Research Renaissance."' He eventually shared the polished version, "Rough Thoughts on Status and Future of Research at Langley," with only a few sympathetic colleagues. At the heart of his critique was the rather categorical conclusion that "the Center is no longer research-oriented; it is [419] project-oriented." Driven by the urgencies of the space program, Langley management had grown "much more concerned with projects and their problems almost to the exclusion of concern and action related to the status of our future research." NASA management was only giving "lip service" to "the concept that projects require a research cadre at the Center to draw upon," but in reality "most of management's attention is to projects, taking for granted the necessary input from research people."39

In his confidential paper, Ellis identified several circumstances and trends that he believed were indicative of what he called "the second-best present position of research." For instance, "In former years of almost solid research orientation, we had monthly meetings of research 'committees' and an overall monthly research-oriented meeting called 'the department meeting. "' But in recent years, the monthly department meeting had been replaced by "a very large meeting open not only to the research and engineering staffs but to the administrative and technical staffs." This change has "pulled the level of presentation down to the level of Scientific American or even Life magazine." Such a meeting "where most of the scientific flavor is lost" was fine for fiscal and other administrative personnel, but it was "demeaning to research personnel," especially so when "no alternate forum" for the researchers existed at any level inside the center.40

Ellis cited more evidence for the deteriorating status of research at Langley: "Awards and rewards are now being made for lesser and lesser accomplishments" and with "no apparent recognition of the diminution of awards for research." In Ellis's opinion, NASA was even giving out some of its exceptional scientific awards for achievements that were "clearly not scientific." This, he lamented, was "demoralizing to the hardworking successful researcher aspiring to true scientific excellence." What was worse, NASA management was not keeping up, "even to a cursory degree," with the details of the various specific research areas, such as his own fields of space science and plasma physics. "How often does management above the division level examine, criticize, and evaluate research activities and objectives," he asked pointedly, "in areas other than those very close to applied problems?" Furthermore, why was it that in nearly all activities requiring the support of administrative or technical services, "the top priority and attention" always went to the projects? Pointing to two recent cases of personnel transfers "out of research," Ellis emphasized that the prime reason given by both individuals involved was that "all types of support for research," especially in terms of help from the shops and from laboratory technicians, have "declined to such a point that research activities do not have management priority.''41

In October 1969, Ellis sat as a member of a Space Sciences and Technology Steering Committee, which Cortright had put together to evaluate the status of space sciences research at the center. At this meeting, Ellis expressed very strong opinions about the deterioration of the overall status of research at Langley and recommended that Langley's various efforts in space science be consolidated by creating a new space sciences division.

[420] His MPD Branch would become a part of this new division. In a typed statement that he planned to present to the committee's chairman, Herbert A. Wilson, Jr., but apparently never did, Ellis wrote:

 

It is believed that the Center's reputation as a Research Center has eroded considerably over the past 10 years The trend has been toward a Center primarily concerned with projects and contract administration, with increasingly scattered and smaller groups of research excellence. Good research people, including our brightest young ones, who see the situation going in this direction with no apparent positive action to preserve a strong research role, do not stay A degenerative process results in which, not only research itself but projects which depend on the research cadre, may also diminish ultimately leaving only management activities and contract administration. What is needed at this point is a hard examination of the research situation at Langley, and the initiation of positive steps to preserve and upgrade the status of research To the researcher, the present situation appears to be that leadership of a successful project is the acme of accomplishment at Langley. For equal recognition, research accomplishment most be so truly outstanding and highly visible as to discourage many competent researchers.42

 

Unfortunately, the ideas Ellis did express on these matters were mostly neglected, or at least he thought so. In a handwritten set of notes to himself dated 10 November 1969 and entitled "So-called Minutes of 10/27/69 Mtg. of Sp. Sci. & Tech. Steer. Comm.," he wrote, "I begin to detect a lack of candor in reporting what actually was said in the discussions. There were some very forthright statements made (by MCE among others) that are very much unreported. ["MCE" stands for himself, Macon C. Ellis.] Everybody seems to see and hear what he wants to, regardless of what is presented."43 Ironically, Cortright, in his reorganization the following year, did create an Environmental and Space Sciences Division within the new directorate for space as Ellis had recommended. Mike Ellis, however, would not be a part of the new division, although most of his MPD scientists would. Instead, Ellis became associate chief of the Hypersonic Vehicles Division under John V. Becker - a position that he did not want. As for his ideas on the degeneration of research-mindedness at the center, nothing in the historical record suggests that the Cortright administration tried to reverse the trend by moving away from projects toward basic research as Ellis recommended; the administration seems only to have pushed the center further in the direction of projects.

Another individual who spoke up about the erosion of Langley research was John V. Becker, Ellis's boss both when he worked in the MPD Branch in the Aero Physics Division and now in his position in the new Hypersonic Vehicles Division. Although Becker had started working in the field of high-speed aerodynamics at NACA Langley under John Stack's tutelage in 1936, he was no dinosaur. When it came to keeping up with the times and adapting to changing circumstances, Becker always proved to be thoughtful, [421] pragmatic, and adept. He understood NASA's reasons for naming Ed Cortright Langley's new center director. As Becker has written in the notes to his private papers, "to a shrewd aggressive administrator like James T.. Webb, who had studied and written on modern management techniques, Langley's director F. L. Thompson and his staff of aging Langley employees must have appeared old-fashioned and in need of managerial rejuvenation. Langley's long-standing division structure established along disciplinary lines and deliberately provided with vague names like 'Full-Scale' or 'Aero Physics' was an obvious target for change. Thus in 1968 Webb chose a man from his HQ staff, Ed Cortright, to succeed Thompson, passing Over Langley heir apparent C. Donlan." In Becker's opinion, Cortright "undoubtedly came with a clear mandate to shake up and modernize the Langley operation."44

Becker was one of a small minority of Langley managers who believed that changes were definitely needed. "Communications both within and among the research divisions were clearly inadequate and in fact entirely Lacking in many cases," he admitted. "Mechanisms to insure accountability were virtually non-existent at all levels from researchers on up through division offices." What bothered Becker specifically was that researchers in some of the "aging divisions" were pursuing research in areas completely unrelated to NASA's aerospace charter, such as cancer-cell biology, interstellar mechanics, and even personalized rocket propulsion units for U.S. soldiers. In his own division, he saw the need for improvement. Although he had supported the esoteric pursuits of MPD for many years, Becker now felt the branch needed to be discarded so that its staff could move on to more promising research.45

The Cortright reorganization was not exactly the change Becker had in mind, however. "After a few months of review Cortright concluded that a part of the research talent should be reorganized into dedicated divisions focusing specifically on the prime NASA systems of the immediate future, i.e., the Space Shuttle and the Space Station." Becker and others on the senior staff, notably Larry Loftin, disagreed with this approach. "Loftin and I argued strongly against Ed's concept of a Space Systems Division " This division was formed by Cortright in 1969 and named the Space Systems Research Division; it was to serve as the lead division for support of NASA's major manned space systems. In Becker's view, "such a management-favored division having the bulk of industry contacts, liberal funding, shop priorities, etc.," would "seriously degrade the disciplinary divisions"; Rather than a Space Systems Research Division, Becker and Loftin advocated using ad hoc task groups with memberships drawn as required from the disciplinary divisions; this method had been used by Thompson and others at Langley with great success. Specifically, the duo suggested an ad hoc Shuttle task group to be headed by Becker's longtime associate, NACA veteran Eugene S. Love, then the associate chief of the Aero-physics Division. In the end, Cortright made Eugene Love the first [422] head of the new Space Systems Research Division, the unit Becker and Loftin had fought against.46

Clearly, Cortright was "intent on making large breaks with former Langley practices," Becker believes. His Space Systems Research Division "soon became the centerpiece" of his new Space Directorate. This directorate included the new Environmental and Space Sciences Division, which Becker also opposed because it was an "obviously earthbound" area of research related to aerospace only through the use of satellite photography and satellite navigational aids. Most of Becker's former MPD researchers, with the exception of Mike Ellis and a few others, were moved into these two new divisions; the work in these divisions, in Becker's opinion, fell outside Langley's essential charter. Most of the other old disciplinary divisions "contributed heavily" to the new nondisciplinary divisions as well; the Applied Materials and Physics Division, the historic PARD, was "virtually wiped out." "Perhaps to ease the pain Cortright chose to make these reorganization moves piecemeal over a three-year period."47

Although he did not agree with many components of the Cortright reorganization, Becker, like many other Langley employees, eventually made his peace with what appeared to be inevitable. However, this did not stop him from speaking out. Over and above the specific details of the center's structural reorganization, what concerned Becker most deeply in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the decline of the general research culture at NASA Langley. On 13 March 1970, at the second Airlie House retreat, he presented a stinging appraisal of what had been happening to Langley in the years since Sputnik. This critique captures the essence of how the spaceflight revolution had changed Langley.

Becker began his talk by distinguishing between "research" and "projects." He defined the former as "the whole spectrum of Langley Research Center activity, basic and applied," and the latter as "any highly focused ad hoc endeavor, involving usually the development of a flight vehicle system." He then reviewed the interaction of research and projects during the NACA era. Becker did concede that the entire research program had always been "shaped and characterized by aircraft and missile projects and their demands for R&D." Langley research (even during the NACA period), although "fundamental" and "basic," was always meant to be "applied" and "practical." Indeed, the NACA worked on projects, but these projects were driven by research needs such as the lack of transonic wind-tunnel data, not by operational flight requirements.48

After Sputnik such research-related projects continued to be "key factors in NASA research" as evidenced by space projects Fire, RAM, the hypersonic research engine (HRE), the barium cloud experiment, and continued involvement in the development of specific aircraft, including the F-14, the SST, and the V/STOL. "But with NASA came a new type of project involvement: project management," Becker argued. Because of the spaceflight revolution, Langley became an "operating and management agency [423] rather than a research agency." Less than 10 percent of its budget went to in-house use, whereas in-house research received more than 90 percent of NACA funding.49

Given the natural diversion of NASA center management's interests to "the high-dollar areas of project operation rather than research," it was "remarkable," in Becker's view, that "research has continued to survive in this atmosphere to the extent it has." Nonetheless, despite this tenacious ability to survive, Becker felt that research was "losing its identity in the NASA management/operations jungle." An increasing number of researchers were saying that "NASA is a management agency and we should be getting into management." Even their spouses asked, "What projects are you working on?" or "Shouldn't you get into a project to get ahead?"50

In his talk before the senior staff at the Airlie House, Becker made the interesting point that research involvement with projects usually hit a high mark early in the project; as the project progressed, research dropped off significantly, thus leaving only project management. He then cited three examples: the Apollo program, for which the years 1959 to 1961 (before President Kennedy committed the country to the lunar landing) were "the big years from the research view"; the Viking program, which in 1968 occupied eight of his crew in the Aero-Physics Division but in 1970 involved only one; and the proposed manned Mars program, for which, in his opinion, 'our principal involvement in research will be over before a project office is set up." These examples led him to a keen observation: "Any one LaRC [Langley Research Center] project, no matter how large, will provide only a small and short-lived part of the total project stimulus desirable for LaRC research.''51 Research demanded not more projects but more commitment to the development of a broad spectrum of technical and scientific disciplines.

"Ten percent of Langley research personnel are now in Project Offices," Becker told his colleagues, which amounted to only the tip of the iceberg given how much additional support projects required. "Much more than 10 percent of Center management is involved due to the heavy concentration of dollars, management problems, and pressure to meet schedules." Becker wanted to know, "Where will the growth end?" In the eyes of many researchers, Becker advised, project management appears to be "primarily a service function, not a research function."52

Becker then asked the key question: "Is it desirable for a Research Center to develop and maintain a corps of project management people whose services are available for successive space projects, many of which do not spring from and do not relate strongly to the main research activities of the Center? If it is desirable, there must be some clear benefits." Try as hard as he could, however, Becker could not find any. Did Langley's management of nonresearch-related projects such as Scout benefit research simply by being close to it, the "benefit of proximity"? It did not, according to Becker. Did projects people return to research after the termination of a project with 'recharged interests and new ideas"? Becker saw no evidence of that. Could [424] projects be used as "a haven for research misfits"? Yes, but this was really an organizational disadvantage because it was a quick fix for a problem, not a long-term resolution. Do effective project management practices and techniques "rub off on research and improve it" ? No, Becker answered, such methods were "actually incompatible with research."53

Becker then suggested that project management may simply be the "easy way out for NASA Headquarters." Those who are responsible for managing a research center like Langley get their "brownie points" for cooperating with NASA headquarters in its pet projects. And given the contemporary social apathy (and even growing antipathy) for basic science and technology, it was easier for NASA to "impress local politicians and public with management of $800 million" in projects than it was to explain the benefits of basic research to them as the lower-key NACA officials had always done.54

Becker's Airlie House presentation struck a responsive chord with most of the veteran NACA researchers present, and several of them asked him afterward for copies of his talk. Naturally, Cortright and those involved primarily with project management made their counterpoints. These included the notion that Langley needed projects to remain in the public eye. Becker and some of the other skeptics interpreted that to mean that the most important goal was not to keep Langley alive and prosperous doing what it was designed to do best but simply to keep it alive at all costs. Cortright also responded with the suggestion that research division chiefs simply would have to do a better job of "selling" the benefits of research to the center, to NASA headquarters, and to the American public at large. This would make research more competitive with projects and keep it from being pushed aside.55

Such was the mindset of the man who synthesized the spaceflight revolution at NASA Langley. Basic research, the NACA's reason for being, had to be explained not only to the country's body politic as in the past but also to those leading the organization in which it was done. As NASA Administrator Thomas Paine had been quoted in an August 1969 newspaper article entitled "Future Operation of LRC Assured," the fate of Langley Research Center "will rise or fall" depending upon the fortunes of the space program.56

To John Becker, the administrator's remark epitomized all that was wrong with NASA's attitude toward research. In a calculated act of defiance, Becker sent a copy of the newspaper article quoting Paine to Cortright with a two page "unsolicited opinion." Becker pointed out to the director that Langley was a research center and, therefore, its fate should not depend on the "uncertain, short-lived projects of the space program." Becker lamented that "the current movement of Langley to glorify and expand project involvement at the expense of research, if it succeeds eventually in replacing the old research and technology development program, will put Langley in the 'rise or fall' predicament described by Dr. Paine." He concluded, "No reply necessary or expected."57

[425] Cortright responded immediately (in what he called an "Unsolicited Reply") with the single comment that "Paine did not make the statement during his talk - if at all."58 This was a rather lame rejoinder to the serious matters raised by Becker's cutting memo. Cortright, however, would hear such criticisms again Although he and the other consolidators of the spaceflight revolution would prevail, the fundamental tensions caused by the essential incompatibility of basic research and project management would always remain at Langley. The clarity of purpose that Langley had enjoyed during its history as an NACA laboratory was gone forever.

 


* This is Cortright's version. People at Langley heard at the time that Webb, when he was about to leave NASA, asked Cortright what he could do for him. Cortright answered he wanted Langley. There art no authoritative sources to contradict Cortright's version, only hearsay.

** Butler, 36 years previously, had been the young industrial engineer whom NACA Director of Research George Lewis had scolded for wanting to formalize Langley's organization charts.

*** Before becoming chief scientist, Duberg served a short time as acting director for center development, succeeding Eugene Draley, who wanted no part of his new job under the Cortright reorganization but stayed on until he died of cancer.

**** After Langley, Cortright moved to executive jobs in industry, first with a $4-billion glass, plastics, and paperboard packaging company in Owen, Illinois, and then as president of Lockheed's California company.

***** The word "Avionics" was later dropped, leaving the acronym TCV. In 1982 the entire name was changed to the Advanced Transport Operating System, or ATOPS program.


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