Carrying Out the Task


[51] There are no billboards heralding the birthplace of the Nation's [space] program. There are no colorful banners proclaiming it the homebase for the U.S.'s seven astronauts. Yet nestled at one end of the historic Virginia Peninsula, a small group of buildings were the setting for the most penetrating research and development programs of our time.... It was here at the NASA Langley Research Center that America took its first step into space.

- Virginia Biggins, Newport News Daily Press


For Bob Gilruth, the chief operational officer of the U.S. manned space program, NASA's First Anniversary Inspection meant only a brief respite from the torturously hectic schedule he had been following for more than a year. As head of Project Mercury, he had given dozens of talks and had answered thousands of questions in the past 15 months about America's highly publicized enterprise to send a man into space. He had made presentations before Congress, to Dr. Killian and the rest of the President's Science Advisory Committee, and to the senior staff of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) including agency heads Roy Johnson and Dr. Herbert York.* "Some of these gentlemen were not at all enthusiastic about our plan to put a man into space," Gilruth later acknowledged. In fact, Presidential Science Adviser Dr. George Kistiakowsky had remarked with great displeasure that the plan "would be only the most expensive funeral man has ever had."1

[52] But at least during the anniversary inspection the pressure was off; officially, Gilruth was just one of the guests touring with the red group. At the Mercury stop, the eight men from the STG had to put on the good show that everyone had come to expect, and for once he could sit back and listen to someone else do the talking.

For the balding 45-year-old aeronautical engineer from Nashawauk, Minnesota, Project Mercury had started in the hot summer of 1958 while on assignment in Washington, D.C. Dr. Hugh Dryden had needed help putting together a plan and a budget for the new space agency, and Gilruth, with about 20 senior men from Langley and the other NACA laboratories, went to lend a hand. Eisenhower had not yet given specific responsibility for management of the nation's manned spaceflight program to the soon-to-be NASA, nor had he officially named Glennan the NASA administrator. Abe Silverstein, subsequent head of space projects at NASA headquarters, had not yet come up with the name "Mercury" for the proposed manned satellite project. In one large room on the sixth floor of the NACA headquarters, Gilruth and associates worked feverishly through the muggy midsummer to put together a plan for a man-in-space program that would be acceptable not only to the reincarnated NACA but also to ARPA, the president, and his scientific advisers.2

"In order to do this," Gilruth remembers, "I collected a select group of people ... to form a sort of task force." The members of this original group included Langley's Max Faget, head of the Performance Aerodynamics Branch of PARD; Paul Purser, head of the High Temperature Branch of PARD; Charles W. Mathews, head of the Stability and Control Branch of the Flight Research Division; Charles H. Zimmerman, assistant chief of the Stability Research Division; and three men from Lewis. These men were called from the 10 telephones specially installed in the NACA's big sixth-floor room and were told to "be in Washington tomorrow afternoon." As Zimmerman remembers:


I said, well, what for? [The voice said,] "I can't tell you what for." Who am I supposed to see? [The voice said,] "Just be in the Washington office tomorrow morning." I went to the Washington office and I stayed there three or four months. . . I wasn't told anything, just be there I had to go and tell my wife I'm going. [I] didn't win a popularity contest that day.3


Gilruth brought in several other NACA engineers for consultation when their expertise was needed. He called in PARD's top engineering designer Caldwell Johnson, who had been hired by the NACA as a model builder in 1937 at the age of 18; Johnson's job was to put the first design of the Mercury capsule on paper. The result was an elegant series of freehand pen-and-ink sketches that artistically put many detailed engineering drawings to shame. Near the end of the summer, two more engineers from Lewis and one from Langley, Charles Donlan, joined the group to finalize and fine-tune the Mercury plan.

[53] The work of the task force turned out well both in the short term and the long run. Thinking back on the substance of these early talks about what came to be Project Mercury, Gilruth would be impressed by how closely the STG was able to follow the original plan of that summer: "We said we would use the Atlas rocket; a special space capsule with a [NACA-proven] blunt heat shield; and parachutes for a landing at sea. All these things were to work out very much as we proposed."4 During that hot summer of 1958, Max Faget, Caldwell Johnson, and Lewis's Andre Meyer also came up with the idea of an escape rocket to enable the capsule to get away from a malfunctioning launch rocket, and Faget conceived the form of the contour couch, which would help to protect the astronauts against the high G-forces during launch and reentry.

Much about the group's Mercury concept was not all that new: the aerodynamic benefits of the blunt-body shape had been discovered (at least for ballistic nose cones) by H. Julian "Harvey" Allen and Alfred J. Eggers at NACA Ames in the early 1950s.5 Since then, several important notions about ballistic reentry vehicles had been germinating in the minds of Gilruth's colleagues in PARD, notably in the brilliant one belonging to the outspoken Max Faget. (Because he was one of the most intuitive researchers on the Langley staff, jealous colleagues jibed that his name stood for Fat-Ass Guess Every Time.) By the launch of Sputnik 1, Faget had proposed that a simple nonlifting shape, if properly designed, could follow a ballistic path when reentering the atmosphere without overheating or accelerating at rates dangerous to the astronaut. Drag would slow the capsule as it reentered the atmosphere. Furthermore, the shape though basically nonlifting- could generate the slightest amount of aerodynamic lift necessary to permit the capsule to make one or two simple maneuvers during reentry. Faget had made some rough tests to prove this theory. From the balcony overlooking the PARD shop, he had flipped two paper plates that had been taped together into the air. "I thought he was crazy at first," remembers fellow PARD engineer J. Thomas Markley. "Max, what are you doing?" asked Markley in amusement. Faget answered, "I think these things will really fly. We really have some lift-over-drag in this thing."6

A few months after the paper-plate toss, at the last NACA Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics held at Ames in March 1958, the feisty 5-foot-6-inch Faget gave a talk entitled "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites- Wingless Configuration: Non-Lifting," which was coauthored by Langley's Benjamin J. Garland and James J. Buglia. In the talk Faget put forward most of the key items that NASA would later use in Project Mercury: a ballistic shape weighing some 2000 pounds and having a nearly flat-faced cone configuration, small attitude jets for controlling the capsule in orbit, retrorockets to bring the capsule down, and a parachute for final descent. "As far as reentry and recovery are concerned," Faget concluded his talk, tie state of the art is sufficiently advanced so that it is possible to proceed [54] confidently with a manned satellite project based upon the ballistic reentry type of vehicle."7

Not everyone was so confident. In the wake of Sputnik, several interesting concepts for manned satellites had popped up. Some advocates of these alternatives disdained Faget's proposed ballistic approach because, as Gilruth explained, it represented "such a radical departure from the airplane." 8 This man-in-the-can approach was too undignified a way to fly. Many concerned with America's new space program searched for another plan: Couldn't a pilot fly into space and back in some honest-to goodness flying machine? Why not doctor the X-15 so a pilot could take it into orbit and back without burning up? Or why not push to quickly build one of the hypersonic gliders that had been drawn up on paper? One of the most innovative concepts for such a space plane, proposed by Langley's Chuck Mathews, called for a craft similar to NASA's later Space Shuttle. Mathews' plane would have a circular wing and would glide back from space at a high angle of attack. During reentry, most of the intense heat caused by the friction would therefore be confined to the wing's lower surface. Upon reaching the atmosphere, the vehicle would pitch over and fly to a landing like a conventional airplane.9

Such concepts sparked much interest in the months after Sputnik. Gilruth and the rest of the team planning for Project Mercury considered the merits of each one separately. Several of the ideas could have been made to work in time, but the new space agency did not have time to spare. Everything indicated that the Soviets were intent on launching a man into space, and the United States was determined to beat them to it. The Atlas rocket, the most powerful American booster at the time, was not capable of lifting more than about 2000 pounds into orbit, which ruled out the hypersonic glider concepts. Furthermore, even the Atlas was still horribly unreliable. Only one out of eight Atlases had been launched successfully; the other seven had staggered off course or blown up. If the United States wanted to win this important second leg of the space race, waiting for the development of a bigger and more dependable missile capable of lifting the far greater weight of a small space plane did not make sense. "It seemed obvious to our group," Gilruth would explain many years later, "that only the most simple ballistic capsule could be used if manned spaceflight were to be accomplished in the next few years.''10

Several options may have been more technologically attractive to some NASA engineers, but Faget's plan appeared the best to achieve America's immediate space objectives. In some respects the plan was an ungainly (some have said unimaginative, even ugly) way to send an American into space, yet in 1959 it seemed the only way to do so quickly. As Gilruth would say later, Project Mercury


wasn't pretty like a flower or a tree. But it had no bad traits. It was designed as a vehicle for a man to ride in, and circle the earth. With its blunt body, its retrorockets and parachutes, it was an elegant solution to the problem.11


[55] But a solution that was elegant in conception had no guarantee of becoming a practical success. Once ARPA heads Roy Johnson (a former General Motors executive) and Herbert York (a distinguished atomic physicist) approved the plan on 7 October 1958 and NASA gave the go ahead, Gilruth and his people were left with the job of making Project Mercury work.


A Home at Langley


Gilruth and associates returned to Langley Research Center from the nation's capital in mid-October 1958 and immediately began to contend with the unknown challenges of putting together an organization that could manage an operation much bigger, more complicated, and far riskier than any previously undertaken by the NACA. In approving the project, Keith Glennan's comment had been, "All right. Let's get on with it." Bob Gilruth remembers that at the time he "had no staff and only [oral] orders to return to Langley Field." When Gilruth politely pressed the administrator for some details about how he was to implement the plan in terms of staffing, funding, and facilities, Glennan reiterated brusquely, "Just get on with it.''12

Gilruth's yet-to-be-built organization was given temporary quarters at Langley, where it would act, again temporarily, as a quasi-independent NASA field unit reporting directly to Abe Silverstein's Office of Space Flight Development in Washington. Though Langley lacked management control over the new group, the center's support of the task group's ambitious program proved remarkably strong.

Almost everything about the initial organization and early operation of Gilruth's group happened catch-as-catch-can. Even the name of the STG itself suggested a makeshift character, as if NASA did not want to raise expectations too high about meeting the Soviet challenge. One STG member suggests that the choice of the title "Space Task Group" amounted to a "conscious effort to put the work in proper perspective and avoid grandiose organizational concepts at a time when satellite development experience was limited to basketball- and grapefruit-sized objects." 13 The timid nomenclature might protect NASA if the manned satellite program did not work as planned. NASA could say that only one task failed; the rest of NASA's operation was proceeding nicely.

Excluding Bob Gilruth, the most important person behind the formulation of the STG was Langley's Floyd Thompson. Although still nominally tie laboratory's number two man, Thompson had been serving as the director for some time because of Henry Reid's rather relaxed approach to his impending retirement. According to Gilruth, Thompson "was all for me, because he knew that if we didn't succeed, NASA wouldn't succeed." He realized that Gilruth would need substantial center support until the slow-grinding paper mill at NASA headquarters made alternative provisions. Thus, when Gilruth asked Thompson how he could get the men and women [56] he needed for the STG, Thompson told him simply to write a short memorandum stating that he had been authorized by Administrator Glennan to draft personnel. Gilruth wrote that memo on 3 November 1958 and personally took it down the hall to the associate director's office. The letter amounted to one brief paragraph:


The Administrator of NASA has directed me to organize a space task group to implement a manned satellite project. This task group will be located at the Langley Research center but, in accordance with the instructions of the Administrator, will report directly to NASA Headquarters.14


For the project to proceed with the utmost speed, Gilruth proposed to form his group around a nucleus of key Langley personnel, the majority of whom had already worked with him on the project at NASA headquarters.

Thompson did not want to run the STG himself, because he recognized that a quasi-independent person like Gilruth, not a center director, was "the best guy to do it." 15 At the same time, Thompson wanted Gilruth, a personal friend, to have a circle of bright and trustworthy individuals around him. In particular, Thompson felt Gilruth should have a good, solid deputy, so he gave him Donlan, his own energetic assistant.** For the past seven or eight years Donlan had been enjoying the enviable job of probing, at his own discretion, into different areas of the laboratory's research programs and acting as its technical conscience. "Thompson thought Gilruth needed me, because Bob liked to play around with ideas and not pay too much attention to the actual running of the technical functions," Donlan states. So, "for the first time in [my] professional career," Thompson told Donlan, "[I] am going to make a recommendation." Thompson asked Donlan to join the STG as Gilruth's deputy.16

Gilruth's terse memo created a rapidly expanding core group of space pilgrims. According to one cynic, these pilgrims were like those who came to America on the Mayflower, "considering how many people tell you they were in it."17 But Gilruth asked by name for the transfer of only 36 Langley personnel plus 10 engineers from Lewis laboratory. Lewis provided rocket-engine and electronic engine component specialists- the experts in aerospace propulsion systems that Langley lacked.

Fourteen of the 36 Langley personnel belonged to PARD. This major and quasi-independent division of the laboratory had been headed for a time in the early 1950s by Gilruth. The work of PARD had always required the management of flight operations (albeit pilotless ones) and had dabbled with hardware development. While studying the aerodynamics of various missiles and missile nose cone configurations during the past [57] few years, PARD engineers had established launch procedures at Wallops Island experimented with the principles of rocket staging, developed key technologies for missile guidance and control systems, and built or refined sensitive instrumentation for telemetry studies. They had also supported manned satellite proposals from the Defense Department. In 1957 and early 1958, before ARPA/NASA approval for Project Mercury, PARD engineers had given research support for Project MISS, the unfortunate acronym Of the "Man-in-Space-Soonest project," an air force concept for simple manned orbital flights that in some technical respects presaged the Mercury concept This early work in support of the manned satellite proposals had taken the PARD engineers into such areas as space environmental controls, communications systems, and heat-shield technology. Having had this experience, many members of PARD were not as concerned as other Langley employees about the possible compromise of traditional laboratory research functions implicit in heavy involvement in Project Mercury. In terms of technological expertise and organizational culture, PARD people were the most naturally inclined at Langley to become involved in the planning and management of NASA's manned spaceflight program.18

Of the remaining 22 STG staff members recruited from Langley, 10 were from research divisions other than PARD; 4 had been working in the Fiscal Division, central files, or in the stenographic pool; and 8 were either secretaries in PARD, stenographers, or "computers" (operators of the calculating machines). Thompson agreed to give Gilruth all the people he asked for, save one: a young electrical engineer, William J. Boyer. The Instrument Research Division (IRD) wanted to keep Boyer, and he was not anxious to be transferred. The head of that division, Edmond C. Buckley, finally found a satisfactory replacement in Howard C. Kyle.

Most of the original STG crew signed up voluntarily; they were young, relatively unestablished, and they relished the challenge. At ages 45 and 42, respectively, Gilruth and Donlan were experienced enough to recognize the difficulties of the job ahead, but many of their subordinates were naive about the ways of the world and did not consider the serious hazards facing them. Jack Kinzler, a skilled master craftsman in the West Area machine shop, recalls that he had grown "so consumed with space" after Sputnik that he just dropped everything when Gilruth called him to join the group. After accepting the transfer, Kinzler then had a devil of a time fighting off swarm of excited co-workers who wanted to move to the STG with him. When the 21-year-old Lewis engineer Glynn Lunney heard about what the

STG was doing, he thought, "Gee, that looks like it would be a hell of a lot of fun- let's go do that!" Carl Huss and Ted Scopinski worked at the same desk in the Aircraft Loads Laboratory in Langley's West Area. The two engineers recall one day in late 1958, after they had heard so much about the STG from former co worker John P. Mayer: "[We] looked at each other and asked why we didn't transfer over to the Space Task Group. So we did." 19

[58] Wild enthusiasm might have been confined to the young and inexperienced, but strong passion for Project Mercury was not. Donlan looked upon the manned satellite project "as a pioneering effort of a type that comes along only about once in a half century." To him, the project offered a moment in history that would be "similar to aviation when Lindbergh flew the ocean." He never doubted that he should join the STG: "I had to participate in what I instinctively felt would be a breathtaking operation, and I decided to do so without much thought as to the long-range possibilities."20 In the end, his time with the STG (November 1958-May 1961) did not hurt his career. When he resigned his position as the STG's number two man, he rejoined the Langley operation as Floyd Thompson's associate director.

The rest of Langley's senior staff was not as easily impressed by the man-in-space program. With the exception of the two men from the director's office, only one member of Langley's senior staff joined the STG: Charles Zimmerman, assistant chief of the Stability Research Division. Zimmerman was not keen about the assignment. "It was a traumatic experience as far as I was concerned," Zimmerman remembers. After spending a hectic summer in Washington with Gilruth's planning group, he said, "The hell with this." He got in touch with Henry Reid and told him that he wanted to come back to Langley. After taking a week off to vacation in Canada, he returned to Langley Field. "I got back home on Friday and was going to go to work on Monday," Zimmerman recalls, but that Friday night a colleague came to break the news that Zimmerman had been assigned to the Mercury group. "So, there I was in it again.''21 Once more, Zimmerman had to put aside his precious airplane work.***

At 51, Zimmerman was the old man of the STG; several of the others were young enough to be his children. He had started his career at NACA Langley in 1929, only two years after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, and like many NACA researchers of his generation, he was not comfortable with the idea of moving away from aeronautics into the management of a large manned space program. For Zimmerman and most other senior Langley staff members, the excitement of the program was not enough to compensate for the headaches and perhaps even the career risks associated with moving outside the comfortable confines of aeronautical research. Perhaps the country's interest in manned spaceflight was just a passing fancy, some of the older men thought. Project Mercury had been authorized, but nothing else up to this point had been. Throwing in with the lot of the "space cadets" meant accepting a great many technological, political, institutional, and personal career unknowns. **** If the initial series of Mercury launches came off successfully, the manned space program would probably continue [59] in some form, and it might even be expanded, but late in 1958 no one could be any more sure about that than they could be about the outcome of the upcoming 1960 presidential election, on which so much about the course of the U.S. space program would ultimately depend.

With the exception of the graying triumvirate of Zimmerman Gilruth and Donlan, the entirety of Langley's senior management stayed where they were in the organization and continued what they had been doing. At least a few of the senior staff also privately advised their juniors to do the same. One member of the STG remembers that his division chief tried to persuade him not to accept the transfer to the STG. "You don't want to ruin your career," the division chief told him. "There's nothing going to come of this, and you're going to be hurt by it." Manned spaceflight, he warned, was just a fad. 22

Many veteran employees felt that "it just wasn't the Langley way" to implement big projects like Mercury. The laboratory had flourished for more than 40 years by doing research, not by implementing things.23 It had remained strong and autonomous by developing its own competencies and by doing nearly everything that involved research in-house, but Project Mercury was to be based on considerable work that was contracted out to industry. The people responsible for the contract work would have to cover many new fronts: they had to prepare space capsule specifications; evaluate contractor proposals, then monitor the awarded contracts; procure Redstone rockets from the army and Atlas rockets from the air force; arrange for launch services; coordinate recovery operations; and so on. Skeptics feared that members of the STG would be so caught up in the urgency of managing contract work and in refereeing contractor haggling sessions (much to his chagrin, Zimmerman became chief of the STG's Engineering and Contract Administration Division) that they would not be conducting much research, if any. Becoming bureaucrats rather than staying technical personnel was a fate too horrible to ponder. To this day, Bob Gilruth holds his forehead when remembering how Langley colleagues would approach him during the heyday of Mercury not to inquire whether he had had any good ideas recently but rather to ask snidely, "Well, have you let any good contracts today?" 24 His old NACA associates might have envied Gilruth the publicity he was receiving, but they did not envy him his work.

Gilruth's senior colleagues who did not want to join the STG did follow Floyd Thompson's example of helpfulness and energetically supported NASA's manned satellite project through traditional research avenues. "At the outset of the program, Langley threw all of its resources behind the infant STG," Thompson reflected in 1970, "providing technical and administrative support informally as required, just as though the STG was a part of Langley and not a separate organization."25 Besides providing extensive support for the development and implementation of the Big Joe and Little Joe projects, dozens of center personnel conducted experimental Studies aimed at evaluating the performance of the Mercury spacecraft at [60] launch, in space, during reentry, and during its ocean recovery. Dozens of others became involved in engineering, shop, instrumentation, and logistic support for much of the STG's own in-house testing.

For example, in 1959 a battery of wind-tunnel tests using scale models of the Mercury capsule and capsule-booster combinations had helped to provide needed data about lift, drag, static stability, trajectories, heat transfer, heat-shield pressures, and afterbody pressures; only after hundreds of these tests would the shape and appearance of the Mercury capsule be refined and finalized. At Wallops, engineers had mounted small models of the Mercury capsule on the tips of research rockets, launched them through the complete speed range predicted for the proposed spaceshot, and collected thousands of data points about the capsule's structural integrity, tumbling characteristics, and reentry dynamics. With the military's assistance, Langley researchers also tested the reliability of the capsule parachute system and determined the optimum altitude at which to deploy the drogue chute. From a C-130 Hercules transport that had been loaned to NASA by the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command at Langley Field, full-scale one-ton models of the Mercury capsule prepared at Langley were dropped from an altitude of 10,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean off Wallops island. Motion pictures from cameras in T-33 chase jets were used to make a detailed engineering study of the capsule's motions during descent and the impact forces on it when smacking into the sea. Langley personnel also conducted other impact studies by dropping small models of the space capsule at 30 feet per second (21.6 miles per hour) into the Hydrodynamics Division's Water Tank No. 1.26

While the numerous aerodynamic, structural, materials, and component tests were going on at the center, Langley representatives were arranging a schedule for wind-tunnel tests at the air force's Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and a team of non-STG staff members was being assembled to travel around the world to plan Project Mercury's global tracking network, the responsibility for which NASA headquarters had just assigned to the research center at the STG's request in February 1959. In addition to this colossal effort, Langley engineers and technicians were developing the simulators and spaceflight procedure trainers for the Mercury astronauts who had just been entrusted to the STG. By opening day of the NASA inspection in October 1959, Langley had sent six months' worth of weekly reports to NASA headquarters about the great volume of work being done in support of Mercury. Of the laboratory's 1150 employees, 119 of them (about 10 percent) had been working full-time on the project in recent months.

In the year following the STG's establishment, between October 1958 and October 1959, some 250 people were added to the original STG; more than half came from Langley's staff. Many of the key people who moved from Langley to the STG brought with them important experience in flight-test research. Floyd Thompson wanted to give Gilruth a strong.....



Model of Mercury capsule in Full-Scale Tunnel, 1959.


Model of Mercury capsule in 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel,1959.


The Mercury spacecraft and booster rockets underwent extensive testing in Langley wind tunnels. The full-size capsule is mounted in the Full-Scale Tunnel (top). A one-sixth scale model of the Mercury capsule is tested in Langley's 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel to determine the effect of escape system power on the capsule's stability (bottom).



Model of Redstone booster in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 1959.

The Redstone booster carrying the spacecraft is mounted for testing in Langley's Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel. L-59-4335.


Impact studies of Mercury capsule in the Back River, 1960.

In impact studies conducted in the Back River behind Langley's East Area, the astronauts practiced the dangerous maneuver of getting out of the space capsule as it floated in water. L-60-76.


[63] ....cohort that understood "flying men"- pilots, that is- not just the flying of pilotless models. "Tommy wanted to make sure that there were enough flight guys involved in this venture," Donlan remembers.27 Fortuitously, NASA headquarters recently had made a decision to limit Langley's flying and had transferred most of its flight research activities to the NASA center at Edwards AFB. This decision disappointed Langley researchers and made them ready to jump at the chance to get involved with the manned space program. Consequently, several top-notch Langley flight researchers became part of the STG. Along with Gilruth (also a former NACA flight research engineer), Walter C Williams, former director of the NACA Flight Research Center in California, and Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., and Charles W Mathews, both standouts in Langley's Flight Research Division, became the heart of the Project Mercury flight operations team.


The Tracking Range


Of all the Langley efforts in support of Project Mercury, by far the biggest, the most difficult to carry out logistically, and the most adventuresome was the Mercury tracking range project. NASA flight operations officers and aeromedical specialists wanted to have almost constant radio contact with the Mercury astronauts. To maintain communication with the spacecraft as it circled the earth, NASA had to create a worldwide communications and tracking network.

In the early days of Project Mercury, NASA really did not know what sort of tracking network was needed to monitor its spacecraft. Those frontier days of the manned space program before the operation, let alone the very idea, of a "mission control" center are hard to remember. Over the last three decades, the public has grown familiar with the drama and the emotionally charged "electricity" of the control center amphitheater. This amphitheater, with its tidy rows of communications consoles, computerized workstations, and its front wall covered with a large electronic map of the world, became thought of as the brain and nerve center of a NASA spaceflight mission. Here, in what one NASA astronaut has called a "temple of technology," worked the middle-aged men in white shirts and dark neckties- the flight controllers who wore the headphones and the worried looks as they talked to the astronauts in the spacecraft and made the split-second, life-or-death decisions about whether to "abort" or "go for orbit."28

This stage for the high drama of "space theater" did not exist prior to Project Mercury. The flight tests of the most experimental, high-speed plane had not required the development of a ground-control facility as sophisticated as mission control. Even at a pioneering place like Edwards AFB, the role of the flight experts on the ground had involved little more than "getting the airplane into the best possible mechanical condition, spelling out the day's test objectives for the pilot, and retrieving data from [64] the instrumentation after the plane landed."29 During the flight itself, flight operations people talked to the pilot in moderation; for the most part, they quelled their curiosity, shaded their eyes, strained anxiously to follow the flashing metal arrow through the sky, and left the pilot to his own devices

At first, the STG envisioned little more than this rather passive mode of flight control for the Mercury spacecraft: checking it out before launch, maintaining a voice link with the astronaut to see how things were going, but letting the astronaut and the automatic in-flight systems do the rest. After reflecting seriously on the immense task before them, that vision changed. "I don't know how to describe it exactly," explains Glynn Lunney of the original STG, "but we began to realize that, 'Hey, we're going to fly this thing around the world!"' In that instant of stark realization came the feeling that certain critical decisions about a spaceflight such as whether to abort immediately after launch, to use the escape rocket, or to blow up a maverick rocket before it dug a big hole into downtown Cocoa Beach- could be, and should be, controlled from the ground. Out of this conviction came the concept of a ground room with not just a person talking to the astronaut, but many people analyzing tracking and telemetry data on the status of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft.30 Already by the time of the first NASA inspection in October 1959, the STG was calling this room the Mercury "Control Center" and was moving rapidly to have one built at Cape Canaveral.

As the vague and open-ended possibilities of Mercury flight operations and mission control became more clearly defined, the STG decided that to be out of communication with the astronauts during their spaceflights for very long would be neither wise nor safe. The STG's flight operations people and more conservative aeromedical specialists argued over the maximum amount of time they could be out of contact with the astronauts. The physicians were "horrified at the casualness" of one suggestion that in-flight communications with the astronauts could be handled like commercial air traffic control, with the pilot only reporting to the ground every 15 to 30 minutes.31 The doctors, intent on continuous and complete monitoring of the astronaut's vital physiological and mental responses to the unknown demands of spaceflight, did not like the idea of gaps in communication lasting for any appreciable length of time. Without the resolution of this internal debate, engineers could not establish design parameters necessary for proceeding with the global tracking network. In the end, the STG decided that a tracking network was needed in which gaps in communication lasted no more than 10 minutes.32

Fathoming the immensity of what had to be done to establish this network took time. Initially some naive Langley engineers believed that whatever tracking stations were needed by the Mercury team to provide "real-time" tracking data could be provided simply by mounting radar sets on rented air force trucks that could be stationed at sites around the world. But after giving the matter careful thought, the communications experts [65] "began to realize that it wasn't good enough to have isolated radar sets: the people back at the Control Center needed a network of linked stations, capable of receiving, processing, and reacting to a variety of voice, radar, and telemetry data." 33

Thus began a Promethean task because 1960 was a different technological age especially in terms of communications. An instantaneous telephone call around the world was not yet possible. The only long-range communication. from continent to continent, was by undersea telegraph cable, and most of these cables had been laid at the turn of the century by the British. That is not to say a remarkable telecommunications network did not exist.

Over the years the British, among others, had built up an amazing global System involving tens of thousands of miles of submarine cables as well as vast distances covered by wireless communications, but the day of instantaneous electronic communication around the world had not yet arrived. Its arrival depended largely on the launch of communications satellites like Telstar, which the infant space programs at that time were making possible. For NASA staff to have the type of communications necessary for control of the Mercury spacecraft and for assistance to the astronauts, they had to build their own global system.

Creating this global network was a job that NASA Goddard Research Center could not do from its temporary quarters at Anacostia. Also, Goddard people were still responsible for the Minitrack Network that had been set up for the Project Vanguard satellite, so they were busy tracking the unmanned satellites that were then being launched. This existing system was not suitable for tracking the orbit of the Mercury spacecraft because the system had been laid out north-to-south (along the 75th meridian), whereas STG studies had concluded that the best orbital path of the Mercury spacecraft would be west-to-east along the equator. Minitrack, even in combination with other existing commercial, scientific, and military communications networks, had far too many "bare spots" to provide the comprehensive global coverage required for Mercury.34

The STG was unable to take on this job because its manpower was already stretched to the limit; STG staff could not bear the additional load of setting up au ambitious new tracking and communications net that had to reach completely around the world. "There was just no way [for the STG] to build the spacecraft as well as the ground tracking network," says William J. Boyer, the fellow from Langley's IRD whose transfer to the original STG had been short-circuited by his division chief in November 1958. Boyer, who became one of the most active members of the Langley team that built the Mercury tracking range, remembers that Howard Kyle, the IRD engineer who was named to replace him on the STG, was the first to come t0 this conclusion. Kyle, without any trouble, persuaded STG's Chuck Mathews of the impossibility; Mathews in turn convinced Bob Gilruth; and Gilruth asked Floyd Thompson whether Langley, with NASA headquarters' approval, could take on this additional heavy responsibility.35

[66] Once again, Thompson wanted to do everything he could to make Project Mercury a success. So in February 1959, he called in his assistant director, Hartley Soulé, and they put together an ad hoc team that came to be known as TAGIU (pronounced "Taggy-you"), which stood for the Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Unit. Heading the temporary unit was Soulé himself, who was deemed the tracking range project director. G. Barry Graves, Jr., the head of IRD's Pilotless Aircraft Research Instrumentation Branch, was to handle the detailed management of the tracking network project from a special TAGIU office, and Paul H. Vavra, Graves's colleague in the IRD branch, was to assist. The unit was placed within IRD on an organizational chart. No one really knew how much work faced them: members of TAGIU were told initially that their work would be part-time and add only slightly to their regular duties. But as Vavra notes, "a few weeks later we were in the space program night and day and never thought about our other jobs."36 As with everything else concerning Project Mercury, TAGIU progressed rapidly. On 30 July 1959, NASA awarded the contract for the creation of an integrated spacecraft tracking and ground instrumentation system to Western Electric Company and its four major subcontractors: Bell Telephone Laboratories of Whippany, New Jersey, for system engineering, engineering consultations, and command and control displays; the Bendix Corporation of Los Angeles and Towson, Maryland, for radar installation, ground-to-air communications, telemetry, and site display equipment; Burns and Roe of Long Island for site preparation, site facilities, construction, and logistic support; and International Business Machines Corporation of New York for computer programming, simulation displays, and computers.37 Monitoring the contract involved the expenditure of nearly $80 million and extensive negotiation with other federal agencies, private industry, and representatives of several foreign countries. However, in June 1961, less than two years after awarding the contract, Langley looked on with pride as the power for the around-the world-in-an-instant communications system was turned on for the first time.

Working on the global tracking range took Langley personnel farther away from the comfortable confines of their wind tunnels than any other aerospace project ever had before, or has since. In the two-year period between the awarding of the contract and the initiation of the tracking operations, a team of engineers and technicians from NASA Langley traveled tens of thousands of miles to some of the most remote places on earth. They went to oversee the building of an ambitious network that when completed stretched from the new Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral to 18 relay stations spanning three continents, seven islands, and two ocean-bound radar picket ships. Along its way around the world, the network utilized land lines, undersea cables and radio circuits, special computer programs and digital data conversion and processing equipment, as well as other special communications equipment installed at commercial switching stations in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. The network involved range.....



George Barry Graves, Jr.

George Barry Graves, Jr., head of the Pilotless Aircraft Research instrumentation Branch of Langley's IRD, handled the detailed management of the Mercury tracking network from a special office within the ad hoc TAGIU. L-61-659


...stations in such faraway and inaccessible places as the south side of the Grand Canary Island, 120 miles west of the African coast; Kano, Nigeria, in a farming area about 700 rail-miles inland; Zanzibar, an island 12 miles off the African coast in the Indian Ocean; a place called Woomera, amid the opal mines in the middle of the Australian outback; and Canton Island, a small atoll about halfway between Hawaii and Australia

"It was quite mind-boggling to realize that you're living in Hampton, Virginia, and you were getting tickets to change planes in the Belgian Congo to go to Kenya and from there on to Zanzibar," exclaims Bill Boyer. Boyer traveled with Barry Graves's small "management team," which negotiated with foreign governments and picked the tentative sites for the Mercury tracking stations. In Madrid his team sat for four weeks waiting for the Spanish government to grant permission to go to the Canary Islands. On their way through central Africa, in the Belgian Congo, group members moved cautiously past threatening gun-toting rebels who were fighting against European colonial rule. "We would pick the tentative sites based on tie technical criteria established by the Space Task Group," Boyer states, "and then we'd go around to the telecommunications people in those foreign countries to get as much advice and assistance from them as we could." The TAGlU team looked into the logistics of particular sites: Where would NASA people eat? Where would they sleep? How would they be supplied? What were the capabilities of the local construction companies? After addressing these questions, the management team would move on, and a...



Layout of Project Mercury tracking site.

A layout of a typical Project Mercury tracking site as conceptualized by Graves's outfit in 1961. L-61-5740.


...."technical team" would move into the recommended site. This larger, follow-on team would then conduct a detailed study to determine whether the site met technical criteria: could NASA construct the buildings it needed, and were the materials easily available? The technical team would then make a final recommendation about the proposed site.38

As with so many other rushed and complicated operations of the early manned space program, much about the multimillion-dollar Mercury tracking network could have gone wrong. Instead, it worked like a charm, tracking the spacecraft with a high degree of accuracy. In the words of Edmond C. Buckley, the former IRD head at Langley who by the time of the firs t Mercury orbital flight by John Glenn was the director of tracking and data acquisition at NASA headquarters, the network "worked better than it could have in the most optimistic dreams."39 For example, as the system tracked the spacecraft from the Bermuda station on, NASA found that the "residuals," that is, the comparison of the computed predicted path and the actual path as determined by each location, differed in most cases by less than 1000 [69] feet and in some cases by less than 100 feet. These figures compared favorably with the ability of tracking systems of that day to report the location of naval ships crossing the oceans.

The creation of this unprecedented and highly successful worldwide ground instrumentation and tracking network required the services of many members of the Langley staff beyond those formally part of TAGIU. Three Langley organizations (as well as several outfits at Wallops island) played major roles in establishing the network: IRD, which helped to guide the design of the electronic systems; the Engineering Service Division, which assisted in the selection of sites and the coordination and monitoring of the station construction; and the Procurement Division, which negotiated the huge contract and maintained constant liaison with the prime contractor, Western Electric, and its associates. Thanks to this extensive effort, NASA was able to have the kind of direct and comprehensive contact with the astronauts and their spacecraft that the flight operations and medical experts believed was necessary. As Edmond Buckley remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement, Langley "can take a well-deserved bow."40


Shouldering the Burden


Nothing was more important to the stated objectives of the American space program by the early 1960s than Project Mercury, but supporting the program was still a burden on Langley Research Center. Gilruth admits that the days of a rapidly expanding Mercury program must have been "particularly difficult for Langley" because Gilruth's need for good people was such that he "could not help but continue to recruit" from the center. Faced with Gilruth's personnel demands, Thompson bargained with him. "Okay, Bob. I don't mind letting you have as many good people from Langley as you need ... but for every one that you want to take .. . you must aIso take one that I want you to take." From that day, whenever Gilruth recruited a person for the STG, he also took a person that Thompson was, for one reason or another, eager to transfer.41

Thompson became the center director in May 1960, and Henry Reid moved on to become his titular senior adviser. Aware that certain Langley staff members were not productive in their present positions, the crafty Thompson wanted to make room in his organization for some new blood. Langley had found ways to make room in the past, notably in the 1940s when several wagonloads of its people had moved west to colonize the newly created NACA centers in Ohio and California. The founding of new laboratories such as Ames and Lewis, and now the STG, enabled the center director to transfer out restless souls and nonproductive old-timers along with the people who were crucial to the success of the new operation. These transfers allowed for the influx of fresh and dynamic young people that Langley continually needed to remain a productive laboratory.

[70] While Langley's support for Project Mercury continued to expand, so too did the size and experience of the STG. With Langley's help, the STG's capacity for handling its own technical and administrative affairs increased dramatically. By the time Thompson officially became the director, he and his senior staff recognized that Langley's ad hoc parental role in the Mercury program needed further definition. According to Thompson, the time had come "to replace the informal free-wheeling and somewhat chaotic working arrangements with orderly procedures." A formalizing of relations was needed to "clearly identify the respective responsibilities of the two organizations" and to establish more distinct channels for authorizing and conducting business. Otherwise, too many more of Langley's own precious capabilities would be carved off for the STG.42

But Thompson's thoughts about Langley's proper relationship to the STG were ambivalent. On the one hand, a voice within Thompson told him to follow the advice that Hugh Dryden had been giving him about Project Mercury: "Support it, but don't let it eat you up." By that Dryden meant that the director of a research laboratory should not neglect his basic research programs because of the center's appetite for any one big project, however delectable it might seem.***** As soon as possible, Dryden warned, the STG needed to become part of a laboratory devoted just to spaceflight development. Dryden knew that in a technical environment where a "research function" and a "development function" tried to coexist, the development function would always win out (as it would later do when Langley managed the Viking project). If Langley kept the STG, Dryden worried, the center would inevitably lose many of its most capable people to development. Without its expertise in research, NASA would turn into a shadow of its former self and something less than what the country needed it to be.

Moreover, Thompson was plagued by some troubling questions: What happens when "the development" reaches completion? How are the "development people" brought back effectively into the general research program, or do these people just continue to look for things to develop? The only way to truly ensure the priority of the center's research function was to move the STG away from Langley completely, but by the early 1960s so much of NASA Langley's identity was tied up with the success of Project Mercury and the publicity glow surrounding its astronauts that Thompson and others at Langley were not at all sure they wanted to lose the STG to some other facility. The STG was so important to the national mission, so many resources were being devoted to it, and the American public was becoming so fascinated with astronauts and the prospect of manned spaceflight, that even the most clearheaded researchers at Langley were turning a little misty over the center's involvement in Project Mercury. At Langley the number [71] of "envious people who didn't want to leave their own jobs but who liked to bask in the [STG's] limelight" was growing.43 Mercury was a mushrooming project that was suddenly making national, even international, news. The local press was sending reporters out regularly to the center- something that had never happened before. The attention was a lot to lose.

Thompson was less alarmed by the risks of supporting the STG and project Mercury than Dryden, although he claims to have understood them well. Thompson was willing to gamble that the STG would help Langley more than harm it In the long run, Thompson argued, "the broader demands imposed by a space program added to an existing aeronautics program" would make the research role more important to the country than it had ever been before. To carry out the space program while continuing to stimulate the aircraft industry and support commercial and military aviation required more fundamental research, not less.44

A voice inside Thompson told him that the STG should become an official part of Langley; into the early 1960s, this voice of aggrandizement, not Dryden's of caution, dominated much of Thompson's thinking and some of his behind-the-scenes activities and management decisions pertaining to Project Mercury. "He wanted to combine the STG with Langley and have Langley manage it," recalls Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., one of Thompson's closest associates from the time. "He wanted to run the whole damn thing." 45

However, in a research culture with deep NACA roots like Langley's, not everyone felt that supporting the STG was an acceptable risk. These feelings were reflected in such mundane matters as board hearings about promotions. Originally the STG went through the regular Langley board for promotions, but some STG members felt "they didn't get a fair deal" that way. For example, candidates for promotions who had done jobs such as the preparation of Mercury training manuals were "considered unfavorably" by Langley people who felt that the production of a traditional research report was a much more important achievement. Feelings about this "unfair treatment'' eventually grew so strong that the STG decided to create its own promotions board to sidestep those at Langley who felt that writing training manuals amounted to "clambake work" and was not "worth that kind of money."46

Funding was at the root of some of the senior staff's concerns. They worried that the STG might absorb so much of the center's research capability that NASA headquarters would reduce its support for Langley's independent research function. The tail would start wagging the dog. Most members of the STG were too busy, ambitious, or imprudent to discourage this notion. Some STG members believed that they would continue conducting research while proceeding with Project Mercury. If that happened, some at Langley worried, NASA's and the country's support for independently funded research at the center might be badly, and perhaps [72] even fatally, compromised. Langley might turn into a place that handled big projects while remaining no more than semiactive in research.47

Only very gradually and reluctantly did Langley management and the conflicted Floyd Thompson come to feel that something had to be done to cut the apron strings that connected Langley to the STG. Certain productive steps were taken by NASA headquarters in 1959 and 1960 to strengthen the STG's own organization and management and reduce its dependence on Langley for administrative and technical support.48

One of the steps taken to distinguish the STG operation from that of the larger research center simply involved office space and physical facilities. Pressed for space, Langley had assigned the STG initially to the second floor of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel building in the West Area. But before long, Langley relocated Gilruth and his staff to facilities in the East Area. Two factors behind the move were the need to expand and the desire to find a cluster of offices where the growing STG could work as a consolidated team, but a third seems to have been the prejudice of the Langley senior staff against locating research and development functions so close together within the confines of the same center.

In the East Area, the STG went to work inside two of the oldest buildings at the center; they had been constructed nearly 40 years earlier, before the laboratory's formal opening in 1920. Building 104 (later renumbered NASA no. 586) was the old Technical Services building; to make room for the STG, some of Langley's systems and equipment engineering people had to vacate their dusty premises. Building 58 (later renumbered NASA no. 587) had served as Langley's main office from 1920 until the new headquarters building opened in the West Area right after World War II; in the center telephone directory, this once important building on Dodd Boulevard, the former home of Langley's engineer-in-charge, was still referred to as the Administration building. In 1959 the sturdy two-story, red-brick structure housed the East Area's cafeteria, a group of stenographers, the center's editorial division, as well as most of the personnel, employment, and insurance offices. To accommodate members of the STG, some but not all of these office operations were moved to buildings in the West Area.

The rapidly expanding STG eventually took over most of NASA's buildings in the East Area, as well as several adjacent air force facilities. But the STG remained hungry for space. Langley management had to release a few buildings in the West Area for STG use. For instance, Building 1244 became a staging area where technicians refurbished the boilerplate capsules that were used for drop tests in the nearby Back River, and Building 1232 was turned into an STG fabrication shop where prototype capsules were inspected and assembled.

Members of the STG did not complain much about the patchwork nature of these quarters because the group was housed at Langley only temporarily, pending transfer to a permanent base of operation. Abe Silverstein, the head of the Office of Space Flight Development, planned to move the STG [73] to Goddard when the facility for the new spaceflight center in Greenbelt, Maryland, was completed. Although located at Langley, the STG had been reporting directly to Silverstein's office in Washington, but this arrangement, like housing the group at Langley, was a temporary expedient until a more permanent arrangement could be established.49

The management logic behind the transfer of the STG into the Goddard organization came from Silverstein: a focused little organization like the STG might be capable of running the technical part of its operation, but in terms of handling budgetary matters, looking after swelling fiscal and procurement responsibilities, and supplying material and housekeeping support, the STG needed all the help it could get. NASA did not have the resources to build a complete organization around a solitary task force carrying out a single project, no matter how important the project. It made more sense to place the task force inside an existing organization already having a complete range of capabilities- but not as overburdened with responsibilities as Langley.

Most members of the STG disliked Silverstein's plan. They did not want to move to a suburb of the nation's congested capital city, and they were a little bitter over what they viewed as a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of their work. The manned spaceflight program would be only one of several projects at the new Goddard center. If Gilruth and the rest of his STG could have had their way, they would have preferred to stay at Langley and continue the close relationship with the center that both sides had found workable from late 1958 on. In spite of the heavy drain on his center's manpower and facilities and the justifiable fears about what such a big space project might do to divert and distort essential research capability strengths, Floyd Thompson ultimately would have preferred to keep the entire manned space program at Langley. Such were the personal and institutional temptations that came with the spaceflight revolution and its "big technology."

The STG, however, was made formally a part of Goddard on 1 May 1959, which was Goddard's official opening day. Although still housed at Langley and separated from the new spaceflight center by more than 100 miles of Tidewater Virginia, the STG became the Manned Spacecraft Division of Goddard, with Gilruth serving as the new center's assistant director for manned satellites while remaining the director of Project Mercury.

In the beginning, everyone had thought that Bob Gilruth would be the director of Goddard and that the new space center would be not only the place for manned spaceflight but also for all of NASA's space science activity. As Charles Donlan remembers, "When Dr. Dryden gave Gilruth his first title, it wasn't 'Director of Project Mercury,' it was 'Assistant Director of Goddard.'" The thought was that Gilruth would be the director. In fact, in the fall of 1958, Gilruth and Donlan, figuring they were going to be the director and deputy director of this new Goddard center, "went up and looked over the place and what-not." Donlan recalls, "We spent some [74] time thinking about how we would organize it." In the meantime, however, Project Mercury was bubbling along at a very fast rate. "Silverstein was anxious to get Goddard moving, and he knew that Gilruth was going to be tied up with Mercury," Donlan explains. So Silverstein brought in Harry Goett, a friend he used to work with in Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel in the old days before Goett moved to the Ames laboratory in the early 1940s and before he, Silverstein, moved to Lewis. "This upset Gilruth very much," Donlan recalls, "but nevertheless he decided he'd rather work on the manned program than spend his time organizing a new center." 50

In truth, the STG always acted quite independently of Goddard's control. Harry Goett, the figurehead director of the STG's operation, and some of his associates visited Langley almost weekly and were always received "politely but noncommittally." Goett told Donlan and others flatly that "he knew what the situation was": Goddard's control over the STG was pro forma and that most STG members, from Gilruth on down, felt some contempt for the contrived relationship. Fortunately, the awkward "paper" arrangement did not last long enough for hard feelings to develop on either side. 51

By the time of President Kennedy's May 1961 commitment to landing astronauts on the moon, everybody in NASA realized that the manned space program was never going to be just a division of some other center. Silverstein and others at NASA headquarters finally decided to break off the STG as a completely separate entity, away not only from Goddard but also from Langley.

The fate of the STG, however, ultimately came to rest in the hands of powerful people beyond the control of Langley or the STG- or even NASA headquarters. Influential people representing vested political and economic interests were maneuvering behind the scenes to build a manned spacecraft center in Texas. The principal players behind the Texas plan were Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the nation's number two man in the executive office but number one space enthusiast; Representative Olin E. Teague of College Station, Texas, the third-ranking member of the House Space Committee; and Albert H. Thomas, chairman of the House Independent Offices Appropriations Committee, a powerful link in the legislative chain that reviewed NASA's annual budget requests.52 In September 1961, after months of unsettling rumors (often denied by NASA) that the STG would be moving to a large and expensive new facility in Texas, and despite outspoken criticism of the alleged backstage chicanery expressed by the outraged politicos and newspapers serving the equally vested interests of the Commonwealth of Virginia, NASA announced that the STG would in fact be moving from Langley to a 1620-acre site at Clear Lake, some 25 miles south of Houston, which just so happened to be in Albert Thomas's own, hurricane-torn, congressional district.53

"Now what's behind this need for relocation?" asked one editorial in the Newport News Daily Press. And the questions kept coming:


[75] What is needed that we don't have, or can't get, right here where the Space Task Group was conceived and developed?. ..What is wrong with research facilities presently located in the Langley Research Center area? Some of this 'back 40' could be conditioned for space probe progress and closely related to the existing complex of laboratories, facilities, and manpower.


The simple one-word answer, the local media sourly reported, was "politics." This angered area residents. In their minds, the activities of the STG and Langley Research Center were "interwoven." To tear them apart was not only "a terrible waste of time and money" but was also tantamount to kidnapping a brainchild. 54

Many of the STG members were unhappy as well. "I was so upset about going to Texas," one STG engineer still remembers with indignation, "I wouldn't even let them send me the free subscription to their goddanged newspaper." But, once the decision was made, nothing could be done about it short of leaving the manned space program. A native and lifelong resident of Hampton, Caldwell Johnson, who had just built a beautiful new waterfront home, sums up the predicament: "I'd eat my heart out if I stayed here and let all these other guys come to Houston and do this. I would've kicked myself fifty thousand times."55 In the frenetic period during late 1961 and early 1962 when thousands of preparations for the first Mercury orbital flight still had to be made, Caldwell and 700 other engineers and their families packed their belongings and drove the 1000-plus miles to East Texas.

Although no one at Langley was happy to see the STG go, many sighed with relief when the group finally left. "It would have been a great mistake to have had the STG stay at Langley," argues Charles Donlan in retrospect. According to Donlan, who by the time of the move to Texas was back at Langley as Floyd Thompson's associate director, once the decision was made that the STG would go someplace else, Thompson and everybody else felt that 'it was for the best, because if it had stayed it would have overwhelmed the center."56

The move helped Langley almost immediately. As a compensation for the loss of the STG, NASA approved a $60-million expansion of Langley and authorized the center to hire several hundred new employees to replace the departing STG members. Hugh Dryden, who had been looking out for the interests of the center at NASA headquarters, was in part responsible for these boons. "That was the best thing that could have happened," says Donlan about the authorization to hire, because one of the most important resources for creative thinking at a research laboratory is a supply of young minds. "We got the cream of the crop of many of the best kids coming out of the universities," Donlan remembers. Thanks to the STG's departure, Langley received a healthy infusion of the "fresh blood" Thompson wanted, and instead of it all flowing into space project work, most of it was channeled into the general research areas.57 It was a development that, on balance, [76] pleased Langley's senior management and made them less regretful over the STG's leaving.

The experience of having had the STG at Langley also helped to clarify management's thinking about the proper relationship between projects and fundamental research and helped a few to understand better that all projects eventually reach a dead end. Donlan remembers the policy started after the STG moved away from Langley: "Whenever a new guy came in, we never put him in a project. [We would] put him in one of the research divisions and let him work there for a few years. If a researcher then wanted to try something else, fine, stick him in a project."58

A management philosophy that called for a mix of experience was healthy for the overall NASA operation, especially because it enhanced the in-house capability of the field centers. People assigned to projects did not have to do research work, meaning that they could devote their time to the job at hand. But the breadth and depth of problem-solving experience gained during the required period in major research divisions almost always immeasurably helped scientists and engineers if and when they did become involved in the management of a project.

Although the new management philosophy solved some problems, the tension and ambivalence created by supporting development work would persist at Langley well beyond Project Mercury. The same tension would be present through the Apollo program, the Viking project, the Space Shuttle program, the space station program, and beyond. Because of Sputnik and the ensuing space race, development projects would always be a part of Langley, and the conflicting feelings surrounding them would never go away. Buried deep inside those feelings was the final and most worrisome irony of all, which Hugh Dryden tried to make Floyd Thompson recognize: everything about the space program in the long run could turn out to be ad hoc except research. No one from the NACA except the clairvoyant Hugh Dryden anticipated this outcome of the spaceflight revolution, and no NACA veterans would be pleased by it.


The End of the Glamour Days


It took about nine months, until mid-June 1962, for the STG in its entirety to complete the move to the new $60-million facility south of Houston. For Gilruth and associates this period was busy and difficult At the same time that they were clearing their desks and packing their files, families, and household belongings for the western trek from Langley, they were also doing the thousands of things that had to be done to make John Glenn's February 1962 Mercury-Atlas 6 flight (America's first manned orbital flight) and Scott Carpenter's May 1962 Mercury-Atlas 7 flight the great successes that they turned out to be.59

[77] Thanks to President Kennedy's May 1961 commitment to the lunar landing program, the STG (renamed the Manned Spacecraft Center in November 1961) was also gearing up to meet the demands of what was now being called Project Apollo. Although several ideas for lunar missions had been circulating at Langley and the other NASA centers for some time, NASA did not yet know how to send an astronaut to the moon, how to land him on its surface and return him safely, or how to do all three by the end of the decade as President Kennedy wanted. Many crucial decisions had to be made quickly about the lunar mission mode, and the overworked manned spaceflight specialists of the STG, when they found the time and energy, were asked to help make those decisions.

Project Mercury came to an end in the early summer of 1963, following the successful orbital flights of astronauts Walter A Schirra (Mercury-Atlas 8) in October 1962 and L. Gordon Cooper (Mercury-Atlas 9) in May 1963. As the project drew to a close, Bob Gilruth wrote a letter to Floyd Thompson, thanking his old friend for all the help that Langley had given the STG over the past four years. "It is fitting that the Manned Spacecraft Center express its sincere appreciation to the Langley Research Center for the invaluable part that the Center has played in our initial manned space flight program," Gilruth's letter stated. "The Manned Spacecraft Center owes much to Langley, since ... Langley was really its birthplace." Specific contributions that Langley had made to Project Mercury were "too numerous to detail completely" but briefly, they included assistance in the Big Joe program; implementation of the Little Joe program; planning and implementation of the tracking and ground instrumentation system; numerous aerodynamic, structural, materials, and component evaluation and development tests; engineering, shop, instrumentation, and logistic support for much of the STG in-house testing; and administrative support and office space during the period from late 1958 until mid-1962 when the STG completed its move to Houston. In conclusion Gilruth wrote, "As you can see, all elements of the Langley Center provided major assistance to Project Mercury, and we are deeply grateful for this help."60

The local public also wanted to express its gratitude. On Saturday morning, 17 March 1962, more than 30,000 shouting and flag-waving residents of the Peninsula lined a 25-mile motorcade route through the cities Of Hampton and Newport News. The huge crowds, swelling to 10 and 20 people deep in some places, came to salute the country's seven original astronauts, one of whom, Marine Lt. Col. Glenn, had just made the first American orbital flight into space on 20 February. Area residents wanted to show the people of NASA Langley Research Center just how much they appreciated Langley's effort to launch the first Americans into space.

Frequent cries of "Good work, John," "You're one of us, Gus," and similar encouraging messages to the seven smiling astronauts followed the impressive motorcade throughout its meandering trip from Langley AFB to Darling Memorial Stadium in downtown Hampton. Inside the stadium,....



John A. <<Shorty>> Powers, 1962.

In his capacity as the astronauts' public affairs officer, Lt. Col. "Shorty" Powers (sitting in the back seat of the convertible with his wife) introduced the astronauts one by one to the enthusiastic crowd. (Photo by Fred D. Jones.)


Walter M. Schirra, 1962.

Astronaut Walter M. Schirra arrives at Darling Stadium for the rally; seven months later, on 5 October 1962, he would become the fifth American to be launched into space. (Photo by Fred D. Jones.)



Robert R. Gilruth and the mayor of Newport News, 1962.

The mayor of Newport News, Va., presents Robert R. Gilruth, head of Project Mercury, with a token of his citizens' esteem (left). Below, wild cheers greet astronaut John Glenn and his wife, Annie. From the outset of the manned space program, "The Marine," Lt. Col. Glenn, had been the public's favorite astronaut. (Photos by Fred D. Jones.)


John Glenn and his wife, Annie, 1962


[80] .....5000 people waited anxiously in brisk 50-degree weather for the arrival of the parade. Beneath the speakers' stand in the middle of the football field, where Manned Spacecraft Center Public Affairs Officer John A. "Shorty" Powers would introduce the astronauts and Governor Albertis S. Harrison would deliver the featured speech in praise of them, the huddled spectators watched in anticipation as a red, white, and blue banner fluttered in the strong breeze; the banner read: "HAMPTON, VA., SPACETOWN U.S.A."

Behind the astronauts in the procession of 40 open convertibles rode Gilruth, Thompson, and several prominent Langley researchers and senior staff members. Like the astronauts, the engineers smiled broadly and waved vigorously to the crowd while receiving lusty cheers from the throng.61 Helping to launch the astronauts into space had altered, in a fundamental way, the public's perception of who these men were and what they did. Instead of NACA Nuts- those shadowy figures whom the public had mostly ignored- they had become NASA Wizards, the technological magicians who were making the incredible flights of mankind into space a reality.

Things had moved full circle. On a previous Saturday morning three years earlier, NASA Langley for the first time in its history had opened wide its gates and played host to the people of the Hampton area. Now the people of Hampton were returning the favor. For them, the glamour of having the nation's first seven space pilots living and working in their midst had been wonderful. Losing them and the rest of the STG to Texas was a bitter pill to swallow.****** Thirty years later, long after changing the name of busy Military Highway to "Mercury Boulevard" and dedicating the bridges of Hampton in honor of the astronauts, area residents still reminisce fondly about "the good old days in Hampton and Newport News" when "those brave astronauts" lived in their neighborhoods, ate in their restaurants, and drove down their streets and across their bridges.62


* The secretary of defense had established ARPA in January 1955 to run U.S. space programs on an interim basis until NASA was established.

** Later on, Thompson would "feel an obligation" to bring Donlan back to Langley, making him Langley's associate director in March 1961. Donlan stayed on as associate director (later renamed deputy director) until May 1965 when, at the request of the NASA Administrator, Donlan transferred to NASA headquarters and became the deputy associate administrator for Manned space Flight.

*** Zimmerman, famous for the XF5U "flying flapjack," which he designed for Vought during the 1940s, had been busy for a number of years trying to make the conventional airplane into a VTOL machine.

**** Space cadet is an expression of derision taken from a popular American television show of the 1950s.

***** Although Hugh Dryden supported Project Mercury, he was in truth no great fan of the emphasis NASA placed on it.

****** A headline of the Newport News Daily Press, 24 Sept. 1961, read, "See Here, Suh! What Does Texas Have That Hampton Doesn't?"

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