SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION

 

Epilogue

 

[427] Either spaceflight will be proven a successful revolution that opened the heavens to human use and habitation, or it will be proven an unsuccessful revolution that demonstrated in its failure the limits of technological advance .... If spaceflight does fail, its abandonment will represent a technological counterrevolution of great consequence, symbolizing the end of progress as it is understood today.

- William Sims Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Analysis

 

America's space program was once a source of pride and inspiration. Now it is a shambles, its mission unclear, and its very existence at hazard.

- Stuart F. Brown, "Space after the Race"

 

By the early 1970s, the spaceflight revolution was already gasping for breath. Born in the violence of the cold war, driven by the Sputnik hysteria, perverted by the specter of atomic apocalypse, and ultimately fed by the need to demonstrate in some dramatic - maybe even primal or mythic - way the essential superiority of the American democratic system over its supposedly entrenched and black-hearted communist enemies, the U.S. civilian space program of the 1960s represented an extraordinary national movement that could be sustained only for a brief but intense period when Americans were deathly afraid of the end of life as they knew it. Kennedy's moon shot was meant to alleviate deeply embedded fear and paranoia. By design, his Apollo program put America back on course as the world's indisputable technological leader and the guardian of a safer and more hopeful future.

Until the United States beat the Soviets in space and answered the enemy's challenge, nothing dear seemed secure. It did not take a half dozen lunar landings to reassure the American people and the rest of the world [428] of America's virtues; the Apollo 11 mission alone was enough. With the lunar landing accomplished, the country had faced down the rival superpower and had won the space race; the public could feel safe once again. The threshold of terror that our national psyche had crossed through because of Sputnik receded to a more comfortable distance. In turn, the United States no longer felt the need to support the adventurous and expensive space program of the 1960s. That venture cost Americans as much as $5 billion annually - or 4.5 percent of the national budget per year.1 The country retreated from NASA's expansive plans for setting off as regular travelers through the Solar System. Instead, the country looked to accomplish other, more earthly objectives. These included ending the war in Vietnam, cleaning up the polluted natural environment, and finding a better way to get along with the communist world through détente.2 This "new age" agenda moved the American people back to the earth, not away from it, and whether spaceflight enthusiasts realized it or not (and for the most part, they did not), the extraordinary flurry of technological activity to get humans off the planet and on their way to other worlds far, far away was over - at least for the time being, until external circumstances would once again come together to spur the inner disquiet that launches such odysseys.

"In a fundamental way, Apollo was about leaving." This is what Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins said shortly after the end of the lunar landing program. "It was our first move outward, off the home planet."3 For a variety of reasons, a lot of people had been eager to go. In July 1969, Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator at the time of Apollo 11, predicted that a $5000 lunar vacation would be available by 1990. A future president, Ronald Reagan, was one of thousands who joined the waiting list in the summer of 1969 for the first commercial flight to the moon. Pan American World Airways actually booked reservations for lunar flights scheduled in the year 2000 - plans that today look more than a little premature technologically, not to mention commercially because Pan Am is now defunct.4

Apollo may have been about leaving as Collins has suggested, but not everybody wanted to go. In truth, Americans of the 1960s were ambivalent about the moon shot. Not everyone felt the urgency or saw the sense in Jack Kennedy's goal. Many were skeptical or outraged at the billions of dollars spent. Maybe once, only once, did a vast majority of Americans approve of the Apollo program on 20 July 1969, the day Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility. But July 20 was just one day in a very turbulent year. The year 1969 was the time of Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius, the movie Easy Rider, the bridge at Chappaquidick, campus unrest, anti-Vietnam War marches, and the trial of the Chicago Seven. Cities still smoldered from race riots.5

"I don't know whether it's the noblest expression of the twentieth century or a statement of our lunacy," Norman Mailer thought to himself while watching the first lunar landing from the spectator's gallery at Mission Control and later wrote in his offbeat account of Apollo 11, Of a Fire on the [429] Moon.6 Even more offbeat was the declaration made by rock critic Greil Marcus that "Janis Joplin's new album is more important than landing on the moon." Others were less impressed. "It means nothing to me," artist Pablo Picasso said. Some were downright hostile. The historian and social critic Lewis Mumford called the moon landing "a symbolic act of war" by a "megatechnic power system in the lethal grip of the myth of the machine." He predicted that "the very triumphs of technology" would soon turn "the planet into a lunatic asylum or a crematorium."7 That dire prediction was perhaps misguided in several respects, but it certainly overestimated the passing influence of Apollo.

The year 1969 simply may not have been a good time for bold predictions of any kind. Wernher von Braun, the deus ex machina of the Apollo program, predicted that by the year 2000 "we will undoubtedly have a sizable operation on the moon; we will have achieved a manned Mars landing; and it's entirely possible we will have flown with men to the outer planets."8 "Undoubtedly" and "entirely possible" were phrases that reflected NASA's wishful thinking but not the present mood of most Americans.

If Apollo was about leaving, the period after Apollo was to be about staying home; that is what the predictors should have been forecasting in 1969. Having visited our nearest neighbor half a dozen times between July 1969 and December 1972, and having brought back all the souvenirs our travel bags could carry, we were ready to return to a more normal routine. On a much larger scale, the American space program seems to have gone through something comparable to the aftermath of a family vacation to the Grand Canyon; it was an exciting and valuable adventure but also an exhausting and expensive trek from which Americans needed to recover.

This was certainly the attitude of the general public and their president. Just a few months after Apollo 11, an opinion poll showed that 50 percent of Americans thought the country should "do less" in space; only 20 percent thought the country should "do more." As for President Nixon's view, only four days after flying out to the USS Hornet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to personally welcome back the crew of Apollo 11 from its lunar sojourn, he hit NASA with the first of several sharp blows to its ambitious plans for the future. On 28 July 1969, his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Robert Mayo, sent a letter to Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator who had predicted lunar vacations by 1990; this letter stated that the space program's budget would be frozen at $3.5 million for the remainder of Nixon's term.9 A second blow came shortly before Christmas 1969: President Nixon rejected NASA's appeal for enough additional money to keep production of the Saturn V going. This news devastated NASA's long-range plans. A few weeks later, buoyed by this victory for fiscal responsibility, Nixon's budget director along with other members of the White House staff informed NASA that "there is no [430] commitment, implied or otherwise, for development starts for either the space station or the shuttle in FY [fiscal year] '72."10

Barely a scintilla of hope remained for the continuation of the spaceflight revolution. That small chance was a report that in early 1970 sat on a desk in the White House awaiting a reply. Vice-President Spiro Agnew's Space Task Group had submitted the report to Nixon for consideration in September 1969. The report, issued after a lengthy seven-month study made in response to Nixon's own request for a "definitive recommendation on the direction the U.S. space program should take in the post-Apollo period," called for a bold continuation of the aggressive space program of the 1960s: a permanent lunar base and a space station serviced by a completely reusable space shuttle - technologies long envisioned by the pioneers of space exploration as the springboard to Mars and the other planets.11 The Agnew team's report essentially ratified NASA's own vision of where the space program needed to go after Apollo.12 But the glimmer of hope associated with the fate of this report was soon squelched. In early March 1970, President Nixon issued a policy statement entitled "The Future of the United States Space Program," which, although conceding that "space activities will be part of our lives for the rest of time," sounded the deathbell of the spaceflight revolution by cautioning that "we must also realize that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are also important to us." The country could not afford more "separate leaps" like the moon shot, another "massive concentration of will," or another "crash timetable." 13 As one scholar who has examined the post-Apollo retrenchment in detail has said, NASA would now "have to get down on the ground and scratch for seed with all the other government chickens.'' 14 The revolution was over. Times were again to be "normal" and "regular."

Congress agreed with Nixon's conservative space policy, in large part because the country's legislators were in the same stay-at-home mood as the president. With opinion polls clearly demonstrating a declining interest in space (poll data had actually shown a significant decline in support for the space program long before the achievement of the first moon landing), NASA was lucky to win the few political concessions it did in the early 1970s, including the one in the summer of 1970 that ensured just enough funding to launch an orbital workshop called Skylab inside the upper stage of an already assembled Saturn V.15

By 1971 even NASA leadership was waving a white flag. James Fletcher, who took over as NASA administrator in April 1971, understood when he accepted the Nixon appointment that "there is no way" to do a space station and a space shuttle at the same time.16 The best NASA could do was to approach its long-term objectives incrementally, by first requesting a shuttle and not even the fully reusable vehicle it wanted - and later asking [431] for a space station that the shuttle could eventually service. This made much less sense technologically, but it made sense fiscally and politically, and that w as what counted. In early 1972, the year that saw the last two Apollo flights (Apollo 16 and 17), President Nixon finalized the country's retreat from the spaceflight revolution with a key policy decision: the space station was again to be leapfrogged and postponed until some indeterminate time in the future. For the time being, the country indeed would have only a shuttle and a scaled-down, partially reusable version of the vehicle that NASA really wanted. This way initial development costs could be minimized. The fact that operational costs for such a shuttle would eventually skyrocket was something for a future president and NASA administrator to worry about. Thus, NASA and the space program entered a 20-year period of incremental politics and the less-than-optimum technologies produced by such politics, in which the development of a limited shuttle mission sufficed and the fight to build an affordable (and almost perennially redesigned) space station dragged on.17 Even though the space budget would approximately double between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the result would nonetheless be a rather pathetic space exploration program locked in earth orbit. Of the 155 U.S. spacecraft launched between 1984 and 1994, only 7 left earth orbit.18

One could argue that, even with this reversal of fortune, the spaceflight revolution never really ended - and, for that matter, Americans did not really stay home. Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, became the first manmade object to exit the Solar System. In 1976, Viking took our robots to Mars. And beginning in 1977, the Voyager spacecraft began a phenomenal ';Grand Tour" of the outer planets. In taking us into earth orbit, even the scaled-down Space Shuttle, which made its first operational flights in 1981, took us someplace we needed to go routinely if we were ever to become real space travelers. Thus, the spaceflight revolution continued, only with a temporarily different emphasis. From this point of view, what Sputnik started was permanent. It was only a matter of time before humankind again spurted ahead on target to some distant star.

A fundamental change in the ulterior makeup of American society and government also survived Apollo, some would say. As historian Walter McDougall has argued in The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, the launch of Sputnik in 1957 gave birth to a state of 'perpetual technological revolution" through technocracy, which McDougall defines as "the institutionalization of technological change for state purposes, that is, the state-funded and -managed R&D explosion of our time." 19 Once institutionalized, technocracy would not go away; this is McDougall's message. The Soviet Union was the world's first technocracy, and it would stay in power even if that required murderous purges. The United States was the world's second technocracy, created by Sputnik, and although not a brutal oppressor like Soviet militaristic totalitarianism, America's civilian technocracy, which would stay in power through the federal bureaucracy and [432] military-industrial complex, would eventually prove as oppressive in terms of the social engineering it directed as the Soviet system it was designed to fight. Thus, in McDougall's view, the spaceflight revolution did not end in the early 1970s, and it never will, short of a fundamental spiritual upheaval - a conversion that would place far less faith in the passing material values of scientific and technological progress and more faith in the transcendent. "When that day arrives," McDougall imagines, "the technocratic pump may cavitate, the human heart have a meltdown, and science become again a branch of moral philosophy."20

But nothing about human history is perpetual, and such days of cavitation or some less cataclysmic version of them can and do happen. McDougall's controversial book was published in 1985, a year before the Challenger accident, four years before Tiananmen Square, six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and nearly a decade before the Republican party regained majority control in the U.S. Congress for the first time since 1954. During the period McDougall was researching and writing his book, President Reagan, the hopeful moon traveler, strongly endorsed the building of Space Station Freedom, gave his wholehearted support to the Space Defense Initiative or SDI (better known to its critics as "Star Wars"), and called for the development of a National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), which was a futuristic hypersonic vehicle capable of flying in and out of the atmosphere. It was misnamed by Reagan's speechwriters "The Orient Express," because such a spaceplane might someday be able to fly nonstop from New York to Tokyo in a few hours. 21 Although NASA had lost many major battles by then, agency leadership still operated in the 1980s according to the momentum model of the 1960s. Because the United States seemed to be locked in mortal competition with intransigent communism, this model deemed it necessary to have an expansive space program doing whatever it took for the country to remain number one technologically.

The ambition of many well-meaning supporters of the space program was, therefore, to secure another dramatic presidential commitment for a bold new initiative. This initiative was on the scale of Kennedy's lunar commitment in May 1961, which energized the American people so successfully, or Reagan's commitment to Space Station Freedom in January 1984, which failed to do anything of the sort. Even critical and scholarly observers of the U.S. space program, including those who lamented the bureaucratization of NASA and the devaluation of its technical culture since Apollo, have made that suggestion. For example, political scientist Howard McCurdy, professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., suggested in his article "The Graying of Space" that NASA could best rejuvenate itself by aiming at a big new goal such as a trip to Mars.22 In essence, however, such suggestions implied that American space policy would be best served if the momentum model could be refueled. This analysis missed the point that the momentum model has actually been [433] the major reason for the failure of American space policy since Apollo 11 and that it, too, has been the cause for much of the technical decline in the NASA organization. If NASA's long-term competency and productivity in basic R&D are a main concern, U.S. presidents need to stop making such bold pronouncements, not make more of them.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union proved, if proof were necessary, that the unimaginable really does happen. In a very short span of time, these megahistorical events, which were certainly in the league of Sputnik in terms of unraveling the expected, pulled the plug on the momentum model that had been driving the American space program since Sputnik. U.S. leadership saw that the ground rules of what had been a space race had changed fundamentally almost overnight. President George Bush appointed Daniel Goldin as the head of NASA in early 1992. Goldin had worked the prior two decades in U.S. weapons factories on top-secret military space hardware projects, but as the NASA administrator he proved so innovative that President Bill Clinton decided to keep him on after the election. Goldin understood that the space program of the mid-199Os and beyond could not operate on the basis of an obsolete world order of fear, violence, and competition with an enemy who was no longer there. The key words for the future were cooperation and international partnerships. The Soviet Union no longer existed; now there was only Russia. The United States would still be concerned about Russian cosmonauts, but not as competitors or as instruments of the Soviet propaganda machine, rather as fellow crew members in an international space program working alongside not just NASA astronauts, but those of Germany, Canada, France, Japan, and other nations. The world had turned topsy-turvy again. Up was down; down was up. Space explorers had to adjust.

The political and technological imperatives that had driven the American space program through its revolutionary period after Sputnik and that had tried with diminishing effectiveness to move it after Apollo had evaporated. With their disappearance, much about the space program had to change. In Goldin's pet phrase, NASA needed to do everything "smaller, faster, cheaper, better."23 In keeping with tough economic times and the trend toward downsizing in American business and industry, the American space program had to learn how to do more with less. To meet a directive from President Clinton in 1993, NASA moved to "reinvent" itself and find ways to reduce its spending by 30 percent over five years, which resulted in a $30 billion budget cut. (In contrast, in the summer of 1990, a NASA advisory panel still operating from the momentum model and chaired by systems engineering guru Norman Augustine of the Martin Marietta Corporation, had called for a 10-percent budget increase for NASA each and every year into the early twenty-first century just to meet the "critical national needs" in space.24) The nation would still move boldly out into space, but in cooperation with the rest of the world, not alone, not facing down enemies, and not making great leaps. Instead of placing such a [434] predominant emphasis on government-directed spending, the privatization and commercialization of the enterprise gained momentum. Instead of the prospect of an ever-increasing technocracy, there was a growing possibility that space exploration might move ahead with less overriding government involvement and direction. The U.S. space program would still be part of the total equation of national strength and security, but, because that equation had changed so dramatically with the end of the cold war, NASA had a chance to escape from the old mindset, be much less bureaucratic, return to basic operating principles more like those of the former NACA before Sputnik, and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

All of this augurs significant and positive change for the American space program and NASA. This may be especially true for NASA Langley Research Center, a place that has done its best, not only to abide by, but to encourage the prevailing momentum model through the 1970s and 1980s, even though it meant the slow but sure dissipation of the traditional research values that had been the creative heart and soul of the center since its formative days in the 1920s under the NACA. Langley, perhaps more than any other NASA facility, needed to move away from the modus vivendi of the cold war and refocus on what it has always done best: basic applied research. The cold war, perhaps war of any kind, ultimately used up more good ideas than it replenished.

Following Apollo 11, NASA Langley had moved beyond the waning aspirations of moonflight to manage the Viking missions to Mars - a planet some 65 million kilometers (40.39 million miles) away. Although not nearly as celebrated as the manned lunar landings, Project Viking rated as one of the greatest technological triumphs of all time, in some respects even surpassing Apollo. "To that day - maybe to this day Viking was the most difficult unmanned space project ever taken," a justifiably proud Edgar Cortright has declared. "It brought Langley to the forefront of spacecraft technology," which was where Cortright thought Langley should be although many, like John Becker and Mike Ellis, would have preferred a return to the ways of the NACA and were calling for a "research renaissance."25 In Cortright's mind and that of other avid participants in the spaceflight revolution, the Viking robots set the stage for a manned mission to the mysterious red planet, an adventure that they felt was sure to come before the end of the twentieth century. What Viking accomplished at Langley, however, was not altogether positive. Although it did keep the center focused on the technologies necessary for another successful space mission, the attention given to Viking continued a dangerous trend dating from the Apollo period; this trend marginalized research in favor of managing big projects, and thus was something that could not continue forever if the center was to live up to its original charter and serve the nation well over the long haul.

After Viking, Langley gave all-out support for the Space Shuttle. Langley's contribution was a herculean engineering effort that was absolutely [435] necessary for the Shuttle's success but that prevented Langley researchers from seeking breakthroughs across the broadest possible technological front. Because NASA was staking so much of its future on just this one vehicle, every NASA facility was expected to provide support for the new STS, and Langley, relying on in-house capabilities developed largely during its NACA years, was still well equipped to help. The problems facing a hybrid reusable vehicle that was to fly into, through, and back from space, from blastoff to a landing on a runway, were unusually extreme. During any mission, the Shuttle had to pass through three distinctly different flight regimes: hypersonic, supersonic, and subsonic. Over the years, dating to the NACA period, Langley engineers had pioneered research in each one of these speed regimes and knew that each regime by itself posed difficult flight problems. Together, these problems made the Shuttle program into one of the biggest challenges Langley's wind-tunnel complex ever faced. Just to confirm the basic aerodynamic soundness and structural integrity of the Shuttle required more than 60,000 "occupancy hours" of testing in several tunnels over a period of an entire decade. Thousands of hours were necessary to optimize the design of the Shuttle's thermal protection system - a unique arrangement of ceramic tiles protecting the reusable vehicle from the intense heat of reentry. A team of over 300 Langley engineers and technicians put together by Director Donald P. Hearth took on this sticky problem and eventually came up with a practical way of certifying the performance of the hundreds of glue on tiles.26

Although the Shuttle program predominated, many studies were conducted at Langley that explored the feasibility of advanced spaceflight technologies for future U.S. civil and military operations - many of them, but not all, were for manned missions. These investigations focused on new concepts like the "aerobrake," which was a technology with important applications for space transfer vehicles taking payloads and crews from a space station to the moon, to Mars, or even to other destinations in the inner Solar System. 27 Langley researchers also rehabilitated a few neglected older concepts such as the "lifting body," a promising technology that had been left in the lurch after Sputnik because powerful enough rockets did not yet exist to boost such a heavy vehicle to orbit. In the 1970s and 1980s, engineers at Langley helped to revitalize the lifting-body concept, and they eventually identified a highly innovative configuration called the HL-20 that offered a less expensive alternative to the Shuttle for direct manned access to orbit.28 With NASA's new emphasis on "smaller, faster, cheaper, better" in the mid-199Os, Langley's persistent interest in the lifting body may yet pay off; perhaps it will be a convenient way of traveling to and from the international Space Station Alpha.

Something that will surely pay off in the future is Langley's sustained level of basic R&D in hypersonics, a field that has been one of the center's strengths since the early 1950s when NACA researchers pioneered concepts that were incorporated in the North American X-15. So solid was Langley's [436] reputation in hypersonics that when the NASP program began under joint NASA/DOD sponsorship early in President Reagan's second term, Langley became the project's "lead center." By the early 1990s, although many critical engineering problems had yet to be solved before such a radically new technology (the prototype was labeled X-30) could become operational, Langley's involvements in NASP had proved the value of not only the revolutionary supersonic combustion ramjet engine (nicknamed "scramjet" ) but also of the novel integrated lifting-body aerothermal shape as the best suited for transatmospheric flight.29

Like everything else that originated before the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the NASP program was driven by cold war thinking. The DOD had planned to use the X-30 as a reconnaissance vehicle, a weapon against enemy satellites, and possibly as a nuclear bomber. Thus, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NASP program (as well as the SDI with which it was in certain ways associated) had to change fundamentally. Faced with a much smaller budget, NASP officials developed a plan in 1994 to close out work on the X-30 and transform the project from the development of a prototype military vehicle to the development of more generic hypersonic flight technologies.30 Such a change, although it meant less money, signified a reorientation of R&D priorities more suited to an open intellectual environment wherein creative thinking about a wide range of technological possibilities can be better cultivated than in the so-called "black" world of top secret military hardware development.

Another important effort that Langley managed to continue in the troubled post-Apollo era was its work on the cutting edge of wind-tunnel technology; this research was essential to the center's ability to stay vitally relevant in the twenty-first century. From the time of the Wright brothers, the wind tunnel had proved to be the essential piece of versatile experimental machinery on which much about the progressive evolution of aircraft depended. Without a new state of-the-art tunnel, especially one that simulated the vexatious conditions of flight at transonic speeds (a regime that both highspeed aircraft and rockets had to fly through), Langley might have ceased being Langley, which had been for decades a mecca for aerodynamicists from around the world.

In the mid-1970s, NASA assured Langley's future by pursuing funding for what became the National Transonic Facility (NTF). The NTF was a radically new wind tunnel. It was to operate cryogenically with liquid nitrogen replacing air as the test medium. Conceptually, the NTF had roots going back to Langley's own Variable-Density Tunnel (VDT) of the early 1920s, which was a revolutionary machine that provided a pressurized airflow for higher Reynolds numbers (the parameter representing the accuracy of test results using scale models in a wind tunnel). With the VDT, the NACA had obtained more realistic aerodynamic data than anyone had yet been able to obtain from any previous tunnel. Like the VDT, which put the struggling early NACA on the world map, the NTF also represented breakthrough [437] technology. By using a spray of liquid nitrogen to refrigerate the tunnel's airstream, thereby dramatically decreasing its viscosity, the all-important Reynolds numbers could be increased up to five times with no increase in model loads or required drive power.31

Authorized by Congress in 1975, the incredibly complex NTF design, which was meant to serve the transonic R&D needs of both NASA and the DOD, became the major preoccupation of Langley for the rest of the decade and beyond. It gave Langley Director Don Hearth and his associates endless headaches before all the kinks were worked out in 1982. The total cost of the NTF was $85 million, much more than NASA could have afforded for such a general research tool during the 1960s when such large amounts of money could not have been spent without directly tying the project to the lunar landing. But the result was formidable. The most ambitious and expensive wind tunnel ever built anywhere, the NTF was quickly put to use, not only testing models of the Space Shuttle (the STS had to pass through the transonic speed range both to and from space) but also evaluating advanced subsonic transports, fighter aircraft, and attack submarines. Beginning in the late 1980s, NASP designs also underwent hundreds of hours in "The Big Cold One," as it came to be known.32

The NTF incorporated the most modern automated equipment, which included four separate high-speed digital computers capable of handling up to 50,000 data points per second. These computers controlled virtually everything about the NTF, from monitoring the facility's environment to maneuvering the scale models in the test sections. When the NTF first began running in 1982, its builders felt that it would give the United States a full five-year technological lead over other countries and would "provide aspiring young aerodynamicists the wherewithal to design the aerospacecraft of the future."33 Occasional tunnel mishaps and breakdowns led a few critical observers to question whether the NTF lived up to its billing, but as the fits and starts of Langley's earlier wind-tunnel history demonstrate, it sometimes takes years of refinement before such a basic research facility hits its full stride.

In important respects, the NTF helped to pave the way to Langley's future by recalling its strong NACA roots. Like the closed-loop circuitry of its NTF, NASA Langley by the mid-199Os seemed to be on the verge of coming full circle, not returning to the exact place where it had been 40 years earlier - history never really repeats itself - but arriving at a familiar spot closer to the one it occupied during the NACA, before Sputnik changed history. In 1993, NASA Langley officials estimated that 60 percent of its employees worked on aeronautics and only 40 percent on space. By the following year, the margin had widened to 70/30.34

At Langley, this ratio points to a rather curious trend. Thirty-five years earlier, it was the aeronautical enthusiasts who were losing ground and becoming disgruntled with the transition to space at Langley. In the mid-199Os, it is the space enthusiasts who worry about the possibility that [438] the rug might be pulled from under them. Aeronautics is coming back strong at Langley; space work is being taken away and assigned to other centers. The center has never forgotten that the first "A" in NASA stands for "Aeronautics." Indeed, although its many achievements in aeronautics after Sputnik were usually overshadowed (as they are in this book) by the hype over spaceflight, the center still managed somehow to maintain its position as a world leader in aeronautical R&D. Langley's contributions included the X-15, VTOL aircraft, the variable sweep wing, the supercritical airfoil, SST-related technology, sonic boom studies, winglets, runway riblets, composite materials, laminar-flow control systems, and flight avionics. Still, NASA for its entire history had been the "space agency," and aeronautics, although important, had played second fiddle.

True to the symbols in the original NASA logo (the "meatball"), which signify that the organization was about both aeronautics and space, Langley will continue to play a viable role in space.* Although Langley probably will not be conducting any space missions, it still stays active, in less visible but nonetheless critical ways, in space related research. For example, researchers at the center continue to help design the space station and the next-generation space shuttle, repair and test space-bound instruments and materials, and conduct research on the effects of clouds and pollution on the earth's atmosphere. As organized in early 1994, there will be four space "thrusts" at Langley: first, the Spacecraft Technology Thrust, which will entail the continued analysis of the space station design and a joint effort with NASA Goddard researchers to launch a spacecraft called the EOS-AM1, an unmanned earth-observing space vehicle, scheduled for launch in 1998; second, the Remote Sensing Thrust, which will involve development of instruments such as the Lidar In-Space Technology Experiment (LITE), which uses a laser system to probe the atmosphere and provide new information about the biosphere; third, the Space Transportation Technology Thrust, which will encompass the design of the next-generation space shuttle and the testing of spacecraft materials and structures to see how they hold up to extreme heat, sound, air pressure, and collisions with micrometeorites; and fourth, the Atmospheric Sciences Thrust (a research division created by Ed Cortright in the early 1970s), which will focus on NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth" that was started in the 1980s and involves monitoring the [439] Ozone hole and measuring the carbon monoxide and aerosol gases in the atmosphere.35

Despite the general reorientation in favor of aeronautics, space will not be forgotten completely at Langley. As a local NASA beat reporter has written, "When man first set foot on the moon 25 years ago, NASA Langley Research Center was a star player in the space program, training astronauts and developing the lunar lander. But in the future, the Hampton research center will play a behind-the-scenes role in space research, like the football lineman who blocks for the star running back."36 This general trend is as it should be and as it was at Langley before Sputnik. Revolutions come and go, but basic research needs to stay.

Langley Research Center survived the spaceflight revolution and its aftermath. It helped the country accomplish some wonderful things along the way. With the changes in orientation that are now taking place inside NASA, the center is likely to remain productive well into the twenty-first century, if not beyond. To do so, however, Langley does not need to turn back the clock to before 1957 or necessarily return to the ways of the NACA, but it does need to refocus on what it does best. During the NACA years, it had a clarity of purpose that served it extremely well. Like the rest of NASA, it needs to regain much of its lost in-house capabilities and not depend so heavily upon contractors. If the staff has to become a little smaller and the overall organization a little leaner, that can work out to be a great advantage. The small size and more intimate collegiality of the NACA staff before World War II stimulated a high level of creativity within the organization. And above all, the bureaucracy in Washington must be streamlined and able to give a wide berth to people who want to follow through with bright ideas. Langley during the NACA years operated with maximum independence from NACA headquarters; somehow the best elements of that kind of freedom need to be revived in NASA.

Someday, the country may see another extraordinarily tempestuous time like the 12 years following Sputnik. Hopefully, if that time does come, Langley will again be in a general state of good health as it was when Sputnik first orbited the earth and will be able to make the tremendous contributions it made during the first spaceflight revolution. The ways and means of the old NACA are now mostly dead and gone, and Apollo anniversaries are a time to celebrate what now seems an impossible achievement. If Langley's future and NASA's future is to be as productive as the NACA and early NASA past, the spark of greatness in the present will have to come from something else besides the momentum of a satellite launched nearly 40 years ago by a country that no longer exists; it will have to come from a fresh new stream of historical development, only now at its headwaters.

Contrary to what many space enthusiasts inside and outside of NASA might still prefer to believe, the spaceflight revolution of the 1960s was something of an aberration. We should not look to Apollo as a model to emulate. That is what the children of the twenty-first century, who will not [440] remember when there even was a Soviet Union or a Khrushchev toy called Sputnik, perhaps need most to understand about this history. The nervous energies that took us on our wonderful trips to the moon produced little in terms of a creative infrastructure that the country could hope to sustain for long; rather, they created a more expansive and plodding bureaucracy that has sustained itself quite well for the past three decades but only at great cost to what was worth saving in the first place.

Hopefully, Langley Research Center and the rest of NASA will continue to find ways through the dawn of the next millennium to recover the best about what they have been, and still should be, no matter what convulsion - or realized impossible dream - any future revolution might bring.

 


* Shortly after becoming NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin replaced the NASA "worm", which had become the logo of the space agency in the 1970s, with the aesthetic blue "meatball" of NASA's early days. Goldin decided to do this after visiting NASA Langley, seeing the handsome old NASA logo on the outside of the west Area flight hangar, and hearing from Langley's center director, Paul Holloway, that a return to the old symbol would help improve NASA morale. Goldin agreed, thinking that it might be a good way of signaling NASA's return as a high-quality, less bureaucratic organization. The decision, however, gave NASA's graphics department and public affairs offices a fit, because it meant that all NASA letterhead and promotional materials had to be redone.


previous pageindexnext page