Chapter 4


On 1 October 1958, the 170 people in Headquarters gathered in the courtyard of their building, the Dolly Madison House, to hear Glennan proclaim the end of the 43-year-old NACA and the beginning of NASA. The 8000 people, three laboratories (now renamed research centers) and two stations, with a total facilities value of $300 million and an annual budget of $100 million were transferred intact to NASA. On the same day, by executive order the President transferred to NASA: Project Vanguard and its 150-person staff and remaining budget from the Naval Research Laboratory; lunar probes from the Army; lunar probes and rocket engine programs, including the F-1, from the Air Force; and a total of over $100 million of unexpended funds. NASA immediately delegated operational control of these projects back to the DoD agencies while it put its own house in order.

There followed an intense two-year period of organization, build up, fill in, planning, and general catch up. Only one week after NASA was formed, Glennan gave the go ahead to Project Mercury, America's first manned spaceflight program. The Space Task Group, headed by Robert R. Gilruth, was established at Langley to get the job done. The new programs brought into the organization were slowly integrated into the NACA nucleus. Many space-minded specialists were drawn into NASA, attracted by the exciting new vistas. Long-range planning was accelerated; the first NASA 10-year plan was presented to Congress in February 1960. It called for an expanding program on a broad front: manned flight (first orbital, then circumlunar); scientific satellites to measure radiation and other features of the near-space environment; lunar probes to measure the lunar space environment and to photograph the Moon; planetary probes to measure and to photograph Mars and Venus; weather satellites to improve our knowledge of Earth's broad weather patterns; continued aeronautical research; and development of larger launch vehicles for lifting heavier payloads. The cost of the program was expected to vary between $1 billion and $1.5 billion per year over the 10-year period.

Towards Hypersonic Flight

As NASA labored to get itself organized in the new field of astronautics, its traditional work in aeronautics experienced notable success. When the NACA set up the Muroc Flight Test Unit in 1948, Walter C. Williams began a decade of administration that saw many dramatic changes in the shapes and speeds of aircraft. The Muroc site won independence from Langley when it became the High-Speed Flight Station in 1954. Williams always argued for even more independence in the form of laboratory status, which would not only boost morale but also give the station greater prestige and autonomy. When NASA was created and the existing NACA labs were renamed as centers, old Muroc hands witnessed another change in names, becoming the NASA Flight Research Center (FRC) in 1959. Williams had to savor the change in names from a distance, since he already had been posted back to Langley as operations director for Project Mercury. But he could take pleasure at FRC's rapid growth and fame during the early 1960s, due largely to the test program for the X-15, a remarkably productive aircraft. After winning major headlines at the start of its flight tests, the X-15's success became eclipsed by NASA's space program. This was ironic, since the X-15 contributed heavily to research in spaceflight as well as to high-speed aircraft research.

The X-15 series were thoroughbreds, capable of speeds up to Mach 6.72 (4534 MPH) at altitudes up to 354,200 feet (67 miles). There was a familiar European thread in the design's genesis. In the late 1930s and during World War II, German scientists Eugen Sanger and Irene Bredt developed studies for a rocket plane that could be boosted to an Earth orbit and then glide back to land. The idea reshaped American thinking about hypersonic vehicles. "Professor Sanger's pioneering studies of long-range rocket-propelled aircraft had a strong influence on the thinking which led to initiation of the X-15 program," NACA researcher John Becker wrote. "Until the Sanger and Bredt paper became available to us after the war we had thought of hypersonic flight only as a domain for missiles...." A series of subsequent studies in America "provided the background from which the X-15 proposal emerged."

Momentum for such a plane gathered in 1951, when Robert Woods, the X-1 veteran from Bell Aircraft, proposed a Mach 5 research plane. Woods argued his case in the prestigious NACA Committee on Aerodynamics, of which he was a member. The NACA Committee took no formal action, but independent projects got underway at Ames, Langley, and FRC (Edwards). By 1954, the NACA accepted the hypersonic aircraft proposal as a major commitment. By autumn of that year, the NACA realized it lacked funds to support the idea and joined forces with the Air Force and Navy; a Memorandum of Understanding gave the NACA technical control of the effort, including flight testing and test reports. There was an undertone of military necessity in the Memorandum, which declared that "accomplishment of this project is a matter of national urgency." The specifications and configurations circulated among potential bidders followed a pattern originally developed by a Langley team led by John Becker. "The proposals that we got back looked pretty much like the one we had put in," he recalled. The NACA had certainly come a long way from testing aircraft designed and built by others. The earlier X-1 was something of a transition, involving Bell and NACA engineers. Although the NACA in essence bootstrapped Air Force and Navy funds for the X-15, it was very much a NACA idea and design from start to finish. In many ways, the X-15 program represented a shift to the research, development, and management functions that characterized the NASA organization soon to come.

aerial photo of the X-15 in flight
The X-15 streaks across the western United States on a test run. Capable of flying at 6.7 times the speed of sound at altitudes of over 350,000 feet, the X-15 helped advance many aeronautical and space flight systems.

In the fall of 1955, North American emerged as the winning contractor. Aside from building the plane, the NACA and armed services soon realized that they had also had to develop other elements of a new system to support flight tests of the exotic X-15. The program called for fabrication of three research planes and a powerful new rocket engine to power them. The engine, a Thiokol XLR-99, had to be "man-rated" for repeated flights in the piloted rocket plane. For pilot training and familiarization, it was necessary to design and build a motion simulator and associated analog computer equipment. Before making a 10-to 12-minute mission in the X-15, pilots eventually spent 8 to 10 hours practicing each moment of the test flight. Due to the extreme altitudes planned for X-15 missions, technicians needed to develop a unique, full-pressure flight suit. Finally, planners had to lay out a special aerodynamic test range to monitor the X-15 as the plane streaked back to Edwards Air Force Base for its landing.

The test range, officially labeled the High Altitude Continuous Tracking Radar Range, became known as the "High Range." The increased speeds of research planes meant that customary air-to-ground communications at the test field were outmoded. The High Range stretched 485 miles from Wendover Air Force Base in Utah to Edwards in California. A trio of tracking stations along the route were built and equipped with advanced radar and telemetry, recording equipment, and consoles for monitoring the X-15. All the tracking stations passed real-time data to each other as the X-15 sped down the High Range. With its experience in the acquisition of in-flight data, NACA expertise in setting up the High Range was invaluable. Following the X-15 program, the High Range continued to be a continuing asset to flight testing of succeeding generations of aircraft.

The first X-15 arrived in the autumn of 1958, although powered flight tests did not start until September of 1959. In contrast to the secrecy surrounding the P-59 and the X-1, the X-15 program was a high-visibility media event. In the wake of Sputnik, anything that seemed to redeem America's tarnished prestige in the "space race" automatically occupied center stage. Journalists flocked to Edwards for photos and interviews; Hollywood cranked out a hackneyed film about terse, steely-eyed test pilots and the rocket-powered ships they flew. When the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs began, the journalists migrated to hotter headlines in Florida. The X-15, meanwhile, moved into the most productive phase of its program, contributing to astronautics as well as aeronautics.

Between 1959 and 1968, the trio of X-15 aircraft completed 199 test flights. The fallout was far-reaching in numerous crucial areas, such as hypersonic aerodynamics and in structures. During a test series to investigate high-temperature phenomena in hypersonic flight, temperatures on the skin soared to 1300º F, so that large sections of the aircraft glowed a cherry-red color. The X-15's survival encouraged extensive use of comparatively exotic alloys, like titanium and Inconel-X, leading to machining and production techniques that became standard in the aerospace industry. Although the cockpit was pressurized, the chance of accidental loss of pressurization in the near-space environment where the X-15 flew prompted development of the first practical full-pressure suit for pilot protection in space. The X-15 was the first to use reaction controls for attitude control in space; reentry techniques and related technology also contributed to the space program, and even earth sciences experiments were carried out by the X-15 in some of its flights.

The high-speed, high-altitude X-15, like the X-1, might be remembered as the epitome of an era, although the NACA/NASA research activities, as usual, continued along many paths. For example, in the course of studies for supersonic cruise aircraft, two different trends of study began to emerge: a multi-mission combat plane operating at both high and low speeds, and configurations for a supersonic transport.

aerial photo of the F-14
The Grumman F-14 Tomcat, with wings swept back for high-speed flight, was a legacy of variable geometry studies (photo courtesy of Grumman Aerospace Corporation).

The multi-mission plane idea took shape as a combat aircraft capable of sustained high speeds at high altitudes, as well as high speeds "down on the deck." This meant swept wings, which also decreased controllability and combat load at takeoff--unless the wings could be pivoted forward during takeoff and landing and swept back during flight. Test articles from wartime German experiments again pointed the way, and the Bell X-5 provided additional data during the early 1950s. The British also had a variable-sweep concept plane called the Swallow, which underwent extensive testing at Langley. The NASA contribution in this development included variable in-flight sweeping of the wings and the decision to locate the pivot points outboard on the wings rather than pivot the wings on the centerline, solving a serious instability problem. All of this eventually led to the TFX program, which became the F-111. It was a long and controversial program but the success of the variable geometry wing on the F-111 and the Navy's Grumman F-14 Tomcat owed much to NASA experimental work. The process of refining Mach 2 aircraft like these also led to profitable studies involving air inlets, exhaust nozzles, and overall drag reduction --factors that the aerospace industry applied to the new stable of Mach 2 combat planes of the following decades.

In addition to the dramatic high-speed military planes scrutinized by NASA, there was a slower plane with a truly unique ability: it could take off and land vertically. A considerable degree of effort went into a series of aircraft with a tilt-wing layout, like the Boeing Vertol 76. Langley built and tested a scale free-flight model, which was followed by a full-sized aircraft with a gas-turbine propulsion system driving a pair of oversized propellers. Concurrently, a variety of different configurations went through a test program in small wind tunnels while very large models were tested in the big 40 x 80-foot tunnel at Ames. One result of this combined activity was a tri-service transport experimental program for the Army, Air Force, and Navy. Known as the XC-142A, a one-ninth scale model went through remote control flight tests in Langley's full scale tunnel. There were additional tests carried out with full-sized experimental configurations built by Bell and by Ryan; flight testing continued into the 1980s.

The work in high-speed combat planes paralleled growing interest in a supersonic transport. In 1959, a delegation from Langley briefed E. R. Quesada, head of the FAA, on the technical feasibility of a supersonic transport (SST). The NASA group advocated a variable geometry wing and an advanced, fan-jet propulsion system. The briefing, later published as NASA Technical Note D-423, "The Supersonic Transport: --A Technical Summary," analyzed structures, noise, runways and braking, traffic control, and other issues related to SST operations on a regular basis. An SST, the report concluded, was entirely feasible. The FAA concurred, and within a year, a joint program with NASA had allocated contracts for engineering component development. Eventually, the availability of advanced Air Force aircraft provided the opportunity to conduct flight experiments as well. The idea of commercial airliners flashing around the globe at supersonic speeds received press attention, but the biggest headlines went to even more sensational developments in space, where human beings were preparing for inaugural voyages.

The New Space Program

To conduct its space program, NASA obviously needed capabilities it did not have. To that end Glennan sought to acquire the successful Army team that had launched America's first satellite, the ABMA at Huntsville, Alabama, and its contractor, the JPL in Pasadena, California. The Army balked at losing the Huntsville group, claiming it was indispensable to the Army's military rocket program. Glennan for the time being had to compromise: ABMA would work on NASA programs as requested. The Army grudgingly gave up JPL. On 3 December 1958, an executive order transferred, effective 31 December, the government-owned plant of JPL and the Army contract with the California Institute of Technology, under which JPL was staffed and operated. Glennan renewed his bid for ABMA in 1959; protracted Army resistance was finally overcome and on 15 March 1960 ABMA's 4000-person Development Operations Division, headed by Wernher von Braun, was transferred to NASA along with the big Saturn booster project.

As the 10-year plan took shape and the capability grew, there were many other gaps to be filled. NASA was going to be markedly different from NACA in two important ways. First, it was going to be operational as well as do research. So, it would not only design and build launch vehicles and satellites but it would launch them, operate them, track them, acquire data from them, and interpret the data. Second, it would do the greater part of its work by contract rather than in-house as NACA had done. The first of these required tracking sites in many countries around the world, as well as construction of facilities: antennae, telemetry equipment, computers, radio and landline communications networks, and so on. The second required the development of a larger and more sophisticated contracting operation than NACA had needed. In the first years, NASA leaned heavily on the DoD procurement system.

The problem of launch vehicles occupied much attention in these first years. A family of existing and future launch vehicles had to be structured for the kinds of missions and spacecraft enumerated in the plan. In addition to the existing Redstone, Thor, and Atlas vehicles, NASA would develop:

In addition, work could continue with the Atomic Energy Commission on the difficult but enormously promising nuclear-propelled upper stage, Nerva, and on the SNAP family of long-life electric power producers.

As much as larger boosters were needed, an even more immediate problem was how to improve the reliability of existing boosters. By December 1959 the United States had attempted 37 satellite launches; less than one-third attained orbit. Electrical components, valves, turbopumps, welds, materials, structures --virtually everything that went into the intricate mechanism called a booster-- had to be redesigned or strengthened or improved to withstand the stresses of launch. A new order of perfection in manufacturing and assembly had to be instilled in workers and managers. Rigorous, repeated testing had to verify each component, then subassembly, then total vehicle. That bugaboo of the engineering profession, constant fiddling and changing in search of perfection, had to be constrained in the interest of reliability. And since the existing vehicles were DoD products, NASA had to persuade DoD to enforce these rigorous standards on its contractors.

world map indicating tracking station locations
  The worldwide satellite tracking network, 1975

That was only one of the areas in which close coordination between NASA and DoD was essential and effective. In manned spaceflight, for example, there were essentially four approaches to putting man into space:

In the communications satellites area DoD had its Courier program, a low-altitude, militarily-secure communications satellite; it also had Advent, intended to be put into equatorial synchronous orbit by the Atlas Centaur booster to provide global communications for the military. NASA had a passive communications satellite, Echo, a 98-meter inflatable sphere from which to bounce radar signals as a limited communications relay and, over a period of time and with accurate tracking, to plot the variations in air density at the top of the atmosphere by following the vagaries of its orbit. It had been agreed that NASA would leave active communications satellites (those that picked up, amplified, and rebroadcast radio signals from one point on Earth to another) to DoD. But this did not answer for long. By 1960 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was asking NASA to launch its low-level, active communications satellite, Telstar. NASA also had another proposal for medium-altitude (roughly 11,125-mile orbit) communications satellites.

The AT&T proposal raised a fundamental problem: would industry develop communications satellites entirely with its own money or would the government fund such research? NASA sought and received presidential approval to go both ways--to provide reimbursable launches to industry and to do its own communications satellite research. First there was Relay, the medium-altitude repeater satellite. Beyond lay the imaginative proposal from Hughes Aircraft Company for Syncom, a synchronous-orbit satellite that would fly at 21,753- mile altitude, where distance, gravity, and velocity combined to place a satellite permanently over the same spot on Earth. By virtue of the lofty orbit, three of these satellites could cover the entire planet and require only a handful of ground stations.

By the time of the presidential election of 1960 the worst pangs of reorganization, redefinition, and planning were over. Programs were meshing with each other; contracting for large projects was becoming routine; the initial absorption of DoD programs had been completed; and a viable organization was in business.

There were operational bright spots as well. True, launch vehicles were still fickle and unpredictable; 7 out of 17 launches failed in 1959. But finally in August 1959, NASA launched its first satellite that functioned in all respects (Explorer 6). Pioneer 5, launched on 11 March 1960 and intended to explore interplanetary space between Earth and Venus, communicated out to a new distance record, 22 million miles. The first of the prototype weather satellites, Tiros 1, launched on 1 April 1960, produced 22,500 photos of Earth's weather. Echo 1, the first passive communications satellite, was launched 12 August 1960, inflated in orbit, and provided a passive target for bouncing long-range communications from one point on Earth to another. Perhaps as important, millions of people saw the moving pinpoint of light in the night sky and were awed by the experience.

In late 1960 politics bemused the space program. Although not a direct campaign issue in the presidential campaign, the space program found little reassurance of its priority as an expensive new item in the federal budget. After John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected, the uncertainty deepened. Jerome B. Wiesner, the President-elect's science adviser, chaired a committee which produced a report both critical of the space program's progress to date and skeptical of its future. Who would be the new administrator? What, if any, priority would the fledgling space program have in a new, on-record hostile administration?

Then, once again, challenge and response. On 12 April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode Vostok 1 into a 187 x 108 mile orbit of the Earth. After one orbit he reentered the atmosphere and landed safely. A human had flown in space. Gagarin joined that elite pantheon of individuals who were the first to do the undoable--Wright brothers, Lindbergh, now Gagarin. There was faint consolation on 6 May 1961, when Mercury essayed its first manned spaceflight. Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., rode a Redstone booster in his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft for a 15-minute suborbital flight and was picked out of the water some 300 miles downrange. Success, yes; a good beginning, yes. But Gagarin had flown around the Earth, some 24,800 miles against Shepard's 300. His Vostok weighed 10,428 pounds in orbit, contrasting with Mercury's 2,100 pounds in suborbit. Gagarin had had about 89 minutes in weightlessness, the mysterious zerogravity condition that had supplanted the sound barrier as the great unknown. Shepard experienced 5 minutes of weightlessness. By any unit of measure, clearly the United States was still behind, especially in the indispensable prerequisite of rocket power. As the new President had said, gloomily: "We are behind...the news will be worse before it is better, and it will be some time before we catch up." The public reaction was less emphatic than after Sputnik 1 but congressional concern was strong. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., NASA's associate administrator and general manager, was hard put to restrain Congress from forcing more money on NASA than could be effectively used.

astronauts in flight gear posing in front of F-106
NASA's seven original astronauts were all experienced test pilots. Posed in front of a Convair F-106, they are (left to right): Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton.

President Kennedy was especially concerned. His inaugural address in January had rung with an eloquent promise of bold new initiatives that would "get this country moving again." The succeeding three months had been distinguished by crushing setbacks --the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the Gagarin flight. As one of several searches for new initiatives, the President asked his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, to head a study of what would be required in the space program to convincingly surpass the Soviets. Johnson, the only senior White House figure in the new administration with prior commitment to the space program, found strong support waiting in the wings. James E. Webb, new administrator of NASA, had an established reputation as an aggressive manager of large enterprises, both in industry and the Truman administration as director of the Bureau of the Budget and undersecretary of state. Backed by the seasoned technical judgment of Dryden, his deputy, and Seamans, his general manager, Webb moved vigorously to accelerate and expand the central elements of the NASA 10-year plan.

The largest single concept in that plan had been manned circumlunar flight. Now the question became: could this country rally quickly enough to beat the Soviets to that circumlunar goal? The considered technical estimate was "not for sure." But if we went one large step further and escalated the commitment to manned lunar landing and return, it became a new ball game. Both nations would have to design and construct a whole new family of boosters and spacecraft; this would be an equalizer in terms of challenge to both nations and the experts were confident that the depth and competence of the American government-industry-university team would prove superior. In this judgment they found a strong ally in the new secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara.

But Webb and his advisers were not content with a one-shot objective. The goal, they said, was a major space advance on a broad front- manned spaceflight, yes, but also boosters, communications satellites, meteorological satellites, and planetary exploration.

This was the combined proposal presented to the Vice President and approved and transmitted by him to the President. It was the best new initiative the President had seen. So it was that on 25 May 1961 the President stood before a joint session of Congress and proposed a historic national goal:

Now it is time to take longer strides-time for a great new American enterprise-time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth . . . . I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
The President correctly assessed the national mood. Editorial support was widespread. Congressional debate was perfunctory, given the size of the commitment. The decision to land an American on the Moon was endorsed virtually without dissent.

The Lunar Commitment

NASA was exhilarated but awed. Dryden had returned from a White House meeting to tell his staff that "this man" (Webb) had sold the President on landing a man on the Moon. Gilruth, immersed in what seemed to be big enough problems in the relatively modest Project Mercury, was temporarily aghast. But the die was cast. The nation had accepted the challenge to its largest technological enterprise, dwarfing even the wartime Manhattan Project for developing the atomic bomb and the postwar crash development of strategic missiles.

The blank check was there; the way to use it was far from clear. Since 1958, studies had been underway on a circumlunar manned flight. Since 1959, George M. Low, head of the manned spaceflight office in Headquarters, had ramrodded a series of progressively more detailed studies on the requirements for a manned landing on the Moon. Those studies had established a broad confidence that no major technological or scientific breakthroughs were needed to get a man to the Moon or even to land and return him. But there were some operational unknowns; the blank check caused them suddenly to loom larger. The assumption had been that one simply built a big enough booster, flew directly to the Moon, landed a large vehicle, and returned some part of it directly to Earth. But there were wide scientific disagreements as to the nature of the lunar surface. Was it solid "ground," strong enough to support such a load? Or was it many feet of dust, in which a spacecraft would disappear without a trace? Or was it something in between? There were operational problems: could the crew and ground control possibly handle the enormous peak of work that would bunch together in the landing phase of a direct-ascent mission? The alternative seemed to be that one boosted pieces of a lunar vehicle into Earth orbit, assembled and refueled them there, and took off for a direct landing on the Moon. This too was fraught with hazards: could payloads rendezvous in Earth orbit? Could men assemble complex equipment in the demanding environment of space? Could such operations as refueling with volatile fuels --hazardous enough on Earth-- be safely performed in space?

Some points were clear. The very massiveness of the effort would make this program different in kind from anything NASA had attempted. New organizational modes were essential; no one center could handle this program. A much stronger Headquarters team would be needed, coordinating the efforts of several centers and riding herd on an enormous mobilization of American industry and university effort.

Also, there were long leadtime problems that needed to be worked on irrespective of later decisions. One of these was three years under way --a big engine. Work on the 1.5 million-pound-thrust F-1 engine would be accelerated. Another was a navigation system; accurate vectoring of a spacecraft from Earth to a precise point on a rapidly moving Moon 230,000 miles away was a formidable problem in celestial mechanics. Therefore, the first large Apollo contract was let to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its Instrumentation Laboratory, headed by C. Stark Draper, to begin study of this inscrutable problem and to develop the requisite navigational system.

The basic spacecraft could be delineated --the one in which a crew would depart the Earth, travel to the Moon, and return. It should have a baggage car, a jettisonable service module housing its propulsion, expendable oxygen, and other equipment. The Space Task Group was hard at work on these with its left hand, while its main effort on Mercury went forward. That left hand had to be strengthened.

A whole new logistics system was needed; from factory to launch, everything had outstripped normal sizes and normal transportation. There would have to be new factories, mammoth test stands, huge launch complexes. Railroads and highways could not handle the larger components. Ship transportation seemed the only answer. A massive facility design and site location program had to begin even before the final configuration of the vehicle was decided. Limited in the facilities and construction area, NASA decided to call on the tested resource of the Army Corps of Engineers. It proved to be one of the wiser decisions in this hectic period.

As planning went forward in 1961 and 1962, order gradually emerged. A new concept for how to get to the Moon painfully surfaced: lunar-orbit rendezvous. A small group at Langley, headed by John C. Houbolt, had studied the trade-offs of direct ascent, Earth-orbit rendezvous, and other possibilities. They had been increasingly struck with the vehicle and fuel economics of this mission profile: after stabilizing in Earth orbit, a set of spacecraft went to orbit around the Moon, and, leaving the mother spacecraft in lunar orbit, dispatched a smaller craft to land on the lunar surface, reconnoiter, and rejoin the mother craft in lunar orbit for the return to Earth. Over a period of two years they refined their complex mathematics and argued their case. As time became critical for definition of the launch vehicle, they argued their case before one NASA audience after another. Finally Houbolt, in a bold move, went outside of "channels" and got the personal attention of Seamans. This was a decision of such importance to the total program that imposed decision was not enough; the major elements of NASA had to be won over and concur in the final technical judgment. Dismissed at first as risky and very literally "far out," lunar orbit rendezvous gradually won adherents. In July 1962 D. Brainerd Holmes, NASA director of manned spaceflight, briefed the House space committee on lunar orbit rendezvous, the chosen method of going to the Moon.

Once made, this decision permitted rapid definition of the Apollo spacecraft combination. Launch vehicle configuration had been arrived at seven months earlier. The objective would be to put a payload of nearly 300,000 pounds in Earth orbit and 100,000 pounds in orbit around the Moon. To do this required a three-stage vehicle, the first stage employing the F-1 engine in a cluster of five, to provide 7.5 million pounds of thrust at launch. The second stage would cluster five of a new 225,000-pound-thrust liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen engine (the J-2). The third stage, powered by a single J-2 engine, would boost the Apollo three-man spacecraft out of Earth orbit and into the lunar gravitational field. At that point the residual three-spacecraft combination would take over: a command module housing the astronauts, a service module providing propulsion for maneuvers, and a two-man lunar module for landing on the Moon. The engine on the service module would ignite to slow the spacecraft enough to be captured into lunar orbit; the fragile lunar module would leave the mother craft and descend to land its two passengers on the Moon. After lunar reconnaissance, the astronauts would blast off in the top half of the lunar module to rejoin the mother craft in lunar orbit, and the service module would fire up for return to Earth.

A smaller launch vehicle, which would later be dubbed the Saturn IB, would be built first and used to test the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit. Even this partial fulfillment of the Apollo mission would require a first stage with 1.5 million pounds of thrust and a high-energy liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen second stage.

overhead view of a massive Saturn 1 rocket on the launch pad
Launches of the Saturn I (pictured) and the similar Saturn IB increased NASA's confidence in engines, boosters, and spacecraft, prepairing the way for eventual manned missions of the Apollo program.

The grand design was now complete. But in the articulating of it, vast gaps in experience and technology were revealed. At three critical points the master plan depended on successful rendezvous and docking of spacecraft. Although theoretically feasible, it had never been done and was not within the scope of Project Mercury. How could practical experience be gained with rendezvous and docking short of an intricate, hideously expensive, and possibly disastrous series of experiments with Apollo hardware? Men would, hopefully, land and walk upon the Moon. But could men and their equipment function in space outside the artificial and confining environment of their spacecraft? Other systems and other questions could be engineered to solution on Earth, but the ultimate questions here could only be answered in space. We had bitten off more than we could chew. Clearly something was needed between the first steps of Mercury and the grand design of Apollo. The gap was too great to jump when men's lives were at stake.

aerial photo of a rescue helicopter lifting a space capsule from the sea
Mercury crew capsules crashed into the Atlantic while the Atlas and Apollo crew capsules splashed down into the Pacific, to be retrieved by helicopter. The Sikorsky UH-34D lost its struggle with Grissom's capsule, which sank after the astronaut scrambled out.

Even Mercury sometimes seemed a very big mouthful to chew. But slowly, stubborn problem after stubborn problem yielded. The second suborbital flight, Liberty Bell 7, was launched on 21 July 1961; its 16-minute flight went well, though on landing the hatch blew off prematurely and the spacecraft sank just after Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom was hoisted to safety in a rescue helicopter. In September the unmanned Mercury-Atlas combination was orbited successfully and landed where it was supposed to, east of Bermuda. On 29 November the final test flight took chimpanzee Enos on a two-orbit ride and landed him in good health. The system was qualified for manned orbital flight. And on 20 February 1962, Astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth in space. Friendship 7 circled the Earth three times; Glenn flew parts of the last two orbits manually because of trouble with his autopilot.

The United States took its astronaut heroes to its heart with an enthusiasm that bewildered them and startled NASA. Their mail was enormous; hundreds of requests for personal appearances poured in. Glenn had a rainy parade in Washington and addressed a joint session of Congress. On 1 March four million people in New York showered confetti and ticker tape on him and fellow astronauts Shepard and Grissom. Nor was the event unnoticed by the competition. President Kennedy announced the day after the Glenn flight that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had congratulated the nation on its achievement and had suggested the two nations "could work together in the exploration of space." The results of this exchange were a series of talks between Dryden of NASA and Anatoliy A. Blagonravov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. By the end of the year they had agreed to exchanges of meteorological and magnetic-field data and some communications experiments.

A big year for the young American space program, 1962. Two more Mercury flights, Carpenter for three orbits, then Schirra for six. The powerful Saturn I booster made two test flights, both successful. The first active communications satellite, Telstar I, was launched for AT&T by NASA; later NASA's own Relay communications satellite was orbited; and the first international satellite, Britain's Ariel I, was launched by NASA to take scientific measurements of the ionosphere. Mariner 2 became the first satellite to fly by another planet; on 14 December it passed within 21,380 miles of Venus and scanned the surface of that cloud-shrouded body, measuring its temperatures. Then it continued into orbit about the Sun, eventually setting a new communications distance record of 55.4 million miles. The fifth and sixth Tiros meteorological satellites were placed in orbit and continued to report the world's weather. So successful had Tiros been that the R&D program had quickly become semi-operational. The Weather Bureau was regularly integrating Tiros data into its operational forecasting and was busy planning a full scale weather satellite system which it would operate. The hard work on booster reliability began to pay off --18 successes to 9 failures or partial successes.

Not that all was sweetness and light. The Ranger, designed to photograph the Moon while falling to impact the lunar surface, was in deep trouble. A high-technology program at the edge of the state of the art, Ranger closed the year with five straight failures and another would come in 1963. JPL, the NASA agent; Hughes Aircraft Co., the contractor; and NASA Headquarters came under heavy pressure from Congress. Studies were made; a reorganization realigned JPL and contractor to firm commitment to the project; NASA dropped the science experiments; and the last three Ranger flights were spectacularly successful, providing close-in lunar photography that excelled the best telescopic detail of the Moon from Earth by 2000 times and dispelled many of the scare theories about the lunar surface.

As the dimensions of Apollo began to dawn on Congress and the scientific community, there were rumbles: Apollo would preempt too much of the scientific manpower of the nation; Apollo was an "other worldly" stunt, directed at the Moon instead of at pressing problems on Earth. Administrator Webb met both of these caveats with positive programs.

In acknowledgment of the drain on scientific manpower, Webb won White House support for a broad program by NASA to augment the scientific manpower pool. Thousands of fellowships were offered for graduate study in space-related disciplines, intended to replace or at least supplement the kinds of talent engulfed by the space program. Complementing the fellowships was an even more innovative program, government-financed buildings and facilities on university campuses for the new kinds of interdisciplinary training that the space program required.

From a modest beginning in 1962, by the end of the program in 1970 NASA had footed the bill for the graduate education of 5000 scientists and engineers at a cost of over $100 million, had spent some $32 million in construction of new laboratory facilities on 32 university campuses, and had given multidisciplinary grants to some 50 universities that totaled more than $50 million. The program marked a new direction in the government's recognition of its responsibility for impact of its program on the civilian economy and a new dimension of cooperation between the university and the government. In part as a result of these new capabilities in the universities, NASA contracts and grants for research by universities rose from $21 million in 1962 to $101 million in 1968. The NASA university program proved very effective: on the political side it reduced tensions between NASA and the scientific- engineering community; on the score of national technology capability it enlarged and focused a large segment of the research capabilities of the universities.

To refute the other charge --that Apollo would serve only its own ends and not the broader needs of the nation's economy-- Webb created the NASA technology utilization program in 1962. Its basic purpose was to identify and hold up to the light the many items of space technology that could be or had been adapted for uses in the civilian economy. By 1973 some 30,000 such uses had been identified and new ones were rolling in at the rate of 2000 a year.

But the program went beyond that. A concerted effort was made in every NASA center not only to identify possible transfers of space technology but to use NASA technical people and contractors to explore and even perform prototype research on promising applications. NASA publications described all these potential applications to researchers and industry; seven regional dissemination centers were established to work directly with industry on technical problems in the adaption of space technology; in 1973 some 2000 companies received direct help and another 57,000 queries were answered. New products ranged from quieter aircraft engines to microminiaturized and solidstate electronics that revolutionized TV sets, radios, and small electronic calculators. NASA's computer software programs enabled a wide range of manufacturers to test the life history of new systems; they could predict problems that could develop, how the systems would perform, how long they would last, and so on. Many other facets of the space program were important to the quality and sustenance of life for citizens of the United States and the world:

Communications. Within a decade the communications satellite proved to be a reliable, flexible, cost-effective addition to long- range communications. The Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) became a solid financial success, with 114,000 stockholders. As manager of the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (Intelsat), it shared access to the global satellite system with 82 other nations who had become members of the consortium. Its array of sophisticated Intelsat communications satellites bracketed the world from synchronous orbit. Before these satellites existed, the total capability for transoceanic telephone calls had been 500 circuits; in 1973 the Intelsat satellites alone offered more than 4000 transoceanic circuits. Real-time TV coverage of events anywhere in the world --whether Olympics, wars, or coronations-- had become commonplace in the world's living rooms. Satellite data transmission enabled industries to control far-flung production and inventories, airlines to have instantaneous coast-to-coast reservation systems, large banks to have nationwide data networks. This was only the beginning of the communications revolution. The next generation of communications satellite, Intelsat 5, started operations in 1976 with five times the capacity of its predecessor (Intelsat 4) and a life expectancy of 10 years in orbit. In 1976 the Maritime Administration embarked on a global ship-control system operated by means of satellites. Experiments with Applications Technology Satellites (ATS) would continue to refine the lifesaving biomedical communication network which links medical personnel and medical centers across the nation. Especially valuable to isolated and rural areas, the network would afford them real-time access to expert diagnosis and prescription of treatment.

Weather forecasting. Like its brother the communications satellite, the weather satellite had in less than a decade become an established friend of people around the world. Potentially disastrous hurricanes such as Camille in August 1969 and Agnes in June 1972 were spotted, tracked, and measured by the operational weather satellite network of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The realtime knowledge of the storm's position, intensity, and track made possible accurate early warning and emergency evacuation that saved hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in property damage. Near-global rainfall maps were being produced by 1973 from data acquired by NASA's Nimbus 5. Not only did the heat-release information contained in such data markedly improve long-range weather forecasting, but the data were of immediate value in agriculture, flood control, and similar tasks. Ice-movement charts for the Arctic and Antarctic regions were extending shipping schedules in these areas by several months a year.

Medicine. NASA's experience in microminiaturized electronics and in protecting and monitoring the health of astronauts during spaceflight generated hundreds of medical devices and techniques that could save lives and improve health care. Multidisciplinary teams of space technicians and medical researchers were successful in developing long-duration heart pacers, for instance. Implanted in the patient's body but rechargeable from outside, the tiny pacer would regulate the heartbeat for decades without replacement, whereas the previous model required surgical replacement every two years. Space-derived automatic patient monitoring systems were being used in more and more hospitals. Tiny sensors on the patient's body would trigger an alarm when there was a significant change in temperature, heartbeat, blood pressure, or even in the oxygen- carbon dioxide levels in the blood --a signal of the onset of shock. For researchers living inside space simulators for long periods of time, the Ames Research Center developed an aspirin--sized transmitter pill. In general medical practice, the transmitter pill was swallowed by the patient; as it moved through the digestive system it radioed to the doctor diagnostic measurements of any of several kinds of deep body conditions such as temperature, stomach acid level, etc.

surgeons operating in NASA pioneered protective clothing
Laminar flow clean room and special clothing used at St. Luke's Hospital, Denver, in 1972 to lower risk of infection in hip joint replacements and other surgical procedures. Both the room and the clothing were based on space program experience and were developed under NASA contract by the Martin-Marietta Corporation.

Energy. The nation's stepped-up program of energy research that began in 1973 found NASA with broad experience and an existing program of research in devices that collect, store, transmit, and apply solar, nuclear, and chemical energy for production of mechanical and electrical power. Solar cells had produced the electric power for several generations of spacecraft; when arrays of them were experimentally mounted on houses they supplied as much as three-quarters of the energy needed to heat and cool the house. But solar cells were too expensive to be competitive with other systems; work was continuing on improving their efficiency and on new manufacturing techniques that would cut their cost in half. A long-standing problem with the efficient use of electrical energy has been the inability to store significant amounts of it for future use. NASA had done much work on developing more compact, higher storage capacity, longer-life batteries. Nickel-cadmium batteries developed for the space program were already in general use; they could be recharged in 6 to 20 minutes instead of the 16 to 24 hours required for conventional batteries. Silver-zinc batteries used in spacecraft were too expensive for commercial use, but their unique separator material could double the capacity of conventional nickel-zinc batteries. An extensive trial of this adaptation was begun with the fleet of Postal Service electric trucks. Batteries with 5 to 20 times the storage capacity of conventional mass-produced automobile batteries could have a wide range of uses: low-pollution automobile propulsion; storage of excess electrical power generated during low-demand hours and released at times of peak demand; emergencies; and other uses. Fuel cells had been developed by NASA to provide the longer duration Gemini and Apollo flights with electrical power; on Earth they could be used either for energy storage or energy conversion. One of the ingredients used in fuel cells was hydrogen; in this application hydrogen was broken down and combined with oxygen in a complex chemical process that produced water and electrical energy. But hydrogen is also a superb high-performance, low-pollutant fuel whose source is inexhaustible. Liquid hydrogen had propelled men to and from the Moon. With its years of work with hydrogen as a rocket fuel, NASA had more experience than anyone else in the production, transportation, storage, pumping, and use of hydrogen. One possible use of hydrogen was a compact, clean energy that could be transported into large urban areas. Many kinds of Earth-based power plants could burn hydrogen, alone or in various combinations, to produce energy with low pollution side effects.

Apollo Impact. The creation of NASA's university and technology transfer programs in the early 1960s could be considered a side effect of Apollo. There were others. All lunar reconnaissance programs had been impacted by Apollo. The latter part of Ranger had been reoriented; Surveyor, the first lunar soft-lander, was reconfigured to support Apollo. If Surveyor worked, it would provide on-the-lunar-surface photography plus televised digging in the surface of the Moon for a better sense of soil composition. The remaining problem for Apollo was the need for detailed mapping photography of the Moon. So by the end of 1963 a third program was initiated -- Lunar Orbiter, a state-of-the-art mapping satellite that would go into orbit around the Moon and photograph potential landing zones for Apollo.

The vexing questions of rendezvous and extravehicular activity still had to be answered. So on 3 January 1962 NASA announced a new manned spaceflight project, Gemini. Using the basic configuration of the Mercury capsule enlarged to hold a two-man crew, Gemini was to fit between Mercury and Apollo and provide early answers to assist the design work on Apollo. The launch vehicle would be the Titan II missile being developed by the Air Force. More powerful than Atlas and Titan I, it would have the thrust to put the larger spacecraft into Earth orbit. For a target vehicle with which Gemini could rendezvous, NASA chose the Air Force's Agena; launched by an Atlas, the second-stage Agena had a restartable engine that enabled it to have both passive and active roles. Gemini would be managed by the same Space Task Group that was operating Mercury; the project director would be James A. Chamberlin, an early advocate of an enlarged Mercury capsule.

Gemini began as a Mark II Mercury, a "quick and dirty" program. The only major engineering change aside from scale-up was to modularize the various electrical and control assemblies and place them outside the inner shell of the spacecraft to simplify maintenance. But perhaps not an engineer alive could have left it at that. After all, Gemini was supposed to bridge to Apollo. Here was a chance to try out ideas. If they worked, they would be available for Apollo. There was the paraglider, for example, that Francis Rogallo had been experimenting with at Langley. If that worked, Gemini could forget parachutes and water landings with half the Navy out there; with a paraglider Gemini could land routinely on land. The spacecraft should be designed to have more aerodynamic lift than Mercury, so the pilot could have more landing control; fuel cells (instead of batteries) with enough electric power to support longer duration flights; and fighter plane-type ejection seats for crew abort, to supersede the launch escape rocket that perched on top of Mercury.

All these innovations were cranked into the program, and contracts and subcontracts were let for their design and fabrication. Soon the monthly bills for Gemini were running far beyond what had been budgeted. In every area, it seemed, there were costly problems. The paraglider and ejection seats would not stabilize in flight; the fuel cell leaked; Titan II had longitudinal oscillations --the dreaded "pogo" effect-- too severe for manned flights; Agena had reconfiguration problems. Cost overruns had become severe by late 1962; by March 1963 they were critical. The original program cost of $350 million had zoomed to over $1 billion --$200 million higher than the figures Associate Administrator Seamans had used in Congress a few days before! Charles W. Mathews, the new program manager, cracked down. Flight schedules were stretched out; the paraglider gradually slid out of the program. By early 1964 most of the engineering problems were responding to treatment.

With the Mercury program and the spacecraft design role in Apollo, and now Gemini, it was clear that the Space Task Group needed a home of its own and some growing room. On 19 September 1961, Administrator Webb announced that a new Manned Spacecraft Center would be built on the outskirts of Houston. It would house the enlarged Space Task Group, now upgraded to a center, and would have operational control of all manned missions as well as be the developer of manned spacecraft. Water access to the Gulf of Mexico was provided by the ship channel to Galveston.

Water access played a role in all site selections for new Apollo facilities. The big Michoud Ordnance Plant outside New Orleans, where the 10-meter-diameter Saturn V first stage would be fabricated, was on the Mississippi River; the Mississippi Test Facility, with its huge test stands for static firing tests of the booster stages, was just off the Gulf of Mexico, in Pearl River County, Mississippi.

All this effort would come together at the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where NASA had a small Launch Operations Center, headed by Kurt H. Debus. NASA had been a tenant there, using Air Force launch facilities and tracking range. Now Apollo loomed. Apollo would require physical facilities much too large to fit on the crowded Cape. For safety's sake there would have to be large buffer zones of land around the launch pads; if a catastrophic accident occurred, where all stages of the huge launch vehicle exploded at once, the force of the detonation would approach that of a small atomic bomb. So NASA sought and received congressional approval to purchase over 111,000 acres of Merritt Island, just northwest of the Air Force facilities. Lying between the Banana River and the Atlantic, populated mostly by orange growers, Merritt Island had the requisite water access and safety factors.

view of the rocket assembly building and a  massive Saturn rocket on  transport
Kennedy Space Center as it appeared in the mid-1960s. The 350-foot tall Saturn V launch vehicle has emerged from the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building aboard its crawler and begun its stately processional to the launch complex three miles away.

Planners struggled through 1961 with a wide range of concepts and possibilities for the best launch system for Apollo, hampered by having only a gross knowledge of how the vehicle would be configured, what the missions would involve, and how frequent the launches would be. Finally on 21 July 1962 NASA announced its choice: the Advanced Saturn (later Saturn V) launch vehicle would be transported to the new Launch Operations Center on Merritt Island stage by stage; the stages would be erected and checked out in an enormous vehicle assembly building; the vehicle would be transported to one of the four launch pads several miles away by a huge tractor crawler. This system was a major departure from previous practice at the Cape; launch vehicles had usually been erected on the launch pad and checked out there. Under the new concept the vehicle would be on the launch pad for a much shorter time, allowing for a higher launch rate and better protection against weather and salt spray. As with the other new Apollo facilities, the Corps of Engineers would supervise the vast construction project.

The simultaneous building of facilities and hardware was going to take a great deal of money and a great many skilled people. The NASA budget, $966.7 million in fiscal 1961, was $1.825 billion in 1962. It hit $3.674 billion the next year and by 1964 was $5.1 billion. It would remain near that level for three more years. In personnel, NASA grew in those same years from 17,471 to 35,860. Of course this was small potatoes compared to the mushrooming contractor and university force where 90 percent of NASA's money was spent. When the Apollo production line peaked in 1967, more than 400,000 people were working on some aspect of Apollo.

Indeed, as the large bills began to come in, there was some wincing in the political system. President Kennedy wondered briefly if the goal was worth the cost; in 1963 Congress had its first real adversary debate on Apollo. Administrator Webb had to point out again and again that this was not a one-shot trip to the Moon but the building of a national space capability that would have many uses. He also needled congressmen with the fact that the Soviets were still ahead; in 1963 they were orbiting two-man spacecraft, flying a 129 mile orbit tandem mission, and orbiting an unmanned prototype of a new spacecraft. Support rallied. The Senate rejected an amendment that would have cut the fiscal 1964 space budget by $500 million. The speech that President Kennedy was driving through Dallas to deliver on that fateful 22 November 1963 would have defended the expenditures of the space program:

This effort is expensive--but it pays its own way, for freedom and for America . . . . There is no longer any doubt about the strength and skill of American science, American industry, American education and the American free enterprise system. In short, our national space effort represents a great gain in, and a great resource of, our national strength.
As 1963 drew to a close, NASA could feel that it was on top of its job. The master plan for Apollo was drawn; the organization and the key people were in place. Mercury had ended with L. Gordon Cooper's 22-orbit flight, far beyond the design limits of the spacecraft. For those Americans old enough to have thrilled to Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight 36 years earlier, it was awesome that in only 50 minutes more flight time, Cooper had flown 593,500 miles to Lindbergh's 3107. Of 13 NASA launches during the year, 11 were successful. In addition to improved performance from the established launch vehicles, Saturn I had another successful test flight, as did the troublesome Centaur. The Syncom 2 communications satellite achieved synchronous orbit and from that lofty perch transmitted voice and teletype communications between North America, South America, and Africa. The Explorer 18 scientific satellite sailed out in a long elliptical orbit to measure radiation most of the way to the Moon.