SP-466 The Star Splitters

 

4

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

[23] The decision to cancel the HEAO project was made for one reason- money. The Nixon Administration had put a lid on executive agency spending for the fiscal year 1974 budget that was less than the amount of money appropriated by Congress. This left NASA with a shortage of funds. This shortage was severely aggravated by cost overruns on the Viking program to land a spacecraft on Mars in 1976. More money-a lot more-was needed to see this important program through. Getting more money through increased appropriations from Congress was out of the question. The only recourse was to cut an existing NASA program. The only program with sufficient funds to help them out of the Viking dilemma was HEAO, a program whose escalating projected cost was causing nervous concern among NASA administrators. The cancellation of HEAO would solve two problems at once; thus, HEAO was canceled.

One lesson every successful manager learns in the hectic and uncertain world of space science is to never take the first word of cancellation of a project as the last word. Accordingly, Halpern and Mitchell set to work immediately to reverse the decision and rescue the HEAO program. Their strategy was to seek a stay of execution. They would present a scaled down version of the program, costing a third to a half as much as the original version, to the NASA administrators and try to convince them to change the status of HEAO from "canceled" to "suspended."

It was a good strategy. NASA, for a relatively modest outlay of study funds, could have a year and a half to wait and see if a workable alternative to the original HEAO program could be developed; in the meantime they could assess the mood on Capitol Hill and in the scientific community as to whether the project was really worthwhile. The scientists and HEAO program people, for their part, would have a year and a half to make their case.

There was a case to be made, especially in X-ray astronomy. NASA's X-ray Explorer satellite, nicknamed UHURU because it had been launched from Kenya on that country's independence day, had proven to be a tremendous success. UHURU, which was under the scientific direction of Riccardo Giacconi and his X-ray astronomy group at AS&E, was part of NASA's Explorer Program of Small Astronomy Satellites devoted to a single mission. It was the first satellite to be devoted entirely to X-ray astronomy. For the first time, a detailed and accurate map of the X-ray sky was available. Also for the first time it was possible to monitor individual sources of X-rays for prolonged periods of time. The result was a breakthrough in the [24] understanding of these sources. Some X-ray sources were shown to be neutron stars in tight orbits around supergiant stars, others were shown to be giant clouds of hot gas between galaxies, and at least one object, Cygnus X-1, provided the strongest evidence to date for the existence of black holes. One measure of the interest generated in the scientific community by the discoveries of UHURU: the UHURU catalog of X-ray sources was cited more than any other scientific paper in the year it was published.

Against this background, Halpern and Mitchell worked almost continuously for three days to put together a new version of HEAO. Weight considerations were paramount, because the more weight put into orbit, the more it costs. Accordingly, they decided to replace the original four large spacecraft with three smaller spacecraft, each having a total weight of about a third that of the original spacecraft. Thus, instead of putting around 40 tons in orbit as originally planned, they would put only about ten tons up, or about three tons per experiment. This meant that the large and heavy high energy cosmic ray and gamma ray experiments had to go. In view of the successes of UHURU, it was decided to play the strong suit first: the first two spacecraft would be devoted to X-ray astronomy and the third to smaller cosmic ray and gamma ray experiments that could fit within the stringent new weight requirements. The experiments to fly on the first HEAO would be those X-ray astronomy experiments from the original two HEAOs that could be fit into a smaller spacecraft.

On Friday, January 5, 1973, Fred Speer, HEAO project manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Principal Investigators at various institutions in the United States and Europe were notified of the suspension of HEAO. They were told to stop work on the project and were called to a meeting in the near future to see if a rescue operation was possible. In the meantime, Jesse Mitchell began to work his contacts in the NASA hierarchy. He did this partly through force of argument and partly, according to some sources, through the threat of his resignation. A person crucial to the success of Mitchell's efforts was Richard McCurdy, who was at that time an Associate Administrator for External Affairs and an influential member of the ranks of upper management. In the seven weeks between January 2 and February 20, Mitchell was able to convince McCurdy that NASA should not cancel the HEAO program outright, but rather that they should suspend it for eighteen months and take another look at it then.

In the meantime, the scientists were reacting to the news of what came to be called "Black Friday." Hale Bradt's reaction was to fly to Tucson, Arizona, where the executive council of the American Astronomical Society was meeting. With the help of MIT colleague Bernie Burke, who was a member of the council, he urged the council to draft a resolution that stressed the importance of the HEAO program for progress in astronomy and protested its cancellation. Recalls Bradt, "I'm not sure it did any good, because we didn't do the next step, which was to have the resolution.....

 


[
25]

Dr. Fred A. Speer

.

Dr. Albert G. Opp

.

Dr. Fred A. Speer

Dr. Albert G. Opp

 

....published in some magazine such as Physics Today or Science. Maybe it had a little effect, but I doubt it." Al Opp, who along with Al Schardt and Fred Speer played a key role in helping Halpern and Mitchell restructure HEAO, disagrees. "The AAS resolution was exceedingly important in keeping HEAO alive."

Early in 1973, the principal investigators on the old HEAOs were called to a meeting at NASA at which the restructured HEAO program would be presented to them for the first time. Walter Lewin of MIT remembers the meeting vividly. "The meeting had the atmosphere of a funeral. No one knew for sure who was going to be on, and who would lose his head. Then Jesse Mitchell gave this speech about a tree and manure, and that there was smell from the manure yet something good was happening to the tree. incredible. Then he was talking about a boat that was sinking. You could drown, or swim to shore and find another life, or swim along and push the boat. I couldn't believe it."

After Mitchell's speech, the scientists were told who was on and who was off. The meeting then became, by some accounts, "rather heated," by others, "chaotic." In the meeting room and in the halls during the breaks, the scientists argued their cases forcefully and scrambled to stay on board or to get on board, if there was a glimmer of hope. For some, there was no hope. Their experiments simply were too heavy to be accommodated on a spacecraft that could weigh at most 7000 pounds, down by a factor three from the original mission. This was the fate of most of the cosmic ray and gamma ray experiments. For many of the X-ray experiments, however, there was still room for negotiation and compromise, and the pressure to....

 


[
26]

Before restructuring, two large HEAO missions had been funded. Several members of the scientific and engineering teams for these missions posed for this photograph at NASA headquarters.

Before restructuring, two large HEAO missions had been funded. Several members of the scientific and engineering teams for these missions posed for this photograph at NASA headquarters. Left to right: Richard Halpern, Edward Stone, Martin Israel, Joseph Klarman, W. R. Binns, unidentified, C. J. Waddington, Tom Parnell, Wolfgang Schmidt, unidentified, Frank McDonald, Walter Lewin, Richard W. Huggett, Herbert Gursky, John Ormes, Michael Pelling, James Matteson, Robert Farnsworth, Robert Novick, Gunther Riegler, and Talbot Chubb. (Photo courtesy of Walter H. G. Lewin)

 

.....make deals became tremendous. Stuart Bowyer, a strapping six footer whom no one has ever accused of being shy, remembers, "I was standing there in the hall talking to Al Opp about my experiment, when this guy who I had always thought of as a quiet sort comes up and literally pushes me out of the way so he could get his pitch in first. I couldn't believe it!"

In this and similar meetings over the next few months, the new HEAOs began to take shape. Much of the same road had to be traveled again. Scientific advisory groups had to approve, the spacecraft contractor, TRW, had to be consulted, and the scientists and engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center and at the various universities and laboratories involved had to come to an agreement as to what was scientifically desirable and what was practical, given the smaller spacecraft and the smaller budget.

Many scientists and engineers contributed to this effort. Halpern singled out Richard Whilden of TRW for special praise. "Dick Whilden and his group were instrumental in the success of the restructuring. He put together a very, very classy team of engineers, and they worked very long and hard with Fred Speer and me to get a new program."

Among the beneficiaries of the negotiation and restructuring period were Walter Lewin and Larry Peterson, who had argued the importance of including a high energy X-ray experiment on HEAO. Mitchell, Opp, and Schardt apparently agreed with their arguments, because, according to a grateful Lewin, "Al Opp and Al Schardt were instrumental in getting a high energy X-ray experiment back on board rather rapidly."

 


[
27]

A gathering of HEAO Principal Investigators

A gathering of HEAO Principal Investigators. Front row, from left: Herbert Gursky, Talbot Chubb, Riccardo Giacconi, Lydie Koch-Miramond, Martin Israel, Edward Stone. Back row, from left: Hale Bradt, Frank McDonald, C. J. Waddington, Allan Jacobson, Walter Lewin, Elibu Boldt, James Matteson.

 

During this period, two X-ray telescopes had flown aboard Skylab. These telescope experiments, which were directed by G. Vaiana and J. Underwood, had made stunning X-ray images of the Sun. These pictures impressed the HEAO planners. They proved that focusing X-ray telescopes were no longer a somewhat risky and premature concept. They worked spectacularly well on Skylab and, if flown on a HEAO mission, would very probably provide the next breakthrough in X-ray astronomy. Accordingly, the focusing X-ray telescope proposed by a consortium of scientists from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, MIT, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Columbia University was chosen for the second HEAO mission, HEAO B. Riccardo Giacconi, who had moved from AS&E to the Center for Astrophysics, was to be the Principal investigator. Steve Holt of Goddard Space Flight Center would oversee the project as Project Scientist.

The first mission, HEAO A*, would be a scanning mission that would survey and map X-ray sources throughout the celestial sphere over a wide range of X-ray energies. It included four instruments: (1) a large area Survey experiment, with Herbert Friedman as Principal investigator, (2) a cosmic X ray experiment sensitive to a wide range of X-ray energies, with Elihu Boldt of Goddard and Gordon Garmire of the California institute of Technology as Principal investigators, (3) an experiment to determine the positions and structure of sources, with Herbert Gursky of the Center for Astrophysics and Hale Bradt as Principal investigators, and (4) an experiment to study the high energy X-ray and low energy gamma ray emission...

 


[
28]

Stephen Holt

Tom Parnell

.

Stephen Holt

Tom Parnell

 

...from cosmic sources, with Laurence Peterson and Walter Lewin as Principal investigators. Frank McDonald would be the Project Scientist.

The third and final mission, HEAO C, would carry three experiments (1) a high spectral resolution gamma ray spectrometer to explore for sources of gamma ray line emissions, with A.S. Jacobson of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as Principal investigator, (2) an experiment to measure the isotopic composition of cosmic rays, with L. Koch-Miramond of the Center for Nuclear Studies, Saclay, France, and B. Peters of the Danish Space Research institute as Principal investigators, (3) an experiment to observe rare, high atomic number nuclei in cosmic rays, with Mar tin Israel of Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, E. Stone of the California institute of Technology, and C.J. Waddington of the University of Minnesota as Principal investigators. Tom Parnell of Marshall Space Flight Center would be the Project Scientist for HEAO C.

The restructuring period was, in the words of Al Opp, "an agonizing and very painful time." Cosmic ray and high energy gamma ray astronomy received tremendous setbacks, as did the dreams and careers of many scientists, through no fault of their own. Yet from the ashes of the old program came three tightly planned, well thought out missions that would greatly advance our understanding of the high energy universe. NASA Administration approved the restructured missions, and in July 1974 major funding began. HEAO was on the road again.


* It has been NASA practice to designate satellites and probes alphabetically throughout the planning and production stages prior to launch and numerically as soon as they are successfully launched. Thus, HEAO A became HEAO I immediately upon reaching orbit; HEAO B became HEA0 2; and HEAO C became HEA0 3.


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