The Electronics Research Center:

NASA’S Little Known Venture into Aerospace Electronics*

 

Andrew J. Butrica, Ph.D.

Historical Consultant

College Park, MD 20740

 

Abstract

This paper reviews the origins of NASA’s Electronics Research Center. Few know of the existence of the center, which remains the only major center that the space agency has closed. The center was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the street from MIT, and functioned there briefly from 1964 to 1970. This paper surveys the process (from November 1961 to January 1963) by which NASA concluded that it needed the Electronics Research Center. It focuses on the agency’s perceived need for internal electronics expertise in order to manage its many industry and university contracts. The paper also notes congressional opposition to siting the center in Cambridge, and briefly mentions a few of the center’s major projects.

 

            “The Fly,” a movie released shortly after the flight of Sputnik I, mirrored prevailing notions about electronics and technology in general. Its main characters were the Delambre brothers, owners of a prosperous Montreal-based electronics firm. Early in the movie, Police Inspector Charrasse comments to François Delambre, played by Vincent Price: “I imagine electronics is a profitable field these days.” Delambre replies: “Yes. Very. … We both have more money than we know what to do with.” In another scene, when André Delambre shows his matter transporter to his wife, Hélène, she expresses her dread of new technology: “Oh André, I get so scared sometimes. The suddenness of our age! Electronics, rockets, earth satellites, supersonic flight, and now this.... Everything’s going so fast, I’m just not ready to take it all in. It’s, it’s all so quick.”

            The lucrative electronics industry and the (to some) frightening pace of technological progress were part of the economic and cultural setting in which the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) formed. “Electronics, rockets, earth satellites, supersonic flight” were at the heart of the agency’s work, which included supersonic transport, weather, navigational, and communication satellites, and the rockets to launch those payloads as well as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Above all else, rockets and electronics were central to NASA’s successes in space. As NASA Administrator James E. Webb declared in a 1964 speech: “Our accomplishments in space have stemmed from two principal sources: the first, of course, is the modern rocket. . .; the second—whose importance must not be forgotten—is modern electronics. This combination has given us a tool whose boundaries are essentially unlimited, except for the finite imaginations of the users.”[1]

            Electronics costs represented a substantial portion of NASA’s purchases. Webb told Congress: “Electronics components account for over 40 per cent of the cost of our boosters, over 70 per cent of the cost of our spacecraft, and over 90 per cent of the cost of the resources going to tracking and data acquisition.”[2] NASA’s impressive electronics purchases undoubtedly contributed to making the electronics industry so lucrative, leaving aside for the moment the Defense Department’s even more substantial electronics procurements. NASA’s dependence on electronics also meant that the agency needed its own electronics expertise, if for no other reason than to be able to do business effectively with electronics contractors. Moreover, in order to attract the best talent, NASA would have to offer the opportunity to undertake leading edge research in a state-of-the-art laboratory. NASA’s fundamental dependence on electronics and its need for internal expertise drove the agency to create an entirely new center, the Electronics Research Center.

            This paper reviews the internal decision process by which NASA concluded that it needed the Electronics Research Center. The emphasis will be on the agency’s perceived need for electronics expertise in order to manage its many industry contracts. The paper also addresses Congressional opposition to siting the center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and briefly notes a few of the center’s major projects.

            The creation of the Electronics Research Center originated in the November 1, 1961, reorganization of NASA Headquarters, which President Kennedy’s May 1961mandate to land an astronaut on the Moon by the end of the decade had sparked. The reorganization focused the agency on fulfilling its one big mission, manned flight; however, it also entailed an overhaul of the agency’s research facilities. The reorganization established four major program offices: Manned Space Flight, Space Sciences, Advanced Research and Technological, and Applications. The Office of Manned Space Flight was the largest and most powerful. It encompassed launch vehicles and spacecraft, as well as supervision of the Marshall center, the Manned Spacecraft Center (Houston), and the Launch Operations Center (Canaveral). The new Office of Advanced Research and Technology (OART) was essentially the Office of Research Programs of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and was organized along disciplinary lines. One of the disciplinary directorates formed within OART was Electronics and Control.[4],[5]

Within Electronics and Control were the following subprograms and projects: guidance and navigation, control and stabilization, communication and tracking, and instrumentation and data processing. The other “disciplines” comprised within OART were nuclear systems, propulsion and power generation, aeronautics, space vehicles, and research (fluid physics, materials, electrophysics, and applied mathematics).

            According to Webb, by the time the reorganization took place, “a number of top NASA space scientists and engineers began to recognize the need for additional electronics research and advanced development.”[2] At the same time, NASA management realized the need to maintain a proper balance between internal capabilities and contractor capabilities. The agency would need to attract and retain the most talented scientists and engineers and to keep them on hand to provide management with objective technical advice, or at least advice not biased in favor of the corporations with which NASA would do business.[6]

            In a memorandum dated March 2, 1962, Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., NASA Associate Administrator, instructed the OART to present “a plan to strengthen NASA’s capability in the electronics and guidance and control field to support current and long range programs” for inclusion in the fiscal 1964 budget. As a result, the newly formed Electronics and Control Directorate undertook a detailed study of the agency’s electronics research resources and capabilities, a study of the agency’s long-range electronics research needs, and recommended a plan to meet those needs.[7] The director of Electronics and Control was Dr. Albert J. Kelley. In fact, according to Kelley, the directorate “was a one-man operation to start, with essentially the instructions to get NASA into the electronics business.” After a year of operation, however, the staff size grew to 35 members.[8]

            Kelley was not new to NASA. He came to the agency in 1960 from the Navy Bureau of Weapons, where he was project manager of a major Navy missile system. A former fighter and test pilot, Kelley also did graduate work in flight guidance and control at MIT, from which he had a Doctor of Science degree. He was a member of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. At NASA, Kelley managed the Agena program. Used in conjunction with a Thor booster, the Agena propelled Ranger probes to the Moon.[3],[9]

            By June 1962, Kelley had drafted a plan. He found no lack of electronics expertise within NASA in the areas of guidance and navigation, control and stabilization, communications and tracking, and instrumentation and data processing. That expertise, nonetheless, was “widely diffused throughout the Centers with spotty emphasis, in short a heterogeneous group of bits and pieces.”[3],[7]

            NASA routinely conducted long-range research by awarding grants and contracts to universities, nonprofit institutions, and industry. For the most part, the research projects funded by the centers tended to be “specific rather than basic, more technological than fundamental in nature, and of more immediate application than those that are supported by headquarters.”[10] This research orientation reflected the interests of the centers’ researchers. “A substantial fraction of the capable electronics personnel at the centers are concerned primarily with project management or space flight project engineering,” rather than with long-range research.[10]

            Kelley reported that the agency lacked an adequate number of employees conducting research and development as well as applied research and technology to keep up with the agency’s rapidly growing needs. This lack meant that NASA would have to rely extensively on research conducted by industry and academia. Kelley recommended that creating a new center “should definitely be considered, particularly if the NASA budget continues to rise after FY64. … At the very least in long range planning, a satellite sub-center should be considered.”[7]

            In his next study, Kelley considered three alternatives for boosting NASA’s electronics research capability. He determined that NASA would need 2,000 to 3,000 new staff and $50 million to $60 million in new facilities to achieve that goal. This investment would help NASA to overcome “a serious void” in electronics expertise. “The NASA should not face the future, wherein a significant portion of its budget will go to industry to procure electronics components and systems, without having an in-house concentration of electronics research talent, combined with knowledge based on sustained and practical research experience, to guide, advise—and direct when necessary—the NASA Centers in their technical selection and procurement activities related to electronics.”[11]

            One alternative Kelley considered was the establishment of Electronic Systems R&D Groups, as he called them, at a few centers. NASA rejected this approach because it would deny electronics research “the primary attention that it warranted” and it would preclude “the creation of an essential ‘critical mass’ or concentration of electronics capability.”[7],[11] The second alternative was to create a major electronics group at an existing center, similar to the Life Sciences Group at Ames Research Center or the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center.[7] This approach, however, “would result in doubling the size of any existing center, yielding an unwieldy research management situation and forcing off-site location of significant facility elements.”[11] It also would “adversely affect” the managing center’s “quality of performance,” not to mention the quality of the electronics research itself.”[2]

            Despite these considerable obstacles, the second alternative would provide the necessary “critical mass” of expertise. Intrigued by this advantage, the OART asked Langley to study the establishment of an electronics satellite facility at that center. Langley was the logical choice, because it had 43% (153 out of 358) of all electronics research professionals working for NASA centers. That was twice as many as Ames (72), over four times as many as Lewis (35), and four times the number at Goddard, Marshall, and Houston combined.[10] The resulting study, completed in July 1962, called for a staff of 3,275 and facilities costing $50,800,000. In addition, because Langley lacked sufficient land to construct such a large addition to its facilities, NASA would have to acquire a site elsewhere, probably in North Carolina.[10],[12]

            NASA considered the expansion of Langley to be attractive for several reasons, but the scheme had too many major drawbacks. The expanded Langley simply would be too large for efficient management. In effect, it would be like trying to run two centers with one management structure. Secondly, managing the research would be a nightmare. The research would not be focused on a few large projects, but would be highly compartmentalized and diffused. Hundreds of relatively independent projects would likely be under way at any given time. Managing them would require detailed and closely coordinated management.[10] As NASA Deputy Assistant Administrator Boyd Meyers explained: “we felt that we would wind up with maybe a 6,000-man laboratory, which we felt is kind of large and difficult to manage, particularly when you have aeronautics and structures and propulsion and aerodynamics and so forth going on in one laboratory, and then to put electronics on top of that.”[12]

            The third alternative was to create a new center just for electronics research. This would obviate the management disadvantages of expanding an existing center. It also would provide the desired emphasis on electronics research.[11] The electronics research center would conduct basic research and advanced technology programs, and would develop agency-wide performance parameters and standards for electronics components. The other NASA centers would continue to carry out electronics research that related to their primary missions. In addition, they would draw on the proposed center for electronics technology, components, subsystems, and prototype systems required for their projects.[2]

            In terms of staff and facilities, the electronics center would have rivaled the Langley Research Center or the Marshall Space Flight Center in size. However, it also would be unlike other NASA centers, because its primary focus would not be on supporting current programs and projects, but on basic and long-range research and technology development. The electronics center also would serve as a liaison between NASA and those in academia and industry undertaking research for NASA. The center would award grants and contracts to industry in order to utilize industry’s advanced research and development capabilities. The center would be the focus of NASA-wide initiatives to encourage industry to increase its research and development capacity. It also would furnish NASA technical advice on selecting contractor research designs.[2]

            At this point in the story, the focus shifts to the laboratory’s location. On January 14, 1963, Albert Kelley and Dr. Raymond L. Bisplinghoff, OART Director, briefed NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans on the “Preliminary Operations Plan for the Electronics Research Center.”[13] The purpose of the Plan was “to set forth an initial plan of action for the formation” of the electronics research center “in the Greater Boston Area.”[14]

            Although it is not clear how the Boston area was chosen, or even if NASA considered other locations, siting the center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seemed the logical choice to Webb and the two other senior NASA officials involved in selecting the site. Two of the three had strong ties to Cambridge. Bisplinghoff had been recruited from MIT, and Seamans had been on the MIT faculty for many years (and did his undergraduate work at Harvard). Webb knew MIT and Harvard well and was on the board of visitors of the Joint Center on Urban Affairs of Harvard and MIT. In addition, the author of the center study, Kelley, was not only from Boston, but had earned his doctorate from MIT.[4]

            The apparent a priori location of the electronics research center in Boston quickly became a political problem in January 1963, when NASA asked Congress for $5 million, $3 million for land acquisition and $2 million for design, in initial funding for fiscal 1964. The snowballing NASA budget, which had grown from $1.7 billion to $5.7 billion in only two years, already was under attack from House Republicans. The geographical distribution of NASA centers in California, along the Gulf Coast, and around Washington, DC, further fueled geographical animosities in the House and Senate. Meanwhile, Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R-IL), a vocal opponent of the electronics center, raised the question of whether it would drain talent from other parts of the country, namely the Midwest, thereby depriving those areas of technical expertise.[15] Making matters worse was the way in which Webb inserted the electronics center into the NASA budget.

            In 1962, as part of his first Senate campaign, Ted Kennedy ran on the slogan, “I can do more for Massachusetts.” The campaign added fuel to the flames of dissent spread by Republicans trying to curb the NASA budget and by Midwestern politicians seeking NASA dollars for their states. Administrator Webb understood the intricacies of the budget process, having been Director of the Bureau of the Budget under President Harry Truman. Webb discussed the electronics center with President Kennedy on several occasions during 1962, and he believed that the President had left decisions about the center to him. Webb decided to bypass the Bureau of the Budget entirely. He submitted a budget that omitted mention of the center, but which still contained the $5 million request hidden among the over $5 billion in the total NASA budget. NASA’s ability to reprogram funding legitimated this maneuver. Webb and the President both understood that the center would remain outside the budget, so that public discussion of it would not take place until after Ted Kennedy’s campaign ended.[4]

            Once Congress became aware of the proposed center in January 1963, the location of it in Kennedy’s home state became a politically explosive issue, what Thomas Murphy has called “one of the most controversial R&D decisions of the decade.”[4] Siting the center in Chicago would have placated Midwestern politicians from both parties. However, academic involvement in electronics in Chicago was not as extensive as it was in California or Massachusetts, and the University of Chicago’s Argonne Laboratory drew it closer to the Atomic Energy Commission than to NASA. On the other hand, California sites would have raised equally strong political objections, not the least of which would have been that the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, George Miller, was from the San Francisco area.[4] The other areas of available top research talent in industry and universities were New York and Boston. Either way, the Midwest would have complained.

            Regardless of the politics, Cambridge was the best logical location for an electronics research facility. The area abounded with electronics resources and talent: MIT and Harvard, the industries along Route 128, the Air Force’s Cambridge Research Laboratory and Electronics System Division at Hanscom Field, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the Mitre Corporation, and the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (Draper Lab), which already had undertaken responsibility for the Apollo guidance computer.

            Congress made funding of the electronics research center contingent on NASA undertaking four different studies. In response, NASA created three committees under Deputy Administrator Dr. Hugh Dryden. One reviewed the need for the center, while a second considered the center’s organization and plans for implementing it. They proposed a staff of 2,100, including 900 engineers and scientists, and facilities costing over $60 million. Research would take place in five areas: 1) electronics components research; 2) guidance and control; 3) systems research; 4) instrumentation and data processing; and 5) electromagnetic research. These five research areas defined the missions of ten separate laboratories. NASA eventually adopted this organizational structure and staff size for the actual center. The third committee evaluated potential sites throughout the United States.[4] By the time NASA presented the study results to Congress on January 31, 1964, the country had a new president. Nonetheless, Midwestern opposition to the center endured.

            Ultimately, though, legislation enabling the center’s creation passed, and the Electronics Research Center opened on September 1, 1964, near Kendall Square in Cambridge. The City of Cambridge had offered the land as an urban renewal project; however, area businesses scheduled to be razed fought against it. The political battles over the electronics center never seemed to end. In December 1969, a little over five years after the center’s official opening, President Richard Nixon ordered it closed in six months, despite arguments to the contrary by NASA Administrator Dr. Thomas O. Payne and others.

            Was the Electronics Research Center simply the victim of Nixon’s revenge against the Kennedy’s? Or was closing the center a necessary part of NASA’s third consecutive budget cut, a cut that also eliminated the Voyager mission to Mars, the NERVA II nuclear rocket, and much of Apollo Applications (the sequel to Apollo)?[6] More likely, though, the political issues and root causes were more complex. Future research will shed light on this question.

            When the electronics research center closed its doors, it was working on a wide range of projects. The satellite programs office was developing an L-band mid-Atlantic satellite for air traffic control, navigation, and communications. It launched in 1969 as NASA’s experimental ATS-E satellite. Other projects that the office was studying included geodesic, direct broadcasting, and earth resources satellites. The electronics center also was heavily involved in researching and developing hybrid computers, nuclear propulsion systems, and holographic displays, storage, and other applications. Additional major center efforts included the avionics for the Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft and an automatic landing system for conventional jet aircraft that combined on-board computers, inertial references, and radio navigational aids. Also, the facility was developing other automatic techniques without a man in the landing control loop for landing the space shuttle at an airfield.[16]

            The knowledge and expertise acquired and cultivated during its six years of operation did not dissipate, despite high unemployment among engineers in 1970. By December 1969, six of the center’s proposed 14 buildings had been completed. The center employed 850 people, 100 of which held doctorates. On July 1, 1970, the Department of Transportation took possession of the main tower, which became the Transportation Systems Center. Today it is known as the Volpe Center after the former Massachusetts Governor and Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe. Of the 611 still at the center on July 1, 1970, 425 (70%) transferred to the DoT.[17]

 

* “Copyright © 2002 by Andrew J. Butrica. Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc. with permission.” AIAA 2002-1138.

References

1. James E. Webb, “Electronics in the Space Age,” address to the National Electronics Conference, Chicago, IL, October 19, 1964, pp. 6-7, file 3937, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

2. James E. Webb to George P. Miller, Chairman, Committee on Science and Astronautics, House of Representatives, March 21, 1963, file 4884, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

3. Albert J. Kelley, interview by Cargill Hall and Richard Dowling, transcript, August 28, 1968, Washington, DC, pp. 3-9 & 15-17, file 4877, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

4. Thomas P. Murphy, Science, Geopolitics, and Federal Spending (Lexington, MA: Heath Lexington Books, 1971), pp. 201-202, 225, 229, 230-232, 234 & 240.

5. Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, SP-4101 (Washington: NASA, 1966), pp. 221-222.

6. Arnold S. Levine, Managing NASA in the Apollo Era, NASA SP-4102 (Washington: NASA, 1982), pp. 25 & 29.

7. [Electronics and Control Directorate], “Plan to Implement NASA Electronic Systems Technology Capability,” [June 1962], n.p., file 4886, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

8. Albert J. Kelley, interview by Neil Furst, transcript, May 20, 1968, Boston, pp. 2 & 3, file 1168, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

9. Albert J. Kelley, biographical data, February 23, 1965, file 1167, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

10. NASA, Electronics Research Center (Washington: NASA, January 1964), p. 25, file 4881, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

11. Kelley, “Staff Report on the Electronics Research Center,” preliminary draft, January 18, 1963, pp. 1-2, file 4883, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

12. Boyd Meyers, interview by Robert Gang, transcript, July 21, 1970, Washington, p. 3, file 4877, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

13. Albert J. Kelley, “Memorandum for files,” January 15, 1963, file 4884, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

14. Kelley, “Electronics Research Center: Preliminary Operations Plan,” draft, January 14, 1963, p. 1, file 4884, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, DC.

15. Ken Hechler, Toward the Endless Frontier: History of the Committee on Science and Technology, 1959-1979 (Washington: U.S. House of Representatives, 1980), pp. 171 & 220.

16. James Brinton, “Practical Research Gains Emphasis at NASA’s ERC,” Electronics (December 8, 1969): 9-11.

17. “R&D Conversion: Former NASA Lab Now Working on Transportation,” Science, Vol. 171 (January 22, 1971): 268-269.