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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Jules Aarons

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Interview with Dr. Jules Aarons
By David DeVorkin
At Boston University
December 12, 1983

 
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Jules Aarons; December 12, 1983

ABSTRACT: Reviews Aarons' (b. October 3, 1921) career at AFCRL as a research physicist (1946-55), Chief of Radio Astronomy Branch (1955-72), and at AFGL as Chief of the Trans-ionospheric Propagation Branch and Senior Scientist at the Space Physics Lab (1972-81). Topics discussed include significant aspects of his role in the use of V-2s by Marcus O'Day for upper atmosphere research; his contact with O'Day and Menzel and the establishment of Sac Peak; the research mission of AFCRL; AFCRL's early interest in solar studies; and a comparison of present day research activities at AFGL and NRL.

Transcript

DeVorkin:

We were talking about Marcus O'Day. Could you tell me again a bit what he did in World War II, and then his interests in using the V-2's?

Aarons:

Well, just to go over background — after World War II, the US Air Force decided that they would make an attempt to keep together some of the people who were working at Radio Research Lab at Harvard, and Radiation Lab at MIT, and in order to do this they recruited a fair number of people from those laboratories into Cambridge Field Station. Now, it's my recollection that O'Day was from Radio Research Lab. He was from one of the two, and he was asked to organize a laboratory initially called the Navigation Laboratory, and he recruited mostly people from the two laboratories, but in addition took some younger people who had graduated from the Harvard-MIT courses in radar during World War II and who were in the armed services. I was trained, in those courses, and a man I referred to earlier, John Castelli, also was a radar radio officer in World War II, in the Air Force. So we were recruited and we worked at the laboratory.

When the V-2's became available, O'Day started a program that was interested in many ionospheric studies and I believe he was the first one at what was then Cambridge Field Station, located at 224 Albany St. right near MIT. He located the Navigation Laboratory at that laboratory and started to instrument equipment for the V-2. His primary interest seemed to be the development of an experiment to test the Luxembourg effect, the interaction of various waves in the ionosphere. In this case, 1.4 MHz, the natural ion gyro frequency in the F layer, would gain additional power by being subjected to very intense power emitted by a transmitter in the V-2 rocket, as the rocket traversed the ionosphere. I think the concept was to do this in the F layer around 200-300 kilometers (I'm not sure of the altitude). But while I was in the laboratory, I was not involved in this experiment at all.

DeVorkin:

You were in the laboratory though in the immediate post-war period.

Aarons:

Yes. I joined there when I left military service.

DeVorkin:

How were you recruited?

Aarons:

We weren't recruited, we applied: In my particular case, during World War II I was involved with navigation experience in the Troop Carrier Command of the Air Force. The particular work I was doing was with Loran navigation systems, and therefore it seemed reasonable to me to join the Navigation Laboratory, when I heard of the formation of this lab. So initially, Cambridge Field Station, which later became Cambridge Research Laboratory and now the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory — was an electronics-oriented group, part of the US Air Force.

DeVorkin:

In this regard, then, Marcus O'Day's interest in the ion gyro frequency was related to radio communication, electronics and navigation?

Aarons:

Correct. After a while, it became clear that the CFS program was going to be more of a research program than field station, and so they could engage in programs that weren't directly relevant to any operational system. There was always the understanding that other agencies would develop equipment, although there was a radar laboratory at Cambridge Field Station which then tried to develop a radar, but there were certain aspects that made it impossible; i.e. the research nature and the relatively small number of people the laboratory could muster on any project.

DeVorkin:

Were you aware at all of who it was that was pushing the less applied type of research?

Aarons:

I can't say I was, no.

DeVorkin:

Did you act as a contract monitor on anything at any time during this early period, for university-based research groups, AFGL or AFCRL?

Aarons:

Yes. a matter of fact, in the period before 1952, between say '48 and '52, Dr. O'Day was the individual who started Sac Peak. I was on the trip with O'Day and Menzel — I took photographs of Menzel and O'Day there — when they went down to Sac Peak. The concept of putting it at Sac Peak, which is really in many ways not the ideal place, was that there was some optical tracking of rockets from Sac peak. So there was interest in developing it, and the concept was to put tracking as well as solar observations at the same place. Once the program got started, I was asked to monitor the Cornell University Radio Astronomy program at Sac Peak, which turned out to be a semi-disaster, since the entire Holloman Air Force Base is a nest of radio transmissions, and a limited amount of work could be done in the radio field, from Sac Peak.

However, it did make some attempt to have a sweep frequency and other observations go on at Sac Peak, with a contract, which I monitored, from the Air Force to Cornell University, the Electrical Engineering School. Charlie Burrows was the head, and he came down on other trips in order to set this up: I think somewhere along the line Bill Gordon may have been involved but I'm not positive of that. I'm trying to remember whether or not he was involved in it, but Dr. Burrows was involved and other people were involved in the engineering of equipment to make solar observations. At the same time, the coronagraph and flare patrol, etc., were operated, and it was O'Day who pushed to have John Evans as the head of Sac Peak. In fact, O'Day made the condition of the research program that Evans accept and organize the program there. He felt it was not going to be a first class effort unless you had really, highly competent, first rate men down there.

DeVorkin:

You made a number of comments that I'm very interested in pursuing — first, that Sac Peak wasn't, in your opinion, an ideal place. I'd like to know why. Second, were there other people who were suggested instead of John Evans? I know John Evans was close to Walter Orr Roberts and people like that. And third, I'd love to know if you have that photograph.

Aarons:

Yes, I do have them, but I'd have to take time to find them. I was a very serious photographer and I took a lot of pictures. Well, from the point of view of support, you asked a question relative to placement of the Solar Program at Sac Peak. Certainly it was looked at carefully as far as optical seeing goes, and so on, but since it overlooked the Holloman area there, it had to be less than ideal for radio observations. On the other hand, I'm sure that Dr. O'Day felt that the realities of the situation, the request to develop houses and permanent laboratories and continuous funding, etc., were such that there had to be an orientation towards support of the Air Force group at Holloman Air Force Base. Whether it was actual or not wasn't important. You just had to have this as part of a rationale for developing the program and for developing the program in that area. So I think it was a realistic approach, from my point of view, and from the radio point of view it was always obvious that it couldn't be a good place to put it.

DeVorkin:

Did you point that out to the people?

Aarons:

I think it was pointed out, and the concept was that there would be rather simple equipment here at first and see how it goes. If the interference was serious as far as the radio observations went. That would be dealt with later. In this regard my personal feeling is that the staffing at Arecibo until recently has been a serious problem, the permanent staffing. The turnover is not due to new looks but is due to problems of people not wanting to live there over many years. When you look at Arecibo, it's changing its director every few years, and I don't think it's necessarily due to wanting to get new orientation or new blood; it's people not wanting to live there necessarily for very long periods of time.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Do you have recollections of this trip to Sac Peak with O'Day and Menzel, and specifically if Menzel talked about anything memorable, if you remember it at this time?

Aarons:

I can't remember that aspect. Menzel and O'Day were together on and off many, many years. I did a small research program — even though it was a Master's degree here at BU — under Menzel. He actually was developing the concepts, looking at what turned out to be the micropulsation aspects of magnetic fields, much too much ahead of its time, and I'm not sure. I developed it the way it should have been developed, looking back. But at any rate, Menzel felt, we should observe the "audio" frequency component of earth's magnetic field; — since the normal magnetic observations were of periods of many seconds to minutes of fluctuation, he wanted to look at various other frequencies. And it turned out that there were indeed certain reconnances and micropulsations etc. But at any rate, I worked under Menzel at that time and made some observations, first at the Harvard Observatory, Harvard, Mass. and then at another remote site.

DeVorkin:

What year was this?

Aarons:

This was in '49. In direct answer to your question, outside of his usual charm, I don't remember particularly much about it. He was very gracious to all and a very fine person. Throughout his entire life, he was always excited about science, always going on the latest eclipse. But he was interested in a lot of experiments, not just doing the same thing. He did seem to have some sort of a push towards being the man who observed the most eclipses, but that wasn't the only thing he was interested in. He certainly always had different experiments. In fact, towards the end of his life when he had a home in Costa Rica, there was an eclipse down there. We at Hanscom loaned him a polarimeter which measured the Faraday rotation of one of the synchronous satellites, to see if there was any gravity wave that changed the electron density under the eclipse path. There weren't any results. But he was always interested in trying new ways.

DeVorkin:

Do you remember the year and approximate date of your trip to Sac Peak with O'Day and Menzel?

Aarons:

If I could get the pictures I took — I think it would be '48, '49, something like that, but I can't say. I'm not great on dates.

DeVorkin:

OK, but that's the right time.

Aarons:

It's that time period, yes.

DeVorkin:

As you said Marcus O'Day did develop some experimentation for V-2 rockets.

Aarons:

Yes, and so did other people.

DeVorkin:

At AFCRL Lab? That's what I'd like to know

Aarons:

No. I'm not sure that's true. One of the Germans, Dr. Heinz Fisher, worked on infrared background research.

DeVorkin:

That is not Hans Hinteregger?

Aarons:

Not Hinteregger. No.

DeVorkin:

Was he there at that time?

Aarons:

Hinteregger was around, I remember, but he didn't seem to be involved in this program, as far as I know, but maybe when you talk to him you can get it. The other person to talk to, if you ever have the time or want to do it, is John Castelli, who lives in Arlington, who continued on the V-2 program. He worked with me on that for some time. The Luxembourg experiment was unsuccessful in producing what they hoped to see, some degree of radiation —

DeVorkin:

Was this a RF generator that they sent up on the rocket?

Aarons:

RF generator, at 1.4 MH2, a pulse generator, with high peak power. It is not exactly a light weight or simple experiment.

DeVorkin:

The V-2 had quite a load capacity.

Aarons:

Oh, that wasn't the problem so much as whether you produce arcs, with your high voltage, high power. But John Castelli would know much more, and he's almost the only one I know of who was involved quite a long time on this program. You can give him my name. He worked for me after that until he retired three years ago.

DeVorkin:

How would you typify the research character of AFCRL in the early days? How has it changed with time?

Aarons:

Well, the original aim of both the Electronics Directorate, which was the original group that formed Cambridge Field Station, and later on the Geophysics Directorate, was certainly in areas that would support Air Force missions. You had to orient your programs to research efforts which could be substantiated. For example by solar studies you could improve the forecasting prediction of communications or radio wave propagations. You always had that substantiation. The really good model that everyone had, I think, at the time for research was the ONR mandate, a very clear mandate from Congress to do research. So the Air Force at levels beyond what I had any contact with, had to have said, "Well, therefore, the Air Force must have some sort of program," The Air Force always had a basic research program. Cambridge Field Station and Cambridge Research Laboratories had to develop a program which had relevance to Air Force problems. I mean, you just couldn't go off and say, you were doing work, as one of our commanders said, "in Egyptology."

DeVorkin:

Egyptology?

Aarons:

Yes, I mean you could not do anything remote from areas of Air Force interest. Your research had to be oriented towards needs. It was a combination of research, development programs that were oriented towards the Air Force, and programs that were quite involved with active operational programs, such as programs being developed by various groups such as the space division or electronic systems. There were always these three components, research, applied research, and direct aid to systems, and depending on what was the mood of the Congress and mood of the Department of Defense, you would have to emphasize one of them. There was a period of time in the sixties at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory when they appointed people to high level jobs based on their research capability, their papers, their prominence or eminence in scientific organizations, etc. Then sometimes the high grade position would go to the people who controlled the most money or the most personnel, or those who had shown how close they were to developmental systems: So you had this ebb and flow of history as to the importance of the individual scientist. There were times when, for example, I had a position as senior scientist, Public law 313 at the time, when I had a much higher grade than my supervisor, just on the basis that they had appointed people to high grade positions who had scientific background rather than administrative responsibility. To this day, they frequently will give special awards, prizes and grades to those who do well in scientific societies or who make an important statement in scientific terms and other times when those who control a program that's rather large in funding and well related to the systems being developed are favored. But there was serious attention to basic research in areas of interest.

DeVorkin:

How much of your research would you say was internally motivated by your scientific interests? How much was directed?

Aarons:

In my particular area, I had control of a group which at times numbered 60. And at other times it was down to about 15. We had two large antennas, a 150 foot antenna that's now at Hillstone and an 84 foot antenna. We have a global solar program. We developed solar observations in Iran, Greece, Manila. We had programs throughout the world; these are now operational and supply data for civilian and military needs. But to answer your question, I would say that we were, on the whole, pretty self-motivated. That doesn't mean that in developing the program I wasn't very well aware of what would be of interest to the Air Force. My particular field was the effect of the ionosphere on signals from beyond the ionosphere. This was and is very relevant to a lot of satellite programs, both navigation and communications, and to some radar programs. We'd do background research which nobody asked for, but when we had a specific problem, we would make an attempt to apply this to systems to show people that they would be having problems with a system. For example, in trying to maintain both good funding and personnel and a scientifically valid program, we had to do some good research, but we had to do research in an area that would maintain Air Force interest. There was constant change. One of the serious problems is constant change of the higher level personnel, most of whom are military, every couple of years. I mean, it's continuous change of people, which means a process of re-educating every year. A commander at AFCRL could last five or six years but usually he'll last three or four: They'd come in and they'd want to make everything relevant to programs that are going on tomorrow in the Air Force, but gradually they'd come to be very protective of the research program and excited by the personnel, their competence —

DeVorkin:

— that's gradually.

Aarons:

Then as time goes on they seem to be, if anything, occasionally too protective of basic research programs.

DeVorkin:

Very interesting.

Aarons:

That's happened.

DeVorkin:

Let me ask you if you have any knowledge of the early contracts that were let — I mean this is late 1940s, — the early contracts that were let to the University of Colorado to develop pointing controls, then to develop a coronagraph, as I recall? Now this was with Pietenpohl at University of Colorado. Do you have any knowledge of that longstanding contract?

Aarons:

I was never involved in the optical solar work.

DeVorkin:

Why would AFCRL — I can see why they'd want to develop pointing controls, but —

Aarons:

Pointing controls, to my knowledge, were for the V-2, weren't they, or for rockets?

DeVorkin:

Yes, these were all for the rockets. But why did they want a coronagraph for the study of the sun? Was this a direct ionospheric type connection?

Aarons:

I don't believe that. I think it was an exciting solar research study which could be connected to upper and lower atmospheric changes. If you could observe the corona much farther out, or do something similar to an eclipse program, better than you could here on earth, you could have a better handle on various atmospheric problems — density variations, magnetic fluctuations etc. I was not directly involved in the solar optical research. I worked for O'Day in the Navigation Lab until about 1953, and then in '53 and '54 I went on a Fulbright and then came back and worked for Dr. Phillip Newman on radio wave propagation: He was in the electronics side. Before that I was on the — well, it sounds a little odd, in a sense, but the original electronics group, which formed Cambridge Field Station in the late forties, was joined by a geophysical group from New Jersey. They came up, and the two of us were amalgamated into one program, the Upper Air Laboratory. First, was Albany St., then Wartertown Arsenal, the Navy Building near South Station, and then Hanscom Field.

DeVorkin:

You certainly moved around:

Aarons:

We moved around because we were expanding, so when we got out to Hanscom, there was an electronics group and a geophysics group, and Newman was in the electronics group.

DeVorkin:

Did you have any contact with the Radio Propagation Lab at the National Bureau of Standards, Newburn Smith people like that?

Aarons:

Oh sure. Throughout this period, we had a contract with University of Colorado — James Warwick, in radio astronomy. He did radio observations from Table Mesa for years, and that was a much better site than the Cornell group could afford, so we supported the early work of Jim Warwick for quite a while. That was basic research. It was a series of Jupiter observations and analysis. We also worked with NBS but I was not involved with NBS. The planetary field and the moon work were areas which the Air Force decided were NASA programs. We did some moon reflection and some moon radiation studies, at Sagamore Hill. But whole groups that were involved in these areas — and that was certainly a policy decision — were pushed out of this work so that the Air Force could no longer support moon and planetary studies.

DeVorkin:

Was this the time of the Mansfield Amendment?

Aarons:

No. I think it was earlier.

DeVorkin:

Earlier than that. That's interesting.

Aarons:

But as I say, my memory is not that good. The main focus has always been research areas of interest to the Air Force. As I say, you didn't want to stray too far.

DeVorkin:

Yes. Let me ask a little bit about your background and training. Jim told me that you have your Ph.D. from the University of Paris.

Aarons:

Yes. I got it on the Fulbright.

DeVorkin:

That was your Fulbright year?

Aarons:

Yes, and I stayed somewhat longer: But I finished there: I actually had done a lot of the course work, etc., here at BU, where I had my Master's degree.

DeVorkin:

Why did you choose the University of Paris?

Aarons:

I wanted to go to France, and finish up there. Actually it was mostly thesis work plus some courses. As I said, I had the course work done here. I had a couple of years after the Master's degree.

DeVorkin:

What was your thesis problem?

Aarons:

Well, the thesis topic was on low frequency fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field. We were ahead of our time, in some ways. Not in terms of brilliance, of orientation of programs — but physically. We had to do battery operated experiments with tubes. We hauled large batteries out to field sites, both in the vicinity of Boston, New Mexico and other places. Now you would do them with solid state equipment.

DeVorkin:

You got a Master's degree in physics from here?

Aarons:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Were you always interested in radio work?

Aarons:

No, actually my bachelor's degree was in education, City College of New York. But before I got into Military service I attended the University of Chicago for a year, working as a civilian for the Signals Corps. I don't know if you know about World War II and the electronics courses, but you really worked. You went to school from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, then, you had dinner and came back for more, except on Saturdays you got out at 5. This was the kind of intensive program they had at the University of Chicago in physics, math and electronic engineering. I went through a program in the military that involved going to Yale Technical School and then Harvard-MIT for my radar training. So when I got out, I had a smattering of background in engineering, as well as radio physics, math and so on.

DeVorkin:

In your radio work did you have contact with John Hagan, people like that?

Aarons:

Yes. John Hagan, Fred Haddock — Fred Haddock worked with John at NRL before he went to Michigan.

DeVorkin:

Now, NRL is a research R and D center for the Navy also.

Aarons:

Yes, it used to be. The work that, for example, AFGL is doing in basic research in the field that I'm in, ionospheric propagation, is much more basic than what NRL is doing. NRL in ionospheric studies now seems, outside of one small group, to be in the industrial funding category, and the people have to struggle to get funds. There are groups in the government that are in much worse shape than universities, in terms of spending time getting money.

DeVorkin:

So you say the people at NRL, in the area you were in have funding problems.

Aarons:

Oh, there is some internal support, but it isn't a great deal. In my field, in ionospheric radio propagation, AFGL has a much more comprehensive basic program than NRL. I'm not talking about ONR, I'm just talking about NRL.

DeVorkin:

Would you say that that was the case in all areas of NRL research, or do you think there might be something peculiar in just your area.

Aarons:

There's one group at NRL in this field that is doing basic work. It seems to be funded mostly by the Defense Nuclear Agency, and they're doing some very good basic work, simulations of various instability mechanisms, etc. But other groups at NRL that I know of are doing a lot more practical work, things of direct interest to the operational groups.

DeVorkin:

Do you think it was always that way?

Aarons:

Well, no, the radio astronomy group at NRL had much more freedom — I can't evaluate then now, I haven't been in radio astronomy aspects for maybe ten years. But over the years, they've never expanded their original program. In other words, they originally had a very fine antenna on the roof of NRL.

DeVorkin:

Yes, it's still there.

Aarons:

It's still there, and it did some of the early work with millimeter solar astronomy and so on. But then they started to use, as most people do, the national facilities; and I don't think they really achieved the prominence they had when John Hagan was there with Fred Haddock and Connie Mayer, and others, a rather large group. I think Connie Mayer may still be there.

DeVorkin:

You think there was a change in the attitude of NRL when NASA was formed, and the problems with the Vanguard program?

Aarons:

I really can't date it that well. There are several groups there that are doing work in direct support of operational programs. That's fine. But I think that AFGL has a more basic approach than that. It does support basic research and applied research and then some development programs. It runs more of the gamut of what's interesting to the military.

DeVorkin:

My impression a while ago, and I don't know if this is true, is that AFGL did a lot more outside contracting of basic research than NRL did, at least in space studies.

Aarons:

I would say that's changing. NRL did almost none of that. ONR did that, but NRL didn't do outside contracting. I mean, I'm sure it did some, but not a great deal.

DeVorkin:

Whereas AFCRL did in the early days.

Aarons:

I think if you look carefully, the whole AFGL program is changing, so that a good deal of the outside contracting, or some of it, is in support of general programs of interest to AFGL, rather than plunking down money for a group to do work in an area. I think there has been a change, maybe not on the face of it, but in practice there has been somewhat of a change in this area. But there is still support of many universities working independently, on programs which relate to AFGL's in house interests and responsibilities. When AFGL funds went, for example, to University of Colorado and Sac Peak, there was initially very little AFGL input outside of concurring on a simple work statement. The reason why there are civilians at Sac Peak is a rather curious one. It has to do with the General Accounting Office's evaluation that AFGL had a lot of people with whom it had contracts — for example, Harvard had a contract to work at Sac Peak — and the overhead and excess costs were really a waste of money, and therefore the Air Force and the government should take on these people as civil servants. They did. This included people like draftsmen, as well as scientists.

DeVorkin:

John Evans, as you mentioned before, was the person who was supposed to be director, and if he wasn't director, maybe he didn't want it or something — why John Evans, why not someone else? What was the issue there?

Aarons:

Well; I think Evans had a good combination of skills and background: Evans had equipment and observational experience and scientific output. He embodied all those things. He wasn't as involved in national science as Walter Orr Roberts for example. Dick Dunn is a fantastically clever optical person, designs coronagraphs but he did not seem to be terribly interested in observations or analysis or presentation of the total program. I somehow remember rather distinctly that O'Day was very adamant about Evans.

DeVorkin:

Not the politics, but because he was the best man.

Aarons:

Oh yes. Absolutely.

DeVorkin:

OK, is there anything else we should talk about to help me better understand those years?

Aarons:

No, I think the in house laboratories were blessed with two things, continuous funding support, and a minimum of integration, communication, explanation. They could move ahead. You had to present your program and you had to live by the government rules on spending money, auditing and all that sort of thing. On the other hand, there didn't seem to be this continuous need for coordination that you see today. It was a much more concentrated period, as far as orientation toward science was concerned.

DeVorkin:

OK. Thanks very much.

Aarons:

I hope it's constructive instead of destructive.

DeVorkin:

It certainly is constructive. It helps me organize my thoughts about the early years, a period I wasn't too familiar with. One final question — do you know anything about Project Blossom? That is something I'm going to try to find out something more about. It had to do with the Air Force reproducing a few V-2's, actually making more V-2's for a while in the early fifties.

Aarons:

No, but if you want to talk to someone much more knowledgeable about that, you should talk to John Castelli.