Oral History Transcript — Dr. Homer Newell
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Homer Newell; October 20, 1980
ABSTRACT: This interview deals with the career of a prominent administrator of space science. After a brief discussion of his early life and education at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, Dr. Newell discusses the following: teaching cadets at University of Maryland; war work at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL); reaction to news of the atomic bomb; development of early rocket-sonde program at the NRL, 1945-46; upper atmospheric research; establishment of V-2 Panel (later Rocket and Satellite Research Panel); impressions of early rocket researchers such as E. O. Hulburt, H. Friedman; development of new rockets for scientific research; Vanguard satellite program at NRL; the International Geophysical Year program; reaction to Russian launch of Sputnik satellite in 1957; post-Sputnik debate over a new space agency; creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958; Newellís move from NRL to NASA, 1958; development of space science programs in the new agency; astronomical experiments and the use of big satellites; thoughts on manned space program and effect on space science around 1961; debate by scientists about a manned space program; funding for NASA space science; international cooperation; administration of NASA space science in the l960s; problems with the first Orbiting Astronomy Observatory and the Small Astronomy Satellite program; long-term NASA planning; effects of Vietnam and economy on space missions; the Space Telescope and Space Shuttle; and planetary missions, past and future.
Session I | Session II
In 1960, most of us in the space science area thought that manned space research would be a great thing. We did run into some interesting troubles. For example, Hugh Odishaw of the National Academy of Sciences, who was executive director of the Space Science Board, said that some scientists were scared silly about the Mercury program, because they feared that there would be some accident, and if an astronaut were injured, they were afraid that that would serve to cancel the space program. They didnít want to see the space science risked that way. On the other hand, the scientific community wasnít monolithic. Lloyd Berkner, undertook to try to sell the idea of manned space flight, and in fact he persuaded the Space Science Board in one of its early meetings, to endorse exploration of moon by man. I donít know how much of that was due to conversations between him and Dryden or Glennan or somebody in the administration -- possibly with Webb. But he did come out as a sort of salesman for manned space flight.
When he had our Space Science Summer Study, which was the first of the summer studies that the space science program asked the Academy to conduct for NASA and which was conducted out at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City in the summer of 1962, Berkner stated flatly that exploration is science, and he tried to persuade his colleagues that this was a good thing. He wasnít particularly successful in this. Most of the scientists took a dim view of the manned space science. There were several concerns that they had. One was that it cost a lot of money, and for the whole decade they were convinced that unmanned space science could do everything that manned space science could do, and could do it a lot cheaper and probably sooner, because you wouldnít always be worrying about danger to an astronaut, which would make things go more slowly. And secondly, they were concerned that the agency -- NASA -- was going to try to sell the manned space program in terms of what it could do for space science, whereas they themselves would not accept space science as a reason for manned space flight. So that gives you a thumbnail sketch of the situation as it appeared at the beginning of the 1960ís.
Hirsh:How did you feel about it?
Newell:Well, I personally felt that it was going to be a good thing, and I spent a lot of time trying to persuade the scientists that they should look at manned space flight as a program in the national interest that was going to go on anyway. I argued that it was not being justified for space science, but was being justified primarily as a means of furthering our national capabilities in space. For that reason it was going to go on, whatever they thought, and therefore it only made sense to do the best they could to see that good science was done in the manned space program. Some of the scientists saw this point of view and supported it right from the beginning, but many of them were just so emotionally opposed to it that it was hard to make the point.
Hirsh:Do you think this opposition by some scientists affected their careers with NASA? Were there any repercussions to this opposition?
Newell:We in space science did not generate or support or foster any repercussions. The agency supported good science wherever it showed up, regardless of the personality associated with it. Later on, when Gene Shoemaker started blasting the Manned Spacecraft Center people for what he alleged were shortcomings in the design of the Apollo Spacecraft, there were repercussions. The Manned Spacecraft Center people and George Low, who was by that time the deputy administrator of NASA but had prior to then been in charge of Apollo at the Manned Spacecraft Center, felt that Gene was being unfair -- that NASA had funded his career and given him a chance to develop from an unknown into an experienced geologist. They wondered why he couldnít just quietly talk over these points behind the scenes instead of going into the press and talking on the platform of the AAAS and elsewhere as he did. That, I think, generated an effect. The Manned Spacecraft Center and George Low were reluctant to support any more of Shoemakerís activities, so there was a repercussion there. But that was toward the end of the decade, not at the beginning of the decade. The greatest flare up in the early part of the decade was generated by Phil Abelson, editor of SCIENCE, who was against the Manned Spaceflight Program and had a platform on which to express his views, namely, SCIENCE MAGAZINE. He was editor of SCIENCE. He conducted a poll of his scientific friends, and claimed in his writings that the poll showed that the scientific community was opposed to the manned flight program, and he continued to urge that NASA support the unmanned program to a greater extent and downplay the manned program. Again, it was difficult for NASA to get the scientists to realize, in their actions and their writing and their talking, that the manned program was not going to be done for science, but it was going to be done.
Hirsh:In 1955 before the first satellite mission, you wrote this article, ďSatellite ProjectĒ for SCIENTIFIC ANERICAN,  and in it you said that itís going to be incredibly complicated to just have an unmanned satellite up there, and we shouldnít jump immediately into a manned program because that would complicate problems by many orders of magnitude. Obviously something happened between 1955 and 1960 to change that view somewhat?
Newell:Well, I donít think that anything Iíve said indicated a changed view. This didnít say it wasnít worth doing. It said, ďdonít jump immediately into it.Ē And the manned program did turn out to be much more complicated. An illustration of the kind of thing that was involved was dug up by George Low years later, when he told some of us that he had looked into the cost of producing a magnetometer for the unmanned sounding rocket program, and an almost identical magnetometer for the manned program. The manned program magnetometer cost ten times as much, which indicated the sorts of complications you got into. The additional costs were involved in documentation, safety tests and designs to make sure that there were no hazards involved to the astronauts. In a sounding rocket, you could just run it through a series of laboratory tests, and if it survived those you could fly it, and if it didnít work, you lost the money, but you didnít lose a person. Thatís the kind of thing that I had in mind when I said that there are greater complications in the manned program, so you should take your time. And as it happened, we did take our time.
Hirsh:Now, in the NASA enabling legislation, space science was at the top of the list of things that the new space agency would do. Manned space research and exploration, came down third or fourth. First of all, did that listing have anything to do with the priorities that Congress established?
Newell:It didnít seem to. It just seemed to be philosophically a good order in which to list things. The expansion of human knowledge of the atmosphere and space, was one of the first ones. Thatís a natural first. But behind the scenes, the development of a versatile capability in space -- large launch capabilities, things that would promote our missile capability -- were the things that motivated the Congressmen. Senator Stennis told Mr. Webb in no uncertain terms that thatís what motivated him in pushing for space the way he did. I think that was true of most of the Senators and Congressmen. It may have been way down on the list, in the Space Act of Ď58, but it was right at the top of the list of priorities in their own minds.
Hirsh:What really got the manned program moving? At first for example, space science was receiving more money in its budget than the Mercury program. But that changed, after a couple of years.
Newell:I think that the Kennedy Administrationís espousing the project to go to the moon advanced the manned program.  And of course, to do the manned project just plain cost more money. And so thatís what pushed the manned program budget up. The early NASA people were thinking of a kind of Apollo program, although I donít remember when Apollo was first invented as a name, but they did propose to Eisenhower a manned flight program, exploration of the moon by man. Eisenhower didnít buy it. But then he was out, and Kennedy was in, and Kennedy bought it. There were a lot of people who thought that Kennedy bought it to divert attention from the Bag of Pigs fiasco, and Iíve seen that written and heard it said. But historians tell me itís a case they canít prove. So, although itís attractive, it needs more looking into if somebody wants to make that case.
Hirsh:Itís so attractive that I even wrote the same thing in my thesis.
Newell:Oh, I didnít realize that.
Hirsh:So Iím glad youíre telling me that the view is not unanimous.
Newell:Well, I understand that some historians have actually started out with that as a thesis and had to let it go.
Newell:And so, although I had it in my book, I took it out, not because Iím not inclined to believe it. I really think thereís good psychological reason to believe that that was one of the motivations. Since it isnít provable, you might just as well not try to fight the battle, if it isnít really that germane to your topic, and it wasnít to mine.
Hirsh:Well, Kennedyís announcement came within a month of Yuri Gagarinís flight.
Hirsh:So do you think that had something to do with it?
Newell:Well, that was another motivation, and I think you can prove that competition with the Russians was a motivation. Itís only the Bay of Pigs question that is raised. I guess the thesis now would be that competition with the Russians was a greater motivating factor than the Bay of Pigs. And I donít know. Iíve not dug into it. Iíd be interested in seeing what some serious student might establish if he really dug into it.
Hirsh:The first year that NASA had its space science program, it received a lot of money. And then the next year the level of funding dipped down. Then it eventually came up again. Why was there such an influx of money during the first year?
Newell:I personally think that the reason was that the science and applications areas were the two areas that NASA could do right away. There was the International Geophysical Year science program, and you could just continue it, and it became a NASA program. And in applications, people had long been thinking about communications and weather satellites, and you could just undertake them. In fact, in those first years, as I recall, the Congress gave us 50 million dollars more than we asked for, for communications, just because it was such an important area and an area in which we could do something.
Hirsh:And it was good politically to do something quickly.
Newell:Yes. And in fact, thatís one of the features of the early program: in space science and applications, for most of the 1960ís we were getting all the results. There werenít any results to speak of from the manned program. Mercury was just beginning and Gemini and Apollo didnít come till later. I think the main point was to do things quickly. Thatís the reason that we got a lot of money early.
Hirsh:What happened later on, then? Funding after the first year dipped, but then it came back up again, and it came up quite dramatically through the sixties up until about Ď65 or Ď66, when it peaked and then it came down a little bit by the end of the decade. How do you account for that?
Newell:I think the answer there is that as Apollo and Gemini made their demands on the budget, the total budget increased. But there was a limit beyond which Congress would not want to see it go because they had to support the Department of Defense as well. Therefore, the science and applications share went down. On the other hand, it became apparent after a while that the science and applications would support manned space flights. So the manned space flight budget, although it initially depressed the other budgets, afterwards pulled them up again. Thatís a thesis that could be dug into, and itís always appealed to me as probably the right answer.
Hirsh:So youíre saying that the space science budget rode piggyback on the manned space program?
Newell:Well, part of it though not all of it. I think the fact that the space science was producing so many of the substantive results in the early years -- and by early years, I mean even up until 1967 -- generated for it an intrinsic support of its own, but that the manned space flight requirements did add to the support. Thatís not quite the same as saying that the budget rode piggyback. Itís to say that the budget was enhanced because of the manned space program. Most space scientists didnít see it that way. They thought that the monies going into the manned space program were taking away from the space science work. They seemed to have an idea that if somehow they could get the manned spaceflight program cancelled, thereíd be more money for space science. Jim Webb didnít believe thatÖ He insisted that if the manned space flight program were cancelled, those monies would vanish somewhere else into the government budget. And space science would have less overall. This is a point you canít prove. Each side declared its point, and thatís where it stood. Itís a tis-taint, sort of thing.
Hirsh:And yet in the seventies, when the manned program essentially went on down, space science funding went down too.
Newell:That was Jim Webbís point.
Hirsh:Right. So thatís a way of suggesting that Webbís argument really had merit, because once the manned program had wound down, the money from the manned program didnít go into the space science program.
Newell:Thatís correct, but I donít think you can compare the situation six years later with the mid-1960s. Jim Webbís point may have been right, but the fact that it looked right in the early 1970ís doesnít prove it, because in the early 1970ís, you had a different situation. You had the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and you had the cities problems and civil rights disturbances, and problems with education, transportation and so on. All these things were occupying peopleís attention, so itís very likely that space -- not just manned space flight or space science but space -- just wasnít being given the priority that it was given at the beginning. The competition with the Russians was no longer a motivating factor. We had pretty well established that we were ahead of the Russians, and I remember that it did absolutely no good to point out that the Russians were firing three times as many spacecraft as we were in that period. That didnít push the budgets up again. The Congressmen would sort of shrug their shoulders and say, ďYeah, but you do so much better with the fewer that youíve launched.Ē
Hirsh:Did you feel that was a true assessment -- that we were doing better with the few that we had?
Newell:Yes. I think we were doing better. But our point was that there were so many additional valuable problems that we could work on that it was worth putting the additional investment in. But we couldnít sell it the way we could at the first of the 1960ís.
Hirsh:Speaking about the Russians, what kind of international cooperation was there among space scientists in the early years of NASA?
Newell:International cooperation just took off like wildfire right at the beginning, between the United States and western nations. In those cases it was possible to generate what I would call really integrated cooperative programs in which what one country did or achieved depended integrally on what the cooperating country did. You could not build up that kind of a cooperative program with the Russians. The Russians always wanted to maintain a sort of armsí length cooperation in which you did your part, the Russians did their part, and then you added the two. But if you didnít do your part, that didnít affect the Russian program, and if they didnít do their part, that didnít affect the US program. That situation remained until up into the seventies, when the Apollo-Soyuz program came along, and itís been my conviction that the Russians were willing to go a little further into a integrated program because they had a lot to gain from the design thinking of the US engineers on docking and related problems.
Hirsh:So cooperation between Western countries was a lot easier and more rewarding.
Newell:And more immediate. You could sit down, and in a few hours have worked out the outlines of a cooperative program, and it was pretty sure to go through and be approved on both sides. But with Russia, there was negotiation after negotiation and hair splitting after hair splitting.
Hirsh:Do you recall some European scientists or groups that were specially easy to work?
Newell:Yes. The European Space Research Organization was especially easy to work with. The Western scientists on the Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Scientific Unions were especially cooperative. When Dryden, Frotkin, and I went to Aachen for the meeting of AGARD, the Advisory Group for Research and Development of NATO, there were German and French and British and other scientists who just came around to see us and see what kind of cooperative program we could work out together. But there were no approaches from the Russians. None whatever.
Hirsh:Do you think there was an element of politics in the cooperation with Western Europeans? In other words, was the cooperation politically motivated in some way?
Newell:Thatís a complex questionÖ As far as the scientists were concerned, it was a question of how to get more science done, and you do it by the usual cooperative methods of science. But for the countries that supported it, I think the countries were looking forward to the time when their work might lead to applications type benefits. In fact, the discussions that developed in the latter half of the 1960ís would seem to indicate that.
Hirsh:How did the funding work for research with foreign countries? Did NASA provide some funding for them or was the the other nation, providing the funds?
Newell:No, there were several ground rules laid down right away and maintained throughout the 1960ís by Hugh Dryden. First, there had to be mutual interest. Second, there had to be an agreement to publish results in the open literature so that the results would be available all around. And third, there was no exchange of funds. You do your part, I do my part, you pay for your part, and I pay for my part. That didnít imply that the two parts would be equal. It was just that whoever could do something better than the other would do it. At first, the other countries were a little taken aback by this, because the US had traditionally been willing to pour monies into any cooperative program of this sort. The Air Force in particular had followed that pattern. But we pointed out that we felt that if a country was willing to put money into a program, that would indicate that it was really interested in it, and not just doing it because NASA was interested.
Hirsh:And yet NASA did support some foreign groups in one way or another. When I did my research on foreign groups, there was some funding of groups.
Newell:Only as part of the NASA program. Thatís different from being a cooperative program. If youíre supporting a scientist to do work for NASA that NASA was interested in, thatís different from working with a country in which the foreign scientist would be doing something his country wanted.
Hirsh:I see. So there would be no problem in NASA funding a foreign group under contract.
Newell:Thatís right. And that did happen, for example, in the Apollo sample analyses, but you see, that was NASAís program.
Hirsh:I see. OK. Itís beginning to make sense. How were things arranged within NASA in space science? For example, who reported to you? Who did you report to? How did you change your positions?
Newell:Well, initially space science was part of what was called the Space Flight Development Office, and then, it became part of the Space Flight Programs Office under Abe Silverstein. Then, a separate Office of Space Sciences was created when Webb came on board. Then a little later it appeared that it would be advantageous to both space science and applications if they were brought together, so an Office of Space Science and Applications was created. Under the first part, Space Science reported to Abe Silverstein. After the creation of the Office of Space Sciences, the Space Science Program reported directly to the administrator, and of course, when the administrator delegated the responsibility to the associate administrator, then we reported and worked directly with the associate administrator. At all times Hugh Dryden, deputy administrator, was generally regarded by the agency as the senior scientific individual of the agency.
Hirsh:For how many years was he the person you would report to?
Newell:I worked with him. I donít know whether administratively it was thought we were reporting in the sense of his being the supervisor, or simply working with him in the sense that he was the wise old man of that area. In the early years, it was Hugh Dryden who set the criteria for the international program which at that time was largely scientific. Except for such things as assisting in tracking and telemetering and that sort of thing, the cooperative program was primarily in science. It naturally looked to Dryden for guidance, and if I had any important issue that I needed support on, Dryden was the one that I would naturally go to because he was the one whom I expected to understand the scientific needs involved.
Hirsh:How did you deal with different agencies and offices, such as with Congress, Bureau of the Budget, and the White House? Were there some specific strategies that you used in dealing with them?
Newell:The Space Science Budget was always a piece of the total agency budget, and the strategy of approach to all those offices that you mentioned was worked out by the administrator and his lieutenants. And space science would then just follow the agency strategy laid down. Wherever we had the freedom to maneuver and play it by ear -- to ad lib, so to speak -- we would try to show how science over the years contributed to practical applications in the development of technology. In those days, that was an unquestioned thesis -- different from today.
Hirsh:How did things change when Johnson became President? How did people in NASA feel about Johnson as President?
Newell:Well, to begin with, Johnson was just about 100 percent supportive, and of course Webb had a very close relationship with Johnson. Johnson had been the leader in the Senate in the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of Ď58, and as long as things were going more or less on an even keel nationally, you could always expect Johnson to give strong support. Later in the decade -- that is, later in Johnsonís administration -- he was beginning to get a lot of flack from students. He took that very hard because he felt quite correctly that he had done a tremendous amount for students on the campus, and he regarded their flack as outright ingratitude. The fact that most of this was coming from nonscientific campuses didnít make any difference. Johnson lumped them all together, and as a result, he put great pressure on Webb to curtail the NASA university program. And from that point on, Webb said he just didnít detect the kind of support from Johnson that he had been getting before.
Hirsh:Youíre talking about the students demonstrating against the Vietnam War?
Newell:Yes. Yes. They seemed to convert it into demonstration against Johnson, which he thought was very imperceptive on their part.
Hirsh:How did you and the Space Science Office work with the lunar program?
That was very difficult. The scientists in the program felt that the way to conduct a science program was to use the best minds that you could get involved, to discern the important scientific problems to do, and to work on those problems with the best methods or techniques available. If those methods happened to be ground-based laboratory techniques, thatís what you used. If they happened to be unmanned space techniques, thatís what you used. And if they happened to be manned techniques, thatís what you would use. However, as the scientists perceived it, it looked as though they were being forced to use manned space flight techniques when they were not the best methods. Moreover, there was perceived a difficulty in that George Mueller, when he became head of manned space flight, did not seem all that interested in space science, except as it somehow supported or enhanced the image of the manned space flight program. He was viewed as willing to put large sums of money into the engineering developments for manned space flight, but was very very tight when it came to supporting the development of scientific instrumentation and experiments. That made for a lot of difficulty, too, namely trying to counter these problems between the scientists and the manned space flight program.
George Mueller and I established what was called the Manned Space Science Division, which Willis Foster headed. It was a very difficult arrangement because this division was set up to report to both George Mueller and myself, and itís administratively a bad arrangement to have to report to two people. It was made doubly difficult by a decision of Bob Seamans that the money for manned space science would be put in the manned space flight budget, and as everyone knows, the guy who has the money has the control. At the time that Seamans did that, he also said that the Office of Space Science and Applications would have the responsibility and authority for the scientific experiments in the manned space flight program. Well, thatís an impossible situation. If you donít have the money, you donít have the authority, no matter who says you do. We had great difficulties there. Willis Foster did his best and did a good job under the circumstances to bring the two together. But for a long period of time, it was impossible to get many of the scientists interested in manned space science. They just put their effort into unmanned space science, because they said thatís where they could get the real productivity. So that generated some additional friction between the two activities.
Hirsh:Did you have any suggestions for what to do with the extra Apollos?
Newell:Yes. We would have been able to continue the exploration of the moon. There were many other kinds of areas on the moon than those that were investigated that would have been worth while investigating. Once the Apollo flights got going, the manned space program did begin to contribute to space science, and the scientists were just delighted with what was coming out. It was an about face, so to speak. But this was not really an about face because once the first Apollo had landed, the only remaining justification for the remaining Apollos was science. So, it was a different situation. And that explains the different attitude of the scientists toward the program.
Hirsh:And of Congress?
Newell:Well, Congress didnít want us to fly any additional Apollos after the first. I was told by some influential Congressmen that they were afraid that if an accident occurred in some of the later Apollos, that that would wipe out all the international benefits that we had achieved from the first successful moon landing. So they would have been content to see us just terminate the program. NASA had to apply considerable counter-pressure to keep the program going. In fact, the manned space flight people down at the Spacecraft Center wanted to terminate it because they felt that it was very dangerous to go. They agreed with the Congressmen in their assessment of the situation, and it was the pressure of the scientists to capitalize on the investment and get as much scientific return as possible that kept things going as far as they did.
Hirsh:Do you think Skylab was a mission that made good use of the extra spacecraft that were available after the Apollo missions ended?
Newell:I think Skylab was regarded as a very good, very useful, very productive mission or set of missions, from a scientific point of view. But the scientists emphasized that they felt that one series of Skylab experiments was enough, that it shouldnít continue beyond the one. After having shown what you can do in Skylab, one should wait for cheaper, more effective ways of doing the research. The Apollo equipment, contrary to Webbís hopes, did not turn out to be a universal versatile capability. It turned out to be very experimental in nature and very expensive. It was something that the country could not afford to continue to use.
Hirsh:That then is part of the rationale for the new Space Shuttle.
Newell:Yes. Thatís what led into thinking about the Space Shuttle.
Hirsh:Thatís something else I want to get back to also. Iíd like to know how a proposal from a scientist went through NASA, and either was funded or not funded. And if you like, we can take a specific example in my field, X-ray astronomy. How would a scientist go about getting a proposal pushed through the channels at NASA?
Well, it was a fairly intricate procedure and not always the same every time. In general outline, a scientist, having conceived any experiment or a series of experiments, -- usually it was an investigation, not just an experiment -- would let NASA know of his interest. He would then write up his proposed investigation. That would come into NASA through the University Program Office, which had the responsibility for reviewing or getting reviewed research proposals, whether they were from universities or not. Most of them were from universities, and that was the rationale for having the University Program Office handle that. Once the proposal came into NASA -- if it turned out to be a Space Science proposal -- it next was sent over to the Office of Space Science and Applications, where it was decided which discipline subcommittee of the Space Science Steering Committee ought to look it over and review it. And it was sent to that subcommittee. That subcommittee would review it, and review it from the point of view of assessing several features. One, was it appropriate to space? Two, was the experimenter proposing something that was feasible and timely? Three, was the experimenter a competent individual? Four, did the experimenter have the proper backing in the way of resources of his organization? And there were a few other criteria that I canít dredge up right now.
If the proposal stood high with regard to these criteria, then it might be rated category 1, which meant that it was an outstanding thing to be done, and was appropriate to space. If the proposal was incompetent or had serious shortcomings, it would be category 4, which meant rejected. If the proposal was good, feasible, and appropriate to space, it might be rated category 2, which meant that it wasnít regarded as of the high quality as category 1, but otherwise was similar. Category 3 was a special category in which a proposal appeared to be potentially category 1 but wasnít there yet. It needed more work or needed funding for ground based research and additional thought, preparation of additional instrumentation -- things of that sort. NASA selected only category 1 experiments for its satellites and rockets. That left a number of category 1 experiments unfunded and all category 2 experiments, which were still good experiments, unfunded. NASA funded a number of category 3 experiments to bring them along. An example was the Fairbanks precision gyroscope relativity experiment, which was category 3 as long as I was in NASA. It was regarded as an important experiment to do if we could get it ready to do, but it wasnít ready.
Then, after having been reviewed and put in categories, the category 1 experiments were then reviewed by the appropriate division in the NASA organization. If it was a lunar or planetary experiment, it was reviewed by the lunar and planetary division. If it was an astronomy experiment it was reviewed by the geophysics and astronomy division. And the purpose of that review was to see if there were special requirements that could not be met -- in general to see if the experiment could fit into the spacecraft that was being set aside for that particular set of investigations. This was an engineering report basically. They didnít undertake to judge the science, but only the acceptability from the point of view of spacecraft logistics and so on. Then, the review of the discipline subcommittee and of the division was further reviewed by the Space Science and Applications Steering Committee, which then made a recommendation to me as head of the Office of Space Science and Applications as to whether to but it or not. And it it was bought, why then, we would proceed to fund it. If it wasnít bought, why, weíd proceed to reject it.
Hirsh:Who made up these review committees? What kind of people?
Newell:Well, in the case of the Space Science and Applications Steering Committee subcommittees, they were permanent committees, that is, permanent in the sense that they were in existence even before a proposal came in. People normally served on them for a few years and then were rotated off as new people were brought in. NASA had occasionally flack from the outside community about having too many people on the committees who had entrenched positions. And we did our best to try to keep the rotation going so that weíd keep bringing in new blood all the time. On the other hand, there was always the temptation to keep a particularly helpful and experienced individual on a given committee. So there were pressures both ways there. In the case of the division, the head set up a review committee of people who were going to be involved in supporting the projects. These were primarily engineers in the division. They were all NASA people in the division review committee, whereas in the subcommittees, they were half outside and half NASA. The Space Science and Applications Steering Committee was composed of NASA people entirely. They were the key people in the office who had responsibility for the program.
Hirsh:Were there many conflicts of interest with the people on the subcommittees?
Newell:I was told that there were such charges. There was certainly the potential for conflict of interest, but we had rules that whenever an individualís experiment or the experiment of a colleague of an individual on a subcommittee was being reviewed, that individual was excused from the deliberations, so that it was reviewed by people who were not personally concerned with the experiment in question. That, at least technically, met the requirement, but of course there was always the feeling that people expressed, that friendships grew up, and excluding the individual didnít exactly remove completely his influence. It was a tricky problem. We did our best to meet the charges and to avoid conflicts of interest.
Hirsh:Let me ask you something that weíve talked about personally but never on the record, and thatís about a proposal for the very early experiment in X-ray astronomy, by Riccardo Giacconi and others at the American Science and Engineering Company. There was a proposal submitted as early as Ď59 or 1960 to send up a rocket with X-ray detectors to look ostensibly for X-rays from the moon but also from anywhere else in space. That proposal was not accepted by NASA. Can you tell me something about that?
Newell:I canít tell you too much from personal involvement. I can only make the observation that when you have a group of people reviewing things, and you have more things than you can accept, itís not unlikely that a few of the things you donít accept will turn out later to have been pretty good. You canít ever demand perfection in activities like this. I think the fact that eventually this activity got supported shows that the system at least kept in touch with things. The fact that in the early phases it didnít get supported simply means that somebody just didnít see it the same way that the proposer did, but he later came to see it.
Hirsh:Right. This raises an interesting question. The fact that the S and E group got funded by the Air Force brings up the question of decentralized funding and decentralized control of science in this country. How do you feel about that?
Newell:I supported that sort of decentralized funding right from the start, although I got a lot of flack from my own colleagues for doing it. For example, in the early days, we were very much interested in an astronomical observatory, and NASA was interested in supporting such an activity. But in those early days, before we had built up a close relationship with the astronomical community, there were many astronomers who preferred to work with the National Science Foundation. So they went directly to NSF to get support for the development of an astronomy observatory. Aden Minel was out at the University of Arizona at Kitt Peak. I guess he was also associated with Lowell. Youíll have to look into that. And he went to the Science Foundation to get support for doing some design thinking on an astronomy observatory, and he and some University of Colorado workers got their main support from that source. When I was asked, ďsuppose they come up with a flyable and competent astronomy observatory, would NASA fly it?Ē I said, yes, we would, because we were interested in getting science done. We were not interested in maintaining prerogatives. Iím not sure they believed it, but at least they kept doing their work. It turned out that they just couldnít muster the competence to do the job right, and so eventually the satellite that NASA was supporting was the one that got flown. That was the OAO.  But that was not because NASA was insisting on NASA prerogatives. It was just that the competence was in the groups of people that NASA could command.
Hirsh:Maybe you can tell me something about the OAO, the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory program. It was one of the earliest very large space astronomy programs.
Hirsh:And it had problems.
Hirsh:Maybe you can tell me something about its origin and those problems.
Newell:Well, there were very natural things that NASA could think of early to do and wanted to do, and among them was the Orbiting Solar Observatory and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. The Orbiting Solar Observatory turned out to be much easier to do, because its pointing requirements were less. You had that bright sun close to you. A lot of energy that you could use in photographing things and so on. But the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory turned out to be very difficult to do because you have not only short term accurate pointing, but long term pointing and holding. And this was too big an engineering step right at the beginning. It so happened that some persons in the astronomy community wanted NASA to proceed with the astronomy program with a less ambitious astronomical observatory to begin with, and that would have been wise. However, itís not just as simple as I just said it, because the astronomy community wasnít monolithic here again, as so often happens. There were many who pushed the big astronomical observatory to the extent of having the Presidentís Science Advisor -- that was Ed Purcell at the time -- push on NASA to move out on the OAO, and we did. We followed that advice, whereas there were other astronomers who said, ďNo, you really ought to do some simpler ones first.Ē It turns out that it would have been better to have followed the advice of the lesser lights, so to speak. If we had, weíd have gotten some earlier observatory experiments aloft than we did. The OAO didnít become successful until the late 1960ís or early 1970ís, and at the time it was flown, it was regarded as one of the most complicated and difficult unmanned space craft that NASA had flown.
Hirsh:The first OAO got up into space but there was some electrical failure that caused it to be unusable.
Newell:Yes, we had battery problems.
Hirsh:And that program, I think, started as early as Ď59.
Newell:OAO. Yes, thatís right. In fact Ames Research Center had been studying the concept of an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, and I think the initial basic concepts came from Ames in the late fifties. And in 1959 and 1960, when Purcell was pushing on us, we made an agreement with leading astronomers like Fred Whipple and Lyman Spitzer and Arthur Code and a few others to go ahead with the more complicated spacecraft. It was the way we were leaning anyway. As I say, it turned out that it might have been better to take a smaller step at that time.
Hirsh:What were the perceived advantages of the large astronomical observatory?
Newell:The advantages were to be able to study very faint objects and measure positions very accurately, to do spectroscopy on these faint objects, and to study the interstellar medium, as well as stellar objects. In fact, I think the way the whole field has evolved, itís clear now that for optical astronomy -- meaning visible and ultraviolet light astronomy -- a large three meter telescope with very accurate pointing (seconds of arc pointing) and holding for long periods of time (hours) is the sort of thing thatís needed. And that was probably the sort of thing that was desired back in the early 1960ís, but it was more than could be accomplished.
Hirsh:Do you think the failure of the first OAO might have turned off some scientists to space science?
Newell:I donít know the answer to that, but I can see that it might have. That might be one of the negatives about taking too big a step, because a scientistís main career, is maybe 25 or 30 years, and if a single project in his career takes ten years, thatís a third of his career, you see, although most scientists go on working maybe 40, 50 years. Itís still true that the peak productivity is in that 30 year period, and so, when somebody had spent a lot of time on OAO and then found that it had failed, it would be easy to understand that he would think that this is not the way to go.
Hirsh:Right. How did the small astronomy satellite program get started?
Newell:Well, I think it came out of the thinking that Iíve been alluding to -- that smaller steps are better. Throughout the history of the early space science program, there were many scientists such as Herb Friedman and Jim Van Allen who said, ďLook -- there are some very simple things that one can do that will give you very meaningful insights into fundamental processes, and itís better to do these, because you know you can do them, and theyíre important.Ē So when something like X-ray astronomy came along, that gave an added boost to the idea of a small astronomy satellite. It was an idea that was there all the time and being pushed, but it didnít quite have the clout against the engineers who liked the big observatory satellites. Eventually, that added boost brought the small astronomy satellite into being.
Hirsh:The first small astronomy satellite was used to do X-ray work?
Newell:UHURU,  yes, right.
Hirsh:Can you tell me perhaps why it took eight years to have the first satellite X-ray experiment? The first source was discovered in Ď62.
Hirsh:And the first satellite was Ď70. Now, maybe eight years isnít a long lead time for something like this?
Newell:I donít know as I can analyze that. I do know that in the early sixties, NASA began to try to accede to the desires of the astronomers in the small satellite business. For example, we tried to work with Brian OíBrian on a small scientific satellite, and it turned out to be a complete disaster, because most university groups appeared not to be able to manage even the small ones. There was also some effort on a couple of other satellites, the names of which I canít recall now, that didnít work out well. And so the idea of a small satellite, managed by a university, didnít work out very well. And so it wasnít until NASA was ready to take on the job of producing the small satellite that we got one like SAS. Now, this is like most of these pictures and not a completely clean one, because obviously there were groups that could handle small satellites. For example, Injun of SUI and Solrad of NRL were good small satellites, but the lesson was that you had to pick your groups very carefully. Some of them could and some of them just plain couldnít.
Hirsh:Do you think that the first SAS worked well partly because the people who were making it were not university people? They were working for the American Science and Engineering Company. Was there something there that might have aided the success of SAS 1?
Newell:I think that the main reason for the success was the Goddard support to the project. Until a center like Goddard could be brought in to do the work, it wasnít apt to be a great success. When I say a center like Goddard, I would include NRL. If weíd gotten NRL into that, I think it would have been a success. I donít know whether Van Allen and his group could have pulled it off, but you needed some competent group of that sort on the spacecraft. You referred to American Science and Engineering. They were the experimenters. I donít think it was the experimenters that made the big difference. I think it was the engineers made the big difference in something of that sort.
Hirsh:So, what would happen at Goddard? AS and E would design and actually build some of the equipment, and then what would happen to it?
Newell:Well, I donít know the exact pattern for this one, but a typical pattern would be that a spacecraft would be designed to do certain things, like provide a certain number of channels of telemetry, provide a certain amount of power, and provide a certain amount of control and thermal protection or thermal control. The spacecraft would become the job of the center, in this case Goddard. Then while all this was going on, the experimenter would be required to be fitting his experiment to what the spacecraft could do. There would be a feedback sort of arrangement. The experimenter would be requesting certain capabilities of the spacecraft. Between the two of them, theyíd finally work out the ultimate design.
Hirsh:What else would Goddard do? Maybe you should tell me a little bit about Goddard and why it was set up.
Newell:Goddard was set up as one of the space science centers in NASA. The initial nucleus of Goddard included the Vanguard group, and the upper atmosphere research scientists who came over to NASA with me or at the same time I did. I would say they came primarily with Jack Townsend who brought them out of NRL. Their background then was space science, and so the center naturally took on a space science flavor. At the same time, the Vanguard group included the minitrack people -- the tracking and telemetering people -- so data acquisition and tracking became part of the Goddard activity. In fact it became a bigger part than space science did. Goddard also gathered in people from Signal Engineering Laboratories, where the interest in applications like the meterological satellites came, and they pulled in some from the Air Force. So you had a center that wound up being a mixture of science, applications, and tracking and data support. You asked what the Goddard people did. They developed the interplanetary monitoring platform, which was an Explorer class interplanetary scientific satellite. They developed the small radio astronomy satellite, many years before the small astronomy satellite, and in the applications area, Tiros, Essa satellites and the Nimbus satellite. They were the ones to put up the first Orbiting Solar Observatories. In that process, they had the help of a group out at Ball Brothers Research Corporation to work on the spacecraft. Thatís the sort of thing Goddard did.
Hirsh:So it wasnít just a place where engineers would be integrating a project. There were actually scientific groups at Goddard who were just like the university groups.
Newell:Thatís right, and that was one of the reasons why NASA kept the selection of experiments and experimenters in headquarters. Because if we tried to have a center like Goddard do that, there would be a direct conflict of interest situation. The center would be always having to decide between its own experimenters and the university experimenters, and then there would be the possibility that the university people would think that the center had stolen its ideas and that sort of thing.
Hirsh:Did the Goddard space people ever have advantages in the selection process because they were part of NASA?
Newell:Well, I think thereís a natural advantage of being in the system. Headquarters had a policy of trying to offset that advantage -- of trying to be objective. Itís just a matter for somebody else to say how successful headquarters was.
Hirsh:Were there any decisions that you look back upon now, that you might consider wrong decisions? What I have in mind is, whether there were proposals that came in, like perhaps that early X-ray astronomy proposal, which you decided not to fund, but which in retrospect, now looks like it would really have been a good proposal?
Newell:Thatís a hard one to answer. Iíd just have to go over the record and through the files to weed that out. All these things that youíre referring to are matters of judgment, and itís hard to say that they were wrong decisions at the time. Youíd have to look at the situation and decide whether you think they were wrong. I mentioned a little while ago that I think plunging into the OAO at the time we did was not the best course to go, so in that sense it was a wrong decision. But again I also mentioned that we were being pushed by a significant part of the scientific establishment to do it. I donít know whether youíd say our years of effort to try to get into small satellite work with the universities was a wrong decision. A lot of time, effort and money was spent in that direction that might have been better spent by just deciding that NASA centers would do the engineering, period. But at least we felt we had to try the other.
Hirsh:How did you do long term planning in space science?
Thatís an interesting question, and we did have a rationale there. We felt that it was important to have in mind things that could be done in the future -- things that might be pulled into current plans in any budget year. While I was there, we developed what I called a prospectus in which one looked at a variety of different types of projects, programs, or investigations. We looked at these things in sufficient detail to know what kind of rockets, what kind of satellites, what kind of funding, what kind of ground support and what laboratory support and personnel requirements weíd need so that it was more than just a wish list. It was a list of things that appeared at the time to be valuable and productive things to do, and which you knew could be done, because youíd studied them enough to know how youíd go about it. Youíd developed the approaches and so on. This prospectus was printed up each year and made available to scientists and industry so they could see what types of experiments might be in the offing. That would give them an idea of the kinds of proposals to make, and it gave industry an idea of what kinds of spacecraft NASA might be wanting.
They could then be thinking about things that they could build. This was not a plan. A plan is where you would define something that you set forth as something you would want to do as described. But it was the elements of a possible plan, so we called it, ďplanning,Ē rather than ďa plan.Ē This sort of thing was acceptable to Jim Webb, who had a sort of aversion to putting out specific plans. As Webb always insisted, if you put out a specific plan at any old time, your opponents start taking pot shots at it immediately. And your friends are not prepared to defend it, so there you are, being shot down, with no great support from your friends. At the time when you put forth a budget -- a specific plan and a request for money -- your friends are prepared to support you. You can arm them with all the ammunition youíve thought of and then proceed to develop that plan into the future. The reason that the prospectus had Jim Webbís support was that it wasnít a plan, and it didnít call out the opposition of opponents, because it wasnít a specific request for money or facilities or people or anything like that. It was just a statement, ďHere were good directions in which to look, and these were things that could be done, and they would produce such and such good returns.Ē
Hirsh:Was there any direction from the Presidentís Science Advisory Committee or some external pressure like that for long term planning?
Newell:The agency was always under pressure to produce long term plans. Right in the beginning, Senator Anderson, for example, wanted long term plans from the agency, and Glennan was inclined to produce those. Glennan liked to have long term plans. Then when Webb took over he didnít want them, and so we didnít produce them. Then Tom Paine took over from Webb and he liked long term plans, and so we started producing them again, and Fletcher continued long term plans. I donít know what Frosch is doing now. So it was a matter of the style of the administrators, but always the agency was under pressure to produce plans. In other words, most of the people outside did not agree with Webb. They would rather have the specific plans they could look at and think about.
Hirsh:Are there any long term plans that are now coming to fruition that were initiated back in the sixties or later when you were in command of space science?
Newell:Well, I donít quite know how to answer that question. Most of the projects of the 1960ís were conceived in the planning of the late fifties and early sixties, and most of them were gotten underway in one form or another under Glennanís tenure. I would say, as a general observation, that Webbís role when he came aboard was primarily one of stepping up the pace of the program, but there was very little that was new that Webb introduced into the program. Even Apollo, had been thought of in the earlier planning. Gemini was new, but then that came in as a means of getting to Apollo. Space science, the observatories, the Explorers, the exploration of the moon, planets, and earth, and the meteorology and communications applications programs -- all these came out of the very early planning, and they unfolded through the sixties and into the seventies. There was very little that was new that came forth in the late sixties. Thereís some controversy as to the genuine origins of the Shuttle. I think the Europeans like to claim that the Shuttle idea was theirs in the fifties. I havenít really seen any of the original documentation on that, but Iíve heard it. The Shuttle might be considered an outgrowth of the X series of airplanes and the Dynasoar, and I donít know how close that is engineering-wise, but certainly the idea of a space plane is an old idea, and that came into being in the late sixties, early seventies, because of the need to economize, and because of the fact that the Apollo type hardware (or the 1960 approach of throwaway boosters and things) was something that the country couldnít afford to continue.
Hirsh:In terms of long term planning, how did groups like the Astronomy Missions Board work?
Thatís a rather complicated story. We started out with the subcommittees to the Space Science Steering Committee. When the SSSC became the Space Science and Applications Steering Committee, the subcommittees became subcommittees of that, and they were supposed to cover an additional discipline like solar astronomy or particles and fields or the ionosphere and so on. The idea was to assemble specialists in each area so that you could use them to give expert advice in the selection of experiments and experimenters. The groups we found worked very effectively in giving us that advice, but they also enjoyed getting off onto broader topics. Instead of talking just about the ionosphere, they liked to talk about the atmosphere, the interplanetary medium, the magnetosphere, solar physics, and the relations of the sun to the earth and planets. These broader discussions were a clue to the felt needs of these advisors.
It turned out that in time, these advisors felt they werenít getting enough perspective on the total NASA program to advise us properly in their specialty. I forget the exact dates but letís say about a third of the way through the decade of the sixties, we felt it was time to ask advisors not only about what to do in the space science program, but to ask them about how to go about it. Norman Ramsey of Harvard University agreed to chair a committee to look into questions of that sort. One of these things that Ramseyís committee came up with was this question of perspective. During the course of the Ramsey Committee deliberations, a number of us met with the committee to hear what they were saying. Even before they submitted their report, we had the feeling for the direction they were heading in.
So we created an Astronomy Missions Board and a Lunar and Planetary Missions Board with the idea they would involve people across a broad range of topics for astronomy -- not just optical, but optical and X-ray and solar, stellar -- the whole collection that might go into astronomy. On the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, we thought the members would cover lunar and planetary subjects, geophysics, the various geosciences, and these people then could discuss things in a broader context. We tried to populate these boards with people who were also serving on the subcommittees, so that when people worked on a subcommittee, they would have the benefit of the broader context in making their decisions in their specialized areas. That seemed to work very well, but there came a point when even the Missions Boards felt they didnít see enough of the total NASA program to have a right perspective. So we then formed a Space Program Advisory Council, which was supposed to give its members a broad look across the total NASA program. Under the Advisory Council we created special committees, like the Physical Sciences Committee and Life Sciences Committee and so on, and under those committees there were supposed to be supporting panels in specialized areas. This idea then was to provide all the opportunity for gaining perspective, as well as the opportunity for advising on specialties. But by the time we got to the Space Program Advisory Council (SPAC) at least in my estimation, it had become too unwieldy, and the people on the lower echelons of OSSA had lost contact with the committee. So it wasnít doing the working levels much good. In fact, the Space Program Advisory Council looked to them like an administratorís advisory body, not theirs. We found that they began to set up their own advisory groups like the Planetary Advisory Group under Van Allen that the Lunar and Planetary people setup.
So this was a signal that the SPAC wasnít working too well. But by the time I left, there hadnít been an opportunity to change that, but I had come to the conclusion that the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board and the Astronomy Missions Board had actually worked better than this more complicated arrangement, and that we needed some other device to provide across-the-board perspective instead of the Space Program Advisory Council. I donít know that others agreed with me on that, but that was a conclusion that I wrote into my book.
Hirsh:Werenít there some problems with the Lunar and Planetary Board? Werenít there personality conflicts between the members?
Newell:I wouldnít say personality conflicts, but there was a problem in connection with this question of perspective. About the time that they were swinging into action and making their deliberations, President Nixon set up the Space Task Group. The Space Task Group consisted of Paine, as administrator of NASA, Bob Seamans as representative of the Secretary of Defense, Lee DuBridge, who was the Presidentís Science Advisor at that time, and the Vice President, Spiro Agnew, as chairman. The group was supposed to report back to Nixon on the ways to go in the space program. Well, they assembled a lot of data including some information on lunar and planetary science. It turned out that the data fed them from NASA was not exactly what the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board would have liked to see fed into the Space Task Group. And they took that as a pretext for getting up in arms. For a moment, they were thinking of possibly resigning en masse. But actually the real issue was this one of perspective, because the particular item that they were complaining about was relatively trivial. So thatís one of the reasons that we moved to the Space Program Advisory Council. After having persuaded them not to resign, we created the Advisory Council and abolished the Missions Boards and created the special committees. But as I say, it got too complicated.
Hirsh:When were the Missions Boards abolished? Do you recall?
Newell:Yes, at the time the Space Program Advisory Council was created.
Hirsh:Were there any problems between scientists and engineers in NASA?
Newell:That again is a complex question which canít be answered very simply. I would say, in general, no, but always with some qualification. Engineers look at things differently from scientists, and since engineers had to support scientists in the scientific missions, you brought together people with two different outlooks. For example, the Goddard scientists could never understand why the engineer, Bob Seamans, put so much insistence on schedules. To them, if they had an experiment they wanted to perform, it didnít matter really when it was performed as long as they could do the best experiment possible. If an idea came along that would improve the experiment, theyíd just as soon wait and put in the new idea and delay the schedule. But Seamans felt he couldnít live with that, because Congress looked upon the schedules as a measure of performance. If NASA said it was going to launch such and such a satellite on such and such a date, it should. In that sense there was a conflict between engineers and scientists. Also, the scientists did not see, in the engineers and the manned space flight program, the interest in science that they thought that science deserved. So that was another source of friction. In the Office of Space Sciences, I tried to counter that by mixing the engineers and scientists very intimately in the program. If an office had a scientist as head, Iíd encourage him to have a deputy who was an engineer, and if an engineer was the head, Iíd encourage him to have a scientist deputy. That seemed to work pretty well. I reviewed that arrangement a number of times while I was in charge, and always came back to the conclusion that that was perhaps the best way I could think of. The traditional method of putting all the engineers in one group and all the scientists in another group was often recommended to us, but we came to the conclusion that that was not the best way of getting the two to understand each other.
Hirsh:Iíve read about some conflicts between scientists and engineers in the Ranger program. Were there really problems there?
Newell:Well, there was a problem with JPL, and it was basically the same problem that I described, about the scientist always wanting to perfect his experiments, and being willing to let the engineering wait. The Ranger engineers felt that the scientists were always coming up with too many new ideas and not fixing on the experiments in a timely way. I think the Ranger engineers felt that too many scientific demands on the Ranger spacecraft caused some of the Ranger troubles. But thatís the nature of things. I donít think itís a legitimate complaint. I mean, the Ranger program was designed to do science, not to do engineering. Itís a natural feeling you would expect from the engineers, but itís not something that you can give into too much.
Hirsh:Which programs that you supervised in the sixties do you think were especially successful?
Newell:Especially successful? I would say overall they were all successful, but especially successful were the weather satellites and the communications satellites, the Ranger, Surveyor and Mariner programs. I would say all of those seemed to me outstanding. Of course the Explorer program is a rather amorphous sort of thing, and it was very productive and remarkable in that every single Explorer put into orbit succeeded in doing what is was supposed to do.
Hirsh:Was there more emphasis or more desire on the part of the NASA administration to do applications type work than pure science work? What was the mix there?
Newell:I donít know that the agency focused particularly on that. The main attention of top management in the agency was on the manned flight program because of the difficulty of the project and the international commitment.
Hirsh:In the late sixties, did you have some ideas for the post-Apollo program? For example, Vice President Agnew suggested a manned Mars program. How did you feel about such suggestions?
Newell:Some of us would have liked to have seen such a program. The outside scientists in the program would not have liked to see it. They were hoping that the time time, NASA would erase the manned-unmanned dichotomy from its nomenclature. At that time, even those of us who would like to have seen such a program didnít feel that it would sell, and so we thought it was somewhat of a folly to try to push it. Tom Paine pushed it very hard. He would have liked to have seen it. But we didnít think he had a chance of selling it -- we being myself and some of those working closely with me. Nevertheless, since he was the boss, why, we put some of those things in the Space Task Group Report. And they didnít sell.
Hirsh:Why donít you think they sold?
Newell:They were too costly. The Nixon Administration was not about to buy any very costly space program. Certainly not any program that was going to increase in budget requirements markedly in the immediate future, which any one of these would have.
Hirsh:Can you tell me in general how things changed when Nixon took over as President in 1969? What kind of impact did that have on the space program and space science?
Newell:I donít think Nixon was intellectually committed to the space program. Furthermore, he felt, and probably correctly, that inflation was going to be the number one problem of the country. Therefore he was committed to keeping budgets down. In some of our discussions with the Bureau of the Budget at that period we found that even some of the most successful programs would not have gotten administration support in that climate. Some of us were amazed, for example, to be told that the Tiros program would not have been approved, and yet it was remarkably successful and useful. So that was the main change. He had no driving intellectual commitment to space, but an overriding concern with budget problems.
Hirsh:Yet Nixon was of course very pleased to be able to speak to the astronauts on the moon and all.
Newell:He made the most he could of every mission that was already under way, you see. He could make a lot of it without having to commit a lot of money to it, because the monies had already been spent for the most part.
Hirsh:Did this arouse any animosity with NASA people -- the fact that he seemed to be taking credit for things that he had little to do with?
Newell:I donít know if the word animosity is correct. It certainly was noticed.
Hirsh:What were some of the effects of the Vietnam War on your NASA work?
Newell:I would say that they are the ones weíve just been talking about, namely the effects on the national economy and national drive. As for the economy, the inflation problem was the main one. And as for national drive, there was no longer the competition with the Russians. That didnít sell a thing anymore.
Hirsh:So this was after Ď69?
Newell:Yes. As far as international cooperation was concerned, this situation tended to foster more cooperation, so that other countries would be taking up some of the bill.
Hirsh:Did the Mansfield Amendment have any effect on NASA work?
Newell:We thought it might, but I donít think it really did.
Hirsh:How did you expect it to?
Newell:He was going to have every agency relate its basic research directly to the mission of the agency, and we could visualize that he would say, ďThe mission of NASA is entirely a practical one, so make everything you do practical.Ē And we could see that affecting science. But it never got to that stage.
Hirsh:How did you cope with the cutbacks in funding in space science, from I suppose Ď67 on?
For the first time we had to consider cutting out whole areas of research. Prior to that time, we could cut some out of each area and thereby come back to the levels that we were restricted to, but when it got to the point where you had to cut below a certain viable level for a research area, it didnít make sense to try to keep the area. So we turned to the scientific community and said, ďYouíve given us a lot of good advice in the past, but now youíve got to face up to the question of priorities. Not only tell us whatís good, but which things youíd cut out first.Ē That proved to be excruciating to the scientific community. But they did it. For example, they recommended cutting back on ionospheric and magnetospheric research, which the ionosphericists and magnetosphericists found outrageous, because they said theyíd just gotten to the point where they knew how to do the research required to describe and identify the fundamental processes occurring there.
Prior to that time theyíd been concerned mostly with what was going on. Now they wanted to find out how it was happening. Nevertheless the scientists stuck to their guns, and NASA followed along, and we did pull back on that area of research. Not completely, but very substantially. We did emphasize one area. We chose to emphasize an area, rather than try to cover the whole waterfront, and the area we chose to emphasize was solar system research -- planets and things like that. This didnít please the astronomers at all. It was a question of economy. You had to do something of that sort. The reason we emphasized that area was that, for a large part of this difficult period, Harry Hess, a geologist, was chairman of the Space Science Board, and Mike McElroy, a geophysicist, was chairman of our Physical Sciences Committee. They personally tended to steer things in that direction. As a result, they got some flack from their colleagues. For example, the astronomers really beat on them. We in NASA took some satisfaction in the fact that they werenít beating on us; instead they were beating on some of their compatriots.
Hirsh:So there was a real squeeze.
Newell:Oh, there was a real squeeze. There was no question about it. There was a definite pullback in astronomy, and even in the area that we emphasized -- the planetary area -- the program was smaller than we would otherwise have run.
Hirsh:You said you were cutting back with astronomy. And yet the High Energy Astronomy Observatory program was initiated, I suppose, in Ď69 or so. This was when you could see ahead that there were problems. Why did you embark on such an ambitious program when you were at least envisaging a period of retrenchment?
Newell:Itís the importance of the field thatís involved. Here high energy means not only high energy wavelengths but objects that are involved with huge amounts of energy and huge energy production rates. What field could promise so much in the way of fundamental knowledge as that field? So we plunged into the high energy astronomy area, and in fact we also even tried to keep the large optical telescope alive at that period. Thatís why I used the words, ďWe gave more emphasis.Ē I didnít say we cut out the other areas. This did give us some problems, because there were some starts that we wanted to make that we couldnít make at the time we wanted to. For example, the high energy astronomy work did have to jump several budget periods, if you remember. The Large Space Telescope even now, as I understand it, is having its troubles. It hasnít really gotten going. So, it was just a question of trying to keep your finger in an important area. One of the difficulties we ran into was that you could start things, but you couldnít keep them going. We found that although the first yearís funding fit in your allowable budget curve, the second and third yearís funding wouldnít. This was one of the things that Fletcher accomplished: He managed to establish a constant level budget, whereas all Tom Paineís budgets had a huge bow wave zone out in front. Thatís one of the reasons his budgets wouldnít sell. Thatís how Fletcher was able to sell the Space Shuttle, even in this time of dwindling budgets, because he could show that he could carry out his proposed shuttle program with a level budget. If it went up at all, it was only due to inflation, not due to increased intrinsic funding needs.
Hirsh:Now, how do you think scientists felt about this?
Newell:They didnít like it.
Newell:A large number of them were very apprehensive about the shuttle program, even in Fletcherís level budget program. They were afraid that the shuttle would one day rear its ugly head to squeeze out a lot of important science. There were some scientists, like Van Allen and Tommy Gold, who said, ďJust give us a couple of billion dollars a year for the space program and devote it all to science and applications, and thatís enough, forget manned space flight.Ē There were others, however, who felt that if the shuttle really would do what it was supposed to do, it would be a good thing for science, as well as for other areas of space activity.
Hirsh:Do you feel that the shuttle was a wise decision, for space science?
Newell:I think that the shuttle is a good thing, but I do think that the shuttle is very similar to OAO in a way, in that it is technologically extremely difficult, and more difficult than anybody was willing to admit at the time it was started. So, itís just a matter of waiting and seeing.
Hirsh:What do you think would happen to NASA if the first shuttle exploded on the launch pad?
Newell:Well, thatís just speculation. It wouldnít be good, of course.
Hirsh:We finished up last time talking about the space shuttle, and I only have a couple of other questions concerning the future of space science and then some wrap-up questions, if thatís OK?
Hirsh:I wonder if you could tell me about your involvement in the space telescope program? How did it start? What were the origins of it, the fights over the size of the telescope, and so on?
Newell:I was involved primarily as head of the office, and the space telescope was a subject of discussion in the Astronomy Missions Board. There was a great deal of discussion about the science required in order to take the next proper step in astronomy and a great many people thought that a telescope about three meters diam. was the proper size. A lot of the discussion revolved around paring that down as much as possible, so as to keep costs down. They wound up with something still in the neighborhood of three meters but slightly less, as required for the necessary precision. They pointed out that the requirement was not only to look deeper into space, but to get greater precision so as to be able to identify objects better.
Hirsh:Wasnít it Lyman Spitzer who had the idea originally for the space telescope, or was he just the person who was trying to push it through the hardest?
Newell:I donít know whether youíre talking about recently, or way back in the forties. In the mid-forties, Lyman Spitzer and Fred Whipple pushed this idea. I think Spitzer was the first one and Whipple picked it up very quickly.
Hirsh:So when you were talking about the debates in the Astronomy Missions Board, who were the people on both sides of that debate?
Newell:I donít know what you mean by both sides of the debate. There seemed to be a general agreement that such a telescope would be a valuable thing. But in the period in which the Missions Board was operating, it had become apparent that high energy astronomy was the big thing of the moment. So there were those who were pushing for both the large high energy astronomy type telescope and the large optical telescope. I think that if it had to come to a showdown, there would have been a division between the physicists or geophysicists-turned-astronomers, and the long time astronomers -- classical astronomers -- if you want to use that phraseology.
Hirsh:Why did it take so long for the space telescope to come to fruition? And of course itís not yet up there.
Newell:It was a very difficult thing. In fact, the history of the space astronomy program shows that the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory was too big a step for its time. It took something like seven years to bring that into being, and there are many who still think that it would have been better to take a smaller step than OAO. The Large Space Telescope was an even bigger step, and so from the technological point of view, it had to come later.
Hirsh:I see. You were also involved in administering a number of the planetary probes, werenít you?
Hirsh:Can you tell me something about the Viking mission to Mars? How did that get started, and were any problems in that mission at all?
Newell:The ins and outs are very complicated. There are all kinds of aspects. Early in the space science program, we thought of a large and very versatile spacecraft to go to both the near planets and very far planets. We called it Voyager. Thatís not the same as the Voyager thatís in the news today. It turned out to be a very expensive thing. There was a great deal of resistance to it. I was told that the chairman of our Senate Committee, Senator Anderson, objected to Voyager, not only because it would be so expensive, but because he thought it was a foot in the door for manned flight to the planets. Largely because of the expense but partly because of these other subtle considerations, Voyager would not get approval. Therefore we tried, with the help of JPL, to present what we called the Grand Tour, which would be much cheaper than Voyager but would get to all the planets of the solar system in time. In fact, it could be shown that it would be cheaper per object visited -- either planet or satellite of planet -- than the spacecraft that we were not using such as the Mariners and so on. That also did not sell largely because of the desire to pull back in expenses. The most that we could seem to sell was a visit to the next planet to be explored in detail, and that was Mars. The Mariners had given such tremendous pictures of Mars showing the surface, volcanoes like Olympus, Moons and so on. And thatís how Viking came into being. It was a scaled up Mariner type project and a scaled down Voyager or Grand Tour type project.
Hirsh:And of course it was quite successful in achieving its objectives.
Newell:Yes. Finally, it did run into some flack because it was also expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the original Voyager concept would be. Even the scientists on the Space Science Board began to worry about the expense of Viking. Their debating about it almost precipitated a crisis in Congress, because Congress of course was listening to them. We had to fight to point out to them that if they got Viking cancelled, because of their debates, the Congress simply would not replace it with anything, and so they finally backed off.
Hirsh:Right. Why were a number of these planetary probes dual probes? There were two Vikings. There are two Voyagers. What is the point of these dual missions?
Newell:There were so many things to be done with any one mission that you needed a series, and a series of two was the most that we could swing. There were also some people who thought that you ought to have a backup to any major mission of that sort. In fact, this subject of backups was a matter of great debate. Some people felt that having backups was too expensive, and others felt that having backups was certainly the wise way to go. So what we did was simply schedule a series of flights, and when we could get a long series, like five lunar orbiters, that was great. But for the more expensive things, the biggest series we could get was two.
Hirsh:But again that was limited by funding, of course. You would have preferred to have five or more.
Newell:Yes. Yes, we could have used many more.
Hirsh:Were there economies of scale? After you developed one Viking or Voyager probe, was the second one cheaper to produce?
Newell:Yes, and we tried to use that argument to see longer series, but it didnít always work.
Hirsh:Was there a debate within NASA to stop the Viking mission? I think the Viking mission is terminated, isnít that right? Itís been turned off, even though itís still there on Mars and could still relay back information?
Hirsh:Is there a big debate among scientists concerning NASA turning off the spacecraft?
Newell:I donít know the answer to that question. I do know that we had hoped, after getting Viking going, that we could perhaps sell additional Vikings. We made a great effort to do that, and there were some who were for it, and others who said, ďNo, letís go on to the next step technologically.Ē So to that extent, there was a debate. We werenít able to sell it.
Hirsh:Even after it has been so successful.
Hirsh:Do you think the publicity that Voyager is now getting will help future space missions?
Newell:I think it may, but I also think that the cost of space missions, the problems of inflation, and the economy will stand in the way. So itís a question of how it will balance out.
Hirsh:In the past the publicity, though favorable, has not helped out that much. Is that true? The Viking mission, received probably as much, if not more, attention than the Voyager mission is now receiving. But that did not stimulate new funding by Congress.
Newell:No. Public interest has been evanescent. But the inflation problems and the question of how to meet the food budget is persistent. Itís with you every day.
Hirsh:Right. Do you get a feeling from talking to colleagues or scientists that there would be any change in attitude to the space program under the Reagan Administration?
Newell:I havenít had an opportunity to talk about that at all.
Hirsh:Do you think there will be any major changes in the program?
Newell:I think economy will be a major concern.
Hirsh:May I ask you a couple of rather broad ďlooking backĒ questions now?
Hirsh:When you look back at your whole career, what things have given you particular satisfaction?
Newell:I think especially the privilege of being with the group that opened up this field of space science. I was with the group of sounding rocket people who began all this research, and the first phase of my career, I would say, was in that area. And that included membership in the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel, which at one time included all people engaged in this sort of stuff. The second thing is that after having come to NASA, we did create a space science program that accomplished everything we set out to do, in spite of the fights and battles, from a general point of view. We investigated the earth. We investigated the moon, the planets, interplanetary space, astronomy and the sun. These were all things that we had planned originally, right back in the first few years of NASA. There wasnít a thing of that sort that we didnít accomplish successfully. You can point to individual projects that we werenít able to get funding for and werenít able to accomplish, but thatís not what I was talking about. I was talking about accomplishing the general thrust of the programs that we envisioned. That was the great satisfaction. And then, of course, to be part of the agency that did the Apollo program was a great satisfaction. In the last missions it was a tremendous scientific thing too.
Hirsh:What benefits do you expect people will ultimately derive from your work?
Newell:You remind me of another satisfaction that I should have mentioned. In midstream we were assigned the responsibility for the applications program. And the applications program of course involved communications and weather satellites. It eventually developed a basis for earth observations that could be used for earth resource studies, earth monitoring and that sort of thing. That was also a great satisfaction. And that also answers your last question. This kind of thing comes out of the space science, the applications.
Hirsh:So the actual benefits -- the benefits that the every day person on the earth will feel -- are the space applications.
Newell:I think so, primarily. There are technological applications, but I think the direct space applications are the primary benefits. Each night we see satellite pictures of the weather, and whenever we watch a political event overseas, weíre told that itís coming to us by satellite. And quite frequently now we see people talking about medical centers in one country having a conference with a medical center in another country by satellite.
Newell:Those sort of things I think, are the major benefits.
Hirsh:Are there any major programs that you would like to see in the future that you were not able to get going in your tenure because of technology or funding?
Newell:I think continuing the study of the moon is one of those things. We had to cut it short because of costs, and itís not completely explored. I think it should be started up again. Also, a continuation of the study of the planets is such a program. One visit or even two visits to a planet is hardly enough to say you know the planet.
Hirsh:Right. What do you think about Gerard OíNeillís space station concept?
Newell:Well, Iím not familiar with that, so I really canít comment, but we did discuss a space station concept quite at length. For a while the NASA position, as enunciated by Tom Paine and Abe Silverstein, was that the space station was the next natural step in the exploration of space. But it didnít sell. There were several reasons. The scientists just didnít see the great value of the space station to science, and the applications people saw only limited applications. Time will have to determine whether those views vary.
Hirsh:Iím essentially done with my questions here, Dr. Newell. Are there any other things youíd like to get on the record that I havenít asked you about?
Newell:I think youíve been quite thorough.
Hirsh:Perhaps too thorough. Weíve spent a lot of hours doing this, and I really appreciate it.
Thatís all right. Glad to help. Iíll look forward to seeing how you write up the transcript.
Vol. 193, #6, December 1955, pp. 29-33.
Robert J. Seamans, Jr.
Orbiting Astronomical Observatory.
The Small Astronomy Satellite-1, launched 12 December 1970.
Office of Space Science and Applications.
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