Oral History Transcript — Dr. Goetz Oertel
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Interview with Dr. Goetz Oertel
Goetz Oertel; April 25, 1978
ABSTRACT: Early education in Germany, 1934-1957, including study at Kiel University. Move to U.S. and work at University of Maryland encompassing plasma spectroscopy, sounding rocket work, and theta pinch plasmas, 1957-1962. Completion of Ph.D., 1963; move to National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA- Langley) for work on plasma spectroscopy, 1963-1968. Expansion to galactic structure; first work with computers; declines job offer from German firm. Move to NASA and Washington, D.C.; mission of solar programs office; relations with outside astronomers. Insiderís view of committee meetings using Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) I as an example. Also prominently mentioned are: Marc Felix, Harold Glaser, Hans Griem, Fred Singer, Albrecht Otto Johannes Unsold; Allgemeine Elekrizitats Gesellschaft, American Astronomical Society, Langley Research Center, Orbiting Solar Observatory, and Sputnik (Spacecraft).
Weart:Nothing will be done with this without your permission. I also ought to mention that Iíve known you in my previous existence as a solar physicist, but I donít know anything about any of the questions that Iím going to be asking you today. To begin with, I note from your resume, you were born in 1935, in Germany, I suppose?
Weart:I donít know anything about your background. Who were your parents, what did they do?
Oertel:My father was a farm co-op manager. We became refugees in 1945.
Weart:What part of Germany were you in?
Oertel:East Prussia. We became refugees three times, actually. The third time I was actually lucky enough to have contributed to our escape, which was the closest one we had. It was after the war had already ended, and the Russians were going to take over parts of middle Germany that had initially been occupied by US troops. I was able to arrange with one of the GIís for us to get a pass, which were hard to come by, to cross the border into Bavaria. So we got out, and then I grew up in West Germany. I went to school there, The University of Kiel, in physics.
Weart:Before you went to the university, you went to what kind of school, a gymnasium?
Oertel:A gymnasium, yes.
Weart:Were you already orient to science? Iím interested in how it is that a person becomes a scientist in the first place, and becomes a particular kind of scientist. So in the gymnasium, were you already interested in physics or science in general?
Oertel:I was very interested in mathematics, and to a lesser extent in the physical sciences, physics and chemistry and so on. I have something in my family background: my grandfather was a mathematician. So, I guess itís in the family in that sense. I had always been interested in that. I was torn between studying engineering and physics, and decided on physics.
Weart:This was when you went up to Kid?
Weart:Why Kid, by the way?
Oertel:Well, I had some friends at Kiel. Kid also was at the very other end of Germany, and when you start a new type of educational endeavor I think itís also important to make clean break. Iím very close to my family and all that. I spent most of my time with them actually, even after I studied. But it was a good thing to be completely out of that group while tackling the new career.
Weart:By the way, what effect do you think the war may have had on your orientation toward science, or in general? Did it have any strong impact on you?
Oertel:On science as such, I donít think so. It probably had a pretty strong effect on my roots. I do have roots in Germany, but having been torn out of my boyhood environment at the age of ten, the roots just never quite did get that deep in other places. It was easier for me, for example, to come to the States, even though I didnít know I was emigrating at the time I came.
Weart:I understand. OK, then at Kiel you were already definitely interested in physics. Did you have academic physics in mind already when you went there?
Weart:Did you imagine being a professor, that sort of thing?
Oertel:Well, no, I hadnít really thought that far. It was just something that seemed to me to have a whole lot of promise. The world seemed to be becoming more technical all the time, and it seemed to me that by studying physics you would be in the mainstream of that, and there would be all kinds of interesting things to do in the future. Whether they would be research or whether they would be involvement in technology somewhere in industry, I really hadnít firmly decided on. But I knew I wanted a career in the sciences.
Weart:Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki have any important impact on you?
Oertel:You have to recognize that Germany in 1945 was about the closest thing to a closed society that Iíve ever been in. After having looked outside for a long time and gotten thoroughly beaten, militarily, morally, in every other way, there was only one way to look, and that was to Look inside, and work up. Nagasaki and Hiroshima went through the news, and they had an amazingly small effect on Germany at the time. I must say that nuclear things interested me then, but so did everything else that was in the forefront.
Weart:I see. There was no particular nuclear orientation, or astronomical orientation?
Oertel:Not really, at that time. I did enjoy looking at stars. We had found an old surveying telescope, and that was used just about every night that there would be some starlight (and that wasnít very often in Germany).
Weart:This was where?
Oertel:South Germany, Wurtemburg.
Weart:Tell me about your training in physics at Kiel. You graduated in Ď57. I suppose by then the university had been fairly well reconstructed?
Weart:You would consider it a normal sort of educational curriculum?
Oertel:Yes, I think the university was running pretty normally by that time. There were still lots of students there who were much older that I was, who had come back from the war. The food wasnít what it might be somewhere else — cafeterias arenít great now; they were worse then. But the educational process was pretty much normal. I didnít think so when I entered it because I was accustomed to German secondary education, which is highly regimented, virtually no choice in anything at all, lots of tests and everything. At Kiel the first test I took was also the last. With the exception of some minor exams that were taken for the purpose of getting fellowships, which I had a number of at that time. The theoretical physics czar at that time was Unsold. That certainly had some effect on my astronomy orientation later on. I also found some interesting things about astronomy in German parish records and archives, when I supported my father in his second career as a genealogist.
Weart:Oh, he became a genealogist.
Oertel:Thatís right. It was a second career.
Weart:Thatís remarkable, why should he?
Oertel:It was his hobby, if you like, to do that for our own family. And during the war, his tuberculosis worsened and he was in fact given up at one time in the hospital. Then he recovered with the new American drugs that had just come out. But he couldnít work very hard, he worked his own hours, and genealogy let him do that. He initially started pursuing things for us, but then built a career out of it and ended up being extremely busy, getting much more orders for work than he could possibly handle himself.
Weart:I see. Is this what supported you at the university?
Oertel:No, not really. I supported myself entirely on German government and industrial fellowships, things like that. I also worked.
Weart:First tell me about the parish records. This was before you went to the university?
Oertel:Before and during. I think of one event in particular that I actually made Unsold aware of, there somebody had seen something remarkable in the skies, seeing what seemed like a second sun to him. That was a curiosity that happened about 200, 300 years ago. It was a nice little account that the preacher had written. They were normally not very prolific. They just wrote down that somebody died or married or got born; but on that one, he devoted about half a page or so to that particular event. And there were other things like that, that they saw or thought they saw, that found their way into those old parish records.
Weart:I see. Did you figure out what this particular thing was?
Oertel:No, really not. Come to think of it, it must have been still in my high school days or maybe very clearly in college. There were so many things to do and study at that time, t didnít really think of following it up. But it might be exciting to do that— if only I could remember exactly where that was. (laughter)
Weart:All right, tell me about your contacts with physicists, first other people and then Unsold. Did you get to talk to other senior professors while you were there?
Oertel:There wasnít an awful lot of opportunity. The German system is really very different from our US system. You donít see the professor very much: he is Herr Professor, you salute him, and if youíre lucky he salutes back. Now, you can make an appointment to see him, but youíre one out of about 200 in the class with him and thatís not likely to gain you very much. You donít really get any association with him until you become a graduate student and begin thinking in terms of a thesis, either Masterís or PhD. Unsold was slightly different, because I had made him aware of this little astronomy thing. He did meet with me a few times. In particular when I took the graduation examination with him, which is a formal thing in Germany, he turned that into a private lecture; he never gave me a chance to answer many questions, even though I had gone into that particular exam with a great deal of fear. He was known to be extremely tough on people, and couldnít tolerate any slow answers or lacking answers, anything of that sort. But I hardly answered any questions for him. There must have been a few, because at the end he gave me the top marks— the only top marks I had on an exam. I had good marks, but the one which is absolutely the greatest you can getó
Weart:Like summa cum laude or whatever óó
Oertel:Thatís only given rarely, and I had that in theoretical physics. It made me very proud, because I had looked on that as one of my weaker subjects at the time. (Interruption as someone stops by office)
Weart:So you had had some training in theoretical physics but not specifically in astronomy or spectroscopy or any of these things, by the time you graduated from Kiel? Were you beginning to specialize in any field?
Oertel:I did have astronomy training. I had taken a course from Unsold, and of course theoretical physics course which were taught by Unsold always had certain astronomical implications. The examples tended to come from that field, and so there was a smattering. But the other thing was that Kiel at that time, and even today, is one of the real bastions in plasma spectroscopy, or, if you like, laboratory astrophysics. There is a school there that Unsold founded. He handpicked the individual to run that program, and Kiel has been producing laboratory astrophysicists which you can find all over the world today. In fact, if you talk to a laboratory astrophysicist, the chance that he comes either from Kiel or from the Imperial College (London) is about 50 percent or more. So there was that kind of connection. One of the people I met there, Hans Griem, was instrumental in bringing me to the US. He got a call as a professor at Maryland just when that university was being revamped. John Toll had just come in as department chairman at that time—you know, heís now going to be the president of that school. His job was to build up the physics department from about five or ten or whatever faculty, with no standing in the country now, to, one of the largest and most prestigious departments in the country. So Griem went there, and he arranged for me to get application forms for a graduate assistantship.
Weart:I see. How did you know Griem before that?
Oertel:He was an assistant to the professor who was running the plasma spectroscopy at Kiel, Lochte Holtgreven. Griem was an assistant, managing the lab there while I was taking óó
Weart:óó a praktikum (lab course) of some sort?
Oertel:Yes, a praktikum. But then I got the assistantship offer and so off I went as an exchange student.
Weart:Had you considered going any place else for graduate study?
Oertel:I really wanted to and had made up my mind to do my thesis under Griem; that seemed to be the natural thing to do. If it meant going to the US, that was fine. Iíd been intrigued about the US anyway.
Weart:What sort of picture had you had about the US?
Oertel:Just a place where opportunities were extremely plentiful, where all kinds of exciting research and development was going on or likely to be going on in the future. It certainly had demonstrated world leadership in that area. It seemed the natural thing, to want to get part of your education in that kind of an environment.
Weart:How did your family feel about this? At this point, clearly you had decided to become a physicist. How did your family feel about that as a career choice?
Oertel:My family didnít really influence my career choice very much. They were interested in it, but they didnít try to steer me into one or the other career path. They felt extremely strongly though about getting a firstóclass education for whatever I might want to do. That kind of encouragement I was getting, but not specific as to what field.
Weart:I see. And you wanted to get your thesis under Griem, not specifically because you were attracted to spectroscopy but more because of his personal characteristics, or was there also an attraction to spectroscopy?
Oertel:There was an attraction to spectroscopy, in particular the understanding of the plasmas which were emitting the light, where spectroscopy really is a tool—a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Weart:Were you more theoretically or experimentally oriented, at that time?
Oertel:Itís hard to tell. I had interests in both camps, but they were always closely linked. I did not relate very easily to purely theoretical developments, but if I could see an experiment and got interested in the experiment, I also simultaneously got keenly interested in the theoretical part. In fact in my science career, itís happened a few times that Iíve switched from theoretician to experimentalist or back. Either because in theoretical physics I got the feeling that somebody ought to measure this óó or when I measured something, I couldnít understand it, it didnít fit the theory, and then I said, ďIíd better take another look at that theory, must be something wrong with itĒ (assuming that my measurementís werenít all bad).
Weart:Always assume that of course. So then you went to Maryland, but you mentioned earlier you hadnít particularly thought of staying here at that time?
Weart:You felt you would eventually go back to Germany.
Oertel:As a matter of fact, that was part of the deal. As an exchange student, you make a commitment to return for at least two years to your native country.
Weart:I see. Did you in fact do that?
Weart:So somehow you got an exception.
Oertel:Yes. An exception was made by NASA: I joined NASA when it was at or nearing its peak in importance and funding and everything else. They had a situation where they needed me, and I was quite interested in staying in the US because the big R & D boom was really beginning at that time. So they did take the necessary steps to get my visa changed.
Weart:Incidentally, about the time you came over here was also about the time of Sputnik. Did that have any impact on you?
Oertel:Yes, that had an impact I must admit, though, the American reaction to Sputnik, was a bigger surprise, than Sputnik itself. It seemed to me to be a bit of surprise that the Russians were able to do it ahead of the US. But at the same time, you can be relaxed about it. Somebody might want to climb this mountain first or that mountain first, and apparently the Russians had decided to put their marbles on this one. But the reaction of the American public was absolutely astonishing to me.
Weart:Were you here by this time?
Oertel:Oh yes. Iíd just arrived when the thing was launched. It was absolutely astonishing, because everybody was looking on it as a personal threat. I remember, for example, one Sunday I spent in New York, and I happened to get in a church, and who was preaching I didnít know who he was at the time— it was Norman Vincent Peale. He was going on like crazy, ďThis big thing going around our heads like thisĒ, gesticulating up there, and he really had his whole segregation upset about it. It seemed to me a very odd thing to bring up in a church. Anyway, that had an effect, yes.
Weart:Interesting. What was your feeling about space, up to that time? Had you read science fiction or any of these things?
Oertel:No. Well, I must have read maybe one or two novels at some point, but I didnít particularly get attracted to that sort of thing.
Weart:Space had no romantic appeal for you?
Oertel:I wouldnít say that. It had an appeal from the point of view of something there to be explored. But to read about little green men and flies getting turned into people or whatever it might be, just never turned me on.
Weart:I see. Now, when you were at Maryland, this was plasma spectroscopy you were into. This was not yet related to what weíd now call laboratory astrophysics, or was it?
Oertel:Yes, it was pretty much related to that, I didnít do all my work in that field. I did some other work as well, with Fred Singer, for example, who was at Maryland at the time. That included even wiring together payloads for tiny little sounding rockets that he was flying. They never met with great success, Singerís endeavors, but it was fun to do those at the time. But you always had the feeling that you were essentially doing it in vain, because youíd work all week, day and night, to put these payloads together, and then heíd go off somewhere and shoot them and come back without any results. Or with results that lust couldnít be interpreted.
Weart:Not untypical of the early sounding rockets, in fact.
Oertel:No. If youíre interested in that sort of thing, one particular event I remember my colleagues talking about: he had hired a ship to fly sounding rockets from, out on the sea, and of course the ship was not exactly the most stable platform. (Brief pause: someone looks in) The captain was a little leery about the thing. Singer sent one rocket off, and everybody was watching it till it was a little point in the sky and it disappeared. One guy kept looking. The little point reappeared, and it became larger. The alarm was sounded and the thing came down within what was reported to be a couple of hundred feet of the ship, at which point the captain said, ďIíve had enough of this nonsense,Ē and steamed back to port. There are all kinds of interesting little anecdotes in that connection.
Weart:You did your thesis under Griem in fact?
Weart:What was your thesis on?
Oertel:It was on plasma spectroscopy, theta pinch produced plasmas.
Weart:The theta pinch was just used for production, the interest was in the plasma itself I suppose?
Oertel:It really was in both. There was interest in seeing what kind of plasmas could be produced with the theta pinch, and therefore, one had to look at the diagnostics of the plasma that you did produce. You looked at line broadening, looked at absolute intensities, different spectral lines, things like that. For me it was a kind of interesting job because to put that thing together you had to be a high voltage technician, you had to be a vacuum technician, you had to be a pulse physics and engineering electronics technician. And then of course the spectroscopy itself, optical spectroscopy mainly. It was an interesting combination of engineering and physics.
Weart:You did some theory too.
Oertel:And I did some theoretical analysis on this. Before that, I had written or participated in writing a paper on line broadening of spectral lines under different kinds of conditions. That was one where I participated in a theoretical development: Stark broadening of neutral spectral lines, in plasma. It became known as the ďGBKO paperĒ—Griem, Baranger, Kolb and myself. It was the basis for the more modern impact theory.
Weart:Ok, so then you went to NASA. Tell me about that. How did it happen that you went to NASA?
Oertel:I was consulting as a graduate student at the Langley Research Center. They had some plasma guns, and they were trying to figure out what the velocity of the plasma was that was coming out, how much plasma was coming out, the temperatures of it and things like that.
Weart:You were consulting óó you got paid?
Oertel:Yes. They were flying me once every month or two months from Washington to Hampton, Va. I had to leave at 5 in the morning or some such ungodly hour on a little DCó3 and spent the day there, then came back. In the process of doing this they decided that they really wanted me there, as a spectroscopist. There was a curious development— somebody who was there running that program was leaving; he had procured a large, one million joule capacitor bank, and there was really nobody there who could do anything with that bank. Since it was an order it turned out to be a source of potential embarrassment to Langley. If you subtract all the (extraneous) things that are written in the job description, my job was ďCome in and find something to do with this one million joule capacitor bank.Ē
Weart:So you got your PhD at this point, had you received it yet?
Oertel:By the time that offer was made, I had completed all the requirements. I had taken all the measurements but I had not written the thesis. And the university of course was happy to have me complete the writing of the thesis at Langley. They didnít need to pay me any more, they had the assistantship for somebody else. And I was happy to get more money. So I took it on.
Weart:Were there any other jobs that you considered at that point? Were you looking around for other jobs also?
Oertel:No, I wasnít really at liberty to. I could not accept any job in the US unless somebody agreed to change my visa. NASA was the only agency that told me that they would do that for me. Anyhow, I then completed the thesis. While I was there I wrote it and evaluated the data and so on. It was a bit risky, because my experiment was being dismantled in the meantime, and if I had discovered that any measurements had to be repeated, I would have been in deep trouble. But fortunately, the data were there, and they were meaningful as Iíd expected they would be. I had enough, and I got the thesis out of it.
Weart:Tell me how you went along then at Langley. According to your vitae you became ďleader of a research group in experimental and theoretical plasma spectroscopy,Ē and then ďmanager of a major scientific construction project,Ē between Ď63 and Ď68. Tell me about that.
Oertel:Well, thatís a theta pinch experiment I built, based on that large capacitor bank. That was a considerable risk to take, because such an experiment was already in existence and operating at Naval Research Laboratory, and a similar one ... at Los Alamos.
Weart:So, this capacitor bank was set up to do a theta pinch, you were saying.
Oertel:Thatís tight. It was risky because theta pinches of that size were already in existence elsewhere in the US and elsewhere in the world. And the number of things you could do with them of course was limited. I had some ideas on what to do with them; Iíll come back to that in a minute. But we didnít bank on that entirely, and also built some experiments that were suitable for checking up on the lineóbroadening theory that Iíd worked on with Griem, and some other experiments that turned out to be interesting but not important. The lineóbroadening experiment, even though it was a smaller part of my groupís activity, actually, turned out to be the most important, because we expanded the range of measurements from neutrals to ions by looking at lines of argon II. Griem had thought and my own paper with him had said, that the theory ought to be applicable to ions. It turned out that the broadening in ions was roughly an order of magnitude greater than the theory was predicting, and that meant that you had to go back and look at the theory. So that drove me back to look at theory, and I did work on that together with Jinx Cooper from the (joint) Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics. We published several papers together, and pushed line broadening theory, Griemís theory, to the point where it finally applied to ions as well.
Weart:In all of this work, what was the main source of your interest in the plasma? Was it purely scientific curiosity, or aid you feel it was contributing to the fusion business? Was it an astrophysics interest?
Oertel:Well, I knew it would contribute both to fusion and to other plasma work, and then to astrophysics. I wasnít always that sure how it would contribute, but it seemed obvious that analysis of stellar atmospheres (for one) would be an area that really needed damping constants, as we call them in astronomy.
Weart:You were aware of that.
Weart:From Unsold already you knew alreadyí that these things were needed?
Oertel:Oh yes, sure. And we did talk from time to time with people who worked in astronomy. Larry Fredericks, who óó
Weart:Was he already down there?
Oertel:He was in Virginia at the time, and he came in and in fact indoctrinated us to become members of the American Astronomical Society— which we did.
Weart:I see. Although you had never done any astronomical work as it would have been considered at the time.
Weart:Itís interesting that Fredericks came up to proselytize you that way.
Oertel:Well, he didnít come to seek me out personally. I doubt that he would have heard of me. But he did come out to the NASA-Langley Center, and he wanted to look at everything that had any relationship to astronomy. I was paraded as one of the people who did. We didnít have that long a discussion, but he seemed to understand what we were doing, and I understood him well enough to put in a membership application.
Weart:We were just talking with him yesterday about the records, to then put in our archives. No doubt you identified yourself as a physicist at that point?
Oertel:Yes. However, I was already making a transition, in a way, to astronomy. I recognized that being at NASA, it was very important to be relevant to NASAís mission, which was not fusion but which was astrophysics and space science. And being closest to a solar physicist that Langley had, I was made their representative, at the solar physics subcommittee of NASA headquarters, whose job it was to select payloads for the Orbiting Solar Observatories.
Weart:What year was this?
Oertel:That was about 1964 or Ď65.
Weart:Fairly soon after you got there. This was simply because you were one of the few people at Langley who was very much into spectroscopy?
Oertel:Thatís right. And I was also the closest thing to an astronomer they had. They just didnít have any astronomers at that site. So I ended up sitting in on all these meeting, and of course was exposed in this way to astronomers a lot. I talked with the people who were in space science. Many of them were not what you would call classical astronomers. Some of them had never looked through a telescope. But they were all eager to learn about the objects in the sky, and to do that without the atmospheric blanket getting in the way.
Weart:At NASAóLangley, had there been much astronomical education? Did people come through and give lectures? Were there any seminars or any attempts to bring people up on astronomy?
Oertel:We did some of that, but there wasnít an awful lot. However, some useful interactions occurred. For example, we had this bunch which was interested in theoretical plasma physics, they were studying VLASOV equations and things like that. A Frenchman by the name of Marc Feix was running that little group, and I told Marc, with whom I sometimes would ride home, ďMarc, youíre just doing a dumb thing, worrying about something thatís this small. You ought to be worried about the sky. Why donít you just turn all your computer programs around, and instead of having two polarities look at only one, and look at a repulsive potential and you can work on stars.Ē We kicked that around as an idea. It later turned out that we werenít the only ones who came up with that idea. But what Feix was doing was unique in some ways from the plasma physics point of view. So they ended up doing that (apply their fosmalism to star assemblies). Feix tuned a student loose who got his PhD on that. Iíll never forget: The Astronomical Society was meeting at Hampton, Va.) in that time period, and there for the first time Feix showed a movie (which was actually a movie in phase space, so it didnít mean all that much), but it looked exactly like a classical spiral galaxy in the course of development. You couldnít tell it apart— complete with a few of those runners who carry off angular momentum in the arms. After the movie was shown the whole room broke out into applause— Iím sure more because it looked nice than anything else. It got a lot of attention at the time. So there was some astronomy work going on at Langley in that sense.
Weart:What about in the plasma physics community, the people who were definitely concerned with fusion and things like, that? Did you have a lot of contacts there, did you go to meetings and so forth?
Oertel:I certainly had lots of contacts with the physicists in the plasma physics division of the American Physical Society. Iíd been with that society since I came to this country since Ď57. Yes, there were all kinds of interactions there.
Weart:I see, you could have gone either way?
Oertel:Yes. Thatís right.
Weart:You were a leader in a research group in experimental theoretical plasma spectroscopy. This is specifically the theta pinch thing you were talking about?
Weart:Tell me a little more about that.
Oertel:The theta pinch project was a project based on this capacitor bank I mentioned. We did get the thing together. We learned from other peopleís mistakes and put it together rather efficiently. It worked almost right from the start. It didnít have the growing pains that others had had, and it was a successful project. But now the question became very pressing, precisely what we should measure with it. My hope had been to get some forbidden coronal lines measured in the laboratory for the first time. That was my aspiration.
Weart:Yes, this is about the time that people were starting to do, that.
Oertel:Yes. And my fallback position simply was to go into the identification of spectral lines in parts of the spectrum that were just opening up, solar spectra and what have you— mainly flare spectra. So we had that kind of equipment and we were taking plates. But my main line was to go after the coronal lines. And we did find a line, the Argone XIV line, at 4610 or whatever it was, 4412? I have forgotten.
Weart:At one time you knew all these lines.
Oertel:Of course. We did find a line there. We eliminated everything that we could think of that would not be the line. We proceeded to measure its transition probability, or to estimate it, from what we knew about the plasma, and we did come out with a transition probability which was about a factor of 3 higher than the magnetic dipole transition probability for the thing. That worried us a lot.
Weart:You mean, the theory wasnít that good at that point?
Oertel:Well, I talked to (Roy) Garstang about it, who was the expert. He was at Boulder. Garstang kicked it around a good bit, and he finally told me that he couldnít really think of a way in which the line could be that much stronger. Thereís not that much magic in the magnetic dipole transition—he didnít think he could be off by a factor of 3 in the transition probability.
Oertel:So it was never quite resolved— whether we did see that line or not. It was reported for what it was worth; we did report it as an interpretation. We then said, ďAssuming that interpretation is correct, here is an estimate of the transition probability.Ē Other work was done with that after I left there. I did leave initially for a year, on graduate leave to the University of Maryland, but then got the opportunity to go into space science at NASA headquarters.
Weart:Yes, I want to get back to that in a second. First, just tell me briefly about this group you had at Langley. How large a group was this?
Oertel:Varying in size. There were about three or four steady people, and then we had people who joined us at various times—a German, a South African, a Korean, who came under the Academyís (National Academy of Sciences) program to spend a year, they did some experiments and left.
Weart:I see. And how did the funding of that work? Did youí have any difficulties or was it a fairly automatic process?
Oertel:In those days funding wasnít really a big problem for Ď NASA. We did have to defend our programs, but our salaries were taken care of anyway because we were civil servants and somebody apparently justified the positions. So we were there, and the work we were doing, after the initial expenditure for the project, wasnít all that expensive.
Weart:I see. The initial thing had to be, they were committed to that even before you came.
Weart:So it was just a matter of submitting reports a few times a year, that sort of thing?
Weart:Written reports? Iím interested to learn more about this—how the information flows. Iím impressed by the strong differences between the way things happen in a place like DOE headquarters and the way things happen in a university, the way people communicate. Weíre waiting now for you to be called up to present slides and all this sort of thing. Itís quite different. Iím interested in this transition.
Oertel:Well, I can tell you how we reported. First of all, the key thing was to publish papers. We did. Anything that was worth publishing, we published. I developed a couple of patents while I was there, connected with the work I was doing or where I was helping other people, and those of course were published as patents. Then we had, annually, a program review for headquarters. There was from time to time an interócenter review of the whole area.
Weart:Is this the dogóandópony show kind of thing where you stand up in front of a group of people and report orally?
Oertel:A little more than that. The papers were then published as ďProceedingsĒ. I still have some of those things.
Weart:So in a way it was like a scientific conference, that kind of question and answer sort of thing?
Oertel:Thatís right. But it was limited to NASA people and their contractors.
Weart:And the people would be mainly scientists who came there?
Oertel:Yes. And there were good people there. Rosenbluth was usually there, he was one of the contractors. There would be other good people coming in to critique the work.
Weart:You also went to scientific meetings?
Oertel:Yes. The usual ten-minute talk.
Weart:I see. You say then you went for a yearís leave to Maryland.
Weart:To hold some sort of visiting position there?
Oertel:Yes, a visiting scientist position. My main goal at that time was to complete the work I was doing with Jinx Cooper on broadening of ionic lines.
Oertel:Theoretical work, thatís right, stimulated by that experiment that had been so successful. It was a front pager on the PHYS. REV. LETTERS when it finally came out, they published it in two weeks or something like that. So we followed up on that, a lot of work with computers and so on. I learned my own programming to really understand how these programs work.
Weart:Was that when you first really encountered a computer?
Oertel:No, it had already happened at Langley. I was very frustrated, because the system would not really let me adapt the computer to the laboratory work. The only way it came in was in the analysis, and of course in theoretical work. I went the route that probably everybody takes who ever does theory with a computer, or did in those days, namely, I told somebody to write a program, and told them what I wanted, and very quickly discovered that thatís like telling somebody ďbuild me a house, with so many rooms in it.Ē Itís just not done that way. You have to make decisions all the way along. So I learned programming. There was a fascination, for one thing, with the language itself, a new way to express mathematical thoughts, which was fascinating to me. The other thing it does to me, and I donít know whether itís really that widely recognized, is that if you apply this language, or you express your physics problem in this language, it absolutely forces you to think through all eventualities. If you donít, the computer is going to stop somewhere, because it doesnít know where to go from there. It really is forcing you to a discipline in thinking which is more than you might have if you donít go that route.
Weart:Thatís very interestingómore than a normal analytic way of doing it, necessarily.
Weart:This was in FORTRAN, I suppose?
Weart:I see. By the way, in this period had you considered going back to Germany? Had you had any feelers?
Oertel:Yes; the company that had given me a stipend wanted me back, and we did correspond from time to time. At one time they offered me the leadership of a research group in a pretty wellópaid job.
Weart:What company was this?
Oertel:This was the AEG Company, sort of a German General Electric (in fact it means that).
Weart:Right, Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft or something like that.
Oertel:Yes. I didnít accept that job, for a number of reasons. For one, I found my job in the US just so much more fascinating, the possibilities so much greater. For another thing, the job they were offering me was covering the waterfront, and the resources that they were giving with it were absolutely inadequate. I knew there were groups of hundreds of people working those same problems in the US, and to go and compete with them with three Germans. and some marks (which didnít go very far in those days), and a technology that was pretty much inferior still to the USís, didnít seem to me to be the right way to go.
Weart:Very interesting. So this offer came from NASA. I suppose this was because of your presence in these solar physics meetings as Langleyís representative?
Weart:Tell me about that, how you made a transition to NASA headquarters.
Oertel:Well, Iíd met Harold Glaser, who was chairing this solar physics subcommittee, Harold also was a potential source of funding for my work in Langley. It was funded out of another part of NASA, not out of space science but out of what was called Advanced Research and Technology.
Weart:How does that work? Do you make an application, as you would make application to an outside agency for extra funds for your work?
Oertel:Yes, in principle you do. But it wasnít me personally who did it, the organization did it.
Weart:But you would say, ďWe can get money for this out of this NASA pocket.Ē
Oertel:Yes, but to me there was always a possibility that Advanced Research and Technology would say, ďWhat you do is really space science oriented, so we ought to get out of it and you get your money from them.Ē So I made it a point to keep Glaser informed of what we were doing; it essentially was selling our programs to him. He seemed to like something about the way I was selling it to him, because Iíd hardly arrived in Washington, on this year of annual academic leave, when he offered me the job as his senior scientist in the solar physics program, reporting to him. I thought about it at the time and decided. No, I really wanted to write those papers I. was ready to write. I also couldnít really see getting away from the active pursuit of science. So I turned the job down. Then about six months later, after the paper had been written, and Iíd gotten a better appreciation of the view of science that you can get by sitting in Washington— where youíre not at the forefront of the work itself, but everybody who is at the forefront comes in and tells you about—
Weart:I donít quite understand, because you were at Maryland, you said.
Oertel:Yes. Well, I did spend some time at NASA headquarters attending meetings for Langley, like meetings of the solar physics subcommittee. And of course I interacted with a lot of people who interacted with NASA. So there was a good bit of interaction. There was another consideration, that wasnít purely professional. To live in the Hampton, Virginia area is I guess like living somewhere in North Dakota or some place like that. Itís just not an intellectually very stimulating environment. I think we had three or four events per year where symphony orchestras and the like would come, and everybody would go, and of course the audience was completely uneducated. The whole thing was far from a pure delight. So the idea of getting back into a metropolitan area, and also maybe having fun in a different way in science, didnít look all that bad after I got that paper writing out of the way that Iíd wanted to get done.
Weart:I see. It was a conscious decision to be aware of science but not to be doing science?
Oertel:Well, not quite that far. I negotiated with Harold Glaser that he would let me spend 20 percent of my time on science, and the remainder I would devote to the work at the office. They also arranged for computing time for me. So that looked ok, at that time. I went there about February of Ď68 and asked him if heíd found anybody for this job yet. He told me, ďWell, I guess Iíve found anybody, but donít really want him.Ē So I asked him did he think it would still be available. He said, ďYou mean you want it?Ē I said, ďYesĒ, and that was it. It went pretty fast from there.
Weart:I see. I should have asked you— you were married around 1960, I guess— could you tell me briefly what was your wifeís background?
Oertel:Yes. She had graduated from a gymnasium in Germany and had come with her parents to the German military office here in Washington. She was a student at the University of Maryland and I met her there.
Weart:Has she maintained a separate career?
Oertel:She had to give most of that up, actually, when we went to Hampton. It was a combination of the environment in Hampton and our children—there were two children that came in short succession. She is now doing what many women do at that point: She is doing volunteer work as a professional for a cause that both of us believe in.
Weart:What is that, may I ask?
Oertel:Itís a bilingual school which exists here in Washington.
Weart:On, the German School, I see.
Oertel:Yes. Iím on the board of directors, have been now for six years, and she is working in the library there. She likes to interact with children, with books, a very avid reader. Sheís not getting paid money but it pays many other dividends.
Weart:I see. Now, NASA headquarters— what were your impressions? There are two points. What was the atmosphere when you arrived? How did that atmosphere change? You mentioned one thing already which was the number of people that were coming through, how aware you were of things. Maybe we should talk first about contacts between NASA headquarters and people out in the community (Iím particularly interested in astronomers). And then later if we have time, interactions within NASA. First, contacts with outside, how did that work and how did that change?
Oertel:Maybe I should say a couple of words on what the mission of the office was, first. Number one, to plan a national program in solar physics, by whatever means— including at what time Skylab, ATM (Apollo Telescope Mount), Orbiting Solar Observatories, solar explorers, sounding rockets, and what we called Supporting Research and Technology, which was really grants at universities, nonóprofits, and in some cases even industry. Secondly, it was executing the supporting programs,—sounding rockets and the university and SRT (Supporting Research and Technology) programs— and advising on all scientific matters. It had to concur in all scientific matters on the major projects.
Weart:So it was one component in the other projects, in that sense.
Oertel:Thatís right. Well, if you had a project, say to fly an Orbiting Solar Observatory, there was a program manager for that at headquarters, and a project manager in the field. But somebody had to decide what science would be done with it. And that was done by our office, on the basis of its evaluation of all the proposals by the solar physics subcommittee. These evaluations were pulled together by us into a recommendation. Then the Associate Administrator of the agency, formally made a selection of the payload; but that was almost invariably what the program office recommended.
Weart:So what did your most important decisions involve? Was it decisions involving payloads, would you say? or involving supporting programs?
Oertel:I would say the most important decisions involved what the program would be many years downstream. Whether you would have Skylab, whether you would have another generation of larger unmanned satellites, or what would go into the Shuttle (that came later), or what. Or maybe whether you would stop one discipline, and put all your marbles on a different one. The second most important decision was what was going to fly in the payload, for a satellite that was already approved. The third most important was who gets kicked off, or how you solve the problem, if you run into money difficulties. Those were the big money decisions, but to the individual astronomer, we had another set of decisions which were probably much more important. And that was, who was going to get part of that four to six million dollars of supporting research and sounding rocket funds? Because that may be to him the only money he had. We were spending on one satellite anywhere from 40 to 100 million, but it didnít pay for that many astronomers. It paid for launch vehicles and satellites hardware, very expensive.
Weart:Again, to take first the outside people. There would be the astronomers youíd be dealing with and there would also be people from industry.
Weart:There were a lot of people involved in these very expensive decisions. So what was the balance? Iím curious, in a typical day, a typical month, would you be getting a lot of visits, a lot of phone calls, letters, who would you be talking with? I gather as senior scientist you were of participating in these decisions?
Weart:So some of the people came to you, some of them came to the other people; so who would be coming to you from outside and how would they come?
Oertel:It would be people who either were principal investigators on spacecraft or for experiments, people who built sounding rockets, people who were grantees of one sort or another, and people who would like to join that category. I had very little interaction with people from industry. They knew I didnít control the money for the big spacecraft, and they really didnít care what the science would be that would be done with the satellite. All they cared about was that there would be one.
Weart:And that was a decision that wasnít made by you.
Oertel:That was not made by me. It was recommended by our office. We had input, we participated, but we didnít make that decision. And they knew that very well. The way it worked out, the nonóscience interests were lobbying at higher levels in the agency, and we as science chiefs essentially worked as the advocates for the science view. We were put in a position to do that through interacting mainly with outside scientists. I would say that about 80 percent of my interactions, in one form or another, involved outside scientists. That included getting reports from them or corresponding with them and that sort of thing. But I would still give close to that number, when youíre talking about phone calls and personal interaction.
Weart:How did the interactions mainly take place? Which were the most important inputs?
Oertel:Probably the most important inputs were the ones that we got in connection with committee meetings. A committee comes up with a recommendation, and it represents a consensus, The consensus is more important than any one individualís opinion, including ours. So the preparation, working with the science community to come up with a set of recommendations that would be advantageous for the science and for the program, was probably the most important set of interactions.
Weart:Can you give me a specific example of a committee meeting or committee decision that was particularly important? We donít have time to go through the whole thing.
Oertel:Well, the selection of a payload would be a good example.
Weart:We canít talk about all the things that happened. Take one particular case, a particularly hotly contested decision or one that was particularly important.
Oertel:Orbiting Solar Observatory I. When that payload was being selected, there had been a certain hiatus in the OSO program, because the satellite was being scaled up in size. So there was a lot of interest, a lot of people who hadnít had a chance of proposing (an experiment) in some time were proposing for that óó nearly everybody was. We sat in a committee with about 12 people.
Weart:How was this committee selected.
Oertel:It was selected on the basis of competence in astronomy but no conflict of interest. In other words, there was no proposer at the table.
Weart:Thatís difficult, if everybody was proposing.
Oertel:Extremely difficult, because almost everybody was proposing. But there are always people you can get who are theoreticians, so you would take theoreticians. They donít know anything about building the experiments, so then youíd take some people who build experiments, but not on solar physics, but maybe in stellar astrophysics— some of the instrumentation isnít all that different. So you can cover what you need to cover.
Weart:I see. You get enough of the pieces, and make one solar physicist from all of the pieces. Would you be the one who would select whoíd be on the committee? How would they be chosen?
Oertel:In that particular case I was the vice chairman of the committee rather than the chairman, because I was not the program chief at that time. Harold Glaser was still there. After he left it was pretty much my job to select them. People might argue with me. For example, if anybody had thought that I was trying to load the committee in one particular way then Iím sure there would have been somebody who would squawk about it. But I always attempted to have all of the interests represented, which meant that everybody was about equally unhappy. None of those decisions were ever overturned; in fact, they werenít even challenged.
Weart:I see. Now, on this OSO I committee meeting. I suppose all the people had all the proposals beforehand?
Weart:And then what happened at the committee meeting?
Oertel:We went through each proposal in turn. There was always at least one rapporteur on the proposal, who had concentrated on that particular one. Usually there were two that were chosen, one on the basis that he would understand the science very well, and the other that he would understand the technology very well. Then they would both report. Then anybody else who had anything to say about it would discuss it. We then had the proposers come in for a presentation, knowing now what they were proposing so everybody was ready to ask them all sorts of questions, which they had to answer. Thereafter there was a categorization. The categories were I, II, III, and IV. Number I meant itís good science, good technology. Number II meant good technology but the science is weaker (than ďIĒ). Number III meant good science but the technology isnít ready, and those were usually shunted aside and considered for funding for development of the technology. Then category IV meant that it didnít make it. There could be all kinds of reasons for that. Then, after the categorization, there would be a priority discussion. You looked at how many Category I experiments you had for a certain part of the spacecraft, and you set priorities. In some cases categorizations would be changed if the committee got the impression, as it did on OSO I, that two particular Category I experiments made an excellent package together. The decision then was made not to give NASA the option to substitute but rather to reócategorize the other candidates as II. Since there was a rule hard and fast, that no Category 2 experiment could displace a Category I experiment, that meant that the favored payload would actually fly.
Weart:This is actually the first opportunity to put together things, and see which ones feed into one another?
Oertel:Not the first. In soliciting proposals, we had encouraged people to work together and coordinate their experiments, so that they would make sense as packages.
Weart:But they wouldnít necessarily have that until you started getting the proposals in.
Oertel:Well, people were also afraid to make it happen, because you put yourself in double or triple or quadruple - jeopardy. If you say youíve got to fly along with Joe Doeís gamma ray spectrometer, and Joe Doeís gamma ray spectrometer has a flaw in it and doesnít make it, or somebody else has something thatís more interesting and more exciting, a polarimeter or whatever, then not only does Joe Doe lose out but the whole package loses. People are very reluctant to risk that. However, after a payload was selected we encouraged the people who had been selected to work closely together, and if necessary to modify experiments or change observing plans to make a more rational overall package.
Weart:Did you observe any lines of division in the community over things like OSO I, or in general óó places where there were different philosophies or different institutional backgrounds that would cause people to have different feelings about the program?
Oertel:There was some of that. Everybody in solar physics was in favor of the OSO program, but different people felt it should go different ways. There were some people around who were the early guard of experimenters, Dick Tousey being one, who were interested in the exploratory aspects. They wanted to have the first spectrum of this, that and the other thing. They were very little interested in what others preferred, namely to interpret and to learn new science, derive new knowledge from the data we were getting. We tended to encourage the latter, but it was difficult to find an individual who really was competent, from the technical point of view, and also had the wherewithal to turn all this into a first-rate scientific analysis of new data that nobody had ever seen before. It was really asking a lot, and it usually came down to a good team being selected. One of the best we had, was Leo Goldbergís. Others did this by creating guest investigator programs. (Interruption: someone looks in) We had an interesting exchange then involving Jack Zirker. One of the problems in such a committee is that people who sit around the table have some vested interest. You canít avoid it.
Weart:They may come from an institution where they know somebody or whatever.
Oertel:Thatís right. And I knew that Jack Zirker, who was a reviewer on the successful Colorado experiment— was planning to propose this very same experiment for the next OSO. So he had a clear conflict of interest. Although he didnít have it on paper, he did have it in practice. Iíll never forget how Jack, when he was asked to report on this proposal, looked at it, and he looked around the room and he said, ďWell, hell, I might as well say it— this is the best damn proposal Iíve seen in a long time. We wanted to propose it for the next time, but I guess we wonít, because this one ought to fly.Ē Thatís just about the most unselfish thing that you can possibly expect anybody to say. To me and to Harold, that was one of the biggest victories in running the shop. Because it is easy to just run the shop by politics, let everybody win whoís got the most strings and what have you. But to try to get people to speak their minds, even if itís against their own interests, and to get a corporate community decision, as unclouded as might be possible from vested interests thatís just the goal, and you donít achieve it very often. Here, we did that.
Weart:Particularly difficult with astronomers, I imagine.
Well, youíd be surprised. (Dr. Oertel called to make presentation to DOE management meeting)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
PHYSICAL REVIEW 125 (1962): 177.
Letter of alphabet, i.e., ninth in the series ó SW