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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Jerry Conner by David DeVorkin and Allan Needell on 1984 April 24,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Conner discusses his childhood and early education in rural Texas, and his developing interest in science. He moves on to discuss his undergraduate and graduate experience at Rice Institute; his enrollment in the U.S. Navy; the rise in war-time and post-war academic interest in nuclear physics; his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory; his impressions of Tom Bonner at Rice Institute and Los Alamos; and his work with Cockcroft-Walton accelerators. Additional topics discussed include: nuclear physics, x-ray spectroscopy, the Vela Program, and federally funded artificial satellite programs in general.
Could you tell me, Dr. Connor, a little bit about your early home life and the development of your professional interests?
Very well. I grew up in the country in northeast Texas about halfway between Dallas and TexArkana. From my very early days, I was not very interest in farming. On the other hand, I was quite interested not in scientific, at that time, but technical kinds of things. One of my friends had an interest in a ham radio activity and had been able to pull together a limited amount of equipment, and that really intrigued me a great deal. I thought that was great fun. When my father worked on the car or the farm machinery, I would blacksmith shop and hammer on things.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
No. One sister died before I was born. So I was raised as an only child.
What were the educational levels of your mother and father?
My mother finished 8th grade and I’m not even quite sure about my father, but less than that, something like 5th grade in public school.
Was you mother at home constantly or did she have outside activities?
No outside activity. It was farm life; both Mother and Father worked very hard on the farm, and she would work in the field. In that sense she was working outside the home, meaning house, but it was all part of the same operation.
Reminds me of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, but I guess that’s west Texas.
In your upbringing, is there a point in time when it became evident that you were going to go through formal schooling procedures? How would you characterize your parents’ support of education? Were they for it or did they try to encourage you to —
No, from the very earliest time that I can remember, my mother had a very hard driving concern that I got to college. Now, going to college when I was growing up in that community was a relatively rare thing for a poor farm boy. So it was an open issue as to whether they and I in some sense would be able to pull it off, and I don’t remember being very concerned about it. My mother was much more concerned about it that I was when I was quite young.
By not being concerned, do you mean you would have been happy to stay on the farm and be a farmer?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision of that sort. I think it was just something in the future that I didn’t quite have to worry about at that time. I poked around doing interesting things when I didn’t have to work. Incidentally, my folks were really very tolerant of me and allowed me a lot of free time on the farm, rather than making me work every walking minute, which was the lot of some of the farm children in that community. I can remember a few things to illustrate my interest in technical matters from an early age. When I was nine or ten years old I read something about the way coal gas was made. Since my father had a blacksmith shop we had coal so I went out and took a tin can and crushed some coal, put it in it and heated it over a fire, put a tube in the can with some clay off to some distance, and discovered I could make the gases that were driven off burn and other thing of that sort. But my interest wasn’t focused too much. I was also interested in ants and worms and things of that sort.
Did you have stimulus from friends and teachers at school?
I don’t think I had very much stimulus from friends, except from my one friend who was trying to get together enough radio material to have a ham radio station. He put me in contact with some of his friends, people who had more of that sort of equipment. But I never had very much scientific stimulus from other friends.
Did he go on to be a scientist of any sort?
Well, yes, he did. His name is Homer Dale Milford. He was a year or two older than I. He went o to become a meteorologist, and after that he became a Representative from a state of Texas in the US Congress. As a matter of fact I think he only served one term. He did not like the lifestyle too well.
What about teachers? Can you point to one or two teachers in school or even previous to that who were influential in your career?
I always got along pretty well with my teachers. In fact, part of the time I had that reputation of being teacher’s pet because I would do things the teachers like for their students to do, like not cause??? and do the homework and things like that. On the other hand, I don’t remember any teachers until perhaps the 9th grade or thereabouts who had any particular scientific interest; in fact, not even then. There was a teacher at that time who was principal of the two room school house I was going to up until about 9th grade who had very broad interests, including the subjects he taught in school, but also sports and so forth. I played basketball on the school team. At any rate he and I got along just great, and he encouraged me a lot in whatever it was I was interested in. I’m sure had it been biology or had it been almost anything else, he would have encouraged me. But he didn’t have any great depth of knowledge or training, I think, in the sciences. So I remember, when I got too old to go to the country school for 10th grade, I went into high school in Commerce, Texas, by bus.
What year was that?
Let me think. We had just moved from the farm community to Port Arthur, which was a few hundred miles away on the coast, still in Texas, close to Louisiana.
Was you father still a farmer at that point?
He had been a farmer up until the spring before he had found a job in the construction industry building an oil refinery in Port Arthur.
This was because of his background as a blacksmith?
No, it was just an opportunity to get out of farming. He had tried farming and had preferred farming for a long time, but it was a very hard life and he wasn’t doing very well financially. I didn’t find this out until sometime after I grew up, but he was somewhat heavily in debt because of repeated farm problems, failure or whatever. Anyway we moved to Port Arthur when I was 15 years old. I was born in 1927, so it must be when we moved to Port Arthur.
That was after Pearl Harbor?
Just after Pearl Harbor. My father had gotten this job late in the spring, after the spring planting had been done, and my mother until we could sell our interest in the farm. We did not own the farm, we rented it, but the crop was ours. We were able finally to sell it, and my mother and I went to Port Arthur. Another way I can be sure that it was after the war started is that rationing was already in. We had very poor tires on our car and I had to drive it; we had several problems in getting from where we lived to Port Arthur.
During this time you were already in high school.
Had you been bused to the 10th grade before that time, or the 10th grade came after?
No, the 10th grade came before that time. The last grade at that time was 11th grade. Now it’s 12 but at that time it was 11. I did my final high school year in Port Arthur.
Can you identify that period as the time when you became specifically interested in any career goals?
Yes. I began to realize, that especially when I was still on the farm this decision about whether I would go to college at all or not was approaching fairly soon. What was typical then for those farm boys and girls who did go to college was to go to the local college in Commerce, which at that time was the East Texas State Teachers College. It’s now part of the University of Texas system but it’s located at Commerce, a small community there in east Texas, which was about then miles from where we lived on the farm. I hadn’t focused on what I would study in college when I was still on the farm. After moving to Port Arthur it looked very much likely that I could go to college. Somehow, being in a city rather than on the farm made that seem more feasible. I had an uncle who lived in Humble near Houston who worked for the Houston Light and Power Company. He was a great promoter of Rice Institute at the time, Rice University now, and for the last year or two he had started to work on my father and mother to try to convince them to send me to Rice. My mother was very enthusiastic about that, and it worked out that way, as a matter of fact.
How were you funded at Rice?
I was funded because I could live at home. After living in Port Arthur for less than a year, my father was transferred to the Houston area on his job. The construction company completed the project in Port Arthur and had another one going in Houston and my father had to go over there. It was luck. There was a great deal of luck involved in all of this. My mother and father moved over there. At the very time we moved, just after I graduated from high school, Rice went on a three semester per year cycle because they had a Naval ROTC contingent there. They had built it up greatly and they were now trying to get naval boys educated, and so I went right into school I think within a month. I think it was in July of that year, which was 1943, when I graduated from Port Arthur, went to Houston, went right into Rice. The total cost of going to Rice was very minimal in those days. There was no tuition and fees were very modest. I think for about $200 I went to Rice, and I lived at home. So it all worked out. You know, the present day problem of financing children in college just was non-existent then.
When did you first declare a major?
I went in with the idea that I wanted to be a chemist, a chemical engineer or something of that sort.
Was coal gasification part of it?
Yes. I had just felt that chemistry was science. I think that is the best way to describe it.
No. Petroleum was very interesting, but from the standpoint of petroleum chemistry, not petroleum extraction of oil and so forth.
Had you read books and popular journals by this time that dealt with science? Could you name a few that you read, such as Popular Science?
I had surely read some journals and books about ham radio. I had read books that were more chemistry oriented than anything else at that time, and I can’t remember the names of them. I had a chemistry course at Commerce in high school and a physics course in Port Arthur in high school. In the chemistry course I had a good teacher and he was very inspiring. He really covered a lot of territory in chemistry. The physics course in Port Arthur was not very good. In fact I got thrown out of class once just because it was so boring. I was not alone. That was not a unique honor. It was just that the entire class was not at all favorable toward that course and the teacher was not very good. We all got thrown out is what it amounted to.
Let me identify a few milestones. You went into chemistry. Did you turn to physics at any time during the time period?
Yes. I went into chemistry the first year meaning school term of two semesters, and by the second year I began to realize that physics was more fun. I changed from chemistry to physics sometime in the middle of the second year.
What made it more fun?
Just the subject material.
You took both a chemistry course and a physics course in your first year at Rice?
Yes, I did, and the second year as well. Thereafter I tended to concentrate on physics. After two years I went off to the Navy. I got two years of schooling in a year and a quarter of calendar time, because we went on three semesters a year. By the time I left it was clear I liked physics better than chemistry, and made the change which was no problem. All I had to do was say I wanted to and that’s all there was to it.
How did you get into the Navy? Did you do anything of a specialized nature?
Yes. The Navy had a program with a kind of special allowance for people with a little bit of technical training and with an interest in being radio and radar technicians. I applied and was accepted into the Naval Radio and Radar Training Course, with the idea that I would be a technician in that area. One was able to sign on as a Seaman First Class rather than common seaman or whatever the term was. In other words it was a couple of grades up already going in. That looked attractive, so I volunteered for that course in the Navy rather than waiting a few months and being drafted. I went in when I was 17-1/2 or thereabouts.
This was a technical operational division. Did you actually see duty?
Well, the way I like to put it is that after I received my training and was put on assignment, I never got in an airplane and I never got on a ship. We completed the training course just as the war was over so there was no need to send me out to active duty. Rather, all of the bases, stations and temporary bases were being decommissioned. People were shipping things home head over heels. I was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, and assigned to the warehouse department because I could sort out the parts. I knew what all the parts were. I could read the color codes on the resistors and capacitors and chokes and so forth. As you might imagine people were eager to come home and that stuff just got dumped in the barrels totally unsorted. Something you’re familiar with, right?
You’ve seen our restoration facility.
I spent the rest of my time in the Navy, again, which was a little less than a year, sorting out electronic components.
How did you feel about that?
I was disappointed. I wanted to get assigned on a ship. Actually I went into naval aircraft electronics for two reasons. One, I thought that would be more interesting, and two, the training school for that was in Corpus Christi, only a little over 200 miles from home. By that time I’d met Ann and was interested in seeing her whenever I could.
Did you meet her at Rice?
No. I met her at church in Houston.
Church of Christ, the one that’s gained a certain amount of fame recently for their little community at Collinsville, Oklahoma; very fundamentalist church. But each church is independent of all the others. At any rate I went to that school in Corpus Christi and then was assigned to Norfolk.
Were you disappointed that you didn’t have a more technical position?
Yes, I was disappointed.
Did you learn much in the training courses?
In the training course I learned a great deal. I thought that was just really invaluable. I have applied it — well, not recently, but over a good bit of my continuing professional career. Even after going back to Rice, completing my physics degree and getting work at Los Alamos in physics, I continued to have a strong electronics slant for a long time in what I did. I liked it and I wanted to do it myself. But I haven’t done that now in some time.
It sounds like your experience and certainly training in the war was important to your career.
It was very important, right? It made the completion of the work I did in graduate school much easier because I could fiddle with the instruments myself and make them work.
When you returned to Rice to complete your physics degree, did you begin to specialize in one particular part of physics at that time?
Not as an undergraduate. I did both undergraduate and graduate work at Rice. As an undergraduate I did not specialize. They had really only two parts to the department there. There was nuclear physics and there was low temperature physics. It was after the war, in fact, before the low temperature physics department was established. They just made an explicit decision to have low temperature physics research activities and hired a couple of professors.
Was that under the impetus of Navy interests?
No, I don’t believe so. Well, I can’t say for sure. It was not my perception that it was anything except to broaden the scope of the department of physics. It had been almost entirely nuclear physics up to that time, as far as the research activities were concerned.
What were your particular leanings as an undergraduate? Did you want to go into one or the other?
Yes, even as an undergraduate, after I returned from the war, I was leaning toward nuclear physics all along. When I became a graduate, that’s what I did; I took up nuclear physics research.
Can you point to any one thing about nuclear physics or to one of your professors that you can identify as something that pushed you in that direction?
Well, you’ve got to know that the reason the war ended when it did had to do with nuclear physics. And that caught my imagination just as it did a lot of other people, and really generated a lot of interest; when I went back there was just no question.
Can you remember reading the snide’s report on the Manhattan Project, or can you remember how you learned about reactors or weapons?
Well, I learned about the nuclear bomb like everyone else did, in the newspaper and on the radio.
You understood what it was?
Oh, yes. It was not difficult to understand. That is immediately what I tried to go into as soon as I went back to school. In fact when I went into graduate school one of the very first projects that I got involved with was to measure some cross-sections that were important to nuclear reactions, deuterium and tritium cross-sections. You know that’s the thermonuclear reaction important in weapons and associated things.
Who were your professors?
My undergraduate professors were Heaps, the low temperature professor was Squires, the old chairman of the department who came back and taught a few courses was Wilson. He was the original physics department, and he was fortunately for me still around. Very white haired and frail by that time but still around when I was there. Ritter and Bonner. Bonner was the chairman of the department, and was my advisor in nuclear physics in graduate school.
Just after the turn of the century, a man named Lovett became president of Rice. He was an astronomer from Princeton, and yet astronomy didn’t grow at Rice to any degree.
I was just wondering if, while you were there, in your association with it, was there any interest in astronomy at all? Can you explain why astronomy didn’t grow?
My impression is that there was very little interest. I certainly have no knowledge myself of why it didn’t grow. It just was not a subject we talked about very much except in a very general way. I think that in the undergraduate physics course work that I did, we probably covered astronomy in one chapter or something like that. It just did not get any emphasis.
There was no faction in the physics department or an astronomer trying to beat out of the box? That didn’t exist, to your knowledge?
Not to my knowledge.
Now, did you have other choices to go to graduate school after Rice?
I thought that I should try because to look at other graduate schools seemed like the thing to do, but Tom Bonner came around, in fact, and kind of twisted my arm before I’d really gone very far. He wanted me to stay, offered me a fellowship, and I just capitulated without really pursuing other choices. So I never had another formal choice, but I believe that was probably because I did not pursue it.
At what level would you place yourself in your graduating class?
I would say high, not number 1 or 2, but also well above 50 percent.
Can you recall the one or two outstanding people?
Not right now.
A more general question; did you find that most of your graduate school colleagues were getting more and more interested in nuclear physics, and did this cause any dissension in the department with the low temperature physicists?
I’m not sure I understood that question right. I don’t recall very much dissension. I think, as I said, there was a very conscious decision to have a low temperature program to give it a reasonable amount of support. I’m sure there was competition for funds and things of that sort, but it was supported quite well.
And for students?
For students, I wasn’t aware that there was any real competition there. It was smaller than the nuclear physics, but even in nuclear physics there were not very many students, perhaps eight or ten students at that time, and only four or five I believe in low temperature.
You mentioned that you worked on cross-sections of deuterium and tritium. Did this eventually go into a thesis?
It was part of my thesis. I had three topics for my thesis and the deuterium, tritium cross-section was one of them. This was at very low energy, lower than it had been measured until point in time, although I was working neck and neck with a group at Los Alamos trying to do the same thing. As an interesting aside, which I have the impression you guys love, Tom Bonner literally carried in his pocket a cubic centimeter of tritium gas back from Los Alamos, on an airplane, to Rice. It was with that cubic centimeter of tritium gas, the radio action material that he carried in his pocket, that I and several other people did a lot of research projects at Rice. That was okay in those days. That wasn’t illegal. It was given to him to use at Rice. He had a lot of stature of Los Alamos.
Did he have a sense of the danger of carrying it?
Oh yes. He was a fairly careful man about tritium and other radioactive materials and other hazardous materials, as a matter of act.
He really carried it in his pocket?
It’s my impression he carried it in his coat pocket. Not as a bare glass vial; it was in a glass vial but he had it packed very carefully.
Did he work in Los Alamos during the war?
Oh yes. And after the war he worked during the summers at Los Alamos.
Was it the T division, do you know?
I don’t know. He was always an experimentalist; very much an experimentalist.
As you were.
As I was.
What was the role of theory at Rice? Was it emphasized?
In my view it was not emphasized. We carried our work to the point where we would usually try to match experimental results with some appropriate theory, but not in any penetrativy way. That is, we’d take the results of theory and try to see if that would work with our data. But we did not develop theory, not at that time. Later on we did get a theoretician at Rice named Wagner, I believe.
Now, in identifying your thesis interests, obviously in nuclear physics, you’ve also identified a very strong connection between Bonner and Los Alamos.
Did this lead to your going to Los Alamos immediately afterwards, or what did you do?
Well, it certainly led to me being aware of Los Alamos, and having a pretty good understanding of what went on there. It sounded like it was right down my alley. That’s exactly what I was interested in.
Did you travel there as a graduate student?
No, I didn’t travel there as a graduate student until I was about ready to finish work and look for a job.
Was you thesis work classified?
No. Let me think. I actually got clearance while I was at Rice, because it was an issue about whether the D-T cross-sections were going to be classified or not.
It was an AEC Q clearance?
It was an AEC Q clearance that I got at Rice, right.
Was this work funded by AEC or just by Rice?
I guess I don’t know where the funds came from. As far as my own fellowship was concerned, after the first two years I got a formal AEC fellowship rather than a Rice fellowship, out of Oakridge, you know. I spent a day filling out questionnaires, tests and so forth. I did have an AEC fellowship in the last two years.
Could you describe the transition from being a graduate student to your first position?
My first job at Los Alamos? Well, I did interview at Shell, at Mobile in Dallas, at Rice and one other place which turned out to be a chemical manufacturing company which I discovered I wasn’t interested in. I clearly decided for Los Alamos, and as it turned out that was the lowest offer in terms of salary that I got, but it was by far the most attractive offer. They invited me out for an interview. I loved the country, the mountains, and the relatively dry conditions after living in Houston — you can understand that, perhaps — and there was just no question but that was where I wanted to go. So I did go there. I was put in a small group in the experimental physics division. Nuclear physics was mostly what was done at that time. Our group had a small Cockcroft-Walton accelerator. The Cockcroft-Walton was used mostly to generate neutrons by using the D-T reactions, so we made tritium targets and accelerated deuterons and made neutrons. We had a fairly intense source, but I don’t remember how intense.
I’m more interested in the atmosphere for research, the attitudes toward what was going to be the role of Los Alamos in the future, and what you personally wanted to do. Were you interested in basic research as you went there?
Yes. When I went there, I was interested in basic research. I’d always had an interest, however, in seeing research applied. I’m not quite the ivory tower scientist, who is negative about having some research applied. I like to see it applied. I thought nuclear physics was an ideal field of research. It had a lot of applications, hopefully things other than bombs. By that time, of course, I knew about nuclear power, nuclear reactors, radioisotope usage for tracers and other applications. So I thought it was a very exciting field, had a lot of research potential and had a lot of application potential. So that was what attracted me to nuclear physics.
Did you know where your group would fit in? You were making neutrons. Were you also doing the cross-section measurements with the neutrons, or was another group using your neutrons?
No, no we did the research then with our facility. We weren’t just a service facility. Well, we were both, as a matter of fact. We did research with the neutrons. We measured cross-sections, angular distributions, scattering cross-sections, total cross-sections, and I did a bit of that work.
All within the same group?
All within the same group. The neutron source was used as a facility for other people, also, to do research. This included biologists who would bring mice and expose them to the neutrons, and people doing certain kinds of fission research with the energetic neutrons, the 14 MEV thermonuclear neutrons from the D-T reaction. We worked mostly with D-T neutrons and only a very small amount with D-D neutrons which have much lower energy. So it was an exciting time. The atmosphere was exciting. No doubt it wasn’t nearly as exciting as it had been some years earlier, but it was still, to me, very exciting.
When did you start to work there?
I went there in July of 1952.
This was just past the crisis.
It was already past the crisis, so the future of Los Alamos seemed assured at that point in time. It didn’t seem to be an issue any more; there was really not very much talk about what the future of Los Alamos was to be.
Were you aware of the Mike test?
Oh yes. Well, the Mike test was in ‘52, the very year I went there. I was later to go out and see the hole in the ground filled with water, but not immediately.
Was your group specifically involved in applied tasks related to that?
No, not in any direct way. Our group was doing work that was heavily oriented toward what I’ll call supporting research, a kind of general, basic research that was background information which I hope was useful in the weapons program. But it was not to develop specific weapons or solve specific weapons problems for the most part.
Maybe we should schematize the rest.
Okay. We only have about 15 minutes left. I think we’d like to know from you if you could provide a schematic of how you migrated through your groups, the chief people you worked with, and when the Vela program began? How did you get into X-rays?
Starting with where we are now which was in 1952 until after the Sputnik launch in ‘57, I was the Cockcroft-Walton group.
So you continued pretty much in the same vein through Sputnik?
Except for one occasion when I was loaned to the Test Division at Los Alamos and then in the Pacific for about two months on a test series called Red Wing, in 1956. Then I came back and went right back into the same group.
In the same position all along staff member.
I know the way some groups work is that everyone is able to do everything. In other groups people really are specialists and provide crucial expertise. How would you characterize the group you were in and what was your expertise?
There was a pretty good breadth for most of us in the group. We both contributed to keeping this Cockcroft-Walton machine running (we did repair work, we changed targets, basically we did whatever was necessary to keep the machine running) and we also carried on experiments. Most of us had something to do of our own, so to speak, but we would use each other.
What did you call your group? Cockcroft-Walton group?
I’m not sure it had a name other than that, except for an administrative name. It was called P-4 which just means the fourth group in the physics division.
How big was it?
It was very small, probably eight to ten people.
Were you particularly a problem solver or fire putter outer or a designer or what? How would you characterize yourself?
I really enjoyed working on the machine. I probably spent most of my time either fixing the machine or building something new for the machine, a new control of some sort.
Who was the group leader?
A man named James Coon.
Now let’s go to the Sputnik era.
Did your position stay the same?
Yes, everything stayed the same. There was Sputnik but everything still stayed the same in our group.
But there began to be an interest throughout the country, and that included Los Alamos, to try to do more things in space. I mean people in certain areas had already been interested in doing this, of course, but it wasn’t nearly as general. Then suddenly people in Los Alamos were saying what can we do? A small group of people started to get together already in ‘57, or certainly by ‘58, trying to think of experiments to do in space.
Can you identify those people? Were you one of them?
I was not one of them, at that point in time. The leader was Richard Toschek. Some of the others were Harold Argo, John Northrup, and Samuel Bame.
Was your work in the group affected at all by the ad bent of missiles, ICBM? Was there any specifically related talk?
No, nothing. But after this informal group of people from various organizations none of them, incidentally, were from my group was active for a little while, they had managed to fly a few experiments on a very small 3 inch Deacon Arrow rockets, which Sandia Corporation, a colleague organization of ours, were developing. There was a decision made at Los Alamos and I’m not sure how it was made — to form a space physics group, and these people who had been already interested in space physics were to be in that group. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out there had been a feeling that maybe the Cockcroft-Walton group wasn’t really that important any more, doing the kind of work that were doing at least part of the time. At any rate, the decision was to change P-4 from a Cockcroft-Walton group to a Space Physics Group. So the people who had been doing space work were brought into the group. The original group members were given a choice: do you want to get into this new field or do you want to get out of the group, in a sense trading with the other people? It was about half and half. I chose to go into the new activity, space physics, then.
This was 1959?
This was in fact in December of 1959. Jim Coon was going to be the group leader of this group
Why did you stay with the space group? Do you recall what went through your mind at the time?
As you said, things had been pretty much the same then for a few years and it was a new and really exciting activity. I was infected with the excitement, I guess, like the other people, and here was an opportunity to make a change essentially painlessly. I remember having to giving up a couple of projects that I had embarked on in the nuclear physics area, and thinking about that briefly and deciding that it was worth it.
They shut down the Cockcroft-Walton?
They shut down the Cockcroft-Walton and gave it to the University of Kansas.
Did you have any pressures to publish up until this point?
No. Not really. We weren’t under any particular pressure to publish and I had not published very much.
Most of your work went into LASL documents at Los Alamos?
There were some LASL documents, yes.
Did this attitude about publishing change when you got into the space group?
No, I don’t think the attitude about publishing changed. There was so much technology to swallow then, and to learn how to do, that was not the issue for quite some time. I think it was realized right away that a space group without a mission, or program, was not going to be very viable. So part of the decision to make a space group was a bootstrapping operation. It was to give us the wherewithal to go after a project (a mission) of some sort.
Who did you look to?
There was discussion at that time about what became the Vela satellite program, in other words, verification or test ban treaty monitoring.
These discussions were in the Air Force, in AEC?
Discussion amongst everyone who was concerned, certainly including the Air Force. We were discussing it very strongly at Los Alamos, trying to carve out a role for ourselves.
This was after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?
No, this was leading up to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There were discussions including discussion with the Russians that started in ‘57 or ‘58 about a Test Ban Treaty.
AEC had responsibility under the Eisenhower Administration?
Yes, AEC was a major player because AEC presumably knew how to make weapons and therefore how to detect weapons. Detection was a big issue. There had been a group of high level people chaired by Panofsky the panel on High Altitude Detection of the presidents Science Advisory Committee, who wrote a report dated May 25, ‘59. I’m not sure what the exact date was; it was before our group was formed, in fact. This report points out the issues for monitoring a test ban treaty. And some of our management people specifically Richard Taschek who was deputy division leader of the physics division at that time and a pretty good politician, went hunting for a role in that area and were able to bring it back.
Did you read anything recognizable at that time about cosmic ray physics or things of that sort that dealt with doing it on rockets, balloons in space? Had you read anything at that time of Van Allen’s work or others? Is this what you wanted to do in space physics?
Yes. We thought that would be a great thing to do, and in fact the very first instruments that were flown were particle spectrometers, to make measurements of the particles that now we knew were there.
Those were the little Deacons?
Our little Deacons Arrows, yes. We had the DE/DX and E counter systems for charged particles, so that we could sort out electrons and protons and measure something about their energy spectra.
You were doing this while discussions were ongoing about Vela?
Yes. We also flew detectors that were like what some of the Vela detectors might be, X-ray and neutron counters, because those would be part of the Vela system. So when we had a chance we should fly those. Now, these were not on the Deacon Arrows. These came along in 1961 on Atlas Pods.
Very interesting. What was the energy range, and what were you looking for?
In some cases, especially with the neutron counter, we really weren’t very sure of what we were going to be seeing, or looking for. There was a considerable interest in trying to fly the detectors that might be prototype detectors for a test ban treaty. It was not purely for scientific purposes only or looking just for natural backgrounds.
Were you looking for solar sources or strictly non-solar sources?
I remember thinking that surely the solar source has got to be stronger than anything else, and we’d better find out all about that. I’m really not sure of the genesis of this, except somehow, very early on, I focused onto the area of X-rays as being the area in the Vela program that I wanted to be concerned with. That is detection of the X-rays from a nuclear explosion for monitoring purposes. That led to a concern for what the natural background of X-rays was, and at first I just thought in terms almost entirely of the sun as the major background source.
I am interested because the history of detection of non-solar X-rays of course occurs in 1962, with a series of lights by the APL and NRL groups. Prior to ‘62, had you had any contact with Giacconi or Friedman or any of those?
No. I had not had any contact whatever, and I don’t believe any of our group had.
You did have background information on the particle and radiation characteristics of nuclear explosions?
We had theoretical predictions and modeling of real explosion in the atmosphere, and in a few cases vacuum pipes had been hooked up to nuclear explosion, so we had some data on that, yes. We knew that the case of the bomb in space would be hot enough to emit thermal radiation in the X-ray range, and in fact, the modeling of an explosion in the atmosphere had shown that the way most of the energy gets out is by means of emission of X-rays, so we knew that much. We had a pretty good idea of the neutron and gamma ray radiation from a nuclear explosion, because those radiations travel a significant distance in air. Measurements in air could be folded back to the original source through the intervening air.
Did you take part in the Argus experiments?
No. I did not.
That was too early?
How about Starfish?
Yes. An interesting part of this is that just as the Vela program finally got formally approved, there was a decision to have another atmosphere and high altitude test series. All but one of us got pulled off of Vela right at the beginning of Vela and put on this other project. And so we did go out to the 1962 high altitude test series and we made measurements of the high altitude tests in X-rays, gamma rays and neutrons.
Who was the one person? Why wasn’t the one person called up?
That was John Northrup, and he wanted to stay associated with the Vela program.
Mind the store?
Mind the store, so to speak, yes.
Did he have anything against Starfish?
I don’t believe he had anything against it. I think in fact he probably saw the situation as an opportunity to become the leader in the Vela area. It didn’t quite work out that way, because when we all got back home Jim Coon, our group, journals like the APJ or that sort of thing? Let me waffle around that just a little bit by saying that, from late in ‘62, when we got back from the test operation and we had an approved Vela program, we were simply head over heels involved in designing and building instrumentation for that and so for the next two or three years we were in that status. In fact, even after we’d had the first launch, and were in the same situation with regard to the second launch, we didn’t get around the publishing any of the data, or at least very very little of it. We got a fair amount of criticism for that from the scientific community. I can remember at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, a session was arranged to put a lot of pressure on us to come forth with some results, which of course we did in 1964. And many people thought we would have a lot more data than we really had, because the early instruments were like we thought programmatic detection instruments should be nuclear explosion detection instruments. They weren’t scientific instruments. The very first Vela had no explicitly scientific instruments on board. It was what came out of the other instruments that we were able to use. Then that situation changed as time went by. I can remember being at the satellite tracking center in Sunnyvale for the very first Vela launch, and the X-ray detectors, which I had been PI for, started showing varying current reading which I felt were probably due to solar X-ray Vette, in fact, was there two at the time. Do you know Jim Vette? He was the archivist for the National Data Center at Goddard. Vette suggested the signals in the X-ray detectors might be due to high flaxes of trapped electrons.
Maybe we should learn more about this.
Oh really? I’m amazed that you don’t know. He was in on the early stages of Vela from a different perspective. He might be pretty interesting to you if you’re building a story about Vela.
I think a good thing to do for the last minute or two is to identify some of the major names, is that all right with you? Some of the people you feel we should talk to, some of the trends, changes in the structure of the group possible from then till not that we should talk about. What are the milestones that we should cover in detail with you and other people?
Well, first, as far as people are concerned, Jim Vette was an interesting guy. Fred Seward was at Livermore and is now of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. There was a John Naugle whom you might have heard of an NASA, all on a steering group, together with people from Los Alamos, Sandia, the Air Force and so forth. Incidentally, the sponsoring organization of that program was what become ARPA they furnished the money — and what is now Air Force Space Division was the leading agency to get the thing done. Some of the other people — there was, gee, —
You can fill them in later.
I can fill them in so perhaps we should play it that way. Now, as far as some of the milestones were concerned, the very first launch of course was a truly major milestone. It worked, even though the early plan for Vela had been to have five launches just to get one successful launch. It was viewed as truly an R and D program, to learn how to do the problem of monitoring for nuclear explosion in space, and it was structured that way. Well, when the first launch was a success, and most of the instruments worked — in fact a very high percentage of everything worked beautifully — there was an immediate wondering about what to do, so the program was stretched out a little bit. We said let’s continue since we have all of the hardware in the pipeline and it’s already approved. Let’s go forward, but we’ll take a little more time in between launches. So for the first three launches it continued really as an R and D program and by then we knew quite a bit of information. The program gradually became oriented more toward an operational program. After the third launch it was decided to expand the scope of the satellite, to expand the size, and to do more measurements of various kinds on the Vela satellites. And that’s the Phase 2 that you may have heard about: with bigger and heavier satellites. That was a milestone of sort also in the late sixties, there was the perception that the Vela program was ending and now what do we do? And a lot of concern was developed over that. But finally it was decided to merge the mission into another satellite program with another mission, and that has to remain undefined right now, because it’s a classified program and the missions are classified. The fact that we have a continuing verification mission is not classified, but the way we do it is classified. A decision was made by the Air Force that they were going to do the monitoring program entirely, by themselves with contractors in the Vela follow-on. They had worked with AEC and the AEC laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia in Vela and had not been able to control us in a way that they could control contractors. They were very frustrated with that, frankly, so they tried the new approach. They started off doing it but it didn’t work out very well. First of all they called Sandia back in to help with the downward looking detector systems for the atmosphere. There had been a division of labor from very early on: Los Alamos would look into space and Sandia would look into the atmosphere for nuclear explosions. Anyway the Air Force contractor wasn’t doing very well so they called Sandia back in. Then, for Phase 2 of this program there was an agreement that Los Alamos would resume its role in providing instrumentation to look in space as well.
Can you name me a few people at Sandia who would be primary targets?
Yes, I believe I can. A man who’s now retired but who was very much a mover in those days, equivalent to Dick Taschek at our place, is a man named Don Schuster. I think he still lives in Albuquerque. Some other people would be Jim Scotty a relatively young man still, so he’s probably still around although he retired from Sandia. William C. Myer who is still there, although he’s not working in this program any more. Finally another person who is still working in this program is Herbert McDumas, Jr. He is a department head now, concerned with satellite programs.
We have to run, but let me just ask one question. Could you provide a very quick yes or no answer: was there a contrast in the style of research, the pressure on you and the general atmosphere of doing research in your own group, the old Cockcroft-Walton group, as opposed to the new space group? Were you able to concentrate in any different way and was there a change in research atmosphere?
Yes. There was quite a change, in the sense that what we had been doing before was an ongoing project, not at all panic mode operation. It was just the typical kind of research that would be carried on, I think, in a university, for the most part without very urgent schedules. The picture changed totally when we got into the space activity. In fact, it wasn’t even research; it was like making a new accelerator or something like that. It was engineering, testing and just all kinds of things of that sort. Unfortunately it remained so even after data began coming in. It was a great frustration to us and to others that not enough attention could be given to the data that we were getting in the early years. That’s changed now. We’ve published a tremendous amount.
Was it worth it?
Oh, you bet it was worth it! The most fun I’ve ever had!
Great! We’ll break it off now but this is only an exploratory and we’ll certainly get back to you.