Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Robert Farquhar by David DeVorkin on 2008 February 27,
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 Robert Farquhar discusses topics such as: family background and childhood; beginning his interest in aviation; joining the Army and fighting in the Korean War; doing undergraduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for aeronautical engineering; George McVittie; orbital dynamics and thinking about getting into cosmology; Sputnik; deciding to go to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study astrodynamics; working at the RAND corporation; Sam Herrick; Robert M. L. Baker; Stanley Ross; John Breakwell; William Thompson; celestial mechanics; Lagrangian points; Harrison Hagan "Jack" Schmitt; National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); James McDivitt; Ari Shternfeld; working at Lockheed; University of California, Berkeley; going and teaching at the University of London; William Bonnor; Ben Lange; doing his Ph.D. at Stanford University; drag-free satellites; Ames Research Center; Goddard Space Flight Center; Bob Groves; Redstone Arsenal; Hermann Bondi; Apollo program; George Low; Norman Ness; Keith Ogilvie; Jeff Briggs; Joe Veverka.
We’re recording, and this is session three with Bob Farquhar. The interviewer is David DeVorkin and the auspices, as usual, are Air and Space Museum. We’re in Bob’s office at the Air and Space Museum, and it is February 27th, 2008. Just to cover some old ground, I gave you the transcript, you edited the transcript from the first two sessions, and technically we’ve gotten you up through your Ph.D. and through a sequence of short-term jobs that you were having pretty much in parallel with the Ph.D., and then to your move to Goddard Space Flight Center.
So you already did the Electronics Research Center?
Yes, but I want to clarify a number of these things. Let me just say that we need a clearer chronology of your sequence of schools and jobs. Now, it might be best if you were to simply write that down on your own and just give us like in a Who’s Who. Do you have a Who’s Who entry, as far as you know?
Somebody asked me once. I mean, it wasn’t the usual ones where they just want your money. But I never saw what happened to it, so I don’t know.
Okay, because it’s that sort of thing that we need to have an official history of because you did move around a lot and you did change.
Yes, I was unstable.
Unstable, okay, if we can use that term.
It seemed that way, it seemed like you were very unsettled and undecided. Once you would try a new school you would become dissatisfied for one reason and then you would move away. We also talked a bit about how your parents were concerned that you were constantly moving around back and forth.
My mother was mainly the one concerned. Yes. They thought I was pretty unstable. They wanted to see me get married, for one thing. They thought that was one of the reasons, and it was one of the reasons I wasn’t real stable.
Because you were more concerned with finding the right woman and settling down with the right woman?
Well, I wanted to get married, yes, but either they turned me down or something went wrong always, so it didn’t happen.
Yes, and that can be very disconcerting, I would think.
Yes, that was right. I didn’t know if I wanted to go for a Ph.D. or not. I saw it was a long road and I couldn’t figure out which field I wanted to be in, I switched around several times there.
Yes, and that’s why in the first two sessions we have bits and pieces of interesting material, no doubt, about your training at the University of Illinois, first in Chicago, but then down at Champaign.
Yes, so that was pretty steady there once I went back to school.
Right, but then going to and from UCLA, Stanford, your work at the Redstone Arsenal, your work at Lockheed.
Well, some of these are summer jobs now, so that’s a little bit different.
That’s what I’m trying to straighten out. Yes, it seems that way. The Redstone Arsenal seems like a summer job.
Yes, it was.
The RAND was a summer job.
But then the University of London.
Oh, that was where I was really unstable, yes. I can try to go through a chronology of these things. I went to the University of Illinois in the summer of 1955. I went to summer school there because I needed special help and everything for my algebra or for any mathematics, as far as that goes. I really didn’t know anything outside of how to multiply and divide and so forth, adding numbers. Arithmetic was all I knew. So I went to the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, then I went down state to Champaign-Urbana, so that was all pretty much straight through. I graduated then in February 1959 and then I just stayed there to go to graduate school, but I was only there for that one semester for graduate school at the University of Illinois. I pretty much decided I was tired of being at Illinois. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the curriculum or the teachers, but the University of Illinois is kind of an isolated place and I was getting pretty tired of that. So I decided I wanted to work with Sam Herrick out at UCLA. So then I went to UCLA, but I didn’t like Herrick. I stayed there for the whole year and basically finished everything but my Master Thesis, and I was pretty well done with that even. So that was through that summer and then I got the summer job at the Redstone Arsenal, which then became NASA.
So where was RAND in this?
I interviewed with RAND when I was at the University of Illinois and got a summer job there and then I went to UCLA right after that. So that made sense, I just stayed out in California.
So you actually went to Southern California for the summer job to work at RAND?
Yes, and then I already knew I was going to UCLA in the fall.
Yes, that sounds like a perfect segue.
Yes, so that was easy, and RAND was such a nice thing. I mean, I was intrigued with RAND and that actually made a big difference in my life.
Were you at the primary offices or were you at SDC? Systems Development Corporation, which was their logical arm that was down by Santa Monica High School?
I was in the main office. It was in Santa Monica, but it’s the main place.
Right, it was near the ocean?
Yes, SDC was also in Santa Monica, but it was a RAND subsidiary on Olympic Boulevard where they had the big computers and SAGE.
I was with all the main people there. I remember Nancy Nimitz is somebody I remember. She was an economist. She was the daughter of Admiral Chester Nimitz.
So you weren’t involved in or didn’t see SAGE?
No. There were no laboratories there or anything like that.
Okay, to keep it straight then, since this is just a clarifying overview, RAND would be the summer of ’59?
Then in the fall of ’59 you entered UCLA and you took courses with a number of people, but it was Sam Herrick that had his reputation that had attracted you?
Yes, and I thought I’d really like that, but then I found out he was only doing the classical stuff and that stuff wasn’t going to be too applicable to spacecraft dynamics.
Which is what you wanted?
Yes, which was really what I wanted, but I met William Thompson there and he was the guy who became my thesis advisor, but he really didn’t know too much about the 3 body problem and stuff. He knew a lot of other things, though, and he was experienced and he was a good teacher. So I took all the courses I needed for the master’s degree and I was working on the thesis, but I wasn’t completely finished with it when I left. But I got that in, and it was being read, but they didn’t okay it until about a year later, so I didn’t graduate. I remember telling you, it was Angus E. Taylor or something. He was right, the thing was pretty shallow. It was really nothing. I was interested in these things, but I didn’t know too much about them. I didn’t really know what to do, so I looked at trying to find a path of a spacecraft leaving low earth orbit to go into libration point, but that wasn’t a big deal anyway. So the thesis really is not something I’m especially proud of, except for the fact that it was one of the early works on libration points, because not too many people were really that interested in the applications of these things at that time. There were a couple of people, but that was it. Arthur C. Clarke had written a little bit about it and inspired me a little bit.
Was Herrick’s program called Astrodynamics at that time?
It might have been, I’m not sure, but I think it was.
Were you then technically in Astrodynamics?
No, I was in engineering. They had a different system out at UCLA, they didn’t differentiate for engineering, it was just an engineering degree.
Everybody got an engineering degree?
Yes, right. They didn’t get one in civil engineering or electrical engineering; it was just engineering.
They just called it engineering — yes you got your degree in engineering. I don’t know why they did that. It’s probably changed since then.
Was Herrick always in engineering when you were there?
Well, he might have been in the Astronomy Department. I don’t know how that worked.
So you were not privy to any of that or interested in it?
I wasn’t worried about those things. No, I wanted to get a degree and I guess there was a degree, he actually had a degree in Astrodynamics, but when I saw what was involved I thought, this isn’t for me, because this is fine if you want to worry about the motions of the planets or asteroids, but it wasn’t worth much as far as spacecraft was concerned.
So as far as you know, he wasn’t doing ballistic trajectories and missile work?
Not really, no. He might have dabbled in it, but he knew the old classical celestial mechanics and that’s how he did things.
You know I was there from ’61 through the mid- sixties, and my impression was that there was a very close connection between Herrick’s program and the various ballistics and orbital programs at TRW and the other industry, aerospace industries, that were not far from UCLA, down the 405 corridor, so to speak.
Well, he was consulting with some of them, I remember that. Aeronutronic, I think, was one of them.
Then he was always complaining he had to drive so far to get to their office, which was south.
That was in Laguna, actually.
But I was totally disenchanted with him after the first course. I thought this is not going to help me.
Were you interested or ever considered a career at one of the aerospace firms? I mean at that time, if you could think.
At that time, no. I was going to go on for a Ph.D. I was still thinking in terms of that.
I wanted to work in the field of, I hate to say the word “Astrodynamics,” but in orbital dynamics, mainly for spacecraft. I was interested in libration point stuff, I thought I could do something new here, but I really didn’t learn that much from UCLA that would help me in this area.
So then from UCLA, now this is already after RAND, you went to Redstone. Just recall for me how you got that job, it was a straight application?
They came to the campus to interview and this friend of mine he went there also with me. So we traveled across country in two cars and that was fun, going through the desert and everything.
Now, was Redstone a summer job or was it a permanent?
Were you then applying, while you went to Redstone, for further graduate studies somewhere?
Yes, at the University of Chicago and that’s when I was shocked that I was turned down. What? How dare they? How could they possibly turn me down?
Well, who was it at Chicago who would have been good for you?
Well, I thought that the University of Chicago was a high-class place, and it was close to my home and everything, because my parents lived in [unclear] at that time. I thought I could save money by staying with them, you know thought this would be a good deal.
But they didn’t have any what I’d call orbit theory types there.
No, they didn’t. I was starting to get interested in relativity theory a little bit. I was thinking of going into physics, and I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do, or should I go into mathematics? I was really not clear, and then when I got turned down I thought, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do now?” because I didn’t have any Plan B. So I’m at Huntsville, I’m trying to finish up on my thesis, because I wanted to get that done.
So you were still doing your master’s thesis?
Yes, I was still doing it, but they finally got fed up with me, they thought, “Wait a minute. You’re supposed to be working for us and helping us out,” so they transferred me then to the Saturn V office. I thought, “Well, to hell with you guys.” I worked there for a few weeks and then I thought, “I’m not going to do this. I’m wasting my time. I’m not getting any work done on my thesis.” Huntsville is a terrible place; it was then, really bad. So I thought, “I’ve got to do something.” Then when I got turned down for the University of Chicago, I thought, “Well, now, I really have to get back. I have to go someplace.” I thought, “I can probably go down to the University of Illinois, because I went there before and they’ll probably take me back,” right? So I just drove down to the campus and I started talking to people, “Hey, can I get into this department?” Well, getting into graduate school at the last minute is not that easy, you can imagine.
Well, I’ve done it, too, but it isn’t that easy. That’s true.
No, it’s not easy. I mean, I was down there about a month before school started and they’ve already got everybody, because I guess these places only have so many slots. So I could get back in aeronautical engineering, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, and I couldn’t get in that department, because I’d left it. I thought, “I don’t want to go back to a place that I rejected earlier,” and they were a little pissed off with me, basically, because I left with that assistantship that I had. So I thought, “Well, I’m not going to get any assistantship this time, this is clear.” I had to hit my folks up for a little money, but they were willing to let me go to school down there. So somehow I was interviewing with the physics side and mathematics. I can’t think of the guy’s name. He was trying to talk me out of it. He said, “Oh, you don’t really want to go into this. You don’t want to go into mathematics, because you don’t like pure mathematics courses. You just like applied mathematics.”
Did you talk to George C. McVittie when you went back and tried to get advice from him? Was he — maybe — gone by then?
No. I’m trying to think where he was then. He might have been there still. I think he was actually, but I didn’t talk to him.
John Krause or any of the Astronomers at all?
No, I didn’t talk to them too much. But I figured I had to get into either mathematics or physics and I had to act like I was interested in doing that stuff. I knew I didn’t want to get into the Astronomy Department. First of all, it was a very small group of people there and there would be no chance to get in there at the last minute anyway. I didn’t have that much astronomy in the past; I was in engineering. They weren’t going to let me in. But I did get into the Math Department. I don’t know how I did it, but I got in, I was accepted. I took a bunch of courses for the two semesters that I was there and then I got romantically involved with this Pamela Gray and so that definitely was keeping me there. It worked out good. I got a lot of good education there. That’s where I learned about relativity theory. William Bonnor was the guy who I took a relativity course from, because McVittie wasn’t teaching that year. He wasn’t one of the main researchers in the area. He wrote a popular book on relativity theory, but he did this work, but he was in England at the University of London. Then I came back to him later when I went over there later.
Was he the reason why you went to London?
Yes, because he accepted me and he was going to get me an assistantship to teach at the University of London, Queen Elizabeth College. But that’s later.
That’s later and a lot happened in between. Now, why did you leave Illinois?
Well, let’s see, I completed the two semesters. I was running out of money. That was one thing. My romantic relationship went down the drain. So therefore I didn’t care about that anymore. Once again, the University of Illinois, being isolated like it is, there was no opportunity to meet any women down there; I was a lot older than most of the people that were going to the school there. But I needed money, so I was going to go out and work at Lockheed Sunnyvale. I interviewed and got a job out there. So then I decided I’d better go back to work.
Was it in orbit theory, orbital mechanics?
Yes, I worked with Hunt Small. But I worked in a big bullpen with everybody.
Could you give me the year for that or the date?
Summer of ’61 is when I went to Lockheed. I went back to school at the University of California at Berkeley in January or February of ’62 that would be. I was accepted in the Math Department there, because I was in mathematics at the University of Illinois. Well, I had good grades, but they could see that I’d never had any pure math courses and they still accepted me. Then I was in there and then I thought, “Boy, I really hate this pure math.” I mean, even their applied courses were pretty pure math at the University of California at Berkeley. I thought, “Oh, I should get into physics, back to physics.” So I talked to them and they let me transfer from math to physics, which was amazing, it was after a couple weeks.
Yes. I got transferred over pretty fast. Then I decided that I didn’t want to do that either, I didn’t like being at Berkeley and I wanted to go into relativity theory. I’d really made up my mind and so I wrote the guy, William Bonner at London, and he said, “Yes, sure, come on over and be here in the fall and then we’ll let you go.” That would be the fall of ’62.
Yes, but what did you do over the summer?
Oh, I went home and I just studied on a lot of stuff because I hadn’t looked at some of this stuff for a long time. I figured I’ll be teaching it at the Queen Elizabeth College, you know, some elementary courses. So I thought, “Well, I’d better really bone up on this stuff.” So I was just studying things and generally screwing off. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing. I wasn’t even sure about going to the University of London. I was trying to get all the money put together to go through and everything and I thought, “What have I done?” I thought to myself, “What am I getting into?” Then I took the Queen Mary over there. When I got there I saw where the students were living, but I was already having second thoughts even before I left, but it was too late to stop. I was on this train that was moving this way and I didn’t know how to get off gracefully. So I was pretty confused and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I got over there and I decided, oh, this is hopeless, and after three days — I should have stayed there at least a week, because I should have seen some of the sights and gone to the different things that they had over there like the RAF Military History Museum and things like that. I mean, there was a lot of good stuff. I had a chance to see a few things, but I left so quickly and I was anxious to get back then, because I could see that I probably had to go back to California and look for a job again.
That’s what you wanted to do?
Well, what was it that really turned you off about going to London?
I was just having a lot of second thoughts. I thought, “Am I really going to be able to write a thesis in relativity? Do I really know that much about it? Is this really the thing I want to get into?”
Was this relativity, pure relativity dealing with space time and that sort of thing, or was it applied in some way?
No. Well, this is gravitational theory more than — I mean, relativity isn’t really a good term for it. They call it general relativity, right, and cosmology.
So it was gravitational corrections or relativistic corrections?
Relativistic corrections, but I was interested in Newtonian relativity. I thought I could solve the rocket equation there. So it was kind of a mix of what I was interested in, in astronautics and then relativity. So I was interested in relativistic flight and application of it, more than the real relativist would be working on.
That’s what Bonner was doing?
Well, he was interested in working on it because that was something that hadn’t been done yet, still hasn’t been done as far as I know. We were doing it in some kind of relativity that was not in the mainstream. Hermann Bondi was the guy who was pushing this thing. It was called Newtonian Relativity or something. It was some crazy thing. I can’t remember. But that was something where you could probably work on the rocket equation because of the way relativity is constructed it was difficult to put something in it, because they were just talking about fields and stuff like that, so how were you going to put the rocket force in this thing? It wasn’t clear how to do this.
There was an interesting peculiar brand of relativity that Withrow and others who were at University College London —
Withrow, I remember that name, yes.
Yes. You didn’t ever meet him or anything?
Yes. Bondi was sort of on the outskirts of that and I’ve never really looked at it myself, but I know that he wrote a book.
I used to have it, I think I got rid of it when I got rid of all my relativity books. But I could see that I wasn’t going to get anywhere there, that I wasn’t that smart, that I was really going to be able to contribute anything new. I could be some journeyman working in the field, you know, but that was about it, and I could see also that it was going to be difficult to get a job doing this kind of thing. You had to be at the top of your field if you really wanted to do that, so I thought, “No, I better go back to doing astronautics.”
Is it fair to say you were looking for a niche?
A place where you would own some territory?
Where I could do something where I’d stand out, yes. I wasn’t interested in just being a run-of-the-mill guy; I wanted to do something that was new and different and that was noteworthy.
Your peripatetic wanderings here might be a manifestation of that, looking for the right combination? Even though you didn’t know what it was?
Do you remember thinking, “I’ll know what it is when I see it,” or were you looking for something that you maybe had a little problem articulating? I’d be curious.
I wasn’t sure what to do. No, I was confused, and then to add to the confusion I was interested in getting married or I was interested in finding a steady girlfriend anyway, you know, not just going out on a date with somebody ever once in a while. So it seemed like I was a little unstable, but then I’d pretty much given up going back to school when I left the University of London, which I never really started. So I just came back and then I had to do something to support myself, so where was I going to go? So I figured, well, I know the Bay Area pretty well since I’d been around there for a while working at Lockheed, and I went to the University of California, Berkeley. I liked the area and I thought, “Well, let’s go back there, I can probably get a job somewhere,” and I interviewed with a whole bunch of places, U.S.G.S. I remember I went in and talked to those guys. Well, I was pretty desperate, I had to get a job in about two months or my money would be gone.
So you had a little pot of money and you actually flew or went all the way to California?
I drove. I got a used car in Chicago and I drove out to San Francisco.
Was this a point in time when your parents were getting a little worried about you?
Well, they’d already been worried about me.
But they were still supporting you?
Yes, they were still helping me out.
So you drove out without a job?
Without a job, and I hadn’t talked to anybody out there. I said, “Well, I’ll just go to the employment offices and see, something should turn up.” Luckily, the places were hiring at that time. This is summer of ’62.
And you did get a job?
Yes. Luckily, yes, I got a very good job at Lockheed in the research laboratory in Palo Alto. The job led me to everything else because that’s where I got involved with John Breakwell. I’d heard of him before, but I didn’t really know him. This time, yes, I didn’t go to Sunnyvale, I went to the research lab in Palo Alto to work with Stan Ross when he was doing the Interplanetary Flight Handbook, and they needed somebody to do all the dog work and that was me.
This was a straight blind application or did you know anybody to talk to?
I knew people there. I knew Hunt Small. I didn’t want to go there. Val Peline, he was the main supervisor of the group I was in before at Lockheed in Sunnyvale. As matter of fact, he became the director of all of Lockheed in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto a few years later. So he was a good guy to know and he thought highly of me and everything, but I didn’t go to him at all. I just walked in to the employment office and said I wanted to get a job. I kind of knew I wanted to be at the research laboratory, so I indicated that to them and it just fit in. But I talked to several places around there, like I said; U.S.G.S. and some other places and I didn’t get anywhere there. I went out to Ames and I tried to get a job there and they said, “Well, you have all the right credentials, you’ve got all these good grades and everything.” I tried to get a job in the space physics up there. I was hoping to get into some mission design work for them to look at new missions and stuff, but they didn’t do any of that stuff at that time. Later they did.
So you started at Lockheed. When you went there you got your job at Lockheed Palo Alto, and through there you got connections to Stanford.
Well, I got connections with John Breakwell, and I started learning about Stanford and then got interested in that. I wasn’t really thinking of going back to school, though, at that point. I figured that was all over. I had my master’s and then I had a lot of schooling after that. I thought, “Okay, that’s enough, I should forget about that.” When I came back I had this letter waiting for me from the lady who was going to become my future wife, Bonnie Johnson, and she lived in Monterey. So right after I got the job, both these things happened about the same time. She wrote back to me while I was in England. She didn’t realize I went all the way over to England and then I came back and the letter got to my home in Chicago after I had actually gone out to California.
Okay, your parents’ home?
Yes. They sent it out to me and then I thought, “Oh, she’s still here and she wants to see me, she’d like to see me.” She didn’t realize I’d gone over into England and all that. So I went down and I met her and then after a few times then I proposed to her and we got married in February of ’63.
She had children?
Two of them, yes.
Yes, and that, of course, changed your life quite a bit.
Yes. You realize, of course, this is something that is an ongoing thing with me lately. All three of them are now dead.
No, I didn’t know that.
Yes. The two children, who were my stepchildren and Bonnie. The last one just died here a few months ago. She was three years old at the time when I took over.
Was it all natural causes?
No, the youngest one, she was under one year when I took over, she was ten months, I guess, she committed suicide.
Oh, boy. Oh, my.
Yes, we went through a lot of stuff with her. She was like thirty-two years old. But she tried to kill herself several times and I had to talk her out of it once. She bought a gun and she had the gun and I went over there and I got the gun away from her. Oh, man, I’ve been through a lot with her.
Okay. Well, that’s for much later. But that’s very poignant and that sort of identifies your state of mind today, which I can imagine is quite difficult.
Yes, because, well, you know, all three of them are all dead now. I’m thinking, wow, there’s a big part of my life there that’s completely gone. When the last one died, you see, it kind of got to me. Because my wife went first. I’m glad she went before the other two, the kids went. Then my wife and I had one child, who now lives in Florida.
Oh, who is alive?
Yes, she is alive. I have another stepdaughter now, too. Very much alive. She just borrowed a thousand bucks from me. “Borrowed.”
Well, that’s the kind of problem you like to have.
Yes, I don’t mind that at all.
Okay. Well, let’s keep the chronology straight.
So now I’m at Lockheed and I’m working away and I get married, and okay, well, this is it. I’ve got two kids now, what am I going to do? But fortunately, my wife had some money from Social Security for the children, and she had some money from her husband’s life insurance. She had a house at Seaside right next to Monterey. So she moved up with me in Palo Alto. As a matter of fact, I just saw the place a couple of weeks ago when I went to Stanford. I always go by the places we used to live. That brought back a lot of memories again. This is what happens when you get old, as old as I am, right? You go through these things all the time.
I’m quite familiar with it, yes. Just to clarify, what were you doing at Lockheed Palo Alto?
Okay, I was working on this Interplanetary Flight Handbook, was the main thing. Then I got more and more involved with John Breakwell working on libration points and stuff like that. They had various things that I would work on, because we got done with the Interplanetary Flight Handbook pretty much. So I wrote a couple of internal memos on libration points and John Breakwell introduced me to control theory, which was the big thing that I hadn’t thought about so much before. You’re not going to do a lot of new things with the dynamics of the 3 body problem, you could see that. But when you start thinking about control and applications of these things there was a lot of meat there, I could see that. I thought, “Yes, this is where I can make a mark.”
Yes. But I wanted to clarify one other point. Who had the idea for the Interplanetary Flight Handbook?
That was Marshall Space Flight Center who put it out.
Marshall wanted it. So they put out an RFP, Lockheed got the contract?
Yes, right. They got one of them. I think it was all over the place. They had the EMPIRE Studies, I think, and I gave you what that acronym was, which I can never remember.
Right. But the curiosity I have is that that’s a very interesting thing. It’s sort of like what a navigator would have on an airplane, nomographs, shortcuts, non-mathematical ways to plot courses.
Well, it wasn’t really that, it was more just launch opportunities to do these round trips to go to Mars, basically. Then some of them used Venus swing-bys for the way back. As a matter of fact, that was a big breakthrough they had to where you can do the trip faster.
Do you know who at Marshall wanted this to be done?
I don’t remember the guy. I can almost think of some names, because I can certainly find out, but I think a guy by the name of Koelle, something like that. He’s written some books on it. I think he’s still alive.
It would be interesting to know. To go backward to see where the origins of this —
Well, they were interested in that at Marshall.
Practical, this was a practical handbook.
How did you feel about creating a practical handbook for literally space flight?
Well, that was something new, and we were looking at manned space flight, this was going to be the follow-on to the Apollo Program and they were already working on this and they thought, oh, this is just going to continue and we’re going to go out to Mars and just keep going. We all thought that was going to happen, so I thought, “Well, this stuff will really be used some day.”
So you certainly shared in that dream? And you fully associated with the dream? You really liked it?
Yes, that was good stuff, but I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the stars there or anything, that I’d just be one of the workers. To me, I’m not that interested that I wanted to be the main guy, that’s the problem.
Well, this was not libration point work?
No, it had nothing to do with it.
Right. You still saw that as an area that could be tapped?
Yes. But that’s when I realized I’m going to have to start going back to school again. I’m trying to think now when that I started taking some courses at Stanford. Was that ’64? I’ve got to go back and look now, I don’t remember.
Yes, but it would be interesting to isolate it, find out what courses and the degree to which your interest in libration points drove your actions, and indeed did you see it as a niche, did you see it something as you were totally fascinated with, but you thought you could do better than anybody else? What is the balance of the various motivations?
Well, I knew that this was something that hadn’t been done; nobody had put a spacecraft in a libration point. So I thought, “Well, here’s something I could do, maybe I can figure out some big application and I could get involved with it and I could lead the effort.”
So you realized you needed more training.
Yes, I realized I needed a lot more training. Yes, so I did start to go back, I’m pretty sure now that I started to go back to the school and take courses, in ’64. I’m pretty sure of that, because I was accepted then at Stanford, and taking some courses. Maybe that’s when I did think about going back and trying to get a Ph.D., but you had to get your Ph.D. qualifying exam out of the way and I was hesitating about that.
Why was that?
Well, I didn’t think I could pass them.
Oh, so that’s why you took the courses, to prepare?
Yes. It’s getting a little fuzzy for me right now.
That’s okay, but did you talk to any of the faculty to get advice?
Well, John Breakwell, at some point there he went to Stanford and Ben Lange, the other guy I was working with at Lockheed; he was an assistant professor there. So he was encouraging me, to go back, this is ’64. I got a research assistantship in ’64. I went back to school full time at Stanford. I was taking courses, and I pretty much had all my coursework done in ’66. They were having big layoffs out at Lockheed and they had already lain off everybody, and then I came in to quit, and they thought, “Jesus, we laid off the wrong people,” you know, they should have waited. But I actually saved at least one, because they hadn’t totally finished. I remember because when I quit they had a big party for me and everybody was cheering me because they thought I might have saved their job.
So you went back to Stanford research assistantship and that was for Ben Lange.
Yes. He’s the guy with the drag-free satellite and he was one of the pioneers of that thing, maybe he was the pioneer. He never gets enough credit for that.
What was the nature of your research assistantship? Was it aligned with what you wanted to do as a thesis?
Not really. I was working on an analog computer. I’ll never forget that. But they were kind of funny, because you had all these wires. There was a paper that I wrote on it, a report at Stanford, “Analog Computer Simulation of a Spinning Drag-Free Satellite Control System.” It was a spinning drag-free satellite, so you had an on/off control. So I learned a lot there, how to work the analog computer I used that later to simulate libration point dynamics on there and with the control and everything, and got some plots of that in my thesis. So that was worthwhile and it paid me, but it didn’t pay enough. Yes, that was the problem. In April of ’66 I realized that I was running out of money and I have a family now and I have to take care of them. So I went to Ames to get a job.
Was Bonnie working?
No, she wasn’t working. We had two little kids.
Right. So you went back to interview for a job at Ames?
I had the research assistantship and the money Bonnie was getting, but we were running out of money fast. We knew we couldn’t do this too long. That’s when I decided I have to get a job somewhere. I didn’t want to go back to Lockheed, so I went out to Ames and I was fortunate I got a good job there.
Why didn’t you want to go back to Lockheed?
Well, I’d been there; you don’t want to go back to a place you’ve left.
Was Ames doing something more interesting?
When I went out to Ames I didn’t know what they were doing, I just went out there and interviewed with them. It turns out that they had this new division, the Mission Analysis Division, MAD. It was a headquarters group doing advanced mission analysis work. So that was kind of an interesting thing to me anyway. I figured, well, I take a course here or there, but I didn’t really need too many courses at that point. It was mainly getting my thesis done. So I thought, well, I’ll have more time because I knew NASA you’re going to have time to do a lot of your independent work there. They didn’t push you that hard. But this job looked pretty interesting and they said, because Sy Syvertson was the guy who later the director of Ames.
So how did you choose your thesis topic?
Well, by that time I had transferred and I was working with John Breakwell.
So you transferred away from Ben Lange to Breakwell?
Yes, and I had the whole thesis all blocked out, pretty much the same way as I have my book blocked out now.
How did you arrive at that specific topic? Did Breakwell advise you? Did Lange?
I’d done these two internal reports with Breakwell in ’63, and I wanted to continue on with that, with the control theory and stuff, and he had various problems he wanted me to look at there. I’d already started working on this paper. As a matter of fact, I had submitted it and everything, and it was accepted in the summer conference in ’66. So it was accepted while I was at Stanford, but I didn’t actually go out and give the paper until I was already working with NASA. Yes, because the meeting was in Denver, Colorado. That was on libration points. That was on the lunar communication problem, where I had the idea for the halo satellite. All that was already done, and so I thought, “Well, here’s something that will work for the Apollo Program,” and that was something that they needed. I thought, yes, this is going to get me some notoriety and I’ll talk him into this thing, but I’m going to do my thesis on it. Now, I’m at Ames and I’ve worked there for about a year.
You’re still a student?
Yes, I was working on my thesis.
Yes, but you were no longer a research assistant?
Right. Yes, I was working at Ames.
Was there any internal conflict or resistance from Ben Lange?
Well, he didn’t like it. But we had a falling out, because one of his students, he was going to work on some of the ideas I had for my thesis and I thought, “You son-of-a-bitch, you’re not going to do that.” So that’s when I went over to John Breakwell and Breakwell talked to him. He was a more senior professor there, and so Ben Lange just backed off, because he said, “Hey, look, Bob’s already doing this topic, we don’t want another guy giving him competition on his idea basically.”
Yes, well, that’s pretty clear. So you are now on thesis, beyond any kind of qualifying or anything like that.
Yes. I’m trying to think when I took my qualifying exams, if I did that before I went to Ames or around that time. I can’t remember. I’ve got to go back.
Is there anything about the qualifier that we need to record, like who was on your committee?
Well, the qualifying exams, you take a math exam, everybody takes that, it’s the same one, and I did fine with the math test and that’s where you review all the mathematics you ever knew and you’ve got to do it. So I did well on that. Then you get in a different field with the dynamics, rocket propulsion was one and control theory. I did okay on all of them. Actually, the dynamics part, I was weakest on, but John Breakwell was there and he took care of me. He got me through it. I was pretty much done with all the coursework then.
So you were on the thesis, you had defined the thesis in its outline form, as you implied, and you’re working at Ames.
Yes, I’m working at Ames. So then I found out about this fellowship that NASA had. My friend, Stan Ross, who I did the Planetary Flight Handbook, he was my boss at Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, even though I’m working at Ames. See, I’m an Electronics Research Center employee. I was the only one. I was their representative to the MAD group. It was a real strange situation.
That helps a lot, because the Electronic Research Center is based in Cambridge.
First I was just with Stan Ross and he was there. Later they put me in the Office of Control Theory and Application. Stan Ross left, but in the meantime he got me this fellowship. He actually worked it so I got the fellowship to go back to school, which I thought would only be for one year, but I could have stayed there two years. If I would have known that I would have gone slower on my thesis.
So you were at Ames? Then he got you a fellowship that allowed you just to go back to Stanford full time?
Yes, right. So I didn’t have to work at Ames anymore and then when I finished I went back to this job at Ames for like a day or two. These billets went back and forth, and the Electronics Research Center wanted the billet back at the Electronics Research Center, not to have you out at Ames. That whole thing is complicated. I didn’t have to go back to NASA or anything else, but I didn’t realize that at the time, because since they sent me to school for a year, I thought I was obligated to give them three years for every one that they sent me to school. Or I had to pay them back the money that they put into the school, but that was only like two hundred dollars, because I was working on my thesis, so that was the registration for somebody working on their thesis. It was very low.
So where were you physically when you finished your thesis?
Oh, when I finished my thesis I was in California. Yes, I was working at Stanford; I was on the NASA fellowship. But I did a Stanford report. My thesis came out in the Stanford report. It came out in like July of ’68. That was later put into a NASA TR.
Which I have a copy of, I believe. (Break) We are recording again and you have a copy of your thesis. Now, this is the Stanford version?
Yes, The Control and Use of Libration Point Satellites, July 1968. What were the analog plots?
Oh, that’s not a big deal. That’s just one part of the thesis. While I was at Stanford on the NASA fellowship working on this thing people at NASA, Goddard started reading my paper that I did in ’66 on the lunar communications problem, which was also on the station keeping problem for a libration point satellite. They were interested in getting a communication satellite for the Apollo mission. They came out to visit me out at Stanford; Bob Groves, came out to visit me and wanted me to help them with writing an RFP for contracts for industry to work on the lunar communications satellite problem. So I had a little bit of mixed feelings about it, but I was pretty far along on my thesis, so I wasn’t too worried, but it did become a race. I wanted to get my thesis out before the industry people got into the thing. I was on the review board for whoever was going to win this contract. I remember there were about seven companies interested, there were IBM, and General Electric, who won the thing and several other of the companies. They were hungry for contracts then. This looked like it might go into a hardware program, so they like things like this. I wanted to make sure that I beat them out with the thing. But that’s how I got to know Bob Groves at Goddard Space Flight Center. I found out because I saw it in Aviation Week in the industry section that Goddard was going to put out an RFP for this communications satellite and then I found out that it was all based on my 1966 paper. They picked up on it. So this is ’67 that they’re thinking of this and then it ended up going into ’68. But now I’m at Stanford and I knew I had to get my thesis done with it because my fellowship, the one-year term was up that summer, so I figured I had to go back to work either at Ames or go back to Electronics Research Center. When I went to talk to the Ames people, they said, “Well, no, the Electronics Research Center wants that billet back and they want you to go back to Cambridge.” I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I don’t want to go way out there. I like California,” but I thought I was obligated to go, and that was a misconception on my part. That was a mistake on my part. I didn’t realize that I could have gotten out of that very easily, but all’s well that ends well. But I thought I had to go back. They interviewed me again, said, “Well, what would you want to do?” They were going to have me work in the Office of Control Theory and Application. So I thought, “Okay, this is okay. So I’ll go back there.” I wasn’t real excited about it, but I’ve got a family and everything and I had to get a job. I was a GS-13 at the time, because I hired in as a GS-13 when I went to Ames. Well, that’s really the Electronics Research Center. I thought, “Well, now, that I have my Ph.D., they’re going to give me a GS-14 right away.” No way, they weren’t going to do that. Well, I didn’t know that until I got out to Cambridge, and you know sometimes you find out about these things too late. Well, then it was too late, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out there if I would have known this in advance. But I went all the way out there and was working there. I wrote into George Low and people like that and said, “Hey, you know, you really need to get a communications satellite.” This was in 1969. Well, it was obvious that these guys are going around the moon and every time they go around, “Well, okay, we’ll wait until you come out from the other side.” You know, they could see this was a nuisance at the very least, but actually it could have been pretty dangerous. I mean, it turns out that they really should have had a communications satellite for the far side. That was an oversight, but people were pushing for it and I got some of the documents here.
This is a very important part of the story. These are the folders that you’ve been organizing materials and putting them in for each of the thematic parts of your book.
This looks like the only copy I’ve got. This is November of ’69. Here’s a letter. To George Mueller from probably Robert Gilruth, I believe.
Yes, let me just check that. It’s quite a letter. Yes, Robert R. Gilruth with copies to Patrone and others, and this is a George Mueller —
And he wants to have a communications satellite. He wants them to start thinking about it.
Right. This is November 14th, 1969 from Gilruth and it’s a reference document 69-FS43-14. So you have a copy. How did you get a copy of this?
Well, it went to Goddard. By this time I’m practically at Goddard. I got this after I got there.
Yes, the distribution is Covington, Stelter, Mengel and von Bun. So that is not Wernher von Braun?
No. Well, here, but preceding that, you see, when I was at the Electronics Research Center I was working on this problem and they were encouraging me, because they thought, “Well, this will give us something to do in the Apollo Program. Yes, let’s push this.” So I sent this letter into George Low.
This is Farquhar to George Low, January 6th, 1969, and you were writing this on NASA’s —
This is right after the Apollo 8 mission. So I’m writing this as a NASA man and we want to look at this problem of the communications satellite.
Yes, this is a very interesting, very important letter. The flight of Apollo 8 has focused attention on the absence of a lunar far side communications capability.
Yes, I’d talked about it earlier, but now I’m writing an official thing and I get an answer back from George Low, “Thanks for your interest.”
But he says he forwarded it to Chris Kraft, who would be responsible at the Center for generating requirements for lunar communications capabilities. Did you ever hear from Kraft?
Did you ever follow it up?
Well, this letter comes out later from Gilruth saying that they need it. It has nothing to do with this, as far as I know.
So Gilruth was not prompted by anything that you were —
I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that.
Yes, that would be an interesting question.
Yes, this is chapter two, and I’m going to get into as soon as I get chapter one out of the way. But that’s going to all be on lunar communications and not just on my stuff, but there’s stuff prior to this where they did look at this. There’s a famous report that comes out from Bellcom, and Chen was the author of that. I had lost it for several years and I found it again. He looks at all the different options, a whole string of small satellites out there and they do satellite to satellite links and so forth, and he had something about libration points in, but he said basically this wasn’t very practical or something like that and wasn’t interested in it. So I’m going to put all that history in of the other attempts to submit my paper in ’66 and then Goddard’s interest in it, which was about the same time, and they put out a big contract on it looking at the libration point thing. Von Bun had an idea on it, too, he had something called the hummingbird concept, which was using a low-thrust spacecraft to keep it off to one side from the libration point, because if you’re at the libration point itself its hidden from the earth, so that’s not going to do you any good. So he used brunt force to keep it over to one side. It took a pretty sizeable ion engine to keep it off to one side.
So this is not a halo orbit?
No, the study that was done by Goddard looked at a halo orbit versus a hummingbird concept, because the hummingbird concept was coming from Goddard, from the main guy who was the —
Yes, but they concluded that the halo orbit was the way to go and not the hummingbird. So that I liked that, of course, but I’m not working there at that time, I’m up at ERC, at the Electronics Research Center. So I’m sending this letter out, and I didn’t get anywhere with this, and I was tired of working for the Electronics Research Centers, but I have a family and a house in Bedford, Massachusetts. It was a long drive every day and I didn’t like that. But knowing Bob Groves and everything from before, I contacted him and said, “Hey, could I transfer down to Goddard?” I thought, “Well, I can push this better from Goddard than I can from up here at Electronics Research Center,” which was kind of a backwater of the NASA Centers.
Yes, I didn’t even know about it.
Yes. Well, a lot of people don’t know. It was only there for about two years. This was Ted Edward M. Kennedy’s big thing, he brought it there. Then when Richard M. Nixon got into the White House he got rid of it. But I didn’t know all this, and when I left there in November ’69, I was there about one year; unbeknownst to me it was already in the works they were going to shut it down. I got to Goddard in December of ’69 and after I was there a couple weeks I was told that they were shutting down Electronics Research Center, and what did I know? How did I know about this? Oh, you have a good crystal ball, everybody was telling me, and they were saying, “Aren’t you smart, you got out of there before —,” and I had no idea, although I knew the place wasn’t doing that well as far as NASA was concerned. I was lucky. So I just moved on to the other place. Then other people at NASA and me, we went to Marshall, we went to Johnson; we gave them presentations on this stuff. Now I had the backing of all the people doing the communications network for the Apollo Program, and they were pushing this idea, too, to get a libration point satellite up there so they could get the far side communication. Well, we kept pushing and pushing and didn’t get anywhere.
Why was that?
They were having trouble just keeping funding for the Apollo Program, and they didn’t want to admit that they had made a mistake by overlooking this.
JSC [Johnson Space Center] and the people at NASA Headquarters, too.
But wasn’t Gilruth at JSC?
Yes. Well, see, he put in for it, but then — where the answer to the letter? Here’s the answer to Gilruth “Dear Bob, forget it.” This is in February 1970.
This is Dale Myers, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, and also cc’ing Patrone and Covington and Clark. At Goddard. To Robert Gilruth — Dear Bob. February 5, 1970. “This is in response to your letter,” …“considering the initiation of a comprehensive detailed study for providing lunar far side communication relay. In view of the current MSF overall program status,” and this is February 6th, 1970, “I believe effort in this area should be held in abeyance until we have established a program for lunar far side surface exploration and have a better basis for defining it, supporting communication requirements.” So he was thinking only of landing on the moon, not what the astronauts were doing as they orbited around the moon.
No, they didn’t seem to worry about that. Right.
This is not after 13.
No, that’s the whole point here. I’m going to make that point in my book. There’s a chronology in this thing here where I wrote up the ISEE-3 measure, but I got some of these memos in here and other things. But let me see where this is at, because I don’t remember chronology myself. This is the whole thing. 1964, this is Chen and these guys, they’re looking at the communications satellite, and then I send them the memo to George Low, he answers it.
Just to be sure we’re looking at the Journal of Astronautical Sciences, Volume 49, No. 1, January-March 2001, Special Issue, “Libration Point Missions,” and this is page 29.
This is from my article on the flight of ISEE-3. I’m looking at the origins of all this stuff and I go through the history of the communications satellite. So I talk about my thing to George Low, but they weren’t interested at that time, but then Apollo 13 had the big problem and the Apollo Office then wanted to reexamine the Goddard proposal.
Yes, because that was April 1970.
Yes, because the critical operation took place on the far side of the moon when they weren’t in sight and they thought, “Hey, wait a minute, we ought to have some communication back here.” So they looked at it again, but they decided not to do anything. They decided to postpone the action. I have some documents. Yes, meeting on January 7th of 1970 and this is where we went down to the steering committee and these are the notes from that. Goddard went down there.
That’s on page 59. Appendix A.
So they decided not to do anything at that time.
Why did they decide not to do anything still, even after 13?
Yes, it says in here, I guess, but they postponed any action on it, “Yes, okay, we ought to look at this. Yes, we’ll have to think about it.”
Was this purely budget or was this ignorance of the feasibility, where people making decisions were not technically informed?
No, we gave them presentations and they looked interested in it, but they didn’t see any urgency in doing it. It’s all in here. I have to read it again.
This is a letter on page 59?
Then here’s the conclusion and these are the people who were at the meeting. I was there along with other people. These were the other guys, all from Goddard. Then there were people here from JSC. Well, they wanted to run everything, and Goddard was trying to get their nose under the tent contracts for this thing.
So you think the inter-Center rivalry was maybe an element there?
I think that was part of this thing here, but then by the time he sends it back—what was the date that it came back?
Dale Meyers to Gilruth is February 6th, 1970.
Okay, that was after we were there, yes. Yes, so they decided they didn’t want to do it.
But this is still pre-Apollo 13?
This meeting we had with them was in January 1970. They didn’t take any action. They reexamined it at that time, but they, again, decided not to do anything after Apollo 13.
And that’s what I’m asking about, how did they decide that? Was it still the inter-Center rivalry, was it budget, was it —
I think it was mainly budget and stuff they didn’t want to get into it again. But then it comes up again when Jack Schmidt wants to land on the far side of the moon, and then that’s when I was called to go down to Houston.
Was there any collusion between you and Jack Schmidt to —
I didn’t know the guy. Someone else knew him at Goddard and was keeping me informed. What was that guy’s name? You probably know this guy. He’s still working, I think. He’s a geologist. He’s a scientist, yes. I was just corresponding with him recently. I can’t think of his name right now.
But the question is, was Schmidt aware that his request would make communication satellite a higher priority?
He knew he would need a communication satellite, but he didn’t think about libration point versus anything, he just thought, oh, yes, they’re going to have to get a communication satellite, but he didn’t think about it very far.
Yes, but he knew enough to know that that would be needed.
I got in touch with him through this other friend and he said he talked to him, and the next thing is he’s going to have a big presentation on this landing in the Crater Tsiolkovsky. My report had already been out for some time now. It was a preprint of my final report, which came out January ’71 or December of ’70. I even have photographs of Tsiolkovsky in the report. So Jack Schmidt is going to make a presentation to Jim McDivitt on this thing and they invite a couple of contractors to come in to look at what kind of spacecraft they can get up in one year. But they did things faster in those days if you remember. They called me up to explain how the halo orbit is going to work and what the requirements would be to get something in a halo orbit. I got twenty-four hours’ notice that I had to go down there. So I’m getting all my stuff put together. I remember it was fun. It will come back to me. I’m there in the morning, we’re going to have a pre-conference with a whole bunch of people from JSC who were going to be part of the presentation, not the audience, but the people giving the presentation who are going to be the operators. Jack Schmidt was there. I remember him sitting in the audience. Then I present what I’m going to show later on, but it turns out I’m not going to present it, they’re going to present it, you see, but I have to give them a presentation and give them the viewgraphs to present.
So you were briefing them to allow them to —
To brief Jim McDivitt and people. But I was the only guy from Goddard that was there. There was nobody else from Goddard. Then it turns out Goddard’s going to have to be managing this program. This isn’t something JSC does, they don’t manage communication satellite programs and stuff, so Goddard will have to do it. Then I’m showing all the viewgraphs and I think I told you this before, I’m showing how to get out the libration point, there is a flight path out — The contractors were there also, they were listening to this as well, I believe. I was saying, “Here’s we get out there and we can go straight out, but then it’s a kilometer per second more of Delta V to insert the thing into the orbit, or we can use this lunar swing-by, this power lunar swing-by.” You save quite a bit doing it this way, so it’s a lot of easier. That’s when Jack Schmidt says, “Wait a minute, oh, my god, don’t show this thing at the presentation,” because it looked complicated and he’s trying to say that this is all pretty straightforward, right. So he didn’t want me to show the real way to do it. “You can come up with that later if you want, but show something simple,” because he’s trying to sell them on the idea, and it was an uphill battle because Gene Cernan didn’t want anything to do with this.
It’s in his book.
He said this was a distraction. They were having enough trouble just getting the mission. They were worried about getting cancelled. This is the last Apollo mission and the budget was running out.
Oh, this was 17?
Yes, 17. So Gene Cernan didn’t want to do anything to upset the applecart, and here’s Jack Schmidt going off making an end run around him with this presentation and everything. He was not happy. This is in this book by Andy Chaikin. He talks about it, but he’s got it all wrong.
How does he have it wrong?
He’s got the wrong satellites and he said that Jack Schmidt came up with the idea for the halo satellite. He didn’t do any of this. But Shana Dale just recently mentioned this in some briefing they had for the press or something down at headquarters; she’s the deputy administrator now. So I saw this thing written up and she had it all wrong and I sent her a letter.
Oh, because she based it on Chaikin’s book?
Yes, she got it out of his book and it had all the wrong stuff in there. I said, “No, this isn’t what happened. Here’s the way it is.” Then I got an answer back. She didn’t answer it back, she gave it to Scott Horowitz, and that’s how I got to see Scott Horowitz down at headquarters. Well, he had known me from before. So he sent a nice letter back to me.
Well, is this one of your motivations for setting the record straight, writing this memoir?
Well, no, what I said in the letter to Shana Dale, was I want to set the record straight. I just told her, “No, that’s not what happened. Here’s what happened.” And all that stuff that happened down there — this is the stuff from the contractors, actually. There’s the program schedule for the satellite.
You’re looking at page 61 now?
Yes, this is the program schedule and the cost estimates that they had. So they’re giving the presentation to Jim McDivitt, and there are a lot of people in the room. I was a little nervous. I thought, “Wow, this is a high-level meeting. What am I doing here?” I mean the main management of Goddard didn’t even know I went down there. It was my local management that sent me down and gave me the travel to go down there.
Was that still Groves?
Yes, Bob Groves and Von Bun and these guys. They were happy to have me go down there. They thought I was just going down there to kibitz with the people. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t know that Jack Schmidt had this big meeting set up with Jim McDivitt to talk about really doing the thing. So while I’m in the meeting with McDivitt, he says, “Well, who’s going to manage this thing?” They said, “Oh, Goddard will take care of it.” He said, “Well, is there anybody here from Goddard that can speak up to this meeting?” I’m the only guy, and that’s when I said this thing about, “Yes, we have it well under hand,” because I was trying to say two things at once and I was very —
And you called it “under hand”? Did that get a laugh?
Yes, they all laughed and I was embarrassed. But it looked like they were going to do something. They were serious. The contractors were there and they were going to compete for the job. The two satellites they had, they don’t have them here, and that’s where Chaikin got this all wrong, as far as what spacecraft were going to be used. The two contractors were Hughes and TRW. Yes, and one of them was going to use a DSCS spacecraft. These were spacecraft that they used for military communications. So they were just going to modify them slightly and they said, “Oh, this can do the job. We don’t have to do too much to it.” The main problem was how do you get out there, how do you do the station keeping and so forth? Then is Goddard going to manage this? I said, “Yes, sure, Goddard can do this. We can manage this thing. There’s no problem.” So I was committing Goddard to the job. I’m a really low-level guy, I’m the GS-13 guy, and I’m committing the Center to do this. So when I get back to Goddard, I’m telling Bob Groves what happened, so he says, “Well, you better write this up in a memo to Jack Clark,” who’s John Clark the Center director.
This is on page 60? September 7, 1971.
Yes. So I got back and I was told later that John Clark was a little bit nervous about this. He thought, “What the hell is this? This guy going down there, he’s committing us to doing this thing. I don’t know how we’re going to do this.” But it ended up not getting anywhere.
Why didn’t it get anywhere still, even so?
They were worried about even flying Apollo 17, never mind going back to the far side. But mainly Jack Schmidt wanted to end the Apollo Program on a high note, rather than just doing more of the same. So he had this great idea, but other people were worried about, hey, you know, this is riskier than things we’ve done in the past, and then we’ve got to pay for this other spacecraft and it’s adding more money, so it’s more money, more risk. We don’t want to do that. Let’s just end the program doing another one of the same. So it was mainly it was the risk of the thing and the money.
Was there any indication, in terms of doing something totally different, that Skylab factor into that? The fact that Skylab was already being discussed?
I don’t think so.
It never came up, to your knowledge?
Yes. I don’t know, all I know was it went away. And Gene Cernan didn’t like the idea anyway. You really had to get a big push for this thing and you had to get money for it, and it wasn’t going to be easy.
Did you ever have a chance to talk with Jack Schmidt about this?
Yes, several years later. I was getting an award from AIAA and the meeting was in New Mexico and he was senator at the time, and so since I’m getting the big award, I sat next to him at the table and we talked about it a little bit.
Did he give you any kind of insight as to how he felt about the decision?
He went along with their decision because he was basically told that, look, your whole mission might get cancelled, the probability is high it’s going to get cancelled anyway, and you better not be asking for more, you better just be trying to hang on to the mission.
Did he ever talk about the fact that he was willing to take the risk?
Well, he was willing to take the risk, but not risking doing the mission. In other words, he wanted to go to the moon, number one. If he could get to the backside that was good, too, but he’s not going to risk doing the mission at all just to do his mission on the far side.
So he wanted to go back to the moon.
Mainly, yes. And Gene Cernan wasn’t in favor of this either. So he didn’t have any backing from him. As a matter of fact, he was worried about losing the mission, too. They cancelled Apollo 18 and 19. I don’t know if that was just before this or not, somewhere around there.
But that is certainly a factor, yes.
Yes, so this was going to be the final mission. Yes, I think they already knew this was the final mission, because that’s why they wanted to end on a high note. That was a good idea. Unfortunately, it came in too late. They should have had the communicate satellite a lot earlier. This will all come out in my book. I’ll have opinions on that and so forth. Yes, I can certainly find out more of the details. Jack Schmidt is around here every once in a while and I could go down and talk to him.
Yes, it might be something that you may want to do.
Yes, that may be.
The question I have, though, is at this point, were you totally engaged in this proposal, or did you have other projects that you were developing? You knew that Apollo was ending and that it wouldn’t continue, what did you see as your long-term prospects?
Well, I was interested in post-Apollo planning and I was working with the guys at NASA Headquarters on that. The halo satellite was in the post-Apollo planning and even for a robotic program that we had planned out. So I was fully engaged with all that stuff and working with people in the lunar exploration office down at headquarters.
So this was an application of what your core interests? It was not the core interests yourself? In other words, you were still core interested in libration point scenarios and this would have been a spectacular application of it?
Yes, this was like my best chance to get a libration point satellite up there.
Yes, because one had still not happened.
Yes, I couldn’t convince people on other applications that I was pushing. I was making no progress there whatsoever and this was in ’71. I had just written this paper that came out in December of ’70 I was basically done with it. I think it was September of ’71 when the NASA TN came out, but there’s a lag between when you put out the X document, I call it, which is a pre-print almost of your NASA TN. So it takes time to get the thing published. But that thing was talking about a different rendezvous technique. That was the big thing I was pushing was rendezvousing at the earth-moon L2 point, rather than lunar orbit rendezvous for a reusable system to go to the moon and that you can get more payload down to the moon this way, like 30 percent more, using a method like this, if you’re doing a reusable system. People have just picked up on this recently. It’s been on the web and everything. There’s a couple of websites and a bunch of e-mails and questions from all kinds of people. There’s a guy that’s down at Marshall now that’s pushing this as an alternative to the way that they’re doing the vision, that you should not be doing it with EOR and LOR, but you should rather be doing it with a libration point rendezvous. I’m talking to the guy now and then, but he’s not going to get anywhere with this and he’s already gotten in a lot of trouble with it. He’s on the edge of getting fired because he’s pushing too hard on it and Mike Griffin got some word of it.
Yes, they aren’t too happy. They don’t tolerate other views, you know.
The corporate management at NASA. You know, everything comes from the top. You don’t talk about these things and try to have a guerilla operation.
Well, that makes it very difficult or at least very dodgy for somebody who is entrepreneurial.
Yes. They don’t like that stuff.
But when one looks at the history of various different programs in NASA, one usually finds individuals, at least for the successful programs, I feel, that do bubble up when there are people, places like Goddard, I’m thinking of John Lindsay and others who you may not know. They were sixties, 1960s people.
I’m thinking of John Houbolt, though.
Because I even called him up about this thing when I wrote this report. I said, “You know, I’m starting to understand how you had a lot of trouble, because I’m trying to push for the future for post-Apollo to have this libration point rendezvous thing studied and looked at it a little bit.” That was chapter three, by the way.
It’s pretty clear that you place yourself in that community of people who are entrepreneurial and are using NASA or are in NASA or associated with NASA as a platform for specific projects, for specific capabilities, however you may describe it.
There are certain things I’m pushing. This is chapter three.
“To the Moon via the Trans Lunar Libration Point,” that’s chapter three.
Yes, and in here I’m going to talk a lot about the other methods, about John Houbolt. I can’t get into it too much, but these first three chapters are difficult chapters, plus I’m not working on this stuff these days.
I know, but what you are doing is still very much the same activity, the entrepreneurial activity, and your statement that NASA is not an organization that likes bubble-up ideas is a very important one about the dynamics of how you operate in a system like that.
It’s not easy.
Are there any systems of NASA’s size that do operate on the bubble-up?
Not too many. That’s what I’m starting to see.
Can you think of any? Getting way ahead, you eventually moved to APL. Did you find that APL or university-based institutions were more tolerant of bubble-up thinking?
When I’m at APL? Well, they brought me in the NEAR Program, which I worked on there. They were willing to let me push for things knowing that I had some connections in NASA and they wanted to get into this business. So that was already set up by the time I came in with Tom Krimigis. He wanted me to push the NEAR mission.
But trying to help develop a larger framework here. NASA is being basically a government-based organization that has this characteristic of top-down, whereas universities tend in their research sections to be bubble-up.
Yes, well, that’s when I mentioned the idea of the headless satellite to John Breakwell, right. Of course, he’s an unusual guy. He thought, “Oh, this is a great idea.” He says, “How did you ever come up with this idea?” Yes, he saw right away that it was really a great idea and he encouraged me and everything and helped me along, and then gave me all the credit. I mean that’s where he’s an unusual guy. Because most of the professors when they see the student with a great idea, they want to get in on the credit part of it, right?
Well, you were first author, right, or at least only author?
I was the only author. He said, “Oh, no, no, this is all your stuff.” But he helped me out with a lot of stuff, and I’m going to talk about that.
That’s excellent. Yes, I hope you do. I encourage you very strongly, but I also encourage you to make observations about the different organizational philosophies or the management philosophies that you feel that you worked with, that you’ve experienced.
Oh, that’s going to be in the book. Yes, it’ll probably get more towards some other part of the book, certainly in the final chapter where I talk about a new vision for human space exploration. I might get Mike Griffin in there — his name will be in there, taken in vain.
Okay, fair enough. But going back to the history of the lunar communications, was this a manifestation of top-down that you just couldn’t see changed or get changed?
Yes, they thought, “Well, jeez, I’m trying to sell this big program. Let’s not throw a complication in here we need this communication satellite,” right? Nowadays, they’d never get away with this. They’re going to have a communication network this next time, although now they’re looking at something more grandiose, I’ve noticed.
What is the difference here? Why are they willing to look at it now whereas they weren’t then?
Well, they’re downplaying it now because the cost is increasing. I’ve noticed they’ve downplayed it lately. They just are thinking in terms of a grandiose program, all kinds of flight there, a big base and they’re going to have navigation satellites all over it. I don’t think you even need them, but they’ve got all this stuff in their big plan. That ESAS (Exploration Systems Architecture Study) that came out. They also did a big study on the lunar communications and how this would be implemented. It’s a huge study, put out by the communications people down at NASA Headquarters. They had the halo satellite in there as one element of their grand plan. It’s pretty grandiose. They don’t need all that stuff, is my opinion.
How would you describe the difference between keeping Apollo going or the general mindset that NASA had in 1970 when they were saying, “Well, it’s too late and we don’t have the money,” basically, or however, and now when they are planning this much larger system. Is it that NASA’s more risk-averse or is that too overly simplistic?
Oh, NASA’s very risk-averse nowadays, yes.
Worse than before?
Oh, much worse, yes.
Okay. We’ve gone about an hour and forty-six minutes, it’s about twelve. I think it’s a good place to stop, would you agree?
I’m tired. Yes.
Okay. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.
Oh, no that’s all right.
I think we’ve done a really good job of clarifying. When we meet again it will be the post-Apollo period at Goddard, and what I’d like to do is certainly get you through the 1970s, the planetary missions, how you formed constituencies, if that’s the right way to place it.
Norman Ness comes in here in a big way.
Yes. So the scientists and others who you teamed up with to advocate and how that works. So I’d like to do them in order, any order you like, of course, but that’s sort of what we’ll spend time with.
I was working to get the lunar communication satellite and then it’s beginning to look like that’s going away around October or November of ’71. It’s pretty clear that isn’t going to happen. In January of ’72, they say, “Hey, Bob, we want you to help us with this other program on comets.” The guys over in the Space Sciences wanted to do a comet mission.
This is Groves saying this to you?
Yes. I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, I don’t want to do that. I want to work on my libration points. What is this? Oh, okay, I’ll go over there to the meeting,” and that changed my whole life again. That was January 30th, 1972. I’ve got all kinds of stuff on that. That’s my next chapter. Chapter Four is called “Quest for Comets.”
Well, would you want to use the next interview session to run through chapter four?
We could do that, yes. We haven’t really finished this one yet, but we’re almost done with it.
What do we do now to finish?
We can get on to the comets, I guess, because the Comets Segues into then getting back to libration points. I hadn’t given up yet. I had this idea for this solar wind monitor that you’re going to put at the center, its L-1 point, but how am I going to do this? I’m trying to talk people into it and that’s in this book, as well. See, a lot of this stuff I’ve already got written up in different places, you should read this.
I should read this for the next interview, right?
Yes, this would be good to read, yes.
Let me make a copy of that. I’ll read it in hard copy.
This has got, ISEE-3 halo orbit mission… This is 1972 also. Between 1964 and 1970 a number of attempts were made to persuade scientists the satellite in halo orbit at L-1 point would be valuable and be unique. But there was no interest until the summer of 1971 when it was presented to Norman Ness the renowned science physicist. It was immediately grasped by Ness. He loved this passage, I showed him this later, and he says, “Yes.” “It was immediately grasped by Ness.” He saw it right away and then that ultimately led to my getting it done.
Yes. They had a meeting in ’72, which I attended just by accident and they were showing where they were going to put the ISEE-3 spacecraft, and I said, “That’s not going to work. You can’t put something there.” They were going to put it in earth orbit in front of or in back of the earth in its orbit. I said, “If you put it there, right at the edge of the sphere of influence,” and they thought, “Well, you can easily do this.” No, you can’t, because if you put it there it takes a lot of Delta V to keep it there. Yes, that was in my thesis where I talked about Isosceles triangle points and how much thrust it would take to keep it there. I actually worked it and it’s a lot if you’re keeping it there close. So that’s not going to work. I said, “But you can put it at the L-1 point and it takes nothing to keep it in that kind of an orbit.” So it took a while to convince some of the scientists there, but Norman Ness liked it. But Keith Oglevie, who ended up being the project scientist, he’s still working out at Goddard; he’s about eighty-something now. He was dead set against it because he wanted to put the thing either in front or in back, but he worked for Norman Ness, and Norman Ness had a way for putting people down at meetings. Yes, “Norman the Terrible.” Anyway, he really put down Keith a couple of times and he never forgot it.
Did you find that the receptivity these people had was also a function of their understanding of the nature of libration points and the dynamics of behavior around libration points?
Norman didn’t really know too much about it until I explained to him one day in his office, and he was impressed right away. Yes, he really liked the idea.
But Oglevie did not?
Well, he had a different thing he wanted to do, he wanted to measure something else and so Norman said, “No, this is stupid. You don’t want to do this.” He was the division chief and he’s a triple-A personality. You don’t mess with Norm Ness.
I’ll be asking you questions about your interactions with scientists and the degree to which they would listen to you in terms of what their own goals were, but what you’re already saying is you’ve written is that you really had trouble and it took a while to convince scientists that they wanted to do this.
I’m an engineer; they’re not going to listen to me. But the thing that happened, I think, when I was at Goddard more than any other time is I got in pretty tight with the scientists, and they were wondering, “Why are you working over in Code 500, this Engineering Division? You know, you should be over here,” because I was in physics at one time and I understand some of the science and everything. See, that helped me a lot with those guys.
What I’d be interested to do, though, and I’ll ask you now, but I’ll ask you again, is who before Norman Ness did you approach who you could not get interested?
The guys out at Ames in the Space Science Group out there in particular. I remember talking to them. Sonnet was one guy. He’s a competitor of Norman Ness, as a matter of fact. “Well, we’re not interested in this. What are you going to see back there?” They really pooh-poohed the whole idea.
They were not interested in monitoring?
No, they weren’t interested in doing it in this way and then I talked to them about having something at the L2 point in the tail. “Well, nobody cares about that.”
Did you ever talk to people like Van Allen?
No, I wouldn’t even be able to approach him. Well, he’s at the University of Iowa.
Write him a letter.
Well, let’s see, I tried to work within NASA to begin with, you know, with something like this.
But was that an important thing to try to do, I mean politically?
Let’s see, would I go outside? I didn’t know how to do that then. I know how to do it now, you start with the scientists and you get somewhere, right.
So you didn’t know this in the late sixties through the early seventies?
No, but I did work closely with all the scientists out at Goddard and they were really in the flow of doing deep space missions.
So you never thought of going to an American Astronomical Society meeting or an American Geophysical Union meeting?
Even though they met in Baltimore?
But there were plenty of scientists there that I could talk to about all these things. There was no problem. I didn’t have to go anywhere else; I’d just go over to Building 2. I got to know all the guys pretty well. Then when Norm Ness started pushing this comet mission then I got in, I really got to working with those guys pretty closely.
I’m going to stop the tape now. Thanks a lot for this second session.
I think I’d like to start a third session relatively soon, so we can set that up. So thank you.