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Interview of George Field by Richard Hirsh on 1980 July 15,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Career of George B. Field, theoretical astrophysicist and administrator of astronomical research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Discussions of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Harvard Universities, interest in cosmological problems; possible detection of hot intergalactic matter in 1964; colleagues at University of California at Berkeley; views on popularizing science; reactions to Sputnik launch in 1957; funding of research from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); views on the manned space program; effects of Vietnam War on NASA and astronomical research; involvement with the Space Telescope; views of the Space Shuttle; extensive committee work for NASA; astronomical research under NASA; work at SAO; new programs at SAO, such as x-ray astronomy and the Multiple Mirror Telescope; service on the Jesse Greenstein and Allan Bromley survey committees of astronomy and physics; and his view of the universe. Also prominently mentioned are: Kinsey Anderson, Stuart C. Bowyer, Jim Bradley, Tony Calio, Riccardo Giacconi, Thomas Gold, Leo Goldberg, John Hagen, Noel Hinners, Fred Hoyle, Frank Martin, John Earl Naugle, Al Opp, Edward Mills Purcell, Martin Schwarzschild, Dennis William Sciama, Henry Smith, Sylvia Favior Smith, Lyman Spitzer, George Steiner, Frank Sulloway, Pat Thaddeus, James Van Allen, Fred Whipple; American Science and Engineering, Inc., Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Congregational Church, Harvard College Observatory, Harvard University Society of Junior Fellows, High Energy Astronomy Observatory, Lick Observatory, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) Astronomy Survey Committee, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) Greenstein Committee, National Science Foundation (U.S.), New York Times, Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, Princeton University Matterhorn Project, Project Apollo, Skylab, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Multiple Mirror Telescope, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Space Shuttle, United States Naval Ordnance Laboratory, United States Office of Management and Budget, United States Office of Naval Research, University of California at Berkeley, and Viking (Rocket).
We start again our continuing saga. You were talking yesterday about manned space flight, and you were telling me that you were somewhat opposed to the lunar program. Is that right? You thought better things could be done in space besides sending man to the moon.
I feel ambivalent about it. From a strictly scientific point of view, I think we would have gotten far more by spending less money on a program of automated observations of various kinds. But at the same time I recognized the tremendous appeal of having a man step out on the moon, and I thought that was thrilling. I don’t think it would have happened otherwise. That’s my perception.
In spite of that, do you think any good science was done in the Apollo program?
Oh yes, certainly. One thing I think of immediately is seismology, which was totally successful and yielded a lot of information. The laser ranging also has given us new information on the tidal deceleration of the moon. The rock cores enabled us to make some kind of reconstruction of the lunar surface. They gave us a definite age of the surface, and provided some geological information about the plowing of the moon’s surface. Unfortunately, the question of the history and origin of the moon is still pretty unsettled. That is, there are many questions that have not been answered and couldn’t be by only a few visits of that kind.
Do you think if we spent the same amount of money on unmanned probes, we would have gotten a lot more knowledge about the moon, and perhaps would have answered some of these questions?
Yes, I do think so, simply because unmanned probes can be made far simpler, because you don’t have to design them for 99.99 percent survivability, and you don’t have to bring along all the life support systems. Therefore you could design extremely sophisticated experiments. Based on the results of the first experiments, over a long period of time we could develop new ones which responded to that information. Specifically, we mentioned yesterday the area of robotics, machines of very high sophistication that can be controlled by computers or perhaps even from the ground, that could have done a lot of exploration. I think that would have had a tremendous spinoff on the earth. And for some reason people have not picked up on this idea that Tommy Gold was speaking many years ago. Incidentally, there was one specific bit of misinformation that I gave you yesterday. I think you were asking me if I had been a P1 on a NASA grant. The only one I think that I’ve been associated with is an institutional grant which is made by NASA to Harvard Observatory. I have served as P1 or co—PI on that grant. But it’s an institutional grant, not a personal one. That’s why I didn’t put it in there.
What do you think should have been done with the extra technology left over after the Apollo program was truncated?
I don’t have any specific idea on that. I generally feel that there has been a waste, in the sense that a number of instruments and spacecraft were still sitting on the shelf and were never flown. It was very unfortunate that we didn’t fly them, because we could have gotten a let more mileage out of them, so to speak.
How about the Skylab program? That was something that was an off—the—shelf project. It was largely Apollo hardware that was converted.
Sure. Again, I think it was a poor use of human beings. In public I stated that I thought the ATM, Apollo Telescope Mount in the Skylab program, gained a great deal of scientific information. It did, but I think it gained far less per dollar than if we had gone about a more sensible program without man. That was Tommy Gold’s point, and I think it was correct— that we were spending a huge amount of money. I believe a billion dollars, to orbit the men in the Skylab, and a much smaller amount would have gotten us tremendously more information. I’m also appalled, I must say, by the state of aerospace medicine. I have served on a number of NASA committees and it seems to be true that the state of weightlessness induces certain progressive disorders, particularly of the bone marrow. The state of research and the quality of the people in that research field seems to be relatively low, so that in spite of the billions of dollars put into flying astronauts for long periods of time, we have not made very much progress in that field. My perception, perhaps wrong, is that it’s because the best people in medicine and physiology have not been attracted into that area.
Why do you think that’s so?
I don’t know. Life sciences at NASA do not attract the best quality people. I guess one explanation might be that by and large, the best people in medicine and physiology are involved in the study of diseases of man on the earth, and there’s a great deal of money available for that purpose from NIH. So they don’t need NASA. X—ray astronomers, however, can’t survive without NASA. It’s a very big difference.
What do you think about the relative roles of engineers and scientists within NASA? Do you think NASA has given priority to one group or the other?
No, I don’t. I think on the whole it’s been a good balance. Everyone recognizes that NASA is an R and D agency, an agency that is trying to translate ideas into practical results, and engineers are absolutely critical in that process. Some engineers have risen through the ranks to become administrators. I don’t mean the Administrator of NASA but administrator with a small a. I think many of them have done a good job. At the same time scientists have something to contribute to NASA, and they’re always listened to within NASA I’ve always been impressed at how seriously NASA takes its science, and its good science. By and large they have found a way to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and the science that it has flown is good science. So I have no complaints in that particular area. Some people object, I do not.
Do you know on what grounds some other people would object?
Yes. There’s an argument that space activities generally focus on a public extravaganza of one sort or another. Engineers are brought in to work on these public extravaganzas, and they are therefore in a position of power. In this particular way of looking at things, the scientists are off at one side just getting a little piece of the action from time to time. I think people have it wrong. I think that scientists have a say at the highest levels of NASA. They are represented on the Advisory Council. When NASA engineers were proposing to fly a space station a few years back, I prepared a brief against it and made a speech in a public meeting while a member of the NASA Advisory Council, which was reported in the aerospace press.
I don’t know whether that had anything to do with it, but the proposal disappeared from the viewgraphs. I think that the top people at NASA recognized that they had not done their homework on that. It was not a well reasoned program. If scientists can do that openly and still be listened to in the advisory apparatus, I think they are getting a fair hearing. There’s the case of Tommy Gold who was a top scientist who argued very strongly for a point of view based primarily on scientific considerations. His viewpoint was very unsympathetic to large engineering enterprises as such; his advice was not accepted. That is NASA’s privilege, but it was unfortunate that they turned their backs on him and did not invite him back for further discussions. So Tommy has been at odds with the agency. However, Tommy is a pretty difficult guy sometimes. He’s not sufficiently accommodating, shall we say, to enter into a long discussion with some of these guys.
We’re talking about extravaganzas for the public. How important do you think has politics been in designing NASA programs, both the manned program and science programs?
Well, public appeal has been decisively important. I’m not sure I would label it as politics, certainly not party politics. NASA has been accepted pretty well by both parties. But everyone at NASA from the beginning has been aware that NASA’s survival is dependent upon the enthusiasm of the public. And they are right. So there’s no argument about it. From time to time the pendulum swings toward more extravaganzas; then later science and applications have gotten a bigger share of the pie. But my feeling is that the balance is not tremendously out of whack. If anything, I think NASA should be concerned that they are falling behind their natural constituency, such as kids in high school and college who are very excited by the possibilities of space exploration. NASA is stalled at the moment with the Space Shuttle, which first of all is slowing down other activities and second of all, even if it works, it’s not clear where it’s going to. So there has to be much more thinking about the long—term activities in space that can be profitable in a number of different ways. That will excite the imagination of the public, I think.
Have you found that there’s some conflict in NASA between supporting programs in basic space science and space applications?
No. I think that long ago the decision was made to do both. NASA has been relatively successful in doing both. In any one budget year, one tends to get ahead of the other, and there’s been grousing as a result of that, but it’s no more serious than that.
Do you think there’s a tendency to go one way or the other in Congress?
I’m always surprised at how much support Congress is willing to give space science, given the fact that it has relatively little spinoff. I think that Congress rightfully is very interested in the applications and that they are particularly benevolent with respect to the science. To an amazing extent, I’ve found, in talking to Congressmen and their staff, there is a real interest in increasing new knowledge about the universe. Amazing.
Why do you think that’s so?
Why do I think it’s amazing?
First of all, the American public contains all kinds of attitudes in this area, but as you get into the intellectual elite, as represented say by those who have higher degrees and those who have training in law, medicine, and business, you have a variety of attitudes, some of them very antiscientific. That view is normally based on lack of information. The argument goes that NASA is just a stalking horse for the Department of Defense. It is just a military operation. And just as these people deplore very large investments in big military technology programs, they deplore NASA. At the other end of the spectrum you have very thoughtful people who see that the information coming from space science is entirely novel and in some ways fundamental information about the universe It opens up possibilities to us which can be very inspiring So you get every possible attitude.
My perception is that, if the faculty at Harvard could vote on the subject, probably 80 percent of them would be for reducing the space budget, and 20 percent would be for keeping it level, and 0.1 percent would be interested in seeing it increased. It’s that bad from the point of view of the space scientist. The Harvard faculty as a whole, is not sympathetic to what we’re trying to do. But I think Congressmen are more plugged into the man on the street, and the man on the street is amazingly interested in these matters, in the sense that you don’t really expect taxi drivers in New York City to start asking you about Black Holes or life in the universe, but they do. I get this kind of question everywhere.
Really? When you’re taking a cab to an astronomical meeting?
Sure. Once the driver learns that you’re an astronomer, about 50 percent of them get confused with astrology and tend to refer to you as an astrologer—or even an astrologist, oddly enough. Among those who speak of you as an astronomer, the questions seem to be quite intelligent and quite interested. The ones who identify you as an astrologer, perhaps half of them then follow up on that by asking if there is anything in astrology. What are the chances of its being right? But the other half, it turns out, know perfectly well that you’re an astronomer. They know the difference, but they have never learned the difference in the words so they call you an astrologer.
What do you think the effects of the Vietnam War were on NASA?
I’m sure there were some. I would be hard pressed to give details. Probably they were of the nature of slowing down NASA expenditures and raising questions of the sort that I’ve just mentioned, that NASA is just a branch of the DOD. If we had not had the Vietnam War, I think it’s likely that the NASA budget would be higher than it is at the present time. At the present time, there’s a certain ambivalence about it, I think, in the minds of the people.
What effect do you think the war had on astronomy or science in general?
There has been an anti—science movement growing because of the perception that science led to technology and technology run riot is destructive. Those things are true. It is also true that science leads to benign technology, and such technology can be very helpful. Finally, it’s true that some science, like astronomy, doesn’t lead to much technology at all. There’s a saying that the First World War pushed chemistry ahead and that the Second World War pushed physics ahead. In some general sense, the threat of the Third World War is pushing space science ahead. So astronomy is at least loosely coupled with the concept of World War III, and I don’t think inappropriately. The people feel that the two things are related; global perspective and global destruction are all part of the package that we’re buying.
How does that tie into astronomy?
Well, the astronomical perspective is that the earth is simply that one among the planets, which happens to be occupied. It’s a fairly dispassionate view, you might argue, and it feeds in also through the means of making astronomical measurements, namely with rockets and missiles which were originally developed for mass destruction. And it has always been so with astronomy. Astronomy is closely related to the development of military apparatus from Galileo’s time.
Do you think people are aware of the use of space vehicles for astronomy? I still get the impression that most people visualize an astronomer as sitting in his observatory looking up with a 100—year—old telescope.
If you take the cartoons in the NEW YORKER as an example, a typical astronomer looks through a telescope, and that telescope strangely enough projects not only up to the dome but through it. It’s an odd fact that cartoonists don’t know about where the telescope is located. At the same time I think most people, including the cartoonist, would vaguely associate astronomy with space activities, if only because the stars are in space, the planets are in space, and NASA is involved in space and sends probes to planets. Probably only a few percent of the people in the street would be able to correctly point out that astronomers use space in a very specific way, namely to put telescopes into orbiting spacecraft. They would not be able to say that, but they vaguely associate the two. But I think there is this connection. Astronomy has been aloof from warfare in a fairly direct way up until now, It can say, with some truth, that the objects we study and the means that we employ are not related to the question of mass destruction, Our particular methods have not been employed on a large scale in warfare, although I think now there is a growing potential to do that. So typically astronomers are unaware of this connection. They don’t realize that it maybe their turn at bat, and the moral choices that are involved in that will have to be made by astronomers in varying degrees at some point. Let me give an example. The Space Telescope, which is by far the largest astronomical project ever conceived, is based on military technology and certainly wouldn’t have taken place without it.
The military developed a whole series of spy satellites, which are reflecting telescopes looking down at the earth. The Space Telescope uses very much the same technology to loop up. I’m even led to believe, although I do not know this for a fact, that it’s very very similar, to the point that the size of the Space Telescope is set by the fact that the industrial firms that are active in this area have test facilities of a certain capacity that were set up for testing spy satellites. If Space Telescope had used a larger mirror, they would not have been able to test it because they wouldn’t have had the facilities. So there is a close relationship, and I think it will get closer.
I want to ask you more about the Space Telescope in a little bit, but I wonder if I can ask you some more general questions?
For example, how do you think astronomy has been affected by NASA cutbacks in the seventies?
It has been affected, but I don’t think it’s been damaged very seriously. Astronomy is doing marvelously well in terms of its ability to do new things and put astronomers to work on good projects. The employment rate of astronomers is relatively good, compared to some other fields. One effect that comes to mind is something we discussed earlier, namely the fate of the OSO series that had been proposed. It had been going along nicely, but then somewhere in the early seventies I believe it was decided to terminate the OSO series. Instead there was the Skylab activity which, as we discussed, was regarded primarily as a public relations stunt and not serious science although it turned out to be very scientifically worthwhile. Solar physics was cut back in that respect, and certain other areas of astronomy have not gone ahead as fast as they would have. An example would be X—ray astronomy, with the restructuring of the High Energy Astronomical Observatory (HEAO) program. But still, the initiatives that were made in that program were tremendously important and tremendously interesting.
Do you think these cutbacks, as in the HEAO series, were fair to astronomers? They had been led to believe that they would be provided with lots of money to do these great experiments with the HEAOs. They thought they would build observatories that were three times as large and heavy as the ones that are now up. Do you think the cutbacks were fair to them?
Well, to answer that you’d have to have a clear perception of what the proper share of the US budget is that should go to astronomy, and I don’t think anyone has the wisdom to know what that should be. It is true that astronomers were disappointed, because it was a cutback after certain promises were made. On the other hand, that’s the nature of the US government, and anybody who’s watched it at close range will see that everybody is disappointed at some time or another, because everybody is clamoring for more than he can get. So this happens all the time. I guess I’ve come just simply to view this as part of the continuing game which is government—science relations, and you do the best you can. You try to be persistent and you are successful to a degree, but there’s nothing so rigid about the structure that you can say that you have been treated unfairly. I’m sorry, that isn’t quite correct. Certainly it would be unfair, if, for example, NASA were to promise something to a given PI and later take it away from that PI and give it to another PI. There are unfair things that could happen. But in general such things have not happened. All that’s happened is that the total amount of money that’s been available has fluctuated.
Do you think that type of fluctuation has affected the way astronomers have gotten into space research? Do you think it might have slowed down the entry of scientists into interspace research?
Sure. There’s no doubt that if there had been twice as much money available, there would have been more activity, because there were competent people waiting to use it. It’s also the case that there were rises and falls that were unexpected, as in the case of the REAO program. A group would be all geared up ready to go, and then there would be no experiment or it would be delayed or something like that. So in that sense, yes, we haven’t done everything that we could, and further, what we have done has been somewhat inefficient, because it is impossible to plan ahead. That again reflects the relatively unstable nature of the US science budget. My impression is that governments overseas are able to make longer—term commitments and stick to them than they are in the United States. It’s really a year—by—year cliff—hanging operation.
That’s not necessarily due to the ineptness of NASA administrators.
No, I don’t think so. I think in my brief encounter with the agency, that the NASA Administrators have been relatively sharp and have tried to fashion a program that made sense and have tried to stick with it. The problems comes with OMB, which is extraordinarily powerful and which is imposing upon NASA and other agencies political realities of the moment, plus Congress, which is always very unpredictable. NASA has to go before at least four committees, which often disagree on what should be done. So there’s all kinds of opportunity for derailing a program before it gets through. So given all of these constraints, I think NASA does pretty well.
It seems like someone who goes into space research would have to be willing to take more risks than scientists doing ground based research.
Besides that quality in space astronomers, can you tell me other things about a typical astronomer who does do space research?
Because space research involves relatively new techniques, as each new wavelength interval opens up, you see the emergence of physicists as we did in the case of radio astronomy on the ground. There’s no question that the typical space astronomer has to be more of a manager, more able to deal with people and convince them of what he wishes to do, and to develop a group to work with him, than would be the typical ground-based observational astronomer like someone who uses Kitt Peak or NRAO in a purely guest observer mode. So there are distinctive differences, it seems to me, in the kind of personality that comes to the fore.
Do you think the Space Telescope is going to change that? Do you think other types of people will come into space research?
Yes. Actually that has already started in a big way with Copernicus, with IUE, and with HEAO, just to mention a few programs. I think ATM also began that. Guest observers are the backbone of these programs, and there’s a lot of experience already with that. You have hundreds of different groups who are doing small programs with these telescopes on a guest investigator basis. So the Space Telescope will just continue that, and to some extent, institutionalize even more than in the past.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Space Telescope now. Since you worked with Spitzer, you can perhaps tell me something about the Space Telescope that you learned with him.
Was he perhaps the one who interested you in the project?
Yes. As I think I mentioned about it yesterday, we used to talk about it at Princeton, and while I was still there, he developed a rocket program and then the OAO program as stepping stones along the way. But always he was interested in the Space Telescope, and in various committees where it came up, I was very interested to talk to people about it. I remember being on the President’s Advisory Committee panel on space science, and there were discussions about it. Was the time right? As you know, there have been many committees that have looked at it from one point of view or another and have given NASA license to go ahead further. I feel particularly pleased about my activity in the Greenstein Committee. Absurd though it may seem, as we ended our meeting in Aspen, Colorado (which was where we were supposed to formulate all of our recommendations) I and a couple of others realized there was nothing about the Space Telescope in it. Somehow that had been overlooked or had not been adequately attended to. So we went in to Jesse Greenstein and told him of that. It seemed to us a grave mistake not to at least discuss it, if not give a recommendation on it He agreed, and we formulated a piece which later surfaced in a special chapter called “Beyond the Recommendations.”
This was the NSF committee?
No. You remember the National Academy put together a 10 year review, which started about 1969 and went to ‘71 approximately, and Jesse Greenstein was the chairman. There were a large number of astronomers involved in it. I was on the committee. So we put it forward as something that probably could not be done in the decade of the seventies. It would have to be in the eighties, but they should start doing groundwork for it in the 70’s. As it turned out, it actually got approved in the decade of the seventies, and it is supposed to fly in the eighties.
Why has it taken so long? Spitzer originally proposed the idea in 1940. In 1940 it would have been pretty difficult to put up the Space Telescope. But it started off as the LST, the Large Space Telescope.
Or the “Lyman Spitzer Telescope.”
Can you tell me why it took so long and why it went from the “Large” to the “Space Telescope?”
Sure. I think I have some information on that. You can check it with others. First of all, you said that it was first proposed in 1940. Is that true? I was unaware of it.
I’ve seen a reference to it, that Spitzer was advocating the idea as early as 1940.
The first published report that I know of was in 1946, I think, in a Rand Corporation report, and you could certainly get that somewhere. However, he may have discussed it earlier. I think popular science writers of one sort or another, like Willie Ley and Arthur Clarke, may have referred to it also. But I don’t think it’s too unreasonable that a billion dollar program in pure science would take 25 years to get off the ground. As it’s turning out it’s more like 40 years, isn’t it. 1946 to 1986 is nearly 40 years. It’s not that nothing happened in the meantime. It’s not that only committees met. What actually happened was that there were first rockets developed, then there was the OAO program, and now there is the IUE program, plus a number of related programs that have gone ahead costing many hundreds of millions of dollars. So progress has been made toward this goal, and all of it I think is quite essential to the ultimate design and development of the Space Telescope. To give one example: from the beginning, it was desirable to have diffraction—limited optics.
I don’t know whether we could have built diffraction limited optics ten years ago, and surely tremendous strides were made in that field as a result of the spy satellite program. Another example would be the imaging with focal—plane detectors. In the early days of the project they were imagining using photographic film and then recovering it, which would have been a very expensive enterprise. Now it is possible to do imaging with electronic panoramic detectors, which not only have extremely good characteristics in terms of linearity and lack of noise but they have a quantum efficiency which is 100 times that of the photographic plate, for example, CCD’s and their modifications. There was something involved here which you might refer to as technological ripeness. It was perceived in the Greenstein Report in the early seventies, that we weren’t ready at that time to make a commitment to a large Space Telescope. But as the seventies went on, we began to see that it could be done.
And NASA actually pushed it, I think, faster than the astronomical community was ready for. This was probably because they had access to classified information and they knew that it would be possible to do it before most astronomers knew it was possible. So there was a little period there when the agency was trying to get the community involved, and the community wasn’t sure that it was worthwhile. But now everybody’s enthusiastic because they realize the enormous power of this instrument. It took time. It probably could have been done somewhat earlier, but not a great deal earlier. I think what we’re really saying is that it happens that a great scientist like Spitzer will see the ultimate possibility of doing something and suggest it in a short article. But that’s very different from putting together the technological base, the scientific program, and the huge resources that are needed to actually do it. So, I don’t think it’s inappropriate the way it’s actually happened. I do remember this. Shortly after I got to Berkeley, word came through that the Administrator of NASA would like to bring a team of people to the University of California to discuss the possibility of putting a large telescope in orbit. This may have been at the time when NASA was realizing it could do some of these things, and the astronomers didn’t.
As I recall, the fellow’s name was Mueller, who at one time, I think, was head of the Apollo program. He brought his people to the university campus, and they put on a little dog and pony show with view—graphs and all the rest of it. They alienated the astronomers, because they were talking in terms of public appeal and large engineering programs and PR and so on. They weren’t sensitive to the fact that most astronomers at least at that time are basically rather reserved personalities who are very committed to their science and are very unsympathetic to public show and display. So this particular meeting was a disaster. I do remember one aspect of it, though... They were talking about the Lick Observatory and the fact that it at that time had a 120 inch telescope— a 3 meter telescope. It is in fact bigger than the Space Telescope. These guys had the gall to suggest that maybe NASA should just put Lick Observatory in orbit. “If you wouldn’t mind giving us the telescope, we’ll put it up there for you.” Now, I think that sort of stuff is nonsense. I mean, first of all, Lick Observatory has a mission on the ground. Second of all, it’s not at all the telescope that you would build to put into orbit. It is not diffraction limited. Third, it probably would break on the way up, as it was not engineered for high 8. So NASA was having a hard time for a while there interfacing with the astronomical community, and it took them a number of years to realize what the astronomers really needed and to figure out how to do it. But they’ve now done that. They’ve done their homework.
About the size of the telescope, do you think there is some military connection there?
Is that the reason why it’s now going to be a 2.4 meter telescope?
Rather than 3 meters— yes. One constraint clearly was the space shuttle bay. How large an instrument could it accommodate? Three meters or somewhat more would have been the limit from that point of view, and that’s what they originally set out to design. Then the word came back that the potential contractors would spend far less money if it could be 2.4 rather than 3 meters. The scientists were asked at that point, “Is that still a valid project?” And after some consideration they said “Yes.” They were right, in my opinion. It is a valid project. A one meter telescope or even a 1½ would not have been a big enough step over what we’ve already flown. The reason a 2.4—meter was cheaper was that test facilities already existed for spy satellites of that size, but not for 3 meters. A 2.4 was a major step forward, and not that much smaller than the optimum of 3 meters.
What are some of the major things you’re hoping to use the telescope for?
I probably will not use it at all. The reason for that is that I tend to keep getting fascinated with theoretical ideas and not actually doing observing. But I believe the telescope will be used primarily for very deep space objects for a number of reasons. First of all, it can contribute in a number of dramatic ways to the quasar problem. One is that we suspect that quasars are located in nuclei of galaxies. With the Space Telescope we hope to be able to image the things with such precision, and confine the light of the quasar itself to such a small region, that we will actually be able to see the surrounding galaxy, which has only been hinted at from ground—based observations. The reason is the quasar light is scattered by the atmosphere in such a way that it obliterates the surrounding galaxy. We’ll put to rest once and for all whether quasars are in galaxies or not. That’s important. Another is to study the ultraviolet spectra of quasars. I was just reading last night about the ultraviolet spectrum of 3C273, which is the brightest quasar. That has now been observed with the ITJE by many hours of integration on it, but IUE is a small telescope. With the Space Telescope, it would be relatively straightforward to get the ultraviolet spectra of a lot of quasars.
That’s important because we want to understand whether nearby quasars are identical to the distant ones, or is there something distinctively different? To test this we will use ST to see whether their ultraviolet spectra are the same as the redshifted ultraviolet spectra of distant quasars. The redshifted ultraviolet spectra of distant quasars have in them hundreds or thousands of absorption lines, which seem to be Lyman lines of hydrogen atoms between us and the quasars. There’s has been a big dispute about where the hydrogen is located that is absorbing those Lyman lines is it being ejected from the quasars in question and thus appearing to be less redshifted than the quasars themselves, or alternatively, does it lie in intergalactic space, or perhaps in galaxies along the line of sight? That can be tested directly by the ultraviolet observations with ST because if the material is being ejected from the quasars, we’ll see some of the ultraviolet lines shifted shortward of zero redshift.
That is, if the stuff is kicked out with enough violence, giving it a greater blue shift than the quasar itself is red shifted, then it will appear blue shifted even relative to our own local frame. This could not happen if the material were truly intergalactic, so this is a decisive test that can be done almost the day that ST goes into operation. It is a really important question because this material may be the most primordial material that we know. Why do I say that? Because so far all attempts to identify heavy elements in these clouds have failed. They seem to be pure hydrogen (and perhaps helium), as far as we can make out. In that sense they’re different from anything else we know in the universe. In the field of galactic research, imaging galaxies at great red shift would be interesting, because we’d be able to tell the morphology and something about the evolutionary state of the galaxy. All expectations are that galaxies should be dramatically different at a red shift of 1 or 2, than they are locally. And that should evident from the shapes and the colors and spectra of high redshift galaxies. We can’t say that now, because we can hardly see such galaxies, let alone determine their morphologies and spectra. ST will be probing the universe at relatively high red shift.
You say you’re not going to make observations yourself. Is this just because you want to remain on the theoretical end of research?
No. A commitment to doing observational work involves really a lot of time and effort, and I find that I can’t do everything. At the moment, I’m doing 90 percent administration and 10 percent science, and the science that I’m able to do is theory. What I hope to do in the ST period is to reduce my administration to 10 percent, and then I would tend to divide the rest of the time between three things. One would be research—largely theoretical. Teaching and goofing off would be the other two. I haven’t had much time to do these things in the last few years. When you divide your life into those packages, there’s not much time for investigating yet another area of activity, which is observational astronomy. I would like to do it, but it’s kind of like learning to water ski, at this point. I’m not going to get to it.
How much did you have to do with the planning of the Space Telescope when you were on the Space Telescope working group? Are you still a member of the group?
No, I’m not a member of the Space Telescope group at the present time. Perhaps you’ve been misled on that point, and therefore you’ll shut off your tape recorder and leave. You know, if you came expecting to find out what’s going on on the Space Telescope working group, you won’t.
But you were a member?
I was. It went through various phases. I was a member during the phase B period, when they were formulating a preliminary design, and I was on it for maybe two or three years from 1974 to 1976 or something like that. When Phase B studies were completed and approval was sought and gained from Congress, they set up a new working group with different kinds of people on it, and I did not apply for membership at that time. Basically I felt that I’d made whatever contributions I could.
What kind of role do you see the national space facilities playing in the future? Space Telescope will perhaps be the first such facility that there might be if things go well.
What role do you see these new facilities playing?
I would say they will be extremely important if not dominant, and surely comparable with the ground—based national observatories such as Kitt Peak and Cerra Tolelo, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, VLA, etc. The reason I say that is because these facilities will be virtually unique. There will be no way that any other organization or university or institution can begin to approach them in their unique power. Space Telescope is a billion dollar project. Nobody else is going to build another Space Telescope for a long time. So if you want to do a project in space with high resolution and ultraviolet capability, there’s no other way to do it. And for that reason it will dominate that particular area of astronomy. Similarly, the Advanced X—ray Astronomy Facility (AXAF) will dominate X—ray astronomy. It’s not out of the question that there will be a similar effort in the area of infrared astronomy, I would say. I wouldn’t be surprised if these activities end up consuming 70, 80 or 90 percent of the effort of astronomers in the next 10 or 20 years.
Have you had anything to do with the Space Institute?
You mean the Space Telescope Science Institute? Yes, in the sense that I felt it was very important to bring that to the attention of NASA. As a member of the working group, the Institute was my hobby horse, and I pushed it in every way that I could. Later, when NASA decided to ask the Academy to put together a special group to talk about it, I was a member of that group as well and had some input on it. So yes, I have been trying t help in that direction.
What do you expect to see in the Institute?
Well, I think NASA by and large accepted the recommendations of the Academy study, which calls for an independent Institute run by an organization which is responsive to the astronomical community—particularly those in universities— which interfaces with NASA in many different ways, but in such a way as to retain ultimate control of the scientific program. That is extremely important from the point of view of the astronomers. Actually in the meantime NASA has become sensitized to the need to bring in topflight astronomers in its program. Even if the Space Telescope Institute were not to become a reality in the form in which it was proposed, NASA would nevertheless probably end up forming something like a Space Telescope Science Institute on its own. The concern of the astronomers was that the scientists who made the decisions on the Space Telescope in its operations should be of a higher quality than normally found at NASA centers. The debate centered on whether NASA could hire really first rate people at the centers, and the judgment of the community on the whole was that they probably couldn’t. But that’s a matter of judgment. I don’t really know. Anyway NASA is going ahead with it and I think it’s a good thing.
Speaking of good things and bad things, what do you think of the space shuttle?
It was a misconceived beast in the first place. I didn’t have much to say at the time it originated. I wasn’t really involved in the shuttle debate beyond this discussion in the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, which was a relatively brief one. I might point out that I was on that committee for only a year or two, and in fact I resigned in protest over the Vietnam War. What I was trying to do was to use what feeble influence I might have to reach President Johnson through his science advisor, Don Hornig, who did listen to us. It was sort of amusing because I sent my letter of resignation in, and I received a letter virtually the next day thanking me for my service on the panel. Evidently it had been sent before I sent my letter. As a result, I never really got a chance to resign, so to speak. I don’t know whether they knew it was coming or what. Anyway, getting back to the question of the shuttle.
In retrospect it seems like a disaster. I think what happened, as I understood it, was that NASA had in mind to build a space station, by which I mean a facility where humans can live for long periods of time. This would be a proper stepping stone to very long duration flights to Mars as well as doing some interesting things in earth orbit. Naturally they needed a vehicle to get there. The space station was struck down in the early sixties, but the space shuttle was approved. But obviously, it is of the nature of a truck which has no particular place to go. In that sense, it’s kind of an ill—starred project. Some of us who were watching NASA develop the space shuttle were amazed at the chutzpah with which the program had been developed. Namely, they were bringing together in a parallel way many different components without subjecting them to very rigorous testing and development pro— grams. They were putting them all into one monstrous machine, and then testing that monstrous machine all at once. We know now that NASA chose to do that because they felt they could save money, and in fact it was the only way they could. There was an interesting article recently in which the guy who’s now head of Apollo program, John Yardley, was quoted as saying “We were told that this is the budget figure, and we realized that we couldn’t possibly do it in the old way for that budget figure. Therefore we chose to take a chance, to do it without all the testing that we had done on previous programs. We felt that we were competent enough to do that.” As it’s proved out, they weren’t. It’s a very serious problem. As I understand it, thermal protection the tiles are the biggest problem, and it seems to the layman that the situation that they find themselves in is absurd.
How do you respond to the argument that once the shuttle is operating properly, space investigations will be so much cheaper?
Well, in principle that could be true, simply because of the reflyability inherent in the system. The fact that the payload capacity is as enormous as it is means that a small scientific instrument of a few thousand pounds is a relatively small fraction of the total payload. So you can imagine doing a rather cheap and dirty job on it because of the fact that not everything has to work perfectly every time— there will always be more flights. The crude concept would be: I have 60,000 pounds, let’s put up 20 satellites kind of like a big 4th of July rocket. If only 15 of them work, fine. You’re still ahead. The cost of the space science program is largely associated with an extraordinary degree of quality assurance in producing space hardware, and if you can back off from the requirement for such a high level of quality assurance, you can save a lot of money. Everybody recognizes that. From the beginning that was a goal of the space shuttle, but it seems like the management still hasn’t been able to implement that goal. That is, they’re back at very high costing again.
The reason for that I don’t know, but one contributing factor seems to be that if you look at the career objectives of individual managers within NASA, they are naturally trying to succeed at whatever assignment they’re given, so that they can possibly advance. Well, if they’re in charge of a satellite which fails, they clearly are not going to advance. There’s no incentive for taking a chance. Consequently everybody’s covering his tail with quality assurance, and the costs go up again. I suspect that, at least at first, the space shuttle is not going to be any cheaper than the other ways of doing things. This may be more expensive for one reason or another. The integration costs are high because you’ve got various different instruments being launched at the same time. But in the longer run, it has a potential for bringing the costs down if NASA can resolve its management problems.
Has science been getting the bad end of the deal with the engineering problems? From what I’ve heard, there are so many problems and scientists aren’t getting as much money for developing programs with the shuttle.
Sure. I think that’s true. I think a couple of years ago Noel Hinners successfully pushed through a program for implementation of space shuttle experiments. It was, as I recall, 30 million a year, and then it was going to grow to 70 million a year or something like that, but that figure has been cut back dramatically. However, that may not be unreasonable, given the fact that we are not yet sure that the shuttle is going to work. There have been delays, and there’s no assurance that there won’t be further delays. Therefore managers argue that they should use the money for enhancing the reliability of the shuttle system rather than for scientific instruments. So if I had been the head of NASA I would have done the same thing.
What impact do you think the delays will have on astronomers? I know Riccardo Giacconi has told me that he’s disappointed because after HEAO there’s not going to be anything for a long time. He attributes that largely to shuttle delays.
I’m not sure what the relationship there is. It’s a very complicated system. As you know, it’s easy in these matters to assign blame for some particular lack of funding to some other particular thing that did go ahead. But the fact is these things aren’t always directly related. It’s a very confused series of trade—offs that goes on constantly within NASA. The delay in funding the X—ray facilities is a complicated thing that is not directly attributable to any one thing. It has to do with the general lid that’s on the NASA budget. It has to do with the spending curve for Space Telescope and Galileo. It does certainly have to do with the fact that more money is going to have to go into the shuttle than was originally anticipated, but I don’t think you can really assign the blame completely on the shuttle.
What do you think the effect of a space shuttle failure would be on NASA?
Disastrous. Absolutely disastrous.
If the first one blows up on the launch pad, what would happen?
It’s going to be very hard to recover from that. If it weren’t for DOD, NASA would be out there all alone. This is a major project. They’ve spent something like 10 billion dollars on it. And that would be regarded as an all—out simple, direct failure, which we would be intolerant of because NASA’s performance in the last ten years in terms of launch vehicles has been very successful. We expect 95 percent success or more. My feeling is that the Congress would go along with one failure— very reluctantly, but they would. Then after the second one blew up on the launch pad, there would be a call to cancel the whole program, and it might very well succeed. I would give it only 30 percent chance of surviving two launch failures. That would emasculate NASA because they have banked so much on shuttle there’d be a lot of talk about just disestablishing NASA or divvying it up and putting it into their agencies such as NSF, DOD and so on. I should have said that all of that leaves out a number of imponderables. One of them is DOD, which has a strong interest in the shuttle. If they were to step forward and say “We will rescue the program but we have to take it over,” that would probably be what would happen. The other imponderable is the Russians. We didn’t hear much about the Russians, but if the Russians should again flex their muscles in space and do something spectacular like sending a man to the moon or begin manned flights to Mars you would see again a dramatic change in American response.
You were on the Shuttle Astronomy working group?
Are you still on it?
My file on you ends in 1978. When did you leave the committee? I know you joined it 1974. Tell me about your work on the Shuttle Astronomy Working Group.
That involved among other things Space Telescope and a number of ancillary projects which in my opinion were not anywhere near as important. I tended to be a skeptic about those. One of them was to fly a number of ultraviolet telescopes having specialized purposes, such as wide field or spectral coverage. It was my judgment that as long as Space Telescope had not flown, the political situation of science would not support such projects. I was very skeptical of such projects. But there were a number of other initiatives in the area of infrared and applications of radio astronomy that I did support, and I think are going ahead. I should say, some of these other things that I opposed are still going ahead. It was a relatively low level working group kind of a situation.
You’ve been a member of other committees as well. Do you think this committee structure within NASA is worthwhile?
Do you think things actually work out?
Yes. One that I could speak of a little more is the Physical Sciences Committee. I can’t remember the timing exactly, but I think it was during the period that I was chairman of that committee when ST actually was approved by the President and the Congress. As chairman of that committee I was helpful in sharpening the support for the project, and for laying plans among astronomers and others to visit Congress and to lobby on behalf of it, etc. We scrutinized the documents that NASA was preparing to present to Congress, so that they were accurate and reflected the best statement you could make about the project. That’s an important goal also. The other aspect of the committee work was important too, namely that the scientific community has to be happy that it has been heard and believe that NASA is not making decisions capriciously in the face of various requirements.
In that particular era, there were a number of alternative programs that could have been put forward. One of them was the Lunar Polar Orbiter, which did not go ahead. So the people from those communities had to be present to hear the discussion and arguments. After that NASA definitely responded. It said, “We’ve heard you. Here is what we are going to do, and here is why we are going to do it.” It’s important for the scientific community to be there when that discussion takes place. So I think it is worthwhile. I must say that in principle the Physical Science Committee was a subcommittee of another group which at that time was called the NASA Space Programs Advisory Council. In my view, the Council was not effective at that time because the chairman, Fred Seitz of Rockefeller University simply had lost interest and wasn’t active. The Council has been now reconstituted under Bill Nierenberg of Scripps, and it’s much more effective for that reason.
Did you have to recruit people for these committees as chairman, for example, of the subcommittee?
How did you go about it?
I just called them up and asked them. They all agreed because they realized that it was an opportunity to influence NASA in the ways they wanted to. I don’t remember ever having any difficulty. It took five minutes of my time. The real problem was to decide who we were going to ask to be on the committee. Who would best represent the community? Who had level judgment? Who would not plead special interests but rather have a broader view?
Were there any programs which you suggested which now in retrospect you might think better of?
That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that one. Here’s a complete listing of all my committee work. If we could just pause for a moment and look at this. The Physical Sciences Committee was perhaps the effort which had the most impact of any that I’ve been involved in. I don’t offhand remember goofs of that sort. My general impression is that the space science program of NASA did pretty well, so I’m not aware of really serious screw—ups. I can comment that I am skeptical about the way the Viking program was conducted.
Did you have anything to do with recommending that program?
I did not. It’s just that there was a lot of discussion about it in those committees that I was on, but they didn’t have a direct impact. It seemed to me at least in retrospect that some of the experiments were very interesting. Certainly the orbital stuff and certain aspects of the lander were interesting. For example, recovering the soil and examining it for its physical properties, photographing the Martian surface, making photometric measurements of the atmosphere, making radio measurements of the position of the space craft, studying dynamics of the planet were all exciting activities. But where I think the mission fell down was in the thoughtfulness that went into designing the chemical experiments for the search for life. It’s again a reflection of the shallowness of the life sciences within NASA namely, that they didn’t have access to the really superb life scientists in the United States. They would have argued and debated and refined those experiments. In particular they would have tried to reproduce all possible results in the laboratory ahead of time. Apparently this was not actually done, which was astonishing for the rest of us to hear afterwards. So obviously that’s an area of weakness.
Was the problem of NASA not getting the life sciences people, a problem of public relations? Was it a problem of not selling life sciences well enough?
Yes. There’s a chicken and the egg problem there. In other words, I think some of the people within NASA who identified themselves as life science people were basically aerospace physicians. They were not held in particular high respect by the molecular biology community in the United States which dominates fundamental work in the field. They would try to recruit such people from time to time, but since those people didn’t respect them, it was a chicken and egg problem—nothing happened. There wasn’t the proper interface, if you will. In that respect I think NASA really screwed up badly. They should have gone to the National Academy and requested guidance and advice in this area very specifically right from the beginning. They’re doing it now, and there is now a committee of the Space Science Board that has been set up to address this problem, but they should have done it long ago.
In general, over your last 20 years of NASA History, how do you think NASA has treated astronomy? How do you think astronomy has fared with NASA? Maybe that’s a better way of asking the question.
I would say that astronomy was treated perhaps even better than it should have been. It just happens that a number of astronomers were in on the beginning of NASA, and therefore they had an influence on the program in the direction of astronomy which was maybe more than it really deserved. There has been a tremendous emphasis on solar physics and perhaps more emphasis on ultraviolet astronomy than was really warranted. However, some of the newer areas were being cultivated by physicists, particularly X—ray astronomy, and basic physics of the gravitational wave type of astronomy and so on. These fields were not being pursued as vigorously. My feeling was that X—ray astronomy came along a little later and didn’t have its snout in the trough to the degree to which ultraviolet astronomers did have, because the ultraviolet astronomers were already established optical astronomers in their field.
Do you feel that NASA should encourage some of the new more exciting, more exotic fields, at the expense of solar physics, which is something that’s been around for quite a while?
Yes. I’m not sure quite how I would identify exotic fields to the present time. The two of which I’m aware are neutrino astronomy and gravitational wave astronomy. I don’t think anybody is seriously suggesting experiments in neutrino astronomy that can be done with spacecraft, so that’s more of an NSF type of problem. But in gravitational-wave astronomy, there are experiments that can be done using spacecraft that are truly mind blowing. In particular, if the calculations are right, it should be possible by certain procedures to detect gravitational waves from the formation of Black Holes in quasars and from the traces of those gravitational waves we could get an estimate of the mass and distance of a quasar. In other words, we could see quasars and Black Holes forming in a matter of a relatively short period of time. When I say short periods of time, I guess I’m talking hours to days.
The way this can be done has been the subject of a number of studies, and it would involve technology which we have developed here at SA0 We have a department which builds hydrogen maser clocks that are currently rated at one part in 1016. We think that rate can be improved another order of magnitude. If flown on a spacecraft, they would permit, through Doppler techniques, measurement of the position of the spacecraft to a millimeter. Consequently, they would detect gravitational waves of long wavelength. Since a millimeter is something like 10 or so of an astronomical unit, one can detect very small perturbation in space-time. This is an area where NASA has been trying to get its act together, but they have been very slow. People have been talking about this for years, but little has happened. So that would possibly be an example where they could be more imaginative.
Do you think there’s some inertia? You talked about managers of projects who don’t like to take big risks. Does that have something to do with it?
Yes. I think so. I think NASA is very much influenced by the middle level managers who interface with the science community. Some of them are positive go—getters types; others are much more conservative. I think Nancy Roman has generally been conservative on some of these things. Since she has retired and is about to be replaced, it will be interesting to see if changes occur there. There have been a number of people who have headed up the Astrophysics Division, and I think the current holder of that office, Frank Martin, is an imaginative go—getter type. So we are seeing some action there.
Speaking of personalities, within NASA administration, have you had much to do with Al Opp, Director of high energy astrophysics?
Sure. When I was chairman of the Physical Sciences Committee, he often attended meetings and participated in the discussion. Al is a very nice person and a relatively conservative individual. For example, comparing him with Frank Martin, I would think Frank Martin would be much more aggressive than Al. On the other hand, Al has been relatively successful in getting well concerned programs through. One result of his careful work and attention is that when committees look at programs in these areas, they find that there are very well reasoned documents that have been put out by the high energy astrophysics working group, of which he is the godfather if not the chairman. He is very careful to have his act together at all times. He’s ready to go with a document which can be used, He has pluses and minuses, like everybody else, I guess.
How about a former associate administrator, Homer Newell?
I don’t know Homer very well. I’ve met him a number of times, but I guess he was either above the echelons where I was dealing or else had retired. I think he retired in ‘74, and I was not at the level where I would talk to him normally in that period before he retired?
You probably worked with Noel Hinners on a closer basis.
Well, you’d better get your facts straight, because Noel Hinners did not succeed Homer Newell. He succeeded Henry Smith. Before Henry Smith it was John Naugle and before John Naugle, it was Homer Newell. So there’s quite a succession in there. Henry Smith was not a ball of fire, and I think the program did not fare very well with him. John Naugle was a much more capable administrator, and I still have extremely high respect for him. With respect to Noel, he was the guy that I worked with as chairman of this committee, and I developed a great deal of respect for him. I thought he was a good scientist. He had a good sense of which direction a science should go in. By being a geologist, he had very little prior knowledge of astronomy. But he educated himself to the point that at one point he gave a talk at the AAS meeting on the Space Telescope, which was extremely well thought out and well received. He obviously knew everything about the Space Telescope and could answer any question that anybody could throw to him about the Space Telescope and NASA’s way of operating it. So I had great respect for him. I think he was relatively successful upstairs, as we say. He got a good hunk of what he asked for because he was well prepared.
Where in the NASA bureaucracy do you think most decisions are made? I ask because sometimes you find a low civil servant will be making some decisions which will have great impact.
Well, I don’t know. It’s collective decision making. I believe that the decision making by and large is made on the appropriate level. If they’re talking about the choice between two Explorers in the astronomy area for example, that would be made by the division director, with the advice of whatever committee works with him. And if you’re talking about the choice of Explorers between two different divisions, let’s say solar—terrestrial on the one hand, and astrophysics on the other, that will be handled in the Office of Space Science. If you’re talking about a trade—off between an applications satellite and a space science satellite, that will be handled upstairs by the deputy administrator or whatever. It seems to me that it is a well managed organization in that the people who work there know where the decisions are being made, and they are prepared to defend their own turf in that structure.
By and large they’re well qualified to do so by experience and training, and they also make good use of advisory committees which come in and help them if they don’t understand the issue. They do in fact ask advice. I think it’s a very impressive organization. I must say my contact has mostly been with the Office of Space Science. When you go across the street to the Office of Applications, it’s a different story. My impression is that a number of areas there are not well run, or were not well run until Tony Calio went over there. I think he may be better than his predecessor by a large margin. His predecessor was so bad that he showed up at a couple of meetings and made statements that were ludicrously incorrect— so bad that we had to suppress laughter in the committee room. He just didn’t know what was going on. Tony is infinitely better than that. (The guy’s name was Johnson.)
Yes. By and large it seems to be a pretty well run ship, you know.
Sometimes in my research in X—ray astronomy, I sometimes wonder where some of the decisions are made. In the sixties, for example, the decision was made to establish a HEAO project. But soon the NASA funds were being cut back and yet the HEAO project was going to fly and looked good in the late sixties. Who made the decision about a project like this?
I don’t know. I have the impression that John Naugle played an important role- far greater than most people realize. I think the typical way decisions are made is that with a working group or committee, a program officer will get fired up to propose something or other. He will propose this to the division chief. The division chief, seeing conflicting requirements from various groups, then convenes another committee, and so on. It’s an adversary procedure. But if he can become convinced that the community will back him on this, and that this is exciting, he will take it yet another step up the way. So each guy’s in a position of having about ten items being presented to him by his subordinates. He knows that in a general sort of way that because the pie is sliced the way it has been in the past, he can only fund three of them. So he picks and chooses among these pieces of pie. And that’s the way it goes all the way up the line, until finally the thing surfaces in the Administrator’s office. The Administrator doesn’t know much about it at first, but he listens and hears the arguments. They’ve already been sifted a great deal before they come to his attention, and he decides, “I like that one and that one, but not that one.” That’s the way it works. It’s an interesting process.
Maybe we can shift the discussion somewhat to your work at SAO, and talk then a little bit about how SAO has interfaced with NASA. Let me ask you what was SAO like when you came here? Do you know much about its history?
Yes, a little bit. My perception of it would be that it was an organization whose major interest was in planets and small bodies in the solar system. Essentially, it reflected Fred Whipple’s interest. Spun off from this was a large activity of satellite tracking with the idea of finding out about the earth. That activity had waxed and waned. At the time I came it was more waning than it was waxing. But in addition, Fred had initiated activities in other areas of astronomy—some more successful than others. Infrared astronomy, for example, he had encouraged one young man who had turned out not to be very successful for reasons partly beyond his control, In the area of optical astronomy, he had responded to requests from his staff to found a new observatory in the Southwest, and he had done so.
He had flown out there and he had staked a flag on the mountain, “This is going to be the mountain,” and it’s there, Mt. Hopkins. That was in ‘66 or so. So the program was in the process of diversifying, but still my perception was when I came here that it was very far from the frontier of what I would call current astrophysics. This would include stellar structure theory, increasing emphasis and understanding of general relativity and cosmology, extragalactic research, and among the new techniques, X—ray astronomy, infrared from space (which was the coming thing) and so on. So I think Fred just simply hadn’t kept up with some of the more recent things. So when I came, I wished to move in the direction of more contemporary activities. I should mention however one thing that he had done, which was to develop one of the ultraviolet satellites that we spoke of earlier— OAO—2 I think it was. The one that didn’t go in the drink did have a Smithsonian experiment on it, so he was interested to the extent that he was backing this ultraviolet stellar observatory. And it more or less functioned. Some useful data was gotten from it, It was not a big success, but he had made an attempt to get into space astronomy.
You told me somewhat about why you came here psychologically. Were there any major incentives that the SAO offered?
Sure. If you wanted to influence things and get something going, it offered a stable financial base of, at that time, 3 million dollars a year of federal money, and a close association with a first ranking university. If one wished to proceed to build up a large scientific effort, it seemed like an interesting opportunity.
What major problems did you face when you first got here?
There was a good deal of hostility and distrust between Harvard and Smithsonian at the time, which had grown out of a personal dispute between Whipple at SAO and Goldberg at HCO. Goldberg had finally given up on the thing and just decided to take a job elsewhere. He left a legacy of misunderstanding. When I came in, I think people were fed up with arguing and wanted to have some positive action. I proposed that the observatories be brought together under one director—me— and that was accepted. I think almost in the spirit of “Oh God, almost anything is better than what we’ve been doing.” But it was a problem, because not everybody was convinced of that, and I had to convince them.
Who argued against bringing the two observatories together?
David Layzer. David is a professor of astronomy with interests in cosmology and galaxies, and he felt it was a mistake. He argued against it and convinced some others he’s still against it. For example, he does not use Center for Astrophysics stationery. Instead, he uses department of astronomy stationery to make his point.
So what is the relationship now between SAO and Harvard?
Well, I would say it’s not too good right at the moment. When I first came in, there was an era of good feeling as you might expect with a new director. And for three or four years that persisted. People felt positive about the future. Harvard then had some serious problems. I may have mentioned them to you. A major NASA contract for a spectrograph on SNM was cancelled, and as a result the Harvard professors who had been used to very good treatment because the place was awash with overhead found that it was no longer the case. They began to build up a certain amount of concern for the future of HCO, and that is being vocally expressed at increasing levels. My guess is that there will be some major changes coming when I step down three years from now. Perhaps even before.
How did you get a number of people such as Riccardo Giacconi and Herb Gursky— X—ray astronomers who were with the American Science and Engineering Company— to come here?
I had heard that they were dissatisfied with their situation at AS and E, and so I initiated discussions with Riccardo, and he laid down some conditions. At that time I thought the conditions would be relatively easy to fulfill because I had been told by an official at Smithsonian Institution in Washington (and I believed him) that there would be seven open federal positions per year for the next few years. As it has turned out, there were something like five that year, and one or two each succeeding year. In other words, it’s far less than was originally thought. It’s my misfortune to have been caught in the change of administrations at the Smithsonian in Washington. The guy that I was talking to at the time (Jim Bradley, the Undersecretary) had the power to make that statement, but only a few months later he did not and he was out entirely. So things did not go exactly as I planned. But based on that information, I was able to get four federal civil service positions, for Riccardo and his top people. Based on that, he went to the rest of his people in his group and said, “I am moving, and you can either stay here and take your chances with AS and E, or you can come and work on a NASA contract at SA0.” All of them chose to come with him. And that’s how it happened. It was straightforward.
Was that essentially the way SAO got involved in X—ray astronomy?
Yes. There were some people who were already working at SAO in one way or another on high energy astrophysics. There was a gamma— ray project, which centered around the use of a 10—meter reflector at Mt. Hopkins for observing Cerenkov radiation from TEV gamma rays, and ultimately that was successful. Two sources were discovered: the Crab Nebula and NGC 5128. That group included Trevor Weekes, who is now doing optical astronomy at Mt. Hopkins and Giovanni Fazio, who was the leader, and who later switched to infrared astronomy and is doing very well. Other members included a fellow named Henry Helmken who has in the meantime left, and Josh Grindlav who is now an assistant professor in the astronomy department and doing X—ray astronomy. So they disbanded and went into these other fields. Riccardo did not think that there was much future for the gamma—ray group. I agreed with him, because it’s extremely difficult work and fairly unrewarding. There are just too few photons. We may reinstitute it at some level because there is increasing interest in it. But basically, I just recognized supreme excellence of the ASPE X—ray group, and wished to have it here. I should say that I am misleading on this point. In fact, Riccardo had already been involved in the HCO, not SAO. He had been invited to give lectures at HCO, so he and his associates were, I think, regarded as associates of the Harvard College Observatory. So he was not completely coming in cold, As a result, the faculty, which had to approve his professorship, was enthusiastic about the idea.
What major directions has the SAC taken since you’ve been director?
I would say getting into hard core astrophysics was a big decision— especially extragalactic astronomy. We are now in a position for the first time to be serious competitors, using the NMT, and the Einstein Observatory. We have been going into X—ray astronomy, obviously, but not quite so noticeably we’ve also been trying to build up theory. We now have a theoretical group at HCO and SAO which is really outstanding. Bill Press is in general relativity. Alan Lightman is in accretion disc theory and stellar dynamics. Doug Eardley has joined the group; he is a relativist from Yale. The other people I should mention are Brian Flannery in stellar evolution, George Rybicki in radiative transfer, and Margaret Gellar in cosmology. A very recent appointment is Don Lamb in theoretical nuclear astrophysics. All together, this is as powerful a group as you’d find almost any place, comparable with the groups at Cal Tech and Princeton.
In theoretical research?
Theoretical astrophysics, yes. So I think we’ve turned the corner in that respect as well. Other areas which are going ahead are infrared astronomy; Giovanni Fazio has made a success of that. There’s an infrared balloon telescope program, and he is very much involved in designing a shuttle program. The VLBI is another new initiative. We’re putting a lot of money into VLBI at SAC.
What is that?
Very long baseline interferometry. It is a means, using radio telescopes, of making position measurements and extremely accurate maps of sources— particularly H2O and OH masers in the galaxy—but also of extragalactic objects such as quasars. Remarkable results have been achieved just in the last few months in which they observed a number of H2O maser sources in the Orion region. They are able to determine their Doppler shifts, and at the same time, by using VLBI, they are able to measure the proper motions of these objects which are of the order of milli—arc second per year, something you can’t do any other way. Comparing the two, in a way which is standard in astronomy, you get what is called a statistical parallax. Therefore, you get an independent distance determination of the Orion Nebula, which is totally new stuff. Applying the same technique to other objects, three or four thousand parsecs from us, and it’s totally unprecedented, you get trigonometric parallaxes of these objects, basically. There’s a big future in that, and we’re pushing it.
Yet you said yesterday, you didn’t think that the Harvard! Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was first rate. But it sounds like there’s great work coming along.
It sound like things have definitely been moving quite favorably of the last few years. What was it like before you came here?
Much worse. You know, there was no X—ray astronomy. Infrared astronomy was in its infancy. There was no extragalactic astronomy. There was no MMT; the biggest telescope was 60 inch. Theoretical research did not have a national reputation. So I would say that we are moving along. We were way behind. Now we’re catching up. But unfortunately, as always is the case, Cal Tech and Princeton are still pulling away. For example, Cal Tech has just established a gravity wave astronomy group. This took a lot of nerve. It took big investments, allocation of research professorships, etc. We have not done that, and we will not do that for quite a while, although it’s a frontier of astronomy that we really ought to be in. So, they’re doing well too.
What is hindering SAO from becoming No. 1?
That’s a very good question. Lack of new positions is our biggest problem at the moment. We have like 50 or so federal positions for scientists, and that’s a hell of a big number. On the other hand, we’re covering an awful lot of areas, and the number of positions is not increasing. At the moment there is a freeze on all federal positions, which has been in effect for something like six months now. It is anticipated to be in effect for another year. So we’re limited in what we can do just as a university is in the number of positions that we can assign.
How does the SAO deal with other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation?
At the moment I perceive the relationship as pretty good. There is a specific NSF policy that states that it should not in general fund other federal agencies, and since NSF categorizes the Smithsonian Institution as an agency, they tend not to fund it. In some divisions of NSF, that more or less honored in the breach, and they go ahead and fund certain parts of the Smithsonian Institution. However, they have generally taken the position that they will not fund astronomy as a cost saving thing. However, they seem to be more open in this area, and I think we will perhaps develop more programs with NSF. For example, the Multiple Mirror Telescope is funded partly by the University of Arizona, partly by SAO. The University of Arizona is getting money from NSF to implement its share of the program, and NSF has agreed to that, and they understand it. So in a way, that could be looked at as a collaborative effort between SAO and NSF. On the other hand, some four or five years ago a small number of individuals at NSF took off after SÃO and even made the argument that because SAO was joined with Harvard in the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard professors could not be funded by NSF. That was a very extreme interpretation of NSF policy and it was finally turned around. The individuals responsible for this interpretation ended up leaving NSF. But that was a big problem for a while.
There is no similar problem with NASA funding another agency?
Why is that?
NASA is a mission agency. At least, these are the words people say, and it would be interesting to track down the legalities of it. NASA is a mission agency and it can contract with whomever it wishes in order to get its job done. NSF is not a mission agency. It is, if you will, a care taking agency. It’s supposed to look after the health of the scientific community, and it decided early on that it would not look after the health of the scientists in the other federal agencies, because they already had ways of looking after themselves. I understand the purpose there. Normally NASA would deal with another federal agency on the basis of exchange of funds. In other words, if they wanted to do something through NOAA, they’d actually allocate budget dollars through their budget process to NOAA. We don’t deal with them that way because although the Smithsonian Institution is a governmental entity, it is not an agency of the US government in the sense that it is responsible to the President. As such, it has what is called a Trust Fund side, which is able to contract with the US government. It does not contract with the federal side of the Smithsonian, but it will contract with other federal agencies and in particular NASA. NASA has shown willingness to do that. There’s no problem.
So NASA is the major funder for SAO?
Yes, of the Trust Fund activities at SAO. SAO also has direct federal appropriations of five million a year.
And that comes to Harvard?
No, that is appropriated by Congress directly to SAO.
I see. Then in addition to that you have NASA funding on specific projects.
Do you get funding from any other agency?
There’s a small amount of funding from the Navy, for example. We’re building some clocks for a number of agencies. But that’s relatively small potatoes. NASA plus Smithsonian institutional funds are probably 90 percent of the budget.
Is there any classified work that goes on here?
I know that earlier you told me you dislike classified things.
Sure. The Smithsonian has a policy of not carrying on classified work. It did not have a policy about having classified libraries, and I took that upon myself.
Have you refereed proposals for NSF?
Oh, sure. Yes.
So essentially you’ve been on both sides of NSF during your career?
How does one get a proposal funded by NSF?
No problem. You just write it, and make sure that it is well thought out. If you’re a young person who has not had previous experience, you get your toe in the door. That is, ask for a relatively low amount. Do not ask for too much. After you have gotten your toe in the door and you produce for a couple of years, you increase the amount, and so you’re off to the races. Straightforward.
How would you compare the administrators there to the science managers at NASA?
I think the present group at NSF is pretty good. The prior group, particularly an individual named Bob Fleischer, had some strange ideas. He was the person who laid down this policy about cutting off Harvard University from the list of people whom they would fund. I guess I would have to say that they’re not quite as good at NSF as at NASA. There is a reluctance to make decisions in NSF which may be mandated to a certain extent, because they regard themselves as a passive agency which is awaiting proposals to react to. NASA is an active agency. A program officer in NASA is able to propose something, and if he gets approval, he can go ahead. That’s the difference between a mission agency and a non—mission agency. So it attracts a different kind of people, and you see that throughout. NSF people that I’ve been involved with tend to be less adventurous.
Do you think that’s because of the way NSF is set up?
I think it does reflect it, and in fact there’s probably even a legal mandate to some extent. Bill Howard who is currently the head of astronomy at NSF tells me that even if he wanted to pursue some course, it would be unwise to do so, because he is not able to under the law.
You worked on the Astrophysics and Relativity Panel at NASA.
And also the Physics and Astronomy Survey?
Yes. (Looking at Field’s vita...) These activities were with survey committees. This was the Greenstein Committee, this is the Bromley Committee of the National Academy, and I served on two panels and was chairman of one of them. This one was quite important, actually. We might want to talk about that a little more because we actually issued a report which has had some effect on NASA policy. Also as chairman of it I did serve on the Space Program Advisory Council, as we discussed.
The Physical Sciences Committee, NASA Space Program Advisory Council?
Correct. I was chairman of it, and I also served as a liaison representative to the Space Science Board. This is a very important committee that I am on at the present time, namely the NASA Space Advisory Council, which is a successor to the previous one. I’m on the executive committee. Also, so I talk regularly to the NASA Administrator on broad issues of policy. And here I’m chairman of a new survey which is following up on Greenstein’s survey, so I thought you ought to know that.
All right. Thank you. Why don’t you tell me something about the Greenstein Committee?
It was interesting because I was asked to be on two different committees, the Greenstein Committee—in astronomy—and Bromley Committee—in physics. Both were going parallel. I accepted membership in both. I then proposed to the chairmen of both that there be a panel reporting to both on astrophysics and relativity, which I thought was an area of overlap. This panel was really first rate. We got some extremely good people, such as Steve Weinberg, Maarten Schmidt director of Hale Observatories, Bob Dicke of Princeton, Charles Misner of Maryland. I can’t remember all the guys that were involved. We issued a report which in fact looked very much like the Greenstein Report. We had all the major new initiatives in there such as the high energy astrophysics observatories, the Space Telescope, and VLBI etc. We recognized from the point of view of physics that these things were very important. This was a forward looking group of people, and I think it was a relatively important group. It did impact the thinking of both committees. In specific, I remember when I finished my presentation to the Greenstein Committee, Jesse said, “George, you’ve just written the report of the Astronomy Survey Committee.” And there was some truth in that. We had in fact anticipated all the major decisions of that group.
What were a couple of those major decisions?
I mentioned some of them just now. We emphasized high energy astrophysics (particularly high energy astronomy observatories), the Very Large Array, and I think, the Space Telescope. I’m not absolutely sure. We wanted a start in VLBI astronomy, renewed emphasis on the testing of general relativity, and attempts to detect gravitational waves. The copy of the report is available if you’d like to see it. The Astronomy Survey Committee which I chair now is a repeat of the Greenstein Committee. That is, it was set up by NSF and NASA, through the Academy, to cover all of astronomy—ground based and space based— and to make recommendations as to which projects should have high priority. The committee has been in progress for a year and a half. Starting at the end of this week, we’re having a workshop of about ten days in which we are going to make those priorities. We’ve had 13 working groups and panels working in such areas as radio astronomy, high energy astrophysics, ultraviolet, optical and infrared astronomy, organization, education and personnel, data processing, overlap with other areas of science, etc. We have reports from all these groups, and we are chewing this over at the present time in order to come out with the prioritization. It’s been a fascinating task and rather similar to my experience with the Greenstein Committee.
Have you seen a change in the relationship between physicists and astronomers in the last ten years?
Yes. I would say so. They simply didn’t know each other. But physicists like Giacconi are now comfortable with being members of the AAS, and reading the astronomical literature. And they are well known to astronomers. So it works out. And that’s true in other areas as well. I would say that the subgroup of physicists who are interested in astronomy and classical astronomers working well together.
This is a marked contrast to the situation in 1970?
No, not necessarily. I just think it’s gone along more in the same direction. As I recall, if you look at the Greenstein Committee, you will find some distinguished physicists. Bruno Rossi was among them. But he didn’t interrelate very well with the astronomers because he didn’t know anything about astronomy himself. This time around, we have distinguished physicists like Charlie Townes, who is a very important member of the committee, not only because of his expertise but because of his real understanding of the problems of astronomy. He’s been a working astronomer in the last decade. I think there is a developing good relationship there.
To move onto a different subject, would you tell me about your involvement in the MMT?
My role in the NMT was, first of all, to arrange for a critical review of the proposed M11T by people that I trusted here, and to decide to go ahead with it. It had already been planned, and then as it came up in various budget crises, I had to fight for it. I got money wherever I could, primarily out of the Smithsonian Institution. But I helped to get money from NSF for the University of Arizona. I simply pushed it wherever I could, and I share a certain amount of the credit for the success of NMT, but with lots of other people.
So you came in on an ongoing project when you came here?
Right. It was just in the beginning stages, though. Not a single piece of hardware had been built. It was early in the design stage.
From the start was it a multi mirror telescope?
Yes. That was the idea— to take a number of mirrors which were left over from an Air Force project at the University of Arizona and build a telescope using them. Right.
That’s an interesting military connection again.
Yes, it is.
It appears that astronomers or scientists are taking a lot of advantage of military technology.
Do you see any problems there?
Yes, I do.
Yes, and potential problems. I myself would be uncomfortable working in a project that was funded largely by the military. As I mentioned earlier, SAO does have some contracts with military organizations. They are non—classified, But that’s a personal preference. I think most astronomers don’t have any hang-ups along that line.
You talked a little about a number of funding problems with the telescope. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes. The original thing was supposed to cost 1.5 million dollars, and it actually cost 8 million, so there were funding problems. I think before I came (or just as I was coming), the budget assigned by the Smithsonian Institution was raised from about 250 thousand a year to 750 thousand a year, and that was a life saver, of course. It did mean that we were limited in what we could spend in any one year, but by stretching it out, we could get the money that we needed. In addition to that, there were crisis in which contractors had not performed, or were over cost, and we had to get money fast. We talked the Smithsonian into lending us that money, and in one case they just gave it to us. The total amount of money that was supplied that way was probably on the order of a million dollars. But the rest of it is continuing a Congressional appropriation that continues to go along. We’ve been relatively lucky in that respect. The reason for the overrun is partly inflation, which was very considerable during that period. It was recognized right away that it was probably going to cost 3 million, not 1½. But the difference between 3 and 8 was largely inflation plus one major booboo. The building was designed in a certain way which turned out to be impractical and we lost 400 K down the rat hole there. We had to redesign the building.
What kind of relationship do you perceive for ground based and space based astronomy?
I hope that it will be a synergistic one. At the moment it seems to be in the sense that a good deal of the work of ground—based telescopes is following up on space observations. This is particularly the case with the discovery of X—ray sources. I think ST will have the same effect. It will place tremendous demand on ground—based facilities, because somebody who observes remote cluster of galaxies with the ST will want more information on it. So he will go to the ground—based telescopes to find that out. Unfortunately we’re not prepared to do that at the moment. We don’t have enough glass on the ground, and one of the recommendations that the survey committee is entertaining at its meeting next week is to vastly increase the amount of glass available.
In already established observatories or new ones?
Well, certainly new facilities; whether they would be placed at the same sites as other ones remains to be determined, I think from a practical point of view, they probably would be at older sites, because of the costs of opening up a new site. One proposal before us is to build a single telescope which will double the total amount of collecting area available to astronomers.
Since we’re running out of time, let me ask you some “cosmic” questions. For example, as you look over your entire career, what things have given you the greatest satisfaction?
I don’t have any such things, to be honest with you. My career has not been meteoric in that sense. I just do my job, and I get certain kicks out of it rather than enormous flights of joy.
What benefits do you see people deriving from astronomical research that’s done at a place like SAO?
The pleasure of knowing about how the world really is, as opposed to how it is imaginatively. In other words, people are very interested and they like to fantasize about the universe. It’s somehow meaningful at a deep level that man dreams about his surroundings and his place in his surroundings, and what is out there and how did it all begin. That leads to all kinds of activities, such as religion, philosophy, or learning in general, but specifically learning in astronomy. Astronomy is one of the ways of answering that question. It isn’t the only one, but it’s one of the ways, and it is, within our best judgment, true in the sense that it reflects the facts about the universe as opposed to fantasies about it. For a society that is built on some kind of rational basis, it’s very important to know what the truth about it is, rather than fantasies. So SAO as a government facility has the obligation, I think, to tell the truth about the universe. That’s how I see it.
What do you think personally about the universe you’ve been studying for so long?
It is enormously complex, and at the same time governed by principles that seem to be extraordinarily simple. These principles seem to be getting simpler all the time according to the physicists. And it’s extraordinary puzzling, if the Big Bang theory is right, because we do not have a clue as to: what preceded the Big Bang. Presently, science simply has to be silent on that point, and therefore we are extremely puzzled about the ultimate nature of the universe. Perhaps we always will be. Perhaps it’s in the nature of things that we have to be. But at the moment we are, anyway. That would be a good way to end.
Yes, sure. Thank you.
Multiple Mirror Telescope