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Interview of Homer Newell by Richard F. Hirsh on 1980 July 17, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4795-1
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This interview deals with the career of a prominent administrator of space science. After a brief discussion of his early life and education at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, Dr. Newell discusses the following: teaching cadets at University of Maryland; war work at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL); reaction to news of the atomic bomb; development of early rocket-sonde program at the NRL, 1945-46; upper atmospheric research; establishment of V-2 Panel (later Rocket and Satellite Research Panel); impressions of early rocket researchers such as E. O. Hulburt, H. Friedman; development of new rockets for scientific research; Vanguard satellite program at NRL; the International Geophysical Year program; reaction to Russian launch of Sputnik satellite in 1957; post-Sputnik debate over a new space agency; creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958; Newell’s move from NRL to NASA, 1958; development of space science programs in the new agency; astronomical experiments and the use of big satellites; thoughts on manned space program and effect on space science around 1961; debate by scientists about a manned space program; funding for NASA space science; international cooperation; administration of NASA space science in the l960s; problems with the first Orbiting Astronomy Observatory and the Small Astronomy Satellite program; long-term NASA planning; effects of Vietnam and economy on space missions; the Space Telescope and Space Shuttle; and planetary missions, past and future.
We know you were born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1915, but we really don’t know much about your family. I wonder if you could tell us about your parents, your background, and your childhood.
My grandfather was an electrical engineer, and the principal stockholder in an electrical engineering firm. My father was an electrical engineer who first went to work for his father’s firm, and then later established his own firm in Westfield, Massachusetts, which is not far from Holyoke.
Were you the only child of the family?
No, I have one sister.
What did your mother do?
My mother was a professional musician, one of the charter members of the Organists Guild in that area. She was also a member of the Quota Club, a professional women’s club.
So both your parents were —
— professional people.
Professional educated people. Do you think their education and background had much to do with your becoming a scientist?
I think particularly my grandfather’s background was most influential, because he had a big library which I had access to. I started reading astronomy from his library, and then I went on to other technical subjects and finally wound up in mathematics and physics.
So you did a lot of reading when you were young.
Were there any particular books that you can recall that got you thinking about fields of science and math?
I think particularly Martha Evans Martin’s THE FRIENDLY STARS got me started on astronomy, and then from astronomy I went on to other books. So I would say that was the major book. Then, I got a hold of McKutcheon and Phelps CHEMISTRY, and that got me into chemistry.
Were you encouraged to go into science when you were young?
Yes. Yes, in fact my father’s profession involved working on electrical equipment for the local paper, and other silk mills and in that way, he brought me into contact with the chemical people in those mills. In fact, my first work in chemistry came when the local sulphite mill gave me the nucleus of a chemical laboratory, and I built on that. From chemistry, I then went into physics.
Let me go back to your response on the books that you read when you were young. How young were you when you were first exposed to some of these books?
That would have been junior high school, I would say, about 7th grade.
Did you ever have any formal religious training that may have affected your views about science?
That’s … a difficult question. I don’t really know where you’re leading on that one.
I’m just wondering whether you have any formal training in religion?
Not formal training in religion, just from the family upbringing, that’s all. If you meant anything like theological school — nothing of that sort.
Do you think that some of your religious views might have affected some views you had on science?
Well, I suppose so.
Do you know how? Would you like to venture a guess on how?
Well, this is an avenue I’d rather not pursue.
OK. Did you always know that you were going to college?
Yes. I think so. My parents, I think, had decided that I should, and my grandparents had agreed that I should, so it was generally understood that I would.
Your grandparents again come into play in your career.
How did you choose to go to Harvard?
Well, there were many schools around, and at the time, Harvard was thought to be one of the best schools for training in technical subjects. In fact, I had first thought of going directly to the Harvard Engineering School, but I was persuaded to take the liberal arts course first and then go on to the technical subjects.
Why were you persuaded? Who persuaded you to take the liberal arts courses?
That’s hard to recall now. As I remember, when I applied for admission to the Engineering School, I got a letter back from the dean pointing out that this was the stage at which one started to become a professional, and it was quite different from anything that I might have had in high school. They wondered, or seemed to wonder, as I read between the lines, why I would start out in Engineering School rather than get a lot of background courses in physics, chemistry and so on. And that started me to wondering. Then I decided it would be better to get a broader background first and then specialize later.
Do you think then you might change your plans?
No, there was no suggestion of changing plans, either in the Engineering School letter or in my thinking about future plans. It was just a question of getting a better and broader background.
Do you think this was a good idea?
I think it was the better route. Since then, in my professional life, I have seen people who were trained very narrowly, and that did affect their professional work as well as their general education.
Was it much of a financial burden for your family to send you to Harvard?
Well, again, my grandparents loaned the money to do that, and they seemed to be pretty well off due to my grandfather’s electrical engineering business. It didn’t seem to be much of a burden.
What major did you take then at Harvard?
Well, when I first registered at Harvard, I indicated that I was particularly interested in the mathematical aspects so I switched to a mathematics major.
Was there something about chemistry you didn’t like?
No, I liked chemistry, but there was something about the mathematics that I liked more. In fact, I thought that I would probably go back to chemistry, but as things happened, World War II directed me back into physics, not into chemistry.
I’d like to ask you about that in a minute, but perhaps you can tell me a little more about your experience at Harvard, namely, were there any professors there that influenced you in one way or another?
Yes. I would say so. There were several. In the mathematics field, I was fortunate enough to have George David Birkhoff as my tutor. As you may or may not know, Birkhoff was at the time the world’s leading mathematician, and he was a real inspiration in mathematics. I was also fortunate enough in my physics class to have Oldenberg as my professor, and he was a remarkable individual. The two of them made quite an impression, just by their example.
So you were taking physics courses in parallel with the math courses?
Although Harvard didn’t have a minor requirement that I know of or remember, I would say that physics and general science would have been my minor in some other school that might have labeled it that.
I see. Were there other science or math students that you recall as having an influence on your career?
No, I can’t recall any that had any special influence. There were some that impressed me, but not in any way that it affected my own career.
Who were some of these?
Well, Ralph Boaz was at Harvard at the time. He was a remarkable individual, in that he seemed to know just about everything in mathematics, and that made an impression. I also lived next door to Leo Goldberg (now astronomer), whom I met later. I wouldn’t say that he had any influence at the time on my career, but knowing him, of course, was a congenial thing later in my career.
Right. You obviously worked with him in space science programs.
Yes. Yes. Very closely, later.
Do you think your acquaintance with him earlier helped that relationship?
Yes, in a very general way.
So after Harvard then, you graduated from Harvard in 1936?
Then you went to the University of Wisconsin?
Well, Harvard offered me a scholarship at the School of Education for a degree combining education and mathematics. So I stayed on for another year there, and then I got an offer from University of Wisconsin and went to Wisconsin.
In mathematics. Yes. I stayed in mathematics. All the time I was staying in mathematics, I was taking science courses. For example at Harvard I took astronomy from Donald Menzel, and there I met Fred Whipple, whom I was to meet again later and work with as a colleague. Then I also took minerology from Professor Palach, who was at the time one of the world’s leading mineralogists, and I had a remarkable course from him. As I told you, I took physics from Oldenberg. Interestingly enough, I didn’t take any chemistry courses, but I think that was because I had my own laboratory and was doing my own studying on the side, and so I didn’t feel the need for a formal course to understand what was going on there. Then when I went to Wisconsin, I continued in mathematics but I audited a course in mineralogy by A. N. Winchell, who was also one of the leading researchers in mineralogy at the time so I kept my interest in science going with the result that when I entered civil service, instead of entering in mathematics, which didn’t pay very much, I could enter in physics, which paid, as I recall it, a couple of grades more.
That’s wonderful. Who was your thesis advisor at Wisconsin?
Rudolph Langer. He was again a world renowned mathematician, and he was one of the better students of George David Birkhoff, who had been my previous tutor, so we had some sort of a connection there.
What was your thesis topic on?
It was on Asymptotic Solutions to Linear Matric Differential Equations in a Complex Domain — a rather abstruse subject. Not many people had heard of it at the time, but it was a way of solving systems of differential equations using matrices.
Did you have any practical application?
I don’t know whether it’s been used practically or not, but it apparently was sufficiently interesting that Borel reviewed it after it was published, and he seemed to think in his review that it was pretty worthwhile.
So in 1940 you got your PhD from Wisconsin.
What did you expect to do?
Well, at that time, of course, the war had just started, so I expected to do both teaching and help in some way in the war effort. As it happened, I started out by teaching and then very shortly thereafter got into supporting the war effort, first by teaching Naval and Air Force cadets. Of course they weren’t called Air Force cadets then because it was still the Army, but they were air cadets, and I taught them a variety of things, like navigation which was a natural for mathematics, and air regulations, which I had to learn specially to teach them. Then following that I taught engineering students — that is, Army Engineering students — like those who constructed pontoon bridges and things like that. I taught them engineering mathematics. That was a special war program that lasted for half the World War II. Then when it was cancelled, I went to the Naval Research Laboratory to help there.
Your teaching was at the University of Maryland?
You were teaching military people or engineers who were going to be working for the military?
Well, I was teaching regular courses, so I had just regular students. In addition, I taught students whom the Army had sent and who were already in the Army, but needed mathematics and engineering training. Then, of course, the Civil Aeronautics Administration had these courses for the Navy and Army Air Cadets.
What was your impression of this type of teaching?
Teaching the Navy Air Cadets? I enjoyed it very much, and I thought it was probably useful. But I was also horrified to find that out of a class of maybe 30 or 40 students, only about three of them would ever become real proficient navigators. The rest of them would just have the course as background, but they never really seemed to be able to become proficient in it. In the engineering mathematics courses, again, I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the students, but I didn’t dare make any assessment of how many were really getting a professional quality background.
So you were somewhat disappointed with the type of student that you taught.
Yes, I was in fact amazed at the low quality of the students.
Did you bring the matter up with the military services who were sending you students?
I acquainted my bosses at Maryland, who were Monroe Martin and Otis Lancaster, with the situation. I also acquainted the leader of the CAA, Wiley Sherwood, an aeronautical engineer, with the performance of the students. Whether they conveyed the information on, I don’t know.
Did this experience shade your opinion of the military in any way?
Not really. At least I haven’t given any thought to that. I didn’t really stop to assess the military. I just accepted the situation as it was.
Can I step back a moment? I feel I should have asked you a couple of other questions on your dissertation. For example, how did you choose your dissertation topic? You said it was a complex somewhat abstruse topic.
I did quite a bit of reading, and it turned out that my chosen dissertation advisor had done some work in this topic. And so what I did was take a topic that would extend the work that he had done. I thought this was one of the best ways of getting the best advice possible from him. Later I was told by him and others at the University of Wisconsin — Professor Ingram and others — that not many students chose their own topics. They gave me to understand that most of them had their topics assigned, and they seemed to think that it was a plus that I managed to find one of my own.
So did your advisor exercise much direction over your thesis?
Well, he kept in close touch with it. He gave me a few ideas on how to approach the subject. It turned out that the method he had used in this particular paper that I got the idea from wouldn’t work very well on the problem that I had chosen. But Professor Langer showed me another approach that did work very well.
How did it affect you to change your status from graduate student to professor at Maryland? Were you conscious of some different status that you had acquired?
I wouldn’t really say so, other than that I had a lot more courses to teach. When I was a graduate student, I would have one or two very elementary courses like mathematics of finance or algebra to teach. When I became an assistant professor, I began to teach graduate courses in complex variables, real variables, projective geometry, advanced projective geometry, and things of that sort. I would say that was the main difference.
How did the change in going from Wisconsin to Maryland affect you?
Well, Maryland was a much smaller institution at the time. Of course, today I think it’s one of the largest in the world. In fact, if you include their overseas and extension courses, it is considered to be the largest in the world. But at the time it was just a little southern university that had recently changed over from being an agricultural school. Wisconsin was much bigger and had much longer ago changed over from its agricultural land grant college status, and so, you had a much broader range of contacts with the leading scholars of the day at Wisconsin. I would say that was the biggest difference.
Did you feel it was a letdown to step down from Wisconsin?
Well, again, I didn’t really assess things that way. I just thought it was an opportunity to get started in a career, so I went at it that way. I must say that those were tough days. We were still in the Depression years, and fortunately things were coming out of it, but you started in at $1800 a year, and that was the normal starting salary. To try to raise a family on that was something.
Did you feel that you were using your education in math well, when you went to the University of Maryland to teach these courses in air regulations and engineering?
Well, the air navigation and air regulations courses were extra. I was still teaching the regular courses: calculus, algebra, advanced algebra, as well as the graduate courses in mathematics. So I regarded those as the main thrust of my professional activity, and the others as just a way I could help.
Was there much discussion of subjects outside of your field at the university, for example, in biology or philosophy or politics?
No. I found that the mathematics department concentrated mostly on mathematics. In fact, they didn’t even spend much time thinking about physics. If it hadn’t been for Professor March at the University of Wisconsin, who was in applied mathematics and worked for the Forest Products Laboratory nearby, I don’t think there would have been much other than pure math there. The flavor was set by people like Langer who was a pure mathematician, and Kleene who was a famous mathematician interested in the logic of mathematics. In fact, he’s the one who eventually proved that no infinite mathematical system can be set up without running into a logical inconsistency somewhere. He did that kind of stuff. And C. C. McDuffey, who was a very interesting individual, was interested in modern algebra. Most of the program, you see, was pure mathematics and not practical mathematics.
It must have been interesting and different to be teaching in a university during the war.
Yes, it was. It was very interesting teaching during the war. I must say I was a little disappointed that the engineering course for the Army came to an end in the middle of the war. But then I very quickly got back into war work by going to the Naval Research Laboratory.
Did you ever wonder whether you were doing enough in the war effort by teaching?
Yes, in fact, when I went to the Naval Research Laboratory I felt better about things, because I was immediately put to work on jobs that applied directly to the war effort. For example, one of my early jobs was to construct a set of propagation curves to be used by the fleet out on the Pacific in arranging and managing their communications activities. When one could feel that one’s work went out there and helped so many people, that was better. Although, looking back on it, there’s no question but what the Army cadets had to be trained, so it was a contribution. It just wasn’t as clear cut.
Right. How did it come about that you did go to NRL? Were you recruited?
No. As I’ve said, the engineering courses came to an end, and I wanted to continue to help in the war effort. So I applied to the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, to the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, to the Naval Research Laboratory, and to the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at the Navy Gun Factory. It just happened that NRL came back first, so I signed up with them. I probably would have signed up with whoever had come back first.
Did you have any preference otherwise?
I think that I would have preferred MIT, because of its reputation.
Were you aware of the radar work that was going on there?
And you were anxious to get involved in some of that as well.
What kind of position did the NRL give you to start?
Well, to begin with, they took me on as a mathematician, and gave me a small group of people to work with. As I told you, I got into working on the radio propagation right away. But then, as I also mentioned earlier, I very quickly switched over into physics because the pay was better. My first job was on contract. Apparently during the war the way of getting people on the rolls rapidly was to give them a contract. To try to go the Civil Service route took a lot of time then as it does now.
Were you disappointed about leaving teaching?
Well, I had originally thought of staying in teaching once I got into it, but having got to NRL and finding all the interesting problems that were there, no disappointment could last very long.
Were you ever thinking that when the war ended, you would go back to teaching, or were you planning then to stay at NRL?
Well, I wasn’t planning definitely to stay at NRL, but I found interestingly enough that life outside the university was not as petty as life in the university can be. There was always the dean’s wife, or the department head’s wife, that my wife had to be careful not to offend and that sort of thing. Both of us were glad to get away from that. And so it wasn’t long before I decided that I probably would not go back to the university.
Were you aware of the diffusion that was being done at NRL to refine uranium samples for the atomic project?
Not until later, no.
Not until after the fact?
What was your reaction, if you can recall it, when you heard about the dropping of the atomic bomb?
I was up at the Radiation Laboratory at the time. I happened to be on travel for the NRL at the time, and I read about it in the papers, so I can remember very clearly that event. I saw the headlines, and the reaction was “Wow.” But the full implications did not occur to me at that time, not until later.
Do you recall any conversations you had with other people at MIT? Were people talking about it?
Well, actually, I had gotten a glimmering of it, not from people at MIT, but from one of my physics colleagues at NRL. He sort of had alerted me to the fact that something was going on without being aware of it. It just was an illustration to me of how difficult it is to keep a secret, because he didn’t tell me that anything was going on, but from the way the conversation went, it was clear that something was going on.
Would you mind telling me who that was?
I don’t think I should.
OK. You said your reaction was “Wow,” but the implications took longer to sink in.
Can you tell me what your later feelings about the bomb was?
Of course, the first reaction when you saw those descriptions of the power and extent of the devastation and so on was that you just were impressed with the force of the thing. But later, when you began to think what it might mean as people worked on it and made it even worse, and how it might affect not only the few that were involved in the bomb activities during the present war, but could envelope the whole world — well, then, it looked rather clear that people had to learn how to talk to each other and agree to live together properly. So it had a very profound effect on one’s attitude toward the importance of foreign affairs and defense activities and so on. I would say that, one reaction was — many years later — that I was glad that I hadn’t been involved in that work myself.
Do you recall how you felt after you learned that the second bomb had been dropped?
Not particularly. I don’t think it had any additional effect.
Of course you must have been glad the war was over after that.
So the war ended in late 1945, and you were at NRL. What were your plans then? Were you thinking about what you were going to do after the war?
We were all thinking of the future. Ernie Krause was head of our section. It was the communications security section, which meant research on keeping communications secure from the enemy, and it involved not only radio communications but television too. All of us were talking about the future. And we got together in Ernie’s office periodically to discuss this. One day the subject of using the experience that we had gained in designing television guided missiles to investigate the upper atmosphere was proposed by Milton Rosen. That was thought to be a great idea. We immediately began to think of many ways in which it would be important to the Navy and to the military in general, and so we concluded that the military ought to support work of that sort. So we all agreed to try to get a program of that sort going, and it got going.
Did you have the impression after the war that it would be business as usual? Would money come to you for important projects?
For a while, yes, because most people seemed to be impressed with what technology had done in winning the war. In fact, people would at that time make the flat statement that technology won this war. Of course, later they thought a little more about it and wouldn’t quite make the flat statement that it won the war. They would modify it to say, that technology had a big role in winning the war. But at the time — right after the war — everybody thought the one who was ahead in technology was bound to win.
Did you share that view at the time?
Yes. We all used that kind of language.
Was there a feeling that scientists, contributed more than the average to winning the war?
We all worked weird hours all the time, and one of the things that seemed different after the war was over was that we began to not have to work on Saturday and that sort of thing, whereas we’d been working on Saturdays and Sundays.
So you felt perhaps like the scientists were an elite part of society. Would you go that far?
I think probably most of us felt that way. It may sound a little arrogant, perhaps, but after having contributed so much to what was agreed to have been so important to the war, we felt that way.
Did you think about leaving NRL after the war? Did you put out feelers to universities or other laboratories?
Well, not really, because the Navy was so quick to support the upper air research program. None of us had any reason to leave. Most of us stayed on. In fact, we found that only a small group of people left. Most of us found the idea of rocket upper air research so attractive that we stayed.
Did you have anything to do with the so—called Bird Dogs who set up the Office of Naval Research?
Why do you think the Navy was so quick in continuing its support for basic science? It really was the major supporter for physical science.
Yes, for a long time until the National Science Foundation came up. Well, we found that of all the services, the Navy seemed to be the most alert to the value of advanced education and technical training. There was a sort of nobility to the naval service that didn’t seem to exist in the Army. And of course later the Air Force grew out of the Army. For a long time the Air Force seemed to be sort of an upstart, very crude, rough hewn, not well educated, so it seemed that it was the Navy officers, who especially had the feeling that technology had won the war. There’s another reason why they might have felt that way. Sailing a ship is quite a thing, and to keep a fleet of ships going and operating requires an appreciation of engineering and science. So we think that that background, and the conviction that technology helped to win the war, led to the creation of the Office of Naval Research.
Do you think there were any people in the Navy administration who were especially quick in picking up this attitude of supporting basic science?
Yes. Admiral Bennett, Admiral Furth and of course, Rickover, were particularly quick about the importance of this.
Why did upper atmospheric research start at the NRL? You said Milt Rosen was the person who suggested it.
Was this late ‘45, by the way?
It was in the fall of ‘45 that this was being discussed. And as I recall it — you have to check the records to check this — the request for approval of the program went forward in December, and the approval came back in December, which was phenomenally fast. But again, I say, you have to check that. Why did it start there? Well, you had people there like Eddie Hulburt who was the geophysicist and cosmic ray researcher, who would naturally be interested in that sort of thing, and John M. Miller, who was head of our division. He was the guy after whom the Miller Effect is named, and he had a special interest in communications electronics and that sort of thing, and our program had involved a lot of that. And then, Ross Gunn, who was, I think, one of Hulburt’s protegees, who also had an interest in upper air research. He was particularly interested in the ionosphere. Although I must add that Ross Gunn told me he did not think that the rocket approach was a good one.
Do you remember his reason?
Yes. He said, “It moves too fast. You can’t get enough data to get good statistics. So I want you to forget it and do it some other way.” The thrust of his remarks to me was not to cancel the program, but to find a better way of doing it. So he supported the program, it was just the technique that he differed on.
Did he have anything to do with the rocket program then?
Well, I think he was the chief advisor on research. His input on any proposal for research would go directly to the director. So he must have supported the program, because it went ahead, even though he didn’t think we were going about it the right way.
We’re talking a lot about directors of research and so on. Can you tell me briefly how the NRL was setup administratively in those days?
In those days, you had a director who was a military man, and under him, a staff of military officers, which included some with technical training. The man who was responsible for our activities was Ken Patrick. He was either a lieutenant commander or commander at the time, and he was a very good engineer, a good man technically, and he supported us. Then we had people from the scientific civilian side who acted as advisors to the director. That’s how Ross Gunn got into this as the chief advisor to the director. The position of director of research, analogous to a co-director of the laboratory, wasn’t set up until afterwards. As I recall, Hulburt became the first director of research, and he sort of succeeded to the mantle of Ross Gunn.
So who were you working directly under?
John Miller, who was head of our division. Our section which was later called a branch was in his division.
Did it ever feel strange working on essentially pure or basic science in a military institution?
We always had a lot of discussion of this, and in fact we took particular pride in the fact that the Navy supported so much basic research. It may have seemed anomalous, but we didn’t question it. We just thought that that was the nature of the Navy. It was the elite of the services.
Did you never feel inhibited or led in one direction or another by the military?
I wouldn’t say that. We constantly had to fight for the needs of basic research. Classification was always a difficult animal to fight against. You no sooner proved to your superiors that something was extremely important to the military, so as to get them to support it, and then they would say, “Well, if it’s this important, why don’t we classify it?” So after I took over the rocket—sonde work, I would say, every second year I had to fight the classification battle, because we’d come up with something very important, and somebody would want to classify it.
But generally you won those fights.
We always won, but we had to fight.
What was the rationale for keeping it open research?
The argument we gave was that you couldn’t classify it, in the first place. We said, “Basic research involves secrets of nature which any other country was going to discover even if you classified it. But if you did classify it, you would slow down the diffusion of information among US scientists and thereby inhibit US research. Engineering inventions,” we said, “are secrets of men, and you can classify those,” and so we tried to establish a policy of classifying inventions but not classifying results of basic research. We always succeeded. I always felt that the reason that we had this periodic battle was that personnel changed. A normal tour of duty was about three years, but every two years enough people had changed so that you had to refight the battle.
Before we talk of your specific work in rocket sonde branch, maybe you can tell me when you started thinking about space research or even space travel? Did you read science fiction when you were young? Did you have any longstanding desire to do research or think about traveling in space?
Well, that’s an interesting history. I would say I was not one of the avid space travel enthusiasts. In the early 1930’s when I was in Harvard, in my astronomy course, with Don Menzel… Professor Menzel gave us an assignment one day to calculate the trajectories that one would have to use to send a space ship from earth to Mars, and I would say that was my introduction to the thought. Then a little later, when I was teaching at the University of Maryland, I had in my class an individual who was a real enthusiast for rockets. In fact you might call him a rocket nut. So he was always finding ways of illustrating problems and things like that with rocketry examples. I don’t remember his name.
It would be interesting to find out who that person was and see whether he did get involved with the space program later. Were you aware of people like Goddard who were working on space rocketry?
Not until after I got into it professionally. Then I met Goddard. But not before then.
You met Goddard then —?
— when I was at the NRL.
Goddard was over at the Naval Experiment Station over at Annapolis, and I went to visit him there.
During the war?
So at NRL people were thinking about rocket research even before the end of the war?
Yes, but not for upper air research. Goddard’s original interest was in upper air research, but the Navy was using him to work on rockets for missiles. And that’s why he was at the experiment station. We were working on rockets, particularly on the guidance and control aspects, and that’s why we went to see Goddard.
Do you recall when you first heard about the V-2 rockets being used in the war? That must have been ‘44, I think when the Germans started launching the V-2’s in Europe and England.
I don’t really recall, but I do recall that during the war we worked on the V-1, the buzz bomb, and we worked on trying to develop a guidance and control system for that. It had a special name at the time. I forget now. We didn’t call it the V-1. The US military gave it a special name.
Were you seriously worried about these German rocket bombs? Did you think in ‘44 or early ‘45 that the tide was turning badly against the Nazis, and yet here they were launching these rather sophisticated weapons? Was there any doubt in your mind that the Nazis would be defeated?
No, we felt that they would lose. We thought that their weapon most destructive to us was the V-1, not the V-2.
Why was that?
Well, because, you see, they launched so many of them, and they could keep up a sort of continuous bombardment with them, whereas the V-2’s were fired once every so often.
Did you also consider the fact that V-1s did not always land on target?
There was the definite psychological annoyance factor to the V-1s because there were so many of them launched. Even if a lot of them didn’t land on target, enough of them did that they were still psychologically effective.
Did you visit Europe during the war?
I didn’t, but some of our section did. Nolan Best, for example went over, and he was there right during one of the big V-2 bombardment periods, and he came back to keep us informed of what was involved there.
When were you aware that you would actually be doing rocket research at NRL? You made your proposal at the end of 1945, and you were essentially given approval of it, but when did you know it would really go?
We were given almost immediate approval, and our first thought was that we would use some available rockets. The rockets that were available to us then included the WAC Corporal, which JPL had made, and we thought of using that. We thought of using some of the JATO rockets as possibilities. We also thought of possibly having made for us some special solid propellant rockets. We gave each other lectures on different things. Since I was trained in mathematics, I lectured on the possible use of artificial earth satellites, and we spent some time discussing these possibilities with the Bureau of Aeronautics. I talked to Commander Hoover, and others whose names I’ve forgotten now, about the possibility of launching artificial earth satellites. In fact, we had all concluded that the earth satellite way was the best way to go.
For doing upper atmosphere research?
For doing upper atmosphere research. But then when we talked with the Bureau of Aeronautics and with Commander Hoover and others. One, Harvey Itall, was a physicist; he went to NASA, and was in George Mueller’s office for a while; then he went out to UCLA. We learned that although it was clear from the research that was being done that satellite launching vehicles would be available sometime in the not too distant future, to try to launch them right away would require a crash program which would require money we couldn’t get. So we concluded that we would go the sounding rocket route, and that meant WAC Corporal or solid propellant rocket or something of the sort. While we were kicking that around, Colonel James Bain of Army Ordnance informed us that they were going to launch V-2 rockets captured in Germany, and they wanted them to do more than just fly, so they suggested that maybe somebody might be interested in instrumenting them for some purposes. Krause jumped at that. And he said that NRL would be interested, and he also agreed to explore who else might be interested. So in January of ‘46, he called together a group of interested people to meet at NRL, and they met there and discussed what might be done. And there was sufficient interest that they agreed to meet again to formulate a formal program, and they did meet again shortly thereafter; in February, in an organizing meeting in which they formed the V-2 Panel, which agreed to help Colonel Bain in assigning rockets to different research groups. That V-2 Panel then continued and became the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, and then later the Rocket or just plain Upper Atmosphere Research Panel and still later the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel. They got the program going. In all likelihood, if it hadn’t been for the availability of the V-2s, we mig1t not have gotten going as soon as we did. As it was, the first of these instrumented V-2s went up in April of ‘46. And the first NRL one that I can recall that had any measure of success was in June of ‘46. Then we had a real successful one in October of ‘46. Well, if we had had to wait for WAC Corporals, we think that we wouldn’t have gotten them as quickly by any means. There would have been all the negotiating with the Army and JPL and so on and getting money to purchase them. Of, if we’d had to have the special solid rocket developed, it would have taken much longer. So the V—2s were a bonanza, as far as upper air research was concerned.
Why do you think the Army was so interested in flying instruments on their V-2s?
I don’t really know. I’d just have to guess. The rockets were going to be fired vertically, so they were going into the high atmosphere, and I think some people realized that there had been an interest in exploring the upper atmosphere. It occurred to them that this would be a nice way of having something extra to gain from the expenditure of these monies. The more things you can say your monies are buying, the easier it is to keep the money flowing. So I suspect that was it.
Was there much publicity about these few shots?
They always got in the newspapers, but the reporters and the media didn’t seem to pay too much attention to them.
Why do you think that was?
They were subliminal, that’s all.
The V-2 Rocket Panel was an informal organization, correct? Krause was the one who organized it?
He was the first one to convene it and was elected the first chairman. After he left to go off onto nuclear test research, Van Allen was elected second chairman, and Van Allen remained the chairman for over ten years, I believe.
Who else was on this panel, do you recall?
Well, I can recall some, but I don’t know that I can give them all to you. I have them listed in the book.
Who were the people who stood out?
Well, Fred Whipple of course stood out, and Jim Van Allen. They both stood out. Then Marcus O’Day was from the Air Force — from the Radiation Laboratory — Bill Dow from the University of Michigan, and Michael Ferrence from the Signal Engineering Laboratories (he later went to Ford Motor Company research), and a fellow named J. E. Golay who was famous for invention the Golay cell, and a fellow names Delsasso, who was an expert in ballistic tracking and ballistic camera work, and Charles F. Green from General Electric. These were the senior citizens. Then there were younger people who either were in that first group or very shortly thereafter came in. The younger people included Bill Stroud from Signal Engineering Laboratories, Les Jones from Michigan, Nelson Spencer from Michigan, and a fellow named Kingdon from General Electric, George Megarian who was the executive secretary right from the start, and then myself. And later on, John Townsend became a member from NRL.
What was it like working with these people from different universities, companies and even the military?
Oh yes, I’ve left out one of the university groups. In the early days, John Wheeler from Princeton was on it, and Myron Nichols. Later we expanded the panel to include a lot of other people when we got into the political finagling, following the launching of Sputnik. But before Sputnik, the panel consisted of those people who were actually engaged in upper air research with rockets or who had a close association with the program. It was a working panel. You asked what was it like. I would say it was one of the few really working panels that I’ve been involved in. It started with an advisory function, but very quickly became the operating panel for the activity. And yet it never had a charter.
So it was quite informal?
Yes. It worked because the people on it had a job to do in their shops back home, and when decisions were made they could go back and see that the decisions were followed through on.
You were part of the rocket sonde branch, is that right?
Yes. First, section, and then it became a branch.
Now, Krause was the head of that at first?
At first, yes.
And you were the deputy?
How did you get that position? You obviously must have shown great interest in rocket research.
Well, I became the deputy before the rocket research program began. I became deputy of the communications security section, and then we got into the upper air rocket research. And then Krause left, and I became head.
How did you influence the way research would be done at NRL in rocket investigation?
My approach was to use the best people we could in different areas, and give them a job to do, and give them space on the rockets, and then the research got done. For example, we used a group under Jack Mengle to provide the radio and telemetering equipment, and he was a real genius there. Before Jack Mengle, Carl Harrison Smith was in charge of that, and he was also a genius in that sort of thing. For atmosphere structure — that is, pressure, temperature, density, that sort of thing — we had a fellow named Ralph Havens who was a remarkable intuitive physicist, and of course he put his intuition to work and did a great job there. A physicist named Gil Perlow worked on cosmic rays. We didn’t have too much strength in the solar physics and optical work, but here’s where Dr. Hulburt stepped in and got Herb Friedman and Richard Tousey interested. Although they were working in another division, they did their work in our rockets, and so that rounded out the program. In the ionospheric work, Jack Clark and T. Robert Burnight were the key people. The answer to your question is, we worked by getting people who knew their business and giving them the opportunity to do it.
I wanted to ask you for some impressions of people who were working with, such as Hulburt, Burnight, Tousey and Friedman. In any order.
Well, Burnight was very good technically, but lousy administratively. He would collect data and then never analyze it. So there came a point where I had to tell him that he couldn’t fly any more rockets until he analyzed the data he’d already acquired. Friedman was something of a genius. In fact, not only was he good at the physics that he was performing, but he was good at making the instruments to do it. Tousey was, I would say, the one example we had in our group who was an old fashioned, thorough, very competent experimental scholar, and his work was always exceedingly polished.
Then there was Hulburt.
Well, Hulburt was off at a distance, so to speak. He was the grey eminence. Whenever we needed help, of course, he was there to lend support, but he didn’t become involved in the program except that he had a personal interest and occasionally wrote a speculative paper commenting on some of the things that came out of the program. For example, when X-rays were discovered, he wrote a paper giving his explanation (which turned out not to be right) of what they were. Before that, he had done some speculating on cosmic rays using some of the results from the space program. But even so I would say he was not actually involved.
Did any of these speculations of his affect research programs or experiments at NRL?
No, I wouldn’t say so. I think the major influence that Hulburt had on the program was to get Friedman and Tousey interested.
Your first V-2 shot was successful in that it went up and came down, but it ended up in a crater. It created a crater which made it very difficult to retrieve any data.
We recovered only telemetered information.
How did you feel about some of the very early V-2 shots?
Well, we weren’t discouraged. We expected something of the sort. In fact, we thought that we were going to have to enclose film in steel cassettes. We had expected that beforehand. The big crater only seemed to clinch that conclusion. But as a matter of fact, we didn’t have to go that way, because we found that by putting things in the afterbody and in the tailfin, we could get them back, even though they were moderately protected.
This was without the use of parachutes or anything like that.
Yes. If you broke up the rocket into pieces, the nose cone would always come back and gouge out a big crater just as that first one did. But the tank and the tail section would maple-leaf in and land right there on the desert and not make much of a dent. If you had a spectrograph in the tailfin, for example, you could take the spectrograph out and the film would be OK. In fact, Tousey and his people, I think, re-flew a spectrograph a number of times.
Did you ever work in these early days in the V-2 research program with Werner von Braun?
Would you tell me about that?
Yes. In fact, it’s on this recovery problem. I had to drive down to Fort Bliss, where Werner von Braun was stationed, and discuss with him how we might go about achieving recovery of equipment from the V-2. Also, Ralph Havens wanted to spin the rocket to produce a modulation on his pressure gauges, from which he figured that he could estimate the ambient atmospheric pressure. The pressure gauges would measure the pressure at the surface of the missile. It wasn’t necessarily the outside air pressure. But he could relate the modulation of pressure produced by spinning of the rocket to the outside air pressure. So I had a talk with von Braun about that. Although I did talk with von Braun about such things, we actually had to do most of our stuff ourselves. You know, if you go beyond where people have already gone, you have to do it yourself. One interesting sidelight, I found that in my upbringing, I had always been trained to use absolute systems of units, whereas von Braun always used relative or engineering systems of units. So for a while we didn’t seem to be understanding each other, until we discovered that we were using units differently.
What was your general impression of von Braun from these early meetings?
Very smart, and very willing to be helpful, but not a basic researcher. It was clear from my early discussions that his background and interest was in engineering. To put it another way, I would think von Braun was more interested in space flight and rocket flight than he was in atmospheric physics or solar physics.
Did he see no use in it, no value in it, or was his interest just so much skewed into space travel?
We never discussed that. It’s just my estimate that his real interest was in the space travel and space flight.
Were you or any of your colleagues a bit leery of him, or did you feel that it was difficult to relate with this engineer who, just a few years earlier, was working for the Germans?
That was discussed from time to time, but nobody seemed to find any great difficulty in working with him, von Braun was a master at working with people, and he made a conscious effort to be helpful and to make his people be helpful.
So people thought that he was generally trustworthy, even though he essentially switched sides after the war.
As I say, that was discussed. It didn’t get in the way.
You didn’t then know any people who were uncooperative with von Braun?
What do you think the military wanted from rocket research in the early days? Here you were doing a lot of rocket research for the Navy. Do you think the Navy had some desire to get something out of it?
I think originally the military just felt that it must be of value. It was more intuitive than actually articulated. In the course of time, we were all — by “we,” I mean those of us doing the research — we were all able to help the military articulate this. And we made a whole list of things: the upper atmosphere data would be important for the design of high flying vehicles, whatever they might be, and of course we had in mind that they might be IBMs or IRBMs. We also had in mind that they could be satellites. That was one thing. The upper air data on the ionosphere and the charged properties of the atmosphere were essential to radio communications. In fact, we were told, after a while, that our ionospheric data had made possible for people scheduling short wave radio communications to save something like two million dollars a year. I don’t have any documentation to prove that, but we were told that. By knowing what the state of the ionosphere was likely to be, they could schedule communications and carry them out. Previously they might schedule communications and then find they had to cancel them because of propagation disturbances. The data on the ionosphere and the atmosphere were important in radar tracking, refraction and hence in the guidance and control of missiles. So there are four things already. As I recall, we had about a dozen things we could list.
But this was something that you did after you had begun the research.
That’s right. To begin with, it was intuitive. It just had to be valuable, we felt, and it turned out to be valuable.
Did you have anything to do with the design and development of other rockets, for example the Aerobee and Viking rockets?
Well, not personally, but van Allen at APL undertook the initial development of the Aerobee which was an improved and upgraded version of the WAC Corporal. After he had come out with the first version of the Aerobee my group became interested (along with the Air Force) in upgrading that Aerobee. We worked on what was called the Aerobee-hi. So NRL and the Air Force Cambridge Research Center supported a lot of additional work on the Aerobee. When the V-2s were about to run out, there was some worry about what would replace them, and a lot of study went into possibly building new V-2s. But it turned out that they would cost about a half a million apiece. That was more than any of us felt we would ever be able to afford. So we looked at the possibility of building a smaller rocket comparable to the V-2 but more efficient so it would go higher. This we called the Neptune, and it turned out that the Neptune was the name of an airplane. So we had to change its name to Viking. And Milt Rosen in my branch did the main work on that. In fact, eventually NRL established a separate branch to continue Viking work. That’s how we got into those.
So obviously the V-2 had a few problems with it, if you didn’t want to just duplicate them.
Well, it was awfully expensive. It was a first version then. It was not as efficient as you could design an upper air rocket. It was a missile. It was built to stand torques and windages that you wouldn’t have to have a vertically fired sounding rocket withstand, and therefore it was heavier and more massive, than you would want. All that meant that there was more material in it. That made it more expensive.
The Viking rocket was technically an extremely efficient rocket in terms of weight and thrust.
At the time, Milt Rosen used to take great delight in declaring that the Viking was the most efficient rocket in the world. And it probably was, at its time.
And yet not many were made. Not many were made nor used.
No, because actually it turned out to cost about $400,000 apiece, and the whole upper atmosphere program at NRL that I was running, had about $200,000 a year to expend. The full program for the country was no more than a couple of million dollars a year. So people weren’t going to be able to buy those.
So they turned to the Aerobee which turned out to be a boon to the researchers. They also turned to other small rockets like the Cajun and the Deacon, and combined them with the Nikes and made Nike-Cajuns and Nike-Deacons.
The Aerobee rocket, though, remained the mainstay of the sounding rocket family, didn’t it?
Yes, for a couple of decades. Yes. And it was well within the pocketbook capabilities of the research community.
Was it something in van Allen’s design that made it so popular and so useful?
Well, yes and no. I think the basic design was already there in the WAC Corporal, and van Allen simply upgraded it, but without adding much to the cost. He made it go higher. He made it carry more equipment. He provided additional space so that you had more room for your equipment and he kept the price down.
You mentioned already some of your thoughts about launching a satellite into space. Were you thinking seriously in 1946 about launching a satellite?
Yes. In 1945 and ‘46, yes. In 1945 and the beginning of 1946, we were seriously considering the possibility of using satellites. But we hoped that we would be able to take things that were available, and just use them. We couldn’t do that, and we couldn’t get money to build things of our own, so we went the sounding rocket route.
How would you have used a satellite in 1946? There were many experiments that NRL did that required a vertical cross sectional picture of the atmosphere, and an orbiting satellite would not have provided you with that information.
That’s true, but one of the major interests at the beginning was in collecting cosmic ray data, and having a satellite stay up in orbit for a long time to get a lot of statistics was very desirable. Another interest was in getting the solar constant, and again you want the satellite to be up above the atmosphere for quite a while. As it turns out you really need both sounding rockets and satellites. It was just that the satellite seemed more attractive to the physicists at the time, and when they had sounding rockets, they just did the things that came naturally with sounding rockets.
So you were thinking about satellites in ‘45 and ‘46. Did you have anything to do with that Rand Corporation report on launching a satellite into space?
No, we did not. We would hear from time to time of the thoughts of others, and we were told by the Navy BuAer people of some of the things that were being discussed like Project Orbiter. Well, we would hear of these things that were going on, but the conclusion we drew, and the thing we kept telling ourselves, was that in the course of time, the natural advance of technology will bring the satellite along, and then we’ll use one. And so we just got into sounding rocket work and stayed there, just being patient so to speak.
You had something to do with developing instruments that were used on many of the rockets, didn’t you? I noticed that in one of your papers, for example, you describe the best geometry for a Geiger counter.
Well, yes. That’s a mathematical exercise. What I did was provide the cosmic ray instrumentalist with a way of calculating the effect of the geometry that surrounded his cosmic ray counter or telescope. I just put out the paper, and then it was up to the instrumentalist to use it in whatever way he saw fit.
Did you have anything else to do with developing instrumentation?
No. I was a theorist. I used my mathematical background, and from time to time I would help some of the men who were in my group with mathematical work. But other scientists actually made the instrumentation. They were the experimental physicists.
How did you see yourself in those days? Did you see yourself more as an administrator, moving toward the administration end of things, or as a scientist, or both?
Well, I really saw myself as both. But I did not see myself as an experimentalist, even though I was running an experimental group. I saw myself as a theorist who could manage the experimental group and help them from time to time. For the most part, I had to listen to what they proposed to do, and then judge whether I thought it was a good part of the program?
Did you enjoy this kind of activity?
I enjoyed the work at NRL, yes. I didn’t want to go any further in the direction of management. So it was quite a step to go over to NASA, which was all that sort of stuff.
Right. Did you take any particular pride in some experiments, some results from experiments?
Oh yes. We took particular pride in the solar physics experiments that Friedman and Tousey were doing. They seemed to us to be among the most significant. And then when Burnight discovered X-rays we thought that was great, and I worked and worked and worked to get Burnight to follow up on it, and he wouldn’t. But later, as you yourself know, the Friedman group, and still later the American Science and Engineering group, followed up on that work. So Burnight lost a chance to be in the history books, so to speak.
Why did you think it was such great stuff to discover X-rays? After all Hulburt had predicted them as the cause of E-layer ionization.
Yes. Well, at the time we thought that this might be in the nature of a confirmation, but whatever it would turn out to be, being such high energy radiation, it was interesting to find it there. In fact, you may recall that even though Hulburt predicted X-rays as the cause of some of those layers, most people thought it was the ultraviolet. So this would have been a way of pinning down that. And when Burnight didn’t follow up on it, it was in the nature of something outrageous at the time. I never could understand why he didn’t follow it up, but since then I’ve concluded (and I may be absolutely wrong) that he was afraid to.
Why would he be afraid?
Maybe he didn’t feel up to providing the definitive experiments that would have finally pinned down all those questions. I don’t know. I can only guess. But I know that I told myself at the time, “If I were an experimentalist, I wouldn’t rest until I got some more equipment up there.”
So did you then have to encourage Tousey and Friedman or did they pick it up themselves?
We didn’t have to encourage them. Tousey and Friedman really went after those things. Friedman was at the moment experimenting with his nitrogen oxide counters, and they were just the thing, and so he went after it and pinned it down.
You were involved as the science director of the Vanguard program.
Can you tell me how the Vanguard program got started and your involvement in it?
Yes. That’s a very complex story. The ICY involved a sounding rocket program, and the Rocket and Satellite Panel had a lot to do with getting that sounding rocket program started. The Rocket and Satellite Panel was not particularly pushing the satellites to begin with. They pushed mostly the rocket program and were aiming toward Fort Churchill and the launching area there and the experiments in the auroral zone. However, because we did get involved in the IGY program, some of us, including myself, were working closely with people like Hugh Odishaw, who was executive director of the US IGY committee. So we had an association going there. I would give Hugh advice on some of the rocket upper air research from time to time when he asked for it. When the IUGG, International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, met in Rome in 1954, the suggestion was made that the IGY include a satellite program. The suggestion had been brought over from the International Radio Union, where Lloyd Berkner and Fred Singer had made the proposal there and received rather mild support. At the IUGG I was asked to chair a committee to looking into this question, and on that committee there were Fred Singer and a number of other upper air people.
That committee proposed to the IUGG a very strong resolution, much stronger than the URSI one, and it was mainly Fred Singer’s. He did most of the work in working it. The IUGG adopted the resolution, and passed it on to the International Committee for the International Geophysical Year, the so called CSAGI. And there, the committee supported the IUGG resolution. In fact it adopted it practically with the original wording, and it called for a program, or rather it recommended that thought be given to such a program. So this resolution was sent out to all the different countries participating in the International Geophysical Year. Back in the United States, the proposal was reviewed by the IGY committee, and I had the privilege of sitting in on the discussions when it was discussed. It was a very interesting set of discussions. They thought, from the point of view of research, that it was a good, but some of the members of the committee thought that it could be a very dangerous thing psychologically. They thought that the people of the world could get scared by such a project and might even be provoked into an uprising against scientists.
That’s interesting. Tell me about it.
Well, there was some discussion of that, and they discussed how to propose it and avoid that sort of effect. And Joe Kaplan, who was chairman of the committee, said, “Well, why don’t we just make use of what they already know about sounding rockets, and just tell them that a satellite is a long playing rocket?” LPR — you know. This was exactly the time when the new Long Playing Records had come out, and so Joe used that thought. The idea was that the long playing rocket wouldn’t be scary. People would just relate it to what’s been happening for the past ten years. With that thought, the IGY committee did adopt the recommendation, and Kaplan and Detlev Bronk from the Academy (of Sciences) and Alan Waterman from the National Science Foundation went to the President, President Eisenhower, with the suggestion that there be a satellite program. Eisenhower bought it, partly, I think, — you have to dig into this to find out if it’s so — to bolster the US image of strength in missilery. When it came out, the question was, who shall do it? Well, there were many people who could do it, but since Eisenhower’s concern and everybody else’s concern was with our strength in missilery, they didn’t want to interfere with any other missile program, so they asked a committee under Homer J. Stewart to review the question of, who might do this.
There were many people who could do it, but the only one that could do it without interfering with the national missile program was the Naval Research Laboratory, and they could use the Viking and possibly the Aerobee. In fact, there were some people who thought you can just put the Viking and the Aerobee together and that’s it. That wouldn’t interfere with any missile program, so the Stewart Committee recommended that NRL be given the job. So NRL got the job, and that’s how NRL got Vanguard. The question within NRL was, under whom to put it? We in the rocket sounding groups felt that it should be given to us, but both Milt Rosen and myself were some of the younger members of the laboratory, and the directorship thought it should be given to a senior member of the laboratory. So it was given to John Hagen, which we thought wasn’t quite right because he hadn’t had anything really to do with any of the programs.
What was his position at NRL?
At that time he had taken over as director of the division that John Miller had left when he retired. The Viking branch and the upper air rocket branch were both under him, but his whole experience had been in radio astronomy, and I think particularly Milt Rosen felt that it was an affront that he didn’t get it. After all, he had developed the Viking rocket, and we in the upper air branch tended to agree with Milt. He should have gotten it. That made for stresses and strains within the organization, and to smooth over some things, we in the upper air rocket group were put in charge of the scientific part, which involved the satellites. And that’s how I became science program coordinator. Milt Rosen didn’t come out quite as well, because John Hagen brought in another engineer, James Paul Walsh, from an undersea testing group to be his deputy. And so Milt not only didn’t get to be in charge of it, but he didn’t even get to be deputy. So we always thought he got a dirty deal there.
Do you think that some of these administrative changes and the internal friction had anything to do with some problems with launching the first Vanguard satellite?
I don’t think so, now. The people that were brought in were competent people. It’s just that was a very difficult project, and if you look at any other comparable projects, like the Polaris and the Navajo and so on, they all had troubles in their first launches. They just weren’t carried out in a goldfish bowl the way Vanguard was.
Right. Now, wasn’t von Braun and the Army anxious to launch the first satellite?
They were. And the reason they didn’t get the job was that they were in the missile side of the picture. And the original criterion was let’s not upset the missile program. As a matter of fact, there were some of us who felt that if von Braun had been given the job, the US would have launched the first artificial satellite. Well, not only von Braun, but there were others that could have launched the first satellite. There were Thor vehicles and things like that that could have been used. Well, that’s history.
So launching the first one was not really a big question.
I don’t think any of the senior people involved in these decisions and discussions, except possibly the IGY committee, had an inkling of what the psychological effect of the first artificial satellite might be.
Did these other people think then that the Russians just could not launch something like that before us?
Yes. I think most people thought we were way ahead of them. I think they felt that we would come out well ahead of them, and it was something of a surprise when they came up with the first satellite.
This attitude remained in spite of the fact that the Russians very quickly caught up with us in their nuclear weapon capabilities.
They had an atomic bomb in ‘49 and then the hydrogen bomb before us.
So we still thought we could beat out the Russians in something like this.
Yes. I remember in my education courses, we used to discuss how you learn one subject, and you expect what you’ve learned in that subject to be transferred to some other subject. This used to be the argument for learning Latin, you remember — mental discipline. Well, it was brought out in my education courses that you don’t get transfer unless you teach transfer. Well, here we have some cases of historical lessons, and people just didn’t transfer them. I guess the lesson is, you can’t expect them to until you point it out to them. And in this case Mother Nature, or history, pointed it out.
Do you think Americans were being told or at least felt that in a democratic society like America, a society that won World War II with its technological prowess, we would obviously be the best in science and technology and that the Russians with their totalitarian society could never really do something like that?
I personally feel there’s something of that, but if you were to ask me to document it, I wouldn’t be able to.
You wrote an article on the satellite project for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, that was published December ‘55. At that time you said you weren’t really sure when the first satellite would go up. But were you planning for a launch during the International Geophysical Year?
Yes. That was our original schedule. And in fact, we hoped it would be early in it, in other words, in 1957.
You also said here — I remember this very well — that you didn’t think it would be feasible for us to send up a man into space at that time.
No. That’s right.
A manned vehicle would multiply all the problems by so many orders of magnitude.
Right. That was a safe statement.
Yes, that certainly is a safe statement. When did it first seem feasible to you to send a man into space?
Toward the end of the 1950s, I would say 1959 or 1960.
What events made that assessment possible?
At that time I became aware of the discussions of the possibility of manned spaceflight. This was when the Mercury program soon came into being. Going into space — there are many meanings to that, but Mercury was just a very simple thing.
And the Mercury program started in ‘59, is that right?
Well, studies on it began in ‘57, and the program was actually approved right after NASA started in October of 1958.
That’s right, it was part of the legislation creating NASA. What was your reaction then to the news that Sputnik had been orbited in October 1957?
Well, we were disappointed, because we thought that we would be ahead. We were disappointed for several reasons. First, the US had made every possible effort to keep other people informed of its schedule, so that other countries that wanted to take part in observing the satellite could prepare to do so. This was, we think, deliberately misinterpreted by the Soviets as boasting in advance, and our disappointment was that the Soviets refused to do anything of the sort so that people couldn’t be prepared in advance. Well, the Soviets said, “Oh, we just set up a simple set of frequencies, so anybody could do it.” We didn’t think that was an adequate answer to our complaint. The second source of disappointment was that it didn’t take much calculating from the weights of the first three Sputniks to see that they had tremendous launch vehicles. So as far as our being well ahead in missilery was concerned, we weren’t so well ahead. That of course was what bothered Congress and was the source of all the support they gave us in the beginning.
From what I’ve read, though, Eisenhower was not particularly disturbed by the news.
No, he wasn’t. He thought that from the work we had done with the Atlas and Atlas reentry cone that we were well along and weren’t in such bad shape. My own conclusion now, after writing this book for NASA, is that we were in pretty good shape — much better shape than we thought. It’s true that in one factor — that of the actual mass that could be launched — we were behind, but in other factors, such as upper atmosphere science, miniaturization, guidance, control, computers and things like that, we were ahead. So if you added up the sum total of our position and compared it with the sum total of the Soviet position, we were doing all right. But the Congress chose to be most concerned about the weight that the Soviets could throw into orbit.
Do you think the national uproar after Sputnik had something to do with the fact that the space program before Sputnik in America has not been well publicized? For example, you said earlier that the news media were not terribly interested in V-2 launches and other types of rockets.
I suppose one might be able to defend that thesis, but I don’t know. I think you’d have to study it and analyze it very carefully. I don’t know whether that would be the case. It’s one of those cases of “if it had been different, wouldn’t it have been different?”
Indeed. So after Sputnik was launched — I think it was a month later — the first Vanguard was supposed to be launched.
And it blew up on the launch pad.
Yes. That didn’t help, of course.
How did you feel then? There are some things that I can of course assume but maybe you could tell me more.
Well, that was a big disappointment, I would say — an enormous disappointment. It didn’t do any good, and it didn’t help at all to remember that other large launch vehicle programs had had their troubles. We had hoped that this one would go into orbit.
Did you think the media were unfair, in for example calling it the “Kaputnik?”
I think the media are often unfair, in the sense that they really don’t know the whole story and don’t really seem to make an effort to get the whole story. Now, I think you can make a case that the media were unfair in this sense and that they created and sustained an impression that the Vanguard program was a failure. People today who can remember it, still think that. And yet it can be shown that it wasn’t a failure. It was agreed in the IGY committee planning councils that if only one Vanguard succeeded, that would be a successful program. So you had set up your criterion in advance, and three of them got into orbit successfully, so that’s three times what you agreed would be a success. Also, some of the most successful launch vehicles in the world grew out of Vanguard. For example, the upper stages were used in Atlas Able, and they contributed in measurable ways to things like Atlas Agena and so on. The Delta rocket was definitely a descendent of the Vanguard, and it is still one of the most successful of space launch vehicles. By almost any objective standards, then, the Vanguard program was a big success. And yet, the media produced the impression that it wasn’t. So I think that’s a fortiori evidence that the media didn’t do a proper job.
How did you feel when Eisenhower gave the job of launching the first satellite to the Army and von Braun’s group?
As I said before, there were some of us who felt that it should have been given to him before then, and we on the science side felt that the sooner we got to it and did it, the better. I know that Hagen felt extremely disappointed — stabbed in the back, as a matter of fact — because he felt that because the job had been given to him, he should have been supported right through to the finish of it.
You don’t think that the Vanguard program was given enough support from the President or other levels down?
Support for programs of that kind in that era meant being patient, because all programs of this kind had these kinds of troubles. And the country didn’t show itself willing, after having made this choice, to wait it out.
How did you feel after the first American satellite, with van Allen’s experiment, got into space?
Did you feel somewhat relieved or vindicated?
Well, we felt, “Now we’re in business.” And of course when van Allen’s experiments discovered the radiation belts and beat the Soviets to the punch even though they had the first Sputnik up there, why, that was even greater.
Was van Allen’s experiment supposed to go on one of the Vanguard rockets?
Yes. It was scheduled for the first Vanguard rocket, and they just simply took the experiments and put them on the first Explorer.
Of course, after Sputnik there was a great national debate about how we should reconstitute our space program. What role did you take in that debate?
Well, I don’t know that I can recall the whole role, but the Rocket and Satellite Panel created what jokingly we called the Cosine Committee, but that was just our slang for it. It was COS Committee — Committee on the Occupation of Space, and the idea was to look into where we should go in space flight research. We came up with the recommendation that the nation create what we called at the time National Space Establishment, which we said should be devoted to both unmanned space research and manned space flights. We sent that idea to the Academy and tried to enlist support in the Congress for it. At the same time, the American Rocket Society was pushing for something similar. So the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel and the American Rocket Society joined hands and put out a joint recommendation for such a national space establishment. This was in the fall of ‘57 and the beginning of 1958. Then I was asked to serve as an advisor to a House Select Committee in Space, under Representative McCormack. Working with Charles Sheldon there, I provided quite a bit of advice about what might be done and what might be worthwhile. Fred Singer was also on that group of advisors.
Acting under the aegis of the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel (my special committee, that is, the committee on application of space), we went around to visit a number of influential people, one of which was Vice President Nixon. Then from him we got an introduction to fellows named Lyndon Johnson and George Allen. We then got a date with the Atomic Energy Commissioners, whom we found to be more interested in how they could get their hands on the thing than in our proposal, and we got a hearing before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, under Chairman Clinton Anderson. All the time we were pushing this concept of the space establishment, we met up with Werner von Braun again because he had been pulled in by Anderson’s group to talk about the possibility of nuclear rockets. He happened to be there at the time that Bill Stroud and I were there to talk about the general question of a space program. We startled the committee by announcing that we believed such a space program could in time become greater in dollar magnitude than the atomic energy program. We said it wouldn’t take long for it to get up to be a billion dollars a year. And Senator Pastore just simply said he didn’t believe it.
He must have voted for the expenditure each year for NASA, and it did go over a billion dollars a year.
Well, he certainly must know about it anyway.
So the control of the space program was somewhat of a political football.
Did your group and the American Rocket Society advocate a civilian program?
Isn’t that a bit strange?
We had a feeling that it had to be kept away from the military, because we remembered all our fights over classification, and so we thought that a program like this which was going to be international in scope and largely basic research ought to be unclassified.
Why do you think President Eisenhower favored a civilian program?
I’ve analyzed that in my book for NASA. It seems that Eisenhower was persuaded that the United States was projecting too much of a military image around the world, and that to project a peaceable image would be better. Therefore a civilian program would be better. Also at the time, Eisenhower was fighting the battle of the industrial-military complex, as it later came to be called, and he felt that the military had gotten out of control, largely because of its industrial constituency, which could always be used to put pressure on the President. So he didn’t want to give them another big thing. For that reason, a civilian program would be better. Also at the time, scientists such as Ed Purcell, Mannie Piore and the others who were working with Killian on the Space Act felt that here was a chance to get another big measure of support for science. They were therefore pushing Eisenhower to set up a scientific program, and that jibed very well with having a civilian program. Considering all things, Eisenhower concluded that the space program had better be a civilian program. So that thrust had his support. I think that in Congress there were similar feelings. You remember, it was about that time when there was that big fuss and furor over the Chrysler missile flap, and I think Congress was perfectly happy to see this not go to the military. However, they were also worried that the military should make best possible use of the potential of space, and so that shows up in their actions, too. Everything seemed to come together to push it in the civilian direction.
And yet there was also a continuing military space program.
Yes. That reflects the fact that space knowledge and space techniques are useful for many things, not just civilian applications but military applications. That’s where the Congress wanted to be sure that while the military wasn’t given control over the whole program, it also was given plenty of opportunity to make use of the potential.
So, in October 1958 NASA opened its doors for business, after big Congressional debates of course and a number of compromises. How did you then go from NRL to NASA in ‘58?
When it became clear that there was going to be a big push in space science, which is what we had really been doing in the sounding rocket work, some of us wanted to become involved with it. I went out to JPL to see whether that would be the place where the upper air group should go. To make a long story short, we had the impression that JPL was not really a basic science group of the sort that my people would want to be associated with. I came back and talked with the people who were going to be forming NASA — that is, Hugh Dryden and Abe Silverstein, particularly — and I had the impression that the center of action was going to be with the new NASA that was going to be created. So I started to push my group in that direction. I had personally to make up my mind as to whether I wanted to get into all the administration that would be involved. But for the good of the research people, I decided that I would go there and they could wind up in research. So we had actually agreed to come over to NASA before NASA opened its doors. But the paperwork took a few weeks, so we didn’t come aboard until about the third week in October.
So were you contacted then by NASA people to join the new organization?
No, we went to them and explored the possibility of our coming to handle a lot of the science planning and science management.
There must have been other people in the country who were interested in doing that as well. Were you aware of other people who contacted NASA to try to get involved in the program?
No. No, that all seemed to me to be a very interesting situation. There were very few people apparently who wanted to go to the headquarters. The senior scientists who had done so much to help create NASA weren’t interested. They had other fish to fry. They wanted to continue to push for more general support to science. And so they stayed away. And the other individuals interested in space research were the experimenters, and they didn’t want to go to headquarters. They wanted to go to a laboratory or something of the sort where they could continue their research. So, many of the people who were interested in NASA wound up in the Goddard Space Flight Center.
What were some of the early problems that you faced when you came to NASA?
Well, we had the problem of getting a program going while building an organization, constructing facilities, and putting together an appropriate budget, all without any previous background of experience, because the previous NACA experience was not really applicable to the new program. Those were the main problems. Well, there was one other, and that was rebuilding an association. The NACA association had been very narrow. That is, they had been directed mostly toward the aeronautical research field, and even their international ties were with places like ONERA in France and Professor Quick’s activity in Germany, and Farnsworth, the British equivalent. That association had to be expanded so as to bring in the broader contacts that would be involved in the space program.
What types of early research were done by your group at NASA when you were still at Goddard?
You understand I never went to Goddard.
I thought you were there for a few months at least?
No. You see, I went directly to NASA headquarters when it was first formed, and the Goddard Space Flight Center was formed after we were at NASA headquarters. I went to headquarters with John Townsend and Jack Clark and John Townsend was asked to get the Goddard Space Flight Center going, so he got it going before Harry Goett was ever brought in to be the director. In fact, he had it pretty well going, so we all thought that Townsend got a bad deal there. He got the laboratory going and then was not given the job of being its first director. He really should have been. But that’s the way things go.
Why was there a need at all to create a laboratory associated with NASA, when you were contracting to scientists in universities to do work as well?
Well, the NACA wasn’t contracting with very many universities in the first place. As I said, we had the problem of creating a whole new organization. Now, Dryden was particularly interested in protecting the old NACA laboratories from encroachment by the space part of his program. He wanted them to stay largely aeronautical, and he definitely wanted them to stay in applied research. He didn’t want them to get involved in the large industrial contracting activities of the space program. So there was a need for space science to create a space science group that wasn’t in the old NACA. That’s why Goddard was created. The manned flight activities had to also have an organizational unit to take care of them. That unit was first placed administratively under Goddard. That was the Gildruth group. But it never actually moved there. They were moved to Houston before they ever moved to Goddard. And the Manned Spacecraft Center — later the Lyndon Johnson Space Center — grew out of that. For large rockets, they had to have another organization, and that came from von Braun’s group at Huntsville. But for space science and space applications and the running of the space science or tracking and telemetering network, Goddard was essential. None of those activities existed anywhere else in the old NACA.
Were you given any directives in terms of what goals to pursue when you came to NASA? Was there anything that NASA specifically wanted out of space science?
No. I was not. And it wasn’t until later that I found out that they had been studying this question themselves under the Guy Stever Committee. I wasn’t aware of the Guy Stever Report at the time. I was just told by Silverstein to put together a good space science program, and that was relatively easy because all I needed to do was to take the IGY satellite program and expand it, extend it, and then enlarge upon it to push it toward the moon and then eventually the planets. So that’s the route I went, and Dr. Glennan bought it.
Do you think that space science was done differently with NASA than when it was done through NRL or partly through the Air Force? Do you think there was a different attitude among scientists?
Yes. Of course, that’s a hard theme to pursue, because about the time that NASA was created and space science was transferred to NASA, there was a growing demand to make all research apply to the military. You probably are familiar with that. In that climate, I don’t believe the space program could have grown the way it did in NASA. We had to support some of the military’s activities in space science. We actually provided them with funding, and we certainly provided them with some of the space launches, for their science program. Their launches, like the Vela and the Discoverer launches, were always directed very specifically at ultimate military objectives.
In the early days, even before NASA was created, the National Academy of Sciences got into the act of thinking about space science, and NAS created its Space Science Board. That board was supposed to interact with NASA when it was created.
What was the relationship like between NASA and the Space Science Board at first? And how did the relationship change?
That board was created in June of 1958, and it grew out of a coalition of the IGY Technical Panel on Rocketry and the ICY Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program. It was assumed that it would be advisor to the government on space matters, and the assumption was that government meant the military, the National Science Foundation, and NASA. So initially the thought was all of these would provide financial support. It very quickly boiled down to advice mostly for NASA, and so, after not too long a time, NASA took over all the funding for the Space Science Board and provided the description of the tasks for the contracts. To begin with, the Space Science Board thought that it would call the shots on all the space science experiments to be done. But Dryden and Silverstein and I objected to that. We said that we couldn’t turn over decisions like that to an outside agency, since Congress had placed the responsibility directly on us, and we knew that Congress wouldn’t stand still for our turning it over to somebody else. So we didn’t. But we did say that we would look to the scientific community for our major advice in these areas. It would be our first line of advice. And the way the program was conducted, we made the space science program actually a creature of the scientific community, even though NASA undertook to assume responsibility for it. That seemed to work fine.
The Space Science Board initially invited a very close association. They invited Dryden and myself to be at all their meetings — even their executing meetings — and we invited them to send liaison representatives to all of the space science committees that we formed. The association was very close, until toward the end of the sixties, when the Academy began to get worried about conflict of interest and about the charge that the Academy was becoming too buddy-buddy with the people that the Academy was supposed to advise. Then they began to develop an arms-length attitude or psychology, and that gave rise to some rather testy discussions between Fletcher, who had taken over, and Phil Handler, president of the Academy. There was a period there where it looked as though NASA might sever its connection with the Space Science Board. But that never came about. And the problems that might have developed never did develop. But it was rough going for a while.
What resolved those problems?
Well, I think that the fact that NASA showed its willingness to just say “Forget it” made the Academy do just the best possible job it could for that immediate period. Of course, that’s just my estimate of what probably happened. Nobody will ever find any documentation on that.
Right. How did you go about soliciting experiments from university scientists in 1958?
In 1958 we used the contacts that the Academy had, and we were glad to receive from the Academy the proposals that had been sent in to the Space Science Board, so that was our initial entree to the outside scientific community.
Did you have trouble then in getting people to do experiments?
No, largely because of the fields we started out with. People had already been engaged in ionospheric research, in cosmic ray research, in the measurement of atmospheric properties, and in solar physics. Those were the programs we began with. We just continued them, and so we already had a cadre of people involved in the program, and we just built on that and expanded it.
How about in the field of astronomy?
Well, the field of astronomy grew out of the solar physics work, and that’s another long story. The desire to place telescopes in orbit to improve on what could be done from the earth led to the advanced orbiting astronomical observatory program. But that was an extremely difficult project because it called for stabilization and pointing accuracies that had never been achieved before, and it called for the development of new sensors that had never been developed before. As a result, even though that was one of the early programs entered into, it took seven years to come to fruition, and the cost of it went way up. Nevertheless the astronomers wanted us to get into it. There was a bit of difficulty there in that I think many astronomers would rather have gone the route of small astronomy satellites to begin with instead of this big very difficult one. Their argument was that they could do research earlier, even though it wouldn’t be of the ultimate precision that they wanted, and the fact that NASA went the route of the big astronomy satellite to begin with in retrospect seems to have been the wrong route to go. It would have been better to start more gently, as we did with the solar observatories and then get to the more precise ones later.
Do you know why the decision was made to go for the big satellites first?
One would have to study that carefully in detail to see exactly why it came out that way, but I think people at the beginning of the decade thought that they could do it without too much trouble. And the fact that it got into so many difficulties is something you learned after it happened.
I remember reading of you going to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society and talking to them about the possibilities of space research for astronomy. I also remember you writing in the manuscript of your book, that the AAS members as a whole were not terribly interested in doing space research. Was that true and if so why do you think astronomers were not especially interested at first in getting involved in space research?
I think you have similar stories here between the astronomers and the life scientists. That was the period, you recall, when ground based astronomy was doing some amazing things. That was the period when people were beginning to detect the existence of infrared sources, and quasars, quasi stellar (radio) sources, and things like the Seyfert galaxies. There’s no question that the ground based astronomer had a full agenda. So why should he get involved in something that was going to take a lot of money away from ground based telescopes that he could use and take a lot of time and unusually difficult circumstances for carrying out research? I think that was another one of the arguments for the small satellites. If we took the small satellites, we could just quickly follow up on the discoveries made by the ground based method and use them as a complement to the ground based method rather than as a competitor. So, that’s the story for the astronomers. The story was the same for the life scientists, except it was to an even more intense degree. Here, in the life sciences every major problem was being tackled in the laboratory. You had the problems of RNA, information storage, the genetic code, the macro—molecules, biochemical problems and so on. It didn’t appear that the satellite or sounding rocket approach could help them in anyway. So they were not that much interested in following up the new line of attack. Only those who were interested in exobiology, the possibility of life elsewhere, say on Mars, seemed to have any real interest in pursuing the space approach. So those are similar stories.
How would you characterize the scientist who did research in space in the early days? Were there any particular personality traits that were common to them?
No. There was quite a spectrum. The scientist who did research in space, for the most part, was the scientist who had an important problem he’d been working on with other techniques, and he just found that the space technique gave him an additional handle on the problem. So some of them were senior scientists and quite established. Others were junior scientists who were brash and raring to go. And all the way in between those two.
Have you felt the need to publicize NASA and space science work for NASA?
That’s a difficult question, because we got turned off very quickly. For a while there we did feel it was important to publicize this work. But whenever we tried to do it, Congress would jump on us with both feet, because Congress would say, “What you’re trying to do is twist our arm through this route of publicity and make us give you more money than we might otherwise.” Whenever NASA tried even in all innocence to inform the people, as was called for in the Space Act, they ran into trouble. So we early gave that up. We just said, “OK, we’ll just pay attention to doing our research and forget about the rest.”
Did you feel that the fact that you were discouraged to publicize your achievements made it difficult to get other people involved in the space program?
So the people you wanted knew about it.
They knew about it, and our contacting them was not the kind of publicity that ever got back to the Congress, and so it wasn’t the kind that would disturb them.
I see. How did you feel about the manned space program in 1960 or so?
Jet assisted take off.
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Bureau of Aeronautics.
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA.
Something like - Office National d'Etudes et de Recherches Aerspatiales (ONERA).
Robert R. Gilruth, Director of the Space Task Force.
H. Guyford Stever, at MIT.