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3 9971 00211 4624 

NASA Langley Research Center 
From Sputnik to Apollo 

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The "picture of the century" was this first view of the earth from space. 
Lunar Orbiter I took the photo on 23 August 1966 on its 16th orbit just 
before it passed behind the moon. The photo also provided a spectacular 
dimensional view of the lunar surface. 

NASA SP-4308 


NASA Langley Research Center 
From Sputnik to Apollo 

James R. Hansen 

The. NASA History Series 


National Aeronautics and Space Administration 

Washington, DC 

NASA maintains an internal history program for two principal reasons: 
(1) Sponsorship of research in NASA-related history is one way in which 
NASA responds to the provision of the National Aeronautics and Space 
Act of 1958 that requires NASA to "provide for the widest practicable and 
appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the 
results thereof." (2) Thoughtful study of NASA history can help agency 
managers accomplish the missions assigned to the agency. Understanding 
NASA's past aids in understanding its present situation and illuminates 
possible future directions. The opinions and conclusions set forth in this 
book are those of the author; no official of the agency necessarily endorses 
those opinions or conclusions. 

On the cover: Langley's innovative Little Joe rocket streaks into space from its launchpad 
at Wallops Island, Virginia, on 4 October 1959, two years to the day after the historic first 
orbit of the Soviet Sputnik 1. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Hansen, James R. 

Spaceflight revolution : NASA Langley Research Center from 
Sputnik to Apollo / James R. Hansen. 

p. cm. -- (NASA history series) (NASA SP ; 4308) 
Includes bibliographical references and index. 
1. Langley Research Center History. 2. Astronautics United 
States History. I. Title. II. Series. III. Series: NASA SP ; 4308. 
TL521.312.H36 1995 

629.4'0973 dc20 94-24592 


For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of 
Documents, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, DC 20402-9328 


Illustrations -.. ^ . . , - ix 

Foreword xv 

Acknowledgments xvii 

Prologue xxv 

1. The Metamorphosis 1 

The Venerable Order of the NACA 3 

Glennan: Welcome to NASA 11 

Air versus Space 15 

The Public Eye 22 

2. The First NASA Inspection 27 

Following the NACA Way 33 

Project Mercury 37 

Big Joe, Little Joe 46 

3. Carrying Out the Task 51 

A Home at Langley 55 

The Tracking Range 63 

Shouldering the Burden 69 

The End of the Glamour Days 76 

4. Change and Continuity 81 

The Organization 85 

Thompson's Obscurantism 91 

The Sinking of Hydrodynamics and Aeronautics? .... 93 

Growth Within Personnel Ceilings 102 

The Shift Toward the Periphery 107 

Contracting Out 109 

The Brave New World of Projects 112 

Uncharted Territory 117 

5. The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 121 

The ABCs of MPD 121 

The Solar Wind Hits Home 122 

The MPD Branch . 126 

Spaceflight Revolution 

Out of the Tunnel ... 132 

Into the Cyanogen Fire 138 

The Barium Cloud Experiment 142 

The Search for Boundless Energy 147 

A Hot Field Cools Off 150 

6. The Odyssey of Project Echo 153 

The International Geophysical Year and the V-2 Panel . . . 156 

O'Sullivan's Design 159 

Extraterrestrial Relays 162 

Finessing the Proposal 164 

The "Sub-Satellite" 166 

Something the Whole World Could See 170 

Big Ideas Before Congress 175 

Assigning Responsibilities 177 

Shotput 179 

A Burst Balloon 185 

"Anything's Possible!" 187 

Reflections 189 

The Hegemony of Active Voice 193 

7. Learning Through Failure: The Early Rush of the Scout 

Rocket Program 197 

"Itchy" for Orbit 197 

Little Big Man 200 

Little Foul-Ups 205 

"3-2-1 Splash" 209 

Recertification 214 

An Unsung Hero 216 

Postscript 219 

8. Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous 

Concept 221 

Brown's Lunar Exploration Working Group 222 

Michael's Paper on a "Parking Orbit" 226 

The Rendezvous Committees 230 

Houbolt Launches His First Crusade 233 

The Feelings Against LOR 237 

The Early Skepticism of the STG 241 

Mounting Frustration 245 

President Kennedy's Commitment 248 

Houbolt 's First Letter to Seamans 249 

A Voice in the Wilderness 257 

The LOR Decision 260 

Postscript 267 



9. Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 269 

"As Inevitable as the Rising Sun" 271 

The First Space Station Task Force 274 

From the Inflatable Torus to the Rotating Hexagon .... 277 

Betwixt and Between 286 

Manned Orbital Research Laboratory 293 

Keeping the "R" Alive 301 

Understanding Why and Why Not 305 

Lost in Space? 307 

10. To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 311 

The "Moonball" Experiment 315 

Initiating Lunar Orbiter 319 

Project Management 321 

The Source Evaluation Board 326 

Nelson's Team 332 

The Boeing Team 334 

The "Concentrated" versus the "Distributed" Mission ... 336 

"The Picture of the Century" 344 

Mission More Than Accomplished 346 

Secrets of Success 350 

11. In the Service of Apollo 355 

Langley's "Undercover Operation" in Houston 357 

The Dynamics of Having an Impact 361 

Inside the Numbers 366 

The Simulators 369 

Rogallo's Flexible Wing 380 

The Apollo Fire Investigation Board 387 

12. The Cortright Synthesis 393 

The Stranger 394 

The Reorganization 401 

New Directions 413 

Critique from the Old Guard 418 

Epilogue ..,.., 427 

Abbreviations 441 

Notes ...... 447 

Index 519 

The Author 537 

The NASA History Series 539 



Earth as photographed by Lunar Orbiter /, 1966 ii 

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958 3 

Map of Tidewater Virginia, 1930s 5 

Floyd L. Thompson 6 

Langley Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference, 1934 6 

NACA Main Committee, 1929 8 

Henry J. E. Reid, Vannevar Bush, and George W. Lewis 9 

George W. Lewis and Hugh L. Dryden 11 

T. Keith Glennan, 1958 13 

T. Keith Glennan and Henry J. E. Reid, 1959 14 

NACA test pilot Paul King, 1925 16 

Variable-Density Wind Tunnel, 1922 18 

Bell P-59 Peashooter in Full-Scale Tunnel, 1944 18 

Swallow arrow- wing model in 16- Foot Transonic Tunnel, 1959 ... 21 

X-15 model in 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, 1958 21 

Aerial photo of Langley, 1950 25 

Mercury exhibit at NASA's First Anniversary Inspection, 1959 ... 29 

Ira H. Abbott and Henry Reid, 1959 29 

T. Keith Glennan and Floyd L. Thompson, 1959 29 

Walter Bonney and T. Keith Glennan, 1959 31 

Full-size mock-up of the X-15, 1959 32 

John Stack and Axel Mattson 35 

Goddard's exhibit at NASA's First Anniversary Inspection, 

1959 36 

Robert R. Gilruth ...... 38 

Diagram of Mercury mission concept 39 

The Mercury astronauts 40 

Molded couches for Mercury capsule 44 

Diagram of Mercury capsule 44 

John Glenn inside Mercury capsule 45 

John Glenn and Annie Castor Glenn, 1959 46 

Little Joe capsules constructed in Langley shops 48 

Little Joe on the launchpad at Wallops Island 48 

Little Joe blasting off from Wallops Island, 1959 49 

Little Joe capsule recovered at sea 49 

Model of Mercury capsule in Full-Scale Tunnel, 1959 61 

Model of Mercury capsule in 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, 

1959 . 61 


Space/light Revolution 

Model of Redstone booster in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 

1959 62 

Impact studies of Mercury capsule in the Back River, 1960 62 

George Barry Graves, Jr 67 

Layout of Project Mercury tracking site 68 

John A. "Shorty" Powers, 1962 78 

Walter M. Schirra, 1962 78 

Robert R. Gilruth and the mayor of Newport News, 1962 79 

John Glenn and his wife, Annie, 1962 79 

Floyd L. Thompson, 1963 83 

Floyd L. Thompson, James E. Webb, and John F. Victory 84 

Langley organization chart, 1962 87 

Clinton E. Brown, Eugene C. Draley, and Laurence K. 

Loftin, Jr 88 

Langley's top staff members greet Raymond Bisplinghoff 90 

Aerial view of the Full-Scale Tunnel and Tank No. 1, 1959 95 

X-20 Dyna-Soar model in Tank No. 2, 1961 96 

Aeronautics and Space Work as Percentages of Langley's Total Effort, 

1957-1965, table 97 

John Stack, 1959 99 

Scale model of the General Dynamics F-lll A 100 

Model of SCAT 15F in Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel 101 

Number of Paid Employees at NASA Langley, 1952-1966, 

graph 103 

Paid Employees at NASA Langley as Percentage of NASA Total, 

1958-1968, graph 103 

Kitty O'Brien- Joyner, 1964 105 

Langley's women scientists, 1959 105 

Langley's computer complex, 1959 Ill 

Scale model of WS-110A in 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel .... 117 

Schematic drawings of the Van Allen radiation belts 124 

John V. Becker, 1961 128 

The Continuous-Flow Hypersonic Tunnel 128 

Macon C. Ellis, 1962 129 

Paul W. Huber and Marc Feix 131 

Philip Brockman and the MPD-arc plasma accelerator, 1964 .... 134 

George P. Wood, 1962 136 

The accelerator section of the 20-megawatt plasma accelerator 

facility 136 

Charlie Diggs and an early version of a Hall-current plasma 

accelerator 137 

Langley's Hall-current plasma accelerator, 1965 137 

Robert V. Hess, 1962 139 

Langley's cyanogen burner 141 

Concept for a Mars landing vehicle 151 


Failed deployment of Echo test 155 

William J. O'Sullivan and his family, 1961 157 

30-inch Sub-Satellite 168 

Heat test of 30-inch Sub-Satellite 168 

Jesse Mitchell, 1958 171 

Folded Beacon satellite 174 

William J. O'Sullivan and the Beacon satellite 174 

William J. O'Sullivan, 1958 175 

Walter Bressette and prototype of the satelloon 175 

Echo /container 181 

Inflation of Echo I in Weeksville, N.C 182 

Edwin Kilgore and Norman Crabill 183 

The Echo I team and inflated Echo I 183 

Will Taub and James Miller assembling Shotput launch vehicle . . . 184 

Shotput ready for launch 184 

Explorer 24 192 

Pageos satelloon 193 

Scout on launchpad, Wallops Island 201 

James R. Hall, 1961 203 

LTV Scout team, 1967 204 

Spectators at Wallops Island rocket launch 206 

The first Scout launch, 1 July 1960 207 

Scout launch control building, Wallops 208 

Scout control room, Wallops 208 

Eugene D. Schult, 1963 211 

Scout launch, 30 June 1961 212 

Scout launch, 1 March 1962 213 

Launchpad damaged by Scout, 20 July 1963 213 

Vought Astronautics technicians assemble Scout 214 

San Marco launch operation 218 

San Marco's floating platform 218 

Committees Reviewing Lunar Landing Modes, table 225 

Clinton E. Brown, William H. Michael, Jr., and Arthur Vogeley, 

1989 ~. 227 

John D. Bird, 1962 . . ' 229 

Sketch "To the Moon with C-l's or Bust" 229 

Houbolt's Early Crusades, table 234 

Houbolt's Later Crusades, table 240 

Early version of a lunar excursion module 243 

John C. Houbolt, 1962 244 

John C. Houbolt explaining lunar-orbit rendezvous scheme 247 

Viewgraph comparing the propulsion steps of the three lunar mission 

modes 254 

Comparative sizes of manned mission rockets 256 

Comparison of lander sizes 256 


Space/light Revolution 

George M. Low 259 

Wernher von Braun at Langley 264 

Life magazine cover featuring the lunar excursion module 266 

Rejected Life cover of John C. Houbolt 266 

75-foot-diameter rotating hexagon 273 

Paul R. Hill and Robert Osborne, 1962 275 

Rene Berglund, 1962 278 

Early space station configurations 278 

Inflation of the full-scale model of the inflatable torus 279 

Floyd L. Thompson, James Webb, and T. Melvin Butler with the 

24-foot inflatable torus 279 

24-foot inflatable torus 280 

10- foot-diameter scale model of torus 282 

Zero gravity mock-up of the 24-foot-diameter torus 282 

Drawing of winning rotating hexagonal configuration 284 

Model of rotating hexagon assembled and collapsed 284 

Douglas MORL baseline configuration 296 

Cross section of interior of Douglas MORL 296 

MORL illustration from Douglas manual 298 

Test of space station portal air lock 299 

William N. Gardner explains model of the MORL 300 

MORL-Saturn IB model in 8-Foot Transonic Tunnel 302 

Otto Trout, 1966 303 

Integrative Life Support System arrives at Langley 304 

Integrative Life Support System in Building 1250 304 

William N. Gardner, 1966 308 

Lunar Orbiter above the lunar surface 314 

Associate Director Charles J. Donlan 317 

Structural dynamics testing for lunar landing 318 

Lunar Orbiter III photo of Kepler crater 318 

Israel Taback and Clifford H. Nelson, 1964 323 

Eastman Kodak dual-imaging camera system 329 

Lee R. Scherer 330 

Signing of the Lunar Orbiter contract, 1964 331 

Clifford H. Nelson and James S. Martin 333 

Floyd L. Thompson and George Mueller, 1966 337 

The Lunar Orbiter area of interest 337 

Typical flight sequence of Lunar Orbiter 340 

Lunar Orbiter with labeled components 343 

Final inspection of Lunar Orbiter I 343 

Lunar Orbiter I liftoff 344 

Lunar Orbiter team displays first photo of the earth from deep 

space 345 

The dark side of the moon 347 

The lunar surface, Copernicus crater 348 



The lunar surface, Tycho crater 349 

The "Whole Earth" as photographed by Lunar Orbiter V 352 

Floyd L. Thompson and James E. Webb, 1961 358 

Axel Mattson, Robert R. Gilruth, Charles Donlan, 

and Donald Hewes 361 

Impact tests of the Apollo capsule 364 

Project Fire wind-tunnel test 367 

Number of Langley Research Projects Directly Related to Apollo 

Program, 1962-1968, table 368 

The Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator 372 

Time-lapse sequence of a docking on the Rendezvous Simulator . . . 372 

A pilot eyeballing a rendezvous on the simulator 372 

Donald Hewes and William Hewitt Phillips 374 

Langley Lunar Landing Research Facility 375 

Early LEM used with the Lunar Landing Research Facility 376 

LEM control cab, the Lunar Landing Research Facility 376 

LEM "in flight" using the Lunar Landing Research Facility 376 

Time-lapse sequence of an LEM landing using the simulator .... 377 

Modeled floor of the Lunar Landing Research Facility 377 

Walter Cronkite using the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator . . . 378 

Lunar Orbit and Letdown Approach Simulator 380 

Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, 1963 382 

Test flight of the Parasev 382 

Parasev in Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel 386 

Floyd L. Thompson and Thomas O. Paine, 1968 388 

Gus Grissom in the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, 1963 . . . 390 
Roger Chaffee using the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator, 

1965 390 

Neil Armstrong and the staff of the Lunar Landing Research Facility, 

1967 392 

Cortright appointment announced in the Langley Researcher .... 396 

Langley old guard welcomes Cortright, 1968 398 

Edgar M. Cortright, 1970 399 

Cortright speaks in the Morale Activities building 399 

Organization of Langley, 1970, chart 405 

Viking Lander model in Langley wind tunnel, 1970 406 

View of Mars from Viking Orbiter 1, 1976 407 

The Viking Lander 2 on the Martian surface, 1976 407 

John E. Duberg, George M. Low, and Edgar M. Cortright, 

1970 409 

Organization changes announced in the Langley Researcher, 1970 . . 410 

Model of the Boeing 737 in the Anechoic Antenna Test Facility ... 416 

Richard H. Petersen in the National Transonic Facility, 1984 .... 417 

The National Transonic Facility 417 



James R. Hansen has impeccable credentials as a thorough, perceptive 
investigator and writer of technological history. His accomplishments in the 
field are outstanding, as exemplified by his book Engineer in Charge, which 
was published in 1987. This book presents a careful analysis of the history 
of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory 
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) from its formation in 1917 to the demise 
of the NACA in October 1958 when this prestigious organization became 
the centerpiece of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration 
(NASA). Whereas the NACA was concerned primarily with aeronautical 
research conducted by government employees in its own laboratories, NASA 
would have a much broader charter that included not only aeronautical and 
space research but also the development and operation of various types of 
space vehicles, including manned vehicles. Within this new organization, 
the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory became the Langley Research Center 
of NASA. 

As a part of NASA, Langley underwent many profound changes in 
program content, organization and management, and areas of personnel 
expertise. Although aeronautical research continued in the NASA era, 
research in support of such projects as Echo, Scout, Mercury, Apollo, and 
the Space Shuttle occupied a larger percentage of the Langley research effort 
as the years passed. In addition, Langley forged into new fields by assuming 
management responsibility for such large space projects as Lunar Orbiter 
and Viking. This responsibility involved major contract activities and 
support of in-house research. New research facilities, such as large vacuum 
tanks and high-speed and high-temperature air jets capable of simulating 
atmospheric entry from space, were developed and constructed. 

Although many new personnel were eventually hired, large numbers of 
the existing Langley complement easily made the transition to space-related 
research and thus showed that a proficient research professional could shift 
without too much difficulty into new fields of technical endeavor. For ex- 
ample, in orbital mechanics and space rendezvous, individuals who had 
previously worked in such diverse disciplines as theoretical aerodynamics, 
high-speed propellers, and aeroelasticity quickly became expert and as- 
sumed roles of national leadership. A well-known case is found in the ac- 
tivities of Dr. John C. Houbolt, an expert in aeroelasticity and dynamic 
loads, who became a leading proponent according to Hansen, perhaps 
the key proponent of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous as the preferred means of 


Space/light Revolution 

accomplishing the Apollo lunar landing mission. This technique, of course, 
turned out to be incredibly successful. 

A very unsettling aspect of the transition of Langley in the 1958-1975 
period was the replacement of the director, longtime Langley engineer Floyd 
L. Thompson, with Edgar M. Cortright. Cortright came from NASA 
headquarters and had had prior research experience at the NACA Lewis 
Flight Propulsion Laboratory (later designated as the NASA Lewis Research 
Center). In the Cortright regime, along with many significant changes 
in center organization and management, there came a closer, and many 
thought an undesirable, control of Langley programs by a centralized NASA 

James Hansen's new book, Space/light Revolution, covers the turbulent 
seventeen-year period from 1958-1975 in great and interesting detail. With 
his usual thoroughness, Hansen has based this book on careful analysis 
of hundreds of written records, both published and unpublished, as well 
as on numerous personal interviews with many of the key individuals 
involved in the great transition at Langley. One Langley activity that 
was intentionally omitted from this study is aeronautical research which, 
as the author mentions, will hopefully be covered in a separate book. 
Space/light Revolution is a very complete and well-researched exposition and 
interpretation of a period of great change at the Langley Research Center. 
The main events and trends are clearly and succinctly presented. Although 
many who worked for Langley during the period covered may not agree 
entirely with some of Hansen's interpretations and conclusions, sufficient 
information is given in the text, references, and notes to permit the reader 
to evaluate the work. In any event, anyone who ever worked for Langley or 
NAC A/NASA or who has any interest in the history of technology will find 
the book fascinating and thought provoking. In addition, anyone interested 
in the present and the future of NASA and the American space program will 
want to pay close attention to the insights found in his epilogue. Readers 
will see that Jim Hansen has again demonstrated his great abilities as a 
historian, and he deserves a well-earned "Thank you" for creating what will 
no doubt prove to be an enduring classic. 

November 1994 Laurence K. Loftin, Jr. 

Director for Aeronautics (Retired) 
NASA Langley Research Center 



In writing this book, I am indebted not only to the many talented and 
caring people who have helped my project in one way or another in the past 
seven years but also to a seminal event of my adolescence that has fed my 
adult interest and colored my historical perspective on what I now see to 
have been "the spaceflight revolution" of the late 1950s and 1960s. 

People all over the world have their personal stories to tell about what 
they were doing and thinking when they first spotted a mysterious object 
in the night sky. For many, these stories involve Sputnik because it was 
the first man-made object to be observed. But for those, like myself, who 
were too young to be stargazing in 1957, the stories often involve the Echo 
balloon, NASA's first communications satellite. Stories about both objects 
may indeed relate to Sputnik because it was our hysterical reaction to the 
Soviet satellite that tempered our feelings about objects in space for some 
time to come. 

For me, the memory of my first satellite sighting is still vivid. One 
sultry evening in mid- August 1960 while I was serving as the batboy for my 
brother's Little League team in Fort Wayne, Indiana, something unusual and 
a little unnerving took place. About halfway through the game, I noticed 
that fans in the bleachers were no longer watching the game, but instead 
were standing, looking at the sky, and pointing at something. When our 
team was in the field and my batboy duties were temporarily over, I found 
my mother in the crowd and asked her what the fuss was all about. She 
said she had heard someone in the crowd call it "Echo." She reassured me 
that it was nothing to be afraid of, as it "belonged to us." 

But who exactly was "us," I wondered? To an eight-year-old in 1960, "us" 
meant human beings or "earthlings" ; "them" meant "aliens." I was glad to 
hear from my mother that the bright little light that I now, too, spotted 
moving so slowly yet perceptibly in the heavens did not mean "they" were 
coming to get me, but I was still concerned. Even at eight, I was informed 
enough about what was going on in the world to know that "us" and "them" 
also meant something else almost as sinister as earthlings versus aliens. "Us" 
meant "Americans" and "them" meant "Russians," and somehow I knew 
that it was better for us to have put something up into the sky for the world 
to look at than it was for them to have done it. Whether I knew that they 
in fact had already done it some three years earlier, I really cannot say. I do 
remember being so entranced by the man-made star that I had to be told 
more than once by the coach of our Little League team to "get my head in 
the game" and go out and pick up the baseball bats. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

The next night, as soon as it started getting dark, my entire family 
headed to the backyard to look for Echo, only to find that parents all over our 
neighborhood were leading their children to hunt for the artificial star. This 
time my feelings about the bright dot of light moving so clearly across the sky 
were more positive. We were moving out into space. Like the morning paper 
had said, Echo was "the visible symbol of American creativity for all the 
world to see." In the next several weeks, a number of library books about 
space would come home from school with me. For me, too, a spaceflight 
revolution had begun. 

As I grew up, so did the American space program. As a second-grader, 
near the end of the school year that followed the summer of Echo 1, I sat 
on the wooden floor of a gymnasium with all the other kids in my school 
and watched shadowy black-and-white television pictures of the suborbital 
flight of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard. Gus Grissom's suborbital flight 
came next; I watched it at home while on vacation that July. Then 
came John Glenn's historic orbital flight in February 1962 and a return to 
TV-watching from telescopic distance on the school gym floor. 

After that, my memory of NASA's space missions is cloudy and does 
not sharpen again until December 1968, when with the crew of Apollo 8, 
my family and I spent Christmas Eve circling the lunar sphere, seeing awe- 
inspiring pictures of the moon's surface, and listening to the astronauts 
conclude their TV broadcast with "Merry Christmas and God bless all of 
you all of you on the good earth." I also clearly remember July 1969, 
when the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle landed on the Sea of Tranquility 
and Neil Armstrong took that first "small step but one giant leap" onto 
another heavenly body. 

These wondrous events of the space age made a big impression on me, 
as they did in one way or another on nearly every human being alive at 
the time. But no space event ever surpassed that first sighting of the Echo 
balloon, glittering like a diamond over the baseball field. 

For a while, mostly on warm summer evenings, I continued to look for 
Echo and for other objects moving mysteriously through the sky. But 
gradually, I lost almost all interest in space. A child of the Age of Aquarius 
and the Vietnam War, I wondered, like so many others did at that time why, 
if we could put a man on the moon, we couldn't do so many other things. 
Only much later would I begin to look up again, seeking Echo, perhaps 
trying to find lost innocence and youth. Little did I know in 1960 that 
30 years later I would reexperience the orbits of Echo and write a detailed 
history of the satelloon's genesis, as I have in chapter 6 of this book. 

Whatever the object of fixation, be it Sputnik or Echo, stories like mine 
represent an illuminating cultural expression of the young space age. It was 
with our stirring personal experiences of these moving little lights in the 
night sky that the spaceflight revolution began. As one young Canadian girl 
wrote to NASA in 1968 in a poem entitled "To a Falling Star," on the eve 



of Echo fs falling back to its destruction into the atmosphere, "Thanks for 
making me look up." 

Many times, in thanking all the people who have helped in the research 
and writing of a book, an author waits until the end of the acknowledgments 
to thank his own family for their love and support. But in this case, I want 
to thank my family first. My wife, Peggy, and my two children, Nathaniel 
and Jennifer, have been last too many times in the seven years it took me 
to research and write this book to be last once again. I was away from 
them and at NASA Langley in Virginia for most of every summer from 1987 
to 1993 writing this book. This means we all sacrificed and missed each 
other a lot. Summertime experiences my wife enjoyed with the children at 
our home in Alabama, she enjoyed alone. I only heard about them in our 
many long-distance telephone calls. When my children are grown-up and 
gone from home, I am sure I will regret what I missed with them even more 

I would also like to thank Charles and Robert Stanton. I spent my 
summers from 1987 to 1993 in their respective homes in Hampton, Virginia, 
and I enjoyed those times (especially the golf games) tremendously. I am 
sure that Charlie and Bob heard much more about NASA history than they 
ever cared to, but they never let on. My friendships with Sharon Buchanon 
and Rick Thompson while at Bob Stanton's also kept me from being too 
lonely, as they were a regular part of my Hampton "family." Dr. Fereidoun 
"Feri" Farassat, a remarkable person and accomplished acoustical scientist 
at NASA Langley, was also a valued companion. I have learned a great 
deal from him about science and technology, but what I most cherish is his 

Steve Corneliussen, a talented writer from Poquoson, Virginia, who 
edited my book Engineer in Charge and who then became one of my closest 
friends, has contributed immensely to my perspective on aerospace history 
and life in general. Over the years Steve has given me constant, generous 
encouragement and good advice. I regret that he was so busy with his work 
at the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) in Newport 
News, Virginia, that he could not serve once again as my book editor. 

But how lucky I was to have Kathy Rawson, of Williamsburg, Virginia, 
edit this manuscript. Kathy has done many wonderful things for this book, 
turning an overly long and in some essential ways ailing manuscript into a 
much healthier one. Her consummate professionalism and her friendly words 
of encouragement inspired me to keep working for our book's improvement. 
In particular, Kathy prodded me in her gentle way to rewrite what was 
originally a weak epilogue. 

As Kathy has told me, many other people associated with the Research 
Publishing and Printing Branch at NASA Langley came together as a team 


Spaceflight Revolution 

to see this book to its completion. In particular, I wish to thank Lynn 
Heimerl, who supervised the entire project, and Mary McCaskill, the branch 
head, whose strong support for NASA Langley's major investment in the 
production of this book is sincerely appreciated. Others involved at RPPB 
that I would like to thank individually include Nancy Sheheen, who oversaw 
the editing and typesetting process; Linda Carlton, who formatted and 
typed the majority of the book; Peggy Overbey, who took over the typing 
for the homestretch; and Sybil Watson and Mary Edwards, who diligently 
proofread every page. 

I also want to thank the staff of the Floyd L. Thompson Technical 
Library at NASA Langley for their strong support of my project, notably 
H. Garland Gouger, Jr., Jane Hess (retired), Sue Miller, Sue Seward 
(retired), Susan A. Motley, and George Roncaglia. Also, the Photographies 
Section at Langley, under Alton T. Moore, performed yeoman's service for 
this book by providing excellent prints of its many photographs. I am 
particularly indebted to Frederick D. Jones not only for doing much of the 
photo lab work but also for giving me access to a number of pictures from 
the early days of Project Mercury, many of which he took on his own time 
with his own camera. 

Without the generous support and personal interest of Richard T. 
Layman of the Facilities Program Development Office, who has been in 
charge of the history program at NASA Langley since the late 1970s, this 
sequel to Engineer in Charge surely would not have been written. Dick has 
been constantly available to help me access historical materials and to solve 
problems associated with my work in the Langley Historical Archives. Dick 
himself started work at Langley in the early 1960s, and his insights into the 
center's history proved very helpful. 

A. Gary Price and J. Campbell Martin of Langley's Office of External 
Affairs have also provided tremendous support over many years for my work 
as the Langley historian, as have Richard H. Petersen and Paul F. Holloway, 
the Langley center directors during the years I prepared this book. I came 
to know "Pete" Petersen particularly well and wish to express special thanks 
to him for his genuine interest in what history books such as mine can offer 
to NASA management and the public at large. 

And then there are the "NACA Nuts," the dozens of men and women 
whom I first got to know while researching Engineer in Charge and came 
to know even better while investigating their metamorphosis into "NASA 
Wizards." I wish I could mention all of them by name but must focus on 
the few whom I have come to know the best: John V. Becker, William 
Boyer, Clinton E. Brown, Norman Crabill, Charles J. Donlan, John E. 
Duberg, Macon C. "Mike" Ellis, Robert R. Gilruth, Richard Heldenfels, 
Jane Hess, Robert Hess, John C. Houbolt, Vera Huckel, Kitty O'Brien- 
Joyner, Abraham Leiss, Axel T. Mattson, William A. Michael, Mark R. 
Nichols, W. Hewitt Phillips, Edward C. Polhamus, John P. "Jack" Reeder, 
Joseph A. Shortal (deceased), William Sleeman, Israel Taback, Helen Willey, 



Herbert A. "Hack" Wilson (deceased), Richard T. Whitcomb, and Charles H. 
Zimmerman. To those with whom I talked about Langley's history but have 
failed to name, please accept my apologies and sincere thanks. Getting to 
know all of you was the best thing about writing this book. 

I need to single out Edgar M. Cortright, another Langley director (1969- 
1975) and a major player in the history examined at the end of this book, 
and thank him for the long and comprehensive interviews. Dr. Cortright 
withheld very little from my tape recorder, and for that I sincerely thank 
him. I hope he feels that I have treated his time and his achievements at 
Langley fairly. 

Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., the author of this book's foreword, also deserves 
a special acknowledgment. Over the course of my 14 years as Langley's 
official (and unofficial) historian, Larry has spent hundreds of hours with me, 
talking about the history of airplanes, NACA research, and the transition 
from the NACA to NASA. Much of my perspective about all these things 
has been shaped in my conversations with Larry. I owe him a huge debt of 
gratitude, not only because he has saved me from some major technical and 
historical blunders but also because he and his wife, Agnes, came to treat 
me over the years almost like a son. Much of my appreciation for what it 
means to be an engineer comes from the time I spent with Larry. 

I cannot fail to mention the help and encouragement given to me freely 
by my colleagues in the Department of History at Auburn University, a 
department for which I have been serving as chairman since my election 
in 1993. A faculty workshop in 1991 took a very critical look at an early 
draft of my first chapter, thus resulting in a major revision. My colleague, 
William F. Trimble, who is one of this nation's preeminent historians of 
naval aviation (and who stays abreast of the history of space exploration), 
offered a valuable critique of chapter 8 on the genesis of the lunar-orbit 
rendezvous concept. Major Roy F. Houchin (USAF), one of my doctoral 
students at Auburn, read a few of the chapters and offered some critical 
insights. Others in my department whom I have bothered regularly with 
reports on my work include Guy Beckwith, Lindy Biggs, Anthony Carey, 
J. Wayne Flynt, Larry Gerber, W. David Lewis, and Steve McFarland. I 
thank them for being splendid colleagues and good listeners. 

Two people at Auburn University that I wish to thank for finding 
the means and the tolerance to support me in the carrying out of my 
research projects are Gordon Bond, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and 
Paul F. Parks, University Provost. Before becoming my Dean, Gordon Bond 
was my department head in history, a job whose difficulties I appreciate 
now more than ever, since taking on departmental administration myself. 
Also, without the assistance of an unbelievably hardworking and talented 
administrative assistant, Jane Dunkelberger, I am afraid the job of the 
department chairman might have eaten me alive. Jane did an especially 
good job keeping people away from me in the hectic weeks when I just had 
to work on this book to meet its deadlines. 


Space/light Revolution 

Other scholars outside of Auburn University also offered critical eval- 
uations of all or part of my manuscript. In particular, I wish to thank 
Virginia P. Dawson of Case Western Reserve University and Michael Corn, 
former chief historian of the Air Force Systems Command and current histo- 
rian of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for providing very careful 
and constructive reviews of the entire manuscript. Also, Richard K. Smith, 
one of the venerable sages in the study of American aviation history, gave 
the first three chapters a stern critical reading. 

Finally, I have been fortunate beyond any reasonable expectations to have 
had the enthusiastic support of Roger Launius, chief historian for NASA. 
Roger allowed this book project a high degree of independence. Apparently, 
he trusted that I could produce, and he had faith that the people at NASA 
Langley had the ability and judgment to take my book from start to finish 
without too much management from Washington. I hope the result is a 
book that he will be proud to say was published in the prestigious NASA 
History Series. 

Finally, I thank you, the reader, for picking up such a big book and giving 
it more than a passing glance. For you, I have given it my best. 

December 1994 James R. Hansen 

Auburn, Alabama 


In science as in life, it is well known that a chain of 
events can have a point of crisis that could magnify 
small changes. 

James Gleick, 

Chaos: The Birth of a New Science 

Times go by turns, and chances change by course, 
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse. 

Robert Southwell 
"Times Go By Turns" 



Historians should start from the premise that what happened did not 
have to happen. They can then do a better job of explaining why it did. 

Too often we think about history as something that had to happen 
just the way that it did. We think about the past as inevitable and 
predetermined. For example, we think about the American Civil War as 
an irreconcilable conflict that had to occur given the depth of the regional 
differences between the North and the South or as a war that the North, 
given its greater population and industrial might, was bound to win when, 
perhaps, neither necessarily had to be the case. The war might have been 
avoided, or the Southern states might have won their independence, if certain 
things about the flow of history had been different, perhaps only slightly 

In 1991 a controversy developed concerning the death of the twelfth 
president of the United States, Zachary Taylor, who died in 1850 from a 
mysterious intestinal ailment, conceivably a type of cholera. Given the 
symptoms of his illness, some believed that Taylor might in fact have 
died from arsenic poisoning; maybe a Southerner, angry at Taylor for his 
opposition to the expansion of slavery, found a way to murder him. Based 
on this theory, in 1991 a coroner and a forensic anthropologist obtained legal 
approval to exhume Taylor's body from his tomb in Louisville, Kentucky, 
and conducted an autopsy to try to find traces of arsenic in bits of hair, 
fingernail, bone, and tissue. As it turned out, they found nothing to 
substantiate the theory that Taylor was murdered. 

While this investigation was going on, columnist George Will wrote a 
thoughtful essay about the whole affair, in which he suggested that the 
country might have followed a different path if Zachary Taylor had lived: 
the Civil War might have been avoided. 1 Even more likely, had he lived, 
Taylor might have provoked the secessionist movement and brought on the 
bloodshed 10 years sooner. The South would have faced a North deprived of 
a decade's worth of growth in industrialism and immigration and would not 
have confronted a new political party, which found a nation-saving leader in 
a former Illinois congressman named Lincoln. This Civil War of the 1850s 
the South might have won. 

A more fanciful variation on this what-if theme, again involving the 
Civil War, can be found in Ward Moore's classic novella of 1955, Bring 
the Jubilee. 2 One of the great stories of time travel, this fascinating little 
book is based on the idea that the South won the Civil War because of a 
single turn of events at the Battle of Gettysburg. Moore's story is rooted in 


Space/light Revolution 

a historical event in which a Confederate patrol fails to arrive at a certain 
place at a given time, a failure that enabled the Northern forces to occupy 
a strategic place on the battlefield atop Little Roundtop. In Moore's book, 
however, the Confederate patrol does secure this strategic position, and 
the South goes on to win the war. Moore draws a stunning counterfactual 
portrait of post- Civil War America. The reader encounters a prosperous 
and progressive South, which has all the great universities, and a backward 
and poverty-stricken North. 

I have taken the time to mention Ward Moore's fantasy and the specula- 
tion surrounding Zachary Taylor's death simply to introduce the underlying 
theme of the epic story of space exploration that follows: the past was no 
more inevitable than is our future. Contrary to what we might have been 
taught in school, or to what we might in fact still be teaching, history is not 
a straight highway. To study history is not simply to take a pencil and play 
dot-to-dot. Rather, it is to thread a maze, to follow a course of what are 
potentially limitless directions, including "all sorts of twists and turns and 
fresh choices of route confronting each new generation." As George Will 
pointed out in his column on Zachary Taylor, history whether it is the 
history of the American Civil War or the history of our own individual 
lives is "a rich weave of many threads." Any one of these threads, if pulled 
out, could cause a radical unraveling, "setting the past in motion as a foam- 
ing sea of exhilarating contingencies." In other words, history could have 
been different: "Choices and chance cannot be scrubbed from the human 
story. The river of history could have cut a different canyon." 3 That is the 
theme I wish to explore in relation to the history of one of the premier in- 
stitutions in the American space program, NASA Langley Research Center 
in Hampton, Virginia. 

In the keynote address of a conference on the history of space exploration 
held at Yale University in 1981, New York Times reporter and prominent 
American space journalist John Noble Wilford asked a provocative what- 
if question: what if the United States had launched the first satellite in 
1957 instead of the Soviets? The United States could have done it. We 
had German scientists and engineers who had more technical expertise than 
those "recruited" by the Soviets. As Wilford explains, "Wernher von Braun 
had the rocket [a modified Redstone designated the Jupiter C] and could 
have done it about a year before Sputnik, but was under orders from the 
Eisenhower administration not to the first American satellite was supposed 
to be a civilian operation, and von Braun was working for the army at 
the time." 4 To guarantee that the president's orders were followed, army 
inspectors kept a careful watch on the prelaunch activities of von Braun and 
his men at Cape Canaveral; they suspected that the Alabama-based rocket 
team might just "accidentally" launch a satellite using what was supposed 
to be a dummy upper stage of the Jupiter C to boost a nose cone into orbit. 5 

In terms of technical capability alone, the United States could have 
beaten the Russians into space with a satellite. Explaining why our country 



did not and why the Eisenhower administration did not have the ambition 
to do so is difficult without reconstructing some complex histories. As 
Walter A. McDougall argues in his Pulitzer Prize- winning book of 1985, The 
Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, the explanation 
hinges on Eisenhower's philosophy of government, especially his fear of the 
growing influence of what he would come to call "the military-industrial 
complex." More specifically, it involves his administration's recognition of 
the need for satellite reconnaissance of the closed and secretive Communist 
world, but at the same time, the administration's concern that a hot (and 
expensive) new battle in the cold war would erupt if an American satellite 
with military associations flew over the airspace of the Soviet Union. To 
avoid such an eruption, Eisenhower's political strategists suggested that it 
would be best to let the Soviets set the legal precedent by orbiting the first 
satellite; then, when an American satellite followed, the Soviets would not 
have solid grounds for protesting any American overflight. 6 

With these issues and others in mind, President Eisenhower made his 
fateful decision to support the more peaceful-appearing but technically 
inferior Vanguard satellite project rather than the project involving the 
Army Ballistic Missile Agency's (ABM A) Jupiter rocket. Jupiter, of course, 
would ultimately boost the first U.S. satellite, Explorer, into space on 31 
January 1958, nearly two months after the Vanguard-carrying Viking rocket 
exploded in flames on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (the press dubbed 
it "Flopnik," "Kaputnik," and "Stayputnik" ) and nearly three months after 
the Russians successfully orbited their canine-carrying Sputnik 2. 7 

If Eisenhower could have known how traumatic and revolutionary the 
launching of the first satellite would prove to be and what a challenge it 
would pose to his presidency and his political party, he might have decided 
differently. The von Braun team might have been turned loose sooner, and 
the beep-beep-beeping that radio operators heard around the world in early 
October 1957 might have come from a small American satellite rather than 
a Russian one. 

What if the Americans had launched a satellite first? According to 
Wilford, "An American first would not have startled the world as much as 
Sputnik did, for American technological leadership was taken for granted. 
The impact of Sputnik, when it followed, would have been much less, 
another case of the Russians catching up, as with the atomic and hydrogen 
bombs." 8 And if that had been the case, if Americans had not found 
Sputnik so challenging, what kind of space program would U.S. leaders have 
formulated? Surely, that program would have differed from the ideologically 
motivated and in key respects shortsighted one that was mobilized in such 
a hurry to win the space race. If Sputnik had not provoked a major 
international crisis, much about the history of the world in the last four 
decades of the twentieth century would have been significantly different. 

Consider America without a Sputnik crisis. Without the snowball- 
ing political repercussions that were so damaging to the Republicans, 


Space/light Revolution 

Richard M. Nixon, Eisenhower's vice-president, possibly would have de- 
feated Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in the 
whisker-close 1960 presidential election. A reversal in that election alone, 
which turned on a few thousand questionable votes in Illinois, would have 
produced such an unraveling of contemporary American history that only a 
Ward Moore could do it justice. 9 

The character of the country's inaugural ventures into space would have 
been vastly different. Without the media riot, without the panic incited 
by cold war misapprehensions about the Soviet satellite, without the feeling 
that the Russians had gotten a jump on us, and without the resulting clamor 
for our government to do something dramatic right now to close the gap, 
the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NAG A), which dated 
to World War I and was the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and 
Space Administration (NASA), would have surely lived on. 10 Most likely 
this agency would have proceeded calmly with plans to expand its space- 
related research, and NASA would not have been established, at least not 
when it was. The United States would still have entered into space, but the 
country would not have rushed into it. 

Instead of plunging into the ocean in a ballistic capsule, the first 
American astronauts might have flown back from space on the wings of 
a hypersonic glider similar to those NACA researchers had been working on 
since the mid-1950s. If the United States had not lacked a booster rocket 
powerful enough to lift so heavy a weight out of the atmosphere, the first 
spaceflight might have happened like that anyway, even with the Sputnik 
crisis. The original seven astronauts (the ones with "the right stuff") or more 
likely, specially trained NACA or military test pilots would have traveled 
to space and back in a laudable space plane akin to a small space shuttle. 
Given the time needed to develop the requisite booster and considering the 
extensive development and careful flight testing that such a radically new, 
winged reentry vehicle inevitably would have undergone, the hypersonic 
glider probably would not have been launched into space until the late 1960s, 
but it surely would have proved much more capable and versatile than the 
Mercury capsules. 11 

Moreover, instead of sending men to the moon by the end of the decade 
as President Kennedy had wanted, an NACA-led program under President 
Nixon likely would have focused on the construction of a small, staffed 
space station that could have been serviced by the shuttle-like vehicle. 
Such was the target project for space exploration at the NACA research 
laboratories before Sputnik, and it remained so until President Kennedy's 
lunar commitment in May 1961. 12 

Whatever we think about the might-have-beens and paths-not-taken, the 
undeniable fact is that Sputnik changed the course of history. Sputnik was 
one of those revolutionary, megahistorical events that interrupted the flow of 
things, altered the would-have-beens, and made a lot of very unlikely events 
happen. No one has expressed the irony of the randomness and illogic in the 



historical process better than the longshoreman-philosopher and quasi-cult 
figure of the 1950s and 1960s, Eric Hoffer. "What were the terrible 1960s 
and where did they come from?" asked Hoffer after the end of the decade. 
"To begin with, the 1960s did not start in 1960. They started in 1957. . . . 
The Russians placed a medicine-ball-sized satellite in orbit. . . . We reacted 
hysterically." 1 If we had not, or if we had put that "ball" in orbit first, 
everything would have been different. For the past was no more inevitable 
than is our future. 

After Sputnik, the American space program would contend with other 
critical turning points and other what-ifs: What if President Kennedy had 
not committed the country to the manned lunar landing or at least not to 
accomplishing it so quickly? What if NASA had not chosen lunar-orbit 
rendezvous as the mission mode for Apollo and had instead gone with 
direct ascent or earth-orbit rendezvous, as most engineers at NASA Marshall 
Space Center had wanted? What if the national supersonic transport (SST) 
program had not been cancelled by Congress in 1971? (The U.S. Senate 
killed the program by only one vote.) Would the United States be flying 
a competitor to the Concorde? Would the resulting airplane have been a 
disastrous failure, thus putting Boeing and most of its customers out of 
business? What if the Nixon administration in 1972 had not decided to go 
ahead with a scaled-back version of the space shuttle but instead had wanted 
to develop a space station? What if President Reagan had not endorsed the 
space station in 1984? What if the temperature at Cape Canaveral on the 
morning of 28 January 1986 had been only a few degrees warmer? These 
are just some of the what-if questions we might ask about NASA and the 
American space program. 14 

The study of history, at least the history of NASA, reveals something 
about the past that should not be surprising, but is: historical development 
is neither linear nor logical. In practice, talking about the next logical step, 
something that NASA planners have been talking about nonstop ever since 
NASA came to life, does not ensure that step will be the next one taken. 
After launching a man into space via Project Mercury, NASA said that the 
next logical step was to establish a permanent manned presence in low earth 
orbit, but instead the country landed men on the moon. After going to the 
moon via Project Apollo, the next logical step was to build an earth-orbiting 
space station along with a space shuttle to service it, but instead the Nixon 
administration decided that the country could not afford both and could 
manage temporarily with just the shuttle, even though the space station 
had always been the shuttle's main reason for existing. After the shuttle, 
surely the next logical step was to build a space station, but once again the 
country has found reasons to postpone building one. 

Clearly, logic does not determine our history. Historical logic, if we even 
want to use that phrase, is not the logic of scientists and mathematicians; 
it is the logic of Through the Looking- Glass. In that all-too-real fantasy 
land, Tweedledee explains logic to Alice: "Contrariwise, if it was so, it 


Spaceflight Revolution 

might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's 
logic." 15 Tweedledee's logic is the only kind the American space program 
has ever known, or probably ever will. 

In this book, I explore the impact of that logic on the research and de- 
velopment activities conducted at Langley Research Center in the 12 years 
after Sputnik. As the book's title suggests, this impact was revolutionary. I 
gave much thought to the word revolutionary before using it. In the history 
of science, since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn's seminal study The 
Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, no historian, in fact no scholar, 
has been safe in the use of the term revolution without reference to the essen- 
tial Kuhnian concepts and terminology: "paradigm," "anomaly," "normal 
science," "Gestalt switch," "paradigm shift," and the "incommensurability 
of paradigms," to name just a few. 16 All these terms, along with the word 
revolution itself, which Kuhn defines as "those noncumulative developmen- 
tal episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by 
an incompatible one," have thus been loaded down with meaning, nuance, 
argument, controversy, and their own long academic histories. 17 

But the reader can relax. Nowhere else in the text or notes of this 
book will I make direct reference to Thomas Kuhn or his sociological 
anatomy of revolution. I do not omit Kuhn because of any disdain for his 
insights; I just do not feel that any explicit application of Kuhn's analysis 
of scientific revolutions will do much to inform my chosen topic relevant 
to NASA Langley history. Whether Kuhn's notions have worked implicitly 
to influence my understanding of the spaceflight revolution at the research 
center, I leave to the reader to judge. 18 

Most scholars are familiar with Kuhn and his concept of revolution; far 
fewer are familiar with the particular concept of the spaceflight revolution for 
which Kuhnian sociologist William Sims Bainbridge is responsible. Despite 
my using Bainbridge's terminology and even sympathizing with parts of his 
concept, I wish to distance myself and this book on NASA Langley from it, 
even farther than I have from Kuhn. 

In 1976 Bainbridge, a professor in the sociology department at the 
University of Washington, published a fascinating if eccentric analysis of 
the enthusiasms of the space age, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological 
Analysis.* According to its thesis, the space age came to life "despite the 
world's indifference and without compelling economic, military, or scientific 

Even Bainbridge worried that the word revolution might be too strong. In the introduc- 
tion to his book he defends its use, saying that "the scale and the manner of the achieve- 
ment" in space "demand powerful language." According to his estimates, "approximately 
$100,000,000,000 has been spent on space technology; the exact figure is debatable, but the 
order of magnitude is not." Moreover, Bainbridge continued, "I use the word revolution as 
a scientifically descriptive term [as Kuhn did], not a metaphor. The development of space- 
flight could be a revolution in two ways: its consequences and its causes." ( The Spaceflight 
Revolution: A Sociological Analysis [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976], p. 1.) 



reasons for its accomplishment." It was not the "public will," declared 
Bainbridge, but "private fanaticism" that drove us to the moon. "When 
Neil Armstrong called his 'small step' down on to the lunar surface a 'great 
leap for mankind', he spoke as the partisan member of a revolutionary social 
movement, eager to convert the unbelieving to his faith." 19 

Bainbridge's book essentially advances a conspiracy theory. The majority 
of people did not want spaceflight; only a few did. And those few romantic 
idealists, that extremely small but dedicated and well-organized network 
of men (very few women were at first involved, according to Bainbridge), 
coaxed, tricked, lobbied, and coerced the greatest technological nations 
into building mammoth programs to launch them into space. Bainbridge 
then analyzes the historical and social character of the conspirators: the 
pioneers and visionaries of spaceflight (the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, 
the German Hermann Oberth, and the American Robert Goddard, among 
others); the enthusiastic members of the early space and rocket clubs (such 
as the German Society for Space Travel, the British Interplanetary Society, 
and the American Interplanetary Society); Wernher von Braun's rocket team 
in league with the Nazis at Peenemiinde; the agenda of the Committee for 
the Future, that "mystical, almost religious organization," which came to 
life in the United States in 1970, less than one year after the first manned 
lunar landing; and finally, the science-fiction subculture, which he calls the 
"breeding ground of deviant movements," and the Star Trek and Search for 
Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) groupies of the present day. 20 

The book is a brilliant and troubling tour de force from a sociologist of 
some estimable abilities. I assign it perennially to my graduate students 
in aerospace history and not just to get a rise from them, which it always 
does particularly from the students specializing in military air power who 
usually think that Bainbridge is simply silly or crazy. Bainbridge's version of 
the spaceflight revolution is worth investigating, if only because it explores 
the question of why something that did not have to happen, happened. In 
the introduction to his book, Bainbridge writes, as I have written in this 
prologue, that the spaceflight revolution "was a revolution that need not 
have happened." 21 

In my version of the spaceflight revolution, however, the revolutionaries 
are not conspirators from rocket enthusiast organizations and science-fiction 
clubs, nor are they romantic idealists aspiring to some quasi-religious, 
superhuman, or millenarian experience in outer space. And they are hardly 
members of a deviant social movement. Rather, my revolutionaries are 
government engineers and bureaucrats, who are members of an established 
research organization dating back to 1915, the venerable NACA. These 
revolutionaries, because of the hysteria over the launch of Sputnik 1 in 
October 1957, metamorphosed along with their organization into creatures 
of the space age. 

My spaceflight revolution is an unlikely story perhaps as unlikely as 
Bainbridge's. But this one happened. 


The Metamorphosis 

It was the worm, if you will, going into the cocoon 
and coming out a butterfly. 

-Walter Bonney, NACA/NASA 
public relations officer 

The first week of October 1958 was a busy time for the newspapers 
of Tidewater Virginia. Top stories included the explosive failure of an 
Atlas missile at Cape Canaveral, an atomic blast in Nevada that sent news 
and test personnel scurrying for cover from radiation fallout, the question 
of Red China's membership in the United Nations, and a United Auto 
Workers strike against the Ford Motor Company. Receiving the biggest 
headlines in the local papers, however, were stories concerning the path of 
Hurricane Helene up the Atlantic coast and the furor over the court-ordered 
integration of public schools, which was taking place as far away as Little 
Rock, Arkansas, and as nearby as Richmond and Norfolk. Not even making 
the front page of the Newport News Daily Press on the cool, overcast morning 
of Wednesday, 1 October 1958, was the news that the National Advisory 
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had died the night before at midnight, 
only to be reborn at 12:01 a.m. as the National Aeronautics and Space 
Administration. Just a few hours earlier, on Tuesday, 7000 people had left 
work as NACA employees, but when they reported to their same jobs in the 
same buildings the next morning, they became members of NASA.* 

A few NACA veterans might have felt a twinge of doubt as they drove 
past the new NASA sign at the gates of Langley Research Center, but most 
NACA personnel were not at all nervous or wary about the changeover. 
Plans for an easy transition had been in the works for at least eight months, 

Although foreigners tended to pronounce it as a two-syllable word, "Nacka," within the United 
States the organization was always known by its four individual letters, "the N-A-C-A." Veterans of the 
NACA assumed that the same would be true for NASA. Into the 1990s, NACA veterans could usually 
be identified by the way they treated the NASA acronym as individual letters. 

Spaceflight Revolution 

since President Dwight D. Eisenhower's panel of scientific advisers had 
recommended that a new civilian space agency be organized around the 
NACA. 1 Almost everything about working at Langley Field, or at any 
of the other former NACA facilities around the country, was supposed to 
remain the same. Employees had been reassured for several weeks by NACA 
headquarters and by Langley management that they were to come to work 
as always and do the same things they had been doing. Their jobs already 
had much to do with the nation's quickly accelerating efforts to catch up 
with the Soviet Union and launch America into space. As NASA personnel, 
they were simply to keep up the good work. 

After watching from a distance the hysteria provoked by the Soviet 
satellites and the political jousting and bureaucratic haggling that followed, 
Langley employees were relieved to see President Eisenhower resist the 
pressures applied by the military, particularly the air force, to militarize the 
infant American space program. 2 Ike, the former five-star army general and 
leader of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, had risen above these 
pressures and put civilians in charge, entrusting the NACA with the space 
program. A small overhead agency that was both focused and accustomed 
to squeezing a dollar, the NACA appealed to a genuine balanced-budget 
man like Eisenhower. 

The creation of the NACA had been quite different from that of NASA. 
Although a group of prominent Smithsonian and Washington aviation 
enthusiasts had conceived the idea of an organization devoted to the support 
of aeronautical development as early as 1910, the actual founding of this 
new federal agency proved difficult, especially since aviation had not yet 
demonstrated its efficacy in World War I combat. In fact, establishment of 
the NACA might not have been approved if a friendly group of congressmen, 
fearing that President Woodrow Wilson's policy of neutrality was preventing 
the United States from properly preparing for its inevitable role in the war, 
had not devised a successful last-minute maneuver. In a classic example of 
American political sleight-of-hand, they attached the NACA enabling act as 
a rider to a naval appropriations bill that was sure to pass, and the NACA 
came into being on 3 March 1915. 3 

For an important new government body to be established in such a 
manner was really quite extraordinary. But certainly no one in 1915 or for 
several years thereafter, perhaps not even many early NACA employees, 
considered the NACA very important. Now, 43 years later, President 
Eisenhower was making it the heart of the new American space program 
for which everyone was clamoring. Because of the heated public debate 
over national space policy, NASA could not have been founded in the 
relatively invisible way that the NACA had been established. Unlike the 
old agency, NASA was going to be exposed to direct congressional, media, 
and, consequently, public scrutiny from the start. 

Probably no NACA employees arriving at work on .NASA's first day 
anticipated the impact that this new life in a goldfish bowl eventually would 

The Metamorphosis 

Although his administration gave 
birth to NASA, President Dwight 
D. Eisenhower did not believe that 
the United States should rush into 
a "crash" federal program to beat 
the Soviets into space. Instead, 
he hoped for a more judicious 
and less hysterical approach to 
space exploration, one that would 
not require massive infusions of 
public funds but would still en- 
able the United States to remain 
a leader, if not the leader, in 
space. His Democratic successors, 
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. 
Johnson, would commit the coun- 
try to an all-out race. 


have on their work and workplace. Change is difficult to perceive and 
evaluate while it is happening, let alone when it occurs in the middle of 
a week. Charles J. Donlan, veteran Langley researcher and soon-to-be- 
named associate director of NASA's Space Task Group, later reminisced 
about the innocence of his thoughts on the day the NACA became NASA: 
"It was like passing from December 31 to January 1 without going to a 
party. You didn't know the difference except that it was the New Year 
and you had to start signing your checks for one year later. "^ Indeed, a 
new era had begun, and although this was not apparent on the uneventful 
morning of 1 October 1958, Langley Research Center was now exposed to 
the complex forces and extreme circumstances that were rapidly reshaping 
U.S. aeronautical research and blasting the center pell-mell into space. 

The Venerable Order of the NACA 

The basic duty of the NACA, as expressed in its charter, was "to 
supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with 

Space/light Revolution 

a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which 
should be experimentally attacked, and to discuss their solution and their 
application to practical questions." But the original charter of 1915 did 
not assure the funds for the large, diversified, and increasingly expensive 
research establishment that the NACA eventually became. It stated only 
that "in the event of a laboratory or laboratories, either in whole or in part, 
being placed under the direction of the committee, the committee may direct 
and conduct research and experiment in aeronautics." 5 

That mandate was general enough to allow widely differing interpreta- 
tions, and not everyone responsible for the NACA in its formative years 
agreed on what the mandate meant or, rather, what it should mean. Some 
felt that the NACA should remain small and continue to serve, as it had 
throughout World War I, merely as an advisory body devoted to scientific 
research. Others argued that the NACA should grow larger and combine 
basic research with engineering and technology development. This second 
group wanted the NACA to attack the most pressing problems obstruct- 
ing the immediate progress of American aviation; the group did not want 
the agency to spend all of its time on ivory-tower theoretical problems that 
would not result in many quick, practical payoffs. To be so effective, the 
NACA needed to have its own laboratory facilities and conduct its own 
programs of research. 

The NACA moved slowly but surely along the second course, and 
building a laboratory became its first order of business. Construction 
of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, the NACA's original 
field station, began approximately 100 miles southeast of Washington, 
on an isolated peninsula of Tidewater Virginia in 1917. Named after 
Dr. Samuel P. Langley (1835-1906), an eminent American scientist whose 
pioneering experiments with powered flight at the turn of the century had 
been a mixture of success and failure, Langley served as the NACA's only 
research center for the next 20 years. 6 Some flight research was conducted 
there in late 1919 and early 1920, but the laboratory did not really begin 
routine operations until after the completion of its first wind tunnel in the 
summer of 1920. 

By the mid- 1920s, engineers, not scientists, were put in charge at Langley. 
The head of the laboratory would in fact be called the "engineer in charge." 
The choice of engineers over scientists reinforced the NACA's decision to 
become an agency concerned with the practical, not the purely theoretical. 
Engineers would always support the NACA's charter. On Langley engineer 
Floyd L. Thompson's desk sat a framed quotation of the essence of the 
charter: "The scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their 
practical solution." The quote stayed on Thompson's desk until he retired 
from NASA as the director of Langley Research Center in 1968. 

In the years following its founding, the NACA expanded far beyond the 
advisory role defined in its charter. The NACA served as a national clear- 
inghouse for scientific and technical information by establishing uniform 

The Metamorphosis 


Langley map of the Tidewater Virginia area from the late 1930s. 

Spaceflight Revolution 


Floyd L. "Tommy" Thompson was Langley Research Center's associate direc- 
tor in 1958, its "number two" man under longtime and soon-to-retire Director 
Henry J. E. Reid. The number two man in those days also acted as the chief 
of research. 


Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees 
at Langley 's 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference. Conference guests assembled 
underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. 

The Metamorphosis 

aeronautical terminology; publishing reports; and collecting, compiling, and 
disseminating basic information in the various fields pertinent to aeronau- 
tics. It also contracted out research projects to universities. From 1926 on, 
it held annual meetings known as the NACA Aircraft Manufacturers' Con- 
ferences, which brought in experts from around the United States to talk 
about aviation technology and what the NACA should be doing to stimulate 
further progress. 7 It built up staffs to conduct research in aerodynamics, 
hydrodynamics, structures, and propulsion. Solutions to problems in these 
areas led to the design and operation of safer, faster, higher flying, and 
generally more versatile and dependable aircraft. With these aircraft, the 
United States became a world power in commercial and military aviation, 
and Allied victory in World War II was assured. 

To help meet the demand for advanced airplane work during World War 
II, the NACA created four new national facilities and seeded them with 
staff from Langley. They were the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, 
built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1941 (later renamed the Lewis Flight Propul- 
sion Laboratory and later still the Lewis Research Center); the Ames Aero- 
nautical Laboratory, created at Moffett Field, California, also in 1941 (later 
renamed Ames Research Center); the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station, 
built on barren Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore in 1944 (later 
renamed Wallops Station); and the High-Speed Flight Station, established 
at Muroc Field (subsequently, Edwards Air Force Base [AFB]), California, 
in 1946 (later renamed Dryden Flight Research Center). At the last facility 
in the high California desert, a special unit of engineers from Langley su- 
pervised the flight trials of the first supersonic airplanes, the Bell X-l and 
the Douglas D-558. Considering the many technological firsts and other 
achievements arising from this array of unique facilities, it is clear why many 
experts believe the NACA did at least as much for aeronautical progress as 
any organization in the world. 8 

Indeed, the NACA's track record was not bad for a committee, or 
rather, for a pyramid of committees the NACA consisted of more than 
one. Foremost was the NACA's Main Committee, an unpaid body that met 
twice a year in Washington to identify and discuss the key research prob- 
lems that the agency should tackle. Until World Wax II, it comprised 12 
members and from then on 15. Members represented the War and Navy 
departments (normally two from each), the Smithsonian Institution, the 
U.S. Weather Bureau, and the National Bureau of Standards, as well as se- 
lect universities, industries, and airlines. The list of 120 men who served on 
the NACA Main Committee ("The NACA") from 1915 to 1958 is a "Who's 
Who" of American aeronautics: Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Gen. Henry "Hap" 
Arnold, Dr. Vannevar Bush, Harry F. Guggenheim, Dr. William F. Durand, 
Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker, Charles A. Lindbergh, Adm. William A. Moffett, 
Capt. Edward V. "Eddie" Rickenbacker, Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, Gen. 
Hoyt Vandenberg, and Orville Wright, to name a few. The president of 
the United States appointed all members, and in turn the Main Committee 

Space/light Revolution 


An 18 April 1929 meeting of the NACA Main Committee. Around this ta- 
ble sat some of the most outstanding authorities on the science, technology, and 
military uses of flight. Left to right: John F. Victory, NACA secretary; Dr. 
William F. Durand, professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engi- 
neering, Stanford University; Dr. Orville Wright; Dr. George K. Burgess, di- 
rector, Bureau of Standards; Brig. Gen. William E. Gilmore, U.S. Army; Maj. 
Gen. James E. Fechet, Chief of Air Service, USA; NACA Chairman Dr. Joseph 
S. Ames, professor of physics and president of Johns Hopkins University; NACA 
Vice- Chairman Dr. David W. Taylor, former Chief Naval Constructor, U.S. 
Navy; Capt. Emory S. Land, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics; Rear Adm. William 
A. Moffett, Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics; Dr. Samuel W. Stratton, former di- 
rector, Bureau of Standards; Dr. George W. Lewis, NACA director of research; 
Dr. Charles F. Marvin, Chief, Weather Bureau. 

reported directly to him via an annual written report. The eighth and last 
chairman of the Main Committee was Dr. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, the 
former racing pilot, air war hero, retired air force general, and Ph.D. in 
physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On 30 Septem- 
ber 1958, the day before NASA took over, he sent the NACA's 44th and 
last annual report to President Eisenhower. 

The NACA was quite independent. Although the president appointed its 
members, he did so on advice from the standing NACA Main Committee, 
advice that Eisenhower and his predecessors almost always took. This 
helped to take politics out of the selection process. Furthermore, the Main 
Committee chose its own chairman and director of research and, in the words 
of longtime NACA member (1922-1923, 1938-1958) and former chairman 


The Metamorphosis 


One of the outstanding men to chair the NACA was Vannevar Bush (center), the 
computer pioneer and head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development 
during World War II. Bush chaired the NACA from 1939 to 1941. On either side 
of Bush stand George W. Lewis, the NACA's longtime director of research (right) 
and Henry Reid, Langley's engineer-in- charge (left). 

(1941-1956) Jerome Hunsaker, "ran its show, within its budget, made its 
own statements to Congress for what it wanted to do and could do and 
was doing, and got [its] budgets without any interference from the executive 
branch of government." 5 

Organizationally, the old NACA committee system did not stop with 
the Main Committee. 10 Its members elected a smaller Executive Commit- 
tee of seven who served terms of one year and acted as the NACA's actual 
governing body. This Executive Committee also appointed several technical 
committees that provided expertise to the parent committees on such major 
subjects as aerodynamics, power plants for aircraft, and aircraft construc- 
tion. In turn, these committees (actually subcommittees) created sub(sub)- 
committees of their own to study and give advice in more specialized areas, 
such as aircraft fuels, aircraft instruments, and aircraft operating problems. 
The NACA also had special committees, usually ad hoc, that dealt with ex- 
traordinary problems such as the need, in 1938, to build new facilities to 


Spaceflight Revolution 

meet the threat of another world war. Twenty years later, in the middle of 
another international crisis, the NAG A had a special committee working to 
explore the ramifications of Sputnik and to help formulate a space policy 
for the NACA. 

The committee system did not work perfectly, but in its unique way it 
did work. Prominent people in the American aviation enterprise became 
familiar with NACA capabilities and NACA results; concurrently, the 
NACA benefited from the insight of many talented and experienced men 
(no women ever served on any of the NACA committees). Further, the 
connections and the prestige of committee members helped the NACA 
to win friends and secure appropriations from Congress. Over the years, 
outsiders such as the Brookings Institution, self-styled experts in government 
organization, and several officers in the Bureau of the Budget had viewed 
the committee system of advise and consent as a messy way to structure and 
manage a federal agency. But NACA insiders did not. Nothing about the 
committee system meddled seriously in any unwelcome fashion with work 
in the laboratories. The actual management of the research operation was 
left to the civil servants who worked full-time for the NACA. Within the 
laboratory itself, management was left to the engineer-in-charge.* 

At the Washington level, the management of research was left to the 
NACA's director of research. Only two men held this post during the 
NACA's 43-year history. Dr. George W. Lewis (honorary doctorate from 
Swarthmore, his alma mater) held the post from the time it was established 
in 1919 until his retirement in 1947. Dr. Hugh Dryden (one of the youngest 
Ph.D.'s ever to come out of Johns Hopkins University, in 1919, at age 21) 
served from 1947 to 1958. These two men, of very different backgrounds, 
demeanors, and talents, guided the NACA through the rapid technological 
evolution and sudden revolutions that in less than half a century had taken 
aeronautics on a turbulent whirlwind from the era of wooden biplanes, 
ponderous airships, and subsonic flight into the age of jets, supersonics, 
and rockets at the edge of spaceflight. 11 

Most critics agreed that the NACA had served the general cause of 
American aeronautics well for more than 40 years. But now in the wake 
of Sputnik, they felt the time had come for a major reorganization and the 
injection of new blood. By early 1958, a growing number of American leaders 
joined in that opinion and were ready to tell the NACA thanks, slap it on 
the back, and bring its experiment in government organization to an end. 
A bold new initiative was required if the United States was to catch up to 
the Soviet Union. Space enthusiast Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman 
of the Senate's new Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, felt this 

In 1948 civil service requirements had forced the NACA to change the old title to director. No 
one liked the change, certainly not Langley's top man, Henry Reid, who had been engineer-in-charge 
for 22 years, since 1926. The old title had made it clear that an engineer, not a scientist, headed the 


The Metamorphosis 


The NA CA 's directors of Research, George W. Lewis (left) and his successor, Dr. 
Hugh L. Dry den (right). 

way, as did others. They claimed that the old NACA was too timid and too 
conservative about exploring the potential of space. Such critics, as well as 
some "young Turks" inside the NACA, felt that if the organization was to be 
reincarnated as NASA, then it should be revamped with new personnel and 
additional facilities and charged up by new leaders. 12 Out of this general 
sentiment for major change came the National Aeronautics and Space Act 
of 1958. The Space Act gave NASA an advisory board, but insiders knew 
it could not be the same as it was under the NACA. On NASA's first day, 
1 October 1958, the NACA committee system was essentially discarded. 

Glennan: Welcome to NASA 

At the head of NASA was Dr. T. Keith Glennan. When Eisenhower 
announced Glennan as his choice for the NASA administrator on 9 August 
1958, people at Langley and at other NACA centers asked, who was 
Glennan? They learned that he was the president of Case Institute of 
Technology in Cleveland. Then he must be a member of the NACA Main 
Committee? No, he was a former Hollywood movie mogul and a minor one 
at that, not in the class of a Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer. 

These answers, which circulated via the NACA grapevine late in the 
summer of 1958, appalled some NACA employees, did not make much sense 
to most, and made none of them very happy. In its 15 August edition, 
the Langley Air Scoop, the in-house newspaper, ran a picture of 53-year-old 


Space/light Revolution 

Glennan along with a complete biographical sketch provided by Case In- 
stitute of Technology. Reading this article, Langley employees found that 
Glennan indeed had been a manager for Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn 
studios during World War II, but that his overall career was marked by 
"achievements in business, education, and the administration of scientific 
research." 13 In recent years he had served on the Atomic Energy Commis- 
sion and on the board of the National Science Foundation, and he was sup- 
posed to have excellent connections in Washington. Considering the highly 
charged and politicized atmosphere now surrounding everything that had to 
do with rockets and space, something finally made sense about Glennan's se- 
lection. At ceremonies held in the White House on Tuesday, 19 August, Dr. 
Glennan raised his right hand, put his left on a Bible, and pledged the oath 
as NASA administrator. On the same Bible, close enough to touch the 
ends of his fingers, was the left hand of faithful Methodist lay minister Dr. 
Hugh Dryden, the NACA's director of research. Although many in Congress 
wanted Dryden out of the picture because they thought that his quiet, al- 
most mousy personality and conservative approach to launching America 
into space might tarnish the images of youthfulness, dynamism, and bold- 
ness they wanted for NASA, Glennan had insisted on making him his deputy 
administrator, and Dryden had accepted. 14 Glennan thought that this selec- 
tion would help provide continuity and make the metamorphosis into NASA, 
as well as his own administration, easier for NACA people to accept. Other 
NACA headquarters officers came to NASA with Dryden, including John F. 
Victory, the Main Committee's fastidious executive secretary and first em- 
ployee. (Victory had been working for the NACA since 1915.) Some viewed 
President Eisenhower's appointment of Jimmy Doolittle, the last NACA 
chairman, to his nine-member National Aeronautics and Space Council as 
another gesture toward the NACA old guard. For Eisenhower, however, 
the appointment of Doolittle was more than a gesture. Ike knew Doolittle, 
his former World War II air force commander in North Africa and Europe; 
trusted his judgment; and wanted his moderate, reasonable, and experienced 
voice on the newly formed space council. 

On the morning of 1 October 1958, not a single member of the Langley 
senior staff was likely to have remembered ever meeting Glennan. The new 
NASA administrator had not yet visited Langley or any other NACA facility, 
at least not as the NASA administrator. However, the former Hollywood 
executive had appeared at Langley via motion picture. On 22 September, 
the NACA public affairs officer in Washington, Walter Bonney, sent copies 
of a short 10-minute film, "Glennan Message to NACA Employees," for 
immediate showing at all NACA centers. 15 

At Langley, employees gathered in the East Area a few days later to watch 
the film in the air force base's air-conditioned theater, next to the old 19- 
Foot Pressure Tunnel, which dated to 1939. From its beginning, something 
about the film made many people in the audience uneasy. Perhaps they were 
disturbed by the Orwellian undertone of the presentation, a confident and 


The Metamorphosis 

Glennan introduces himself to the Langley staff via motion picture. 

soothing "Big Brother" message coming to the people electronically from 
the center of government. This message did not come from the NACA's 
staid old headquarters at 1512 H Street NW in Washington (referred to 
as the "Washington office"), but rather from Glennan's new deluxe office 
within the recently acquired suite of NASA administrative offices in the 
Dolly Madison House at nearby 1520 H Street NW. Word had circulated 
that Glennan had had his office suite decorated just like the one he had 
enjoyed as president of Case Institute of Technology. 

The movie opened with the NASA administrator leaning on the front of 
his desk. "I very much want to talk with you about our future," Glennan 
began. But before he described "the mighty big job" that lay ahead for 
NASA, he took time to praise the NACA. He explained that during his 11 
years at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, he had worked with many 
people at NACA Lewis. He was both "familiar with [the] NACA's traditions 
and accomplishments" and "impressed by the high state of morale and by 
the vigor" with which the NACA conducted its research. 16 Glennan failed 
to mention, however, what he would soon record in his personal diary, his 
opinion that the NACA staff was "composed of reasonably able people," 
lacking experience in the "management of large affairs." 17 According to 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Glennan's first live appearance at Langley in early January 1959. Here he is being 
welcomed by Henry Reid, the center director. 

one member of the Langley senior staff, Glennan "had so little knowledge 
of the organization" at the outset that he did not think its staff "had 
any competence." Upon seeing the huge vacuum spheres belonging to the 
Gas Dynamics Laboratory at Langley, Glennan allegedly remarked, "NASA 
doesn't have any capability to handle that kind of high pressure stuff. You're 
going to have to get some help from outside to do that, you know." 18 

Despite his true feelings, Glennan stressed in his message that "NASA 
must be like [the] NACA in the qualities of strength and character that 
make an organization great," but he also emphasized the arrival of "a new 
day" at Langley. To describe that new day, the NACA's changeover to 
NASA, Glennan quoted from what he called the "legalistic language" of the 
Space Act: "the NACA shall cease to exist" and "all functions, powers, 
duties, and obligations and all real and personal property, personnel (other 
than members of the Committee), funds, and records" of the NACA were 
to be transferred to NASA. But, he explained, he preferred to think of it 
differently: "I would like to say, and I believe that I am being very realistic 
and very accurate when I do, that what will happen September 30 is a sign 


The Metamorphosis 

of metamorphosis. [It is] an indication of the changes that will occur as we 
develop our capacity to handle the bigger job that is ahead." 19 

The bigger job was outlined in the Space Act, which he encouraged all 
NACA employees to take the time to read, at least its first few pages. 
The job included the "expansion of human knowledge about space . . . 
development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments and 
man through space . . . long-range studies of the benefits of using aeronautical 
and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes . . . preservation of 
the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science 
and technology." Glennan also outlined the metamorphosis. The NACA's 
vital function, research into the problems of atmospheric flight, would now 
become "only one part of NASA's activities." To accomplish the goals 
set out in the Space Act, NASA would have to add "new and extremely 
able people" to its staff; administer "substantial programs of research and 
development and procurement with others on a contract basis"; spend 
"large amounts of money outside the agency by contracts with scientific 
and educational institutions and with industry" ; use military facilities "such 
as the launching pads at Cape Canaveral"; and operate satellite-tracking 
stations around the world. All this and more had to be done and quickly 
in preparation for a manned flight into space and exploration into the Solar 
System. 20 

Finally, Glennan tried to end his message on a high note by quoting 
from a speech that Lyndon Johnson made in August during the Senate 
confirmation hearings of the top two NASA officials: 

There are no blueprints or roadmaps which clearly mark out the course. The limits 
of our job are no less than the limits of the universe. And those are limits which 
can be stated but are virtually impossible to describe. In a sense, the course of the 
new Agency can be compared to the voyage of Columbus to the New World. The 
only difference is that Columbus with his charts drawn entirely from imagination had 
a better idea of his destination than we can possibly have when we step into outer 

Most NACA employees filing out of the base theater felt positive and excited 
about what they had heard, but a few cynics might have wondered out loud 
about that last reference to Columbus: "Wasn't he headed for China? And 
didn't he believe to his dying day that he had landed in Asia?" Hopefully, 
NASA had a better idea of its destination and would know where it was 
when it got there. 

Air versus Space 

NACA explorers, unlike Columbus, had a good idea of where they were 
going. They were going into the air faster, farther, higher, and more 
efficiently in a modern engineering marvel that their systematic research into 


Spaceflight Revolution 

In this 1925 photo, NACA pi- 
lot Paul King, donned in a fur- 
lined leather flight suit with oxy- 
gen facepiece, is ready to test a 
Vought VE-7. 


aeronautics over the last 43 years had helped to make possible. Aeronautics 
and the NACA had grown up together; the business of the NACA for its 
entire existence had been to see that American aeronautics continued to 
progress. For NACA veterans who took Glennan's advice and read the 
Space Act of 1958, the time when the airways had been ruled by frail 
wooden biplanes covered with fabric, braced by wires, powered by heavy 
water-cooled engines, and driven by hand-carved wooden propellers did 
not seem so long ago. When 20-year-old Floyd Thompson served as a 
mechanic in Pensacola with the U.S. Navy's first torpedo squadron in 1918, 
the navy's fastest aircraft, an R6L biplane amphibian, had a top speed of 
110 knots and a fuel system with a windmill on the outside to pump fuel 
up to an overhead gravity tank. When flight research operations began at 
NACA Langley a year later, NACA researchers hardly knew the principles 
of aeronautical engineering. Airplane design was still a largely intuitive and 
empirical practice, thus requiring bold speculation and risk taking. In 1920 
the Langley staff copied the design of an existing wind tunnel at the British 


The Metamorphosis 

National Physical Laboratory to fashion their Wind Tunnel No. 1 because 
no one at the NACA knew how to design a wind tunnel. 22 

In the decades that followed, the NACA designed more wind tunnels 
than staff members could count (many of them unique facilities) and 
authored more reports on aeronautical technology than any other single 
institution in the world. 23 With the aerodynamic information that these 
tunnels and technical reports provided, American universities educated 
most of the country's aeronautical engineers, and U.S. industry became 
the world leader in the manufacture of aircraft. By NASA's first day, 
the NACA had helped to advance aeronautics far beyond the primitive 
state of flight at the end of World War I. Commercial jet airliners were 
beginning to fly passengers comfortably around the world in pressurized 
cabins. Sleek military jets streaked across the skies at speeds in excess of 
Mach 1, greater than the speed of sound. In fact, two McDonnell F-101A 
supersonic jet fighters were being made ready in the hangar for further flight 
testing. (The F-101A was nicknamed "Voodoo" but known to enthusiasts 
as the "One-O- Wonder.") Langley acoustics specialists Domenic Maglieri, 
Harvey Hubbard, and Donald Lansing were taking ground measurements 
of the shock- wave noise produced by one of the F- 101 As in level flight at 
speeds up to Mach 1.4 and altitudes up to 45,000 feet. A team of engineers 
and technicians supervised by Langley Assistant Director Hartley "Buster" 
Soule, the NACA Research Airplane Project (RAP) leader, was evaluating 
several control systems for the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, a gigantic 
high-altitude, delta-winged bomber of some 550,000 pounds to be built of 
titanium and stainless steel and capable of flying to Mach 3. 24 

As the federal agency responsible for the progress of the nation's aviation 
technology, the NACA had enough to do without getting involved in what 
the public considered "Buck Rogers stuff."* During the first four decades 
of Langley's operation, the idea of working to promote the immediate 
achievement of spaceflight had been too ridiculous. for consideration. Into 
the 1940s, NACA researchers were not certain that rockets and missiles were 
a part of aeronautics. Langley veteran Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.' (the "C" 
stood for "Columbus"), who later became famous as "The Voice of Project 
Mercury" and the director of NASA's manned spaceflight operations at 
Mission Control in Houston, remembers that before the late 1950s "space" 
was a dirty word: "[It] wasn't even allowed in the NACA library. The 
prevailing NACA attitude was that if it was anything that had to do with 
space that didn't have anything to do with airplanes, [then] why were we 

Younger readers may need to know that Buck Rogers was a science-fantasy comic strip created by 
Dick Calkins around 1930; the comic strip remained popular until it was terminated in the 1960s. In the 
1950s, it also became a popular television "space opera." As such, "Buck Rogers" significantly influenced 
American popular culture's attitudes about rocketry and space travel. (In the late 1970s, another TV 
show, "Buck Rogers in the 21st Century," went on the air; however, the updated character did not bring 
on a similar craze.) 


Space/light Revolution 


In this photo taken on 15 March 1922, NACA researchers conduct tests on airfoils 
in the Variable- Density Tunnel, a revolutionary new test chamber that permitted, for 
the first time anywhere in the world, aerodynamic testing at approximately full-scale 


Drag-cleanup testing of America's first jet airplane, the Bell P-59, is conducted in 
the Full- Scale Tunnel, May 1944- 


The Metamorphosis 

working on it?" 25 One Langley veteran, Ira H. Abbott, recalled that the 
NACA stood "as much chance of injecting itself into space activities in any 
real way as an icicle had in a rocket combustion chamber." In the early 
1950s, Abbott had mentioned the possibility of manned spaceflight to a 
House subcommittee, and one of the congressmen scornfully accused him of 
talking "science fiction." 26 

Nevertheless, by the early 1950s, the NACA had become seriously in- 
volved in the study of rockets, missiles, and the potential of spacefiight; 
all of these topics related to aeronautics. Anything that concerned the 
science and technology of flight, whether it be in the atmosphere or be- 
yond, eventually became an interest of the NACA. In the months fol- 
lowing Sputnik, NACA leaders tried to capitalize on the agency's re- 
search into spaceflight to justify a central role in whatever space program 
came into existence. Acting prudently on behalf of their institution, the 
NACA Langley management and most staff members did everything possi- 
ble to convince everyone concerned, including the new NASA administrator, 
T. Keith Glennan, that the old NACA laboratory could do and already was 
doing a great deal more than playing with airplanes. 

For example, in January 1958, only four months after the launching 
of Sputnik 1, a special Langley committee, surveying current and pending 
projects, documented the NACA's transition to space research. Chairing the 
committee was Langley Assistant Director Robert R. Gilruth, the future 
head of Project Mercury, America's first manned space program. Also 
serving on this committee were Eugene Draley, head of the laboratory's Full- 
Scale Research Division (and soon to succeed Robert R. Gilruth as assistant 
director for the Dynamic Loads, Pilotless Aircraft Research, and Structures 
Research Divisions); John V. Becker, chief of Langley 's Compressibility 
Research Division; and Charles J. Donlan, technical assistant to Associate 
Director Thompson. The in-house review covered the activities of all 11 
Langley research divisions during fiscal years 1955 and 1957, as well as 
projected activities for fiscal year 1959. Two tables of numbers accompanied 
the committee's final report to Director Reid, and the more important of 
the two indicated that the "research effort" in the fields of hypersonics and 
spaceflight should increase from about 11 percent in 1955 to 54 percent 
in 1959; however, it was unclear what these percentages actually meant 
in terms of money and personnel hours. In fact, Langley management 
derived these percentages from hours spent on projects in the three research 

According to the review, the two most important fields of application 
were satellites and spacecraft, and ballistic missiles. Efforts in these areas 
were to rise from less than 1 percent to 16 percent and from 3 percent to 14 
percent, respectively. In the words of the committee members, "all research 
divisions are adjusting and reorienting manpower, curtailing work in areas 
of lesser importance [and] continually studying and developing the special 
facilities needed to attack these problems," and each division had been doing 


Space/light Revolution 

so for some time. "The ability to reorient the Laboratory's efforts to the 
extent shown in the brief time period considered," the report concluded, 
"is due to a considerable extent to active planning for a number of these 
[space-related] fields during recent years." 27 

Langley senior management knew that these figures were authentic. The 
transition to space was happening at Langley, and it had been happening 
there even before Sputnik. Senior management also knew that more than 
a little finagling was done to get the space numbers up as high as possible, 
because they were doing the finagling. What was applicable to "space" and 
what was applicable to "aeronautics" depended on how they defined the 
research programs and divided the disciplines; to differentiate was splitting 
hairs. The Gilruth committee discovered, in January 1958, that much of 
the work at the laboratory, initially instigated to support what the NACA 
had always called the "aeronautics program," could in fact be conveniently 
reclassified as space research. In addition, Langley was working on many 
projects that honestly involved both aeronautics and space (truly "aero- 
space" research), yet could be classified as one or the other depending on 
what the center desired to emphasize. 28 In the post-Sputnik era of national 
debate over the makeup of a new space agency, now was unquestionably 
the time to emphasize space, an emphasis on which Langley's future would 

However, almost no one at Langley on the first day of NASA would have 
thought that the time had come to abandon the quest for improved aero- 
nautical performance. Many great technological advances remained to be 
achieved in aeronautics: greater speeds, bigger airplanes, and superior flight 
efficiencies. Already in flight were radically new aircraft like Lockheed's 
supersonic F-104 Starfighter, the still-secret U-2 strategic reconnaissance 
"spy plane," and Convair's B-58 delta-winged bomber, which was capable 
of Mach 2. On the horizon were important developments, such as new heli- 
copter applications, tilt wing, and other innovative vertical and short take- 
off and landing (V/STOL) capabilities. Additionally, new high-performance 
wings with unusual degrees of backward and even forward sweep were being 
designed at Langley and elsewhere. One of the wings of the future would 
probably have some form of variable sweep, like those Langley's foremost 
expert on high-speed aerodynamics, John Stack, had seen on a model of the 
arrow-winged Swallow aircraft in England. This wing would no doubt be 
part of a commercial supersonic transport (SST) that before too long would 
be taking airline passengers from New York to London or Paris in a few 
hours. 29 Even more dear to the heart of some aerospace enthusiasts was 
the first of the next generation of research airplanes, North American Avi- 
ation's rocket-powered X-15, designed for the exploration of the hypersonic 
speed regime up to Mach 6, as well as the hypersonic boost-glider program, 
known as Project Dyna-Soar, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Air Force and 
NASA. In one of these "envelopes," many NACA/NASA engineers felt, an 
American might first fly into space. 30 


The Metamorphosis 


A model of the Swallow arrow-wing aircraft is tested in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel 
in June 1959. The British hoped that a research airplane derived from the Swallow 
configuration would be the progenitor of a commercial SST. 


In 1958 two Langley researchers install a one-tenth scale model of the X-15 rocket 
plane in the Langley 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel to study its spin characteristics. 


Space/light Revolution 

Clearly, now was no time to take a hiatus from aeronautics. Although 
many congressional leaders and probably even the American people as a 
whole forgot the second word in the National Aeronautics and Space Act, 
calling it "the Space Act," most of the research staff at Langley took a 
different view. As preliminary drafts of the Space Act made their way to 
the NACA laboratory for review in the spring and early summer of 1958, 
aeronautically oriented staff members like RAP leader Hartley Soule and 
supersonics pioneer John Stack read them and said to one another, "Well, 
we're not doing that. Let those guys [up in Washington] go ahead and write 
it up, [but] we'll just [keep doing] what's necessary and get on with the 
program." Unlike the ardent space buffs, these men read the Space Act to 
mean that they "were supposed to pick up the space program" in addition 
to aeronautics not that they "were supposed to get out of aeronautics." 31 

A few days after passage of the Space Act, U.S. Army representatives 
visited Langley to find out who was going to take care of their aircraft 
engine problems now that the NACA was about to be dissolved in favor of a 
space agency. The surprised Langley people answered, "Well, we are! We're 
here and we know what we are doing, and under NASA, we will just keep 
doing it." 32 That literal view of the Space Act calmed the military visitors 
and reassured their hosts. If Langley people had known that the national 
commitment to space was going to, "backburner" their traditionally strong 
aeronautical programs for years to come, they might not have responded so 
glibly to questions about the changeover. 

In the following years, the aeronautics effort at Langley decreased 
significantly; at its lowest level, it shrank to about 25 percent of the center's 
total labor hours. Nonetheless, aeronautics was never allowed to die at 
Langley. Even during the rushed days of the Apollo lunar landing program 
in the 1960s, fruitful aeronautical programs quietly proceeded behind the 
scenes. Langley managed to retain a dedicated cadre of aeronautical people 
even when NASA recruited talent primarily in support of the space program. 
But for John Stack, Hartley Soule, and likewise air-minded NACA veterans, 
aeronautical research would often seem nearly forgotten at Langley. 

The Public Eye 

Most of those working in aviation knew about the NACA through 
exposure to NACA reports and articles concerning NACA research in 
aeronautical engineering magazines and other trade journals. But none of 
the NACA's operations had high public profiles, not even at the local level. 
Until 1958 most Americans knew nothing about the NACA. Before World 
War II, some congressmen did not know it existed. Even the people near 
Langley Field ignored the place. As Langley engineer and Hampton native 
Caldwell (pronounced Cad-well) Johnson remembers, "It [the NACA] wasn't 
like NASA. The press didn't care about it to them it was a dull bunch 


The Metamorphosis 

of gray buildings with gray people who worked with slide rules and wrote 
long equations on the board." Brain-busters like that were better-off left 
alone. Ironically, throughout its entire history, the only time the NACA 
was a high-profile agency was after Eisenhower had selected it as the nucleus 
for NASA. 

At times the NACA's obscurity put the agency at a disadvantage. The 
NACA could not rely on the strength of favorable public opinion in its 
campaigns for appropriations; such battles had to be fought and won quietly 
in private conferences in hallways or smoke-filled rooms with admirals, 
generals, and congressmen. These "gold-braided personages" made the case 
for the NACA to Congress, when it was necessary for a case to be made. 

Handling much of this delicate politicking from 1919 until his retirement 
in 1947 was the NACA's shrewd, cigar-smoking director of research, "Doc" 
Lewis (1892-1948). Although the gregarious Lewis and his successor, the 
quieter and scientifically sharper Dr. Hugh Dry den, usually acquired the 
necessary backing for NACA projects, they experienced many close calls. 
The closest one came in December 1932 when President Herbert Hoover, 
looking to reduce expenditures and increase efficiency in government, had 
ordered the NACA abolished and most of its resources handed over to the 
Bureau of Standards. However, House Democrats, anticipating the first 
term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, overrode the lame-duck executive order, and 
the NACA survived. 34 

On balance, however, the advantages of the NACA's invisibility out- 
weighed the few disadvantages. It certainly benefited the researchers; most 
of them thought NACA Langley was a wonderful place to work and "just 
a splendid organization." 35 Although administrative policies and bureau- 
cratic guidelines involving anything related to the laboratory's communi- 
cation with the outside world (such as mail, telephone calls, and technical 
reports) were rather prescriptive, considerable leniency existed in the per- 
formance of in-house research. Individuals could follow their own ideas quite 
far without formal approval from superiors. Any scheme that survived peer 
discussion and won the approval of the research section was likely to be 
implemented. If funding was not formally available to build a given wind- 
tunnel model, flight instrument, minor test facility component, or the like, 
employees were usually able to "bootleg" what they needed from resources 
appropriated to approved projects. As long as the initiative offered some- 
thing promising, did not cost too much, and did not have the potential to 
get the NACA into real trouble, NACA managers rarely complained or put 
tight reins on the researchers. Within the laboratory, few barriers limited 
innovation and the free dissemination of knowledge; the young engineers 
could discuss their work comfortably with everyone from the technicians in 
the shops to the division chief. 36 

Such freedoms existed because neither the NACA's own management, 
other government bureaucrats, nor newspaper or magazine journalists (or 
the American people as a whole) spent much time looking over the shoulders 


Space/light Revolution 

of NACA researchers. The NACA shared what it did with major clients; 
the how was kept more or less within the NACA itself. Moreover, almost 
none of NACA Langley's research work involved contracts with outsiders; 
everything was accomplished in-house. As Caldwell Johnson has noted 
about the NACA, "It had the best wind tunnels, the best model-builders, 
the best technicians, the most rigorous standards." Nothing gave Langley 
people more pride than being a part of such an autonomous organization. 37 

If Langley engineers had cultivated any public image before NASA, it 
had been that of the "NACA Nuts." All the local hardware salesmen and 
auto dealers recognized them a mile away, and if it had not been for the 
federal paychecks that the NACA folks brought to the local economy, the 
natives would have dreaded to see them coming. Not only were most NACA 
Nuts overeducated Yankees, they were brilliant technical types who wanted 
to know the revolutions per minute (rpm) of their vacuum sweepers and 
ordered lumber cut to the sixteenth of an inch. Funny stories about their 
eccentricities abounded, leading everyone from Yorktown to Newport News 
to think that anyone from the NACA had to be either a weirdo or a screwball. 

The truth was that most locals in those days had not the faintest idea 
what the NACA people did. Few residents even distinguished the NACA 
from the army (and later the air force) at Langley Field. Langley was 
all about flying and noisy airplanes that woke residents before their alarm 
clocks went off. But the people at the NACA were not concerned about 
the confusion. Being grouped with the soldiers in uniform was often useful 
camouflage. This camouflage was especially helpful during World War II 
when hard feelings were expressed by local families who saw their boys 
going off to war while NACA men were able to stay put because of a special 
deal made between the NACA and the Selective Service System. 38 

In 1958 the natives still poked fun at the NACA Nuts, but they did so in a 
more friendly way. Previously, a friction similar to that felt typically between 
university "town and gown" had determined much about the Hampton- 
Langley relationship. The softening of hard feelings between locals and the 
NACA was due in large part to the marriage of many Langley engineers 
to area women and their subsequent assimilation into local society. For 
instance, the wife of Langley's number two man in 1958, Associate Director 
Floyd Thompson, was Jean Geggie, a native Hamptonian whose father 
carved wooden figureheads for ships at the nearby Newport News shipyard. 

By the 1950s, NACA employees had become pillars of the community. 
Thompson himself had been a member of the Hampton Rotary Club for 
several years and had served on the board of directors of the local "Dixie 
General" hospital. (In the late 1960s, partly through Thompson's efforts, 
the hospital board voted to drop the racially inflammatory name "Dixie" 
and renamed the hospital Hampton General.) Furthermore, in the turbulent 
and scary weeks following the first Soviet space launches, the scientists and 
engineers "over at Langley Field" became reassuring figures. Here, right in 
their midst, many locals felt, were experts who could explain the meaning of 


The Metamorphosis 


This 1950 aerial photo of Langley shows the original East Area along the Back River 
(bottom) and the West Area, constructed during World War II (top). 

the foreign objects orbiting ominously overhead. Interviewed for stories by 
the local newspapers, NACA personnel discussed the progress of American 
space efforts and helped calm local hysteria. Hamptonians developed greater 
appreciation for the technical talents of Langley personnel, and the once 
tepid feelings about the NACA warmed. 

With the transition to NASA, the public spotlight would inevitably shine 
on Langley. Personnel would soon figure out that the NACA attitude toward 
public relations had to change. In the old days, most NACA staff members 
could have cared less about public opinion. They only cared about the 
opinion of generals, congressmen, and other powerful people who could 
influence the budget and appropriation processes. With NASA, however, 
things had to be different. Beginning the day after the launch of Sputnik 1, 
researchers had to make their case before a much more concerned public. 
Without hesitating, they got right to it. 


The First NASA Inspection 

It was, by all odds, a superlative display. 
Our sincere thanks for a superbly designed, brilliantly 
mounted, and perceptive look at the very general goals 
man must achieve before he becomes a space traveler. 

Editorial, Newport News Daily Press 
27 October 1959 

On Saturday morning, 24 October 1959, a little more than a year 
after the metamorphosis of the NACA into NASA, approximately 20,000 
visitors marched through the gates of Langley Field to attend a public open 
house that was being held in conjunction with NASA's First Anniversary 
Inspection. The NACA's first anniversary had passed unnoticed; NASA's 
proved to be a controlled mob scene. 1 

The crowds came at NASA's invitation. Local newspapers and commu- 
nity groups had spread the word: for the first time in its 42-year history, 
Langley Research Center was admitting curious outsiders into the previously 
sheltered sanctuary of aeronautical research. NASA scientists, engineers, 
and technicians would show the public just what the new space agency had 
been doing to launch their country into space. Throughout the day, men, 
women, and children streamed through the huge NASA aircraft hangar as 
well as through two other large buildings full of exhibits that represented a 
cross section of NASA programs. Escorting the visitors was a handpicked 
group of articulate and polite NASA employees whose job was to handle the 
pedestrian traffic, guide the visitors through the buildings included in the 
program, and explain the exhibits. 

The visitors moved "in fascination" past the many marvels on display. 2 
They saw helicopters and aircraft, including a Chance Vought F8U-3 navy 
supersonic jet fighter used by NASA for sonic-boom research over Wallops 
Island; a Vertol 76, the world's first tilt-wing aircraft; a ground-effect vehicle 
designed to move over a cushion of air that the unusual craft created between 
its base and the ground; a display about the possibilities of SST flight 


Space/light Revolution 

(subsonic commercial jet flights across the Atlantic had only been made 
for about a year); a full-size mock-up of the air force/NASA X-15 rocket- 
powered research airplane; plus dozens of static and dynamic demonstrations 
involving wind tunnels, electrically powered models, electromagnetism, 
research instrumentation, as well as several examples of NASA technical 

Towering above all and attracting the most attention was a large fleet of 
space vehicles and rockets. This collection included a model of the original 
German V-2 rocket engine; a full-size version of the Thor-Able missile, which 
had been used to launch a number of U.S. space probes; a 19-foot Discoverer 
satellite to be used in polar-orbit research; a full-scale Little Joe rocket that 
was part of the Mercury program; a 72-foot Scout rocket to be used for 
general space research purposes; a six-stage rocket vehicle used for reentry 
physics studies at Wallops Island; and a 6-foot model of the world with 
orbital traces of the major satellites launched by the United States. 

The public was so eager to see these wonders of modern technology that 
visitors had started forming lines around the exhibits as early as 8:00 a.m. 
even though the program was not scheduled to begin until 10:00 a.m., and 
they continued to swarm around the exhibits throughout the day. Most 
of the visitors were residents of the Peninsula area, but the license plates 
on some of the cars indicated that several had traveled from more remote 
parts of Virginia and a few had come from as far away as Georgia and 
Tennessee. 3 For the NASA Langley staff, "The Nice NASA Show For 
The People," as one local editor called it, was quite an eye-opener. No 
one expected the general public to be so curious about NASA's research 
programs. 4 

After World War II, family members and friends of Langley personnel 
had been welcome on occasion to attend briefings and watch demonstrations 
"boiled down" from recently concluded NACA inspections (annual confer- 
ences for aeronautical insiders only). Never before the 1959 inspection, 
however, had Langley put on an open house involving more than just the 
center's employees and their families. Langley had neither a visitors' center 
(until 1971) nor any other regular means to handle many outsiders; none 
was necessary given the NACA's low profile and the limited public interest 
in what was going on inside a place that some locals referred to as "Sleepy 

The unprecedented public open house came at the end of a week-long 
closed affair modeled after the old NACA annual inspections. Up to 400 
people a day had attended these NACA conferences. Although they came 
by direct invitation to learn about NACA programs, most guests already 
knew quite a bit about these programs because conference attendees were 
the patrons and clients of the NACA. Representatives from military aviation, 
the aircraft industry, and the airlines, and a few people from government 


The First NASA Inspection 

L-59-8075 L-59-8097 

A mock-up of the Mercury space capsule appears to land by parachute on Langley's 

"Mercury Support" exhibit at the October 1959 event (top). At bottom left, 
Langley Director Henry Reid (middle), former Langley researcher and soon-to-be- 
named head of the new Office of Advanced Research Programs (OARP) at NASA 
headquarters Ira H. Abbott (right), and an unidentified guest stare up at the capsule 
mounted atop a model of the Atlas booster rocket. At bottom right, Langley 
Associate Director Floyd L. Thompson (middle), with Coke bottle in hand, and 
NASA Administrator Glennan (left) chat with guests and associates in front of the 
globe showing the orbital traces of previously launched American satellites. 


Space/light Revolution 

and the trade journal media had been the only visitors invited to the NACA 

No one at NASA headquarters had been sure whether to continue the 
tradition of the NACA inspection, which by the 1950s was rotating annually 
among Langley, Lewis, and Ames. The inspection was such a long-running 
show, having premiered at Langley in 1926, and its actors, settings, and 
stage directions were so closely identified with the NACA that some NASA 
officials wondered whether the event would serve the interests of NASA's new 
mission. But in the opinion of many others, including Dr. Hugh Dryden, 
NASA's deputy administrator, the inspection offered NASA an excellent 
means of publicizing what it had accomplished during its first year to achieve 
the nation's new objectives in aeronautics and space. "Prom a publicity 
point of view," read one NASA Langley document that outlined the general 
purpose of the proposed inspection, "the exhibits will present to the audience 
not only our aims and objectives, but the research background that led to 
the 'present-day' and future space developments." In other words, NASA 
could make the point, both directly and indirectly, that "pioneering 'in- 
house' research is a first prerequisite to successful aeronautic and space 
developments." 5 

Although this emphasis on in-house capabilities did not match 
Keith Glennan's agenda for NASA (Glennan wanted to see more research 
being done by outside contractors), the overall objective of the plan per- 
suaded the administrator. He decided that, in October 1959, NASA would 
hold its First Anniversary Inspection, a sort of public show-and-tell event. 

Because NASA was a new agency with different objectives and a much 
wider scope than its predecessor, a few things about the inspection were 
to be done differently. Not only was NASA to have an open house for 
the general public, it must also invite several foreign guests. While the 
NACA had discouraged their attendance, NASA had vested programmatic 
interests in (and mandated legal obligations to) foreign nations, which meant 
that some foreign scientists, diplomatic representatives, and members of the 
foreign press corps had to be invited to attend. At NASA headquarters, 
the Office of International Programs, under Henry E. Billingsley, and the 
Office of Space Flight Development, under Abe Silverstein, were in charge 
of issuing these invitations. 

Although NASA had to aggressively pitch its program to the taxpayers, 
which meant packaging it as attractively as possible, the 1959 inspection 
was virtually the same ritual that the NACA had always orchestrated for 
the visitors. After registering at the base gymnasium starting at 8:00 a.m., 
the guests moved to an introductory session in the base theater from 8:50 to 

Some headquarters officials did not like the name "inspection," which had been in use since the 
1940s. They argued that it did not accurately convey what happened in the program. They suggested 
"exhibition," "observance," "annual meeting," and a number of other substitutes, but none of these 
names was adopted. 


The First NASA Inspection 


Administrator Glennan spends a few minutes in front of the Mercury capsule exhibit 
with Walter Bonney, NASA 's first director of the office of public information. 
Bonney, who had worked for the NACA from 1949 to 1958, never found much 
favor in Glennan's employ. Glennan criticized Bonney harshly for his outdated, 
NA CA approach to the public information field. 

9:00 a.m. and from there went to a brief technical program in the cavernous 
test section of the Full-Scale Tunnel. Pinned to the coat of every guest was 
an identification badge with the person's name and tour group. 

For the extended tour of the laboratory, Langley continued the old 
NACA practice of dividing the guests into color-coded groups, in this 
case into 10 groups of no more than 40 persons each. Each group had 
its own bus with a color-coded sign in the window, its own escorts and 
attaches, its own schedule to keep, and, at least in the minds of the 
inspection organizers, its own personality. NASA management wanted a 
mix of people in every group, but it also wanted the group members to be 
compatible. As expected, the gold group included dignitaries and VIPs. 
The brown and tan groups had the majority of the journalists, and the 
pink group included the few women who were invited. The red group 
comprised most of NASA's leaders. On the first day of the inspection, 
Tuesday, 20 October, Langley hypersonics specialist John V. Becker was 
the guide for the red group, which included Robert R. Gilruth, head of 
the new Space Task Group (STG); NASA Administrator Glennan; NASA 
Deputy Administrator Dryden; NASA Executive Secretary John F. Victory; 
NASA Goddard Director Harry J. Goett; NASA Ames Director Smith J. 
DeFrance; NASA Flight Research Center Chief Paul F. Bikle; Wallops 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Four Langley secretaries serving as hostesses for the inspection take a look inside 
the cockpit of a full-size mock-up of the X-15. 

Station Engineer-in-Charge Robert L. Krieger; plus several lesser officials 
from NASA headquarters. Also in the group were a few important men 
from the aerospace industry, the airlines, and the armed forces. 6 

Although some NASA personnel came to the inspection as guests, most 
came to Langley to report on the progress of the work at their respective 
centers. NASA Lewis sent an exhibit that demonstrated the relative 
merits of low-thrust space propulsion systems, including chemical, nuclear- 
hydrogen, and electrical rockets. NASA Ames contributed a display showing 
the physics of high-velocity impact in space and the potential dangers of 
meteoroid collision with spacecraft. For its part, the NASA Flight Research 
Center at Edwards AFB had contracted with North American Aviation 
for a mock-up of the X-15 and of the XLR-99 rocket engine along with 
a dummy pilot dressed in a pressure suit. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory 
(JPL) in Pasadena, California, formerly operated by the California Institute 
of Technology, had transferred to NASA in December 1958. The laboratory 
sent a small display and a team of scientists to present the story of the Vega 
rocket; at the time of the inspection, NASA thought that this three-stage 
booster would take a number of future vehicles and payloads into space, even 
into lunar orbit, but the proposed $65-million development program would 
be cancelled only two months after the inspection. The new Goddard Space 
Flight Center was still a part of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at its 
Anacostia location pending construction of an independent NASA facility 


The First NASA Inspection 

at Greenbelt, Maryland. Goddard contributed a display featuring several 
examples of lightweight inflatable structures that had applications for use 
in satellites and spaceflight. 7 

As was becoming to the host center, NASA Langley presented by far 
the greatest number and variety of exhibits. Langley staff built displays 
and gave illustrated talks on many space subjects: the nature of the 
space environment, reentry physics, and manned reentry vehicles such as 
ballistic capsules, high-drag gliders, and high lift-drag boost-gliders. Langley 
engineers also reported on aeronautical programs, notably the X-15, Vertol 
76, and an SST airplane. Langley even supplemented Ames's display of 
high- velocity impacts in space with graphic results of its own experiments 
on the subject. 

Following the NACA Way 

According to the NACA's policy of triennial rotation among its three 
major research centers, it was "by the numbers" Langley's turn to host the 
1959 inspection. However, NASA probably would have held the inspection 
there regardless of the rotation. The assistant chief of the Full-Scale 
Research Division and Langley's coordinator for the technical program, Axel 
Mattson, remembers with pride: 

There was only one place that could put on that show. . . . There was no other place 
for it to go. . . . If it had been someplace else, the overall presentation wouldn't 


have been as good, and the emphasis might have been slightly different. 

In other words, Langley had the most experience in staging this event. 
Langley was also the oldest NACA facility and the NASA center closest 
to Washington, D.C., thus making it convenient to congressional and other 
powerful visitors. Perhaps most importantly, Langley was the place where 
the stars of the space program the STG and its astronauts were in 
training for the first U.S. manned space effort, Project Mercury. 

Axel Mattson was a big, likeable, and loquacious engineer who loved the 
showmanship and conviviality of past inspections. In the weeks prior to 
the 1959 event, his job was to confer with the other NASA centers and to 
help them plan their participation in the inspection. In the cases of Ames, 
Lewis, Wallops, and the Flight Research Center at Muroc, Mattson's help 
was only minimal because the staffs at the former NACA facilities knew 
what an inspection demanded. They understood the rigorous standards for 
quality presentations and were ready for the customary competition among 
the centers for the best exhibits. All of the centers "tried to out-do one 
another" with the most sophisticated displays and demonstrations, Mattson 
recalls. "At least we thought they were sophisticated, let's put it that way." 


Spaceflight Revolution 

The 1959 Anniversary Inspection was the first time that all the NASA 
facilities were participating, and those facilities included two that had not 
been part of the NACA JPL and Goddard.* Mattson was responsible 
for encouraging the staffs of these new centers to develop appropriate 
and effective presentations for the inspection. "I had a dog and pony 
show," Mattson remembers. "I took slides with me from previous NACA 
conferences" to show them what went on. He assembled the initiates in 
a conference room, making sure that people "with enough horsepower" to 
make the right things happen were in the audience, and then he briefed 
them on what an inspection was about and the purposes it served. 10 

Mattson tried his best to be polite and not to act arrogant while 
educating the non-NACA staffs about the do's and don'ts of an inspection, 
but he still did not receive a warm welcome at either of the two non-NACA 
centers. In fact, at Goddard's temporary home within the NRL, he feared 
he would "be tarred and feathered." Typically, any organization that had 
been "navy" had superb loyalty among its staff and was very closed, even 
resentful of outsiders. In the opinion of the Goddard staff members, the 
inspection "was just something that the NACA did, and they didn't think 
much of it." 11 

In particular, the navy personnel did not like the idea of rehearsals. In 
advance of NACA inspections, staff members customarily rehearsed their 
talks in their own research divisions and then sweated through another 
performance a week or so before the event as part of a fully staged dress 
rehearsal with center management and several key officials from NACA 
headquarters as the audience. For all the Washington office people to come 
down to Langley and critique the inspection material was a "big thing." 
Dr. Dryden, John Victory, and others "all had a grand time with that." 
Some laboratory employees complained privately about "having to put on 
a parade for their parents," but most had reconciled themselves to the 
imposition. By 1959, NACA veterans like Mattson saw the NACA practice 
of rehearsals as the only way to guarantee the success of such a complex 
show. Mattson had to convince NASA's new partners of the importance of 
all the planning and preparations. The staff at Goddard was unimpressed by 
Mattson 's explanations. A few of the more indignant told Mattson: "You 
won't rehearse me. My gosh, I'm an expert, you know. Who's going to 
critique what I say?" But Mattson held his ground and told them they 


The ABMA (Army Ballistic Missile Agency) under Dr. Wernher von Braun at the Redstone Arsenal 

in Huntsville, Alabama, did not become a part of NASA until their "shotgun marriage" was consummated 
by a vote of Congress in February 1960, but the decision to transfer the ABMA to NASA was actually 
finalized in October 1959, the month of the first NASA inspection. A number of ABMA representatives 
attended the NASA inspection. So, too, did the mayor of Huntsville. 


The First NASA Inspection 


In this picture from the 1959 inspection, Axel Mattson (right) confers with John 
Stack, a devoted airplane man who surely experienced mixed feelings about the affair 
because of its emphasis on space rather than aeronautics. 

would have to do it. Thinking back, Mattson calls his visits to the non- 
NACA installations "interesting sessions," and he singles out the first NASA 
inspection as "the most difficult inspection of them all to put together." 

Other NACA veterans have also commented on the difficulties of the new 
fraternal relationships within NASA. "There wasn't any love lost between 
us," remembers Langley's Charles J. Donlan. "I really shouldn't say 'love 
lost' because the people really didn't know one another." But "all the NRL 
guys" came "kicking and screaming into this new organization" that they 
thought was "going to be overwhelmed by the NACA bunch." 13 Everyone 
needed time to get over these psychological barriers and realize that they 
were all working as a team. A few people, some say particularly at Goddard, 
were never able to accept the partnership. 

Strained interaction among NASA centers represents a key tension in the 
story of NASA that historians have not explored fully. In the first NASA 
inspection, a vestige of the old NACA culture won out over other integral 
parts of NASA; in the ensuing years, the culture of the NACA research 
laboratories, dominant in the early years of NASA, would in many ways 
be overwhelmed and superseded by those at the more hardware-oriented 
and operations-oriented spaceflight and spacecraft centers in Huntsville, 
Houston, and at Cape Canaveral. This turnabout, which would have seemed 
unlikely in the earliest days of NASA, was made inevitable by the large 
manned spaceflight programs of the 1960s and 1970s. The biggest bucks 
would be spent on the more industrial side of NASA, as they still are. 

In the end, everyone at Goddard and JPL agreed to do their part in the 
1959 inspection. As mentioned earlier, Goddard staff sent an exhibit that 
featured four erectable space structures, but they did so only after Langley 


Spaceflight Revolution 


The small exhibit area on space science and technology provided by the Goddard 
Space Flight Center. 

had proposed that Goddard send an exhibit dealing with reentry physics. 
The JPL group sent an exhibit about the soon-to-be-cancelled Vega project. 
Both exhibits were prepared with the help of outside design consultants. 
The NASA representatives sent to Langley with those exhibits were "awful 
proud" of what they had done. "After all the trials and tribulations of 
getting them organized and getting them going," Mattson states, "they 
walked around like peacocks" strutting their stuff and showing off their 
exhibits. 14 

Interestingly, after getting the new centers to cooperate and to do it the 
NACA way, some NACA veterans still found reasons to criticize. "For my 
money," Smith J. DeFrance, the director of Ames, wrote to Henry Reid, the 
director of Langley: 

the stops [on the tour] by your group were far superior to the Jet Propulsion 
Laboratory's stop and especially the Goddard Space Flight Center's stop. As you 
know, both of these were prepared by so-called specialists in the field of exhibition. 
Neither of the stops came up to the degree of perfection that was demonstrated by 

your own people. 


DeFrance had come to work at NACA Langley in 1922; Reid had come 
in 1921. They had followed the NACA way for so long that they found it 


The First NASA Inspection 

difficult to value any other. But Reid's answer did reflect an openness to the 
new NASA partnerships. "Letters are pouring in from many of the visitors," 
he wrote DePrance, "and I feel that this inspection has certainly been very 
much worthwhile, not only because of the impression made on people outside 
our organization but also the impression made on many of our new members 
of the organization." Despite the problems convincing new members of the 
importance of an inspection, Reid summed up the experience as positive: 
"We were indeed very fortunate in having the excellent teamwork, even from 
our new organization, JPL." The teamwork of Goddard, to the extent that 
it materialized, Reid did not mention. 16 

Project Mercury 

"Ladies and gentlemen, at this stop we shall discuss Project Mercury," 
announced the NASA engineer as another busload of visitors to the 1959 
inspection found their way to the cold metal folding chairs set up in rows 
inside the West Area's Aircraft Loads Calibration building. Eight young 
members of the STG working in teams of two took turns giving this talk. 
The script of the presentation had been finalized just a day or two before 
the inspection to ensure an up-to-date report. 

The STG speakers did not bother to introduce themselves (they had been 
told not to), and their identities would not have meant much to most people 
in the audience. They were Edison M. Fields and Jerome Hammack, Systems 
Test Branch; Elmer A. Horton, Control Central and Flight Safety Section; 
Milton B. Windier, Recovery Operations Branch; John D. Hodge, Opera- 
tions Division; Carl R. Huss, Trajectory Analysis Section; John E. Gilkey, 
Engineering Branch; and Norman F. Smith, Engineering and Contract Ad- 
ministration. As it turned out, some of these men were destined to play 
major roles in NASA's subsequent manned space programs. 17 

"The possibility of venturing into space," the inspection talk began, "has 
shifted quite recently from the fantasy of science fiction to the realm of 
actuality. Today, space flight is considered well within the range of man's 
capabilities." Only five days after its establishment, NASA had formed 
the STG to design and implement, as quickly as possible, a manned satellite 
project. NASA put veteran NACA researcher Robert R. Gilruth, the former 
head of Langley's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), in charge; 
based the group at Langley; and named the Project Mercury after the fleet- 
footed Roman god of commerce, who served as messenger of the gods. 18 The 
speakers proudly declared the mission of Project Mercury: to send "this 
nation's first space traveler into orbit about the earth," to study "man's 


Space/light Revolution 

NACA veteran Robert R. Gilruth di- 
rected Project Mercury from offices at 


capabilities in space flight," and to assure "the safe return of the capsule 
and its pilot to the earth." 19 

The STG plan was to send a small one-person spacecraft into orbit using 
the existing Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile as the launch vehicle and 
a ballistic reentry module as the crew capsule. After a few passes around the 
earth, retrorockets would fire to slow the satellite and thus initiate descent 
from orbit. After reentry into the atmosphere accomplished safely thanks 
to the capsule's blunt ablative heat shield a large parachute would deploy 
to carry the capsule on its final approach and land it in the open sea. The 
capsule and the astronaut would be recovered by helicopter and brought 
home aboard a naval vessel. 

The Mercury plan was a bold yet essentially conservative engineering 
concept, and it was to be almost unbelievably successful. By May 1963, it 
resulted in the successful launches of six Americans into space, thus leading 
to some two and one-half days of flight time in space. Although glitches 
and other vexing technical problems would plague virtually every Mercury 
mission, no major accidents occurred. "We were pretty lucky," one leader of 
Project Mercury remembers. "In retrospect, we wouldn't dare do it again 
under the same circumstances. But that's true of most pioneering ventures. 
You wouldn't dare fly across the ocean with one engine like Lindbergh did, 
either, would you?" 20 


The First NASA Inspection 




A diagram used at the first NASA inspection to illustrate the basic concept of a 
Mercury man-in- space mission. 

Without question, the Project Mercury stop was the featured attraction 
of NASA's entire anniversary show. In 1959 everyone around the country 
was obsessed with beating the Soviets to manned spaceflight, and that 
obsession soon included the men who would actually pilot the spacecraft. 
Introduced to the public for the first time in April 1959, NASA's astronauts 
were not yet the golden boys they eventually became, but with the national 
media already bearing down on them and NASA's public affairs officers 
polishing the seven former test pilots' armor to a blinding shimmer, the 
future knights of spaceflight had already acquired star quality. They were 
national heroes before they did anything heroic. Some of their luster was lost 
in August 1959, if only temporarily, when the astronauts sold the exclusive 
rights to their personal stories to Time-Life for one-half million dollars. To 
most Americans this seemed an excessive amount of money; at that time the 
federal minimum wage was a mere $1 an hour. The resulting controversy 
over the ethics of the deal was fueled largely by Life's legitimately disgruntled 
competition and did not really do much to damage the public's growing love 
affair with their handsome, if not yet "launched," astronauts. 21 

A few minutes into their talk at the Project Mercury stop, the STG 
speakers dimmed the lights and showed a short motion picture devoted 
to "the seven brave young men who have been chosen as the Mercury 
astronauts." 22 First as a group, then one by one, the film introduced them, 


Spaceflight Revolution 


The "Original Seven": (left to right) Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, 
Shepard, and Slayton. 

just as each had been introduced with such flair during the sensational open- 
ing press conference at NASA headquarters on 9 April 1959. The "Original 
Seven" were Air Force Capts. Leroy G. Cooper, Jr. (later called L. Gordon), 
Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton; naval aviators 
Lt. Malcolm S. Carpenter (who preferred "M. Scott"), Lt. Comdr. Alan B. 
Shepard, Jr., and Lt. Comdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr.; and Lt. Col. John H. 
Glenn, Jr., of the Marine Corps. Everyone knew that one of these men 
would soon be the first American, possibly the first human, to venture into 
space; one of the seven was destined to become the greatest technological 
hero since Lindbergh. 

The Mercury astronauts were the survivors of an extraordinarily elab- 
orate and rigorous search process that the STG had used to solicit appli- 
cations from and to evaluate candidate astronauts. At the start nobody 
knew what sort or degree of skill, education, and training space pilots would 
need. So-called specialists in crew selection proposed that NASA choose the 
astronauts from "people in dangerous professions, such as race car drivers, 
mountain climbers, scuba divers, as well as test pilots." But the STG was 
committed to the idea of test pilots from the beginning; with just any old 
breed of daredevil on board, the delegation of critical flight control and 


The First NASA Inspection 

command functions to the crew in the capsule would be much more diffi- 
cult. When President Eisenhower decided that astronauts would be chosen 
from a military test-pilot pool, Gilruth and associates all "breathed a sigh 
of relief." 23 

A key person in the screening and final selection of the Mercury astro- 
nauts was Langley's Charles J. Donlan. Formerly the free-lance technical 
assistant to Floyd Thompson, Donlan was now serving as Gilruth's deputy. 
Working on a crash schedule basis, Donlan headed the NASA/Department 
of Defense (DOD) team, which included a psychologist on loan to NASA 
from the National Science Foundation. The team established the final seven 
evaluation criteria: 

1. Less than 40 years old 

2. Less than 5' 11" tall* 

3. Excellent physical condition 

4. Bachelor's degree in engineering or equivalent 

5. Test-pilot school graduate 

6. Minimum of 1500 hours flying time 

7. Qualified jet pilot 

Another Langley man who played a part in the screening process was Robert 
A. Champine, a veteran NAG A test pilot who knew what kind of talents 
it might take to fly into space. Although not an STG member, he was 
part of the small NASA/DOD panel that evaluated the files of the nearly 
600 military service test pilots who had applied for the astronaut positions. 
Of the seven evaluation criteria, experience as a test pilot was clearly the 
deciding factor. 24 

Ironically, the greatest skepticism about the Mercury concept existed 
inside the family of test pilots. Pathbreaking NACA/NASA test pilots like 
A. Scott Crossfield, Joseph A. Walker, and even the young Neil Armstrong, 
who in 10 years was to become the first man to walk on the moon, were at 
first not in favor of Project Mercury. Their attitude was that the astronaut 
inside the ballistic spacecraft was no more than "Spam-in-a-can." Charles 
E. "Chuck" Yeager, the air force test pilot who broke "the sound barrier" 
in 1947 in the X-l, expressed this prejudice: "Who wanted to climb into 
a cockpit full of monkey crap?" 25 This was a crude reference to the noble 
primates (such as "Ham" and "Enos") who flew in the Mercury spacecraft 
prior to the astronauts and who went through some challenging and painful 
experiences to make the experience of humans safer and more certain. 

By the time of the NASA inspection, all seven Mercury astronauts had 
been in training at Langley under the STG's technical supervision (and 
Langley AFB's administrative care) for about five months. Six of the seven 
moved into the area with their families: Carpenter and Cooper lived in 

The absence of a weight requirement is incredible given the demands of the payload on the launch 
rocket's boosting power and the tight squeeze for the passenger inside the Mercury capsule. 


Space/light Revolution 

Hampton just across the tidal river from the air force base; Grissom, Schirra, 
and Slayton bought ranch-style homes within a few blocks of one another 
in the new Stoneybrook Estates subdivision of Newport News; and Shepard 
drove his white convertible through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel each 
day from his family's home at the Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. 
Glenn was the exception; while at Langley Field, he stayed in military base 
quarters and commuted to his home in Arlington, Virginia, on weekends to 
visit his wife and children. Already the local press was calling the astronauts 
"The Peninsula's Own" and trying to satisfy an adoring public's hunger for 
even the most mundane details of the astronauts' everyday existence, such 
as what kind of fruit juice they drank for breakfast. 26 

The film shown at the Project Mercury inspection stop said little about 
NASA's selection of the astronauts and showed nothing about their per- 
sonal lives; it concentrated on illustrating key aspects of their training for 
the upcoming Mercury flights. In one of the film's early scenes, the astro- 
nauts sat in a classroom listening to a lecture delivered by an STG 
engineer. This lecture was one in a series organized by STG member 
Dr. Robert Voas, the navy psychologist in charge of coordinating astro- 
naut training. The lecture series was designed to introduce formally 
the astronauts to the Mercury program. 27 Although not depicted in the 
film, the astronauts also took a short course equivalent to graduate-level 
study in the space sciences. Henry Pearson, W. Hewitt Phillips, and 
Clinton E. Brown were among those engineers with special competencies 
in reentry physics, astronomy, and celestial mechanics and navigation cho- 
sen to teach the course. 

While the astronauts learned a little about everything pertinent to the 
program, they were also trained to specialize in particular technical areas. 
Carpenter specialized in communications and navigation equipment; Cooper 
and Slayton concentrated on the liaison with the Army Ballistic Missile 
Agency (ABMA, later NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) and the launch 
vehicle suppliers; Glenn focused on cockpit layout; Grissom handled in- 
flight control systems; Schirra was responsible for life-support systems and 
pressure suits; and Shepard followed tracking range and recovery. Each 
astronaut was then responsible for briefing the other six periodically about 
what he had learned. 28 

The inspection film of 1959 showed the Langley-based STG putting the 
astronauts through several spaceflight simulation systems and techniques 
to familiarize them with the Mercury capsule and evaluate the efficacy of 
astronaut capsule control. By this time in their training, the astronauts had 
already ridden on the end of the 50-foot arm of the centrifuge at the Naval 
Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at Johnsville, Pennsylvania. The 
film showed one of the astronauts boarding what came to be known among 
the astronauts as "the wheel" because it resembled a medieval instrument 
of torture. Not even the grimacing face of the astronaut, as he desperately 
tried to operate a few manual controls, could communicate how miserable 


The First NASA Inspection 

the experience actually was for the rider, who was being pushed back in the 
seat as the wheel picked up speed, pinned there unable to move either arms 
or legs, breath forced out of the lungs, vision narrowing and darkening, and 
a sharp pain growing beneath the breastbone. John Glenn recalls, "At 16 
Gs* it took just about every bit of strength and technique you could muster 
to retain consciousness." 29 

The training at Langley was a little easier, at least physically. The 
astronauts made several "flights" in a closed-loop analog simulator that had 
been developed by the training devices section of the STG's Operations 
Division. This simulator had a basic configuration similar to the X-15 
attitude control system simulator that had been built earlier at Langley. 
At the time of the October 1959 inspection, it contained a simple chair with 
a sidearm controller and rudder pedals. 30 A later version would have a 
three-axis controller and a molded couch like those individually fitted for 
each astronaut for the actual Mercury missions. The function of this couch, 
which was one of many ideas supplied by the STG's brilliant Maxime Faget, 
was to protect the astronaut against the high G-forces during launch and 
reentry. In one scene of the film, two of the finished couch forms were visible 
in the background; in tests at the Johnsville centrifuge, such couches had 
proved effective for loads of more than 20 Gs. The movie also featured 
a sequence in which an astronaut used the sidearm controller to move his 
chair through various changes in pitch, roll, and yaw, and a scene showing 
an overheated astronaut in a full pressure suit undergoing what the speaker 
called "elevated temperature elevation." 31 

"The Space Task Group has found the seven astronauts inspiring young 
men with whom to work," speakers told the audience. To equip them with 
the "detailed knowledge and skills that the pilot of a pioneering orbital 
space capsule must possess," NASA was putting them through "an extensive 
program of training, indoctrination, and specialized education." And rest 
assured, the speakers told the audience, the astronauts were preparing for 
their upcoming launches into space "with an enthusiasm and a maturity 
that are vital in a program of such importance to our nation." 32 

The speakers did not mention that the astronauts sometimes felt they 
were being treated like guinea pigs. This was not the case in their dealings 
with the STG at Langley. As the astronauts later attested, the STG 
treated them as "active and valuable participants in the safe operation of 
the machine." Bob Gilruth and his staff had been dealing directly with test 
pilots in NACA aircraft research programs since before World War II. These 
years of experience contributed to a relationship with the astronauts that 
was built on respect. 33 

Much to the disappointment of many in the audience at the NASA 
open house, especially the young people, the living, breathing astronauts 
were nowhere to be seen. Neither Gilruth nor anyone else responsible for 

"G" is the symbol representing the acceleration due to gravity. 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Molded astronaut couches line the Langley model shop wall. The names of the test 
subjects Langley employees are written on the backs. 



This cutaway drawing was used by the STG to explain the Mercury ballistic capsule 
to visitors at the first NASA inspection. 


The First NASA Inspection 

Astronaut John Glenn sits within the cozy cocoon of the Mercury spacecraft. 

the astronauts wanted to add to the astronauts' already heavy schedule 
by keeping them in front of several thousand sticky-fingered and camera- 
clicking fans for an entire Saturday. The astronauts' training at Langley 
included a rigorous regimen of physical exercise, including skin-diving 
operations designed to simulate weightlessness and the kind of sensory 
disorientation that they might experience during reentry from space. In 
Langley's large hydrodynamics tank (Building 720) as well as in the brackish 
water of the Back River, an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay behind the East 
Area, the astronauts were learning to get out of the space capsule as it 
floated in water. Along with the tiring training at Langley, the astronauts 
also made trips to the Johnsville centrifuge; to Cape Canaveral, where the 
countdown for their manned orbital flights would be made; as well as to 
the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation plant in St. Louis, where the Mercury 
capsules were being built. 

Although the astronauts were excused by NASA from appearing at the 
open house, they had participated in the inspection earlier in the week. 
They were not assigned to give speeches or conduct tours, but they were 
asked to mix with invited guests in the major exhibit hall within the large 
aircraft hangar, where the makeshift after-hours wet bar called "19th Hole" 
was set up and most socializing occurred. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

John Glenn, who in three years 
would become the first American 
to orbit the earth (20 February 
1962), explains a feature of the 
Mercury capsule to his wife, Annie 
Castor Glenn, whom he had known 
since his New Concord, Ohio, child- 


Big Joe, Little Joe 

The success of two recent tests for Project Mercury lent a cautiously 
upbeat mood to the First Anniversary Inspection. Five weeks earlier, 
on 9 September 1959, the project reached an important early milestone 
with what the inspection speakers called the "highly successful firing" of 
"Big Joe." Big Joe was a one-ton, full-scale instrumented mock-up of the 
proposed Mercury spacecraft designed to test the efficacy of the ablative 
heat shield and the aerodynamic stability of the capsule design. Speakers at 
the Project Mercury stop boasted that the Big Joe project had not begun 
until December 1958 and was flying successfully only 10 months later. 34 

After showing a short movie of Big Joe's launch atop an Atlas D booster 
from Cape Canaveral, the STG engineers explained that although the launch 
was normal, the two outer booster engines failed to jettison as planned 
because of a malfunction; the capsule- Atlas combination rose to an altitude 
of only about 100 miles. This was nevertheless high enough for the capsule, 
once separated from the Atlas, to fall back to earth in conditions that 
closely simulated orbital reentry. Another short movie showed the shipboard 
recovery of the capsule by a navy destroyer. The STG speakers explained 
that the recent Big Joe test not only proved to be an excellent exercise for 
the military recovery teams but also provided data that confirmed that the 


The First NASA Inspection 

blunt-body capsule shape had performed as predicted in NASA wind-tunnel 
and other laboratory studies. In their words, the Big Joe test was "the first 
major step" in proving that the Mercury design concepts were feasible. 35 

On display in the Aircraft Loads building was the recovered capsule; 
alongside it was a second Big Joe boilerplate capsule mounted on a Little 
Joe booster mock-up. NASA Langley was proud of Big Joe. A small group 
of Langley technical service people under STG's Jack Kinzler had actually 
fabricated the capsule's afterbody, including the upper heat shield and the 
parachute deck, while another NASA group under Scott Simpkinson at Lewis 
had made the lower part of the capsule, the instrumentation, the controls, 
and the rest of the heat shield. But Langley positively doted on its Little 
Joe. Little Joe was an innovative solid-fuel rocket, one of the earliest U.S. 
launch vehicles based on the principle of the clustered rocket engine. (The 
Soviets were already "clustering" the more complex and troublesome liquid- 
fuel rocket engines.) STG engineers Max Faget and Paul Purser, then of 
Langley 's PARD, had conceived Little Joe as a space capsule test vehicle 
even before the establishment of NASA and the formation of the STG. 
Gilruth understood the importance of the Little Joe tests: "We had to 
be sure there were no serious performance and operational problems that 
we had simply not thought of in such a new and radical type of flight 
vehicle." 36 A launch of Little Joe on 21 August 1959 had failed, but at 
Wallops Station on 4 October 1959, just two weeks before the inspection, 
NASA successfully fired one of the "little" test rockets to an altitude of 
about 40 miles over the Atlantic Ocean before intentionally destroying it. 37 

"Little" was relative, of course, because the rocket stood 50 feet 
tall, weighed 28,000 pounds the gross takeoff weight of a Douglas DC-3 
airliner and had a cluster of eight solid propellant engines that produced a 
quarter of a million pounds of thrust at takeoff. Nor did "little" accurately 
describe Little Joe's importance to the Mercury project. For the 4 October 
launch, neither the capsule nor the escape rocket had been instrumented, 
but Little Joe would carry instrumented pay loads to varying altitudes, thus 
allowing NASA engineers to check the operation of the escape rocket and 
recovery systems. This they could do from Wallops Island before proceeding 
to the more expensive and difficult phases in the latter part of the program 
at Cape Canaveral. In ensuing months, Little Joe rockets (models I and 
II) also provided information on flight stresses as they related to "biological 
payloads." The first of these payloads was Sam, a 7-pound Rhesus monkey 
launched from Wallops on the nose of a Little Joe on 4 December 1959. Sur- 
viving a violent ride up and down from a height of 55 miles with a parachute 
landing into the Atlantic Ocean, Sam gave NASA flight engineers a better 
idea of how human astronauts would fare during their upcoming Mercury 
flights. 38 

To the public, Project Mercury looked to be proceeding smoothly. The 
major setback of July 1959, when the first Atlas-Mercury production vehicle 
failed structurally under launch loads at the Cape, was not mentioned 


Space/light Revolution 


Langley technicians constructed the Little 
Joe capsules in-house in Langley 's shops 
(top). A crane swings a capsule into 
place atop Little Joe in preparation for a 
launch at Wallops Island (right). 



The First NASA Inspection 

Langley's Little Joe rocket blasting off 
(left) from Wallops Island in the fall 
of 1959. Max Faget thought that Little 
Joe could be made reliable enough 
to carry a man, but Gilruth eventu- 
ally scrapped the idea, deciding to use 
Redstone and Atlas. Below, the Little 
Joe capsule is recovered at sea. 




Space/light Revolution 

in Langley's open-house presentation. To everyone behind the scenes at 
Langley, Project Mercury was in fact advancing at breakneck speed. In the 
period between early October 1958 and mid-January 1959, specifications for 
the Mercury capsule had been prepared and sent to the aerospace industry 
with a Request for Proposals; the bidders had been briefed; all the source 
selection (evaluation of proposal) activity had taken place; and the contract 
had been placed. That was not all. During the same period, the STG 
procured Atlas rockets and launch services from the air force; worked out a 
plan with the army (and Wernher von Braun's rocket team in Huntsville) for 
Redstone boosters; drew up the specifications for Little Joe; tested escape 
rockets over the beach at Wallops; and were in the midst of a wide range 
of tests at Langley. The STG also had to present technical reviews of the 
project to NASA headquarters officials approximately every two months. 
To do all this, every member of the STG worked holidays, evenings, and 
weekends. "These were the days of the most intensive and dedicated work 
[by] a group of people that I have ever experienced," Gilruth recalls proudly. 
This kind of performance could have occurred only "in a young organization 
that had not yet solidified all of its functions and prerogatives." 3 

This performance could have happened only in an organization whose 
staff members did not know or care to know the difference between the 
possible and the impossible until they found out for themselves. 


Carrying Out the Task 

There are no billboards heralding the birthplace of the 
Nation's [space] program. There are no colorful ban- 
ners proclaiming it the homebase for the U.S. 's seven 
astronauts. Yet nestled at one end of the historic Vir- 
ginia Peninsula, a small group of buildings were the 
setting for the most penetrating research and develop- 
ment programs of our time. . . . It was here at the 
NASA Langley Research Center that America took its 
first step into space. 

Virginia Biggins 
Newport News Daily Press 

For Bob Gilruth, the chief operational officer of the U.S. manned space 
program, NASA's First Anniversary Inspection meant only a brief respite 
from the torturously hectic schedule he had been following for more than 
a year. As head of Project Mercury, he had given dozens of talks and had 
answered thousands of questions in the past 15 months about America's 
highly publicized enterprise to send a man into space. He had made 
presentations before Congress, to Dr. Killian and the rest of the President's 
Science Advisory Committee, and to the senior staff of the Advanced 
Research Projects Agency (ARPA) including agency heads Roy Johnson and 
Dr. Herbert York.* "Some of these gentlemen were not at all enthusiastic 
about our plan to put a man into space," Gilruth later acknowledged. In 
fact, Presidential Science Adviser Dr. George Kistiakowsky had remarked 
with great displeasure that the plan "would be only the most expensive 
funeral man has ever had." 1 

The secretary of defense had established ARPA in January 1958 to run U.S. space programs on an 
interim basis until NASA was established. 


Space/light Revolution 

But at least during the anniversary inspection the pressure was off; 
officially, Gilruth was just one of the guests touring with the red group. 
At the Mercury stop, the eight men from the STG had to put on the good 
show that everyone had come to expect, and for once he could sit back and 
listen to someone else do the talking. 

For the balding 45-year-old aeronautical engineer from Nashawauk, Min- 
nesota, Project Mercury had started in the hot summer of 1958 while on 
assignment in Washington, B.C. Dr. Hugh Dryden had needed help putting 
together a plan and a budget for the new space agency, and Gilruth, with 
about 20 senior men from Langley and the other NACA laboratories, went 
to lend a hand. Eisenhower had not yet given specific responsibility for 
management of the nation's manned spaceflight program to the soon-to-be 
NASA, nor had he officially named Glennan the NASA administrator. Abe 
Silverstein, subsequent head of space projects at NASA headquarters, had 
not yet come up with the name "Mercury" for the proposed manned satellite 
project. In one large room on the sixth floor of the NACA headquarters, 
Gilruth and associates worked feverishly through the muggy midsummer to 
put together a plan for a man-in-space program that would be acceptable 
not only to the reincarnated NACA but also to ARPA, the president, and 
his scientific advisers. 2 

"In order to do this," Gilruth remembers, "I collected a select group 
of people ... to form a sort of task force." The members of this original 
group included Langley's Max Faget, head of the Performance Aerodynamics 
Branch of PARD; Paul Purser, head of the High Temperature Branch of 
PARD; Charles W. Mathews, head of the Stability and Control Branch of 
the Flight Research Division; Charles H. Zimmerman, assistant chief of the 
Stability Research Division; and three men from Lewis. These men were 
called from the 10 telephones specially installed in the NACA's big sixth- 
floor room and were told to "be in Washington tomorrow afternoon." As 
Zimmerman remembers: 

I said, well, what for? [The voice said,] "I can't tell you what for." Who am I supposed 
to see? [The voice said,] "Just be in the Washington office tomorrow morning/' I 
went to the Washington office and I stayed there three or four months. ... I wasn't 
told anything, just be there. I had to go and tell my wife I'm going. [I] didn't win a 


popularity contest that day. 

Gilruth brought in several other NACA engineers for consultation when 
their expertise was needed. He called in PARD's top engineering designer 
Caldwell Johnson, who had been hired by the NACA as a model builder 
in 1937 at the age of 18; Johnson's job was to put the first design of the 
Mercury capsule on paper. The result was an elegant series of freehand pen- 
and-ink sketches that artistically put many detailed engineering drawings to 
shame. Near the end of the summer, two more engineers from Lewis and 
one from Langley, Charles Donlan, joined the group to finalize and fine-tune 
the Mercury plan. 


Carrying Out the Task 

The work of the task force turned out well both in the short term and the 
long run. Thinking back on the substance of these early talks about what 
came to be Project Mercury, Gilruth would be impressed by how closely 
the STG was able to follow the original plan of that summer: "We said we 
would use the Atlas rocket; a special space capsule with a [NACA-proven] 
blunt heat shield; and parachutes for a landing at sea. All these things 
were to work out very much as we proposed." 4 During that hot summer of 
1958, Max Faget, Caldwell Johnson, and Lewis's Andre Meyer also came up 
with the idea of an escape rocket to enable the capsule to get away from a 
malfunctioning launch rocket, and Faget conceived the form of the contour 
couch, which would help to protect the astronauts against the high G-forces 
during launch and reentry. 

Much about the group's Mercury concept was not all that new: the 
aerodynamic benefits of the blunt-body shape had been discovered (at 
least for ballistic nose cones) by H. Julian "Harvey" Allen and Alfred J. 
Eggers at NACA Ames in the early 1950s. 5 Since then, several important 
notions about ballistic reentry vehicles had been germinating in the minds of 
Gilruth's colleagues in PARE), notably in the brilliant one belonging to the 
outspoken Max Faget. (Because he was one of the most intuitive researchers 
on the Langley staff, jealous colleagues jibed that his name stood for Fat- Ass 
Guess Every Time.) By the launch of Sputnik 1, Faget had proposed that 
a simple nonlifting shape, if properly designed, could follow a ballistic path 
when reentering the atmosphere without overheating or accelerating at rates 
dangerous to the astronaut. Drag would slow the capsule as it reentered the 
atmosphere. Furthermore, the shape though basically nonlifting could 
generate the slightest amount of aerodynamic lift necessary to permit the 
capsule to make one or two simple maneuvers during reentry. Faget had 
made some rough tests to prove this theory. From the balcony overlooking 
the PARD shop, he had flipped two paper plates that had been taped 
together into the air. "I thought he was crazy at first," remembers fellow 
PARD engineer J. Thomas Markley. "Max, what are you doing?" asked 
Markley in amusement. Faget answered, "I think these things will really fly. 
We really have some lift-over-drag in this thing." 6 

A few months after the paper-plate toss, at the last NACA Conference on 
High-Speed Aerodynamics held at Ames in March 1958, the feisty 5-foot-6- 
inch Faget gave a talk entitled "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites- 
Wingless Configuration: Non-Lifting," which was coauthored by Langley's 
Benjamin J. Garland and James J. Buglia. In the talk Faget put forward 
most of the key items that NASA would later use in Project Mercury: a 
ballistic shape weighing some 2000 pounds and having a nearly flat-faced 
cone configuration, small attitude jets for controlling the capsule in orbit, 
retrorockets to bring the capsule down, and a parachute for final descent. 
"As far as reentry and recovery are concerned," Faget concluded his talk, 
"the state of the art is sufficiently advanced so that it is possible to proceed 


Spaceflight Revolution 

confidently with a manned satellite project based upon the ballistic reentry 
type of vehicle." 7 

Not everyone was so confident. In the wake of Sputnik, several interesting 
concepts for manned satellites had popped up. Some advocates of these al- 
ternatives disdained Faget's proposed ballistic approach because, as Gilruth 
explained, it represented "such a radical departure from the airplane." 8 This 
man-in-the-can approach was too undignified a way to fly. Many concerned 
with America's new space program searched for another plan: Couldn't a 
pilot fly into space and back in some honest-to-goodness flying machine? 
Why not doctor the X-15 so a pilot could take it into orbit and back with- 
out burning up? Or why not push to quickly build one of the hypersonic 
gliders that had been drawn up on paper? One of the most innovative con- 
cepts for such a space plane, proposed by Langley's Chuck Mathews, called 
for a craft similar to NASA's later Space Shuttle. Mathews' plane would 
have a circular wing and would glide back from space at a high angle of at- 
tack. During reentry, most of the intense heat caused by the friction would 
therefore be confined to the wing's lower surface. Upon reaching the atmo- 
sphere, the vehicle would pitch over and fly to a landing like a conventional 
airplane. 9 

Such concepts sparked much interest in the months after Sputnik. 
Gilruth and the rest of the team planning for Project Mercury considered 
the merits of each one separately. Several of the ideas could have been 
made to work in time, but the new space agency did not have time to spare. 
Everything indicated that the Soviets were intent on launching a man into 
space, and the United States was determined to beat them to it. The Atlas 
rocket, the most powerful American booster at the time, was not capable 
of lifting more than about 2000 pounds into orbit, which ruled out the hy- 
personic glider concepts. Furthermore, even the Atlas was still horribly 
unreliable. Only one out of eight Atlases had been launched successfully; 
the other seven had staggered off course or blown up. If the United States 
wanted to win this important second leg of the space race, waiting for the 
development of a bigger and more dependable missile capable of lifting the 
far greater weight of a small space plane did not make sense. "It seemed 
obvious to our group," Gilruth would explain many years later, "that only 
the most simple ballistic capsule could be used if manned spaceflight were 
to be accomplished in the next few years." 10 

Several options may have been more technologically attractive to some 
NASA engineers, but Faget's plan appeared the best to achieve America's 
immediate space objectives. In some respects the plan was an ungainly 
(some have said unimaginative, even ugly) way to send an American into 
space, yet in 1959 it seemed the only way to do so quickly. As Gilruth would 
say later, Project Mercury 

wasn't pretty like a flower or a tree. But it had no bad traits. It was designed as a 
vehicle for a man to ride in, and circle the earth. With its blunt body, its retrorockets 

and parachutes, it was an elegant solution to the problem. 


Carrying Out the Task 

But a solution that was elegant in conception had no guarantee of becoming 
a practical success. Once ARPA heads Roy Johnson (a former General 
Motors executive) and Herbert York (a distinguished atomic physicist) 
approved the plan on 7 October 1958 and NASA gave the go-ahead, Gilruth 
and his people were left with the job of making Project Mercury work. 

A Home at Langley 

Gilruth and associates returned to Langley Research Center from the 
nation's capital in mid-October 1958 and immediately began to contend 
with the unknown challenges of putting together an organization that could 
manage an operation much bigger, more complicated, and far riskier than 
any previously undertaken by the NACA. In approving the project, Keith 
Glennan's comment had been, "All right. Let's get on with it." Bob Gilruth 
remembers that at the time he "had no staff and only [oral] orders to return 
to Langley Field." When Gilruth politely pressed the administrator for some 
details about how he was to implement the plan in terms of staffing, funding, 
and facilities, Glennan reiterated brusquely, "Just get on with it." 12 

Gilruth's yet-to-be-built organization was given temporary quarters at 
Langley, where it would act, again temporarily, as a quasi-independent 
NASA field unit reporting directly to Abe Silverstein's Office of Space Flight 
Development in Washington. Though Langley lacked management control 
over the new group, the center's support of the task group's ambitious 
program proved remarkably strong. 

Almost everything about the initial organization and early operation 
of Gilruth's group happened catch- as-catch-can. Even the name of the 
STG itself suggested a makeshift character, as if NASA did not want to 
raise expectations too high about meeting the Soviet challenge. One STG 
member suggests that the choice of the title "Space Task Group" amounted 
to a "conscious effort to put the work in proper perspective and avoid 
grandiose organizational concepts at a time when satellite development 
experience was limited to basketball- and grapefruit-sized objects." The 
timid nomenclature might protect NASA if the manned satellite program 
did not work as planned. NASA could say that only one task failed; the rest 
of NASA's operation was proceeding nicely. 

Excluding Bob Gilruth, the most important person behind the formula- 
tion of the STG was Langley's Floyd Thompson. Although still nominally 
the laboratory's number two man, Thompson had been serving as the di- 
rector for some time because of Henry Reid's rather relaxed approach to 
his impending retirement. According to Gilruth, Thompson "was all for 
me, because he knew that if we didn't succeed, NASA wouldn't succeed." 
He realized that Gilruth would need substantial center support until the 
slow-grinding paper mill at NASA headquarters made alternative provisions. 
Thus, when Gilruth asked Thompson how he could get the men and women 


Space/light Revolution 

he needed for the STG, Thompson told him simply to write a short memo- 
randum stating that he had been authorized by Administrator Glennan to 
draft personnel. Gilruth wrote that memo on 3 November 1958 and per- 
sonally took it down the hall to the associate director's office. The letter 
amounted to one brief paragraph: 

The Administrator of NASA has directed me to organize a space task group to 
implement a manned satellite project. This task group will be located at the Langley 
Research Center but, in accordance with the instructions of the Administrator, will 
report directly to NASA Headquarters. 

For the project to proceed with the utmost speed, Gilruth proposed to form 
his group around a nucleus of key Langley personnel, the majority of whom 
had already worked with him on the project at NASA headquarters. 

Thompson did not want to run the STG himself, because he recognized 
that a quasi-independent person like Gilruth, not a center director, was 
"the best guy to do it." 15 At the same time, Thompson wanted Gilruth, a 
personal friend, to have a circle of bright and trustworthy individuals around 
him. In particular, Thompson felt Gilruth should have a good, solid deputy, 
so he gave him Donlan, his own energetic assistant.* For the past seven 
or eight years Donlan had been enjoying the enviable job of probing, at his 
own discretion, into different areas of the laboratory's research programs 
and acting as its technical conscience. "Thompson thought Gilruth needed 
me, because Bob liked to play around with ideas and not pay too much 
attention to the actual running of the technical functions," Donlan states. 
So, "for the first time in [my] professional career," Thompson told Donlan, 
"[I] am going to make a recommendation." Thompson asked Donlan to join 
the STG as Gilruth's deputy. 16 

Gilruth's terse memo created a rapidly expanding core group of space 
pilgrims. According to one cynic, these pilgrims were like those who came 
to America on the Mayflower, "considering how many people tell you they 
were in it." 17 But Gilruth asked by name for the transfer of only 36 
Langley personnel plus 10 engineers from Lewis laboratory. Lewis provided 
rocket-engine and electronic engine-component specialists the experts in 
aerospace propulsion systems that Langley lacked. 

Fourteen of the 36 Langley personnel belonged to PARD. This major 
and quasi-independent division of the laboratory had been headed for a 
time in the early 1950s by Gilruth. The work of PARD had always 
required the management of flight operations (albeit pilotless ones) and 
had dabbled with hardware development. While studying the aerodynamics 
of various missiles and missile nose-cone configurations during the past 


Later on, Thompson would "feel an obligation" to bring Donlan back to Langley, making him 
Langley's associate director in March 1961. Donlan stayed on as associate director (later renamed 
deputy director) until May 1968 when, at the request of the NASA administrator, Donlan transferred 
to NASA headquarters and became the deputy associate administrator for Manned Space Flight. 


Carrying Out the Task 

few years, PARD engineers had established launch procedures at Wallops 
Island, experimented with the principles of rocket staging, developed key 
technologies for missile guidance and control systems, and built or refined 
sensitive instrumentation for telemetry studies. They had also supported 
manned satellite proposals from the Defense Department. In 1957 and early 
1958, before ARPA/NASA approval for Project Mercury, PARD engineers 
had given research support for Project MISS, the unfortunate acronym 
of the "Man-in-Space-Soonest project," an air force concept for simple 
manned orbital flights that in some technical respects presaged the Mercury 
concept. This early work in support of the manned satellite proposals had 
taken the PARD engineers into such areas as space environmental controls, 
communications systems, and heat-shield technology. Having had this 
experience, many members of PARD were not as concerned as other Langley 
employees about the possible compromise of traditional laboratory research 
functions implicit in heavy involvement in Project Mercury. In terms of 
technological expertise and organizational culture, PARD people were the 
most naturally inclined at Langley to become involved in the planning and 
management of NASA's manned spaceflight program. 18 

Of the remaining 22 STG staff members recruited from Langley, 10 were 
from research divisions other than PARD; 4 had been working in the 
Fiscal Division, central files, or in the stenographic pool; and 8 were 
either secretaries in PARD, stenographers, or "computers" (operators of 
the calculating machines). Thompson agreed to give Gilruth all the people 
he asked for, save one: a young electrical engineer, William J. Boyer. The 
Instrument Research Division (IRD) wanted to keep Boyer, and he was not 
anxious to be transferred. The head of that division, Edmond C. Buckley, 
finally found a satisfactory replacement in Howard C. Kyle. 

Most of the original STG crew signed up voluntarily; they were young, 
relatively unestablished, and they relished the challenge. At ages 45 and 
42, respectively, Gilruth and Donlan were experienced enough to recognize 
the difficulties of the job ahead, but many of their subordinates were naive 
about the ways of the world and did not consider the serious hazards facing 
them. Jack Kinzler, a skilled master craftsman in the West Area machine 
shop, recalls that he had grown "so consumed with space" after Sputnik 
that he just dropped everything when Gilruth called him to join the group. 
After accepting the transfer, Kinzler then had a devil of a time fighting off 
a swarm of excited co-workers who wanted to move to the STG with him. 
When the 21-year-old Lewis engineer Glynn Lunney heard about what the 
STG was doing, he thought, "Gee, that looks like it would be a hell of a lot 
of fun let's go do that!" Carl Huss and Ted Scopinski worked at the same 
desk in the Aircraft Loads Laboratory in Langley 's West Area. The two 
engineers recall one day in late 1958, after they had heard so much about 
the STG from former co-worker John P. Mayer: "[We] looked at each other 
and asked why we didn't transfer over to the Space Task Group. So we 
did." 19 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Wild enthusiasm might have been confined to the young and inexpe- 
rienced, but strong passion for Project Mercury was not. Donlan looked 
upon the manned satellite project "as a pioneering effort of a type that 
comes along only about once in a half century." To him, the project offered 
a moment in history that would be "similar to aviation when Lindbergh 
flew the ocean." He never doubted that he should join the STG: "I had 
to participate in what I instinctively felt would be a breathtaking opera- 
tion, and I decided to do so without much thought as to the long-range 
possibilities." 20 In the end, his time with the STG (November 1958-May 
1961) did not hurt his career. When he resigned his position as the STG's 
number two man, he rejoined the Langley operation as Floyd Thompson's 
associate director. 

The rest of Langley's senior staff was not as easily impressed by the man- 
in-space program. With the exception of the two men from the director's 
office, only one member of Langley's senior staff joined the STG: Charles 
Zimmerman, assistant chief of the Stability Research Division. Zimmerman 
was not keen about the assignment. "It was a traumatic experience as far as 
I was concerned," Zimmerman remembers. After spending a hectic summer 
in Washington with Gilruth's planning group, he said, "The hell with this." 
He got in touch with Henry Reid and told him that he wanted to come back 
to Langley. After taking a week off to vacation in Canada, he returned to 
Langley Field. "I got back home on Friday and was going to go to work 
on Monday," Zimmerman recalls, but that Friday night a colleague came to 
break the news that Zimmerman had been assigned to the Mercury group. 
"So, there I was in it again." 21 Once more, Zimmerman had to put aside 
his precious airplane work.* 

At 51, Zimmerman was the old man of the STG; several of the others 
were young enough to be his children. He had started his career at NACA 
Langley in 1929, only two years after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, and 
like many NACA researchers of his generation, he was not comfortable with 
the idea of moving away from aeronautics into the management of a large 
manned space program. For Zimmerman and most other senior Langley staff 
members, the excitement of the program was not enough to compensate for 
the headaches and perhaps even the career risks associated with moving 
outside the comfortable confines of aeronautical research. Perhaps the 
country's interest in manned spaceflight was just a passing fancy, some of 
the older men thought. Project Mercury had been authorized, but nothing 
else up to this point had been. Throwing in with the lot of the "space 
cadets" meant accepting a great many technological, political, institutional, 
and personal career unknowns, t If the initial series of Mercury launches 
came off successfully, the manned space program would probably continue 

Zimmerman, famous for the XF5U "flying flapjack," which he designed for Vought during the 1940s, 
had been busy for a number of years trying to make the conventional airplane into a VTOL machine. 
* Space cadet is an expression of derision taken from a popular American television show of the 1950s. 


Carrying Out the Task 

in some form, and it might even be expanded, but late in 1958 no one could 
be any more sure about that than they could be about the outcome of the 
upcoming 1960 presidential election, on which so much about the course of 
the U.S. space program would ultimately depend. 

With the exception of the graying triumvirate of Zimmerman, Gilruth, 
and Donlan, the entirety of Langley's senior management stayed where they 
were in the organization and continued what they had been doing. At least 
a few of the senior staff also privately advised their juniors to do the same. 
One member of the STG remembers that his division chief tried to persuade 
him not to accept the transfer to the STG. "You don't want to ruin your 
career," the division chief told him. "There's nothing going to come of this, 
and you're going to be hurt by it." Manned spaceflight, he warned, was just 
a fad. 22 

Many veteran employees felt that "it just wasn't the Langley way" to 
implement big projects like Mercury. The laboratory had flourished for 
more than 40 years by doing research, not by implementing things. 23 It 
had remained strong and autonomous by developing its own competencies 
and by doing nearly everything that involved research in-house, but Project 
Mercury was to be based on considerable work that was contracted out 
to industry. The people responsible for the contract work would have to 
cover many new fronts: they had to prepare space capsule specifications; 
evaluate contractor proposals, then monitor the awarded contracts; procure 
Redstone rockets from the army and Atlas rockets from the air force; arrange 
for launch services; coordinate recovery operations; and so on. Skeptics 
feared that members of the STG would be so caught up in the urgency 
of managing contract work and in refereeing contractor haggling sessions 
(much to his chagrin, Zimmerman became chief of the STG's Engineering 
and Contract Administration Division) that they would not be conducting 
much research, if any. Becoming bureaucrats rather than staying technical 
personnel was a fate too horrible to ponder. To this day, Bob Gilruth holds 
his forehead when remembering how Langley colleagues would approach 
him during the heyday of Mercury not to inquire whether he had had any 
good ideas recently but rather to ask snidely, "Well, have you let any good 
contracts today?" 24 His old NACA associates might have envied Gilruth 
the publicity he was receiving, but they did not envy him his work. 

Gilruth's senior colleagues who did not want to join the STG did 
follow Floyd Thompson's example of helpfulness and energetically supported 
NASA's manned satellite project through traditional research avenues. 
"At the outset of the program, Langley threw all of its resources behind 
the infant STG," Thompson reflected in 1970, "providing technical and 
administrative support informally as required, just as though the STG was 
a part of Langley and not a separate organization." 25 Besides providing 
extensive support for the development and implementation of the Big Joe 
and Little Joe projects, dozens of center personnel conducted experimental 
studies aimed at evaluating the performance of the Mercury spacecraft at 


Space/light Revolution 

launch, in space, during reentry, and during its ocean recovery. Dozens of 
others became involved in engineering, shop, instrumentation, and logistic 
support for much of the STG's own in-house testing. 

For example, in 1959 a battery of wind-tunnel tests using scale models 
of the Mercury capsule and capsule-booster combinations had helped to 
provide needed data about lift, drag, static stability, trajectories, heat 
transfer, heat-shield pressures, and afterbody pressures; only after hundreds 
of these tests would the shape and appearance of the Mercury capsule be 
refined and finalized. At Wallops, engineers had mounted small models of 
the Mercury capsule on the tips of research rockets, launched them through 
the complete speed range predicted for the proposed spaceshot, and collected 
thousands of data points about the capsule's structural integrity, tumbling 
characteristics, and reentry dynamics. With the military's assistance, 
Langley researchers also tested the reliability of the capsule parachute 
system and determined the optimum altitude at which to deploy the drogue 
chute. Prom a C-130 Hercules transport that had been loaned to NASA 
by the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command at Langley Field, full-scale, 
one-ton models of the Mercury capsule prepared at Langley were dropped 
from an altitude of 10,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean off Wallops Island. 
Motion pictures from cameras in T-33 chase jets were used to make a detailed 
engineering study of the capsule's motions during descent and the impact 
forces on it when smacking into the sea. Langley personnel also conducted 
other impact studies by dropping small models of the space capsule at 30 
feet per second (21.6 miles per hour) into the Hydrodynamics Division's 
Water Tank No. I. 26 

While the numerous aerodynamic, structural, materials, and component 
tests were going on at the center, Langley representatives were arranging 
a schedule for wind-tunnel tests at the air force's Arnold Engineering 
Development Center in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and a team of non-STG staff 
members was being assembled to travel around the world to plan Project 
Mercury's global tracking network, the responsibility for which NASA 
headquarters had just assigned to the research center at the STG's request 
in February 1959. In addition to this colossal effort, Langley engineers 
and technicians were developing the simulators and spaceflight procedure 
trainers for the Mercury astronauts who had just been entrusted to the STG. 
By opening day of the NASA inspection in October 1959, Langley had sent 
six months' worth of weekly reports to NASA headquarters about the great 
volume of work being done in support of Mercury. Of the laboratory's 1150 
employees, 119 of them (about 10 percent) had been working full-time on 
the project in recent months. 

In the year following the STG's establishment, between October 1958 
and October 1959, some 250 people were added to the original STG; 
more than half came from Langley's staff. Many of the key people who 
moved from Langley to the STG brought with them important experience 
in flight-test research. Floyd Thompson wanted to give Gilruth a strong 


Carrying Out the Task 



The Mercury spacecraft and booster rockets underwent extensive testing in Langley 
wind tunnels. The full-size capsule is mounted in the Full-Scale Tunnel (top). A 
one-sixth scale model of the Mercury capsule is tested in Langley 's 7 x 10- Foot 
High-Speed Tunnel to determine the effect of escape system power on the capsule 's 
stability (bottom). 


Spaceflight Revolution 


The Redstone booster carrying the spacecraft is mounted for testing in Langley's 
Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel. 


In impact studies conducted in the Back River behind Langley's East Area, the 
astronauts practiced the dangerous maneuver of getting out of the space capsule as 
it floated in water. 


Carrying Out the Task 

cohort that understood "flying men" pilots, that is not just the flying 
of pilotless models. "Tommy wanted to make sure that there were enough 
flight guys involved in this venture," Donlan remembers. 27 Fortuitously, 
NASA headquarters recently had made a decision to limit Langley's flying 
and had transferred most of its flight research activities to the NASA 
center at Edwards AFB. This decision disappointed Langley researchers and 
made them ready to jump at the chance to get involved with the manned 
space program. Consequently, several top-notch Langley flight researchers 
became part of the STG. Along with Gilruth (also a former NACA flight 
research engineer), Walter C. Williams, former director of the NACA Flight 
Research Center in California, and Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., and Charles 
W. Mat hews, both standouts in Langley's Flight Research Division, became 
the heart of the Project Mercury flight operations team. 

The Tracking Range 

Of all the Langley efforts in support of Project Mercury, by far the 
biggest, the most difficult to carry out logistically, and the most adven- 
turesome was the Mercury tracking range project. NASA flight operations 
officers and aeromedical specialists wanted to have almost constant radio 
contact with the Mercury astronauts. To maintain communication with the 
spacecraft as it circled the earth, NASA had to create a worldwide commu- 
nications and tracking network. 

In the early days of Project Mercury, NASA really did not know what 
sort of tracking network was needed to monitor its spacecraft. Those frontier 
days of the manned space program before the operation, let alone the very 
idea, of a "mission control" center are hard to remember. Over the last three 
decades, the public has grown familiar with the drama and the emotionally 
charged "electricity" of the control center amphitheater. This amphitheater, 
with its tidy rows of communications consoles, computerized workstations, 
and its front wall covered with a large electronic map of the world, became 
thought of as the brain and nerve center of a NASA spaceflight mission. 
Here, in what one NASA astronaut has called a "temple of technology," 
worked the middle-aged men in white shirts and dark neckties the flight 
controllers who wore the headphones and the worried looks as they talked 
to the astronauts in the spacecraft and made the split-second, life-or-death 
decisions about whether to "abort" or "go for orbit." 28 

This stage for the high drama of "space theater" did not exist prior 
to Project Mercury. The flight tests of the most experimental, high-speed 
airplane had not required the development of a ground-control facility as 
sophisticated as mission control. Even at a pioneering place like Edwards 
AFB, the role of the flight experts on the ground had involved little more 
than "getting the airplane into the best possible mechanical condition, 
spelling out the day's test objectives for the pilot, and retrieving data from 


Space/light Revolution 

the instrumentation after the plane landed." 29 During the flight itself, flight 
operations people talked to the pilot in moderation; for the most part, they 
quelled their curiosity, shaded their eyes, strained anxiously to follow the 
flashing metal arrow through the sky, and left the pilot to his own devices. 

At first, the STG envisioned little more than this rather passive mode 
of flight control for the Mercury spacecraft: checking it out before launch, 
maintaining a voice link with the astronaut to see how things were going, but 
letting the astronaut and the automatic in-flight systems do the rest. After 
reflecting seriously on the immense task before them, that vision changed. 
"I don't know how to describe it exactly," explains Glynn Lunney of the 
original STG, "but we began to realize that, 'Hey, we're going to fly this 
thing around the world!' ' In that instant of stark realization came the 
feeling that certain critical decisions about a spaceflight such as whether 
to abort immediately after launch, to use the escape rocket, or to blow up 
a maverick rocket before it dug a big hole into downtown Cocoa Beach 
could be, and should be, controlled from the ground. Out of this conviction 
came the concept of a ground room with not just a person talking to the 
astronaut, but many people analyzing tracking and telemetry data on the 
status of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft. 30 Already by the time of 
the first NASA inspection in October 1959, the STG was calling this room 
the Mercury "Control Center" and was moving rapidly to have one built at 
Cape Canaveral. 

As the vague and open-ended possibilities of Mercury flight operations 
and mission control became more clearly defined, the STG decided that to be 
out of communication with the astronauts during their spaceflights for very 
long would be neither wise nor safe. The STG's flight operations people 
and more conservative aeromedical specialists argued over the maximum 
amount of time they could be out of contact with the astronauts. The 
physicians were "horrified at the casualness" of one suggestion that in-flight 
communications with the astronauts could be handled like commercial air 
traffic control, with the pilot only reporting to the ground every 15 to 30 
minutes. 31 The doctors, intent on continuous and complete monitoring of 
the astronaut's vital physiological and mental responses to the unknown 
demands of spaceflight, did not like the idea of gaps in communication 
lasting for any appreciable length of time. Without the resolution of this 
internal debate, engineers could not establish design parameters necessary 
for proceeding with the global tracking network. In the end, the STG 
decided that a tracking network was needed in which gaps in communication 
lasted no more than 10 minutes. 32 

Fathoming the immensity of what had to be done to establish this 
network took time. Initially some naive Langley engineers believed that 
whatever tracking stations were needed by the Mercury team to provide 
"real-time" tracking data could be provided simply by mounting radar sets 
on rented air force trucks that could be stationed at sites around the world. 
But after giving the matter careful thought, the communications experts 


Carrying Out the Task 

"began to realize that it wasn't good enough to have isolated radar sets: 
the people back at the Control Center needed a network of linked stations, 
capable of receiving, processing, and reacting to a variety of voice, radar, 
and telemetry data." 33 

Thus began a Promethean task because 1960 was a different technologi- 
cal age especially in terms of communications. An instantaneous telephone 
call around the world was not yet possible. The only long-range communi- 
cation, from continent to continent, was by undersea telegraph cable, and 
most of these cables had been laid at the turn of the century by the British. 
That is not to say a remarkable telecommunications network did not exist. 
Over the years the British, among others, had built up an amazing global 
system involving tens of thousands of miles of submarine cables as well as 
vast distances covered by wireless communications, but the day of instan- 
taneous electronic communication around the world had not yet arrived. 
Its arrival depended largely on the launch of communications satellites like 
Telstar, which the infant space programs at that time were making possible. 
For NASA staff to have the type of communications necessary for control 
of the Mercury spacecraft and for assistance to the astronauts, they had to 
build their own global system. 

Creating this global network was a job that NASA Goddard Research 
Center could not do from its temporary quarters at Anacostia. Also, 
Goddard people were still responsible for the Minitrack Network that had 
been set up for the Project Vanguard satellite, so they were busy tracking 
the unmanned satellites that were then being launched. This existing system 
was not suitable for tracking the orbit of the Mercury spacecraft because 
the system had been laid out north-to-south (along the 75th meridian), 
whereas STG studies had concluded that the best orbital path of the 
Mercury spacecraft would be west-to-east along the equator. Minitrack, 
even in combination with other existing commercial, scientific, and military 
communications networks, had far too many "bare spots" to provide the 
comprehensive global coverage required for Mercury. 

The STG was unable to take on this job because its manpower was 
already stretched to the limit; STG staff could not bear the additional load 
of setting up an ambitious new tracking and communications net that had to 
reach completely around the world. "There was just no way [for the STG] to 
build the spacecraft as well as the ground tracking network," says William 
J. Boyer, the fellow from Langley's IRD whose transfer to the original STG 
had been short-circuited by his division chief in November 1958. Boyer, 
who became one of the most active members of the Langley team that 
built the Mercury tracking range, remembers that Howard Kyle, the IRD 
engineer who was named to replace him on the STG, was the first to come 
to this conclusion. Kyle, without any trouble, persuaded STG's Chuck 
Mathews of the impossibility; Mathews in turn convinced Bob Gilruth; and 
Gilruth asked Floyd Thompson whether Langley, with NASA headquarters' 
approval, could take on this additional heavy responsibility. 35 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Once again, Thompson wanted to do everything he could to make Project 
Mercury a success. So in February 1959, he called in his assistant director, 
Hartley Soule, and they put together an ad hoc team that came to be 
known as TAGIU (pronounced "Taggy-you" ) , which stood for the Tracking 
and Ground Instrumentation Unit. Heading the temporary unit was Soule 
himself, who was deemed the tracking range project director. G. Barry 
Graves, Jr., the head of IRD's Pilotless Aircraft Research Instrumentation 
Branch, was to handle the detailed management of the tracking network 
project from a special TAGIU office, and Paul H. Vavra, Graves's colleague 
in the IRD branch, was to assist. The unit was placed within IRD on 
an organizational chart. No one really knew how much work faced them: 
members of TAGIU were told initially that their work would be part-time 
and add only slightly to their regular duties. But as Vavra notes, "a 
few weeks later we were in the space program night and day and never 
thought about our other jobs." 36 As with everything else concerning Project 
Mercury, TAGIU progressed rapidly. On 30 July 1959, NASA awarded the 
contract for the creation of an integrated spacecraft tracking and ground 
instrumentation system to Western Electric Company and its four major 
subcontractors: Bell Telephone Laboratories of Whippany, New Jersey, for 
system engineering, engineering consultations, and command and control 
displays; the Bendix Corporation of Los Angeles and Towson, Maryland, for 
radar installation, ground-to-air communications, telemetry, and site display 
equipment; Burns and Roe of Long Island for site preparation, site facilities, 
construction, and logistic support; and International Business Machines 
Corporation of New York for computer programming, simulation displays, 
and computers. 37 Monitoring the contract involved the expenditure of 
nearly $80 million and extensive negotiation with other federal agencies, 
private industry, and representatives of several foreign countries. However, 
in June 1961, less than two years after awarding the contract, Langley 
looked on with pride as the power for the around-the-world-in-an-instant 
communications system was turned on for the first time. 

Working on the global tracking range took Langley personnel farther 
away from the comfortable confines of their wind tunnels than any other 
aerospace project ever had before, or has since. In the two-year period 
between the awarding of the contract and the initiation of the tracking 
operations, a team of engineers and technicians from NASA Langley traveled 
tens of thousands of miles to some of the most remote places on earth. They 
went to oversee the building of an ambitious network that when completed 
stretched from the new Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral to 18 
relay stations spanning three continents, seven islands, and two ocean-bound 
radar picket ships. Along its way around the world, the network utilized land 
lines, undersea cables and radio circuits, special computer programs and 
digital data conversion and processing equipment, as well as other special 
communications equipment installed at commercial switching stations in 
both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. The network involved range 


Carrying Out the Task 

George Barry Graves, Jr., head of the 
Pilotless Aircraft Research Instrumenta- 
tion Branch of Langley's IRD, handled 
the detailed management of the Mercury 
tracking network from a special office 
within the ad hoc TAGIU. 

stations in such faraway and inaccessible places as the south side of the 
Grand Canary Island, 120 miles west of the African coast; Kano, Nigeria, in 
a farming area about 700 rail-miles inland; Zanzibar, an island 12 miles off 
the African coast in the Indian Ocean; a place called Woomera, amid the 
opal mines in the middle of the Australian outback; and Canton Island, a 
small atoll about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. 

"It was quite mind-boggling to realize that you're living in Hampton, 
Virginia, and you were getting tickets to change planes in the Belgian Congo 
to go to Kenya and from there on to Zanzibar," exclaims Bill Boyer. Boyer 
traveled with Barry Graves's small "management team," which negotiated 
with foreign governments and picked the tentative sites for the Mercury 
tracking stations. In Madrid his team sat for four weeks waiting for the 
Spanish government to grant permission to go to the Canary Islands. On 
their way through central Africa, in the Belgian Congo, group members 
moved cautiously past threatening gun-toting rebels who were fighting 
against European colonial rule. "We would pick the tentative sites based on 
the technical criteria established by the Space Task Group," Boyer states, 
"and then we'd go around to the telecommunications people in those foreign 
countries to get as much advice and assistance from them as we could." 
The TAGIU team looked into the logistics of particular sites: Where would 
NASA people eat? Where would they sleep? How would they be supplied? 
What were the capabilities of the local construction companies? After 
addressing these questions, the management team would move on, and a 


Spaceflight Revolution 




^4 layout of a typical Project Mercury tracking site as conceptualized by Graves's 
outfit in 1961. 

"technical team" would move into the recommended site. This larger, follow- 
on team would then conduct a detailed study to determine whether the site 
met technical criteria: could NASA construct the buildings it needed, and 
were the materials easily available? The technical team would then make a 
final recommendation about the proposed site. 38 

As with so many other rushed and complicated operations of the early 
manned space program, much about the multimillion-dollar Mercury track- 
ing network could have gone wrong. Instead, it worked like a charm, track- 
ing the spacecraft with a high degree of accuracy. In the words of Edmond 
C. Buckley, the former IRD head at Langley who by the time of the first 
Mercury orbital flight by John Glenn was the director of tracking and data 
acquisition at NASA headquarters, the network "worked better than it could 
have in the most optimistic dreams." 39 For example, as the system tracked 
the spacecraft from the Bermuda station on, NASA found that the "residu- 
als," that is, the comparison of the computed predicted path and the actual 
path as determined by each location, differed in most cases by less than 1000 


Carrying Out the Task 

feet and in some cases by less than 100 feet. These figures compared favor- 
ably with the ability of tracking systems of that day to report the location 
of naval ships crossing the oceans. 

The creation of this unprecedented and highly successful worldwide 
ground instrumentation and tracking network required the services of many 
members of the Langley staff beyond those formally part of TAGIU. Three 
Langley organizations (as well as several outfits at Wallops Island) played 
major roles in establishing the network: IRD, which helped to guide the 
design of the electronic systems; the Engineering Service Division, which 
assisted in the selection of sites and the coordination and monitoring of the 
station construction; and the Procurement Division, which negotiated the 
huge contract and maintained constant liaison with the prime contractor, 
Western Electric, and its associates. Thanks to this extensive effort, 
NASA was able to have the kind of direct and comprehensive contact 
with the astronauts and their spacecraft that the flight operations and 
medical experts believed was necessary. As Edmond Buckley remarked, in a 
masterpiece of understatement, Langley "can take a well-deserved bow." 40 

Shouldering the Burden 

Nothing was more important to the stated objectives of the American 
space program by the early 1960s than Project Mercury, but supporting the 
program was still a burden on Langley Research Center. Gilruth admits 
that the days of a rapidly expanding Mercury program must have been 
"particularly difficult for Langley" because Gilruth's need for good people 
was such that he "could not help but continue to recruit" from the center. 
Faced with Gilruth's personnel demands, Thompson bargained with him. 
"Okay, Bob. I don't mind letting you have as many good people from 
Langley as you need . . . but for every one that you want to take . . . you must 
also take one that I want you to take." Prom that day, whenever Gilruth 
recruited a person for the STG, he also took a person that Thompson was, 
for one reason or another, eager to transfer. 41 

Thompson became the center director in May 1960, and Henry Reid 
moved on to become his titular senior adviser. Aware that certain Langley 
staff members were not productive in their present positions, the crafty 
Thompson wanted to make room in his organization for some new blood. 
Langley had found ways to make room in the past, notably in the 1940s 
when several wagonloads of its people had moved west to colonize the 
newly created NACA centers in Ohio and California. The founding of new 
laboratories such as Ames and Lewis, and now the STG, enabled the center 
director to transfer out restless souls and nonproductive old-timers along 
with the people who were crucial to the success of the new operation. These 
transfers allowed for the influx of fresh and dynamic young people that 
Langley continually needed to remain a productive laboratory. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

While Langley's support for Project Mercury continued to expand, so too 
did the size and experience of the STG. With Langley's help, the STG's 
capacity for handling its own technical and administrative affairs increased 
dramatically. By the time Thompson officially became the director, he 
and his senior staff recognized that Langley's ad hoc parental role in the 
Mercury program needed further definition. According to Thompson, the 
time had come "to replace the informal free-wheeling and somewhat chaotic 
working arrangements with orderly procedures." A formalizing of relations 
was needed to "clearly identify the respective responsibilities of the two 
organizations" and to establish more distinct channels for authorizing and 
conducting business. Otherwise, too many more of Langley's own precious 
capabilities would be carved off for the STG. 42 

But Thompson's thoughts about Langley's proper relationship to the 
STG were ambivalent. On the one hand, a voice within Thompson told 
him to follow the advice that Hugh Dryden had been giving him about 
Project Mercury: "Support it, but don't let it eat you up." By that Dryden 
meant that the director of a research laboratory should not neglect his 
basic research programs because of the center's appetite for any one big 
project, however delectable it might seem.* As soon as possible, Dryden 
warned, the STG needed to become part of a laboratory devoted just to 
spaceflight development. Dryden knew that in a technical environment 
where a "research function" and a "development function" tried to coexist, 
the development function would always win out (as it would later do when 
Langley managed the Viking project). If Langley kept the STG, Dryden 
worried, the center would inevitably lose many of its most capable people 
to development. Without its expertise in research, NASA would turn into a 
shadow of its former self and something less than what the country needed 
it to be. 

Moreover, Thompson was plagued by some troubling questions: What 
happens when "the development" reaches completion? How are the "devel- 
opment people" brought back effectively into the general research program, 
or do these people just continue to look for things to develop? The only way 
to truly ensure the priority of the center's research function was to move 
the STG away from Langley completely, but by the early 1960s so much of 
NASA Langley's identity was tied up with the success of Project Mercury 
and the publicity glow surrounding its astronauts that Thompson and oth- 
ers at Langley were not at all sure they wanted to lose the STG to some 
other facility. The STG was so important to the national mission, so many 
resources were being devoted to it, and the American public was becoming 
so fascinated with astronauts and the prospect of manned spaceflight, that 
even the most clearheaded researchers at Langley were turning a little misty 
over the center's involvement in Project Mercury. At Langley the number 


Although Hugh Dryden supported Project Mercury, he was in truth no great fan of the emphasis 
NASA placed on it. 


Carrying Out the Task 

of "envious people who didn't want to leave their own jobs but who liked to 
bask in the [STG's] limelight" was growing. 43 Mercury was a mushrooming 
project that was suddenly making national, even international, news. The 
local press was sending reporters out regularly to the center something 
that had never happened before. The attention was a lot to lose. 

Thompson was less alarmed by the risks of supporting the STG and 
Project Mercury than Dry den, although he claims to have understood them 
well. Thompson was willing to gamble that the STG would help Langley 
more than harm it. In the long run, Thompson argued, "the broader 
demands imposed by a space program added to an existing aeronautics 
program" would make the research role more important to the country than 
it had ever been before. To carry out the space program while continuing to 
stimulate the aircraft industry and support commercial and military aviation 
required more fundamental research, not less. 44 

A voice inside Thompson told him that the STG should become an official 
part of Langley; into the early 1960s, this voice of aggrandizement, not 
Dryden's of caution, dominated much of Thompson's thinking and some 
of his behind-the-scenes activities and management decisions pertaining to 
Project Mercury. "He wanted to combine the STG with Langley and have 
Langley manage it," recalls Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., one of Thompson's 
closest associates from the time. "He wanted to run the whole damn 
thing." 45 

However, in a research culture with deep NACA roots like Langley's, 
not everyone felt that supporting the STG was an acceptable risk. These 
feelings were reflected in such mundane matters as board hearings about 
promotions. Originally the STG went through the regular Langley board 
for promotions, but some STG members felt "they didn't get a fair deal" 
that way. For example, candidates for promotions who had done jobs such as 
the preparation of Mercury training manuals were "considered unfavorably" 
by Langley people who felt that the production of a traditional research 
report was a much more important achievement. Feelings about this "unfair 
treatment" eventually grew so strong that the STG decided to create its 
own promotions board to sidestep those at Langley who felt that writing 
training manuals amounted to "clambake work" and was not "worth that 
kind of money." 46 

Funding was at the root of some of the senior staff's concerns. They 
worried that the STG might absorb so much of the center's research 
capability that NASA headquarters would reduce its support for Langley's 
independent research function. The tail would start wagging the dog. 
Most members of the STG were too busy, ambitious, or imprudent to 
discourage this notion. Some STG members believed that they would 
continue conducting research while proceeding with Project Mercury. If that 
happened, some at Langley worried, NASA's and the country's support for 
independently funded research at the center might be badly, and perhaps 


Spaceflight Revolution 

even fatally, compromised. Langley might turn into a place that handled 
big projects while remaining no more than semiactive in research. 47 

Only very gradually and reluctantly did Langley management and the 
conflicted Floyd Thompson come to feel that something had to be done 
to cut the apron strings that connected Langley to the STG. Certain 
productive steps were taken by NASA headquarters in 1959 and 1960 to 
strengthen the STG's own organization and management and reduce its 
dependence on Langley for administrative and technical support. 48 

One of the steps taken to distinguish the STG operation from that of 
the larger research center simply involved office space and physical facilities. 
Pressed for space, Langley had assigned the STG initially to the second floor 
of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel building in the West Area. But before 
long, Langley relocated Gilruth and his staff to facilities in the East Area. 
Two factors behind the move were the need to expand and the desire to 
find a cluster of offices where the growing STG could work as a consolidated 
team, but a third seems to have been the prejudice of the Langley senior 
staff against locating research and development functions so close together 
within the confines of the same center. 

In the East Area, the STG went to work inside two of the oldest buildings 
at the center; they had been constructed nearly 40 years earlier, before the 
laboratory's formal opening in 1920. Building 104 (later renumbered NASA 
no. 586) was the old Technical Services building; to make room for the 
STG, some of Langley 's systems and equipment engineering people had to 
vacate their dusty premises. Building 58 (later renumbered NASA no. 587) 
had served as Langley's main office from 1920 until the new headquarters 
building opened in the West Area right after World War II; in the center 
telephone directory, this once important building on Dodd Boulevard, the 
former home of Langley's engineer-in-charge, was still referred to as the 
Administration building. In 1959 the sturdy two-story, red-brick structure 
housed the East Area's cafeteria, a group of stenographers, the center's 
editorial division, as well as most of the personnel, employment, and 
insurance offices. To accommodate members of the STG, some but not 
all of these office operations were moved to buildings in the West Area. 

The rapidly expanding STG eventually took over most of NASA's 
buildings in the East Area, as well as several adjacent air force facilities. But 
the STG remained hungry for space. Langley management had to release a 
few buildings in the West Area for STG use. For instance, Building 1244 
became a staging area where technicians refurbished the boilerplate capsules 
that were used for drop tests in the nearby Back River, and Building 1232 
was turned into an STG fabrication shop where prototype capsules were 
inspected and assembled. 

Members of the STG did not complain much about the patchwork nature 
of these quarters because the group was housed at Langley only temporarily, 
pending transfer to a permanent base of operation. Abe Silverstein, the 
head of the Office of Space Flight Development, planned to move the STG 


Carrying Out the Task 

to Goddard when the facility for the new spaceflight center in Greenbelt, 
Maryland, was completed. Although located at Langley, the STG had been 
reporting directly to Silverstein's office in Washington, but this arrangement, 
like housing the group at Langley, was a temporary expedient until a more 
permanent arrangement could be established. 49 

The management logic behind the transfer of the STG into the Goddard 
organization came from Silverstein: a focused little organization like the 
STG might be capable of running the technical part of its operation, 
but in terms of handling budgetary matters, looking after swelling fiscal 
and procurement responsibilities, and supplying material and housekeeping 
support, the STG needed all the help it could get. NASA did not have 
the resources to build a complete organization around a solitary task force 
carrying out a single project, no matter how important the project. It 
made more sense to place the task force inside an existing organization 
already having a complete range of capabilities but not as overburdened 
with responsibilities as Langley. 

Most members of the STG disliked Silverstein's plan. They did not 
want to move to a suburb of the nation's congested capital city, and they 
were a little bitter over what they viewed as a lack of appreciation for the 
magnitude of their work. The manned spaceflight program would be only 
one of several projects at the new Goddard center. If Gilruth and the rest 
of his STG could have had their way, they would have preferred to stay 
at Langley and continue the close relationship with the center that both 
sides had found workable from late 1958 on. In spite of the heavy drain 
on his center's manpower and facilities and the justifiable fears about what 
such a big space project might do to divert and distort essential research 
capability strengths, Floyd Thompson ultimately would have preferred to 
keep the entire manned space program at Langley. Such were the personal 
and institutional temptations that came with the spaceflight revolution and 
its "big technology." 

The STG, however, was made formally a part of Goddard on 1 May 1959, 
which was Goddard's official opening day. Although still housed at Langley 
and separated from the new spaceflight center by more than 100 miles of 
Tidewater Virginia, the STG became the Manned Spacecraft Division of 
Goddard, with Gilruth serving as the new center's assistant director for 
manned satellites while remaining the director of Project Mercury. 

In the beginning, everyone had thought that Bob Gilruth would be the 
director of Goddard and that the new space center would be not only the 
place for manned spaceflight but also for all of NASA's space science activity. 
As Charles Donlan remembers, "When Dr. Dryden gave Gilruth his first 
title, it wasn't 'Director of Project Mercury,' it was 'Assistant Director 
of Goddard.' ' The thought was that Gilruth would be the director. In 
fact, in the fall of 1958, Gilruth and Donlan, figuring they were going to 
be the director and deputy director of this new Goddard center, "went up 
and looked over the place and what-not." Donlan recalls, "We spent some 


Spaceflight Revolution 

time thinking about how we would organize it." In the meantime, however, 
Project Mercury was bubbling along at a very fast rate. "Silverstein was 
anxious to get Goddard moving, and he knew that Gilruth was going to be 
tied up with Mercury," Donlan explains. So Silverstein brought in Harry 
Goett, a friend he used to work with in Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel in the 
old days before Goett moved to the Ames laboratory in the early 1940s and 
before he, Silverstein, moved to Lewis. "This upset Gilruth very much," 
Donlan recalls, "but nevertheless he decided he'd rather work on the manned 
program than spend his time organizing a new center." 50 

In truth, the STG always acted quite independently of Goddard's control. 
Harry Goett, the figurehead director of the STG's operation, and some of his 
associates visited Langley almost weekly and were always received "politely 
but noncommittally." Goett told Donlan and others flatly that "he knew 
what the situation was" : Goddard's control over the STG was pro forma and 
that most STG members, from Gilruth on down, felt some contempt for the 
contrived relationship. Fortunately, the awkward "paper" arrangement did 
not last long enough for hard feelings to develop on either side. 51 

By the time of President Kennedy's May 1961 commitment to landing 
astronauts on the moon, everybody in NASA realized that the manned 
space program was never going to be just a division of some other center. 
Silverstein and others at NASA headquarters finally decided to break off the 
STG as a completely separate entity, away not only from Goddard but also 
from Langley. 

The fate of the STG, however, ultimately came to rest in the hands of 
powerful people beyond the control of Langley or the STG or even NASA 
headquarters. Influential people representing vested political and economic 
interests were maneuvering behind the scenes to build a manned spacecraft 
center in Texas. The principal players behind the Texas plan were Vice- 
President Lyndon B. Johnson, the nation's number two man in the executive 
office but number one space enthusiast; Representative Olin E. Teague 
of College Station, Texas, the third-ranking member of the House Space 
Committee; and Albert H. Thomas, chairman of the House Independent 
Offices Appropriations Committee, a powerful link in the legislative chain 
that reviewed NASA's annual budget requests. 52 In September 1961, after 
months of unsettling rumors (often denied by NASA) that the STG would 
be moving to a large and expensive new facility in Texas, and despite 
outspoken criticism of the alleged backstage chicanery expressed by the 
outraged politicos and newspapers serving the equally vested interests of 
the Commonwealth of Virginia, NASA announced that the STG would in 
fact be moving from Langley to a 1620-acre site at Clear Lake, some 25 
miles south of Houston, which just so happened to be in Albert Thomas's 
own, hurricane-torn, congressional district. 53 

"Now what's behind this need for relocation?" asked one editorial in the 
Newport News Daily Press. And the questions kept coming: 


Carrying Out the Task 

What is needed that we don't have, or can't get, right here where the Space 
Task Group was conceived and developed?. . .What is wrong with research facilities 
presently located in the Langley Research Center area? Some of this 'back 40' could 
be conditioned for space probe progress and closely related to the existing complex 
of laboratories, facilities, and manpower. 

The simple one- word answer, the local media sourly reported, was "politics." 
This angered area residents. In their minds, the activities of the STG and 
Langley Research Center were "interwoven." To tear them apart was not 
only "a terrible waste of time and money" but was also tantamount to 
kidnapping a brainchild. 54 

Many of the STG members were unhappy as well. "I was so upset about 
going to Texas," one STG engineer still remembers with indignation, "I 
wouldn't even let them send me the free subscription to their goddanged 
newspaper." But, once the decision was made, nothing could be done 
about it short of leaving the manned space program. A native and lifelong 
resident of Hampton, Caldwell Johnson, who had just built a beautiful new 
waterfront home, sums up the predicament: "I'd eat my heart out if I stayed 
here and let all these other guys come to Houston and do this. I would've 
kicked myself fifty thousand times." 55 In the frenetic period during late 
1961 and early 1962 when thousands of preparations for the first Mercury 
orbital flight still had to be made, Caldwell and 700 other engineers and 
their families packed their belongings and drove the 1000-plus miles to East 

Although no one at Langley was happy to see the STG go, many sighed 
with relief when the group finally left. "It would have been a great mistake 
to have had the STG stay at Langley," argues Charles Donlan in retrospect. 
According to Donlan, who by the time of the move to Texas was back at 
Langley as Floyd Thompson's associate director, once the decision was made 
that the STG would go someplace else, Thompson and everybody else felt 
that "it was for the best, because if it had stayed it would have overwhelmed 
the center." 56 

The move helped Langley almost immediately. As a compensation for 
the loss of the STG, NASA approved a $60-million expansion of Langley 
and authorized the center to hire several hundred new employees to replace 
the departing STG members. Hugh Dryden, who had been looking out for 
the interests of the center at NASA headquarters, was in part responsible 
for these boons. "That was the best thing that could have happened," says 
Donlan about the authorization to hire, because one of the most important 
resources for creative thinking at a research laboratory is a supply of young 
minds. "We got the cream of the crop of many of the best kids coming out 
of the universities," Donlan remembers. Thanks to the STG's departure, 
Langley received a healthy infusion of the "fresh blood" Thompson wanted, 
and instead of it all flowing into space project work, most of it was channeled 
into the general research areas. 5 ' It was a development that, on balance, 


Space/light Revolution 

pleased Langley's senior management and made them less regretful over the 
STG's leaving. 

The experience of having had the STG at Langley also helped to clarify 
management's thinking about the proper relationship between projects and 
fundamental research and helped a few to understand better that all projects 
eventually reach a dead end. Donlan remembers the policy started after the 
STG moved away from Langley: "Whenever a new guy came in, we never 
put him in a project. [We would] put him in one of the research divisions 
and let him work there for a few years. If a researcher then wanted to try 
something else, fine, stick him in a project." 58 

A management philosophy that called for a mix of experience was healthy 
for the overall NASA operation, especially because it enhanced the in-house 
capability of the field centers. People assigned to projects did not have to do 
research work, meaning that they could devote their time to the job at hand. 
But the breadth and depth of problem-solving experience gained during the 
required period in major research divisions almost always immeasurably 
helped scientists and engineers if and when they did become involved in the 
management of a project. 

Although the new management philosophy solved some problems, the 
tension and ambivalence created by supporting development work would 
persist at Langley well beyond Project Mercury. The same tension would be 
present through the Apollo program, the Viking project, the Space Shuttle 
program, the space station program, and beyond. Because of Sputnik 
and the ensuing space race, development projects would always be a part 
of Langley, and the conflicting feelings surrounding them would never go 
away. Buried deep inside those feelings was the final and most worrisome 
irony of all, which Hugh Dryden tried to make Floyd Thompson recognize: 
everything about the space program in the long run could turn out to be ad 
hoc except research. No one from the NACA except the clairvoyant Hugh 
Dryden anticipated this outcome of the spaceflight revolution, and no NACA 
veterans would be pleased by it. 

The End of the Glamour Days 

It took about nine months, until mid-June 1962, for the STG in its 
entirety to complete the move to the new $60-million facility south of 
Houston. For Gilruth and associates this period was busy and difficult. 
At the same time that they were clearing their desks and packing their 
files, families, and household belongings for the western trek from Langley, 
they were also doing the thousands of things that had to be done to make 
John Glenn's February 1962 Mercury- Atlas 6 flight (America's first manned 
orbital flight) and Scott Carpenter's May 1962 Mercury-Atlas 7 flight the 
great successes that they turned out to be. 59 


Carrying Out the Task 

Thanks to President Kennedy's May 1961 commitment to the lunar 
landing program, the STG (renamed the Manned Spacecraft Center in 
November 1961) was also gearing up to meet the demands of what was 
now being called Project Apollo. Although several ideas for lunar missions 
had been circulating at Langley and the other NASA centers for some time, 
NASA did not yet know how to send an astronaut to the moon, how to land 
him on its surface and return him safely, or how to do all three by the end of 
the decade as President Kennedy wanted. Many crucial decisions had to be 
made quickly about the lunar mission mode, and the overworked manned 
spaceflight specialists of the STG, when they found the time and energy, 
were asked to help make those decisions. 

Project Mercury came to an end in the early summer of 1963, following 
the successful orbital flights of astronauts Walter A. Schirra (Mercury- 
Atlas 8) in October 1962 and L. Gordon Cooper (Mercury- Atlas 9) in May 
1963. As the project drew to a close, Bob Gilruth wrote a letter to Floyd 
Thompson, thanking his old friend for all the help that Langley had given 
the STG over the past four years. "It is fitting that the Manned Spacecraft 
Center express its sincere appreciation to the Langley Research Center 
for the invaluable part that the Center has played in our initial manned 
space flight program," Gilruth's letter stated. "The Manned Spacecraft 
Center owes much to Langley, since . . . Langley was really its birthplace." 
Specific contributions that Langley had made to Project Mercury were 
"too numerous to detail completely" but briefly, they included assistance in 
the Big Joe program; implementation of the Little Joe program; planning 
and implementation of the tracking and ground instrumentation system; 
numerous aerodynamic, structural, materials, and component evaluation 
and development tests; engineering, shop, instrumentation, and logistic 
support for much of the STG in-house testing; and administrative support 
and office space during the period from late 1958 until mid- 1962 when the 
STG completed its move to Houston. In conclusion Gilruth wrote, "As you 
can see, all elements of the Langley Center provided major assistance to 
Project Mercury, and we are deeply grateful for this help." 60 

The local public also wanted to express its gratitude. On Saturday 
morning, 17 March 1962, more than 30,000 shouting and flag-waving 
residents of the Peninsula lined a 25-mile motorcade route through the cities 
of Hampton and Newport News. The huge crowds, swelling to 10 and 20 
people deep in some places, came to salute the country's seven original 
astronauts, one of whom, Marine Lt. Col. Glenn, had just made the first 
American orbital flight into space on 20 February. Area residents wanted 
to show the people of NASA Langley Research Center just how much they 
appreciated Langley's effort to launch the first Americans into space. 

Frequent cries of "Good work, John," "You're one of us, Gus," and 
similar encouraging messages to the seven smiling astronauts followed the 
impressive motorcade throughout its meandering trip from Langley AFB 
to Darling Memorial Stadium in downtown Hampton. Inside the stadium, 


Space/light Revolution 

In his capacity as the astronauts' public affairs officer, Lt. Col. "Shorty" Powers 
(sitting in the back seat of the convertible with his wife) introduced the astronauts 
one by one to the enthusiastic crowd. (Photo by Fred D. Jones.) 

Astronaut Walter M. Schirra arrives at Darling Stadium for the rally; seven months 
later, on 3 October 1962, he would become the fifth American to be launched into 
space. (Photo by Fred D. Jones.) 


Carrying Out the Task 

The mayor of Newport News, 
Va., presents Robert R. Gilruth, 
head of Project Mercury, with 
a token of his citizens' esteem 
(left). Below, wild cheers greet 
astronaut John Glenn and his 
wife, Annie. From the out- 
set of the manned space pro- 
gram, "The Marine," Lt. Col. 
Glenn, had been the public 's fa- 
vorite astronaut. (Photos by 
Fred D. Jones.) 


Space/light Revolution 

5000 people waited anxiously in brisk 50-degree weather for the arrival of 
the parade. Beneath the speakers' stand in the middle of the football field, 
where Manned Spacecraft Center Public Affairs Officer John A. "Shorty" 
Powers would introduce the astronauts and Governor Albertis S. Harrison 
would deliver the featured speech in praise of them, the huddled spectators 
watched in anticipation as a red, white, and blue banner fluttered in the 
strong breeze; the banner read: "HAMPTON, VA., SPACETOWN U.S.A." 

Behind the astronauts in the procession of 40 open convertibles rode 
Gilruth, Thompson, and several prominent Langley researchers and senior 
staff members. Like the astronauts, the engineers smiled broadly and waved 
vigorously to the crowd while receiving lusty cheers from the throng. 61 Help- 
ing to launch the astronauts into space had altered, in a fundamental way, 
the public's perception of who these men were and what they did. Instead of 
NACA Nuts those shadowy figures whom the public had mostly ignored 
they had become NASA Wizards, the technological magicians who were 
making the incredible flights of mankind into space a reality. 

Things had moved full circle. On a previous Saturday morning three 
years earlier, NASA Langley for the first time in its history had opened 
wide its gates and played host to the people of the Hampton area. Now 
the people of Hampton were returning the favor. For them, the glamour of 
having the nation's first seven space pilots living and working in their midst 
had been wonderful. Losing them and the rest of the STG to Texas was a 
bitter pill to swallow.* Thirty years later, long after changing the name of 
busy Military Highway to "Mercury Boulevard" and dedicating the bridges 
of Hampton in honor of the astronauts, area residents still reminisce fondly 
about "the good old days in Hampton and Newport News" when "those 
brave astronauts" lived in their neighborhoods, ate in their restaurants, and 
drove down their streets and across their bridges. 62 


A headline of the Newport News Daily Press, 24 Sept. 1961, read, "See Here, Suh! What Does 
Texas Have That Hampton Doesn't?" 


Change and Continuity 

What we should do is retain our competence and 
contract out our capacity. 

Floyd L. Thompson, director of 
Langley Research Center 

In the working partnership between universities, in- 
dustry, and government . . . each of the three has re- 
tained its traditional values. . . . I believe that each 
has become stronger because of the partnership. 

James E. Webb, NASA administrator 

Born in 1898, the offspring of another century, Floyd Thompson was 62 
years old when he took over officially from Henry J. E. Reid as the Langley 
director in May 1960. When defending the interests of his beloved Langley, 
Thompson could definitely play the part of a stubborn old curmudgeon. 

He played it particularly well in July 1963 at a press conference called 
by NASA Administrator James E. Webb, President Kennedy's appointed 
successor to Keith Glennan. In his office at NASA headquarters, Webb 
announced the appointment of Earl D. Hilburn, a former vice-president 
and general manager of the Electronics Division of the Curtiss- Wright 
Corporation, as a new deputy associate administrator. Webb reported 
to the assemblage that Hilburn would now be responsible for the general 
management of all the NASA facilities that were not manned spaceflight 
centers in other words, Hilburn would manage Ames, Lewis, Langley, 
Goddard, Wallops, JPL in Pasadena, and the Flight Research Center at 
Edwards AFB. After introducing Hilburn, Webb turned to Thompson, who 
had been invited to Washington just for the occasion, stuck out his chin, and 
asked Langley's director what he thought of the news. Thompson answered 
loud enough for everyone to hear, "Well, Langley has been around a long 


Space/light Revolution 

time, and I suspect it will be around a lot longer no matter what you people 
up here do." 1 

This arrogant reply stemmed from Thompson's devotion to Langley's 
long tradition of independence and freedom from bureaucratic headaches 
and political machinations in Washington. Why should the director of a 
research center be overly impressed by the news that another bureaucrat was 
joining the organization in Washington? Although most NASA personnel 
in the audience knew Thompson well enough not to be stunned by his 
comment, they were still surprised that he would make it in Webb's own 
office and with reporters present. Neither Webb nor any other NASA officials 
present would ever forget the incident. For many of them, it was just another 
instance of a prideful Langley trying to go its own way. 

But Thompson's answer revealed more than just pride; it demonstrated 
his conviction that some essential continuity at NASA must be sustained 
amid the rapid changes taking place for the space race. Whatever man- 
agement changes or reforms NASA headquarters made in the affairs of the 
research laboratories, Langley would continue to do its job. 

The Langley center director was no thoughtless institutional reactionary. 
Thompson had shown by his nurturing of the STG, if not by his comments 
to headquarters officials, that he was no foot-dragger when it came to 
supporting and promoting the space program. Not for a moment would 
he try to stop the spaceflight revolution from happening at Langley; rather, 
in his own cautious and pragmatic ways he would advocate, encourage, and 
even delight in NASA's ambitious objectives. In the changes in the modus 
vivendi of the NASA laboratory that were taking place in the early 1960s, 
Thompson recognized an elevated level of excitement and commitment, 
a new degree of freedom, and an unprecedented opportunity for building 
unique capabilities that went beyond the constraints of traditional NACA- 
style, in-house research activities. After the fever of supporting the space 
race had passed, Langley, Thompson believed, would emerge not weakened, 
but strengthened. 

Sometime in the early 1960s, Thompson invented a motto to capture 
what he wanted Langley's new operational philosophy to be: "We should 
retain our competence and contract out our capacity." 2 By that Thompson 
meant that a NASA center forfeited none of its own capabilities by sharing 
some of its work with outsiders. Langley should nurture the industrialization 
of research and development (R&D), which had been taking place at an 
increasing rate in America since the end of World War II. Langley would 
not be losing control over its own destiny by farming out some of its 
responsibilities to American business and industry while taking on certain 
duties that went beyond the traditional in-house research function. Instead, 
Langley would benefit because it would now be able to focus on the genesis of 
valuable scientific and technological ideas, take its own potential to the limit, 
and accomplish important tasks that could not be done, as well any other 
way. Moreover, in spreading its wealth to contractors, NASA would not just 

Change and Continuity 

Langley Director Floyd Thompson 
might have done more to obstruct 
the spaceflight revolution at Lang- 
ley if he had known how much the 
essential character of his research 
center was going to be changed by 


be putting together a national team to beat the Soviets in the space race 
but would also be invigorating the aerospace industry and strengthening 
the country's economy. NASA's new style of managing large endeavors 
might even demonstrate a cooperative means by which other national and 
international needs, such as the alleviation of poverty, could be met. 

Thompson's slogan was his own, but the broader message belonged 
to bigger thinkers. Whether Thompson was conscious of it or not, the 
phrase "retain our competence and contract out our capacity" echoed a 
more sweeping vision of his time, one that was an essential part of John 
F. Kennedy's "New Frontier." An ambitious program of space exploration 
would make the United States an overall healthier society, Kennedy declared 
during the 1960 presidential campaign. "We cannot run second in this vital 
race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first. . . . This is the new 
age of exploration; space is our great New Frontier." A successful space 
program would help in the ultimate defeat of communism by showing to all 
peoples of the world the great things a western democratic and capitalistic 
society can do when its resources are effectively mobilized. NASA would 
make manifest the essential superiority of the American way of life. 3 


Space/light Revolution 


President Kennedy's (actually Vice- President Lyndon B. Johnson's) choice for 
NASA administrator, James E. Webb, sits between Langley Director Floyd 
Thompson (left) and the NACA's retired executive secretary, John F. Victory 
(right), at the 1964 NASA Inspection held at Langley. Although Thompson had 
some memorable run-ins with Webb, the two were much alike. Both were country 
boys (Thompson from Michigan, Webb from North Carolina) with rumpled collars, 
corn-pone accents, and down-home homilies. They were also highly intelligent, com- 
plex, and cunning. 

A dynamic new union of science, technology, and government or what 
NASA Administrator Webb called the "university-industry-government 
complex" would lead the charge in this campaign for a better world. 
NASA, above all other national institutions, would help to forge this re- 
lationship, which would serve as the means for winning the contest with the 
Soviet Union, for solving pressing social and economic problems at home 
and abroad, and for accelerating the pace of progress in the human com- 
munity. The elaborate teamwork necessary for spaceflight programs would 
force some major changes and adjustments in the workings of existing insti- 
tutions, but the end result would be for the best. Traditional values, those 
worth keeping, would be retained. But through the new partnership, each 
of the team members, including NASA, would become stronger. 4 

Given his democratic leanings and his position of responsibility within 
the space program, not even a stubborn old curmudgeon like Thompson 


Change and Continuity 

was outside the rising tide of thinking about how the world was changing 
and how even successful places like NASA Langley would also have to 
change if they were to contribute to and be a vital part of the new order. 
Thompson could be brusque with Webb, as at the Hilburn press conference, 
but in technological spirit he and the NASA administrator stood on common 
ground. "Every thread in the fabric of our economic, social, and political 
institutions is being tested as we move into space," Webb stated in a 1963 
speech on the meaning of the space program. 

Our economic and political relations with other nations are being reevaluated. Old 
concepts of defense and military tactics are being challenged and revised. Jealously 
guarded traditions in our educational institutions are being tested, altered, or even 
discarded. Our economic institutions the corporate structure itself are undergoing 
reexamination as society seeks to adjust itself to the inevitability of change. 

Thompson, in his much less publicized talks around Langley, often echoed 
the same sentiments. Not even the oldest and best American institutions 
could go on as before, unaffected, in light of the technological revolution that 
was taking place as humankind moved into space. Even a place like NASA 
Langley would have to make some major adjustments, and Thompson knew 
it no matter what curt remark he might make to the contrary. 

The Organization 

Apart from meeting the sizable personnel requirements of the STG, 
Langley laboratory initially did not change much to meet the growing 
demands of the nascent space age. Some new boxes were drawn on the 
organization charts, and a few old ones eliminated. Some existing divisions 
and branches received new names and experienced reorganizations, and 
a few significant new research sections and branches were built around 
emerging space disciplines (for example, the Space Applications Branch 
of the Full- Scale Research Division created in December 1959 and the 
Magnetoplasmadynamics Branch of the Aero-Physics Division created in 
May 1960). Several major project offices also came to life at the laboratory 
in the early 1960s, but, for the most part, everything about the formal 
structure of the laboratory remained the same as before. Thompson and his 
senior staff believed that the organization of the laboratory for its general 
applied aerodynamic research under the NACA in the late 1950s would 
serve the new combination of aeronautics and space equally well. When 
Langley's diversified capabilities needed to be focused on mission plans 
or specific program goals, ad hoc task forces, steering committees, study 
groups, and other "shadow organizations" that usually did not appear on 
the organization charts were created. 

The organization chart of 1962 shows the continuity in Langley's struc- 
ture from the 1950s into the 1960s even though four years had passed since 


Space/light Revolution 

the changeover of the NACA to NASA and one year had passed since 
President Kennedy had committed the country to a manned landing mission 
to the moon by the end of the decade. In the summer of 1962, Langley 
Research Center consisted, as it had since the mid-1950s, of three major re- 
search directorates. Heading each directorate was an assistant director. This 
person was responsible for overseeing the work being done in the subsidiary 
research divisions. In 1962 each research directorate had three research di- 
visions, for a total of nine at the center. Within the nine research divisions 
were some 50 branches, plus a number of sections, offices, facilities, shops, 
and testing units. Typically, a division numbered between 100 and 150 full- 
time research professionals. In the management formula, 3 nonprofessionals, 
that is, secretaries, mechanics, data processors and the like, were needed to 
support one researcher. That did not mean that every division employed 
300 to 450 support people; none in fact did. The research divisions instead 
received much of their nonprofessional assistance from two supporting di- 
rectorates. One of these directorates, "technical services," employed the 
mechanics, modelmakers, electricians, and other technicians necessary for 
keeping the shops, testing facilities, and the rest of the infrastructure of the 
research operation alive. The other supporting directorate, "administrative 
services," handled fiscal matters, personnel affairs, the photo lab, the library, 
and the publications office as well as the rapidly increasing requirements for 
procurement. 6 

Until early in 1962, the research directorates did not have names or 
any official designation; on the organization charts were three boxes simply 
labeled "Office of Assistant Director" with no way to distinguish them, 
apart from knowing who the particular assistant director was and what 
divisions he directed. In February 1962, Director Thompson and Associate 
Director Charles J. Donlan decided to remedy this situation. There were 
three directorates, they thought, so why not call them "Group 1," "Group 
2," and "Group 3." 7 

Named to head Group 1 at the time of this nominal reorganization was 
Clinton E. Brown, formerly the chief of the Theoretical Mechanics Division. 
This division was one of several smaller Langley divisions that in the early 
1960s were focusing on the study of lunar missions. Brown replaced Hartley 
A. Soule, who retired. The new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), 
whose chief was Paul F. Fuhrmeister, was part of Group 1. This division was 
established in January 1961 by combining the Analytical and Computation 
Branch of the Theoretical Mechanics Division with the Data Systems Branch 
of IRD. The goal of ACD was "to allow more effective management at the 
Center in the development and utilization of data systems for data reduction 
services and for theoretical analysis requirements." 8 Also within Brown's 
group were IRD, headed by electrical engineer and future assistant director 
Francis B. Smith, and the Theoretical Mechanics Division (in June 1963, 
renamed the Space Mechanics Division), led by Dr. John C. Houbolt, the 
champion of the lunar-orbit rendezvous concept for Project Apollo. 


Change and Continuity 

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Space/light Revolution 



L- 77-3336 

The heads of Groups 1, 2, and 3: Clinton E. Brown (top left), Eugene C. Draley 
(top right), and Laurence K. Loftin, Jr. (bottom). When these groups were baptized 
in February 1962, the three men had been working at Langley for a combined 62 

Change and Continuity 

Heading Group 2 was Eugene C. Draley, who had been serving as an 
assistant director since November 1958. Within this directorate was Joseph 
A. Shortal's (Class of 1929, Texas A&M) Applied Materials and Physics 
Division, the reincarnation of PARD, which had been dissolved in December 
1959. PARD, created near the end of World War II, had developed the 
methods of rocket-model testing at Wallops and had provided instrumented 
flight data at transonic and supersonic speeds important for the design 
of the country's postwar high-speed jets and ballistic missiles. Led in its 
early years by Bob Gilruth, the old PARD had served almost unwittingly 
as Langley's training ground for the space age. One year after the birth 
of NASA, and in view of the changed programs and responsibilities of 
PARD, Langley had changed its name to the Applied Materials and Physics 
Division. 9 The Dynamic Loads Division, headed by I. Edward Garrick, an 
applied mathematician who had graduated from the University of Chicago 
in 1930, and the Structures Research Division, headed by MIT aeronautical 
engineer (Class of 1942) Richard R. Heldenfels, were also in Group 2. 

Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., a mechanical engineer who came to work at 
Langley in 1944 after graduating from the University of Virginia, had served 
as the technical assistant to Floyd Thompson since December 1958. When 
Henry Reid relinquished his duties on 20 May 1960, Loftin began working 
for the laboratory's director. On 24 November 1961 Loftin replaced John 
Stack as Langley's third assistant director when Stack moved up to take 
charge of the agency's aeronautical programs at NASA headquarters. In 
practice, Loftin served also as Langley's director for aeronautics. When, 
four months later, Thompson assigned group numbers to the directorates, 
Loftin remained in charge of what was called from then on Group 3. 

Group 3 was home to the Aero-Physics Division, headed by hypersonics 
expert John V. Becker (M.S. in aeronautical engineering, New York Univer- 
sity, 1935). The roots of this division went back to the old Compressibility 
Research Division of the late 1940s and 1950s, in which NACA researchers 
had studied the vexing problems of high-speed flight in new wind tunnels 
and other unique test facilities. In December 1958, Langley had redesignated 
this division the Supersonic Aerodynamics Division. But this name, which 
Becker and others did not like because it did not capture the range of re- 
search areas covered by the division's work, did not last long. Seven months 
later, after another reorganization, it was rebaptized the Aero-Physics Divi- 
sion, a title that then lasted until the major organizational shake-up brought 
on in 1969 and 1970 by Thompson's successor as center director, Edgar M. 

The second division in Group 3 was the Aero-Space Mechanics Division, 
led by Philip Donely, an aeronautical engineer who had graduated from 
MIT in 1931. Like a few other parts of Langley, this division was cre- 
ated not long after the establishment of NASA, during the reorganization of 
September 1959. Essentially, the Aero-Space Mechanics Division combined 
two older aeronautical research groups: the Flight Research Division and 


Spaceflight Revolution 


On the Langley tarmac in May 1964 to welcome Raymond Bisplinghoff, director of 
the Office of Advanced Research and Technology (OART) at NASA headquarters, 
are, left to right, Floyd Thompson, Langley director; Raymond Bisplinghoff; T. 
Melvin Butler, chief administrative officer; Eugene C. Draley, head of Group 2; and 
Laurence K. Loftin, head of Group 3. 

the Stability Research Division, both of which dated to the late 1930s. As 
with many other changes at the time, the establishment of the Aero-Space 
Mechanics Division reflected the snowballing of space-related research activ- 
ities at Langley and the de-emphasis on aeronautics. In a directorate such 
as this, where aeronautics always had been the byword, center management 
was reclassifying activities to show how even the airplane flight research 
groups were tackling critical problems in the new regime of space. Nobody 
in Donely's division much liked the new name, because it eliminated the 
word "flight" to add the word "space." Effective 30 June 1963, after a reor- 
ganization, Donely's division became the Flight Mechanics and Technology 
Division, a redesignation that stuck until the Cortright reorganization, when 
the political advantages of calling everything "space" -this or "space" -that 
had mostly passed. 

The third division in Loftin's group was the Full-Scale Research Divi- 
sion, which comprised several large aeronautics groups clustered around the 
laboratory's larger wind tunnels. This division began in the early 1940s 
but had recently expanded in May 1961 with the addition of the former 
Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel Division as one of its major research branches. 
Aeronautical engineer Mark R. Nichols, a 1938 graduate of the Alabama 


Change and Continuity 

Polytechnical Institute (later Auburn University), led this division through 
the 1960s. 

Not surprisingly, all three assistant directors and all nine division chiefs, 
as well as the director and associate director, were former employees of 
the NACA. The average age of these 14 men in 1962 was just over 44. 
When Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic crossing in 1927, they were 
young boys. Many of them remembered the flight of "Lucky Lindy" as a 
seminal event in their lives, launching them toward professional careers in 
aeronautics. Only two of them, ACD's Fuhrmeister and IRD's Smith, had 
not worked at NACA Langley during World War II, but they arrived only 
a few years later. 

A few important changes in the structure of the organization occurred 
after 1962. A handful of new assistant directors would be assigned. In 
October 1965, IRD would be split into two divisions: a new IRD and a 
brand new Flight Instrumentation Division. Both divisions would belong 
to Group 1. In the spring of 1964, a fourth major research directorate, 
the Office for Flight Projects, was formed to accommodate the growing 
number of special projects at the laboratory. Under this office was placed 
the Flight Reentry Programs Office, which handled Project Fire, the Lunar 
Orbiter Project Office, the Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory (MORL) 
Studies Office, the Scout Project Office, and the Applied Materials and 
Physics Division (the old PARD). The first assistant director of this new 
Office for Flight Projects was Gene Draley, who moved over from Group 2. 
Replacing Draley as head of Group 2 was Dr. John E. Duberg (Ph.D. from 
the University of Illinois, Class of 1948). Duberg was responsible for a 
directorate comprising only the Dynamic Loads Division and the Structures 
Research Division. The Applied Materials and Physics Division, which for 
its entire history had been the maverick in Langley's overall organization, 
moved over with Draley to Flight Projects. 10 Curiously, this fourth research 
directorate was not called "Group 4." 

Thompson's Obscurantism 

Langley's organization charts did not reveal the substance of the labora- 
tory operation. In keeping with a long-standing tradition of obscurantism 
fathered by George W. Lewis, the NACA's politically shrewd director of re- 
search in Washington from 1919 to 1947, Langley Directors Henry Reid and 
Floyd Thompson never made the structure of the laboratory too apparent. 
If they had, they thought, then outsiders and that category of suspicious 
people included Langley's own superiors at NACA/NASA headquarters in 
Washington would be able to interfere with what was going on inside the 
laboratory. Micromanagement was something that the directors of the field 
centers and their research staffs definitely did not want. 11 


Space/light Revolution 

"Thompson was a great one for saying that you couldn't be too sensible 
about this kind of stuff," remembers Larry Loftin, assistant director for 
Group 3. He wanted to "keep things confused so that the people at 
headquarters wouldn't really know what was going on." Thus, Langley's 
formal organization, following the NACA way, was kept deliberately vague. 
Loftin remembers one instance from the early 1960s when a concerned 
Bernard Maggin from the Office of Aeronautical and Space Research in 
NASA headquarters asked Thompson outright how many people were 
working on space projects under William J. O'Sullivan, Jr., in Langley's 
Applied Materials and Physics Division. Thompson just looked at Maggin 
grimly (to some colleagues, the Langley center director was known as "The 
Grim Reaper") and said, "I'm not going to tell you." 12 

And he never did tell Maggin. Thompson could get away with veiling 
the organization because of his many years with the NACA, the outstanding 
reputation of Langley Research Center both inside and outside the agency, 
and the power Langley wielded early on within NASA. This policy of ob- 
scurantism, however, was not something that headquarters liked or wanted 
continued much longer; it was not to be carried on by Thompson's successor. 
Edgar M. Cortright, the headquarters official named by NASA Administra- 
tor Jim Webb in March 1968 to replace Thompson, believed that it would be 
to Langley's advantage if headquarters had a more detailed understanding 
of the laboratory operation. So, in 1969 and 1970, when he put Langley 
through what was the most sweeping and traumatic reorganization in its 
then more than 50-year history, Cortright made certain that the titles in all 
the boxes on the organization charts indicated exactly what staff members 
did. This was just what Thompson had avoided. 

Another hallmark of Thompson's management style was generating 
spirited competition among his research divisions. He did not want any one 
group to have all the research opportunities in a given technical area. No 
one group should be doing all the reentry heating work, all the space station 
design, or all the supersonic research. Monopolies such as that, though they 
might seem to prevent duplication of efforts, bred complacency. Better to 
have several research groups tackling the same set of problems from different 

This philosophy of creative research through friendly competition led 
to the formation of shadow organizations and invisible lines of organiza- 
tional communication and responsibility within Langley a process that 
would become known to management theorists by the 1990s as "nonlinear" 
thinking. For example, besides serving as assistant director for Group 3, 
Loftin also was responsible for all the aeronautics efforts at the laboratory 
that included all of the aeronautical work in the Structures Research Divi- 
sion, which was technically under the auspices of Gene Draley's Group 2. 
As part of his everyday duties, Loftin had to review and approve all the 
important paperwork related to the aeronautical activity of someone else's 
directorate. 13 


Change and Continuity 

This arrangement did create some tension but frequently resulted in a 
positive outcome. "There was enormous technical competition between the 
divisions at Langley," remembers Israel Taback, a longtime member of IRD 
who came to work at the laboratory in the early 1940s and stayed into the 
1980s. "People would fight with each other over technical details. That was 
all very healthy. The end result was a battle of ideas. Ideas that had merit 
tended to float to the surface. The good ideas won." 14 

The Sinking of Hydrodynamics and Aeronautics? 

Only one major research division completely disappeared at Langley 
during the first years of the spaceflight revolution: Hydrodynamics. This 
division had done pioneering work in the field of waterborne aircraft research 
since 1930. Langley management decided to dissolve Hydrodynamics in 
late December 1959 and reassign its roughly four dozen personnel to other 
divisions. Many of its staff members went to Dynamic Loads, which dated 
back to the old Aircraft Loads Division of World War II and had specialized 
in the study of such problems as aeroelasticity, flutter, buffeting, ground 
wind loads, gust loads, and aircraft noise. In recent months, however, 
Dynamic Loads, like most other Langley divisions, had been taking on work 
related to Project Mercury and the space program. 15 

With the group that moved to Dynamic Loads went the continued 
responsibility for operating the High-Speed Hydrodynamics Tank, a 2177- 
foot-long, 8-foot-wide, and 5-foot-deep towing test basin. This long concrete 
water channel was located in the far West Area of Langley Field alongside 
the Dynamic Loads Division's Landing Loads Track.* In the High-Speed 
Hydrodynamics Tank, NAG A researchers in the mid-1950s had evaluated 
the performance of floats for the navy's Martin YP6M-1 Seamaster jet- 
propelled flying boat. They had worked to develop retractable "hydro- 
skis" for the navy's experimental little XF2Y-1 Sea Dart jet fighter built 
by Convair (still to this day the only supersonic seaplane ever to fly). 
In addition, they had searched for a way to provide water-based aircraft 
with the combat air performance of comparable land-based planes. These 
investigations contributed information essential to the design of several 
experimental military vehicles including a "panto-base" airplane, a proposed 
amphibious type that could operate from concrete runways, grass, mud, 
snow, sandy beaches, or even from seaplane ramps and floating rafts. 16 

Those members of the Hydrodynamics Division who did not move to Dy- 
namic Loads became members of the Full-Scale Research Division. This was 
the largest single division at the laboratory, and it was essentially composed 
of aeronautical researchers who staffed the larger wind tunnels. John B. 

The Landing Loads Track was an outdoor facility that simulated aircraft landing loads and motions 
through the braking and impact of a catapult-launched test carriage onto a hard runway-like surface. 


Space/light Revolution 

Parkinson, Hydrodynamic's ever-faithful chief and the 1957 winner of the 
first Water-Based Aviation Award given by the Institute of Aeronautical 
Science, was reassigned to this division. Parkinson had worked in Hydro- 
dynamics since coming to Langley in 1931. He accepted with reluctance 
his new assignment as "Aeronautical Research Scientist, Aerodynamics," 
which then Associate Director Floyd Thompson invented for him. In that 
position, Parkinson was to help in program planning and serve as "the Cen- 
ter's consultant for the consideration of future vehicles that operate on or 
in the water as part of their mission and other future vehicles for which wa- 
ter landing or other hydrodynamic requirements affect and modify design 
requirements." As Parkinson would no longer be a division chief, Langley 
had to request an "excepted position" for him from the civil service that 
would allow him to retain his present salary of $15,500. Within two years 
of the dissolution of Hydrodynamics, Parkinson left Langley for a job over- 
seeing the management of aerodynamics research in the Office of Advanced 
Research and Technology (OART) at NASA headquarters. 17 

Parkinson and his colleagues took with them to the Full- Scale Research 
Division the responsibility for maintaining what had always been Hydrody- 
namics premier facility, "Tank No. 1," a unique 2900- foot indoor seaplane 
towing basin on the shore of the Back River in the East Area. This tank 
was designed in 1930 by NAG A civil engineer Starr Truscott, who according 
to Langley lore was a descendant of the Wild West outlaw Belle Starr and 
a veteran of the construction of the Panama Canal. The NACA's original 
hydrodynamics research program had begun in Tank No. 1 when, 29 years 
before, Truscott, Parkinson, and fellow engineers had employed it to test 
floats that were eventually used on several American seaplanes, including 
the Sikorsky twin-float "Amphibian," which set speed records in the 1930s. 
Data gained from work in this facility also contributed to the development 
of the famous Clipper flying boats, the romantic ocean-hoppers that before 
World War II had trailblazed air routes and carried hundreds of paying pas- 
sengers over all the oceans of the world. In the big water tank, the NACA 
had studied the design characteristics of most American floatplanes and the 
performance of nearly all the early U.S. Navy flying boats that would be 
used for air-sea rescue, antisubmarine patrol, and troop transport in World 
War II. In the enlarged version of the tank (it was lengthened to its full 
2900 feet from an original 2000 feet in 1937) and in its 1800-foot-long lit- 
tle brother, Tank No. 2 (built adjacent to it in 1942), Langley engineers 
discovered ways to ease the shock on a landplane when crash-landing or 
ditching in the water. Both tanks were equipped with an overhead elec- 
tric carriage from which a dynamic model could be suspended and towed 
at up to 80 miles per hour, which was sufficient to make a model take off 
from the water and fly at scale speed. As the model was moving along 
the surface, researchers took motion pictures and recorded measurements 
demonstrating the aircraft's stability, controllability, water resistance, drag, 
and spray characteristics. The tanks were equipped with catapult devices, 


Change and Continuity 


Aerial view of Langley's East Area. The largest building on the shore of the Back 
River is the Full-Scale Tunnel; the long building seeming to run from the top of the 
tunnel is Tank No. 1. 

for the study of the free-launched landing characteristics of airplanes and 
with mechanical wave-makers, for the simulation of takeoff and landing in 
rough water. 18 

On the eve of the dissolution of the Hydrodynamics Division, researchers 
in Tank No. 1 were studying the characteristics of revolutionary VTOL 
machines over water. They were even investigating the requirements of a 
supersonic seaplane and a prototype "ground-effect" machine, a platform- 
like vehicle that could hover and move just above the ground by creating 
a cushion of supporting air between it and the ground surface. Nobody, 
not even the U.S. Navy, was interested enough in the research going on 
in Langley's Hydrodynamics Division to ask NASA to keep it alive. Two 
ambitiously experimental Martin YP6M-1 Seamaster jet seaplanes had 
recently been lost due to design failures; the navy was about to terminate 
its entire flying-boat program; and Martin, one of the most dedicated 
builders of flying boats, was on the verge of moving into the guided missile 
business. 19 Langley's Hydrodynamics Division, historic as it was, had 
apparently outlived its usefulness. Tank No. 2 had already been deactivated 
in April 1958 after 16 years of continuous use. Beginning on the first working 
day of 1960, historic Tank No. 1 would be placed on standby status, with 
no operating personnel regularly assigned to it. It became an abandoned 
facility that was to be used "only to meet the requirements of such special 
needs as they might arise." 20 Shortly thereafter, NASA would give complete 
control over the tank to the navy. 


Spaceflight Revolution 


A Langley engineer prepares a model of the proposed air force X-20 Dyna-Soar 
aerospace plane for testing in Tank No. 2 in 1961. 

Langley management explained its decision to abolish the Hydrodynam- 
ics Division by pointing to "the declining need for hydrodynamics research 
as it applies to seaplanes and other water-borne aircraft." Although that 
justification was apparently legitimate, it was only half the story. The other 
half was that the exigencies of NASA's space program were sweeping over 
Langley like a tidal wave and, in this case, engulfing an entire aeronautics- 
oriented division whose activities, facilities, and reason for being suddenly 
seemed antiquated. It did not matter that the division had been contributing 
to Project Mercury by making studies of the water landing characteristics of 
the capsule; it was better to get rid of the division and make its staff more 
clearly a part of the new regime of space. "In view of the changing nature of 
the nation's research programs," conceded Langley Director Henry Reid, "it 
is felt that the experienced personnel of the Hydrodynamics Division could 
best be utilized by transferring them to the staffs of divisions which have 
assumed increased space research responsibilities in recent months." 

As indicated by the elimination of the Hydrodynamics Division in 1959, 
Langley management was doing everything it could to transform Langley 
into an R&D center ready-made for the space age. But aeronautical 
engineers and their passion for airplanes and other winged flight vehicles 
did not completely disappear at the center. Floyd Thompson was not about 
to let aeronautics die at the historic NACA facility where he had worked 


Change and Continuity 

Aeronautics and Space Work as Percentages of 
Langley's Total Effort, 1957-1965 











Special Types 



















Aeronautics Total 
Space Total 














Source: "Distribution of Effort" pie charts in folder labeled "Research Effort," 
Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., Collection, Langley Historical Archives. 

since before the Lindbergh flight and where so many ideas important to the 
progress of American aviation had been born. 22 

The place of aeronautics at Langley was nevertheless to change signifi- 
cantly in the wake of Sputnik. For the NACA to metamorphose successfully 
into NASA, aeronautics, out of political necessity, had to give up the center 
stage that it had enjoyed for over five decades so that an overnight sensation 
could now dazzle in the spotlight. The astronaut rocketing into the dark- 
ness of space would now get top billing; the aviator flying through the wild 
blue yonder, and the engineers and scientists who made that flight possible, 
would play the part of supporting actors. Already by the spring of 1958, 
aeronautics at Langley made up only 40 percent of the total work done at 
the center. By 1965 aeronautics would plummet to its lowest point, a measly 
24 percent. The space program was outshining older stars. 

For aviation enthusiasts, this turn of events proved traumatic. Veteran 
aeronautical engineer Raymond L. Bisplinghoff, who directed the OART at 
NASA headquarters from 1962 to 1966, put it mildy when in a 1983 memoir 
he stated that the formation of NASA had 

a dramatic, and at first deleterious, influence on the on-going program of aeronautical 
research. The new space tasks were often under scientists who worked on a space 
problem for one week then switched back to aeronautics the next week. . . . 
The massive priority which the country, from the president on down, placed on 
eclipsing the Russian lead in spaceflight had a profound influence on the NACA 
aeronautical staff as they assumed positions in the new agency. Many took advantage 
of opportunities to move to higher grades and levels of responsibility in space 
activities. As a result, many moved from aeronautical research tasks to space program 

management tasks. 



Spaceflight Revolution 

Others, such as Langley's fiery director of aeronautics, John Stack, were so 
sure that the first "A" in NASA was being erased forever that they decided 
to leave the space agency entirely. At the time, especially after NASA's 
annual R&D budget for aeronautics fell below a million dollars in 1962, these 
disillusioned aviation enthusiasts could not have known how extensively, or 
how successfully, NASA would rebuild its aeronautics programs following 
its major buildup for space. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, all that the aviation enthusiasts could 
think about was the overwhelming dominance of space over aeronautics. 
In private, many Langley aeronautical engineers held NASA's manned 
spaceflight programs in contempt, especially the quest to land men on the 
moon, believing it to be the height of dishonesty for their organization to 
undertake such a mission, even if it could be done, when it was not worth 
doing. John V. Becker, a talented Langley researcher who by the late 1940s 
had already shifted his attention to hypersonics and the possibilities of an 
evolutionary progression into space via transatmospheric vehicles like the 
X-15, remembers that his longtime colleague John Stack was "not really 
much interested in the reentry problem or in space flight in general." For 
Stack, even the X-15 was a program barely worth supporting, and he did so 
"with only the semblance of the notorious promotional fire he could generate 
if he was really interested." 24 

John Stack and his team of aeronautical engineers reserved their enthu- 
siasm for advanced high-speed military jets and for a viable commercial 
SST. As Becker remembers about his volatile colleague, Stack developed 
"a hostile, adversary attitude towards Space, perhaps because it threat- 
ened to drain resources that otherwise might belong to aeronautics." When 
the Apollo program was established in 1961, Stack told Becker, "I don't 
buy this 'to the Moon by noon' stuff." Unimpressed by the great size and 
complexity of the booster rockets, he compared von Braun's Saturns to 
the impressive but very stationary Washington Monument and sided with 
some early but abortive attempts inside NASA to find viable air-breathing 
aircraft-like launch systems for the manned space missions. According to 
Becker, Stack, even after leaving NASA in 1962 for an executive position 
with Republic Aviation, "continued to favor advanced aircraft as opposed 
to space projects." 25 

Most members of the Stack team, as well as many of Langley's other 
aviation enthusiasts, felt exactly the same way. The hard-core aeronautical 
engineers in the years following Sputnik were in Mark R. Nichols' Full- Scale 
Research Division and in Philip Donely's Flight Mechanics and Technology 
Division, both of which were part of Group 3. Inside the wind tunnels and 
flight hangars of these two divisions, torrid love affairs with aerodynamics, 
with high lift/drag ratios, with satisfactory flying and handling qualities, 
and with the comely shapes and exciting personalities of airplanes and 
helicopters continued to flourish long after the formation of the STG. Far too 
numerous to count or name them all, the strongest adherents to aeronautics 


Change and Continuity 


// accomplished high-speed aerodynam- 
icist John Stack looks disgruntled in 
his staff photo from 1959, it may be 
because of the growing predominance 
of the space program at Langley. 

during the 1960s can be spotted simply by looking at an organization chart 
or thumbing through the Langley phonebook noting who belonged to these 
divisions. From top to bottom, these men were the "aero guys." 

And they were not happy. In the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis, "there 
was a real strong emphasis on getting people out of aeronautics and into 
space," remembers Mark Nichols, the Full-Scale Research Division chief. In 
fact, Nichols himself was moved. In 1959, Floyd Thompson put Nichols 
in charge of Langley's first space station committee, choosing him, one of 
the laboratory's most die-hard aeronautical engineers, as a lesson to all 
others. Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., a devoted aeronautical researcher and 
aerodynamic nutter expert, also found himself immersed in planning for both 
space stations and lunar missions in the early 1960s. As this substitution 
pattern became clear, the air-minded at Langley found themselves in "an 
adversarial mode with management, which was always trying to take our 
people and put them into space." Nichols and his buddies looked "for ways 
of resisting this," but were not successful. 26 

No one was unhappier with this development than Langley's number one 
"aero guy," John Stack. No one at Langley grew more disgruntled over 
what he believed the space agency was doing to, and not /or, the country's 
precious aeronautical progress. Stack, the brilliant and outspoken head of 
aeronautics, set the tone for the numerous dissatisfactions of the air-minded 
engineers at the center during the first years of the space revolution. This 
was true especially after he, one of the most decorated and powerful men 
at the laboratory, started to lose out in some infighting within the Langley 
front office. Most notably, in March 1961, Thompson made Charles Donlan, 


Spaceflight Revolution 


One of the aeronautical passions at Langley in the late 1950s and early 1960s was 
variable wing sweep, a technology by which an airplane 's wings could be mechanically 
adjusted to different sweep angles to conform to either subsonic, transonic, or 
supersonic flight requirements. In this photo from May 1965, a wind-tunnel engineer 
checks the mounting of a scale model of the General Dynamics F-lllA, the air 
force's version of the nation's first variable-sweep fighter. The F-lllA first flew in 
December 1964; the navy version, the F-111B, made its initial flight in May. 

and not Stack, Langley's associate director. A man of rare accomplishments 
and visionary ambitions, Stack was not accustomed to being passed over. 
Not even NASA's heavy involvement in the national SST program could 
keep Stack working for the space agency. 

However preoccupied NASA became in the 1960s with space-related mat- 
ters, at Langley aeronautics research continued and resulted in outstanding 
contributions to everything from hypersonic propulsion to the handling qual- 
ities of general aviation aircraft.* One reason for the unexpected degree 
of success, ironically, was the fact that aeronautics did not receive much 
attention from NASA management or from the public at large. The Apollo 
program and all its related activities so consumed NASA headquarters that 
it let the aeronautical engineers do as they pleased. In this sense, the aero- 

Originally, I planned to include a long chapter dealing specifically with aeronautics. As the 
study's thesis evolved, however, I realized that, although the spaceflight revolution certainly affected the 
aeronautics efforts in many significant ways, I could not do justice to the complete history of aeronautics 
at Langley during the 1960s within the confines of an already long book. So, I decided not to cover the 
aeronautical programs and leave them for separate treatment at some later date, perhaps by someone 
other than myself. 


Change and Continuity 


In this photo from 1970, a technician readies a model of Langley's own pet Super- 
sonic Commercial Air Transport, known as SCAT 15F ("F" for fixed wing), for 
testing in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel. 

nautical work at Langley kept much the same personality and flavor as dur- 
ing the NACA era when the engineers, not the bureaucrats in Washington, 
had been in charge. 

But oddly, in retrospect, the rearguard of aviation enthusiasts at Langley 
in the 1960s in some ways resembled the vanguard of the spacefiight 
revolution. As much as the air-minded hated NASA's emphasis on space 
exploration, these air-minded engineers and scientists nevertheless became 
equally caught up in their own dreams of monumental new accomplishments. 
Perhaps it was just the nature of the revolutionary times brought on by 
Sputnik and President Kennedy's New Frontier to think so grandly and to 
feel that the old limitations no longer applied. 

NASA's aeronautical engineers had their own Apollo program in the 
1960s: the design of the most revolutionary aircraft ever built a commer- 
cial supersonic airliner capable of flying two or even three times the speed of 
sound and crossing the Atlantic from New York to London or Paris in a few 
hours. This dream compared favorably with the lunar landing because an 
SST would have such immense economic, political, and social significance 
that it would change how humankind traversed the face of the earth. The 
Apollo program would accomplish nothing similar. Neither, of course, would 
the aeronautical engineers' national SST program because the U.S. Congress 
killed it in 1971. In this sense, too, the space cadets emerged "one up," for 


Space/light Revolution 

they had their spectacular moment with the manned lunar landings; the 
"aero guys" never did. 

Growth Within Personnel Ceilings 

Despite the dissolution of the Hydrodynamics Division and the wane of 
aeronautics, Langley's formal organization did not change significantly in 
the early 1960s. This was in part because the center did not grow much 
bigger. By the changeover to NASA, Langley Research Center was already 
a large operation. It had greatly expanded during its NAG A history from 
a few small buildings in an isolated corner of the military base prior to 
World War II to a 710-acre complex on both sides of the air force runways. 
It was now an establishment that included 30 major wind tunnels and 
laboratories and whose replacement worth to the federal government was 
estimated at nearly $150 million. In 1958 the center paid approximately 
$6 million in operating expenditures, including nearly $2 million just for 
electric power. Its annual payroll stood at $22 million. Its full-time civil 
service staff numbered about 3300, of whom approximately one-third were 
engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and other professional people. 27 

With the transition to NASA, the size of the Langley staff actually 
became a little smaller before it grew any larger: from 3795 paid employees 
in June 1959 to 3456 by the end of that year. The staff fell to 3191 six months 
after the previously auxiliary Wallops Station became an independent field 
installation (on 1 January 1960). In the next three years, the number rose 
to 4007. By June 1966 the Langley staff reached its all-time high of 4485 
employees. This was nearly 1000 more staff members than Langley's peak 
number in 1952. But relative to the agency wide growth of NASA in the 
1960s, Langley's expansion was actually quite moderate. 

In 1958, Langley's 3300 employees represented more than 41 percent of 
NASA's total first-year civil service complement of 7966. But in 1964, the 
4329 employees of the Virginia facility amounted to barely 13 percent of the 
agency's entire number, which in a span of just five years had doubled and 
doubled again, to 33,108. In other words, while Langley was growing, its rate 
of growth was slow compared with NASA's. At this rate Langley would be 
unable to retain its traditional position of dominance in the agency. NASA 
was adding large new manned spaceflight centers such as Marshall Space 
Flight Center in Alabama, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas, and the 
Launch Operations Center (in November 1963, renamed the Kennedy Space 
Center) at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The addition of Marshall alone had 
meant the mass influx of over 4000 personnel from the U.S. Army as part of 
the transfer of the ABMA's Development Operations Division to NASA. 

Moreover, NASA's total personnel headcount of 33,108 in 1964 repre- 
sented a diminishing fraction of NASA's overall effort. In the late 1960s, 
NASA estimated that Project Apollo employed some 400,000 Americans 





of paid 3750 




Change and Continuity 







Number of paid employees at NASA Lang ley, 1952-1966. 



of NASA 25 





1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 

Paid employees at NASA Langley percentage of NASA total, 1958-1968. 


Space/light Revolution 

in government, industries, and universities. NASA's civil service employees 
amounted to just a little more than 10 percent of the total NASA work force, 
broadly defined. The other 90 percent were contractors. 

Langley was often called "Mother Langley" because it had been the 
mother lode for all NACA facilities. A guiding force throughout NACA 
history and for the first years of NASA, Mother Langley now was losing 
its central position in the agency. Although only a few concerned research- 
oriented people like Hugh Dryden would have thought about the significance 
of the changing personnel numbers at the time, they were symptomatic of a 
slow but sure decline of the formerly predominant influence of the research 
centers and the coming hegemony of the development centers. The personnel 
numbers signified the ascendancy of organizations devoted primarily not to 
research but to planning and conducting actual spaceflight operations and 
building hardware. 

The trend did not go unnoticed. Thompson received a forewarning of the 
siphoning of research center staff funds for development centers from Earl 
Hilburn, whose appointment as a NASA deputy associate administrator 
Thompson had summarily discounted. On 9 September 1963, Thompson 
sent a four-page letter to NASA headquarters regarding Langley's personnel 
requirements. His letter underscored what he called "the problem of 
manpower distribution" among the NASA centers. "The immediate needs 
of a development program are always more easily recognized," he began, 
"than is the requirement for a continuing research program that lays the 
basic foundation of technology upon which the development program can 
continually depend for guidance in solving detailed technical problems." 28 

At the heart of Thompson's illuminating letter was his concern about an 
ongoing tug-of-war between the manned spaceflight centers and the research 
centers over the apportionment (or reapportionment) of NASA's personnel 
quotas. The internal struggle, which the research centers were losing, was 
the result of work-load stresses caused by the ceilings that were imposed 
on the total number of people NASA could employ. The way the system 
worked, the agency asked for the amount of money it needed to pay salaries 
based on the number of people it anticipated it would employ. However, if 
Congress or the Bureau of the Budget found reason to trim the request, then 
NASA had to cut back on its staffing projections accordingly, even though 
the requirement to do so was not explicit in the appropriation act. 29 

In the first years of NASA, this sort of cutting back had happened fre- 
quently because Congress, the Bureau of the Budget, President Eisenhower, 
and even NASA Administrator Glennan hoped to keep a rather tight lid on 
civil service staffing. For Glennan as well as for many others, keeping the lid 
on the personnel total played directly into the Republican philosophy that 
government was already too big. At a NASA staff conference in Monterey, 
California, in early March 1960, Glennan claimed that "there was a need for 
some kind of arbitrary limitation on NASA's size. By limiting the number 
of employees, NASA would limit its in-house capability and thus be forced 


Change and Continuity 

The first woman to work as an en- 
gineer at NACA Langley was Kitty 
O'Brien-Joyner (left), who was also 
the first female to graduate with an 
engineering degree from the Univer- 
sity of Virginia. 



In 1959, Langley employed six women who were classified by NASA as "scientists." 
During the Apollo era, women made up 3 to 5 percent of the professional work force 
agencywide. The percentage of African American professionals was significantly 
smaller, from 1.5 to 3 percent. These percentages rose slowly for both groups as the 
decade proceeded. 


Space/light Revolution 

to develop the capabilities of contractors." 30 This development would be far 
better for the American economy than hiring larger coteries of government 
workers. Glennan sanctioned relatively low personnel ceilings. For fiscal 
year 1962, for example, he approved a limit of 16,802 employees, which was 
less than 3 percent above the total authorized for the previous year. 31 Nat- 
urally, no NASA center director facing the high public expectations and 
enormously expanded work load of the early 1960s could be expected to be 
happy about such limits on hiring. 

The acceleration of the space program brought on by President Kennedy 
and his dynamic new man, James Webb, jacked the personnel ceiling up to 
new heights. Instead of the 3-percent increase for fiscal year 1962 proposed 
by Glennan, an increase of a whopping 43 percent was approved. Between 
1961 and 1965 the total number of agency personnel would double, from 
17,471 to 35, 860. 32 Given this rapid growth in the size of the NASA 
staff, it may seem more than a bit astonishing to find a NASA center 
director worried about the need for more personnel. But by late 1963, 
that was the case. Government controls on personnel totals even during the 
ensuing Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson 
were such that the only way to take care of any unforeseen requirements 
that occurred during a fiscal year was to transfer manpower and related 
financial resources among institutions. And when a transfer was needed, 
the research laboratories invariably lost. 

On more than one occasion, subsequent to a preliminary formulation 
of the basic data regarding the agency's manpower requirements at NASA 
headquarters, the managements of Houston and Huntsville would request a 
substantial number of supplementary personnel. (Earl Hilburn was warning 
Thompson about such a request in September 1963.) To give the space 
centers several hundred additional staff positions without obtaining the 
congressional authorization to increase the agency's overall complement 
meant that NASA headquarters had no other choice but to reapportion 
the personnel quotas among the field centers. In other words, in order for 
Houston and Huntsville to get more, Langley and other research centers 
would have to get less. 33 

In Thompson's mind, this was a tug-of-war that the research centers, 
given the priorities of the space race, could not win, but which the nation 
could not afford to lose. "Two-thirds of the current total effort of Langley 
is utilized in support of the NASA space effort," Thompson wrote to the 
NASA administration. "These programs have been prepared in cooperation 
with and approved by the OART and other cognizant program offices. 
They have been endorsed by NASA as essential to continued leadership in 
space exploration and vital to the success of such basic NASA programs 
as Saturn, Gemini, and Apollo." 34 To support this claim, he attached 
to his letter (along with lists and charts illustrating "the wide range 
of activity" at Langley) a 10-page document listing all the then-current 
Langley investigations relevant to the program interests at the Manned 


Change and Continuity 

Spacecraft Center. This document, prepared by Axel T. Mattson, whom 
Thompson had dispatched as a special attache to Houston in the summer of 
1962, demonstrated that Langley was spending some 300 man- years just in 
support of the Texas center's projects. 35 If NASA continued to neglect 
Langley 's manpower needs and persisted in improperly distributing the 
quotas, something would have to give. Too few people would remain at 
the research center to perform the total center mission. Either Langley 
would do all the support work, leaving little if any time for fundamental 
research, or the support work would have to subside, thus putting the goals 
of the American space program at risk. 

The Shift Toward the Periphery 

The trend pushing Langley from the center of NASA toward its periphery 
is evident not only in the personnel numbers but also in the budget figures. 
In 1959 the direct cost of Langley's administrative operations in terms of its 
obligations to pay employees and honor all those contracts (not including 
Wallops') that were not funded by R&D money was $30.7 million. This 
amounted to 36 percent of the NASA total. In 1967, Langley spent $64.3 
million, the most money it would spend on operations during any one year in 
its entire history; however, this amount was less than 10 percent of the NASA 
total for that year. In 1959 the cost of running Langley was significantly 
higher than that of operating any other NASA facility. But by 1967, Langley 
was down to seventh place on that list, while Marshall stood at the top, at 
$128.7 million, or double what it cost to operate Langley. Even the price of 
running NASA headquarters was nearly up to the Langley figure. Whereas 
$5.5 million kept the offices in Washington going in 1959, by 1967 that figure 
had shot up over tenfold to a grandiose $57 million. 36 

NASA headquarters was growing by leaps and bounds in the early 1960s. 
It was a larger, more multilayered, and more active bureaucracy than had 
ever been the case for the NACA's Washington office. A host of headquarters 
officials congealed and took charge of all the programs at Langley and the 
other NASA centers. This meant that the field centers had to work through 
Washington not only for their allotment of resources but also for many 
levels of program initiation and administration. Also unlike the days of 
the NACA, the bureaucrats in Washington were now directly in charge 
of their own little empires. They issued major contracts to universities 
and industries for R&D and for design studies. 37 Between 1960 and 1968, 
the value of contracts awarded by NASA headquarters rose from 3 to 11 
percent of the total value of contracts awarded agencywide. During the 
same period, Langley experienced a decline from 35 to 3 percent of the 
total value of contracts agencywide, and Huntsville and Houston centers 
collectively hovered consistently between 50 and 60 percent of the NASA 
total. 38 


Space/light Revolution 

Compared with the megabucks turned over to the spaceflight centers for 
R&D during this period, Langley's funding was also relatively small. In 
1963 the center received less than 2 percent of the total money set aside by 
NASA for R&D programs. On the other hand, Marshall received almost 30 
percent of the total NASA R&D budget. The most Langley ever received 
in R&D funding was $124 million in 1966; the least that Marshall received 
in the same period was 10 times that in 1968. 39 

The point of going through these numbers is not to show that Langley 
was being treated unfairly. As a facility devoted primarily to applied basic 
research in aviation and space, Langley simply was not doing as much 
procurement as were those NASA centers responsible for designing, building, 
launching, and operating spacecraft. What the numbers do show is a new 
technological order brought on by the spaceflight revolution. In examining 
the numbers we hold up a mirror to the new sociopolitical context of research 
activities at the former NACA aeronautics laboratory. The mirror reflects 
NASA's determination to allocate the lion's share of its financial resources 
to those arms of the agency most directly involved in what the country 
was intent on achieving through its space program. In the 1960s that was, 
first, getting astronauts into orbit around the earth; second, per President 
Kennedy's May 1961 commitment, landing American astronauts on the 
moon; and third, in the process, refreshing the nation's spirit, reinvigorating 
its economy, and showing the world just what the U.S. system of democracy 
and free enterprise could do when the American people put their minds and 
energies to it. In other words, the intent was to win the space race. 

These figures signify more specifically the rather immediate effects that 
NASA's broader mission had on the lives of the old NACA research labora- 
tories. Unlike the NACA, NASA would be an operational organization, not 
just a research organization. It would become heavily involved in projects 
with goals and schedules and it would contract out to American business 
and industry a great part of its work. As this happened, Langley staff feared 
that administrators in Washington would no longer see the center as special. 
With headquarters now running many of its own shows through contracts 
to industry, a place like Langley could come to be regarded by many at 
headquarters as just another contributor to the program. Langley was just 
one more possible center where work could be done, if NASA headquarters 
chose to locate it there. But headquarters might instead choose the General 
Electric Company's Command Systems Division; BellComm, Incorporated; 
the Douglas Aircraft Company; Thompson- Ramo-Wooldridge (TRW); MIT; 
or some other very capable organization. 40 Langley was now for the first 
time in competition with "outsiders," the many laboratories and firms that 
had been springing up or growing in competency in conjunction with the 
burgeoning of the "military-industrial complex" after World War II. 

The competition was not inherently harmful to Langley. Given the ample 
budgets brought on by the spaceflight revolution, NASA had more money 
than it could spend on itself or on its research laboratories. Langley was 


Change and Continuity 

simply not accustomed to the competition, and it was not accustomed 
to relying on others. For more than four decades its organization had 
been largely self-sufficient. As an internal Langley study on the history 
of contracting at the NASA center by Sarah and Steve Corneliussen has 
noted, the laboratory staff had almost always conducted its own research, 
built its own models and instrumentation and wind tunnels, and handled its 
own logistical needs, from mowing the grass to operating its two cafeterias. 
Only occasionally had outsiders been brought in during the NACA period 
to augment the civil service staff and "only temporarily at that, just to 
help out with occasional peaks in the center's housekeeping workload." 41 

Thus, many former NACA staffers would need time to adjust to the new 
environment of NASA and to see that the involvement of outsiders in the 
work of the new space agency would not take anything away from their 
historic capabilities or their tradition of self-sufficiency, but would instead 
add to them. "Contracting out" was not substituting the work of others for 
what the in-house staff had always done. It was augmenting the capabilities 
of the NASA researchers so that they could accomplish more. The Langley 
organization would be no less cohesive nor would contracting damage its best 
qualities; it would only enhance them. 42 That, at least, was the argument. 

Contracting Out 

Other than the occasional employment of temporary laborers for odd 
jobs, Langley had accomplished almost everything it had to do with its own 
staff. This self-sufficiency worked well during the NACA period because the 
range of what needed to be done was usually narrow enough for the civil 
service work force to handle it. If the work load increased significantly, as 
during World War II, then the solution was to obtain authorization from 
Congress for additional civil service staffing. The answer was not to hire 

With the quickening pace of the space race and the urgency of NASA's 
expanded mission, however, the work load increased so dramatically that 
civil service staffing authorizations could not keep up. An evolving mismatch 
between the high work load at the research center and the low level of 
congressional authorizations for more research staff eventually forced a 
reluctant Langley into contracting out for much of the work that it always 
had done and would have preferred to continue doing itself. 

At first the research center resisted the trend toward contracting out 
and was only willing to hand over to outsiders mundane maintenance and 
administrative jobs, such as delivering the mail, operating the cafeterias, 
running the center's credit union, and maintaining some of the warehouses. 
Procurements for these jobs involved so-called support service contracts, 
that is, binding legal relationships drawn up so that the time and the services 
of an outside firm (i.e., the contractor) could be secured to attain a specified 
in-house objective. 43 


Space/light Revolution 

Even for the tasks of routine housekeeping, Langley wanted the best 
employees. "If we're going to hire outsiders," the procurement officers em- 
phasized, "then let's choose a way of doing so that maximizes their contri- 
butions as adjunct members of the team.' 4 The best way to do this, they 
found, was to use a "cost-plus-award fee," a special and for the government, 
novel form of cost-reimbursement contract. In Langley's opinion, this ar- 
rangement had the highest potential for inducing quality in the contractor's 
performance because the contractor's profit the award fee rises or falls 
in direct correspondence to the customer's (i.e., Langley's) appraisal of the 
work. As with straight cost reimbursement, the expense to the government 
is not preset, but changes over time with the changing circumstances of the 
work. This process differentiates both cost-reimbursement and cost-plus- 
award fee contracts from the more typically used "fixed-price" contract, in 
which the contracting party specifically delineates the job requested and the 
time allowed for completing it, and the bidder assumes the risk of match- 
ing the forecast of the demands of the job to what those demands will in 
fact turn out to be. However, in Langley's case of contracting for ongoing 
support services usually for terms of several years, during which working 
circumstances would change and jobs would have to be adjusted, the fixed- 
price approach would not work. 45 

In essence, the cost-plus-award fee was an incentives contract; according 
to a formal NASA definition, it provided for "a basic fixed fee for perfor- 
mance to a level deemed acceptable, plus an additional award fee, not in 
excess of a stipulated maximum, for accomplishment of better than the 'ac- 
ceptable' level." 46 Its downside was the administrative burden. The amount 
of the award was linked to the contractor's performance; thus, on a regular 
and in some cases almost daily basis, responsible Langley employees had 
to inspect and evaluate the contractor's work. A board of senior managers 
had to appraise the contractor's performance at agreed-upon intervals and 
decide the amount of extra money deserved. A much larger and more for- 
mal mechanism for handling contractors therefore had to be developed at 
Langley. One clear indicator of the burden of this added responsibility was 
the growth in the size of the Langley procurement staff itself. Before NASA 
replaced the NACA, this staff comprised 25 people. After the changeover, 
the staff quickly expanded to more than 100 before leveling off at 70 to 80 
after the STG left for Houston. 47 

In this fashion, Langley did what it could to bring out the best in 
its contractors and to make them feel a vital part of the center. This 
method of contracting was a way of bringing outsiders "in," of making 
"them" part of "us." However, an inherent and potentially serious difficulty 
existed in carrying out the philosophy of these contracts. Like all other 
procurements by the U.S. government, these contracts for support services 
were governed by federal regulations. The regulations clearly allowed, and 
the then-current federal policy indeed encouraged, the direct involvement of 
American businesses, industries, and universities at government facilities like 


Change and Continuity 


The Langley division most assisted by support- service contractors in the early 
1960s was ACD. By mid- decade, contractors were programming the computers and 
handling the hardware and software support of the mainframe systems, and by 1970, 
contractors were contributing substantially to the development of computer programs 
for the guidance, navigation, and control of aircraft and spacecraft. 

In this photo, taken in 1959, engineers are at work in Langley 's computer 
complex. Langley 's electronic analog brain (seen in photo) with its plugboards and 
vacuum tubes was replaced in 1965 by mainframe digital computers. The conversion 
from analog to digital was a major technological development of the spaceflight 
revolution. Without it the on-board navigation and control needed to achieve the 
manned lunar landing would have been impossible. 

Langley, but the same body of regulations also insisted that the contractors 
make their contributions at arm's length from civil service management. In 
other words, the two could not be "in bed together." If civil servants did 
not maintain this distance, the contractors might become entrenched, their 
expense charges could get out of hand, and they would essentially have a 
"license to steal." 48 

Over the years, despite the best intentions of government, Langley 
staff would have trouble adhering always to the arm's- length requirement. 
Because Langley wanted to make the contractors feel that they were part of 
"the family" and in spirit no different from any other employee, staff could 
hardly treat contractors in the formal, mechanical ways required by the rules. 
Contracting officials were supposed to follow a labyrinth of procedures and 
policies to arrive at the letter of the law required by federal procurement. 
But as civil servants and contractors worked side by side, ate lunch together 
in the NASA cafeteria, and often became close friends, feelings that Langley 
should keep to the spirit of the law, as opposed to the letter, prevailed. As 
a result, the position of the contractors at Langley slowly grew stronger. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Starting with the assignment of the Scout booster rocket project to the 
center in the late 1950s, as Chief Procurement Officer -Sherwood Butler 
recalls, "Langley began to branch out and contract for some highly technical 
services such as launch support, support of research, and maintenance 
and calibration of instrumentation." 49 Several representatives of the prime 
contractor, Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) worked on-site on a daily basis as 
integral members of the Scout "team." These contractors included 12 LTV 
engineers working specifically in the field of instrumentation. Bringing in 
instrumentation experts amounted to "the first instance of support services 
contracting in a technical field at Langley." 50 With the start of other major 
projects like Fire and Lunar Orbiter, many contract employees of industrial 
firms came to work at the center and were such an integral part of the team 
that they could not be distinguished from the government workers without 
a glance at their ID badges. 

The Brave New World of Projects 

In the brave new world brought on by the spaceflight revolution, Langley, 
as we have seen in its support of the STG, for the first time became 
heavily involved in project work and the formal management of large- 
scale endeavors involving hardware development, flight operations, and 
the administration of contracts. For some of these projects, Langley 
personally handled the reins of management for NASA headquarters as 
the designated "lead center." In the early 1960s such projects included 
Scout, which began in 1960 for the development of NASA's first launch 
vehicle, a dependable and relatively inexpensive solid-propellant rocket; 
Radio Attenuation Measurements (RAM), which came to life in 1961 to 
address the radio blackout that occurred during a spacecraft's reentry into 
the atmosphere; Fire, which was started in 1962 to study the effects of 
reentry heating on Apollo spacecraft materials; Lunar Orbiter, which was 
initiated in 1963 to take photographic surveys of the moon in preparation for 
the Apollo manned lunar landings; and the Hypersonic Ramjet Experiment 
Project, which began in 1964 to explore the feasibility of a hypersonic ramjet 

Other NASA organizations took the lead for many other projects, and 
Langley helped by providing diversified R&D support. Langley contributed 
in this way to all the manned spaceflight projects, from Project Mercury 
through Apollo. Langley also participated in "cooperative projects." These 
were projects for which NASA headquarters assigned the overall project 
management to another center but gave Langley the official responsibility 
for subsidiary projects or for specific project tasks. The earliest example 
of a cooperative project involving Langley was Project Echo, which was 
started in 1959 for the development of a passive communications satellite. 
For Project Echo, NASA assigned the project management not to Langley 


Change and Continuity 

but to Goddard; however, Langley was responsible for the development of 
the Echo balloon, for the container in which the balloon was carried into 
space, and for the balloon's in-space inflation system. Beyond that, Langley 
was also responsible for managing two flight projects in support of Echo, 
Projects Shotput and Big Shot, which were designed to test Echo designs 
under suborbital conditions before the balloons were launched into orbit. 

Before exploring the history of NASA Langley's early involvement in 
project work in subsequent chapters of this book, I want to address a few 
basic points about projects and about research. A project sets out to do 
something quite specific and to do it in a limited time frame. For example, 
the goal of the Manhattan Project during World War II was the design 
and construction of an atomic bomb; the goal of Project Sherwood in the 
1950s, as mentioned in the next chapter, was the design and construction 
of an effective fusion reactor. To fulfill these objectives, the projects' 
researchers had to move ahead quickly and adhere to strict schedules. They 
could not afford many detours. The Manhattan Project started in 1941 
and concluded in 1945. To achieve the project goal in those four years, 
a vast array of resources had to be effectively mobilized, organized, and 
supplied. The enormously complex task of creating the first atom bomb 
would not have been successful if the U.S. government and its wartime 
military establishment had not given high priority to completing such a 
"crash effort." With a far lower priority and with more intractable problems 
to solve, Project Sherwood staff never did achieve the project's final goal. 51 

In its bare essentials, a NASA project was no different from the two 
projects discussed above. According to a formal NASA definition in the 
early 1960s, a project was "an undertaking with a scheduled beginning and 
end," which involved "the design, development, and demonstration of major 
advanced hardware items such as launch vehicles or space vehicles." The 
purpose of a NASA project was to support the activities of a program. NASA 
defined a program as "a related series of undertakings which continue over 
a period of time and which are designed to accomplish a broad scientific or 
technical goal in the NASA Long- Range Plan." 52 Typically, the time span 
of a NASA project was two to three years. Two examples of the agency's 
"broad scientific and technical goals" from the early 1960s were manned 
spaceflight (spearheaded by Project Mercury) and the exploration of the 
moon and the planets (supported early on by the Ranger and Surveyor 
projects). After President Kennedy's speech in May 1961, NASA's most 
important goal became a manned lunar landing that was achievable by the 
end of the decade. That goal was so primary that Apollo, the project, 
quickly became Apollo, the program. It so dominated NASA's efforts that 
the moon landing became virtually coextensive with the mission of the entire 


space agency. 00 * 

In contrast to projects with their definite beginnings and ends and specific 
goals, research is by nature more open-ended and unpredictable. To obtain 
significant results from research, even from the more practical engineering 


Space/light Revolution 

kind carried out at Langley during its NACA period, risks must be taken. 
Researchers must venture down long and winding roads .that might lead 
nowhere, ask questions that might turn out to be unanswerable, and spend 
money on experimental equipment to conduct demonstrations that might 
never work. 

In other words, the environment for research has to be flexible. Needless 
to say, so too does the researcher and, perhaps especially so, the research 
manager. For a technical culture to be understanding and supportive of 
research, it must be forgiving of failure and the apparent lack of progress. 
On the other hand, as a 1979 NASA study of the R&D process declares, 
"Projects often provide the ultimate reality. [They] are practical demonstra- 
tions. New equipment must function well, performance is measured against 
the previous experience, and success needs to be achieved." 54 Otherwise, 
the project is a total failure. The situation is rather black-and-white. 

In research, the criteria for success and failure are gray; success needs to 
be achieved only once in a while. One fundamental breakthrough that can 
be built upon for many years makes up for dozens of wrong turns and dead 
ends. A breakthrough may even be accidental or the fortuitous consequence 
of some meandering. This is rarely the case in a project. When success 
is a necessity and the timetable is short, nothing can be left to accident 
or luck; a "fail-safe" system is called for. Constructing such a system 
requires systematic and detailed planning, rigorous discipline, proof-tested 
technology, and extremely prudent management and overall leadership not 
to mention enough talented and motivated people to work all the overtime 
required to complete the job on schedule. 

During its 41-year-long history as an NACA laboratory, Langley's "ulti- 
mate reality" had been firmly rooted in research, not in projects. Generally 
speaking, Langley valued research more than anything else. The most mer- 
itorious thing that a Langley scientist or engineer could do was to write 
an outstanding research paper that the NACA would publish as a formal 
technical report. Langley researchers did not design or build airplanes; as 
government employees, they were not supposed to, or allowed to, do that. 
What they did was the basic testing that generated the fundamental knowl- 
edge that the aircraft industry used to advance the state of the nation's 
aeronautical art. 

The NACA laboratory was, therefore, not a place for pure research; it 
was a place for applied basic research and for technology development. As 
such, Langley staff understood and placed great importance on project work. 
Most NACA research was neither "basic" nor "scientific" in the usual sense 
of those words; almost every investigation at the center, whether "funda- 
mental" or "developmental," was aimed at a useful aircraft application. 
What Langley researchers did best was attack the most pressing problems 
obstructing the immediate progress of American aviation, particularly those 
vexing the military air services, and aircraft manufacturing and operating 
industries. This had often meant "fighting fires," bringing diversified R&D 


Change and Continuity 

talents to bear on a problem of the moment, and eliminating or solving that 
problem in as short a time as possible. Doing so was virtually like carrying 
out a project. 

Thus, in the NACA's way of doing research, of developing wind tunnels 
and other test facilities, and of attacking technical problems, Langley 
researchers often followed an approach akin to project management. Many 
people at NACA Langley felt that their best research programs were those 
run as projects. For instance, the approach the center adopted to building 
many major new facilities had been very much like project management. 
Frequently during meetings of employee promotion boards in the 1950s, 
a member of the senior staff would ask whether the candidate was a 
"project engineer" or simply a "researcher." By project engineer, they 
meant someone who could take on all the responsibilities for carrying out 
a task and meeting a deadline. To do this, the project engineer had to 
deal with wind-tunnel operators, get work done in the shops, consult with 
systems engineering and other technical support people, and perhaps even 
do a little bit of procurement, such as arranging for the purchase of supplies, 
materials, or some minor piece of equipment. 

This kind of management was done on a much smaller scale than would 
be done for a NASA project, but NACA Langley researchers did have 
comparable experiences. With the coming of NASA, they only had to learn 
to do it on a larger scale. From the end of World War II, PARD had 
been involved with rocket acquisitions and launch operations, and starting 
in the mid-1950s, Langley was also heavily involved in the large Project 
WS-110A. (The designation "WS" stood for "Weapons System.") This 
was a top secret air force project for the development of what became 
the North American XB-70, an experimental, six-engine, 520,000-pound 
strategic bomber designed for a speed in excess of Mach 3. (Only two were 
built before the project was canceled in 1964. ) 55 

Experiences such as those in PARD and with WS-110A made the man- 
agement of a project easier for Langley when the time came. Most people 
who would be assigned to many of the earliest NASA projects at Langley 
would come from PARD. Although Langley staff moved into the project 
work brought on by the spaceflight revolution and the changeover to NASA 
without too much difficulty, the novelty or the essential differences between 
conducting project work and doing research should not be underestimated. 

PARD had more critics within Langley than did any of the laboratory's 
other research divisions. From the moment of PARD's establishment as a 
separate division in 1946 through its reincarnation as the Applied Materials 
and Physics Division in 1959, researchers in other divisions were always 
bickering with someone in PARD. Wind-tunnel groups questioned the merits 
of PARD's wing-flow and rocket-model transonic testing techniques, arguing 
that they were too costly and often took priority over more basic tunnel 
programs. Each firing of a PARD rocket model from Wallops Island required 
that a precious test model be sacrificed; often the models had expensive 


Space/light Revolution 

instruments inside. Among others, John V. Becker, the influential head 
of the Compressibility Research Division, complained about the "voracious 
appetite" of the rocket-model advocates, suggesting that many engineers in 
PARD were more interested in making their rocket models perform with 
increasing accuracy than in solving research problems. Becker warned that 
the practice was causing "a major slowdown" in the production of the 
models and instruments required by his division and by others. In his 
judgment, what PARD was expecting, and often receiving, from Langley's 
model shops and other technical support services was "roughly equivalent 
to the requirements of perhaps 10 major wind tunnels." 56 

Although much of the criticism was unfair, these feelings about PARD 
and about its focused, rather aggressive project-like approach to doing 
things worried many senior staff members of the 1960s. Becker and others 
thought that most of the personnel in PARD were "blacksmiths," hairy- 
armed, technical musclemen who did things hit or miss, with hammer and 
tongs, and without much serious forethought. One of Becker's branch heads, 
Macon C. Ellis, Jr., remembers that feelings against PARD within the Gas 
Dynamics Laboratory were so strong that "when we became MPD [the 
Magnetoplasmadynamics Branch, in 1960], we definitely didn't want to go 
into PARD. That was for sure." 57 

As Langley took on more project work during the 1960s, people 
strictly involved in research grew increasingly upset. Larry Loftin, Floyd 
Thompson's technical assistant and later director of Group 3, remembers 
with some hard feelings that "anything with the name 'project' got first 
priority in the shops." Again, this perturbed those research groups involved 
in wind-tunnel testing. "You couldn't do wind-tunnel tests without mod- 
els," Loftin recalls, "and you couldn't get your models done without the 
shops. All a person had to do was mention Mercury or some other project 
to somebody in the shops, and it got done. Everybody else waited their 
turn." Hostility was particularly high regarding Project WS-110A. Any 
work connected to WS-110A received the highest priority at Langley. Any 
test model needed for the project immediately was built in the shops, then 
was pushed to the front of the line for wind-tunnel testing. This situation 
led a frustrated researcher to try connecting one of his job orders to Project 
WS-110A so that he could get some of his own work done. 58 

In analyzing the impact of NASA project work on the traditional 
character of Langley, continuity from the NACA period must not be 
exaggerated. Researchers like Becker and Ellis drew a line dividing the 
ways of NASA projects from NACA research and continued to draw it well 
into the NASA years. John Stack, the billy-goat-gruff of the Langley senior 
staff, never abandoned the research ideal of the NACA. In his opinion, the 
most valuable thing that any Langley employee ultimately could contribute 
was a published research paper that the American aerospace community 
could use. Without such contributions, a laboratory would amount to no 
more than an industrial plant. 59 


Change and Continuity 


In this 1957 photo, aerodynamicists prepare a scale model of the top secret WS-110A 
for testing in Langley's 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel. 

Uncharted Territory 

No matter what PARD had done that was akin to project work during the 
NACA period, large-scale projects for spaceflight were totally new. Langley 
was inexperienced in many details of project management, in procurement, 
and in matters concerning the administration of the space agency's expanded 
R&D and mission activities. 

In putting together its diversified operation, NASA faced a complex task: 
it had to build an effective organizational structure involving intraagency 
relationships; it had to devise a rational complex of administrative proce- 
dures that took care of both internal and external matters; and it had to 
find the best ways to procure supplies and services. This last requirement, 
procurement administration, was especially problematic for a technical or- 
ganization like Langley because it involved the writing, negotiating, and 
managing of contracts. This meant extensive dealings, legal and otherwise, 
with corporations and industrial firms in the profit-motivated private sector 
of the American economy. Such a complicated affair had never been the 
case for NACA research. 

In the early days of the space agency, NASA headquarters realized that 
most of its executive personnel, especially those running the field centers, 
were "excellent technical people" who "lacked experience" in managing large 


Space/light Revolution 

projects. Two outside studies sponsored by NASA in mid-1960, one by an 
advisory committee on NASA organization chaired by University of Chicago 
President Lawrence Kimpton and the other done under contract by the 
Washington management consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., found that 
NASA's executive class needed beefing up. With Administrator Glennan 
enthusiastically in support of this finding, NASA immediately began a 
formal program to train project managers. It hired a contractor, Harbridge 
House, to develop and lead a series of two- week training courses in project 
management. The first of these courses convened in Williamsburg, Virginia, 
not more than 25 miles from Langley, in December 1960. Employees 
from all the NASA installations attended. Langley sent several people 
not all of them picked for their potential as project managers. Some 
general administrative staff also attended the seminars, as did a handful 
of senior managers like Larry Loftin and Gene Draley. Top NASA officials 
and managers of industry addressed the participants, while specialists 
from Harbridge House took groups through case studies "from actual, but 
camouflaged, R&D problems" faced by NASA and the DOD. Essentially, 
what everyone was supposed to glean from the training, and for the most 
part did, was a heightened concern for certain basic management principles 
and theories. 60 

What NASA hoped to achieve through this training course was "a 
measure of uniformity" in the management of its diverse projects agen- 
cywide. NASA did not want more centralized control over the projects; 
this had already been tried to some extent in the first two years of NASA's 
operation and had resulted in an impossibly heavy work load at NASA 
headquarters. 61 NASA wanted to move toward a more decentralized system 
in which one field installation would have virtually complete management 
control over the execution of an entire project; the need for interinstallation 
coordination would be at a minimum; and NASA headquarters could stay 
out of the intraproject coordination and instead could concentrate on inter- 
project coordination, which included "the review and approval of projects 
in the light of overall objectives, schedules, and costs of the entire agency." 
All three points were underscored in the October 1960 final report of the 
McKinsey & Co. study of the NASA organization. In fact, the firm's advo- 
cacy of a training course in project management stemmed directly from the 
conclusions of its specialists about the advantages of a decentralized system. 
Such a system could work, the report said in emphatic terms, only if each 
NASA center trained 10 or 20 people in this kind of management. 62 

NASA would need three years to create the decentralized system called 
for in the McKinsey report. With the NASA reorganization of October 1963 
asked for by Administrator Webb, the system finally was firmly put into 
place. From that point on, as Arnold S. Levine explains in his 1982 analysis, 
Managing NASA in the Apollo Era, NASA leadership stressed that "project 
management was the responsibility of the centers." For all flight projects, 
"there was to be one lead center, regardless of how many installations 


Change and Continuity 

actually participated."* To take the lead, "a particular center had to 
[have] (or was assumed to have) the capacity to manage large development 
contracts, the skills to integrate the subsystems of a project parceled out 
among two or three different centers, and the ability to draw on the resources 
of the centers instead of needlessly duplicating them." 63 Those in charge of 
a project at a lead center would report their business, in a direct and official 
line of communication, to the head of the appropriate program office at 
NASA headquarters, for example, to the head of the OART. Senior staff in 
these program offices then supervised and counseled the work of the project 
managers in the field as they saw fit. 64 

Ironically, where this shift in NASA project management policy seems 
to have led by 1963 was back to the NACA concept of giving the field 
centers the responsibility for technical decisions. Of course, the overall 
political and cultural context in which those decisions were made was 
far different from the one in which Langley had operated as an NACA 
aeronautics laboratory. The NACA was not involved with contractors and 
all the snarly legalities and procedures that necessarily came with them. In 
the narrower context of the NACA, technical decisions were not nearly as 
visible or important to the American public as they would be in the high- 
profile space program. If an NACA decision had been wrong, the result 
might have been tragic if, for example, the aircraft industry or military air 
services had applied a mistaken NACA research finding in a new airplane 
design. But the overall context for NACA research was such that major 
mistakes were almost impossible to make. In normal periods, researchers 
could usually take all the time necessary to be scrupulously careful and 
certain of their findings. Even during the rush to support the Allied air 
forces in World War II, which involved "cleanup" of existing aircraft designs 
as well as fundamental research and development, researchers had time to be 
systematic. 65 Furthermore, the NACA's clients never applied aerodynamic 
test results indiscriminately. All sorts of institutional checks and balances 
would be exercised to confirm the veracity of the government's research data 
before using it. In comparison, the context for NASA projects involved a 
much higher degree of institutional risk. As we have already noted about 
projects, "success needs to be achieved" and in a limited amount of time. 
The successes of the space race projects would eventually cost NASA and 
Langley in ways their researchers could not have calculated in the early 
1960s. In research, success had always been broadly defined and its price 
not so dear, but Langley would learn quickly just how exacting a space 
project could be. 


This was not true for Apollo, which was so big and so important that NASA divvied up the work 

among lead centers: the spacecraft development to Houston, the launch vehicle development to Marshall, 
and the tracking system to Goddard. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

What about this plasma physics ? Will it ever amount 
to anything? 

-Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, NASA 
deputy administrator, to 
Macon C. Ellis, Jr., head of 
Langley's Magnetoplasmadynamics Branch 

While the Hydrodynamics Division sank at Langley, a few new research 
fields bobbed to the surface to become potent forces in the intellectual 
life of the laboratory. Most notable of these was magnetoplasmadynamics 
(MPD) a genuine product of the space age and an esoteric field of scientific 
research for an engineering- and applications-oriented place like Langley. 
If any "mad scientists" were working at Langley in the 1960s, they were 
the plasma physicists, nuclear fusion enthusiasts, and space-phenomena 
researchers found in the intense and, for a while, rather glamourous little 
group investigating MPD. No group of researchers in NASA moved farther 
away from classical aerodynamics or from the NACA's traditional focus on 
the problems of airplanes winging their way through the clouds than those 
involved with MPD. 

The ABCs of MPD 

The field of MPD concerned the effects of magnetic and electric fields on 
the motions of plasmas. A plasma, as simply defined at the time, consists 
of an ionized high-temperature gas. For those readers who have forgotten 
their high school chemistry, a gas consists of atoms and molecules that are 
virtually unrestricted by intermolecular forces, thus allowing the molecules 
to occupy any space within an enclosure. In other words, the atoms and 


Spaceflight Revolution 

molecules are continually moving around and colliding with one another. 
When a sufficiently violent collision between two atoms occurs, a negatively 
charged subatomic particle known as an electron is knocked out of its orbit, 
thus resulting in a "free electron" (an electron that is not bound to an atom). 
Sometimes in the collision, an ion (a positively charged particle bound to the 
electron) is knocked free as well. At the instant these particles are released, 
the gas is said to be "ionized" and is called a plasma. 

Considered as a whole, a plasma is electrically neutral, composed as it 
is of an approximately equal number of positively and negatively charged 
particles plus a variable fraction of neutral atoms. A plasma, however, by 
virtue of its charged particles, is nonetheless a conductor of electricity. Thus, 
as is true for any electrical conductor, the motion of a plasma can be greatly 
influenced, and perhaps even controlled, by electromagnetic forces. 1 

By the late 1940s, the study of the motion of ionized gases in the 
presence of magnetic fields had become a major international focus for 
scientific research. The new field, which was really a subfield of the 
large, complicated, and still emerging discipline of "plasma physics," 
was known by many names: "magnetohydrodynamics," "hydromagnet- 
ics," "magneto-aerodynamics," "magnetogasdynamics," and "fluid electro- 
dynamics." * Generally speaking, however, the name "magnetohydrodynam- 
ics," or MHD, won out. 2 

But the name did not prevail at NACA Langley. There, in the years 
before the establishment of NASA, a coterie of aerodynamic researchers 
involved in plasma studies conducted in the center's Gas Dynamics Labo- 
ratory, thought that the name magneto /lydrodynamics was not appropriate. 
The interested researchers were not concerned with water but rather with 
hot gases or plasmas, so they coined the term "magnetop/asmodynamics." 
Outside of NASA, however, magnetohydrodynamics remained the standard 

The Solar Wind Hits Home 

Most work on plasmas before World War II pertained to the dynamics 
of upper atmosphere magnetic storms and to the phenomenon of radiant 
auroral displays similar to the aurora borealis or "northern lights." These 
studies, undertaken most notably by a British group interested in solar 
and terrestrial relationships led by astrophysicist Sydney Chapman (1888- 
1970), involved questions about what fueled the sun and the stars and about 
how the ionized gases brought about by ultraviolet radiation behaved in 


Preference for one name over the others depended on whether the scientists involved felt that the 
electrically active medium that they were studying should properly be regarded as a continuum or, 
more accurately, as comprising discrete individual particles. The astrophysicists preferred the name 
"hydromagnetics" ; the aerodynamicists opted for "magneto-aerodynamics." ' 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

interstellar space. In the 1920s, Chapman postulated that several geocosmic 
phenomena could be explained by the "differential action" of the earth's 
magnetic field on protons and electrons emanating from the sun. Solar 
activity, in Chapman's soon-to-be dominant view, influenced the terrestrial 
magnetic field, aurorae, the conduct of atmospheric electricity, and the 
earth's weather patterns. 3 

In 1942, Swedish astrophysicist Hannes Alfven (an eventual winner of 
the Nobel Prize) advanced an MHD theory of the so-called solar cycle, 
the periodic round of disturbances in the sun's behavior as seen in the 
fluctuation in the number and the area of sunspots and in the form and 
shape of the sun's corona. Some 10 years later, in the early 1950s, Alfven 
proposed an even more provocative theory. He postulated that the planets 
had been formed by an MHD process by which ionized gases became trapped 
electromagnetically and pulled inward by the sun's gravitational force, thus 
leaving them at certain distances from the sun. The only way to fathom the 
process, Alfven argued, was to work further with MHD equations. 4 

Thus, in large measure, the interest in MHD began with the modern 
astrophysicists. From the 1920s on, many of their most essential questions 
concerned MHD: What mechanisms are involved in galaxy formation? 
What is the nature of the magnetic fields of the sun and the other stars? 
How does the internal energy in hot stars convert into the kinetic energy of 
gaseous clouds in interstellar space? How do stars form from gas clouds? 
What is the origin of cosmic rays, the Solar System, the universe? The key 
to understanding the cosmos lay in the fathoming of MHD principles. 

Revolutionary discoveries about the space environment made with the 
first space probes strengthened the belief in MHD's importance. On 1 May 
1958, five months to the day before the NACA transition to NASA, Amer- 
ican astrophysicist James Van Allen announced his discovery of a region of 
intense radiation surrounding the earth at high altitude. Data from Geiger 
counters aboard the first three Explorer spacecraft, the first successful Amer- 
ican satellites, confirmed a theory that Van Allen had been working on for 
some time. This theory suggested that the earth's magnetic field trapped 
charged subatomic particles within certain regions. Experiments aboard 
subsequent exploratory rockets and spacecraft indicated with a high degree 
of certainty that more than one radiation belt in fact enveloped the earth. 
The intensity of the belts varied with their distance from the earth. The 
zone of the most intense radiation began at an altitude of approximately 
1000 kilometers (621.37 miles). 5 

The discovery of what immediately came to be known as the Van Allen 
radiation belts inspired a wide range of fundamental new investigations. 
Within months, scientists around the world realized that surrounding the 
earth was a vitally important magnetic region of still unknown character, 
shape, and dimension where ionized gases plasmas exerted a strong force. 
They dubbed this mysterious region "the magnetosphere." In the exciting 
but highly speculative early days of magnetospheric physics, this region was 


Spaceflight Revolution 









Langley's MPD researchers used these schematic drawings to illustrate the main 
features of earth 's bordering region with outer space. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

alternately described as "a high region of the earth's atmosphere" or as a 
"low or bordering region of space. 

Another important discovery of the space age fed the new science of 
magnetospheric physics: the notion of "the solar wind." This theory was 
first expressed by Eugene N. Parker of the University of Chicago in 1958 
and later confirmed by measurements taken from Soviet Lunik spacecraft 
in 1959-1960 and from Explorer 10 in 1961. Parker suggested that the 
sun's corona, or outer visible envelope, was expanding continuously, causing 
streams of ionized gases to flow radially outward from the sun through 
interplanetary space. (The sun is, after all, a big ball of plasma.) The 
intensity of these plasma streams varied greatly relative to solar activity, 
especially solar flares. The force of these streams, or solar wind, impinging 
upon the earth's magnetic field created the familiar magnetic storms. 7 By 
1960 scientists possessed evidence that a plasma wind did blow continuously 
from the sun, and the wind clearly displayed dynamic magnetic phenomena. 

The field of study that the Langley researchers had come to call MPD 
was growing quickly in esteem and importance, not only in the United States 
but also around the world. Newly conceived experiments with magnetically 
compressed plasmas provided scientists with an opportunity to generate 
and study a small sample of the solar corona in the laboratory. Scientists 
gathered basic data on subatomic behavior at temperatures for which no 
such information existed before. A major and extraordinarily exciting new 
age of modern physics was dawning. Scientists saw fascinating new research 
opportunities, and they dreamed of fantastic technological applications. 
Unfortunately, very few of their dreams would be realized. But in the early 
1960s, that was something impossible to know. 

What Langley researchers, especially those involved in gas dynamics and 
other hypersonic investigations, did know in the late 1950s was that the 
time for a major change had arrived. "The space age told us to move away 
[from] classical aerodynamics into more modern things," remembers Macon 
C. "Mike" Ellis, the man who would head Langley's formal MPD effort, 
"and, as quickly as we could, we did." 8 In handwritten notes made at 
an internal meeting of his Gas Dynamics Branch held on 18 June 1958 
during the same period that plans for NASA's initial organization were 
being formulated in Washington Ellis wrote, "Either we make a big change 
now or [we] try to make more significant contributions in aerodynamics." 
MPD is 

a field we are already in and should push hard. . . . We should go all out to get 
qualified physics instructors. . . . We should have seminars on "space-type" and 
reentry subjects. . . . We must work and plan toward ultimate "conversion" of our 
work when aerodynamics becomes secondary. . . . We must go big into the new 
environment of space. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Now was the time for Langley researchers to assume leadership roles in 
the emerging space disciplines and vigorously seek major technological 

The MPD Branch 

Through the late 1950s, nothing had been done formally at Langley to 
focus the efforts of those involved in the study of MPD-related subjects. 
Many people at the laboratory, some of them senior engineers and research 
managers, did not know what MPD was or did not understand what all 
the fuss was about. Furthermore, nearly all of the people concerned with 
MPD were members of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, so they were already 
grouped together and interacting regularly. Thus, for several months, even 
after the new space agency was established, no Langley leaders saw a need 
to create a new organization just for the MPD enthusiasts. 

But interest in the new field kept growing. The idea that flows could 
get so hot that the constituents of the air would actually break down and 
become treatable by applying magnetic forces was extremely exciting. If air- 
flows could be "treated" electromagnetically, they might even be controlled. 
That was every aerodynamicist's dream. MPD offered a sort of aerodynamic 
alchemy, a magical way of turning lead into gold, rough turbulent flow into 
smooth laminar flow, dangerous reentry conditions into pacific ones. With 
these glorious possibilities, MPD fostered great technological enthusiasm 
and attracted many able researchers who hoped to find solutions to some 
fascinating and very complex problems. 

The study of MPD became increasingly glamourous in the late 1950s, so 
much so that Langley management soon understood that it should advertise 
the progress that Langley researchers were making in MPD studies. At each 
of the former NACA laboratories Lewis, Ames, and Langley research in 
MPD grew in earnest in the months just before the metamorphosis of the 
NACA into NASA and thereafter gained momentum. 10 At the first NASA 
inspection in October 1959, MPD was a featured attraction. In the printed 
inspection program, MPD merited one of the 13 subtitled sections. Visitors 
on the inspection tour stopped at a special MPD exhibit. At that stop, a 
Langley MPD specialist stood in front of a graphic panorama of the universe 
and introduced his subject by saying that "the space environment is filled 
with manifestations of this new science." 11 

Above all other members of Langley's staff, Floyd Thompson, still 
officially the associate director, became most enthralled with the glamour of 
MPD. As Mike Ellis remembers, "Thompson was tremendously supportive 
of our effort." One of the best measures of Thompson's enthusiasm was 
his request that the MPD staff be "on tap" as the special attraction 
for major events. He "always put us on stage at the NASA inspections 
and when various groups of scientists came through the laboratory," Ellis 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

recalls. Thompson appreciated that work in this exciting new field of science 
could enhance the reputation of his aeronautics laboratory. 12 In May 1960, 
the same month he took over officially from Henry Reid as the Langley 
director, Thompson established a Magnetoplasmadynamics Branch of the 
Aero-Physics Division. Prom its beginning, MPD was one of Thompson's 
pet projects. 

The Aero-Physics Division was the natural home for Langley's MPD 
effort. This division was led by hypersonics specialist John V. Becker, an 
NAG A veteran whose employment at Langley dated back to 1936 and who 
by the mid-1950s had become deeply involved in work related to hypersonic 
gliders and winged reentry vehicles. A research-minded engineer, Becker was 
a strong and confident division chief (he had been one since the mid-1940s, 
passing up several opportunities to move up to posts in senior management). 
He was comfortable having a research effort as esoteric and as sophisticated 
as MPD based in his division. Scientifically, he was quite sharp and was more 
than capable of appreciating the complexities of this new field of research 
as well as its promise for making major contributions to the space program. 
Through the 10-year span of the MPD Branch (1960-1970), Becker not only 
tolerated the many MPD enthusiasts in his division but also almost always 
supported their ideas. 

The first and only person to be in charge of Langley's MPD Branch 
was Mike Ellis, an NACA veteran who was 42 years old when the branch 
was organized. Ellis had come to work at Langley in 1939, and over the 
course of his career at the laboratory, he had been involved in pioneering 
work on the aerodynamics of jet engines, ramjets, and supersonic inlets 
and nozzles. Fittingly, Ellis had worked for Eastman Jacobs and with 
Arthur Kantrowitz in the early 1940s, and he had heard firsthand accounts 
of his former colleagues' attempt to design a fusion reactor in the spring 
of 1938. By the late 1950s, Ellis was one of Langley's most outspoken 
believers in MPD's promise of technological benefits. Ellis encouraged Floyd 
Thompson's enthusiasm for MPD and persuaded Langley's senior staff of 
mostly engineers that MPD was a field of research vital to the future of 
NASA. When the time came to pick someone to head the new branch, Ellis 
was unquestionably the person for the job. 

Ellis was no extraordinary "scientific brain." As an aeronautical engineer, 
his talents were quite respectable, but he possessed no special competency in 
the physics of fluids beyond his experience in aerodynamics or gas dynamics. 
He was always the first to admit that the complexities of plasma physics and 
MPD were such that "there was no way" that he personally could conduct 
basic MPD research. That challenge he would leave to minds more suited 
for it. But Ellis could bring the MPD researchers together as a unit, serve as 
their strong external advocate, shield them from front-office pressures, and 
make sure that they received the support they needed to carry out their 
work. "I just tried to keep my head above water," Ellis explains, "and keep 


Space/light Revolution 

In the 1960s, John V. Becker 
(left) headed the Aero-Physics Di- 
vision, which was home to many 
of the center's highest speed, and 
most radical, research facilities. 
These included supersonic and 
hypersonic wind tunnels, arc-jets, 
and shock tubes covering a speed 
range from Mach 1.5 to Mach 20. 
Some of these facilities, such as 
the $6.5 million Continuous- Flow 
Hypersonic Tunnel (below), were 
the forebearers of the strange 
apparatuses of the MPD Branch. 


L-6 1-6268 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

Engineer Macon C. "Mike" Ellis was 
an early believer in the promise of 


these 'mad scientists' from going off on too many tangents, or going mad 
myself." 13 

The MPD Branch never became a large outfit. By the end of 1962, 
it had less than 50 total staff members: 27 professionals, 10 mechanics, 
4 computers (mathematicians who helped to process and plot numerical 
data), and 6 secretaries. This staff was divided into four teams or sections. 
Plasma Applications, headed by Paul W. Huber, was the largest section, 
with 8 professionals. Space Physics, led by British physicist David Adamson, 
was the smallest with 3. Robert Hess's Plasma Physics Section had 7 
professionals, and George P. Wood's Magnetohydrodynamics Section had 
5. These sections (and their section heads) remained in place until the 
dissolution of the MPD Branch in 1970. 

In addition to being small, MPD was self-contained. Whereas most of 
the research done in the center's branches regularly spilled over into other 
functioning units, most MPD work was done within the MPD Branch. A 
small amount of related research was done in the Flight Research Division 
and Full-Scale Research Division; however, most of this work concerned 
the development of microwave and spectroscopic diagnostic techniques. All 
told, the MPD work conducted outside the MPD Branch never involved 
more than about five researchers. 

In terms of organizational genealogy, the MPD Branch grew from a nar- 
row stem. With the exception of Adamson, and a trio of his colleagues from 
a space physics group in the Theoretical Mechanics Division, all the original 
members of the MPD Branch came from the Gas Dynamics Laboratory. 
The guru of MPD studies in this lab was Adolf Busemann. Throughout 


Space/light Revolution 

the 1950s, Busemann had inspired engineers with his provocative theories 
and experimental ideas. At Langley on 22-23 September 1958, the Ger- 
man aerodynamicist even chaired an important interlaboratory meeting on 
MHD. Ninety-three people attended the meeting, which featured 6 speakers 
from Ames, 4 from Lewis, and 11 from Langley and was organized into three 
sessions plasma acceleration, arc-jets, and ion beams. Busemann gave a 
20-minute talk on the theory of alternating-current (AC) plasma accelera- 
tion. This two-day scientific meeting, held one week before the changeover 
to NASA, was the precursor of much larger conferences on MPD sponsored 
by NASA on almost an annual basis into the mid-1960s. 14 

Among the scientists working in MPD at Langley were several Germans. 
Like many other scientific institutions around the country, Langley had re- 
ceived a handful of German scientists who were part of Operation Paperclip, 
the U.S. Army intelligence operation that brought captured German rocket 
scientists and engineers to work for the U.S. government at the end of World 
War II. Busemann and two other outstanding researchers, Karlheinz Thorn 
and Goetz K. H. Oertel, came to Langley through Paperclip. Both Thorn 
and Oertel moved from Gas Dynamics to George Wood's MHD Section of 
the new MPD Branch. Both men stayed at Langley for several years before 
eventually taking posts at NASA headquarters. 

At least 10 German scientists came to Langley as part of a postdoc- 
toral program funded by NASA but sponsored by the National Academy of 
Sciences. This program, which was totally divorced from the normal civil 
service procurement system, enabled NASA to obtain talented people as 
Resident Research Associates (RRAs) without going through the normal 
hiring procedures of the civil service and without regard for NASA's per- 
sonnel ceilings. In 1968, for instance, 6 of the 39 professionals in the MPD 
Branch were RRAs. 15 

Langley's MPD group attracted other foreign scientists. These included 
Dr. Marc Feix, a French nuclear scientist who spent a few years at Langley 
in the mid-1960s and did some outstanding theoretical work. Feix was 
nominally assigned to Hess's Plasma Physics Section, but he actually 
worked with various people throughout the branch, especially with the 
Space Physics Section under David Adamson. Adamson had first worked at 
Langley at the end of World War II on an exchange program from the Royal 
Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough England. 16 After the exchange, 
Adamson went home to England, but soon returned to Langley.* 

In the 1960s, the researchers of the MPD Branch were the most highly 
educated group of people at Langley. The MPD Branch enjoyed the 

In 1958, in support of Assistant Director Eugene Draley's initiative to advertise Langley's (then 
largely alleged) expertise in space science, Adamson composed an excellent paper on the principles of 
gravity. According to some experts, this paper, which NASA published, turned out to be "one of the 
best papers ever written" on the subject, as well as one of the most quoted. (Ellis audiotape, Nov. 1991, 
author's transcript, p. 18.) 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

L-62-8122 L-65-1110 

Paul W. Huber (left), head of MPD 's largest section, Plasma Applications. In the 
mid-1960s, French nuclear scientist Dr. Marc Feix (right) floated from section to 
section within the MPD Branch, helping researchers solve theoretical problems basic 
to plasma physics. 

academic mystique of having by far the highest percentage of advanced 
degree holders. At one point MPD had eight employees with earned 
doctorates, seven others at the Ph.D. dissertation stage, and virtually all 
of its younger people working toward advanced degrees.* 

Compared with other research groups at Langley, the MPD enthusiasts 
participated in more international scientific conferences; had more contacts 
with consultants, important scientific committees, and advisory groups out- 
side Langley; monitored more research contracts; and received more dis- 
tinguished visitors. Senior management asked MPD researchers to occupy 
center stage during NASA inspections and to escort distinguished guests into 
their Prankensteinian laboratories, which were filled with plasma accelera- 
tors, MPD-arc fusion reactors, powerful electrical supplies, spectrometers, 
microwave diagnostic instruments, and other bizarre apparatuses. Even to 
other engineers, this equipment was strange and unidentifiable. Understand- 
ably, their peers considered the Ph.D.'s and other 'mad scientists' of MPD 
a prestigious group. 17 

* Ironically, neither Wood, head of the MHD Section, nor Hess, head of the Plasma Physics Section, 
held a Ph.D. Wood completed all the course work toward a doctorate in the early 1930s, but because of 
the Great Depression he had to go to work before receiving his degree; Hess graduated from the Vienna 
Institute of Technology and had taken graduate courses in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics at MIT 
in the late 1930s, but he also did not possess an advanced degree. 


Space/light Revolution 

But the prestige could last only if Langley's MPD work proved deserving; 
the proof lay in conducting outstanding research programs and producing 
meaningful results. When the MPD Branch was formed in 1960, Langley 
researchers saw three particularly promising applications for MPD research. 
First, they hoped to accelerate gases to very high speeds to study and 
solve the reentry problems of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 
spacecraft, and transatmospheric or aerospace vehicles such as the North 
American X-15 rocket plane and the U.S. Air Force proposed X-20 Dyna- 
Soar boost-glider. The potential for these applications explains in part 
Langley's commitment to the small-scale but significant program of research 
and development of various plasma accelerators. 

Second, the MPD experts at Langley hoped to develop prospective ap- 
plications of MPD for spacecraft propulsion and power generation systems. 
They were confident that electric or ion rockets would be the space propul- 
sion system of the future. If humankind was to go to Mars or some other 
planet in a reasonable travel time, such radical sorts of propulsion systems 
would be required. Therefore, the centers for NASA's major propulsion ef- 
forts (especially Lewis in Cleveland and Marshall in Huntsville) must begin 
studying the ion and plasma devices that might someday offer to rocket 
technology the extraordinarily high specific impulses required for such far- 
away missions. Most definitely, the design and operation of these rockets 
would require the use of MPD principles. 18 

Third, Langley's MPD specialists realized that if controlled thermonu- 
clear fusion was to become a practical source for the volume generation 
of electricity, much more about the subject would have to be learned. 
Beginning in the late 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission had begun 
conducting MPD research with the production of electric power in mind. 
Branch Head Mike Ellis also believed that "the eventual energy source 
will be thermonuclear fusion" and that "the development of this energy 
source most likely will depend upon fundamental discoveries in the field of 
magnetoplasmadynamics." 19 

The promise of the field was indeed wonderful. But the promise of 
wonderful or even revolutionary findings and applications could sustain the 
new MPD group at Langley for only so long. At some point, MPD studies 
had to produce. The reality was, as John Becker later put it, "Of all the 
efforts we had, it was the most sophisticated and probably the least likely 
to succeed. We shouldn't have expected as much from it as we did." 20 

Out of the Tunnel 

Concern for the problems that the ICBM encountered during reentry 
flight prompted Langley researchers to begin the study of MPD in 1958. 
The physics of the unique conditions of the hot ionized flow around the 
missile's nose during reentry demanded special attention. Space vehicles 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

when reentering the atmosphere quickly became covered with electrically 
charged particles. These particles formed a "plasma sheath" behind the bow 
shock. Researchers hoped that an application of electric and/or magnetic 
fields to the plasma sheath could affect the airflow in desirable ways; for 
example, it could reduce the heat transfer to the nose. The most direct 
effect of the plasma sheath, however, was that radio transmission from the 
vehicle during reentry was not possible for obtainable radio frequencies. The 
plasma caused a period of "radio blackout." 

To solve these problems, researchers at Langley had to simulate reentry 
conditions in the laboratory. This would require some new and unusual 
research equipment; conventional wind tunnels would not do the job. Small 
hypersonic tunnels, made possible by the development of high- temperature 
heat exchangers and high-speed nozzles and operated on an intermittent 
basis for flow durations of only seconds to no more than a minute, permitted 
studies of some forces during reentry, but not all and not some of the most 

Several university, industrial, and government research groups had made 
significant advances in the acceleration of hot ionized gases by the late 
1950s. Some of these advances involved the arc-jet, a novel apparatus for 
aerodynamic testing that could heat a test gas (usually nitrogen, helium, 
or air) to temperatures as high as 20,000 Fahrenheit (F). In essence, 
the arc-jet was a primitive electric rocket engine. 21 In May 1957, five 
months before Sputnik, NACA Langley began operating a pilot model of 
its first experimental arc-jet. Installed in Room 118 of the center's Gas 
Dynamics Laboratory, it was an "Electro-Magnetic Hypersonic Accelerator 
Pilot Model Including Arc-Jet Ion Source," with a test section size of a 
minute 7x7 millimeters and gas temperatures ranging between 10,000 
and 12,000F. 22 

Fundamentally, the arc-jet was just another hot-gas wind tunnel, which 
heated the gas electrically (typically using 100,000 kilowatts) to high tem- 
peratures in a low-velocity settling chamber, and then expanded it quickly 
through a tiny nozzle to supersonic velocities. No translational electric or 
magnetic forces acted on the gas in this conventional arc-jet. The gas was 
simply being heated by an electrical discharge. Most of the charged particles 
in this high-temperature discharge recombined in the cooling process that 
occurred during expansion. 

In 1962, Langley tried a slightly different but companion arc-jet facility 
known as the hotshot tunnel. This hybrid, invented in the mid-1950s by 
engineers at the U.S. Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center in 
Tullahoma, Tennessee, combined the basic features of an arc-jet with those 
of a new type of wind tunnel known as an impulse tunnel. In this tunnel 
an explosive release of energy created high pressures and temperatures in 
the test gas. 23 In practice Langley's hotshot mostly missed the mark. To 
generate the very high heat, its operators had to resort to exploding a piece 
of copper through the tunnel circuit, thus the name "hotshot." The material 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Research physicist Philip Brockman pushes the button to start the MPD-arc plasma 
accelerator in December 1964- The test chamber for this facility was part of a larger 
high-flow, low-vacuum space simulation apparatus housed within the MPD Branch. 

that then made its way through the test section was a mixture of hot air and 
vaporized copper, a very unsatisfactory medium for aerodynamic testing. 
The facility remained active into the 1970s, but the amount of useful work 
accomplished in it was quite limited. 

Another facility for reentry testing that was developed in the late 
1950s was the shock tube. Fundamentally, this was an impulse tunnel, 
distinguished from a hotshot mainly by the way in which energy was added 
to the test gas. According to a formal definition of the time, a shock tube 
was "a relatively long tube or pipe in which very brief high-speed gas flows 
are produced by the sudden release of gas at very high pressure into a low- 
pressure portion of the tube." The idea was to generate a normal planar 
(that is, lying in one plane) shock wave and send it through a gas at a speed 
20 to 30 times the speed of sound, [and] thus heating the gas behind the 
normal shock to an extreme temperature. 24 

Langley's first shock tube began operation in the Gas Dynamics Lab- 
oratory in late 1951. By the end of the NACA period, three more shock 
tubes were put to work at the laboratory; they produced temperatures be- 
tween 10,500 and 15,000F, attained speeds of Mach 8 to Mach 20, and had 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

running times of 0.001 to 0.002 seconds. 25 Researchers believed that experi- 
ments with these devices would yield much knowledge, even though everyone 
involved with shock-tube work conceded that "it was a very tough area of 
research." Contending with flows that lasted for only a few thousandths of 
a second and that required a considerable amount of special instrumenta- 
tion was "a fantastic problem." How were researchers "to get answers out of 
something like that?" 26 Still, those passionate about high- velocity flows and 
high-temperature gases at Langley put great faith in the shock tube. The 
facility was used for much basic research including studies of shock waves 
generated by atomic bomb blasts. 

Through the transition period of 1957 and 1958, researchers at the lab 
continued to seek new ways to accelerate hot plasmas to the tremendous 
velocities of reentry flight. In a method devised by Langley MPD enthusiast 
George Wood, a hot gas was fed into a tube, then the body force of crossed 
electric and magnetic fields was used to accelerate the gas to the point where 
a mixture of disassociated, high-enthalpy flow would reproduce the very high 
Mach numbers of hypersonic flight. At NASA's First Anniversary Inspection 
in 1959, Langley engineers demonstrated a crude version of Wood's crossed- 
field plasma accelerator. It produced a flash of light, a loud bang, a startled 
audience, and a belief in the promise of major new scientific findings. 

Nearly everyone was excited by the potential of plasma accelerators. 
When John Stack first heard about the facility, he exclaimed, "This is great!" 
Stack felt that Langley should call the device something grand; he proposed 
the awe-inspiring name, the "Trans- Satellite- Velocity Wind Tunnel." 28 

Given the limited performance of Wood's early version of the exper- 
imental accelerator, such a pretentious name would have been a poor 
choice. As part of a guided tour for top officials from NASA headquar- 
ters in late 1959, Langley hoped to show off the radically new plasma ac- 
celeration device. Almost comically, it did not work. One embarrassed 
Langley engineer who watched the demonstration remembers, "We all sat 
around expectantly while Dr. [Adolf] Busemann explained the system. Then 
Busemann went over and threw the switch." Unfortunately, only "a little 
stream of red-hot particles sort of 'peed out' the end of this tube. It was 
a complete washout. Busemann just giggled and said, 'Well, we have a 
problem.' " 29 

The concept behind Wood's crossed-field plasma accelerator was sound: 
it was an application of a 130- year-old theory of electromagnetic force that 
had been expressed by Ampere in the 1820s. Langley researchers kept 
fiddling with the pilot model until in 1960 they successfully demonstrated its 
feasibility. Having done so, they continued research on larger, more powerful 
versions of the device. One version, the 20-megawatt plasma accelerator, was 
completed in 1966 at a cost of more than $1 million. With this facility, the 
MPD Branch planned to achieve more accurate simulation of the reentry 
conditions of both manned and unmanned vehicles. Shakedown testing in 
the accelerator continued until 1969, when political pressures applied by the 


Space/light Revolution 

George P. Wood (right), head of MPD's 
Magnetohydrodynamics Section, developed 
Langley's earliest crossed- field plasma ac- 
celerator. The accelerator section of the 
20-megawatt plasma accelerator facility is 
shown below. Note the many electrodes for 
furnishing the high-energy electric field. 




The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 


In this April 1963 photo, MPD lab tech- 
nician Charlie Diggs regulates the flow 
of a test gas in an early 10-kilowatt test 
version of Langley's Hall-current plasma 
accelerator (above); over his left shoulder 
sits a Polaroid camera for photograph- 
ing an oscilloscope. In November 1965, 
an unidentified technician (left) wears 
goggles to protect his eyes against the in- 
tense light in a later coaxial version of a 
Hall-current plasma accelerator. In the 
test section, one can see the very bright, 
high-velocity plume from the MPD arc- 
jet exhausting into a vacuum tank. 



Space/light Revolution 

Nixon administration forced an abrupt halt to the accelerator's pioneering 
work. Whether the machine would have ever completely panned out, no one 
can be sure. 

In NASA's report on the last tests made in this device, published in 1971, 
George Wood and his colleagues pointed out that an exit velocity of 30,176 
feet per second had been achieved, which was a remarkable 81 percent of 
the facility's computed capacity of 37,064 feet per second. According to the 
NASA report, the crossed-field accelerator "appears to be the largest and 
highest velocity nonpulsed linear plasma accelerator" to attain "an operable 
status." 30 An experimental facility with this record must be called a success. 

While trying to work out the kinks in Wood's crossed-field accelerator 
design, Langley's MPD experts conceived several other methods for accel- 
erating plasmas. One of these methods, which was not pursued very far, 
they called "microwave cavity resonance." The major alternative, however, 
was known as the "linear Hall-current accelerator." This type of plasma 
accelerator was based on a principle of electrical polarization and current 
generation laid out by the American physicist Edwin H. Hall in the 1920s 
and 1930s. The facility used a constant rather than intermittent interaction 
of currents and magnetic fields across a channel to accelerate a steady flow 
of plasma. 

Beginning in the late 1950s, a small group of Langley researchers led 
by Robert V. Hess, an applied physicist from Austria who had come to 
work for the NACA in 1945, began pursuing two major variants of the 
Hall accelerator: the MPD arc and the so-called linear Hall accelerator. 
Throughout the 1960s, Hess and his associates refined these versions of 
the plasma accelerator, thus making extensive experimental and theoretical 
studies of the physics and overall performance of their devices. Although 
they successfully demonstrated the efficiency of the MPD arc and linear Hall 
accelerator and made several important findings relating to the manner in 
which oscillations and instabilities in plasma could develop into turbulent 
flows, MPD researchers were never able to simulate reentry conditions or 
the interaction between the solar wind and the geomagnetosphere, and they 
would never realize meaningful applications in space propulsion. As was 
the case with the other MPD experimental facilities mentioned, the linear 
Hall-current accelerator possessed limitations that Hess and his colleagues 
could not eradicate. By the late 1960s, Hess and others in MPD shifted the 
focus of their work with these accelerators to the potential application of 
gas lasers. 31 

Into the Cyanogen Fire 

In the late 1950s, the Langley MPD group found a stopgap method of 
generating a plasma in the laboratory. This method involved the production 
of a hot flame fueled by the combustion of cyanogen gas and oxygen. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

Robert V. Hess, head of MPD's Plasma 
Physics Section. 

MPD physicist Bob Hess was an intense researcher and bibliophile. He 
combed the current technical and scientific literature for ideas that might 
prove useful to his and his colleagues' work. Proficient in German and French 
as well as English, he was able to keep abreast of scientific ideas along several 
fronts. With his desk piled high with papers, Hess ferreted out the best 
notions, and massaged them for his own creative uses.* In 1957, Hess came 
across a reference to a new experimental device at the Research Institute 
of Temple University in Philadelphia. This device produced an extremely 
hot flame by burning oxygen with cyanogen, a colorless, flammable, and 
poisonous gas, sometimes formed by heating mercuric cyanide. After reading 
about the cyanogen flame experiment, Hess hit on an idea for adapting the 
flame to create a hot plasma for simulating the space reentry environment. 
By feeding oxygen and cyanogen gas into a combustion chamber and igniting 
the mix, the researchers at Temple were producing a flame of more than 
8000 F. This was one of the hottest flames scientists had ever produced. 
What would be the result, Hess mused, if a potassium vapor that ionized 
easily at that temperature was added to the combustion chamber? Would 

For example, in 1945 Hess found an overlooked British translation of German aerodynamicist Dr. 
Adolf Busemann's seminal 1937 paper on sweptwing theory. Hess found it in the Langley Technical 
Library, where his future wife, Jane, would someday serve as the head librarian and assist him greatly 
with his search for references, and he passed it on to colleague Robert T. Jones. This was just prior 
to Jones's final revision of a confidential NACA paper in which Jones would report his independent 
discovery of the advantages of wing sweep for supersonic flight. 


Space/light Revolution 

this create a jet of hot gas that reproduced the extremely ionized plasma 
conditions of missile reentry? 

On 17 June 1957, Hess and his boss in the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, 
Macon C. Ellis, Jr., visited Temple University to discuss the details of 
producing a cyanogen-oxygen flame and to inquire about the feasibility of 
adding an easily ionizable alkaline material, potassium or perhaps cesium, to 
the flame. The key people to whom they spoke were Dr. Aristid V. Grosse, 
director of the Temple Research Institute, and Charles S. Stokes, who was in 
charge of the cyanogen flame program. Grosse and Stokes agreed that "the 
great stability of the combustion products" made them "well suited" for an 
addition of an ionizer such as potassium; they told the Langley visitors that 
they themselves had recognized this in one of their early reports, perhaps 
in the one that Hess had read. However, they had not made quantitative 
estimates of the electron densities or followed up on the idea in any way. 
They wondered whether the addition of potassium might not exert a cooling 
effect that would somewhat diminish the density of electrons. Hess, however, 
had already made the estimates and knew that the density of the electrons in 
the seeded cyanogen flame would be sufficiently high (about 10 16 per cubic 
centimeter) to compensate for any temperature-reducing reactions. 32 

At Langley, Paul Huber with the help of the facilities engineering group 
quickly designed a cyanogen flame apparatus, and the funding for its 
construction was approved. By the time the NACA became NASA, the 
device had been operating for several months. As expected, the first major 
test program conducted in Langley's alkali-metal-seeded, cyanogen-oxygen 
flame explored how flow-field conditions near an ICBM nose prevented the 
transmission of radio signals back to earth. Researchers in the Gas Dynamics 
Laboratory working with Joseph Burlock of IRD mounted a transmitting 
antenna in front of a nozzle that bathed the antenna in the hot cyanogen 
gas jet. Instruments then measured the rate at which the transmitter lost 
its signal power. 

The early MPD test program demonstrated the feasibility of creating 
and controlling the highly ionized plasmas representative of the extreme 
dynamic conditions of spaceflight and reentry. The program also showed 
that certain simplified theoretical methods could be used to calculate the 
loss of electronic communication with a vehicle during reentry of a vehicle 
from space. If plasma conditions around the vehicle could be estimated 
with reasonable accuracy, researchers then would be able to predict the 
expected radio power loss. This was critical information for trips in and out 
of space by guided missiles, aerospace planes, and manned and unmanned 
spacecraft. Led by the outstanding theoreticians Calvin T. Swift and John S. 
Evans, who worked in the Plasma Applications Section under Paul Huber, 
MPD researchers at Langley continued to make significant contributions 
throughout the 1960s. On the problems of transmitting radio signals to and 
from reentry vehicles, no group inside or outside of NASA came to speak 
with more authority. 33 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 


Three-quarter top view of Langley's cyanogen burner, which was located for safety 
reasons in a remote spot on the edge of a marsh in Langley's West Area. To the left 
of the jet is a microwave "horn, " a device for electron- concentration measurement 
and radio-transmission attenuation. 

The MPD program was particularly valuable to the little-known NASA 
project RAM. Initiated too late to help in the communications blackout 
problems of the Mercury and Gemini capsules, the purpose of Project 
RAM was to support the Apollo program. Many of the project's results 
proved inconclusive, and most of the hoped-for technological fixes, for 
example, the use of higher radio frequencies and the timed injection of 
small sprays of water into the hot gas envelope surrounding a reentering 
spacecraft, were judged too problematic for use in Apollo. However, MPD 
specialists at Langley did learn how to predict the flow-field characteristics of 
a reentering spacecraft more accurately, and their work led to viable schemes 
for alleviating or "quenching" part of the plasma sheath so that some level 
of effective radio communications to and from a reentering vehicle could 
occur. 34 Experience gained in the MPD reentry experiments of the 1960s 
eventually aided in projecting the reentry conditions of the Space Shuttle. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

The Barium Cloud Experiment 

Not all of Langley's MPD work sought such direct technological appli- 
cations as Project RAM. Some of the more fruitful research efforts fell into 
the realm of basic science and represented what MPD Branch Head Ellis de- 
scribed in a February 1962 briefing to the Langley senior staff as "examples 
of keeping research alive on a reasonable scale without solid, specific appli- 
cations or even the guarantee of applications!" 35 One such effort that made 
significant contributions was a barium cloud experiment designed for explo- 
ration of the interaction between the solar wind and the earth's magnetic 

Although a continuous outpouring of plasma appeared to emanate from 
the sun (i.e., the solar wind), this plasma by virtue of its high conductivity 
did not seem to penetrate the earth's strong magnetic field; instead, the 
solar wind flowed around the earth's field, forming a huge cavity. Sensitive 
magnetometers aboard some of the first Soviet and American spacecraft 
provided useful information about the disposition of the magnetic fields 
within this cavity; however, many questions about the arrangement of the 
field lines remained unanswered. Conservative estimates of the volume of the 
cavity placed it at about 60,000 times the volume of the earth. Langley's 
interested MPD experts knew that it was "going to be a formidable task 
indeed to map such an extensive field by point to point samplings." 36 Little 
was known about the shape of the cavity on the nightside of the earth, 
and indeed astrophysicists had suggested that the cavity was in fact open 
and that the earth's magnetosphere had a tail extending out some several 
"astronomical units."* 

These were only some of the complications stirring the "intellectual stew" 
over the magnetospheric cavity. Other concerns stemmed from evidence that 
the magnetic field lines of the earth were linked at least partially with those 
of the interplanetary field, which in turn were entrained in the solar wind. If 
so, tangential stresses and drag forces in the realm of space affected motions 
within the magnetosphere in addition to those imparted by the earth's own 
rotation, which were themselves unknown. 37 

At Langley, these cosmological matters were of particular interest to 
the small group of theoretically inclined researchers working in the MPD 
Space Physics Section under David Adamson. Beginning in late 1963, the 
Adamson group began to seriously consider a novel experimental technique 
by which scientists could use an artificially ionized plasma "cloud" as a space 
probe. As Adamson explained at the time, the principle of the cloud was 
rather simple. 


An astronomical unit is usually defined as the mean distance between the center of the earth and 
the center of the sun, i.e., the semimajor axis of the earth's orbit, which is equal to approximately 
92.9 X 1,000,000 miles or 499.01 light seconds. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

If a charged particle is projected into a magnetic field, it spirals along a magnetic 
field line, remaining tied to that field line until it is dislodged by colliding with 
another particle. Picture then a cloud of charged particles, sufficiently dispersed at 
a sufficiently great altitude that collisions can be ignored. The individual particles 
will be tied to the field lines, and motions of the cloud perpendicular to the field lines 
will be inhibited. Of course, the cloud can and will diffuse along the field lines, and 
as it does so will serve to define the shaping of those field lines to which it is frozen. 
Moreover, if the magnetic field lines are themselves in motion, this motion, too, will 


be imparted to the cloud. 

Only three requirements were placed on the cloud: it had to be fully ionized, 
the ionized atoms had to show resonance lines in the visible portion of the 
spectrum, and it had to be visible to observers on earth. 

The notion of an ionized cloud was not new. For several years, research 
groups around the world had been experimenting with chemical releases as 
a means of exploring the nature of the upper atmosphere. For the most 
part, the creation of such artificial clouds was done by launching a sounding 
rocket carrying on its nose a payload of pyrotechnic constituents mixed with 
alkali metals. At the proper altitude in the upper atmosphere, a canister 
carrying the payload would be ejected. The temperature of the canister's 
contents would rise thousands of degrees and then escape explosively to form 
a colorful vapor whose atoms would glow blue- violet in the sunlight. The 
result was a bright and rather beautiful space cloud, a sort of instant aurora, 
which could be seen quite distinctly by an observer watching from the 
nightside of the earth. Highly responsive magnetometers and spectroscopes 
could then be used to analyze the physics of what happened when a body of 
charged particles exploded in the outermost realms of the earth's atmosphere 
and at the fringes of space. 

The world leaders in developing the tricky optical cloud technique were 
the West Germans, specifically a group of experimental astrophysicists in 
the Gaerching Laboratory of the Max Planck Institut in Berlin. The leading 
figures in the development of what came to be known as "the barium 
bomb" were Dr. Ludwig Biermann and his associate Dr. Riemar Lust. In 
1951, Biermann had anticipated Parker's discovery of the solar wind by 
hypothesizing that a comet's tail, which always points away from the sun, 
was being pushed by streams of solar particles. He spent the rest of the 
decade looking for an experimental means by which to prove his theory. 
By the late 1950s, the Biermann group had developed a technique for the 
creation of an artificially ionized cloud in the upper atmosphere. By 1964, 
although the existence of the solar wind was by then taken for granted, the 
same group was ready to use more powerful rockets to deploy the first of 
these clouds in space. 

Biermann and Lust used a payload of barium inside their canisters. In 
their opinion, a mix of copper oxide and barium (a soft, silver-white, metallic 
element obtained when its chloride was decomposed by an electric current) 


Spaceflight Revolution 

was most desirable because it ionized at a reasonable temperature and even 
in modest concentration could produce clouds visible to observers on earth. 
In the early 1960s, French sounding rockets fired from the Sahara began 
carrying West Germany's barium payloads into the upper atmosphere as 
part of a research program sponsored by the newly founded European Space 
Research Organization (ESRO). NASA's space scientists naturally knew 
about the European program, and some of them thought, like Biermann and 
Lust, that the barium cloud technique could be adapted for experimental 


use in space. 

In the summer of 1964, Bob Hess traveled to Feldafing, near Munich, 
Germany, to participate in an international symposium on the diffusion of 
plasma across a magnetic field. At this meeting, Hess spoke with Biermann 
about the barium cloud technique. The interest of the West Germans in 
the experiment was different from that of Langley's MPD Branch. The 
Germans wanted to release barium in the streaming solar wind outside 
the magnetosphere in the hope of learning more about the formation of 
comets; the NASA researchers sought to explore the magnetosphere itself. 
Nevertheless, the interests were similar enough to make Biermann and Hess 
agree that some measure of international cooperation would be useful. 

Upon his return to Langley, Hess wrote a letter to NASA's Space 
Sciences Steering Committee. Founded in May 1960 by the head of NASA's 
Office of Space Sciences and Applications (OSSA), Dr. Homer Newell, this 
committee consisted of NASA officials and leading academic scientists in 
the field. Their duty was to advise NASA on its space science program 
and evaluate proposals for scientific experiments on NASA missions. In his 
letter, Hess summarized the observational possibilities of plasma clouds as 
magnetospheric probes and proposed that NASA devise a cloud experiment, 
which perhaps could be done with the cooperation of Dr. Biermann and 
the West Germans. Instead of launching the barium from inside a rocket, 
Hess suggested that the makings for the plasma cloud be released from 
inside the MORL that NASA was planning, "where the advantages of longer 
observation of the plasma cloud and of a wider choice of materials are offered 
as compared with observation from the ground through the atmosphere." 40 

The space scientists at NASA headquarters were interested in the general 
idea, but plans to proceed progressed slowly through 1965 and 1966. Other 
space science experiments more directly supportive of the Apollo lunar 
landing program, like the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter programs, received 
the highest priority. Still, the MPD Branch in conjunction with the 
appropriate program officers at NASA headquarters, as well as with the 
technical support of the Applied Materials and Physics Division at Langley, 
continued to plan for the cloud experiment. From Wallops Island, NASA 
would launch an explosive canister atop a high-altitude rocket.* Early on, 

The type of rocket was yet to be determined. Ultimately, several sounding rockets, as well as 
Langley's multipurpose Scout rocket, would be used. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

Langley researchers thought that the canister should contain a combustible 
mixture of cyanogen-oxygen with cesium; however, with input from Lust's 
team in Germany, they finally chose a barium payload. At the appropriate 
altitude in space (the rocket would not go into orbit), the canister would 
detonate and out would float the ionized particles which would form the 
space cloud. The cloud would last several minutes to more than one hour 
during which it would reflect radio waves and could be viewed from a location 
on earth in the sun's shadow. 

The general scientific purpose of the cloud would be to serve as "a 
ready means of discerning on a large scale the topology of the earth's 
[magnetic] field and of determining magnetospheric motions." However, 
Langley's MPD group felt that the cloud might also be used as an aid in 
tracking high-altitude vertical sounding rockets or even vehicles (hopefully 
not Soviet) bound for the moon. It could be used as a form of visible tracer, 
not altogether unlike the use of certain metallic elements (often barium) 
and radioactive isotopes fed into the stomach or injected into the blood as 
tracers for X-ray diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. 41 

Eventually, NASA gave the go-ahead for the barium cloud-in-space 
experiment. The approval was in part politically motivated; NASA wanted 
to encourage international cooperation, at least in certain noncritical space 
endeavors, and especially with the democratic nations of western Europe. 
In June 1965, representatives of the Max Planck Institut approached NASA 
with a proposal for a joint barium cloud experiment involving German 
pay loads and NASA launches from Nike- Tomahawk and Javelin rockets. 
The following month, NASA and West Germany's Federal Ministry for 
Scientific Research signed a memorandum of understanding calling for 
cooperation in a program of space research on the earth's inner radiation 
belts and aurora borealis. According to the memorandum, NASA would 
provide a Scout booster for the launch of a German-made satellite into 
polar orbit by 1968, with the results of the experiment to be made available 
to the world scientific community. Pursuant to another memorandum 
of understanding between the two nations (signed in May 1966), the 
two research agencies would then proceed with investigations of cometary 
phenomena, the earth's magnetosphere, and the interplanetary medium 
through studies of the behavior of high- altitude ionized clouds. 42 

Four months later, on 24 September 1966, in a joint effort with the Max 
Planck Institut, NASA launched a four-stage Javelin sounding rocket from 
Wallops Island to check its canister-ejection technique, and on the next day, 
again from Wallops, launched a Nike- Tomahawk rocket which released a 
mixture of barium and copper oxide. The second "shot" only reached 160 
miles, whereas the desirable altitude for a barium cloud release was 3 to 5 
earth radii. Nonetheless, the experiment was successful. For hundreds of 
miles up and down the Atlantic coast, three distinct clouds were visible. 
NASA and West German scientists photographed the clouds in an effort to 
track and measure electric fields and wind motions in the upper atmosphere. 


Space/light Revolution 

The results of both launches caused quite a public stir. Some residents along 
the coast reported sightings of brilliant UFOs, and some motorists became 
so fascinated by the brightly colored clouds that they ran off the road. 

What came to be known formally as the MPI (Max Planck Insti- 
tut)/NASA Magnetospheric Ion Cloud Experiment was the next step in the 
two parties' cooperative investigation. Proposed formally by the Germans 
in February 1967, the joint experiment was not approved by NASA until 
December 1968. According to the final agreement, the Germans would pro- 
vide the barium payload, two ground observer stations, and data analysis; 
NASA would furnish the rocket, conduct the launch from Wallops Island, 
and provide tracking and communications services. 43 

Despite a fatal explosion on 5 October 1967, at the Downey, California, 
plant of North American Rockwell, which was caused by a mishandling 
of finely divided barium mixed with Freon, the barium cloud experiment 
eventually proved a great success. 44 On 17 March 1969, a barium cloud 
1865 miles long, lasting some 20 minutes, and visible to the naked eye, 
formed at an altitude of 43,495.9 miles (69,999.87 kilometers). Heos 1, 
a "Highly Eccentric Orbiting Satellite" belonging to ESRO, carried the 
cloud-producing canister into space. Instrumented observation of this 
and subsequent plasma cloud- in-space experiments revealed the motions 
of the earth's magnetic field lines, including those influencing the aurorae; 
demonstrated other plasma effects in space; helped scientists to correlate 
these motions and effects as a function of solar flares; and generally allowed 
world astrophysicists to model the geomagnetosphere more accurately. All 
the barium cloud shots generated considerable public concern and interest 
and were widely announced in advance in the press. 

Aside from fascinating the public, this experimental probing of the near- 
earth environment of space also led researchers to explore what was believed 
to be the great potential value of magnetospheric data for understanding and 
perhaps even controlling the earth's weather. Although the energies in space 
were recognized to be small compared with those in the atmosphere, those 
researchers interpreting the results of the barium cloud experiment raised 
the possibility that even small disturbances of inherently unstable regions 
in space could trigger significant behavior in large regions around the earth. 

The few people outside Langley who remember the barium cloud research 
program believed NASA left most of the interpretation of the results to the 
Germans. In truth, as the NASA reports on the program demonstrate, 
Langley's space physics group moved ahead very quickly to interpret the 
data, "scooping" the preeminent Germans by first reporting and explaining 
in full many of the essential findings. 45 

NASA Langley planned to participate in at least one follow-on barium 
cloud test in 1974 or 1975. The purpose of this proposed test was to shape 
the barium charge along a magnetic field line, then time the discharge to 
coincide exactly with the passage of an unmanned satellite having a very 
high-frequency (VHF) receiver aboard. The receiver would measure the 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

cyclotron radiation from the electrons circling the field line. The test did 
not take place, however, because of the lack of support in the OSSA at 
NASA headquarters. 46 

The Search for Boundless Energy 

Astrophysics was not the only driving force behind the explosion of MPD 
research in the 1950s. Another inciting factor was the quest for atomic 
energy. After World War II and the dawn of the atomic age, many physicists 
had begun exploring ways to confine plasmas magnetically in a new sort 
of nuclear reactor based not on fission but on fusion. Such projects were 
designed to explore the potential of generating thermonuclear power. Many 
researchers and institutions believed this was the pot of gold at the end of 
the MPD rainbow. 

In 1951 the four-year-old U.S. Atomic Energy Commission initiated a 
secret project known by the code name "Sherwood" ; its ambitious objective 
was the controlled release of nuclear energy through stable confinement 
of plasmas at an extremely high temperature. Interestingly, the strategy 
behind Project Sherwood was not to build a scientific and technical base for 
advanced fusion experiments; rather, the goal was to immediately develop a 
working technology. Researchers were "to invent their way to a reactor," so 
to speak, just as the scientists and engineers through a crash effort had built 
the first atomic bomb. Such was the mood of optimism and enthusiasm over 
the human capacity for solving any problem, however monumental, in the 
wake of the successful Manhattan Project. 47 

Many of the devices developed during Project Sherwood served as ad- 
vanced research tools. Although highly varied in their designs, almost all 
the facilities tried, with only partial success, to produce fusion reactions 
through some type of magnetic containment of a plasma. By the 1950s, 
scientists knew that a thermonuclear reactor would require a reacting gas 
with a temperature of at least 1,000,000,000 kelvin (K). Because contain- 
ment of such an extraordinarily hot gas by solid walls seemed impossible, 
many plasma physicists believed that the only way to contain the gas was 
by powerful magnetic forces. Further work in MPD became vital. 

At Langley, as elsewhere, researchers turned to the sun (a giant fusion 
reactor) to find the answers. In Langley laboratories, the MPD group 
worked on designing facilities that would simulate the activity of the solar 
corona. George Wood's MHD Section built several highly experimental 
devices to study solar physics; however, none of them yielded the secret 
of thermonuclear power. 

Consider, for example, George Wood's first highly experimental facility 
for the basic study of solar-coronal physics, the one-megajoule theta-pinch. 


Space/light Revolution 

"The pinch" used a powerful, one- million- joule* discharge of direct-current 
(DC) electricity along a single-turn coil to generate a strong longitudinal 
magnetic field. Wood's section hoped that an interaction of this high- 
density current with its own magnetic field would cause a contained column 
of plasma (that is, a molten conductor) to self-contract and become pinched 
even tighter and perhaps even to rupture itself momentarily, thus producing 
a controlled fusion reaction. 

First explained in a theoretical paper by American physicist Willard H. 
Bennett in 1934, the application of this self-focusing pinch effect had become 
a basic mechanism of plasma and plasma-containment research worldwide 
in the 1950s. Langley's MPD enthusiasts (notably MHD's Nelson Jalufka) 
naturally wanted to get involved. Unfortunately, research in the Langley 
pinch facility, as in all other reactors of the time designed to generate 
controlled nuclear fusion, did not lead to fundamental breakthroughs. It 
did, however, make some solid contributions to the literature. 48 

Another device that perhaps did not live up to all expectations but 
nonetheless succeeded in fundamental respects was Langley's Magnetic 
Compression Experiment. In the early 1960s, Karlheinz Thorn, Goetz 
Oertel, and George Wood devised an experimental apparatus capable of 
generating a multimillion-degree-kelvin plasma for simulation of the solar 
corona and for studying the processes that produce highly ionized atoms in 
the corona. Completed in 1965 at a total cost of roughly $2 million, the 
apparatus consisted of a one-megajoule capacitor bank (a device for storing 
electrical energy) plus a straight narrow tube that produced a theta-pinch. 
Experiments conducted with this device led to some significant results on the 
spectral lines of highly ionized gases like deuterium and argon, and members 
of Wood's MPD group published several papers on the experiments into the 
late 1960s. Well after the dissolution of the MPD branch in 1970, the facility 
was still operating, thanks largely to the support of Karlheinz Thorn, who 
had moved to a position of partronage in the OSSA at NASA headquarters. 
Thorn was able to keep the Magnetic Compression Experiment alive by 
relating its research more directly to astrophysics, thereby circumventing 
a policy of the Nixon administration against basic research in the highly 
speculative energy field of thermonuclear fusion. 49 

A third important fusion research effort of the MHD Section involved 
the plasma-focus research facility. Although the stated purpose of this fa- 
cility (whose operation dates to the mid-1960s) was to simulate and study 
the physics of solar flares, its real purpose from the outset was to explore 

A joule is equivalent to one watt-second. 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

the possibilities of fusion.* Essentially, the plasma-focus apparatus was a 
coaxial arrangement wherein a sheet of electrical current was created by a 
high-energy discharge from a powerful capacitor bank. The current sheet 
traveled down a ring-shaped (annular) channel designed around a central 
anode (positive electrode) and collapsed by virtue of its own self-induced 
magnetic field into a high-density plasma. 

Several researchers in Wood's MHD Section became deeply involved in 
experiments with the plasma-focus facility, and although their work did not 
produce the boundless energy of nuclear fusion, it cannot be called a failure; 
rather, the effort, which was extensive, turned out to be important and 
lasting. Between 1968 and 1985, Langley researchers published no less than 
81 papers based on their experiments in the plasma- focus facility; only 7 of 
these papers were written between 1968 and 1970, when the MPD Branch 
was still functioning. Clearly, the research did not end with the formal 
dissolution of the branch. In this collection of papers authored or coauthored 
by the members of the former MPD Branch are significant offshoots from 
the initial purpose of the experiments. These offshoots include exploration 
of space-based lasers both for direct conversion of solar energy and for 
early "Star Wars" designs. In the late 1970s, the plasma-focus facility 
received national and international attention and acclaim by producing more 
neutrons per experimental "shot" 10 19 fusion neutrons from a deuterium 
plasma than had been produced by any other fusion experiment to date 
in the United States. By placing enriched uranium at the end of the anode, 
researchers were even able to get 10 10 fissions, which was another remarkable 
result. 50 

These achievements signified that Langley's general fusion-related re- 
search rated near the top of the American scientific effort by the early 1980s. 
Langley's work was equal to similar pioneering efforts by Winston H. Bostick 
at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and G. R. Mather at 
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Of course, the chronol- 
ogy for this work extends beyond the period that is the focus of this book; 
however, the relevance of the research carried on by the MPD Branch of the 
1960s extended to these significant follow-on efforts. 


A much earlier piece of equipment for plasma research at Langley known as "the diffusion inhibitor" 
was developed to pursue thermonuclear power. In 1938, Langley researchers Eastman N. Jacobs 
and Arthur Kantrowitz tried to confine a hot plasma magnetically and thereby achieve a controlled 
thermonuclear reaction. Although NACA management quickly stopped the unauthorized research, the 
preliminary experiments attempted by Jacobs and Kantrowitz in their toroidal (or doughnut-shaped) 
chamber represent not only Langley's first flirtation with the basic science later leading to MPD studies 
but also the first serious effort anywhere in the world .(and three years before the Manhattan Project) 
to obtain energy from the atom. For a complete account of the Jacobs-Kantrowitz fusion experiment of 
1938, see James R. Hansen, "Secretly Going Nuclear," in American Heritage of Invention & Technology 
(Spring 1992) 7:60-63. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

A Hot Field Cools Off 

Although the promise of MPD remained high into the late 1960s, its 
mystique was slowly dissipating. In a briefing to new Langley Director 
Edgar M. Cortright in 1968, Mike Ellis had to admit that "a large part of 
the glamour of moving into plasma physics that existed ten years ago is now 
over and we feel that hard-headed research is now the order of the day." 51 

Ten years had passed, and the ambitions of the first exhilarating mo- 
ments of the spaceflight revolution had been moderated by the mounting 
frustrations of trying to achieve significant research results in what was 
proving to be a much more illusive area of research than anticipated. "The 
field was just so incredibly complicated," Mike Ellis remembers, "that to 
make a really significant contribution that would apply to some great prob- 
lem just became increasingly hard." 52 The deeper the Langley researchers 
and others plunged into the MPD field, the more they realized how difficult 
contributing to any applications would be. 

Because they could not find clear applications for most of their research, 
the sights of the MPD enthusiasts changed gradually over the course of the 
1960s. In terms of simulating the reentry conditions, which was the practical 
application driving so much of the MPD effort in its early years, neither 
Langley's arc-jets, nor its plasma accelerators, nor any other new facility 
ever succeeded in generating on the ground a flow of high-temperature 
air that corresponded to actual flight conditions. And, by the late 1960s, 
NASA knew that a spaceflight program could do well without having that 
capability. As John Becker of Aero-Physics explains, 

We learned everything that we could in an airstream that was way too cool, and then 
we corrected wherever we needed to for the effects of the temperature, by calculation, 
by studying the effects of temperature in adequate facilities, and then adding that 
to what we already knew. It was a partial simulation, but the corrections were good 
enough to design successful hardware. 

In other words, much of what MPD researchers had been trying to do just 
proved unnecessary. 

The primary motivation for many who had joined the MPD field had 
been the hope of controlled thermonuclear fusion. Anybody and everybody 
in the scientific community who was connected to plasma physics had the 
dream of inventing the final device that would allow controlled fusion, or 
at least they hoped to contribute in some direct way to its eventual design. 
But by the late 1960s, the lack of progress in the field clearly indicated that 
any practical technology based on fusion (other than an atomic bomb or 
nuclear warhead) was still a long way off. 54 

At the dawn of the space age, NASA's MPD enthusiasts at Langley and 
elsewhere had also believed that nuclear-powered rockets, ion rockets, and 
other advanced space propulsion systems might be just around the corner 


The "Mad Scientists" of MPD 

This May 1965 photograph shows a 
Langley concept for a Mars landing ve- 
hicle. By the end of the decade, all 
thoughts of making a quick trip to Mars 


and that with them astronauts would soon be shooting off for Mars and other 
faraway places. As the decade passed, the idea of the nuclear rocket fell by 
the wayside and was for all practical purposes killed when NASA planning 
for a manned Mars mission was put to an abrupt halt in 1970 by President 
Nixon. The value of exploring the potential of electric propulsion systems 
also diminished. Mike Ellis remembers the impact of the presidential policy 
on his own work: "In early 1970, I was told to cease working immediately 
on a paper I was preparing for formal presentation on the proposed manned 
mission to Mars. The paper, on which I was working with Walter B. Olstad 
and E. Brian Pritchard in the Aero-Physics Division, was all ready for 
rehearsal. But then word came down from Washington, and I was told 
not even to breathe the notion of a manned Mars mission." 55 

As their lofty aspirations were forced down to earth, the MPD enthusiasts 
shifted their focus and began to look for other objectives. A group in the 
Plasma Physics Section, for example, started to explore the potential of gas 
lasers. Under the direction of Bob Hess and his associate Frank Allario, 
this new area of interest grew into a sustained field of intense research at 
NASA Langley. By the early 1970s, this effort provided some information 
basic to the eventual development of the plasma cutting torches and plasma 
metal-definition apparatuses that have since come to dominate the metals 
field. 56 


Spaceflight Revolution 

In 1970, Edgar Cortright as part of his major reorganization of the center 
dissolved the MPD Branch and put most of its people and many of their 
facilities under a new Space Sciences Division headed by William H. Michael. 
Aware of MPD's practical limitations, Mike Ellis did not complain about 
his branch's dissolution, nor did any other member of his staff.* Cortright 
was somewhat familiar with the MPD field from his days as a researcher 
at Lewis laboratory and from his management experience in the OSSA at 
NASA headquarters, so he did not criticize MPD's work or refer to it in 
any way as a failure. John Becker, who had supported his MPD Branch for 
nearly a decade, best sums up Langley's view of MPD: It was "a field that 
we had to explore in detail because of the great promise. The fact that it 
didn't yield any earth-shaking new things is not our fault. It's just the way 
nature turned out to be." 57 

Never before in the history of applied basic research at Langley had a 
field of study promised so much, yet delivered so little. But the "mad scien- 
tists" of MPD were not mad in their pursuit; they were just different from 
the "normal" body of researchers at Langley, who searched for practical 
solutions and did not stray into matters of fundamental cosmological im- 
portance. The MPD group's commitment to basic scientific research was in 
fact quite sensible. At a time when NASA had an increasingly strong politi- 
cal mandate for research that was "relevant" to the technological objectives 
of space projects, the "mad scientists" of MPD maintained a broader and 
more fundamental interpretation of relevant research. 

Mike Ellis would always feel that MPD's interpretation was the proper 
one and that the urgency of project work had deteriorated the status of 
basic research at Langley. Project work so dominated the agency in the 
late 1960s that all work, even basic research such as that conducted by the 
MPD Branch, was judged by the black-and-white criteria for project success. 
Results must be quickly achieved and immediately applicable. The results 
of Langley's MPD work were neither. Mike Ellis puts the experience in 
perspective: "It is certainly true that we didn't produce any earth-shaking 
results or great breakthroughs. Not many efforts do." 58 


Ellis himself, however, did not move into the new Space Sciences Division; instead, he became one 
of the assistant chiefs (and later associate chief) of John Becker's Aero-Physics Division. Paul Huber, 
head of the Plasma Applications Section, became head of Aero-Physic's Propulsion Research Branch, 
which worked on hypersonic scramjets. 



The Odyssey of Project Echo 

The vitality of thought is an adventure. Ideas won't 
keep. Something must be done about them. When the 
idea is new, its custodians have a fervor. They live 
for it. 

Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead 

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, 
we learn only by doing them. 


In the early hours of 28 October 1959, five days after the close of the 
first NASA inspection, people up and down the Atlantic coast witnessed a 
brilliant show of little lights flashing in the sky. This strange display, not 
unlike that of distant fireworks, lasted for about 10 minutes. From New 
England to South Carolina, reports of extraordinary sightings came pouring 
into police and fire departments, newspaper offices, and television and radio 
stations. What were those mysterious specks of light flashing overhead? 
Was it a meteor shower? More Sputniks? UFOs? Something NASA finally 
managed to launch into space? 

Several hours later, the press was still trying to solve the mystery. At 
about three o'clock in the morning, a night watchman roused NASA Langley 
rocket engineer Norman L. Crabill from a sound sleep in a dormitory near 
the launchpads on Wallops Island. The watchman told Crabill that a long- 
distance telephone call was waiting for him in the main office. A reporter 
for a New York City newspaper wanted a statement about, as he put it, 
"the lights that you guys had put up." Crabill, an irascible young member 
of Langley 's PARD, had not been able to celebrate his thirty-third birthday 
properly the night before because of what had happened, and now he had 
gotten out of a warm bed, put on his pants, and taken a walk in the cool night 


Spaceflight Revolution 

air just to explain the situation to some newspaper guy. "My statement is, 
'It's three o'clock in the morning,' " growled Crabill, slamming the receiver 
down. As he would later remember, "It was the only time I, a government 
employee, ever told off the press and got away with it." 1 

Given the events of that evening, Crabill s anger was understandable. 
Although the disaster that had occurred was minor, it was big enough to 
potentially damage Crabill's NASA career. The initial test of a 110- foot- 
diameter inflatable sphere for the Echo 1 Passive Communication Satellite 
Project had ended abruptly with the sphere blowing up as it inflated. 
Floating back into the atmosphere, the thousands of fragments of the 
aluminum-covered balloon had reflected the light of the setting sun, thus 
creating the sensational flashing lights. 

The inflatable sphere had been launched from Wallops Island at 5:40 
p.m. For the first few minutes, everything went well. The weather was 
fine for the launch, and the winds were not too high. PARD engineers 
were worried about the booster called "Shotput," an experimental two-stage 
Sergeant X248 rocket, because the performance of the rocket's second-stage 
Delta was to be the initial test of the U.S. Thor-Delta satellite launching 
system. However, in the early moments of its test flight, Shotput 1 had 
performed flawlessly. The rocket took the 26-inch-diameter, spherical, 
190-pound payload canister inside of which the uninflated 130-pound 
aluminum-coated Mylar-plastic satellite had been neatly folded to second- 
stage burnout at about 60 miles above the ocean. There, the payload 
separated successfully from the booster, the canister opened, and the balloon 
started to inflate. The first step in Project Echo had been taken with 
apparent success. 

Then, unexpectedly, the inflating balloon exploded. The payload engi- 
neers had left residual air inside the folds of the balloon by design as an 
inflation agent. The air expanded so rapidly, because of the zero pressure 
outside, that it ruptured the balloon's thin metallized plastic skin, ripping 
the balloon to shreds. Shotput 1 was history; the use of residual air to help 
blow up the balloon had been, in Crabill's words, a "bad mistake." 2 

After spending a depressing night reviewing why the test went wrong, 
the only thing for Crabill to do the next morning was to get to work solving 
the problem. After all, this was project work the ultimate reality not 
general research. No time to cry over spilled milk or burst balloons. 

At the NASA press briefing at Wallops, held about one hour after the 
explosion, Crabill and others had given their usual matter-of-fact postlaunch 
systems report. In the midst of taking a quick look at the telemetry records 
to make sense of the balloon failure, a NASA official sensitive to public affairs 
approached Crabill and told him, "Just tell them everything worked all 
right." 3 Sure, Crabill thought, no problem. No data pointed to the contrary. 
All the visual evidence on the Shotput launch vehicle, which was Crabill's 
responsibility, suggested that Shotput had worked as planned. Moreover, the 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

L-93-8337 L-93-8339 L-93-8333 

During a test of the Echo deployment in 1962, which was three years after Shotput's 
first failed deployment of the Echo satelloon, a structural load problem caused the 
balloon once again to explode. A camera aboard the launcher captured these images. 
The earlier Shotput failure would have looked very much the same. 

purpose of the Shotput phase of Project Echo* was to determine whether the 
mechanism designed to deploy an inflatable passive communications satellite 
of that size and weight would work, and it had; in that sense, Shotput 1 was 
indeed successful. To tell the whole truth about that scintillating collection 
of little moving lights tumbling through the upper atmosphere before all the 
records were examined and understood was premature and the complete 
story would be too complicated for the press to understand. This was a time 
when launching any object into space was big news for the American people. 
Why let an otherwise uplifting moment be turned into another letdown? 

Thus, for the initial newspaper stories about the launch of Shotput 1, the 
press would not be told enough even to hint at the possibility of a failure. For 
example, in a front-page article appearing in the next morning's Newport 
News Daily Press, the headline for military editor Howard Gibbons' article 
about the launch was: "Eart tilings Stirred by NASA Balloon, Awesome 
Sight in the Sky." According to Gibbons, NASA had launched "the largest 
object ever dispatched into space by man, stirring the curiosity and awe of 
thousands of Americans residing on the Eastern Seaboard." The inflated 
sphere "rode for 13 minutes in the sun's rays . . . before it fell again into 
the atmosphere and dropped into the Atlantic about 500 miles east of 
Wallops." Gibbons made no mention of the rupture. The balloon "was 
probably deflated on the way down into the atmosphere, NASA reported." 
Not a word appeared about a mistake involving the use of residual air as an 
inflation agent. According to Gibbons, "NASA's assessment of the operation 
was that 'it did what we wanted it to do.' " 4 

Also on the front page of the Daily Press that morning, next to the 
article on Shotput 1, was an Associated Press wire story from Washington, 
D.C., announcing the start of extensive congressional hearings. The House 

The word "echo" was already in use by the late 1950s to describe a pulse of reflected radio-frequency 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Space Committee was investigating why the United States continued "to 
play second fiddle" to the Soviets in the exploration of space; the headline 
of this second article read: "Why U.S. Lagging In Space Explorations To 
Be Probed." The last thing NASA needed at the moment was to explain a 
burst balloon. 

Norm Crabill knew that NASA was not telling the press the truth, but 
he and the rest of the Langley crew responsible for the shot understood 
and accepted the subterfuge. This was project work, and it had to succeed. 
For public consumption, both failure and the inability to achieve complete 
success need not be admitted, at least not immediately. Sometimes mistakes 
could not be concealed, such as a missile blowing up on the launchpad before 
hundreds of cameras, as so many had been doing. But a balloon bursting 
in space, especially one producing such a sensational show of flashing 
lights, could be presented as a total success. This age of the spaceflight 
revolution was a new epoch. Research activities were now exposed to the 
nontechnical general public, and so many old rules and definitions no longer 
were applicable. Some discretion in the discussion of results seemed justified. 

The International Geophysical Year and the V-2 Panel 

As with so many early NASA projects and programs, Project Echo 
originated in NAG A work. In fact, the idea predated the Sputnik crisis 
by several months and at first had nothing to do with proving the feasibility 
of a global telecommunications system based on the deployment of artificial 
satellites. Rather, the original purpose of Echo was to measure the density 
of the air in the upper atmosphere and thereby provide aerodynamic 
information helpful in the design of future aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. 
Like so many other matters affected by the spaceflight revolution, the 
concept that led to Project Echo had modest and circumscribed beginnings 
that ballooned into sensational results. 

The father of the Echo balloon was Langley aeronautical engineer 
William J. O'Sullivan, who was a 1937 graduate of the University of Notre 
Dame (and Langley employee since 1938) and a former staff member of 
PARD. The idea for the air-density experiment first came to O'Sullivan on 
26 January 1956, nearly two years before the launch of Sputnik 1. All that 
raw winter day, the 40-year-old O'Sullivan sat in a meeting of the Upper 
Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, which was being held at the Univer- 
sity of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Originally known as the "V-2 Panel," this 
body had been formed in February 1946 to help the army select the most 
worthwhile experiments to be carried aboard the captured and rebuilt Ger- 
man V-2 rockets.* After World War II, scientists from around the country 

The V-2 rockets were originally known as A-4s. To avoid association with the German "Vengeance 
Weapons" that had terrorized England, the U.S. military often referred to them by their original name. 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 


William J. O 'Sullivan, the father of the Echo balloon, was also the father of five 
children. They, too, were caught up in the enthusiasms of the spaceflight revolution. 
Notice the homemade NASA emblems on the blazers worn by the two teenage sons. 
The NASA public affairs office distributed copies of this family portrait to the news 
media along with stories about O 'Sullivan's ingenious invention of the Echo balloon. 

had flooded the army with requests for an allotment of space aboard the 
V-2s, and the army had handled the awkward situation rather adroitly by 
instructing the scientists to form a panel of their own to decide which exper- 
iments should go on the rockets. Thus, the V-2 Panel came to life as a free 
and independent body, with no authority to enforce its decisions, but with 
a voice that carried the weight of the scientific community behind it. By 
the early 1950s, the name of the panel changed to the Upper Atmosphere 
Rocket Research Panel, signifying both a wider agenda of research concerns 
and the use of rockets other than the V-2s as flight vehicles. 5 

The purpose of the Ann Arbor meeting was to choose the space ex- 
periments for the forthcoming International Geophysical Year (IGY). This 
event, to be celebrated by scientists around the world beginning 1 July 1957, 
stimulated many proposals for experiments, including the stated ambition of 
both the American and Soviet governments to place the first artificial satel- 
lites in orbit about the earth. The panel's job was to sort these proposals into 
two groups: those that could most satisfactorily be conducted with sounding 
rockets and those that could be performed aboard "Vanguard," the proposed 


Space/light Revolution 

National Academy of Sciences/U.S. Navy earth satellite. Then, after hearing 
20-minute oral presentations in support of each proposal, the panel, chaired 
by University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, was to choose the most 
deserving experiments. 

As the NACA representative to this panel, O'Sullivan sat through the 
day-long meeting and grew increasingly frustrated with what he was hearing. 
He was particularly disappointed by the methods proposed to measure 
the density of the upper atmosphere. As an aeronautical engineer, he 
understood that information about air density might prove vital to the 
design of satellites, ICBMs, and every aerospace vehicle to fly in and around 
the fringes of the earth's atmosphere. In 1952 and 1953, O'Sullivan had 
belonged to a three-man study group supported by Langley management for 
the purpose of exploring concepts for high-altitude hypersonic flight. With 
fellow Langley researchers Clinton E. Brown and Charles H. Zimmerman, 
O'Sullivan had educated himself in the science of hypersonics and helped 
the group to conceptualize a manned research airplane that could fly to 
the limits of the atmosphere, be boosted by rockets into space, and return 
to earth under aerodynamic control. In essence, the Brown- Zimmerman- 
O' Sullivan study group had envisioned a "space plane" very similar to the 
future North American X-15 and its related heir, the Space Shuttle. 7 

Given his enthusiasm for spaceflight, O'Sullivan was disappointed to hear 
respected scientists offering such defective plans for obtaining the critical 
air-density data. One proposal, developed by a group at the University of 
Michigan, involved the use of a special omnidirectional accelerometer whose 
sensitivity, according to O'Sullivan, would have to be "improved by between 
100 and 1000 times before the experiment would work." Another proposal, 
one of two submitted by Princeton University physicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr., 
called for the measurement of drag forces on a satellite spiraling its way back 
to earth. In O'Sullivan's view, the principle behind Spitzer's proposal was 
sound, but not practical. The experiment would work, he predicted, "only at 
altitudes much below that at which practical satellites of the future would 
have to fly in order to stay in orbit long enough to be worth launching, 
probably at least five years." 8 Several of the day's proposals, including the 
ones just mentioned, were based on the presumption that somebody could 
build and launch a lightweight structure strong enough to remain intact 
during its turbulent ballistic shot into space. But as far as O'Sullivan knew, 
nobody had yet discovered how to do this. At that moment, still more than 
a year and a half before Sputnik, no one had yet succeeded in launching 
even a simple grapefruit-sized object into space, let alone objects as big 
and complicated as those being suggested by the scientists that day in Ann 

In his hotel room that evening, O'Sullivan could not let go of the problem. 
None of the proposals he had heard were satisfactory. But were there better 
alternatives? Even if he could think of one himself, technically, as a panel 
member, he was supposed to judge the suggestions formally submitted by 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

others, not make any of his own. With a pad of paper from the hotel desk in 
hand, however, he could not resist making some rough calculations. Over the 
next several hours, O'Sullivan was engaged in a process of creative problem 
solving, which he would later outline in seven major points of analysis. 9 

O'Sullivan's Design 

(1) Aero theory. O'Sullivan naturally started his analysis from the point 
of view of aerodynamic theory. He knew from theory that "the drag force 
experienced by a satellite in the outer extremities of the earth's atmosphere 
was directly proportional to the density of the atmosphere." This meant 
that "if the drag could be measured, the air density could be found." Thus, 
in the first few minutes of his analysis, O'Sullivan had reduced the entire 
problem to measuring the satellite drag. 10 

(2) Shape and size. How big should the satellite be and what shape? 
O'Sullivan chose a sphere. Such a fixed shape eliminated the problem of 
the satellite's frontal area relative to the direction of motion, and it also 
simplified the question of the satellite's size. 

(3) Drag forces. O'Sullivan turned next to a consideration of celestial 
mechanics. On his pad of paper, he began to play with the classical equations 
for the drag forces on a body as it moves on a ballistic trajectory through 
the atmosphere and into orbit around the earth. After several minutes 
of mathematical work, during which he constantly reminded himself that 
the success of the experiment depended on making the satellite extremely 
sensitive to aerodynamic drag, O'Sullivan realized that he must devise a 
satellite of exceedingly low mass relative to its frontal area. The satellite 
could be a large sphere, but the sphere's material could not be so dense as 
to make the satellite insensitive to the very air drag it was to detect. Only 
an object with a low mass-to-frontal area ratio could be pushed around by 
an infinitesimal amount of air. 

(4) Design considerations. No researcher who worked at such a diversified 
place of technical competence as Langley, which was the only NACA 
aerodynamics laboratory with a Structures Research Division, could long 
proceed with the analysis of a flight-vehicle design without considering 
matters of weight, loads, elasticity, and overall structural integrity. The 
structural problems of O'Sullivan's sphere might prove serious, for the 
lighter the weight (or lesser the mass), the weaker the structure. With 
this conventional knowledge about structural strength in mind, O'Sullivan 
contemplated the magnitude of the loads that his satellite structure would 
have to withstand. Calculations showed that the loads on his sphere, once 
in space, would be quite small, amounting to perhaps only one-hundredth to 
one-thousandth the weight that the sphere would encounter at rest on the 
surface of the earth. From this, he concluded that the satellite need only be 
a thin shell, as thin perhaps as ordinary aluminum foil. 


Space/light Revolution 

But herein was the dilemma. In orbit, the sphere would encounter 
negligible loads and stresses on its structure, but to reach space, it would 
have to survive a thunderous blast-off and lightning-like acceleration through 
dense, rough air. O'Sullivan knew that he could not design a satellite for the 
space environment alone; rather, a structure must be designed to "withstand 
the greatest loads it will be exposed to throughout its useful life." The 
satellite would have to withstand an acceleration possibly as high as 10 Gs, 
which was 1000 to 10,000 times the load the structure would be exposed to 
in orbit. To survive, the satellite could not consist merely of a thin shell; 
it would have to be so strong and have such a high mass-to-area ratio that 
it would be insensitive to minute air drag and thereby "defeat the very 
objective of its existence." J 

Midnight was approaching, and O'Sullivan, the scientific wizard of 
Langley's PARD, still sat at the hotel desk, perched on the horns of this 
dilemma. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, he arrived at a 
possible solution: why not build the sphere out of a thin material that 
could be folded into a small nose cone? If the sphere could be packed 
snugly into a strong container, it could easily withstand the acceleration 
loads of takeoff and come through the extreme heating unscathed. After 
the pay load container reached orbit, the folded satellite could be unfolded 
and inflated pneumatically into shape. Finding a means of inflation should 
not be difficult. Either a small tank of compressed gas such as nitrogen, or 
a liquid that would readily evaporate into a gas, or even some solid material 
that would evaporate to form a gas (such as the material used to make 
mothballs) could be used to accomplish the inflation. (He apparently had 
not yet thought of using residual air as the inflation agent, as in Shotput 1.) 
Almost no air pressure existed at orbiting altitude, so a small amount of gas 
would do the job. "Clearly then," O'Sullivan concluded, "that is how the 
satellite had to work." 12 

(5) Construction materials. Other critical questions still needed answers. 
Surely, if he presented his notion of an inflatable satellite to the prestigious 
scientific panel the next day, someone would ask him to specify its con- 
struction material. The material had to be flexible enough to be folded, 
strong enough to withstand being unfolded and inflated to shape, and stiff 
enough to keep its shape even if punctured by micrometeoroids. O'Sullivan 
reviewed the properties of the materials with which he was familiar and 
quickly realized that "no one of them satisfied all the requirements." Next 
he tried combining materials. The forming of thin sheet metal into certain 
desired shapes was a standard procedure in many manufacturing industries, 
but sheet metal thin enough for the skin of his satellite would tear easily 
during the folding and unfolding. Perhaps, thought O'Sullivan, some tough 
but flexible material, something like a plastic film, could be bonded to the 
metal foil. 13 

Here was another critical part of the answer to O'Sullivan's satellite 
design problem: a sandwich or laminate material of metal foil and plastic 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

film. "I could compactly fold a satellite made of such a material so that 
it could easily withstand being transported into orbit, and once in orbit, I 
could easily inflate it tautly, stretching the wrinkles out of it and forming it 
into a sphere whose skin would be stiff enough so that it would stay spherical 
under the minute aerodynamic and solar pressure loads without having to 
retain its internal gas pressure." 14 Such a thin-skin satellite would be so 
aerodynamically sensitive that even a minute amount of drag would cause 
a noticeable alteration in its orbit. Researchers on the ground could track 
the sphere, measuring where and when it was being pushed even slightly 
off course, and thereby compute the density of the air in that part of the 

(6) Temperature constraints. Would a satellite made out of such material 
grow so cold while in the earth's shadow that the plastic film would embrittle 
and break apart? O' Sullivan reckoned that this would not be a problem 
as he knew of several plastic films that could withstand extremely low 
temperatures. The real concern was heat. Exposure to direct sunlight 
might melt or otherwise injure the outer film. But this, too, seemed to 
have a remedy. Rough calculations showed that high temperatures could be 
controlled by doping the outside of the satellite with a heat-reflecting paint. 
Some heat-reflecting metals might even do the job without paint, if they 
could be made into a metal foil. 

(7) Satellite tracking. One problem remained: the means of tracking the 
satellite. As a member of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, 
O' Sullivan was familiar with current tracking techniques. These included the 
radio method built into the navy's Minitrack network in which the object 
to be tracked carried a small transmitter or radio beacon. This system 
would be adopted for the Vanguard satellite project. Unfortunately, the 
radio-tracking method would not work for O'Sullivan's satellite concept. If 
a radio beacon was attached to his sphere, it would add significantly to the 
structural mass, thereby reducing the sphere's sensitivity to air drag. The 
only way to track the sphere, it seemed, was optically, with special cameras 
or telescopes. 

Tracking a satellite optically when the satellite would be made out of 
something as bright and highly reflective as polished sheet metal would not 
be difficult; however, optical tracking limited satellite observation to the 
twilight hours. At all other times, reflections from the satellite would not be 
practical. At night the satellite would be in the earth's shadow and hence 
would receive no sunlight to reflect to tracking instruments or observers on 
earth; in daylight, the satellite would reflect light, but that light would be 
obliterated from view by the scattering of the sun's rays in the earth's dense 
lower atmosphere. 

O' Sullivan knew that tracking a satellite at all times of the day and at 
night was possible only by radar. As a member of Langley's PARD, he 
was intimately familiar with the radar tracking of rocket models; at Wallops 
Island, it had been a routine and daily procedure for several years. As 


Space/light Revolution 

O'Sullivan suspected, the problem was that radars powerful enough to do 
the job, even if the satellite were as big as a house, would not be available 
for several years because they were still in development. 

Extraterrestrial Relays 

These thoughts about radar tracking led O'Sullivan to a much higher 
level of technological speculation. "As I thought about this ability to reflect 
radio and radar waves, there came a stream of thoughts about the future 
possibilities of such a satellite when there would exist . . . rockets capable 
of launching big enough satellites, and when powerful enough radars and 
radios [would exist] to be able to use such satellites for radio and television 
communication around the curvature of the earth, and as navigational aids 
that could be seen by ship and airplane radars night and day, clear weather 
or cloudy: satellites that some day might take the place of the stars and sun 
upon which navigators have depended for so many generations." 15 

On many occasions in the history of modern technology, science fiction 
has blazed the way to an understanding of real possibilities and has moti- 
vated scientists and engineers to seek practical results; perhaps O'Sullivan's 
concept for the inflatable satellite was one of those occasions. Several 
years earlier, in October 1945, the British science-fiction writer Arthur C. 
Clarke had published a visionary article in the popular British radio journal 
Wireless World suggestively entitled "Extraterrestrial Relays." In the arti- 
cle, Clarke predicted the development of an elaborate telecommunications 
system based on artificial satellites orbiting the earth. 16 

The key to such a system, according to Clarke, would be the "geosyn- 
chronous" satellite. Such a satellite, launched to a distance of roughly 22,000 
miles high in an equatorial orbit, would, according to the laws of celestial 
mechanics, take exactly 24 hours to complete one orbit, thereby staying 
fixed indefinitely over the same spot on the earth. The satellite would act 
as an invisible television tower, which could maintain line-of-sight contact 
with one-third of the earth's surface. If three satellites were put into geosyn- 
chronous orbit above the equator and made to communicate with one an- 
other through long-distance "extraterrestrial relays," as Clarke called them, 
electronic signals, be they radio, television, or telephone, could be passed 
from satellite to satellite until those signals made their way around the 
globe. For the first time in history, people all over the world would be able 
to communicate instantaneously. 

The impact of a global communications system would be revolutionary, 
Clarke was sure. "In a few years every large nation will be able to establish 
(or rent) its own space-borne radio and TV transmitters, able to broadcast 
really high-quality programs to the entire planet." This would mean "the 
end of all distance barriers to sound and vision alike. New Yorkers or 
Londoners will be able to tune in to Moscow or Peking as easily as to their 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

local station." The new communications technology might even lead to a 
new order of world cooperation and peace. "The great highway of the ether 
will be thrown open to the whole world, and all men will become neighbors 
whether they like it or not." Inevitably, peoples of all nations will become 
"citizens of the world." 17 

We do not know if Langley's William J. O'Sullivan (who died from cancer 
in 1971 at age 56) had read any of Arthur Clarke's writings or was in any 
other way acquainted with Clarke's ideas about communications satellites 
at the time of the Ann Arbor meeting in 1956. Most likely O'Sullivan knew 
something of them, given the intellectual proclivities of the flight-minded 
community in which he worked and the extent to which some of the bolder 
ideas about space exploration were making their way into the mainstream 
of American culture during the early 1950s through books, magazines, and 
movies. Some of the ambitious ideas about space, including the scheme for 
a global system of communications satellites, were beginning to appear in 
the serious technical literature. 

Take the relevant case of John R. Pierce, the visionary American elec- 
trical engineer working at Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1952, Pierce 
began to develop his own ideas for a communications satellite system but, 
fearing the ridicule of his colleagues, decided to publish his ideas under a 
pseudonym. They appeared in a popular magazine, Amazing Science Fic- 
tion. In the next few years, however, the climate of opinion changed; the 
electronics revolution, as well as the notion of integrating rockets, transis- 
tors, computers, and solar cells, progressed far enough to make a serious 
technical discussion of the possibility of "comsats" (communication satel- 
lites) professionally acceptable. Pierce then came out of the closet; in April 
1955, he published "Orbital Radio Relays" under his own name in the re- 
spected trade journal Jet Propulsion. 1 ^ 

In the same month, another provocative article by Pierce appeared in the 
Journal of the American Rocket Society; in it, the Bell engineer specified the 
use of large spherical reflector satellites, much like the one being designed 
by O'Sullivan, for long-range telecommunications. Such satellites would 
be "passive" rather than "active." A passive satellite served simply as an 
electronic mirror, retransmitting back to earth only those signals that were 
intercepted.* The chief advantage of a passive system, Pierce indicated, was 
that a passive satellite was less complicated electronically than an active 
satellite. Unlike a passive satellite, an active one could receive and amplify 
signals before retransmitting them to the ground, but, in order to do so, it 
had to carry its own power supply or possess the means of deriving power 
from external sources. 19 

A global communications network based on a series of geosynchronous 
satellites like those suggested by Pierce and Clarke interested O'Sullivan, but 

The navy was soon to use this concept as the basis for an experimental system called "Communi- 
cation by Moon Relay," in which the moon was used as a passive reflector for radar waves. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

in January 1956, as a member of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research 
Panel, his sights were set on a much more limited and immediate goal, 
the upcoming IGY. So just as quickly as he began to speculate about the 
potential of communications satellites in earth orbit, the Langley engineer 
once again narrowed his focus and concentrated on the requirements of the 
air-density experiment at hand. These other applications "were things for a 
few years in the future," he said to himself, "not for the year 1956." 20 Little 
did he know how quickly those wildly ambitious applications would be 
realized once the spaceflight revolution began. 

Finessing the Proposal 

Having pondered the problems of designing an air-density flight experi- 
ment into the wee hours of the morning, O'Sullivan finally went to bed. But 
he could not sleep. He tossed and turned, worrying that when he disclosed 
his idea to the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel the next day he 
would find that he had "overlooked some factor that would invalidate the 
whole idea." At one point, he sat up in bed, laughed, and said aloud, "It 
will probably go over like a lead balloon!" 21 His plastic-covered, inflatable 
metal-foil sphere was about as close to a lead balloon as any professional 
engineer would ever want to get. 

The next day, January 27, after hearing several members of the panel 
express their disappointment in the proposed methods of measuring satellite 
drag and air density, O'Sullivan mustered enough courage to tell a few of 
the panel members about his design. He talked to Fred L. Whipple, then 
of the Harvard College Observatory (and soon to be named director of the 
Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory), as well as to Raymond Minzer of 
the U.S. Air Force Cambridge Research Center. Their principal concern 
was that the payload space in the Vanguard satellite was almost completely 
taken up by other experiments. All that was left for O'Sullivan's inflatable 
balloon was a tiny space the size of a doughnut. Could the balloon be made 
to fit? And could it be made to weigh no more than seven-tenths of a pound? 
O'Sullivan was not sure about meeting either requirement, but, puffing on 
a cigarette, said he would try to work it out. That was enough of an answer 
for Whipple and Minzer. Both men urged O'Sullivan to put his proposal 
in writing and submit it to the U.S. National Committee/International 
Geophysical Year (USNC/IGY) Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite 
Projects, which was being formed in Ann Arbor that afternoon. 22 

For O'Sullivan, the proposal posed a problem. Most technical panels 
of the USNC/IGY had already been formed, and he had just accepted an 
appointment, with the NACA's permission, on the Technical Panel on Rock- 
etry. Not only was he a member of this panel, but he also was responsible for 
coordinating the NACA's development of two sounding, rockets: the Nike- 
Deacon (DAN) and an improved version of it, the Nike-Cajun (CAN). Both 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

were to become mainstays of the USNC/IGY sounding rocket program. Fur- 
thermore, O'Sullivan knew that a rather strict USNC/IGY policy required 
that a "principal experimenter" accept complete responsibility for carrying 
out his experiment from beginning to end. The USNC/IGY would deal 
only with him, not with any organization with which he was associated, in 
all matters pertaining to his experiment, including funding. The purpose of 
this policy was to ensure that every scientist, regardless of institutional affil- 
iation or backing, would enjoy an equal opportunity to propose experiments 
and to obtain the necessary funding from the USNC/IGY if the experiment 
was accepted. Taking on the heavy duties of a principal experimenter would 
be a full-time job that O'Sullivan could not possibly do and still hold his 
civil service position with the NACA. The options appeared to be either 
to resign his 18-year position with the NACA and obtain funding to do the 
experiment from the USNC/IGY or to forget about the inflatable satellite. 23 

O'Sullivan found another option, which was to share the satellite project 
with someone else. He talked again with Raymond Minzer, this time about 
joining him as a "co-experimenter." Minzer agreed, and within a few weeks, 
the two men submitted a successful proposal to Dr. Richard W. Porter, 
the General Electric engineer in charge of the V-2 test program at White 
Sands and chairman of the Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Projects. 
Unfortunately, after the proposal was accepted, the air force withdrew 
its support of the experiment, and Minzer had to bow out. Once again, 
O'Sullivan was left alone with his lead balloon, and by that time, O'Sullivan 
explains, the USNC/IGY Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Projects 
was "hounding [him] to get the experiment under way." 24 

Upon returning to Langley, the only option left open to O'Sullivan, 
besides dropping the experiment, was to secure full support from his 
employer. As the NACA's representative on the Upper Atmosphere Rocket 
Research Panel, O'Sullivan had reported all of his activities in travel reports 
and memoranda that were routed to the office of the Langley director 
(still Henry Reid), with copies forwarded to NACA headquarters. In mid- 
June 1956, Associate Director Floyd Thompson and Bob Gilruth, then the 
assistant director responsible for PARD, had heard all about the concept 
for an inflatable satellite. They advised O'Sullivan to prepare a formal 
memorandum giving the complete theory of the experiment and requesting 
that the NACA sponsor the experiment for development at Langley as 
another NACA contribution to the IGY. 

Immediately, O'Sullivan wrote the proposal, dated 29 June 1956. In it, he 
explained why the NACA, an organization hitherto devoted to the progress 
of aircraft, "not only should, but must" become engaged in development of 
earth satellites. With the recent advances in rocket propulsion and guidance 
systems, O'Sullivan argued, "earth satellites can and will be developed 
and used for numerous defense and commercial purposes. . . . Not 
least among the foreseeable benefits is the lessening of world tension by 
bringing closer together the various nations through interest in a common 


Spaceflight Revolution 

beneficial development." The development of earth satellites was therefore 
"inevitable." For the NACA not to be involved with satellites would be 
a serious mistake. "In every industry, failure to undergo evolution in pace 
with technological development inevitably leads to extinction. In the field of 
research, by virtue of it being the technological frontier, no time lag between 
recognition of an important problem and initiation of work upon it can 
exist without loss of ground." To begin, the NACA should perform research 
"particularly in the field of air drag measurement, employing lightweight 
inflatable spheres," with a special task group established at Langley to 
perform the necessary technical work. Given the low estimated cost of 
the experiment, which O' Sullivan placed very conservatively at just over 
$20,000, he was hopeful that NACA management would accept his proposal, 
even though he knew that his employer would have to bear all the expenses 
of developing the project because federal law prevented the NACA from 
accepting any funds from the USNC/IGY. 25 

Very quickly the NACA accepted the proposal. Hugh Dry den, the 
director of research for the NACA in Washington, liked the concept and 
in September 1956 authorized John W. Crowley, his associate director, to 
report to the USNC/IGY Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Projects 
with news of the NACA's willingness to develop the satellite. But the 
advocacy was not over. Not everyone on Dr. Richard Porter's newly 
constituted technical panel had heard about O 'Sullivan's idea, and many of 
them needed to be convinced. O' Sullivan remembers, "I had to describe [the 
experiment] in minute detail and defend it against all scientific and technical 
objections the [panelists] could think of." This was "the acid test," for 
most members of this panel came from academe and not from government; 
everyone on the panel had a Ph.D., and O'Sullivan did not. After a careful 
presentation of his proposal, however, O'Sullivan managed to clear the 
hurdle and persuade the panel to accept the NACA project. At a meeting 
on 9 October 1956, Porter's committee put it on the official list of approved 
experiments and designated O'Sullivan as the principal experimenter. The 
committee was convinced that no other means for measuring satellite drag 
and thus deducing air density in the upper atmosphere approached the 
sensitivity of O'Sullivan's little inflatable balloon. 26 

The "Sub-Satellite" 

The panel's approval gave O'Sullivan's air-density experiment only the 
right to compete for what little space remained on the Vanguard launching 
rocket; it did not guarantee that the experiment would ever be flown. The 
sole allotment of space remaining in the payload amounted to a few cubic 
inches of space in an annular or ring-shaped area between the head end of the 
third stage of the rocket motor and the placement of an IGY magnetometer 
satellite developed by the NRL. Into these cramped quarters, O'Sullivan 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

and his helpers at Langley would have to squeeze their satellite, along with 
its inflation mechanism and surrounding container. All of it together could 
be no more than 20 inches in diameter or a mere seven-tenths of a pound. 
Because it was so little and was to be carried into orbit underneath the 
magnetometer satellite, O'Sullivan named the small inflatable vehicle the 

Although the USNC/IGY technical panel designated O'Sullivan as the 
principal experimenter for the balloon project, too many problems had to be 
solved in too short a time for one man to do all the work alone. Therefore, in 
the fall of 1956, Floyd Thompson authorized the formation of a small team 
of engineers and technicians, mostly from PARD, to assist O'Sullivan in the 
preparation of the satellite project. Administratively, Thompson facilitated 
this in late December 1956 by appointing O'Sullivan as head of a new 
Space Vehicle Group placed inside PARD. The group would report directly 
to the division office, which was headed by Joseph A. Shortal. Jesse L. 
Mitchell of the Aircraft Configurations Branch and Walter E. Bressette from 
the Performance Aerodynamics Branch of PARD would assist O'Sullivan. 
Significantly, this small Space Vehicle Group was the first organizational 
unit at Langley to have the word "space" in its title. 27 

First, the Space Vehicle Group tested dozens of plastic and metal foils 
(even gold) in search of the right combination to withstand the extreme 
range of temperatures that the little satellite would encounter: from 300F 
in direct sunlight to -80F when in the shadow of the earth. The group 
found half of the answer to the problem in a new plastic material called 
"Mylar." Made by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Mylar was being 
used for recording tape and for frozen-food bags that could be put directly 
into hot water. When manufactured in very thin sheets, perhaps only half 
as thick as the cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes, Mylar plastic 
proved enormously tough. It showed a tensile strength of 18,000 pounds per 
square inch, which was two-thirds that of mild (low-carbon content) steel. 

The second half of the answer, that is, an effective metal covering for 
the plastic that could protect the satellite from radiation and make it 
visible to radar scanners, proved a little more difficult to find. For more 
than a month, the O'Sullivan group "tested metal after metal, looking for 
ways to paint them on Mylar in layers far thinner than airmail onionskin 
paper." 28 Then, one man in the Space Vehicle Group heard about a 
technique for vaporizing aluminum on plastic that the Reynolds Metals 


An interesting and seemingly appropriate name, it nonetheless turned out to be problematic 
technically, because of confusion with the term "subsatellite point," a term from orbital mechanics 
that defined the point of intersection where a straight line (known as the "local vertical" ) drawn from a 
satellite to the center of the body being orbited (in this case, the earth) cuts through the surface of that 
body. The confusion would grow worse in the late 1960s when the term "subsatellite" came to be used to 
describe small artificial satellites ejected from other satellites or spacecraft, such as those released from 
Apollo 15 in 1971 and Apollo 16 in 1972 for the purpose of carrying out certain scientific experiments. 


Space/light Revolution 

To determine the capacity of the 30- 
inch "Sub-Satellite" (right) to withstand 
the high temperature of direct sunlight in 
space, Langley researchers subjected it to 
a 450 F heat test (below). Results indi- 
cated that the aluminum- covered Mylar 
plastic would effectively reflect the danger- 
ous heat. 




The Odyssey of Project Echo 

Company of nearby Richmond, Virginia, was experimenting with for the 
development of everyday aluminum foil. This new and unique material 
was acquired and successfully tested. The fabrication problem was solved 
by cutting the material into gores, that is, into three-cornered or wedge- 
shaped pieces, and gluing them together along overlapping seams. Using 
this technique with this material, the Langley researchers built the outer 
skin of their first 20-inch domes for inflation tests. 

Almost everyone involved was excited by the prospect of sending the 
experiment into space, and several individuals worked nights and weekends 
through the last months of 1956 to get the Sub-Satellite ready. The right 
blend of materials had been found for the inflatable sphere; now, two major 
problems remained: how to fold the sphere so that it could expand quickly 
without a single one of its folds locking up and causing a tear, and how to 
inflate the balloon. As for the means of inflation, the Langley researchers 
tried dozens of strange chemicals before discovering that a small bottle of 
nitrogen would inflate the little balloon, at the proper rate, so that the 
sphere would not blow apart. Learning how to fold the satellite was also 
a purely empirical process; no theory existed to guide the group. As one 
observer remembers, "Harassed by O 'Sullivan, men who couldn't fold a road 
map properly found a way to fold his aluminum balloon." 29 

However, this characterization gives O' Sullivan too much credit. Walter 
Bressette and Edwin C. Kilgore were the engineers who actually worked 
out not only the folding pattern but also the ejection method and inflation 
bottle pressure for the Sub-Satellite. Bressette, an airplane pilot in World 
War II and a 1948 graduate in mechanical engineering from Rhode Island 
College (now the University of Rhode Island), had spent the last 10 years 
working on ramjet propulsion systems, jet effects on airplane stability, and 
reentry problems using both rocket-propelled vehicles and a supersonic 
blowdown tunnel at Wallops Island. Kilgore, a 1944 engineering graduate 
from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, had proved to be 
one of Langley's top machine designers. The two men conducted many 
trials in a small vacuum chamber in the PARD shop before solving the Sub- 
Satellite's problems. In addition, Bressette made frequent trips to the NRL 
in Washington to put the Sub-Satellite package through what he called "the 
shake, rattle, and roll" of vehicle environmental tests. 30 

By January 1957, the Sub-Satellite was almost ready. A front-page article 
appearing in the Langley Air Scoop on 5 January touted the little satellite 
for having originated at Langley, credited O' Sullivan with "having conceived 
the novel manner of construction," and told employees to look forward to 
its impending launch. Next to the article was a photograph of O'Sullivan 
holding in his right hand the shiny inflated Sub- Satellite, the emblem of 
the NACA wing on its side, and in his left hand, a folded uninflated Sub- 
Satellite. 31 

However, just when everything was proceeding on schedule, a compli- 
cation developed. The Baker-Nunn precision optical tracking cameras at 


Spaceflight Revolution 

White Sands would not be able to follow and photograph such a small 
sphere; Fred Whipple urged O 'Sullivan and the NAG A to increase the size 
of the Sub-Satellite from 20 to 30 inches in diameter. The Sub-Satellite 
could not weigh more or take up more space on the Vanguard; it just had to 
be 10 inches bigger. On 7 February 1957, Whipple's panel made this request 
official, reconfirming assignment of the NACA experiment on Vanguard if 
the change was made. O'Sullivan believes that the new size requirement 
"would have been a deathblow to the Sub-Satellite had it occurred at the 
start"; however, with the experience gained at Langley through actually 
building the sphere, the increase to a 30-inch diameter was accomplished 
over the next few months without too much trouble. 32 

After all Langley's work, the Sub-Satellite was finally on the launchpad 
at Cape Canaveral on 13 April 1959. Seconds after takeoff, the second stage 
of the Vanguard SLV-5 vehicle experienced a failure that sent the rocket 
and the Sub-Satellite crashing ignominiously into the depths of the Atlantic 
Ocean. With this launch failure, the attempt to determine air density with 
the Sub-Satellite came to an end. (This was Vanguard's third attempted 
launch.) However, other models of the 30-inch sphere were used for a short 
time both before and after the SLV-5 misfire as a calibration target for a new 
long-range radar being developed at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory at Millstone 
Hill Radar Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts. 33 

Something the Whole World Could See 

Even before the Sub-Satellite's fatal plunge into the ocean in April 1959, 
O'Sullivan had started to contemplate the benefits of a larger reflector 
satellite that could be the sole payload on a Vanguard. In November 1957, 
Fred Whipple presided over a space science symposium in San Diego, which 
was sponsored jointly by the air force and Convair Astronautics. At this 
symposium, O'Sullivan proposed that a large inflatable launched by a rocket 
more powerful than Vanguard could be used as a lunar probe. "It could be 
seen and photographed through existing astronomical telescopes, not only 
giving conclusive proof to everyone that such a probe had reached the moon, 
but its location as it orbited the moon or impacted on the moon would be 
known." Before sending a balloon to the moon, however, O'Sullivan felt 
that something must be put into earth orbit, perhaps a 12- foot-diameter 
satellite, which "the whole world could see." 34 

For a professional engineer, O'Sullivan was something of a universalist. 
He worked on airplanes, missiles, and satellites; he knew aerodynamics, and 
he knew space. But he was not gracious about sharing credit. The idea for 
the 12-foot satellite was not O'Sullivan's but Jesse Mitchell's. An analysis 
performed by Mitchell had indicated that a 30-inch-diameter sphere would 
not make a suitable optical device for a lunar probe; the sphere would have to 
be several times larger. So in the summer of 1957 while O'Sullivan was away 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

Space Vehicle Group engineer Jesse 
Mitchell examines the Sub-Satellite 
package in early October 1958, only 
days after NASA 's establishment. 
Mitchell, who would later become head 
of the Geophysics and Astronomy Di- 
vision at NASA headquarters, directed 
Langley's program development plan 
for Echo 1 . 

from Langley, Mitchell and Bressette had consulted the model shop about 
building a larger sphere. The size of the sphere became 12 feet because of 
the ceiling height in the model shop, not because O' Sullivan had determined 
it to be the perfect size. 35 

For millions of people, the spaceflight revolution began the first time 
they looked up in wonder at the bright twinkling movement of an artificial 
satellite. O' Sullivan was aware of this when he proposed his 12-foot 
inflatable. With the appearance of Sputnik 1 a month earlier in October 
1957, people around the world, especially Americans, developed a heightened 
if not exaggerated interest in searching the sky for UFOs. A widespread 
interest in UFOs had existed before the ominous overflights of the Russian 
satellites. As historian Walter McDougall explains in his analysis of the 
onset of the space age, 10 years prior to the first Sputnik, "beginning in the 
midsummer of 1947 the American people began to see unidentified flying 
objects, kicking off a flying saucer 'epidemic' of such proportions that the 
air force launched a special investigation and began compiling thousands of 
case studies that, in the end, satisfied no one." 36 The cause of the epidemic 
was the new need of Americans to externalize their postwar fears about 
technology, about the atomic bomb, and about nuclear war destroying the 


Space/light Revolution 

Into the blackness of that anxiety-ridden mass psychology came the 
specter of Sputnik. Across the United States, people went outside with 
binoculars and telescopes, straining to see the faint blinking reflection of 
the tiny yet ominous metal globe tumbling end over end. For instance, in 
San Francisco on Friday night, 4 October 1957, volunteer crews of amateur 
astronomers with special "moon-watch" telescopes maintained a vigil atop 
the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park in hopes of sighting the 
Russian satellite. Crew members took up their prearranged stations as soon 
as reports of the satellite's launching were received. Six tireless individuals 
continued the lonely vigil until morning, when conditions for viewing were 
allegedly at their best. How many people actually spotted the satellite that 
night and over the next several months as it moved in its north-to-south orbit 
is unknown, but certainly far fewer saw Sputnik 1 than said they did. 37 

On that same evening in early October on a large ranch in Texas, Senate 
Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson was having a few guests in for dinner 
when the news of Sputnik 1 came over the radio and television. After eating, 
the party went outside rather nervously for what was supposed to be a 
calming stroll in the dark along the road to the Padernales River. But the 
walk only unnerved them. As one of the guests, Gerald Siegel, a lawyer with 
the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, remembers thinking at the time: 
"In the Open West you learn to live closely with the sky. It is a part of your 
life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I 
also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for 
another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country 
of ours." 38 

On the Atlantic coast, among the millions of people all over the country 
and the world who were looking up in the sky that night to see Sputnik 
were O' Sullivan and his colleagues at NACA Langley. Bob Gilruth recalls 
seeing the satellite from his bayside home in Seaford, Virginia. In Gilruth's 
words, the sighting "put a new sense of value and urgency" on everything he 
and his co-workers were doing at Langley. Charles Donlan also remembers 
sighting the little satellite: "I was running around my yard in Hampton 
one evening, when I looked up and saw Sputnik go right over my house. I 
remember stopping and staring at it. What I remember thinking was how 
much better it would be if the thing belonged to America." 39 

Everyone involved with decisions regarding U.S. satellites, including the 
State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), felt the same 
way. In the wake of the Sputniks, virtually all government officials concerned 
expressed a desire to orbit a satellite that would be visible over Russia as 
well as the United States. O'Sullivan's 12-foot inflatable sphere seemed to 
fit the bill. Because of shocking world events, what had started out as a 
simple air-density experiment was becoming an instrument of propaganda 
in the cold war. 

The idea for an inflatable sphere big enough for everyone to see received 
high priority. Whipple and other members of the USNC/IGY Technical 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

Panel on the Earth Satellites expressed serious interest in O' Sullivan's 
proposal for a bigger inflatable, but they had to wait a few months to 
see whether a booster more powerful than the Vanguard rocket could be 
obtained. Finally, in the spring of 1958, the USNC/IGY informed the 
NACA that some space was available inside the nose cone of a Jupiter C, an 
intermediate-range ballistic missile developed by the ABMA that was more 
powerful than the Vanguard rocket. If the Jupiter failed, and of course none 
of these boosters had yet proved reliable, a Juno II, a new vehicle similar to 
the Jupiter C, might be available as the backup. A Juno II would launch 
America's first successful lunar flyby, Pioneer 4, on 3 March 1959. 40 

The NACA agreed to the project, and the Space Vehicle Group continued 
to construct and test its 12-foot inflatable. 41 Because it was to orbit at 300 
to 400 miles above the earth and thus would appear as bright as the north 
star, Polaris, the satellite eventually came to be called "Beacon." Beacon 
would be easy to see with the naked eye and so could be tracked optically 
and photographically without difficulty. Big new radars, such as the one 
being developed by MIT at Millstone Hill,* were just coming on line and 
would be able to track day or night, regardless of the weather. 42 

On 25 June 1958, the USNC/IGY officially assigned the 12-foot Beacon 
satellite as a pay load for the launch of Jupiter C No. 49. To obtain 
the difficult orbit that O' Sullivan insisted on it was circular rather than 
elliptical the Jupiter C had to have a small "high-kick" rocket motor 
that gave an extra boost to help the satellite reach the desired orbit. 
Unfortunately, on 23 October 1958, the "high-kick" did not get a chance to 
"kick in," because the "low kicks" kept failing. As was the case with its 30- 
inch ancestor, the Beacon was not launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral 
because the booster failed. Fourteen months later, Juno II No. 19 was ready 
to carry a second 12-foot satellite into orbit but failed to do so when the 
rocket's fuel supply emptied prematurely. 43 

With three failures in a row, O'Sullivan and the Space Vehicle Group 
might have given up on the balloon if not for the spectacular successes 
of Explorer 1 on 31 January and Vanguard 1 on 17 March 1958. These 
American satellites proved not only that Americans could put an object in 
orbit but also that those objects, tiny as they were, could disclose great 
scientific discoveries such as the Van Allen radiation belts. Beyond that, 
satellites could be of tremendous economic and social benefit. They could 
make continuous worldwide observation of the weather possible, and the 
existence and the likely paths of hurricanes and other destructive storms 
would be accurately predicted. By studying the development of the world's 
weather patterns from space, humans might someday control the climate. 
In summary, satellites offered too many far-reaching benefits for researchers 
to allow a few launch vehicle failures to discourage them. Rockets were still 

On 3 June 1959, Millstone Hill would transmit a voice message from President Eisenhower and 
reflect it off the moon to Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, Canada. 


Space/light Revolution 

In July 1959, William J. 
O 'Sullivan (right, standing) and 
an unidentified engineer exam- 
ine the capsule containing the 
tightly folded and packed 12- 
foot-diameter Beacon satellite 



in their infancy, in the "Model-T" stage of technical evolution. Failures were 
to be expected, Langley's team consoled itself. All the problems had been 
with the boosters, not with their own satellites. 44 

According to O'Sullivan, he set an example of grit and determination for 
the rest of his people, many of whom were still quite young. As he told a 
magazine writer at the time, he was "mindful of his research associates who 
had labored so hard" to produce the experiments and who "looked to me as 
their leader." This was driven home to him, he told the writer, during the 
unsuccessful launch of the 12- foot satellite. Watching the Doppler velocity 
drop off rather than climb, he knew instantly the launching rocket had failed. 
Turning to his associates, he said, "The launching is a failure." Standing 
dumbfounded, staring at O'Sullivan, one of them asked, "What do we do 
now?" O'Sullivan immediately answered, "We pack up our instruments and 
equipment as quickly as we can. We haven't a moment to lose. We have to 
get back to the Laboratory and get the next satellite ready for launching." 
When his men started moving in a hurry, O'Sullivan informed the writer, 
he knew for sure that he "must never waiver or hesitate no matter how 
stunning the blow." 45 

According to other key individuals involved with the project, however, 
O'Sullivan was not the leader he claimed to be. Walter Bressette remembers 
that "O'Sullivan never went to the satellite launch areas." In fact, he gave 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

L-58-88a L-58-1063a 

The genius of William J. O 'Sullivan (left) rested in the theory stage of an engineer- 
ing development; other Langley researchers took over the main responsibility during 
the design and deployment phases. Walter Bressette (right) played a major role in 
the Echo program from start to finish. Here he examines a scaled prototype of the 
satelloon in December 1958. 

up direction of the 12-foot satellite mission immediately after the Juno II 
failure, handing it over to Claude W. Coffee, Jr., and Bressette, who then 
made the 12-foot Scout proposals. O'Sullivan abandoned his project, leaving 
it to others to carry on. Those who did continue the work view O'Sullivan's 
self-publicized heroic role in the eventual success of the effort as egotistical 
and inaccurate. 46 

Big Ideas Before Congress 

Up to the point of the Juno II failure, Langley's interest in inflatable 
satellites had been limited to air-density experiments in the upper atmo- 
sphere and to orbiting an object large enough to be seen by the naked eye; 
the notion of deploying satellites for a worldwide telecommunications net- 
work like the one suggested by John Pierce and Arthur Clarke had not yet 
taken hold as an immediate possibility. 

But the flight of the Sputniks emboldened conservative researchers. In 
the spring of 1958, as plans for NASA were being formulated in Washington, 
communications satellites or "comsats" became a moderately hot topic. Not 
surprisingly, even the NAG A began to take a healthy interest in them. At 


Space/light Revolution 

Langley, an advance planning committee recommended that the center begin 
a comprehensive study of radio- wave propagation and channel requirements, 
as well as the requirements for active relays. In a decision that would later 
come to haunt them, the planning committee resolved that the first flight 
experiment should involve only a simple passive reflector, one in which the 
satellite acted merely as a mirror and retransmitted only those signals it 
received. That sort of simple experimental communications satellite could 
be placed in orbit very soon, perhaps as early as fiscal year 1959, the Langley 
planners stated. The greater difficulties of building an active system were 
being tackled elsewhere. A passive flight experiment would demonstrate the 
feasibility of a space-based system, and the new NASA could accomplish the 
task largely on its own, without extensive help from industrial contractors, 
notably Radio Corporation of America (RCA), American Telephone and 
Telegraph (AT&T), and General Electric (G.E.), who at that time were 
petitioning the federal government to invest in their own special comsat 
projects. 47 

Throughout the spring and summer of 1958, Congress listened to argu- 
ments about the potential of space exploration and what should be done to 
ensure that the country's nascent "into space" enterprises would continue 
far beyond the end of the ICY. This testimony, in part, was the genesis 
of NASA. The NACA's director of research, Hugh Dryden, testified more 
than once on Capitol Hill. Before the House Select Committee on Science 
and Astronautics on 22 April, Dryden explained, among many other things, 
how large aluminized balloons could be inflated in orbit and used for com- 
munication tests. Accompanying him on this occasion was O' Sullivan, who 
took a full-size Beacon satellite into the Capitol and inflated it there "to 
demonstrate the structural, optical, and electronic principles involved." In 
his testimony, O'Sullivan delighted the congressmen by saying, quite em- 
phatically, that Langley had been studying the problem of communications 
satellites for several months and that its staff was absolutely convinced that 
a very large inflatable reflecting sphere, at least 10 stories high, could be 
built quickly and launched into space. This big balloon "would reflect ra- 
dio signals around the curvature of the earth using frequencies not other- 
wise usable for long range transmission, thus mostly increasing the range 
of frequencies for worldwide radio communications and, eventually, for tele- 
vision, thus creating vast new fields into which the communications and 
electronics industries could expand to the economic and sociological benefit 
of mankind." 48 

The ideas of Pierce and Clarke were finding a home at, of all places, a 
government aeronautics laboratory. On 31 March 1958, some three weeks 
before Dryden and O'Sullivan testified in Washington, John W. "Gus" 
Crowley, Dryden's associate director, had visited Langley and told Floyd 
Thompson, O'Sullivan, Joseph Shortal, and others that Dryden had been 
having conversations with Dr. Pierce of Bell Telephone Labs and with 
members of President Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee about 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

the potential of a global telecommunications system based on satellites. 
What NACA headquarters now wanted to know, Crowley said, was whether 
Langley was interested in constructing a larger 100- foot inflatable sphere, on 
a tight schedule, to be used as an orbital relay satellite like that envisioned 
by Pierce. 49 

O' Sullivan assured Crowley a few days later that his Space Vehicle Group 
was "not only interested but enthusiastic about the possibility of placing 
such a satellite in orbit, and that the schedule could be met." On 3 April 
1958, a follow-up meeting took place at Shortal's PARD office to consider 
designs for the big balloon. At this meeting, O'Sullivan, adopting Jesse 
Mitchell's scheme, suggested using the 100-foot sphere as a lunar probe. On 
18 April, Langley submitted to NACA headquarters a proposed research 
authorization entitled, "A Large Inflatable Object for Use as an Earth 
Satellite or Lunar Probe." The NACA did not formally approve the proposal 
until 8 May, but work on the big sphere had actually started at Langley on 
a high-priority basis even before Crowley's visit. 50 

In early February 1959, Project Echo, as O'Sullivan had begun to call 
it, cleared another major hurdle when NASA headquarters assured Lang- 
ley that an allotment of space would be devoted to the large inflatable in 
a forthcoming "space shot." Following this authorization, on 19 February, 
Langley Assistant Director Draley approved the creation of a large interdis- 
ciplinary "task group" of approximately 200 people, assigned on a temporary 
basis without change of organization and initially under O' Sullivan's leader- 
ship. The Space Vehicle Group alone could not handle the entire work load, 
which at this point still involved the 30-inch Sub-Satellite and the 12-foot 
inflatable. Significantly, as befitting a project that had to succeed, Draley 
announced that the move was necessary to meet an "emergency." He in- 
formed the directorate that "for the duration of this emergency condition," 
O 'Sullivan's Space Vehicle Group and Clarence L. Gillis's Aircraft Config- 
uration Branch, both of PARD, "will merge and work as one unit" with 
O'Sullivan as head and Gillis as his deputy. To make room for the work 
load in this merged group, "it may be necessary to postpone, or transfer 
to other units, some of the work now in progress." In other words, Project 
Echo took priority over business-as-usual, and everyone at Langley would 
just have to adjust. 51 

Assigning Responsibilities 

The first planning meetings for Project Echo convened at NASA head- 
quarters in the summer of 1959, not long before the first NASA inspection. 
At the second of these meetings, on 13 October 1959, Leonard Jaffe, chief of 
NASA's fledgling communications satellite program and director of one of 
the program offices in the Office of Space Sciences at NASA headquarters, 
surprised Langley representatives by announcing that the "primary respon- 
sibility" for managing Echo was being given, not to Langley, but to Goddard, 


Spaceflight Revolution 

which was still under construction in Greenbelt, Maryland. Various parties 
would contribute to the project through expanded in-house activities and 
some extensive contracting, Jaffe explained. The Douglas Aircraft Com- 
pany plant in Tulsa (a converted B-24 factory) would provide the assembled 
booster, a three-stage Thor-Delta (later it would be called just a Delta); Bell 
Telephone Laboratories, where comsat pioneer John Pierce worked as direc- 
tor of electronics research, would make available at Holmdel, New Jersey, a 
20 x 20-foot horn-fed parabolic receiver, a 60-foot antenna, as well as ampli- 
fiers, demodulators, and other electronic and radar equipment; RCA would 
provide the radar beacon antenna for incorporation upon the Echo spheres; 
NRL would use its large 60-foot dish antenna at Stump Neck, Maryland, 
to receive the reflected signals from Echo; and JPL would employ its two 
85-foot low-noise antennae at the Goldstone (California) Receiving Site to 
track the satellite. 52 

Naturally, Langley was quite disturbed over the assignment of the overall 
responsibility to Goddard. As one senior Langley researcher remembers, 
"Echo was considered to be but the first in a long series of large satellite 
experiments under the jurisdiction of Langley." If Langley lost Echo to 
Goddard, all the other large satellite experiments would probably go to 
Goddard as well. Whatever proved to be the case, however, Langley felt that 
Jaffe's instructions need not have any immediate effect on Echo. Langley, 
both through in-house work and the monitoring of contracts, would keep 
the responsibilities for the key research and development tasks. These tasks 
were not spelled out precisely by Jaffe at the planning meeting, and more 
than a year would pass before a working agreement satisfactory both to 
Goddard and Langley was finalized. Even after the agreement was reached in 
January 1961, relations between the two NASA centers were stressful. As we 
have seen, tensions already existed between them. Goddard staff wanted to 
exercise management authority over a project they felt was rightfully theirs; 
Goddard was the center for all NASA space projects. As the originators of 
the Echo concept, O'Sullivan and his associates saw Goddard as an intruder. 
Langley researchers, therefore, planned to ignore Goddard and continue 
working as before the reassignment. 53 

Pending the final agreement over the division of responsibilities, Langley's 
Project Echo Task Group continued to do whatever it felt needed to be done 
to assure the success of the "satelloon."* This included doing virtually all 


Langley could proceed independently of Goddard in part because of the manner in which NASA 
managed Echo and provided funding to Langley for the project. With its establishment as an 
official NASA spaceflight project, responsibility for managing Echo went to the Office of Space Flight 
Development under Abe Silverstein, who then assigned the project to the Office of Space Sciences, 
wherein Leonard Jaffe, the chief of communications satellites, took over the regular responsibilities. 
Funding for Echo came from Silverstein's bailiwick, through Jaffe's office, and then made its way to 
Langley via transfers from Bob Gilruth's STG. For a time, O'Sullivan's entire. Space Vehicle Group was 
carried on the personnel rolls of the STG. In effect, this convoluted but cozy arrangement meant that 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

of the preliminary design for the payload, including the satellite itself; the 
satellite container with all its associated circuitry, hardware, and pyrotech- 
nics; the container-separation or deployment mechanism; and the inflation 
system. The Langley group developed the techniques for fabricating, fold- 
ing, packing, and inflating the rigidized sphere, and it carried out the sys- 
tematic ground tests to make sure that everything worked properly. After 
completing the ground tests, Langley also assisted in all launches and test 

Nonetheless, as the Langley engineers involved would soon discover, the 
assignment of Project Echo to the Goddard Space Flight Center was the 
initial step in the demise of the development of any passive communications 
satellite system. The Goddard director had already heavily committed his 
resources to the development of an active system; his organization was thus 
reluctant to take on the added burden of the passive system, which many 
Goddard engineers, and probably Goddard Director Goett, believed would 
prove inferior. 


One of the responsibilities taken on by Langley in early 1959 was the 
management of a project essential to Echo's success: Shotput. The purpose 
of Shotput was "to ensure proper operation of the payload package at 
simulated orbital insertion" in other words, to do thorough developmental 
testing of the techniques by which the folded Echo balloon would be ejected 
from its canister and inflated in space. The techniques conceived and 
refined for the Sub-Satellite and the 12-foot Beacon satellite were almost 
totally inapplicable to the giant Echo balloon, so new schemes had to be 
perfected. Only some of the critical tests could be made on the ground 
because a vacuum chamber large enough to simulate the complete dynamics 
of the balloon inflating in space was impractical to build. The only option 
was to do the testing in the actual environment of space, and that meant 
developmental flight tests. 54 

The importance of Shotput to Project Echo's ultimate success bears wit- 
ness to the need for thorough developmental testing prior to any spaceflight 
program. Before NASA researchers risked an expensive launch of a precious 
piece of space hardware, they made sure that the project would work from 
start to finish. Langley's plan was to flight-test suborbital Shotput vehi- 
cles from Wallops Island, then conduct as many orbital launches from Cape 
Canaveral as needed to put an Echo satellite in orbit successfully. For the 
most part, that plan was followed. 

the part of Langley working on Echo was really working for the Office of Space Flight Development under 
Silverstein. But it also meant that the Langley Project Echo Task Group relied not on Goddard, but 
on Langley's Procurement Division for its funding. See Joseph A. Shortal, A New Dimension: Wallops 
Flight Test Range, the First Fifteen Years, NASA RP-1028 (Washington, 1978), p. 688. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

One of the most difficult technical tasks facing Langley researchers 
working on Project Echo was designing a container that would open safely 
and effectively release the satelloon. After several weeks of examining 
potential solutions to this problem, the Langley engineers narrowed the 
field of ideas to five. They then built working models of these five container 
designs, and 12-foot-diameter models of the satellite for simulation studies. 
With help from Langley's Engineering Service and Mechanical Service 
divisions, the Echo group built a special 41-foot-diameter spherical vacuum 
chamber equipped with pressure-proof windows. There the dynamics of 
opening the container and inflating the satelloon could be studied as the 
satelloon fell to the bottom of the tank. To observe and photograph 
the explosive opening and inflation within the dark chamber, a special 
lighting rig had to be devised. Employing heavy bulbs enclosed in protective 
housings, the rig ensured that in the short time the test required, the bulbs 
would not overheat or be shattered by a shock wave. 55 

The container-opening mechanism that eventually resulted from these 
vacuum tests was surely one of the oddest explosive devices ever contrived. 
The container was a sphere that opened at its equator into top and bottom 
hemispheres. The top half fit on the bottom half much like a lid fits snugly 
atop a kitchen pot. The joint between the two hemispheres, therefore, 
formed a sliding valve. The halves had to move apart an inch or two before 
the canister was actually open. It was in this joint between the hemispheres 
that the charge was placed. 

The charge was incased in a soft metal tube that encircled the canister; 
in cross section, the tube had the shape of a sideways V. This shape 
concentrated the blast into a thin jet that shot out the mouth of the V. When 
the charge had been placed, Langley technicians fastened the hemispheres 
of the container together. Because even minimal pressure remaining inside 
the canister would be greater than that in space, the team had to take steps 
to prevent the canister from blowing apart too soon. The solution was to 
lace fishing line through eyelet holes in the hemispheres. When the explosive 
charge fired out, the resulting jet cut the lacing so that the container halves 
were free to separate. At the same time, pressure from the charge drove the 
hemispheres apart, releasing the balloon. 

This ingenious arrangement proved successful despite its inelegance. So 
pleased were the Langley researchers with their invention that they were 
"somewhat taken aback" when visiting scientists and engineers, hearing 
descriptions of a container-opening mechanism involving such crazy things 
as a pot-lid sliding valve and a lacing made of fishing line, "thought we were 
joking." 56 

As challenging as the opening of the satelloon container was, the problem 
of inflating the large satelloon without bursting it was even more vexing. 
O'Sullivan once explained the crux of the matter: "When the satelloon 
container is opened to release the satelloon in the hard vacuum of space, 
any air inside the folded satelloon or outside of the satelloon between its 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

A technician assigned to the Project 
Echo Task Group separates the two 
hemispheres of the Echo 1 container 
for inspection. The charge that freed 
the balloon was placed inside of a ring 
encircling the canister at its equator. 


folds tends to expand with explosive rapidity and rip the satelloon to pieces. 
But this understanding of the problem was not easily acquired, for there is 
no vacuum chamber on earth big enough and capable of attaining the hard 
vacuum of space, in which the ejection and complete inflation of the satelloon 
could be performed and the process photographed with high speed cameras 
to detect malfunctionings of the process. 7 

Before risking the launch of a balloon into space, the Project Echo Task 
Group determined that it should first conduct a static inflation test on 
the ground to see whether the 100- foot-diameter satelloon would assume 
a spherical shape with surface conditions sufficient to serve as a passive 
communications relay satellite between two distant stations on the surface 
of the earth. To make the static inflation tests, Jesse Mitchell took a team 
of engineers to nearby Weeksville, North Carolina, off the north shore of 
the Albemarle Sound, where a cavernous navy blimp hangar big enough to 
inflate the Echo balloon to full size stood empty. The inflation process was 
slow, taking more than 12 hours, and thus did not offer a dynamic simulation 
of the explosive inflation that would take place in space; however, the results 
did reassure everyone that the balloon would work as a communication relay. 
As Norm Crabill, present at the Weeksville tests, explains, "It was another 
one of the tests we had to go through before we could trust the design." 58 

These tests also demonstrated that the original balloon, manufactured by 
General Mills, was seriously defective. When the balloon was inflated in the 
hangar, the triangular panels, or gores, began coming apart at the seams. 


Spaceflight Revolution 



L-F L-58-3600 

Testing Echo 1 's inflation (above) in the navy hangar at Weeksville took half the 
day but proved worth the trouble. 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 


Langley engineers Edwin Kilgore (center), Norman Crabill (right), and an uniden- 
tified man take a peek inside the vast balloon during inflation tests. 

L-6 1-4603 

The Echo 1 team stand in front of their balloon. William J. O 'Sullivan is the tall 
man at center; Walter Bressette is to his left. 


Space/light Revolution 

^Pt \ m 

L-60-490 L-60-485 

Langley technicians Will Taub and James Miller (left) prepare to spin-balance the 
final stage of the Shotput launch vehicle. The ABL X248 motor sits on the spin 
table; the balloon- containing canister is at the top. When the Shotput was fully 
prepared for launch (right), a pencil-shaped shroud was fitted over the payload. 

Another manufacturer, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company of rural Northfield, 
Minnesota, had a glue perfect for sealing the seams, so General Mills hired 
the company to construct a second sphere. The proud Schjeldahl Company 
provided all subsequent inflatable spheres for NASA. 59 

Although the ground testing proved critical, the only sure way to test 
the inflation process was to launch the sphere in its container up to satellite 
altitude. To do this, members of the Project Echo Task Group designed the 
special two-stage test rocket called "Shotput." This, they thought, was the 
perfect nickname for a vehicle that would essentially hurl a big ball out of 
the atmosphere. 

Shotput's first stage was the Sergeant XM-33; its second stage was the 
ABL (Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory) X248. The latter also served as the 
third stage of the Douglas Thor-Delta, soon to be one of the United States' 
primary satellite launchers. Although the test program's main purpose was 
to check out the Echo satelloon, testing this part of the Thor-Delta became 
a critical secondary task. The ABL X248 stage included a solid-propellant 
rocket motor designed to achieve proper satellite velocity and altitude. The 
motor was spin-stabilized, so after it had burned out and the motor-satellite 
complex had entered orbit, the whole ensemble had to. be de-spun before 
the satellite could be separated. To accomplish that, engineers fashioned a 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

weighted mechanism known as a "yo-yo," which stopped the spinning and 
allowed the container to separate safely. 60 

Solving the problems of the launch vehicle was as difficult as solving the 
problems of the balloon. Norm Crabill traveled back and forth to Tulsa 
several times to understand the detailed design of the Delta third stage. 
(O'Sullivan once tried to remove Crabill from the project because he thought 
the young Langley engineer did not know enough to be in charge of the 
development of the Shotput test vehicle.) Crabill and his assistant Robert 
James intensely studied the forces and moments (i.e., the aerodynamic 
tendency to cause rotation about a point or axis) on the Shotput vehicle 
as it shot up and out of the atmosphere, spun its way to altitude, and de- 
spun for payload separation. The researchers had to assimilate in just a few 
months what amounted to an advanced course in aerodynamics and missile 
dynamics, but finally, after numerous analytical studies and simulations, 
Crabill and his helpers, one by one, solved the problems of launching 
Shotput 1. 

A Burst Balloon 

By the second Project Echo planning meeting, Langley had established 
a schedule for four Shotput tests. (Five Shotput launches would in fact 
occur; the last would take place on 31 May 1960.) Everyone inside NASA, 
including the interested parties at Goddard, agreed that the responsibility 
for managing Shotput and launching the vehicles from Wallops Island should 
remain in Langley's hands. 

Unfortunately, keeping their brainchild at home did not assure total 
success. As described in this chapter's opening, the launch of Shotput 1 on 
28 October 1959 started off well, but far above the "sensible" atmosphere, 
upon inflation, the big balloon blew up. Instead of a respectable scientific 
experiment, Echo looked more like a Fourth of July skyrocket. 61 

Despite the initial subterfuge of calling the test a success and omitting 
any mention of the balloon's explosion, the group's spokesmen finally con- 
fessed under pressure from the media and with great embarrassment, "that it 
was not supposed to work that way." For several weeks thereafter, everyone 
at Langley became an authority on inflatable satellites, telling O' Sullivan's 
associates (not daring to tell O'Sullivan himself, as he was known to have 
little charity for opinions contrary to his own) what had caused the explo- 
sion and how to fix it. Many of these "self-appointed experts" demanded 
to be heard. The Project Echo Task Group accommodated most of them, 
trying to keep in mind that "all of these people meant well and were trying 
to help." 62 Thereafter, NASA headquarters also announced the Shotput 
tests well ahead of time, so that everyone on the East Coast could watch 
and enjoy them. However, if everything went right with the balloon, the 
spectacular fireworks would not occur. 


Space/light Revolution 

A 500-inch focal-length photographic camera set up on the beach at 
Wallops Island had taken pictures of Shotput 1 as the balloon inflated and 
blew up, but even with these data a team from the Project Echo Task Group 
spent several weeks trying to confirm why the balloon had burst apart. Some 
researchers believed that the water used to help inflate the balloon had been 
the culprit. Like other volatile liquids, water will boil explosively in the zero 
pressure of space. It was "entirely conceivable that the elastic containers 
in which the water was carried inside the satellite might have leaked or 
ruptured during launch, and thus did not release the water at a slow and 
controlled rate as planned, to give a slow and gentle inflation." 63 Leaked 
water could easily have produced an explosion. 

To ensure that the water inflation system would not malfunction in the 
future, the team, led by Walter Bressette, switched to benzoic acid, a solid 
material that underwent sublimation that is, transformation from a solid 
state directly to a vapor. With such a material, conversion to a gas would be 
limited by the rate at which it would absorb heat from the sun. In essence, 
it would "gas off" slowly, not instantaneously. 

Researchers worried that another contributor to the explosion may have 
been residual air, which the payload engineers had intentionally left inside 
the folds of the balloon as an inflation agent. Langley's O'Sullivan once 
explained: "When the satelloon container is opened to release the satelloon 
in the hard vacuum of space, any air inside the folded satelloon or outside 
the satelloon between its folds tends to expand with explosive rapidity 
and rip the satelloon to pieces." 64 To remove all residual air from future 
deployments, the engineers made over 300 little holes in the balloon to allow 
the air to escape after the balloon was folded. Once the balloon was packed, 
the canister was placed, slightly open, in a vacuum tank. When its internal 
pressure had been reduced to near zero, the canister was closed, and an 
O-ring maintained the internal vacuum. 

Finally, to better identify deployment problems, the engineers put a red 
fluorescent powder into the folded-up balloon. If the balloon ruptured during 
ejection or inflation in subsequent tests, the powder would blow out and leave 
a trail that could be instantly seen around the satellite even from the earth. 

Four Shotputs were launched before the Langley researchers were satis- 
fied that Echo would work. The second shot, on 16 January 1960, failed 
because of a problem with Crabill's beloved launch vehicle. The yo-yo de- 
spin system of the Shotput second stage did not deploy properly, and the 
payload separated from the burned-out second stage still spinning at 250 
rpm. When the red dye appeared in the sky, it was clear that the de-spin 
failure had caused the balloon to tear while inflating. Following this test, 
no more serious problems with the launch vehicle occurred; there were only 
problems with the test balloon. On the third shot five weeks later, on 27 
February, the balloon tore and developed a hole, although not before Bell 
Labs was able to use the sphere to transmit voice signals from its headquar- 
ters in Holmdel, New Jersey, to Lincoln Labs in Round Hill, Massachusetts. 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

A successful shot took place on 1 April, but the tests were still incomplete 
as the satellite did not yet carry any of the tracking beacons that the final 
version would have. 65 (Because Echo's orbit would not be geostationary 
hovering over the same spot on earth 24 hours a day such devices were 
required to enable ground crews to track the balloon.) 

The Project Echo Task Group, however, believed that "they were over 
the hump" and that the next step was to move beyond Shotput, put the 
completely equipped 100-foot passive reflector balloon on the Thor-Delta, 
and attempt a launch. The scheduled launch date of "TD No. 1" from Cape 
Canaveral was 13 May 1960, just over a month away. Unlike the Shotput 
tests, whose ABL X248 carried the test balloons only to 200 to 250 miles 
above the surface, the much more powerful 92-foot-high Thor-Delta would 
ultimately take the balloon to an orbit 1000 miles above the earth. From 
there, the enormous Echo would be visible to people all around the world. 66 

"Anything's Possible!" 

The Echo balloon was perhaps the most beautiful object ever to be put 
into space. The big and brilliant sphere had a 31,416-square-foot surface of 
Mylar plastic covered smoothly with a mere 4 pounds of vapor-deposited 
aluminum. All told, counting 30 pounds of inflating chemicals and two 11- 
ounce, 3/8-inch-thick radio-tracking beacons (packed with 70 solar cells and 
5 storage batteries), the sphere weighed only 132 pounds. 

For those enamored with its aesthetics, folding the beautiful balloon into 
its small container for packing into the nose cone of a Thor-Delta rocket 
was somewhat like folding a large Rembrandt canvas into a tiny square and 
taking it home from an art sale in one's wallet. However, the folding of the 
balloon posed more than aesthetic problems. The structure not only had to 
fit inside the spherical canister but also had to unfold properly for inflation. 

The technique for folding the 100- foot inflatable balloons evolved from 
a classic "Eureka" moment. One morning in 1960, Ed Kilgore, the man 
in the Engineering Service Division responsible for the Shotput test setups, 
received a call from Schjeldahl, the manufacturer of the Echo balloons. The 
company's technicians were having a terrible time: not only were they unable 
to fit the balloon into its canister, they couldn't even squeeze it into a small 

Kilgore mulled over the problem all day and part of the night, but it 
wasn't until the next morning that he happened upon a possible solution. 
"It was raining," he recalls, "and as I started to leave for work, my wife 
Ann arrived at the door to go out as I did. She had her plastic rain hat 
in her hand. It was folded in a long narrow strip and unfolded to a perfect 
hemisphere to fit the head." Recognizing the importance of his accidental 
discovery, Kilgore told his wife that she "would have to use an umbrella or 
get wet because I needed that rain hat." 67 


Spaceflight Revolution 

At Langley, Kilgore gave the hat to Austin McHatton, a talented 
technician in the East Model Shop, who had full-size models of its fold 
patterns constructed. Kilgore remembers that a "remarkable improvement 
in folding resulted." The Project Echo Task Group got workmen to 
construct a makeshift "clean" room from two-by-four wood frames covered 
with plastic sheeting. In this room, which was 150 feet long and located 
in the large airplane hangar in the West Area, a small group of Langley 
technicians practiced folding the balloons for hundreds of hours until they 
discovered just the right sequence of steps by which to neatly fold and pack 
the balloon. For the big Echo balloons, this method was proof-tested in the 
Langley 60-foot vacuum tank as well as in the Shotput flights. 68 

Whether the packed balloon would have deployed properly on 13 May 
1961, no one will ever know because once again the launch vehicle failed. The 
second stage of the Delta refused to fire, and the whole rocket dropped into 
the Atlantic. The vehicle's manufacturer, Douglas, blamed a malfunctioning 
accelerometer. 69 

By this point, the program had experienced a total of seven failures 
including those of the two small pre-Echo test satelloons. For a test 
conducted on 31 May, the team returned to using the Shotput launcher. 
With tracking beacons aboard, the balloon deployed successfully, which 
helped the NASA engineers rally from their recent setback. 

Still, critics continued to doubt the overall Echo concept. Some swore 
that even if the satelloon ever got up into space and inflated properly, 
micrometeorites would puncture its skin, thus destroying the balloon within 
hours. Not so, the Langley engineers countered. The idea was to pressurize 
the balloon just enough to overstress the material slightly, thus causing it 
to take on a permanent set. Even after its internal pressure had dwindled 
to nothing, the balloon would retain its shape. Because the outer skin was 
not extremely rigid it was in engineering slang "dead-soft" it could be 
punctured by a small meteorite and still not shatter. Finally, a study by 
Bressette showed that micrometeorites would erode less than one-millionth 
of the surface area a day. If only a launching and deployment would go right, 
the satelloon 's sublimating solid-pressurization system would work long 
enough to enable engineers to conduct their communications experiment. 

The next time around, the launch finally did go right. At 5:39 a.m. 
on 12 August 1960, Thor-Delta No. 2 blasted into the sky from launchpad 
17 at Cape Canaveral, taking its balloon into orbit. A few minutes later, 
the balloon inflated perfectly. At 7:41 a.m., still on its first orbit, Echo 1 
relayed its first message, reflecting a radio signal shot aloft from California 
to Bell Labs in New Jersey. "This is President Eisenhower speaking," the 
voice from space said. "This is one more significant step in the United 
States' program of space research and exploration being carried forward 
for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these 
words, may be used freely by any nation for similar . experiments in its 
own interest." 71 After the presidential message, NASA used the balloon to 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

transmit two-way telephone conversations between the east and west coasts. 
Then a signal was transmitted from the United States to France and another 
was sent in the opposite direction. During the first two weeks, the strength 
of the signal bounced off Echo 1 remained within one decibel of Langley's 
theoretical calculations. 

The newspapers sounded the trumpets of success: "U.S. Takes Big Jump 
in Space Race"; "U.S. Orbits World's First Communications Satellite: Could 
Lead to New Marvels of Radio and TV Projection" ; "Bright Satellite Shines 
Tonight." So eager was the American public to get a glimpse of the balloon 
that NASA released daily schedules telling when and where the sphere could 
be seen overhead. 72 

For the engineers from Langley who were lucky enough to be at Cape 
Canaveral for the launch, this was a heady time. Norm Crabill remembers 
hearing the report that "Australia's got the beacon," meaning that the 
tracking station on that far-off continent had picked up the satellite's beacon 
signal. To this day, Crabill "gets goose bumps just thinking about that 
moment." He remembers thinking, "Anything's possible!" 73 After all, the 
space age had arrived, and in a sense, anything was. 


Out of the seven failures, including the scintillating bits of Shotput 1, 
NASA built a successful communications satellite program, which entranced 
the public. After a fully operational Echo balloon was launched into orbit 
on 12 August 1960, the big silver satelloon continued to orbit for eight 
years, not falling back to earth until May 1968. For that entire period, the 
satelloon served as a significant propaganda weapon for the United States. 
It was a popular symbol of the peaceful and practical uses of space research, 
especially in the early 1960s when the country still seemed so far behind the 

During its long sojourn in space, Echo 1 proved to be an exceptionally 
useful tool. First and foremost, by enabling numerous radio transmissions 
to be made between distant ground stations, it demonstrated the feasibility 
of a global communications system based on satellites. The rapid and 
successful development of worldwide communications in the 1960s depended 
upon this demonstration. Echo 1 also proved wrong the experts who 
said that the satelloon, after losing internal pressure because of meteoroid 
punctures, would collapse from external pressure. Echo actually retained its 
sphericity far longer than expected, the external pressures (including solar 
radiation) doing more to change the orbit of the satelloon than to collapse 
it. 74 In addition, NASA researchers studied the long-term durability of the 
unique metallized plastic of the Echo balloons (an Echo 2 was launched 
in 1964) in order to evaluate similar materials proposed for components 
of other spacecraft, including early versions of a manned space station. 


Space/light Revolution 

Finally, Echo permitted scientists to demonstrate a triangulation technique 
for determining the distance between various points on the earth's surface, 
thus improving mapping precision. The satelloon also served as a test target 
for the alignment and calibration of a number of new radars. 

However, the Echo satelloon demonstrated some critical limitations. As 
it turned out, the balloon's shape was a poor passive reflector. When hit 
with a plane wave (a wave in which the wave fronts lay in a fixed line 
parallel to the direction of the propagation) , the sphere tended to propagate 
the wave outward and reflect it as a divergent wave. Echo did an adequate 
job reflecting radio signals transmitted from the ground, but it did a poor 
job of focusing them. As a result, everybody received some of the reflected 
signal, but nobody received very much of it. 

Thus, the Echo balloon served primarily as a demonstration model, 
showing how a simple passive comsat might work. For actual operations, a 
better concept, which NASA and the companies involved in the development 
of commercially viable satellites were already working on, was satellites that 
could communicate with active electronics. Because the force or intensity 
of a radio wave is weakened or attenuated by the square of the distance it 
must travel through space, an active communications system has a distinct 
advantage over the passive system: the active system receives the signal at 
one frequency and retransmits it at another. In effect, the signal travels 
the earth-to-satellite distance only once; the signal in a passive system must 
travel the distance twice, and thus is more seriously attenuated, as the fourth 
power of the distance. 75 

The demise of the passive satellite communication system and the 
emergence of the active communication system, however, also need to be 
explained in the context of broader economic, political, and institutional 
realities. In the beginning, satellite communications research was funded by 
the U.S. government because the military required worldwide instantaneous 
communications for national defense. The military was interested in the 
passive system because it could not be electronically jammed. On the other 
hand, the private telecommunications companies were not yet interested 
in a satellite communications system, partly because they were investing 
heavily in ground relay stations and under-the-ocean cable systems and 
partly because their engineers strongly suspected that radio signals passing 
through the earth's ionosphere would be seriously weakened in intensity. 

In an ironic twist of fate, given the history that was to follow, the Echo 
balloon actually changed this thinking about the potential of a communica- 
tions system in space. When Echo 1 demonstrated that the ionosphere was 
not going to be a problem in satellite communications, the private sector 
jumped on the bandwagon and demanded their own geosynchronous satellite 
system, but the private sector wanted an active rather than a passive system. 
Many of the companies involved had the technical knowledge to develop an 
active system, but this was not the sole reason for their interest; money was 
another factor. Individual companies could charge for sending a message 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

through the system since they would own the frequency channels located 
in the particular satellites. As Bressette comments, "The active communi- 
cations people used the capitalistic approach for the success of a project: 
'Does it make money?' On the other hand, the few people [like Bressette] 
who were promoting the passive system were thinking more democratically. 
Just think how inexpensive satellite communications would be today, if it 
were possible to replace all the active communications satellites with just 
three nonmaintenance passive satellites." 76 

To overcome the problem of radio- wave attenuation from geosynchronous 
orbit, the Echo satelloon would need to be many times larger. Since the 
technology did not exist in the early 1960s to put such a large satelloon 
in orbit, even the military began to opt for the active system. Given the 
logistical difficulties and tremendous costs of flying high-altitude radio-relay 
stations over the oceans inside giant aircraft such as the B-52, the DOD 
was excited by the promise of a space-based geosynchronous system, which 
could move the high-altitude radar-relay flights into a backup position. 

For its part, NASA Langley did not easily give up on the passive 
system. Between 1963 and 1965, in conjunction with Goodyear Aerospace 
Corporation, a team of Langley researchers performed a study showing that 
as little as a 10 segment cut from a very large sphere in geosynchronous 
orbit would be satisfactory for passive communications between two remote 
stations on earth. 77 

William J. O'Sullivan's original concept for the inflatable satellite, which 
was to serve as an air-density experiment, was not forgotten. The long-term 
orbiting of the satelloon allowed scientists to measure accurately, for the 
first time, the density of the air in the far upper atmosphere. With the 
data came some important insights into the effects of solar pressure on the 
motion of satellites, information that was helpful in predicting the behavior 
and lifetime of future satellites. Several versions of the basic experiment 
were carried out at a high altitude over both low and high latitudes of the 
earth's surface as part of four Explorer missions: Explorer 9 in February 
1961, Explorer 19 in December 1963, Explorer 24 in November 1964, and 
Explorer 39 in August 1968. NASA launched these satellites at regular 
intervals to provide continual coverage of density variation throughout a 
solar cycle. With the findings from these worthwhile missions, scientists 
were able to improve their measurements of atmospheric density, better 
understand variations in density caused by variations in the solar cycle, and 
study the MPD- related phenomena of geomagnetically trapped particles and 
their down-flux into the atmosphere. 

O'Sullivan's 1956 concept led to not just a single experiment but an entire 
program of inflatable satellites, all of which involved Langley in some central 
way. This program included, in addition to the Echo satelloons and the air- 
density Explorers, a Langley-managed passive geodetic satellite known as 
"Pageos" (Passive Geodetic Earth-Orbiting Satellite). A Thor-Agena lifting 
off from the Pacific Missile Range in June 1966 took Pageos 1, which was 


Space/light Revolution 


This satellite, Explorer 24, was a 12- foot- diameter inflatable sphere developed 
by an engineering team at Langley. It provided information on complex solar 
radiation/ air- density relationships in the upper atmosphere. 

very similar to Echo 1, into a near polar orbit some 200 nautical miles above 
the earth. This orbit was required by the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey 
to use the triangulation technique developed from Echo 1 for determining 
the location of 38 points around the world. More than five years and the 
work of 12 mobile tracking stations, which waited for favorable weather 
conditions during a few minutes of twilight each evening, were required to 
complete the project. Finally, the geodetic experts were able to fix the 38 
points into a grid system helpful in determining the precise location of the 
continents relative to each other. Some of this information, that which was 
not classified as secret, enabled the U.S. scientific community to determine 
geometrically the shape and the size of the earth. This, in turn, was useful to 
scientists studying the theory of continental drift. Data that the U.S. Army 
Map Service classified as secret proved helpful to U.S. military planners 
concerned with the accuracy of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, 
although initially conceived to tell us about the upper atmosphere, NASA's 
inflatable satellite program told us perhaps even more about the military 
buildup here on earth. 9 

O'Sullivan became one of NASA's most highly publicized scientists. In 
December 1960, the U.S. Post Office Department issued a commemorative 
4-cent stamp in honor of his beloved Echo balloon. For his concept of the 
inflatable space vehicle, NASA would award him one of its distinguished 
service medals, in addition to $5000 cash. In 1962, O'Sullivan would appear 
as a guest on the popular TV game show "What's My Line?"; all four of 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

Hanging from the ceiling of the 
Weeksville blimp hangar like a 
shiny Christmas tree ornament, 
Langley 's Pageos satelloon was vir- 
tually identical to Echo 1. 


the celebrity panelists correctly picked him from the lineup as the father of 
the Echo satelloons. 

As is nearly always the case in the history of a large-scale technological 
development, however, many other individuals, mostly overlooked, deserved 
a significant share of the credit. Jesse Mitchell was one of those individ- 
uals. In late 1959, Mitchell, who had been responsible for the program 
development plan for Echo 1, left Langley for a special assignment on an 
important space advisory committee chaired by Dr. James Killian, Presi- 
dent Eisenhower's special assistant for science and technology. After this 
assignment, Mitchell became the head of the Geophysics and Astronomy 
Division at NASA headquarters. In following years, his office funded the 
last three air-density satellites and the Langley-managed Pageos geodetic 
survey satellites. 

The Hegemony of Active Voice 

Project Echo continued for several more years. In 1962, Langley en- 
gineers staged "Big Shot" two space deployment tests of the Echo 2 


Spaceflight Revolution 

balloon.* The first test was a disaster, with the balloon tearing apart 
because of a structural load problem. The second test was a success. Echo 2 
was launched into orbit in 1964, serving, like its predecessor, as a passive 
communications relay. By the mid-1960s, however, the active satellite had 
proved itself the better method for communications in space. In July 1962, a 
little more than two years after the launch of Echo 1 and some 20 years after 
the publication of Arthur C. Clarke's speculative essay on the potential of 
"extraterrestrial relays," NASA had launched its first active communications 
satellite, Telstar 1. This experimental "comsat," which belonged to AT&T, 
sent the first direct television signals ever between two continents (North 
America and Europe). In December 1962, while Langley and Goddard 
were still quarreling over what to do with Echo 2, NASA's own Relay 1 
satellite went into action. Within days, Relay 1, which was developed at 
NASA Goddard, was transmitting civilian television broadcasts between 
the United States and Europe. When TV viewers saw astronaut L. Gordon 
Cooper being recovered from his capsule on 16 May 1963 at the end of the 
last Mercury mission, they were seeing a signal from Relay I. 80 

The age of the active comsat had arrived, and with it came a revolution 
in telecommunications that would have an enormous impact worldwide. On 
25 February 1963, NASA announced that it was canceling its plans for 
any advanced passive communications satellites beyond Echo 2 and cutting 
off funding for several feasibility study contracts aimed at determining the 
best shape, structure, and materials of future communications balloons in 
space. In light of the formation of the national Communications Satellite 
Corporation (ComSatCorp), the space agency instead would focus its efforts 
on the development of synchronous-orbit active satellites. 81 

The next American active comsat, Telstar 2, went into space in May 

1963, which was still before the launch of Echo 2. Telstar 2 sent the first 
color television pictures across the Atlantic Ocean. On 22 November 1963, 
NASA's Relay 1 was scheduled to transmit color television pictures across 
the Pacific. An audience in Japan waited to see a ceremonial meeting 
between NASA Administrator James E. Webb and the Japanese ambassador 
in Washington. The audience in Tokyo was also supposed to receive a taped 
greeting from President Kennedy; instead, Relay 1 transmitted the shocking 
news of his assassination. Thanks to Relay 2, which was launched in January 

1964, TV viewers were able to witness Pope Paul VFs visit later that year 

The management of Big Shot and Echo 2 proved more quarrelsome than Shotput and Echo 1. 
Langley and Goddard personnel disagreed strongly about many engineering details and fought over 
budgetary and procurement matters. The Langley engineers were angry that Goddard officials were 
in charge of Echo when Langley was doing the basic planning leading to launch. Goddard's satellite 
experts, on the other hand, were already involved in the development of active electronic comsats and 
were not much interested in improving the performance of passive reflectors. Thus, the tug-of-war 
between Langley and Goddard was more than a turf battle; it was a technical, debate between advocates 
of passive and active satellites. 


The Odyssey of Project Echo 

to the Middle East as well as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's tour of 
Poland. Thanks to another NASA-sponsored communications satellite, the 
Hughes Aircraft-developed Syncom 3, Americans enjoyed live TV coverage 
of the Olympic games taking place on the other side of the world in Tokyo. 2 

In 1964, 10 nations (plus the Vatican) formed the International Telecom- 
munications Satellite Consortium, or Intelsat. In the next 12 years, Intelsat 
built something close to the integrated system of global communications 
that Arthur Clarke had suggested. By the late 1960s, Intelsat's member- 
ship included 80 countries. Individual nations owned and operated their 
own ground stations and reaped dividends in proportion to their investment 
shares, while a large, new American joint-stock company, ComSatCorp, 
whose operations were private but heavily subsidized by the U.S. govern- 
ment, managed the financial and operations end of the satellite communica- 
tions system. (NASA simply launched the satellites and was reimbursed for 
its costs.) By the early 1970s, Intelsat's sophisticated network was enabling 
rapid long-distance telephoning and distribution of TV programs as never 
before. One NASA historian has written, "Before these satellites existed, 
the total capability for transoceanic telephone calls had been 500 circuits; 
in 1973 the Intelsat satellites alone offered more than 4000 transoceanic cir- 
cuits. Real-time TV coverage of events anywhere in the world whether 
Olympics, wars, or coronations had become commonplace in the world's 
living rooms." 83 

Arthur Clarke's prophecy of "global TV" and "citizens of the world" had 
arrived. By the 1980s, satellite television had grown so popular, especially 
in rural and mountainous areas where standard TV reception was poor or 
cable TV business did not reach, that hundreds of thousands of people in 
the United States and around the world were installing their own personal 
satellite dishes in their backyards, thereby receiving into their homes directly 
from space a seemingly boundless number of channels and programs, only 
a small fraction of which they would have had access to through their local 
ultra-high frequency (UHF), VHF, or even cable stations. By the early 
1990s, many people and governments around the world were relying for 
their news not on local or even national stations, but on Ted Turner's Cable 
News Network (CNN) via satellite from Atlanta. 

In just a few decades, Arthur Clarke's idea for a global communications 
system (for which the British radio journal paid him the equivalent of a 
measly $40) exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry, leading Clarke to 
pen a facetious little article, "A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I 
Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time." 84 None of this, not even Clarke's 
humorous lament, would have been possible with just the passive reflectors. 

Others besides Clarke also came to recognize the missed opportunities. In 
1962 and 1963, when members of the Project Echo Task Group first learned 
in detail about the capabilities of the inaugural active comsats Telstar and 
Relay, they were a little disappointed that they had spent so much time on 
the passive reflector. "I remember thinking, damn, we worked on the wrong 


Space/light Revolution 

one!" recalls Norman Crabill. "Except I really didn't because I had learned 
a lot. Whether it was active or passive, I had a job to do." 85 In the late 
1950s and early 1960s, before the advent of the silicon chip, which completely 
altered the scale of electronic devices and made possible the miniaturized 
amplifiers required for actively transmitting satellites, the passive reflector 
seemed to be the only "do-able" technology. Because of their work on 
passive satellite technology, Crabill and many other Langley researchers had 
prepared themselves well for the management of more significant unmanned 
spaceflight and satellite programs, such as Lunar Orbiter and the Viking 
landing on Mars. 


Learning Through Failure: 

The Early Rush of the Scout 

Rocket Program 

Failure analysis is basically research, when you get 
down to it. You recover and learn from mistakes; 
you don't do that with success. 

Eugene Schult, head of guidance 
and control work for the Scout Project 
at NASA Langley 

Nothing demonstrates the pitfalls of rushing into space more dramatically 
than the early history of the Scout rocket program. This relatively small, 
four-stage solid-fuel rocket was conceived in 1956 by NACA engineers in 
Langley's PARD as a simple but effective way of boosting light payloads 
into orbit. Scout eventually proved to be one of the most economical, 
dependable, and versatile launch vehicles ever flown not just by NASA 
but by anyone, anywhere. The program did not begin, however, with an 
impressive performance; it began with four years of confidence-crushing 
failures. To make Scout a success, researchers had to climb a long and 
torturous learning curve, which resembled, at least to those involved, the 
infernal hill up which Sisyphus eternally pushed his uncooperative rock. 

"Itchy" for Orbit 

Max Faget, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., Robert O. Piland, and William 
E. Stoney, Jr., formed the core of a notoriously freethinking group within 
Langley's PARD. Early in 1956, a year -and a half before Sputnik 1, this 
group began playing with the idea of developing a multistage hypersonic 


Spaceflight Revolution 

rocket. 1 These engineers had been launching dozens of rockets each year 
from the lonely beach at Wallops Island. To them, the idea of building one 
powerful enough to reach orbit did not seem at all farfetched. 2 

Moreover, the organizers of the IGY in 1955 had asked expressly for 
someone to put up the first artificial satellite as the highlight of the upcoming 
celebration. In response, the governments of the United States and the 
Soviet Union, respectively, on two consecutive days, 29 and 30 July 1955, 
had announced their rival intentions to launch satellites. Each country, given 
its burgeoning ballistic missile program, expressed confidence that it, and 
not the other, would be the first to put an object in space. A few months 
later, in the fall of 1955, the Eisenhower administration made the ultimately 
history-turning (and in the opinion of some critics, disastrous) decision to 
endorse the navy's Vanguard proposal and Viking booster as the way to 
launch America's first satellite. Viking's competitor, the army's Jupiter C 
rocket, the darling of von Braun and associates in Alabama, had to wait in 
the wings, ready to perform when the Vanguard program flopped. 3 

But von Braun's rocket experts were not the only ones "itchy" for or- 
bit. The PARD group felt that the boosting of a small, lightweight pay load 
into orbit would require only an extension of the hypersonic solid-fuel rocket 
technologies that they had been developing at Wallops Island and Langley 
since the early 1950s. "Solid-fueled rockets have always had the advantage 
over liquid- fueled as far as simplicity, cost, and possibly reliability," remem- 
bers PARD engineer and later Scout Project team member Roland D. "Bud" 
English. The PARD group's idea was to employ solid propulsion and use 
as many existing solid-fuel rockets for the various stages of the proposed 
launch vehicle as possible. "It was the logical extension of the work going 
on in PARD on solid rockets," says English. "It was a natural progression 
from Mach 15 [ballistic velocity] to the audacity to think in terms of orbit," 
agrees his colleague James R. Hall. 4 

In the mid-1950s, large solid- fuel rocket motors such as the Cherokee and 
the Jupiter Senior the latter being the largest solid-fuel rocket motor up to 
that time were undergoing rapid development to meet the need to power 
the U.S. military's growing fleet of ballistic missiles. The PARD engineers 
were convinced that by combining a few of these new motors intelligently 
into a three- or four-stage booster configuration, the NAG A in a relatively 
short period could develop a launch vehicle that would have enough power to 
shoot past ballistic velocity and fly into orbit. This would require a speed 
of at least Mach 18. The Honest John rocket, a five-stage vehicle under 
development for the army, had achieved speeds of Mach 15 in flight tests at 
Wallops in the summer of 1956, and the Sergeant, a five-stage rocket also 
under development, was supposed to be capable of Mach 18. Other rocket- 
stage motors were under way for the navy's Polaris and Vanguard project 
missiles. From this promising menu, PARD engineers believed they could 
assemble a stack of rocketry that could achieve orbit. 5 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

The only problems were that this stack would amount to "the most 
expensive vehicle ever developed by PARD" and "no funds were immediately 
available." 6 Furthermore, as the rocket was to serve as a satellite launch 
vehicle, it directly competed not only with the navy's presidentially anointed 
Vanguard and the army's overlooked Jupiter C, but also with the air 
force's Thor-Able, which was rapidly nearing completion. These long-range 
military rockets, all of them liquid rather than solid-fuel, made the case 
for the little Scout harder to advocate. The modest PARD proposal for a 
simpler, cheaper, and potentially more reliable bantam rocket simply could 
not compete with such heavyweights. 

Then came Sputnik, complicating this contest among American rocket 
initiatives. Engineer William Stoney, perhaps the earliest champion of what 
became the Scout Project, remembers feelings within PARD about Sputnik, 
"We were disappointed we weren't the first but in another sense it reassured 
us that we were really on the right track that, boy, we really could get 
supported from now on, because this was important that the U.S. continue 
to try to catch up, and we were part of that game." Sputnik made the 
PARD rocketeers think "at a whole new level of exploration that heretofore 
was beyond consideration." 7 

In the hectic and uncertain months following Sputnik, PARD tried 
to push a formal proposal for its rocket development through Langley 
management for consideration by NACA headquarters. In January 1958, 
however, Ira H. Abbott, one of the NACA's assistant directors for research in 
Washington who had excellent connections to Langley, informed PARD that 
"NACA Headquarters would not be receptive to a proposal for development 
of another satellite vehicle." 8 However, the political environment for such 
proposals was in a state of flux in early 1958, and Langley engineers knew 
it; therefore, they kept design studies for their rocket going even after such 
an emphatic refusal. 

In late March 1958, another Langley veteran, John W. "Gus" Crowley, 
associate director for research at NACA headquarters, revived hopes for the 
rocket when he asked Langley to prepare a "Space Technology Program" for 
the prospective new space agency. In its report, submitted on 15 May, the 
Langley senior staff, "without any opposition," included the PARD concept 
"as a requirement of the program for the investigation of manned space 
flight and reentry problems." The report stated that, for $4 million, Langley 
could develop a booster that launched "small-scale recoverable orbiters" into 
space, and could do it in a matter of months. 9 

Even before the report circulated, on 6 May, Langley requested a research 
authorization to cover "the investigation of a four-stage solid-fuel satellite 
system capable of launching a 150-pound satellite in a 500-mile orbit." 
Formal approval, which took just a few weeks, meant that PARD's vehicle 
had officially made it into the space program. 10 The air force's interest 
in an advanced solid-fuel rocket test vehicle, with mutually acceptable 
specifications for a joint system negotiated in July, further secured Scout's 


Space/light Revolution 

position. Such a deal eventually complicated the Scout Project greatly, 
however, because Langley had to take on the added burden of handling many 
of the contractual details for the coordinated NASA/DOD project. The 
DOD objective was to obtain a fleet of solid-fuel boosters for support of the 
air force's wide range of space research projects, which at that time included 
Dyna-Soar support, anti-ICBM research, and nuclear weapons. The last of 
these was to lead to the development of the so-called "Blue Scout" rocket. 11 

After Scout won further approval, engineering analysis of the rocket 
system indicated that the proposed third-stage motor (an ABL X248) had 
to be replaced with a larger motor of the same type. This was a problem 
that could have killed an earlier proposal but now bothered no one. As 
one PARD veteran remembers, "The overall space plans for NASA were so 
grandiose when compared with NACA operations" that such changes, and 
such costs, were now relatively minor items. 12 

Little Big Man 

Sometime during 1958, PARD's William Stoney, soon to be assigned 
overall responsibility for development of the new rocket, named it "Scout." 
Given engineers' propensity for acronyms, some believed Scout stood for 
"Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test System"; however, Stoney insists to- 
day that the various acronyms that have appeared attached to the name 
"Scout" (even in official publications) have all been "after-the-fact addi- 
tions." According to him, Scout was named in the spirit of the contemporary 
Explorer series of satellites with which the rocket would often be paired. He 
and his colleagues gave no thought at the time to deriving its name from a 
functional acronym. 13 

As for the technical definition of the rocket, as suggested earlier, the 
Langley engineers tried to keep developmental costs and time to a minimum 
by selecting components from off-the-shelf hardware. The majority of 
Scout's components were to come from an inventory of solid- fuel rockets 
produced for the military, although everyone involved understood that some 
improved motors would also have to be developed under contract.* By early 
1959, after intensive technical analysis and reviews, Langley settled on a 
design and finalized the selection of the major contractors. The rocket's 
40-inch-diameter first stage was to be a new "Algol" motor, a combination 
of the Jupiter Senior and the navy Polaris produced by the Aerojet General 
Corporation, Sacramento, California. The 31-inch-diameter second stage, 

The only new technology required for Scout was its hydrogen peroxide reaction-jet control system, 
developed by contractor Walter Kidde and Company, which enabled controlled flight outside the 
atmosphere. Later versions of this technology would be used for various purposes in space programs, 
including the spatial orientation and stabilization of "Early Bird," ComSatCorp's first experimental 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

In this photo from October 
1960, Scout Test-2 (ST-2) 
stands ready for launch at 
Wallops Island. 


"Castor," was derived from the army's Sergeant and was to be manufactured 
by the Redstone Division of the Thiokol Company in Huntsville, Alabama. 
The motor for the 30-inch-diameter third stage, "Antares," evolved under 
NASA contract from the ABL X248 design into a new version called the 
X254 (and subsequently into the X259); it was built under contract to 
NASA by ABL, a U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance facility operated by the 
Hercules Powder Company, Cumberland, Maryland. The final upper-stage 
propulsion unit, "Altair," which was 25.7 inches in diameter (34 inches at the 
heat shield), amounted to an improved edition of the X248 that was also 
manufactured by ABL. Joining these four stages were transition sections 
containing ignition, guidance and attitude controls, spin-up motors, and 
separation systems. 

Upon assembly of the vehicle, which was to be done by Chance Vought 
of Dallas, the rocket's airframe and control-system contractor, the original 
Scout stood only 72 feet high from the base of its fins to the tip of its nose 
cone and weighed, at first-stage ignition, a mere 37,000 pounds. The thrust 
of the four stages added together totaled just over 200,000 pounds, which was 
easily enough to carry the proposed 150-pound payload into space, although 
at a 300-mile rather than a 500- mile orbit. (Later versions of Scout would 


Spaceflight Revolution 

eventually fly missions with 300-pound and even 450-pound pay loads, using 
an optional fifth stage.) 14 

For such a comparatively small rocket, Scout turned into something quite 
significant the first large NASA project that Langley ran in-house. The 
only previous in-house project to match Scout was the Bell X-l supersonic 
research airplane of a decade earlier. The X-l, however, was a joint effort 
with the air force and was physically remote from Langley at faraway Muroc 
Dry Lake in California. The plane never got to Langley Field, although 
NACA Langley was primarily responsible for its development. 15 The Scout 
project, on the other hand, was conceived, designed, and for the most part, 
built at Langley. Components were brought to nearby Wallops for launch 
and flight testing, thus making a "very tight Langley loop." 16 

A formal "Scout Project Group" was not organized at Langley until 
February 1960 after a recommendation was made by a NASA headquar- 
ters review committee chaired by NASA Lewis Research Center's Bruce 
Lundin. 17 Until that time, all the work on the rocket had been overseen 
first by regular PARD management and later, after the creation of the STG 
in 1958, by Bob Gilruth and his staff. Gilruth already had his hands full 
with Project Mercury, but he reluctantly took over the responsibility for 
a short period because Abe Silverstein, whose Office of Space Flight De- 
velopment initially funded Scout, insisted on it.* Given Gilruth's intimate 
knowledge of PARD and its personnel, he trusted the Scout engineers to 
manage themselves. So did Langley Associate Director Floyd Thompson, 
who gave Scout personnel "remarkable freedom" to operate almost indepen- 
dently. "[Our work] was of course part of the race to catch the Russians," 
James Hall has stated. "But more important it was to prove something to 
ourselves. People worked hard and were selfless about helping each other." 
They were mostly young men "trying to do something that had never been 
done before." 1 Such naive enthusiasts neither cared for nor would have 
benefited from top-heavy management. 

The project office started small with nine personnel: Project Office 
Head Bill Stoney, Technical Assistant Bud English, Administrative Assis- 
tant Abraham Leiss, three project engineers (C. T. Brown, Jr., Eugene D. 
Schult, and William M. Moore), Field Director James Hall, Project Co- 
ordinator Elmer J. Wolfe, Secretary Edith R. Horrocks, plus two resident 
representatives from industry. Each division of the laboratory also made 
one employee responsible for coordinating support for Scout whenever it 
was required. 19 

This skeletal crew and associated shadow organization began to race 
against the calendar to build and launch Scout. The project team grew 
in size rather quickly, so by 1962 more than 200 Langley staff members 


With the establishment of the Scout Project Group in February 1960, the Scout team began to 
report instead to Donald R. Ostrander, director of the new Office of Launch Vehicle Programs at NASA 
headquarters, which was established on 29 December 1959 and had responsibility for all launch vehicles. 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

James Hall, Langley's original field director 
for the Scout Project Group. 

were working almost exclusively on Scout, which even project leaders had 
to concede was "a very large segment of people to work on anything 
at Langley." 20 At Wallops, Scout work dominated, taking over several 
assembly shops and other buildings. The core staff in the project office 
stayed relatively small, however, reaching its peak of 55 employees in 1965 
and then dropping back to 34 by the time of Scout flight number 75 in 1971. 
The involvement of contractors was essential. Especially helpful were 
the people from Chance Vought soon to be organized into the LTV Missile 
Group of the Chance Vought Corporation who had won the bid to develop 
the Scout airframe and launching capability. 21 The partnership between 
Langley and LTV grew into one of the most cooperative, fruitful, and long- 
lasting (30 years) in NASA history. As James Hall remembers so fondly, 
from almost the beginning, the Scout Project Office made "no distinction 
between government people and contractors. We were all on the same team 
and did what we had to do regardless of the color of our badges." The 
feeling was mutual. According to Ken Jacobs, who worked many years on 
Scout for LTV, "We were very much more liable to work together than we 
were to work apart. If your counterpart in the government had a problem or 
a question, he would contact you on the telephone and [we would] be able to 
come up with a mutual agreement or solution. The end result was that the 
program would be much better off for experiencing this degree of cooperation 
between the two individuals who had the task." Milt Green, another LTV 
employee, remarks, "We all had one common goal." The teamwork resulted 
from "a mutual respect for each other. It wasn't an adversarial relation with 
a lot of gnarling of hands. [It was] strictly a job that had to be done, and 
done in the most reliable manner." 22 


Space/light Revolution 


In this picture from June 1967, 32 LTV employees pose in front of the Scout S-159C, 
which a few months later on 19 October 1967 would successfully carry the RAM C-l 
experiment into orbit. 

This deeply felt sense of mutual reliance and cooperation, at least on 
Langley's part, related to the deeply ingrained, 40-year-old NACA culture. 
If Langley's work included Scout, and Scout needed LTV to succeed, then 
Langley needed LTV and would consider it a member of the family; that 
was the formula. The LTV staff appreciated it. "It was just a close-knit, 
dedicated group," remembers Larry Tant, a Scout operations manager for 
Langley. "We had a lot of pride in what we were doing. We were like 
brothers." "There was something about the program," declares Jon Van 
Cleve, an early Scout team member from Langley. "You worked in it for a 
little while and really got involved in it. When that happened, you lost the 
lines of whether you were agency, LTV, or air force. You became a Scout 
person." 23 

These warm testimonials, which came years after Scout had amassed 
its remarkable record, were mostly made in the early 1990s when NASA 
honored members of the Scout team in official ceremonies. Both government 
and industry Scout staff reminisced about Scout's record, which no other 
booster, large or small, foreign or American, had surpassed. Langley's Scout 
Project Group enjoyed incredible strings of 22 and 37 consecutive launches 
without failure during two long periods, the first lasting from July 1964 
until January 1967 and the second from September 1967 until December 
1975. In 1991, when NASA Langley reluctantly turned over the direction 
of the Scout Project to NASA Goddard and the commercial production of 
the vehicle to LTV, the scorecard of 113 launches showed an overall success 
rate of an astounding 96 percent. 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

The retrospective comments about the great teamwork on the Scout 
Project need to be understood within the context of that final glorious 
record. The feelings between government and contractor could not have 
been so positive in the early years of the Scout program, when one rocket 
after another self-destructed or otherwise failed. In the Scout program, 
such can-do, throw-your-arm-around-your-buddy camaraderie developed 
only gradually and was tested severely by frequent early experiences with 
misfortune. These are trials that Scout team members understandably 
prefer to forget. 

Little Foul-Ups 

On 18 April 1960, only 14 months after the creation of the Langley Scout 
Project Office, the first experimental Scout sat ready to be fired from a new 
launch tower at Wallops Island. For weeks NASA headquarters had been 
demanding that "some type of flight test be made in the Scout program 
as soon as possible." 24 The only way for Langley and its contractors to 
meet this demand was to work hours of overtime. James Hall recollects the 
days before this and other early Scout launches: "It was schedule-driven. 
People worked very hard and long hours. This was such a dynamic program, 
people felt compelled to work however long it took. The closer to launch, 
the more demanding the schedule became. At the launch site, people would 
often go without sleep to make up time or make something work or correct 
a problem. People were consumed by the program's schedule." 25 

On 7 March, after deflecting the demands of NASA headquarters for as 
long as he could, Langley Director Floyd Thompson gave in and conceded 
that an unguided Scout, one greatly reduced in scope from later Scouts, 
could be fired under the direction of Langley's Applied Materials and 
Physics Division (the old PARD) to obtain "some information on the overall 
configuration," but preparations would take a month. The second stage of 
the rocket would have to be a weighted dummy, one of several supplied by 
the contractors for fitting transition sections during construction and for 
checking "overall alignment and general suitability including freedom from 
interference with components supplied by other contractors." Thompson, 
reflecting the concerns of his Scout Project team, wanted it to be known 
that this was "not an official Scout test." It was an "expedited launch," a 
"Cub Scout," meant only to obtain engineering data on the vehicle. 26 

Several problems occurred during this hurried, "unofficial" test flight of 
Cub Scout. The rocket rolled more than anticipated during ascent, thus 
causing a structural failure near the burnout of the first stage. This failure 
prevented the third stage (atop the second-stage dummy motor) from test- 
firing. In addition, the heat-shield design proved defective by breaking away 
from the fourth stage as the vehicle passed through the transonic region. 
This was not the start everyone had hoped for. Scout Project personnel 


Space/light Revolution 


Spectators mainly the families of NASA employees usually filled the makeshift 
grandstand at Wallops Island to witness the launch of NASA 's small unmanned 

tried to put on a happy face, remarking that the test provided valuable 
experience assembling the rocket's components on the new launcher and 
actually firing from it. No one, however, was fooled. The launch had been 
important to the test program and was meant to develop confidence in the 
systems. As one Langley engineer at the launch later recorded, "The failure 
was a blow to the prestige of the project, and efforts to complete the first 
actual Scout were redoubled." 27 

With these efforts, the first launch of a full-fledged Scout ST-1 was 
to take place on 1 July 1960, less than three months after Cub Scout's little 
foul-up. The anticipation level was extremely high. By the time of Scout 
Test-1, Langley had been firing rockets at Wallops for 16 years, since 1944. 
To Langley engineers launching rockets might have been "old hat," but 
this launch was different. "Everybody was excited," James Hall remembers 
with a gleam in his eye. "The concept of launching an orbital vehicle was 
a new and a really exciting challenge. That launch was the culmination 
of two years of intensive work. We had a number of practice countdowns 
and dry runs. We got our timing down and got things all set up. In fact, 
we were almost wearing that thing out testing it. That's what you're up 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

The first Scout was launched on the 
evening of 1 July 1960. 

against in space. But you reach a point where you have to come down to 
the countdown." 28 

The countdown lasted 11 hours. As it progressed, the Scout launch 
team gradually moved away from the vehicle. During the last hour or so, 
the rocketeers moved into a little cinder block building with three racks of 
switches, controls, and displays. By later launch system standards, it was 
simple, crude technology, but it was enough to light the fuse. Compared 
with ICBMs, Scout was tiny, but compared with all the previous rockets 
launched at Wallops, it was quite large. When the first-stage Algol motor 
was lit up, with its approximately 100,000 pounds of thrust, an awesome 
energy was released. As Hall describes it, "The ground shakes and the fire 
and smoke appear. It's a very splendid thing." 29 It was similar to being 
close to the heart of an earthquake, with massive pressure waves bouncing 
off the chest. 

The rocket was to ascend into space and then use its last-stage Altair 
motor to fire a 193-pound acceleration and radiation package back through 
the atmosphere as a probe. But Scout did not reach a high enough altitude 
to fire the package. One of the new built-in features of the full-fledged Scout 
system was a destruct capability to be used if the rocket flew off course and 
endangered populated areas. Scout Test-1 would appear to do just that. 

At 136 seconds after launch, radar tracking on the ground showed that 
the rocket had gone off course. A rolling moment (i.e., an aerodynamic 


Space/light Revolution 

The cone-shaped cinder block building was the site of Scout 's launch control. 


Worried looks on the faces of the NASA men in the control room at Wallops bear 
witness to the vicissitudes of launching rockets into space. 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

tendency to rotate the body about its longitudinal axis) developed with the 
Antares motor, and then it just as quickly dissipated. However, the rolling 
caused a very slight disorient at ion of the radar tracking. As the postflight 
test analysis would later show, the shift of the radar that was indicated on 
the plotboard meant that "the vehicle had taken a violent turn in azimuth 
and a dip down in elevation." The rocket seemed to be about 50 degrees off 
course and heading somewhere it definitely was not supposed to go. This 
deviation forced the radar safety officer inside the blockhouse to take action. 
He actuated the "hold-fire" signal for the fourth stage, then, as James Hall, 
who was also in the blockhouse bitterly recalls, the range officer "waited 
as long as he could, looked over to us, and we had to concur. He hit the 
destruct button." 30 The radar tracking recovered quickly, thus showing that 
there really never had been a significant problem. 

"That was a crushing blow to destroy a rocket that was doing exactly 
what it was programmed to do," Hall laments 30 years later, "but which just 
indicated on a range safety plotboard that it was on an incorrect trajectory. 
You can't imagine how hard people worked as a group to bring this to the 
launch point." Inside the blockhouse the men kicked cans and cussed the 
unfortunate safety officer. "But after an hour," according to Hall, "most 
people recognized there was only one thing to do. That was to work 
and build the next vehicle, which we did in three or four months." The 
spaceflight revolution demanded nothing less. 31 

In fact, circumstances also demanded that the test be labeled a success 
even when everyone knew better. The many subsequent chronicles of the 
Scout program all classified ST-1 as a success. "The fourth stage never had 
a chance to perform," but "radiation measurements were successfully made 
to an altitude of 875 miles." 32 

"3-2-1 Splash" 

On 4 October 1960, ST-2 proved to be the first real success of the project. 
Also launched as a probe with a radiation pay load on board, the rocket 
reached a maximum altitude of 3500 miles and achieved a total range of 
5800 miles. The newspaper headlines underscored the elation surrounding 
this successful launch. In the Newport News Times Herald, a large typeface 
banner headline celebrated the feat. The headline on page 12 of section 
A of the Washington Post read: " 'Poor Man's Rocket' Fired Successfully." 
The Washington Star followed with a feature article, "Versatile Scout to 
Get Space Chores." During this period, Scout also received additional 
positive publicity for the air force's successful launch of two of its "Blue 
Scouts." 33 The Scout Project was, indeed, looking up. 

With this one successful but nonorbital mission behind them, the Scout 
leaders believed that testing was complete and that the missile was ready to 
start operations as one of NASA's launch vehicles. As such, it would be used 


Spaceflight Revolution 

for three types of missions: placing small satellites in orbit, making high- 
velocity reentry studies and testing heat-resistant materials, and launching 
high-altitude and space probes. The Scout rockets were scheduled to take off 
not only from Wallops but also, beginning in early 1962, from a Scout launch 
site being prepared at the Western Test Range located on Vandenberg AFB 
in California. NASA headquarters was so optimistic about Scout that it 
arranged for a full-scale 72-foot model of the rocket to be displayed at the 
15th annual meeting and "astronautical exposition" of the American Rocket 
Society in mid-December 1960. More than 5500 attendees viewed the model 
outside the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, B.C., and were impressed that 
it stood almost as high as the nine-story building. 

Such a celebration of Scout proved premature. The first orbital flight 
from Wallops on 4 December 1960 failed. Now the headlines read, "NASA 
Fizzles Orbit Attempt" (Virginian-Pilot, 5 Dec. 1960), "Scout Sinks After 
Fizzle" (Norfolk-Portsmouth Ledger-Star, 5 Dec. 1960), "Feeling of Unsuc- 
cess Persists at Rocket Site" (Norfolk Ledger- Dispatch, 5 Dec. 1960), and 
"Rocket, Satellite Lie Under Deep Waters" (Richmond News Leader, 5 Dec. 
1960). Three of the first six flights were in fact failures. Not long there- 
after, Lt. Col. George Rupp, formerly project officer on the Bullpup missile 
weapons system, came to NASA from the U.S. Marine Corps to replace 
a disheartened Bill Stoney as director of Langley's Scout Project Office.* 
This change solved nothing because Stoney's management had not been the 
problem. In the first four months following Stoney's replacement, three out 
of four launches failed. A NASA investigation found faults with the elec- 
trical systems, the heat shield, the ignition systems, and much more. As a 
later Scout program brochure recalls, "This was a time of exhilarating suc- 
cesses and heart breaking failures. The space age was in its infancy and the 
participants were learning about the operation of complex systems in the 
unforgiving environment of a high speed flight through the atmosphere to 
the border of space." 34 Personal accounts come closer to the truth. Roland 
"Bud" English, one of the original nine members of the Scout Project Group 
and the fourth head of the Scout Project Office, remembers: "The Scout 
program was done in a rush. Unquestionably, everything was behind sched- 
ule, and there was pressure on NASA to perform. The Space Act had been 
passed, and NASA was supposed to be going up to do a job, and Scout was 
part of that. So there was very definitely a pressure to do it in a hurry, 
too much of a hurry, and not enough emphasis on proper quality and really 
getting ready for an operational flight." 35 

Even with the many failures, the launch dates just kept coming. "None 
of us liked to slip a commitment," James Hall admits, "and slippages were 
relatively modest considering the complexity of the program. As things 
got down to deadline, completion of ground system checkout, completion of 


Rupp stayed in this post until his retirement from the military in June 1963, whereupon he was 
succeeded by Eugene D. Schult and later by Roland English. 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

Succeeding Rupp in June 1963 was 
Langley engineer Eugene D. Schult, 
who had been with the Scout Project 
Office from the start. 


launch tower checkout, and then the actual practice countdown and final 
launch countdown those critical milestones didn't slip that much, but 
people had to work 24 hours a day to hold them." 36 

Not until 20 July 1963 and the launch of Scout flight number 22 did the 
problem come to a head. (Preceding this flight, ironically, three consecutive 
missions had been successful, and two of three had been orbital.) Two 
and one-half seconds after liftoff at Wallops, a flame appeared above the 
first-stage fins. Two seconds later, the Algol stage became engulfed by fire. 
"It was obvious something terrible had happened," Bud English recalls, 
frowning. "You could tell from the communications coming from the range 
safety net [work]. There had been a burnthrough of the first stage nozzle a 
few seconds after takeoff. The vehicle went through some wild gyrations. It 
got about 300 feet high and broke into three parts: the first stage went in one 
direction; the second stage went in another; and the third and fourth stages 
fell more or less back on the launch pad and burned. It was a disaster." 37 

Langley's Scout engineer Tom Perry was part of the recovery team that 
slogged through the salt marshes a mile off the coastal island to pick up 
bits and pieces of the rocket to help NASA determine what went wrong. He 
found one large chunk of the fiery debris in an unexpected place. "Someone 
had parked a small car inside one of the assembly buildings and it just so 
happened that a flaming piece of the rocket had come right down through 
the roof and into the front seat, burning that car to a crisp." 38 


Space/light Revolution 


As this sequence of photos demonstrates, the launch of ST-5 on 30 June 1961 went 
well; however, a failure of the rocket's third stage doomed the payload, a scientific 
satellite known as S-55 designed for micrometeorite studies in orbit. 

NASA headquarters launched a formal investigation. A seven-man 
review board found flaws in a rocket nozzle that had gone undetected 
during production and testing. Following the board's recommendation, the 
space agency imposed a three-month moratorium on the launch schedule; 
no more Scouts would fly until a comprehensive study of all the data from 
the previous 21 Scouts had been completed. 39 

Significantly, the in-depth investigations of the rocket's subsystems made 
during this review revealed that each Scout failure had been caused by a 
different problem. That in itself was the essential problem. "We never had 
the same failure twice," James Hall underscores, "but it was clear from the 
early record of Scout that there was enough miscellaneous failure that we 
had to sit down and rethink the whole thing very seriously." 40 

Certain institutional and bureaucratic factors also had contributed to 
Scout's failures. As much as the Langley engineers had wanted to make 
Scout contractors and air force partners members of one integrated team, 
in many key essentials they simply were not. Former PARD engineer and 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

L-62-1729 L-63-5790 

What kept the Scout engineers going through the tough times was the occasional 
spectacular success. In this photo from 1 March 1962 (left), ST-8 streaks into the 
night sky above Wallops, carrying a reentry heating experiment. The bumthrough 
of ST-110's first-stage nozzle just seconds after firing on 20 July 1963 resulted in 
significant damage to the launch tower (right). Remnants of the third and fourth 
stages of the erratic Scout can be seen on the launchpad. 

member of Langley's original Scout Project Office Eugene Schult remembers, 
"We did things differently at Wallops than at the Western Test Range. 
The air force had its own way of doing things; the contractor had his 
ways; and we had our ways. It was a problem trying to coordinate 
them.'" 1 L Essentially, each organization employed its own safety procedures: 
an assembly checkout line at the LTV plant in Dallas, other checkout lines 
on the ground at Wallops and Vandenberg, and yet two more lines in the 
towers at the launchers, both in California and Virginia. Each line used 
different equipment and procedures. 

However, the principal cause of Scout's mishaps was simply the need to 
make everything happen so fast. The LTV mission integrator, Ken Jacobs, 
recalls how engineers scrambled to assemble the rocket: "Back in those days, 
if you needed a part, you did what we called a 'midnight requisition.' We'd 
go get the part from the space vehicle in inventory." This was obviously one 
of the shortcomings of the system. "People were robbing Peter to pay Paul, 
and the result was we had an unsuccessful vehicle." Over and above this 
"cannibalizing" of the hardware, Bud English feels that "there simply were 


Spaceflight Revolution 


In this photo from December 1960, employees of Vought Astronautics, Scout's 
prime contractor, work with NASA technicians to prepare ST-3 for launch. Un- 
fortunately, this rocket would fail because of a second-stage misfire. 

not good standardized vehicle safeguards and checkout procedures, which 
were needed to have a successful vehicle." 42 

"Our record was not good," Jacobs has to admit. "Our reliability was 
3-2-1 splash, 3-2-1 splash." The time had come to "blow the whistle and 
take a look at this program and see what our problem was." The Scout 
Project Office, LTV, the supporting engineers at Langley, the related air 
force personnel, and everyone involved had to sit down and do some "deep 
thinking" about what had to be done to fix not only the rocket but also the 
entire program. 43 


The Scout team decided that a 14- month reliability improvement pro- 
gram to recertify the rocket was needed. The effort was spearheaded by 
a NASA/LTV/air force "tiger team," whose mission was "to revise com- 
pletely how [the project office] handled the vehicle and to standardize the 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

process to the ultimate degree." 44 The tiger team concept, which in essence 
was a technological commando squad, had already proved effective in indus- 
trial settings. NASA was beginning to use it more frequently in the 1960s 
to attack particularly troublesome problems. The tiger team's activities 
started at Langley when James Hall, operations manager for Scout, wrote 
an inch-thick specification that laid out a single set of test equipment, a 
single checkout procedure, and the rigorous standards for using both. 

Such an approach proved to be exactly what was needed. Under the 
direction of the tiger team, all 27 of the Scout rockets already manufactured 
for the program were returned to LTV in Dallas to be taken apart and 
inspected. Weld seams were X-rayed, and solder joints were inspected under 
microscopes. Everything that could be standardized was standardized. Even 
the lengths of the cable in Vought's laboratories now had to match those 
at the two launch sites. The launch countdown now included more than 
800 items. Additional tiger teams were put together at Wallops and at 
Vandenberg to assure compliance with the new standards. No Scout was 
to leave Dallas until an inspection team had done a complete worthiness 
review of the whole vehicle and given it a clean bill of health. 45 

At the end of the long recertification process, nearly all members of the 
Scout team were confident that they now understood why things had gone 
wrong: from the time that NASA had adopted the concept for the little solid- 
fuel rocket and made it an agenda item for the spaceflight revolution, the 
Scout Project Group simply had had neither the time, nor the inclination, to 
look before they leaped. "We all underestimated the magnitude of the job at 
that time," Milt Green admits. "The biggest problem we had was denying 
the existence of problems that we did not understand." 46 The problem was, 
of course, all too human. 

The process of honestly facing up to fundamental mistakes and moving 
beyond them was probably what made the Scout Project Group the remark- 
ably successful organization it eventually became. Certainly the experience 
turned the project's leaders into some of the most reflective of NASA's engi- 
neer/philosophers. Eugene Schult, who was responsible for Scout's guidance 
and control, ponders the project, "We wouldn't learn anything if we didn't 
have problems; that's basic in engineering training. . . . Success doesn't tell 
us anything. It doesn't tell us where the limits are, or what the limiting 
aspects of the envelope are. But when you hit a mistake, you dig into it 
and you find out there's a weakness. And by curing weaknesses you get 

11 47 


Schult and his Scout group did indeed recover from failure. The first three 
launches after the recertification in December 1963 (from Vandenberg), 
March 1964 (from Wallops), and June 1964 (from Vandenberg) were all 
resounding orbital successes. Between July 1964 and January 1967, Scout 
established a record of 22 consecutive launches. Only one of the 16 recertified 
rockets experienced a failure. The pressure to succeed was now off. Scout 
workers no longer had to perform failure reviews every other month, and 


Space/light Revolution 

they no longer had to work the endless overtime and spend weekends away 
from their families. In such a positive environment, success bred success. 

"Now we really had the kind of vehicle we'd set out to develop," boasts 
Bud English. "Reliable. It was still simple and inexpensive, but we could 
launch [it] quickly." 48 In fact, the Scout group needed only six weeks to 
process one of the rockets for a successful launch. Even with this short 
turnaround time, NASA would launch this little rocket for 10 years without 
a problem. English and his colleagues had indeed done the job they set out 
to do. 

An Unsung Hero 

Scout made a total of 113 flights under NASA Langley's direction; the 
last one before the official transfer of the program to NASA Goddard and 
LTV took place on 9 May 1990 from Vandenberg AFB. As a result of these 
flights, NASA engineers and their contractors authored more than 1300 
technical and scientific reports on various aspects of the rocket's design, 
performance, and mission findings. 49 

The pride that the Scout Project Group felt for the rocket's performance 
sprang not only from its phenomenal post-recertification accomplishment 
rate of 22 and 37 successful launches but also from the critical roles played 
by Scout payloads in the advancement of atmospheric and space science. 
Early Scout missions helped researchers study the density of the atmosphere 
at various altitudes, the properties of the Van Allen radiation belts, and the 
possible dangers of the micrometeoroid environment on spacecraft. Scouts 
in the 1970s tested Einstein's theory of relativity by carrying an extremely 
accurate atomic clock into space, and they also helped to confirm the theory 
of the "black hole." 

In support of NASA's early space program, Scout was critical to the 
important research into reentry aerodynamics for the manned space mis- 
sions. With the resulting data, NASA researchers determined what mate- 
rials best withstood the heat of reentry. This information as well as other 
data acquired by Scout missions contributed directly to test programs such 
as Projects Fire and RAM and to the successes of Mercury, Gemini, and 
Apollo. In one notable mission in November 1970, the rocket carried two 
male bullfrogs into orbit. This turned out to be the only time a Scout satel- 
lite was to carry a living payload. The unusual mission enabled NASA to 
study the effects of space on the inner ear and thereby better understand 
the causes of the space sickness experienced by astronauts. 

Scout also delivered into space several reconnaissance and communica- 
tions satellites. For the DOD, the rocket launched classified payloads; for 
the navy, it put into orbit the satellites needed for its Transit system, which 
by the late 1960s provided instantaneous global navigation data not only for 
the operational fleet but also for commercial shipping worldwide. 


The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

Much of Scout's contribution was international: the rocket launched 23 
satellites for foreign countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, 
and the United Kingdom, and the European Space Agency. Based on a 1961 
agreement between the United States and Italy, NASA Langley supplied 
Scouts for an innovative Italian launch operation known as San Marco, which 
was established on two huge mobile platforms in the Indian Ocean, 3 miles off 
the coast of Kenya. From this unusual location in Ngwana Bay, the Centre 
Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali (the Center for Italian Aerospace Research), 
starting in April 1967, used NASA Scouts to boost an international series 
of eight spacecraft into orbit. The flights of these spacecraft, many of 
which were placed into equatorial orbits, gathered valuable data about the 
ionosphere and the magnetosphere, about the galactic sources of radiation 
and X-rays, and especially about the nature of the earth's atmosphere in the 
region of the equator. Participation in the San Marco project incidentally 
gave some Langley engineers their first opportunity for foreign travel and 
international cooperation. In 1966 it even afforded some of them the rare 
opportunity of an audience with Pope Paul VI, who blessed the rocket. 
Fortunately, the launch of the anointed Scout went well. 50 

Over the years, through the waning of the Apollo program and into 
the era dominated by the Space Shuttle, Scout became more of a bargain. 
Improvements in its stage motors enabled the rocket to carry larger pay loads, 
but costs remained low.* Using the consumer price index, Langley employees 
hoping to retain the Scout program calculated that a Scout cost less when 
NASA Goddard took over the program (and LTV took over the rocket) in 
1991 than the original $4 million invested in it in 1958. 51 

In summary, Scout, although virtually unknown outside NASA circles, 
developed into one of the finest pieces of technology in the history of space 
exploration. As Tom Perry has observed about the evolution of his most 
cherished rocket, "The Scout became so reliable that mission planners could 
take it for granted. They focused on the science of the satellite pay load 
rather than on its transportation system. ... It happens to be NASA's 
smallest launch vehicle and it does not receive the same level of notoriety 
you would with a larger system. But over the years it has proven to be a very 
reliable, consistent, performing warhorse." As Perry and other Scout people 
at Langley, Houston, Wallops Island, Vandenberg AFB, and San Marco are 
still fond of saying, more than 30 years after its first countdown, Scout is 
"the unsung hero of space." 52 


For the first 10 production Phase II Scouts (Phase I was the developmental phase), the vehicle 
hardware costs amounted to $0.96 million per vehicle; for the next 14 production Scouts (Phase III), the 
cost per vehicle rose to $1.42 million. Costs decreased for the 25 Phase IV rockets (provided by LTV) 
to $1.19 million per vehicle. Costs for later Scouts rose only slightly, and stayed under $1.5 million per 


Space/light Revolution 

From Italy's innovative San Marco 
launch operation in the Indian 
Ocean, NASA Langley helped to 
launch an international series of 
eight spacecraft into orbit. A huge 
mobile launcher lifts Scout into fir- 
ing position (right); the San Marco 
platform floats securely in inter- 
national waters in Ngwana Bay 




The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program 

A cynic might suggest that it was entirely in keeping with Scout's 
difficult and publicly unappreciated sojourn into space that the project 
ended as it did. In the late 1970s, NASA policymakers proposed to 
launch all future NASA satellites using the Space Transportation System 
(STS) still under development and abolish all expendable launch vehicles; 
the Space Shuttle, when fully operational, could do it all. Only the 
Challenger explosion in 1986, which underscored the need for alternative 
launch capabilities, reversed the shortsighted policy. In the aftermath of 
the Challenger accident, and in league with the Reagan administration's 
objectives for the commercialization of space and the privatization of many 
government services, NASA created the "Mixed Fleet" concept. Under this 
plan, NASA was to give up its other launch services to commercial firms, 
which from then on were to handle whatever NASA payloads the Shuttle 
could not carry. Essentially, this meant the end of the expendable launch 
vehicle business as NASA's Scout Project Group had known and developed 
it. 53 

Scout engineers sorely lamented the loss of Scout. For them, the ven- 
ture into space had come to mean an all-enveloping system and a rigorous 
discipline: a government-driven version for rockets of Henry Ford's mass pro- 
duction. "Other programs are full of changes and improvisations," declares 
James Hall; they are always "borrowing from other missiles and assembling 
something just to get it delivered on schedule" which is exactly what the 
Scout team itself had been doing in the pre-recertification days. 54 Over 
time, however, the "cannibalizing" became minimal in Scout. The program 
for rocket assembly matured beyond the practice, thus becoming standard 
almost to the point of stereotype. Scout engineers wanted to produce a 
launch vehicle that was as reliable for a trip to space as an automobile was 
for a trip to town. Scout, like the Ford Model T, was the "poor man's 

Learning hard lessons through failure and then enjoying such incredible 
long-term success made losing the rocket especially difficult for the Scout 
Project Group. Scout had been giving the country access to space for more 
than 30 years. It succeeded in spite of and ironically perhaps because of 
its hurried early development. Not many programs born of the spaceflight 
revolution survived the spaceflight revolution; Scout was one. 



Enchanted Rendezvous: 
The Lunar- Or bit Rendezvous Concept 

There was a reluctance to believe that the rendezvous 
maneuver was an easy thing. In fact, to a layman, 
if you were to explain what you had to do to perform 
a rendezvous in space, he would say that sounds so 
difficult we'll never be able to do it this century. 

Clinton E. Brown, head, Langley 
Lunar Mission Steering Group 
on Trajectories and Guidance 

I'm not so sure we ever thought of rendezvous as very 
complicated. It's an amazing thing. We thought that 
if our guys could work out the orbital mechanics and 
we gave the pilot the right controls and stuff, then he 'd 
land it and make the rendezvous. We didn't think it 
was very complicated. 

Arthur W. Vogeley, head, Langley 
Guidance and Control Branch 

On Thursday morning, 25 May 1961, in a speech to a joint session of 
Congress, President John F. Kennedy challenged the American people to 
rebound from their recent second-place finishes in the space race: "First, I 
believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before 
this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him 
safely to earth. No single space project . . . will be more exciting, or 
more impressive ... or more important . . . and none will be so difficult or 
expensive." "It will not be one man going to the Moon," the dynamic 
43-year-old president told his countrymen, "it will be an entire nation. For 
all of us must work to put him there." 1 


Space/light Revolution 

At first no one at Langley could quite believe it. If President Kennedy 
had in fact just dedicated the country to a manned lunar landing, he could 
not be serious about doing it in less than nine years. NASA had been 
studying the feasibility of various lunar missions for some time, but had 
never dreamed of a manned mission that included landing on and returning 
from the surface of the moon by the end of the 1960s. NASA was not exactly 
sure how such a lunar mission could be achieved, let alone in so little time. 

Not even Bob Gilruth, the leader of the STG, was prepared for the sen- 
sational announcement. He heard the news in a NASA airplane somewhere 
over the Midwest on his way to a meeting in Tulsa. He knew that Kennedy 
planned to say something dramatic about the space program in his speech, 
and so he asked the pilot to patch it through on the radio. Looking out 
the window over the passing clouds, he had heard every incredible word. 
Only one word described Gilruth's feelings at that moment: "aghast." The 
first manned Mercury flight by Alan Shepard had taken place only three 
weeks before, on 5 May. NASA had made this one brief 15-minute subor- 
bital flight, and suddenly the President was promising Americans the moon. 
The audacity of the goal was stunning. 2 American astronauts would fly a 
quarter of a million miles, make a pinpoint landing on a familiar but yet so 
strange heavenly body, blast off, and return home safely after a voyage of 
several days through space, and do it all by the end of the decade. Only 
one thought was more daunting to Gilruth, and that was that he was one 
of the main people who would have to make it happen. Already the STG 
had its hands full preparing for another suborbital flight (Virgil I. "Gus" 
Grissom's, on 21 July) and for the first orbital flight sometime early in the 
next year (John Glenn's, on 20 February 1962). Gilruth himself, before 
the president's announcement, "had spent almost no time at all" on lunar 
studies, so demanding were the activities of Project Mercury. 3 

Only the project managers directly responsible for making Mercury a 
success felt burdened by the prospects of now having to fulfill the lunar 
commitment. Other planners and dreamers about space exploration within 
NASA were elated. 

When they heard about Kennedy's announcement, Clinton E. Brown and 
his adventurous colleagues cheered, "Hooray, let's put on full speed ahead, 
and do what we can." To them, landing astronauts on the moon as quickly 
as possible was obviously the next step if the United States was going to 
win the space race. Furthermore, Brown and his little band of men plus 
one other key Langley researcher, Dr. John C. Houbolt were confident that 
they already knew the best way to accomplish the lunar goal. 4 

Brown's Lunar Exploration Working Group 

After Sputnik, a small circle of Langley researchers had plunged into the 
dark depths of space science. "We were aeronautical engineers," remembers 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

William H. Michael, Jr., a member of Brown's division who had recently 
returned to Langley after a two-year stint in the aircraft industry. "We 
knew how to navigate in the air, but we didn't know a thing about orbital 
mechanics, celestial trajectories, or interplanetary travel, so we had to teach 
ourselves the subjects." In the Langley Technical Library, Michael could find 
only one pertinent book, An Introduction to Celestial Mechanics, written 
in 1914 by British professor of astrophysics Forrest R. Moulton (someone 
Michael had never heard of). 5 With this out-of-date text, Michael and a 
few associates taught themselves enough about the equations of celestial 
mechanics to grow confident in their computations. Before long, the novices 
had transformed themselves into experts and were using their slide rules and 
early electronic computers to calculate possible paths to the moon. 

In anticipating the trajectories for lunar missions in the late 1950s, 
Brown, Michael, and the few others were leapfrogging over what most people 
considered to be "the logical next step" into space: an earth-orbiting space 
station. Little did they know that their mental gymnastics would set the 
direction of the U.S. space program for the next 30 years. 

Following the wisdom of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, Hermann Oberth, 
Guido von Pirquet, Wernher von Braun, and other spacefaring visionaries, 
most proponents of space travel believed that the first step humans would 
take into the universe would be a relatively timid one to some sort of space 
station in earth orbit. The station could serve as a research laboratory 
for unique experiments and valuable industrial enterprises, and from this 
outpost, human travelers could eventually venture into space using craft 
for trips to the moon, the planets, and beyond. Most NASA researchers 
believed that the space station was the perfect target project because it 
could focus NASA's space-related studies as well as its plans for future 
space exploration. 6 

Clint Brown and associates felt differently: they thought that the space 
station step must be skipped. The politics of the space race, not the inspired 
prophecies of the earliest space pioneers, were dictating the terms of our 
space program. The Russians had already demonstrated that they had 
larger boosters than the United States. This meant that they had the 
capability of establishing a space station first. As Brown explains, "If we put 
all our efforts into putting a space station around the world, we'd probably 
find ourselves coming in second again." The "obvious answer" was that 
"you had to take a larger bite and decide what can really give us leadership 
in the space race." To him "that clearly seemed the possibility of going to 
the moon and landing there." 7 

Inside Brown's Theoretical Mechanics Division, the conviction that lu- 
nar studies should take precedence over space station studies grew. In early 
1959, Langley's assistant director, Eugene Draley, agreed to form a Langley 
working group to study the problems of lunar exploration. Brown, the cat- 
alytic group leader, asked for the participation of six of Langley's most 
thoughtful analysts: David Adamson, Supersonic Aerodynamics Division; 


Space/light Revolution 

Paul R. Hill, PARD; John C. Houbolt, Dynamic Loads Division; Albert A. 
Schy, Stability Research Division; Samuel Katzoff, Full-Scale Research Divi- 
sion; and Bill Michael of his own Theoretical Mechanics Division. Leonard 
Roberts, a talented young mathematician from England, eventually joined 
the group. Brown assembled these researchers for the first time in late March 
1959 and periodically into 1960. Besides advising Langley management on 
the establishment of lunar-related research programs, Brown's group also 
organized a course in space mechanics for interested employees. For many, 
this course provided their first real brush with relativity theory. The Brown 
study group even worked to disseminate information about the moon by 
holding public seminars led by experts from Langley and from the nearby 
universities. 8 

Everything about this original lunar study group was done quietly 
and without much fuss. In those early days of NASA, the management 
of research was still flexible and did not always require formal research 
authorizations or approval from NASA headquarters in Washington. When 
Brown expressed his desire to work more on lunar exploration than on the 
space station, Draley simply told him, "Fine, go ahead." Henceforth, he and 
his lunar working group proceeded with their efforts to solve the problems of 
sending an American to the moon. Brown's group was doing what Langley 
researchers did best: exploring an interesting new idea and seeing how far 
they could go with it. 

Langley researchers were not the only people in the United States think- 
ing seriously about lunar missions. Officers in the air force, scientists in think 
tanks, professors at universities, and other engineers and researchers in and 
around NASA were all contemplating a journey to the moon. In February 
1959, a month before the creation of Brown's Lunar Exploration Working 
Group at Langley, NASA headquarters had created a small "Working Group 
on Lunar and Planetary Surfaces Exploration" (evolving later into the 
"Science Committee on Lunar Exploration") chaired by Dr. Robert Jastrow, 
the head of NASA headquarters' new Theoretical Division. This group in- 
cluded such leaders in planetology and lunar science as Harold C. Urey, 
professor at large at the University of California at San Diego, several lead- 
ing scientists from JPL in Pasadena, and a few from Langley. In their 
meetings Jastrow's group looked into the feasibility of both "rough" (later 
usually called "hard") and "soft" landings on the moon. In a rough landing, 
a probe would crash onto the surface and be destroyed, but only after an 
on-board camera had sent back dozens of valuable pictures to earth. In a 
soft landing, a spacecraft would actually land intact on the moon. Langley's 
Bill Michael sat in on one of the first meetings of the Jastrow Committee. 
In reaction to what he heard, Michael and others at Langley began develop- 
ing ideas for photographic reconnaissance of the moon's surface from lunar 
orbit as well as for lunar impact studies. 9 Houbolt, of Langley's Dynamic 
Loads Division, also attended some of these meetings to share his budding 
knowledge of the requirements for spacecraft rendezvous. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Committees Reviewing Lunar Landing Modes 





Feb. 1959 


Working Group on Lunar 
and Planetary Surfaces 


Mar. 1959 


Lunar Exploration Working 


Apr. 1959 


Research Steering Committee 
on Manned Space Flight 




Manned Space Lab Group 
Subcommittee: Rendezvous 


May 1960 


Intercenter Review of 
Rendezvous Studies 


May 1960 


Lunar Mission Steering Group 
Trajectories and Guidance 



Oct. 1960 


Manned Lunar Landing Task 
Group (Low Committee) 


May 1961 


Ad Hoc Task Group for a 
Lunar Landing Study 
(Fleming Committee) 


May 1961 


Lundin Committee 


June 1961 


Ad Hoc Task Group for 
Study of Manned Lunar 
Landing by Rendezvous 
(Heaton Committee) 


July 1961 


NASA/DOD Large Launch 
Vehicle Planning. Group 
(Golovin Committee) 


Dec. 1961 


Manned Space Flight 
Management Council 



Space/light Revolution 

Two months later, in April 1959, NASA headquarters formed a Research 
Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight. Chaired by Harry J. Goett 
of NASA Goddard, this committee was to review man-in-space problems, 
recommend the missions to follow Project Mercury, and outline the research 
programs to support those missions. 10 

In its final report, which came at the end of 1959, the Goett Committee 
called for a manned lunar landing as the appropriate long-term goal of 
NASA's space program. Between that goal and the present Project Mercury, 
however, a major interim program designed to develop advanced orbital 
capabilities and a manned space station was needed. Before that program, 
to be named Gemini, took shape, however, basic priorities would change. 

Langley's representative on the Goett Committee, Laurence K. Loftin, 
Jr., the technical assistant to Associate Director Thompson, agreed that the 
space station should be NASA's immediate goal. But two other members 
disagreed: the STG's Max Faget and George Low, NASA's director of 
spacecraft and flight missions in Washington. During meetings from May 
to December, they voiced what turned out to be the minority opinion that 
the moon should be NASA's next objective. George Low was particularly 
vocal in making the point. Not only did he want to go to the moon, Low 
also wanted to land on it, with men, and the sooner the better. 11 

Michael's Paper on a "Parking Orbit" 

At Langley, members of Brown's lunar exploration group were studying 
ways of accomplishing Low's dream. One of these studies, by Bill Michael, 
examined the benefits of "parking" the earth-return propulsion portion of a 
spacecraft in orbit around the moon during a landing mission. 

The spark for Michael's interest in what came to be called a "parking 
orbit," a spacecraft in a waiting orbit around the moon or some other 
celestial body, was calculations he had made to see whether any advantage 
could be gained in a lunar mission from additional "staging." First explained 
by Tsarist Russia's space visionary Tsiolkovskii in the late 1800s, staging 
was the proven technological concept by which a self-propelled, staged- 
rocket vehicle (Tsiolkovskii called it a rocket "train" ) could ascend to greater 
heights as its stages expended their fuel and separated. 

In a lunar landing mission, Michael speculated, flying a big rocket ship 
directly from the earth to the moon would be impractical. (Jules Verne's 
popular book and other science-fiction fantasies had pictured this method 
for a lunar landing.) Too much unnecessary weight would have to be 
transported to the moon's surface. How much wiser it would be to make "an 
intermediate step" and place the vehicle in lunar orbit where much of the 
total weight remained behind including the structure of the interplanetary 
spacecraft, its heavy fuel load for leaving lunar orbit and returning home, 
and its massive heat shield necessary for a safe reentry into the earth's 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 


At a colloquium held at Langley on 20 July 1989 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 
the first lunar landing, William H. Michael, Jr., (center) reviews the evolution of his 
parking orbit concept with Clinton E. Brown (right), head of the Lunar Exploration 
Working Group and Arthur Vogeley (left), mastermind of Langley 's rendezvous and 
docking simulators of the 1960s. 

atmosphere. "It's very expensive to accelerate any type of mass to high 
velocity," Michael thought. "Any time you do not have to do that, you save 
a lot of fuel and thus a lot of weight." 

Michael wrote his calculations in 1960 in a never-to-be-published paper, 
"Weight Advantages of Use of Parking Orbit for Lunar Soft Landing 
Mission." In the paper, Michael identified the most basic advantage of what 
came to be known as lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR). His results implied 
that LOR could save NASA an impressive 50 percent or more of the total 
mission weight. Figuring the numbers did not require any difficult or 
sophisticated calculations. Nor did it require any knowledge of the writings 
of Russian rocket theoretician Yuri Kondratyuk and British scientist and 
Interplanetary Society member H. E. Ross, both of whom had expressed the 
fundamentals of the LOR concept years earlier (Kondratyuk in 1916, and 
Ross in 1948). 14 Neither Michael nor anyone else at Langley at this point, 
so they have always maintained, had any knowledge of those precursors. 

They also knew nothing about competition from contemporaries; how- 
ever, they soon would. The same morning that Michael first showed his 


Spaceflight Revolution 

rough parking-orbit calculations to Clint Brown, a team led by Thomas E. 
Dolan from Vought Astronautics, a division of the Chance Vought Cor- 
poration in Dallas, gave a briefing at Langley. The briefing concerned 
Vought 's ongoing company- funded, confidential study of problems related 
to Manned Lunar Landing and Return (MALLAR) and specifically its plans 
for a manned spaceflight simulator and its possible application for research 
under contract to NASA. 15 

During the briefing, Dolan's staff mentioned an idea for reaching the 
moon. Although the Vought representatives focused their analysis on the 
many benefits of what they called a "modular spacecraft" one in which 
several parts, including a lunar landing module, were designed for certain 
tasks Brown and Michael understood that Vought was advertising the 
essentials of the LOR concept. "They got up there and they had the whole 
thing laid out," Brown remembers. "They had scooped us" with their idea 
of "designing a spacecraft so that you can throw away parts of it as you go 
along." For the next several days, Michael walked around "with his face 
hanging down to the floor." 16 

Nevertheless, the chagrined Langley engineer decided to write a brief 
paper because he was confident that he had come up with his idea indepen- 
dently. Furthermore, the word around Langley later came to be that Dolan 
had developed the idea of using a detachable lunar landing module for the 
landing operation after an earlier visit to Langley when PARD engineers fa- 
miliar with Michael's embryonic idea had suggested a parking orbit to him. 
This explanation may simply be "sour grapes." On the other hand, Dolan 
had been visiting Langley in late 1959 and early 1960, and Michael does 
remember having already mentioned his idea to a few people at the center, 
"so it shouldn't have been any surprise to anybody here at Langley that 
such a possibility existed." 17 The truth about the origin of Dolan's idea 
will probably never be known. 

Michael's paper, at least in retrospect, had some significant limitations. 
It was only two pages long and presented little analysis. Its charts were dif- 
ficult to follow and interpret. He did not mention "earth-escape weights," 
though an informed reader could infer such numbers. Perhaps most impor- 
tantly, the paper did not explicitly mention either the need for a separate 
lunar lander or the additional weight savings derived from using one and 
discarding it before the return trip home. A reader would already have to 
be familiar with the subject even to recognize, let alone fully fathom, what 
was being implied. Michael's paper was hardly a fully developed articulation 
of a lunar landing mission using LOR. Nonetheless, it made a fundamentally 
important contribution: it made rendezvous the central theme for Langley 
researchers contemplating lunar missions. As his paper concluded, the chief 
problems in a lunar landing mission were the "complications involved in 
requiring a rendezvous with the components left in the parking orbit." 18 

Although disappointed by the news that Vought. had scooped them 
with the idea of LOR, the Langley researchers were hardly demoralized. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Three days before President Kennedy's 
lunar commitment, John D. Bird, 
"Jaybird" (left), captured Langley's en- 
thusiasm for a moonshot in his sketch 
BUST" (below). In essence, his plan 
called for a mission via earth- orbit ren- 
dezvous (EOR) requiring the launch of 
10 C-l rockets. 


/ >-*.J 

/ r'v ' y 

-". 4 ^Tnr 

I C-l 




Spaceflight Revolution 

Researchers in and around Brown's division quickly began making lunar 
and planetary mission feasibility studies of their own. John P. Gapcynski, 
for example, considered factors involved in the departure of a vehicle from a 
circular orbit around the earth. Wilbur L. Mayo calculated energy and mass 
requirements for missions to the moon and even to Mars. Robert H. Tolson 
studied the effects on lunar trajectories of such geometrical constraints as 
the eccentricity of the moon's orbit and the oblate shape of the earth, and 
also looked into the influence of the solar gravitational field. John D. Bird, 
"Jaybird," who worked across the hall from Michael, began designing "lunar 
bugs," "lunar schooners," and other types of small excursion modules that 
could go down to the surface of the moon from a "mother ship." Jaybird 
became a particularly outspoken advocate of LOR. When a skeptical visitor 
to Langley offered, with a chuckle, that LOR was "like putting a guy in 
an airplane without a parachute and having him make a midair transfer," 
Bird set the visitor straight. "No," he corrected, "it's like having a big ship 
moored in the harbor while a little rowboat leaves it, goes ashore, and comes 
back again." 19 

The Rendezvous Committees 

A feeling was growing within NASA in late 1959 and early 1960 that 
rendezvous in space was going to be a vital maneuver no matter what 
NASA chose as the follow-on mission to Project Mercury. If the next 
step was a space station, a craft must meet and dock with that station 
and then leave it; if the next step was a lunar mission, that, too, would 
require some sort of rendezvous either in lunar orbit, as Michael's study 
suggested, or in earth orbit, where a lunar-bound spacecraft might be 
assembled or at least fueled. Even if neither of these projects was adopted, 
communications and military "spy" satellites would require inspection and 
repair, thus necessitating rendezvous maneuvers. Rendezvous would be a 
central element of all future flight endeavors whatever NASA decided. 

By late summer 1959, Langley's senior staff was ready to proceed with 
detailed studies of how best to perform rendezvous maneuvers in space. Two 
rendezvous study committees eventually were formed, both chaired by Dr. 
John C. Houbolt, the assistant chief of Langley's Dynamic Loads Division. 

Houbolt was an aircraft structures expert who had begun work at Langley 
in 1942 with a B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering from the University 
of Illinois. In contrast to most Langley researchers, he had spent a 
significant amount of time conducting research abroad. He had been an 
exchange research scientist at the British Royal Aircraft Establishment at 
Farnborough, England, in 1949, and in 1958, Houbolt had only recently 
returned from a year at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, 
where his dissertation on the heat-related aeroelastic problems of aircraft 
structures in high-speed flight had earned him a Ph.D. 20 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Upon returning from his graduate work in Switzerland, Houbolt had 
found himself becoming more curious about spaceflight as were other 
Langley researchers. On his own, largely independent of the conversations 
taking place within Brown's group, Houbolt learned the fundamentals of 
space navigation. "I racked down and went through the whole analysis of 
orbital mechanics so I could understand it." Prom his own preliminary stud- 
ies of trajectories, he saw the vital importance of rendezvous and began to 
recognize and evaluate the basic problems associated with it. During the 
STG's training of the Mercury astronauts at Langley, Houbolt taught them 
their course on space navigation. 21 

Houbolt focused on one special problem related to rendezvous the 
timing of the launch. NASA could not launch a mission at just any time and 
be assured of effecting a rendezvous with an orbiting spacecraft. In order 
to visualize the problem, Houbolt built a gadget with a globe for the earth 
and a small ball on the end of a short piece of coat hanger for the satellite. 
He connected it all to a variable-ratio gearbox. The gadget simulated a 
satellite at different altitudes and in different orbital planes. With this 
little machine Houbolt could figure the time that satellites would take at 
varying altitudes to orbit the revolving earth. From his considerations of 
orbital mechanics, Houbolt found that a change in orbital plane at 25,000 
feet per second without the help of aerodynamic lift would require such an 
enormous amount of energy that it could not be made. With this simple 
but ingenious model, Houbolt saw how long NASA might have to wait a 
period of many days in order to launch a rendezvous mission from Cape 
Canaveral. However, he also found a way to circumvent the problem: "if the 
orbital plane of the satellite could be made just one or two degrees larger 
than the latitude of the launch site," the launch "window" could be extended 
to four hours every day. Thus, he began to understand how NASA could 
avoid the long waiting periods. 22 

The word quickly spread through Langley that Houbolt, the aircraft 
structures specialist, was now "the rendezvous man." He even had a 
"license to rendezvous" issued to him by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit 
think tank (affiliated with Douglas Aircraft) in southern California. The 
Rand Corporation, which had an interest in space rendezvous and a space 
rendezvous simulator, presented Houbolt with this "license" in November 
1959 after he successfully linked two craft on the Douglas rendezvous 
simulator. 23 Thus, when NASA Langley created its steering groups to 
study the problems of orbital space stations and lunar exploration missions, 
Houbolt naturally was asked to provide the input about rendezvous. 

The first of Houbolt 's rendezvous committees was linked to Langley 's 
Manned Space Laboratory Group. Headed by the Full- Scale Research 
Division's Mark R. Nichols, an aerodynamics specialist who was reluctant 
to accept the assignment, this group was formed late in the summer of 
1959. It was similar to Brown's interdivisional Lunar Exploration Working 
Group, except that it was larger and had committees of its own. One of 


Space/light Revolution 

them, Houbolt's committee, was to look into the matter of rendezvous as 
it pertained to earth-orbit operations. This it did in a- "loosely organized 
and largely unscheduled" way during the first months of 1960. Serving 
on the committee were John M. Eggleston, Arthur W. Vogeley, Max C. 
Kurbjun, and W. Hewitt Phillips of the Aero-Space Mechanics Division; 
John A. Dodgen and William Mace of IRD; and John Bird and Clint Brown 
of the Theoretical Mechanics Division. 24 The overlapping memberships and 
responsibilities of the committees and study groups created during this busy 
and chaotic period have caused much confusion in the historical record about 
where the concept of LOR first arose at Langley and about who deserves 
the credit. 

At one of the early meetings of the Manned Space Laboratory Group 
on 18 September 1959, Houbolt made a long statement on the rendezvous 
problem. In this statement, one of the first made on this subject anywhere 
inside NASA, Houbolt insisted that his committee be allowed to study 
rendezvous "in the broadest terms" possible because, as he argued correctly, 
the technique was certain to play a major role in almost any advanced 
space mission NASA might initiate. 25 Three months later, in December 
1959, Houbolt appeared with other leading members of the Manned Space 
Laboratory Group before a meeting of the Goett Committee held at Langley. 
He urged the adoption of a rendezvous-satellite experiment an experiment, 
in essence, similar to NASA's later Project Gemini which could "define 
and solve the problems more clearly." The Goett Committee members, the 
majority of whom were still narrowly focusing on a space station and a 
circumlunar mission, showed little interest in Houbolt's experiment idea. 26 

Representatives from Goddard, Marshall, and JPL met at Langley on 
16-17 May 1960 for an intercenter review of NASA's current rendezvous 
studies. At this meeting, Houbolt gave the principal Langley presentation 
based on a paper he had just delivered at the National Aeronautical Meeting 
of the Society of Automotive Engineers in New York City, 5-8 April. All 
representatives were in "complete agreement" that rendezvous was "an 
important problem area" that opened "many operational possibilities" and 
that warranted "significant study." The strength of Houbolt's presentation 
demonstrated that of all the NASA centers, Langley was "expending the 
greatest effort on rendezvous." Eleven studies were under way at the 
center compared with three at Ames and two each at Lewis and the Flight 
Research Center. Marshall had an active interest in rendezvous but only 
in connection with advanced Saturn missions. With their "leanings toward 
orbital operations," von Braun's people had done little work specifically on 
rendezvous and were not prepared to talk about what little they had done. 2 

One week after the intercenter review, a second rendezvous committee 
met for the first time. It was part of a Lunar Mission Steering Group 
created by Director Floyd Thompson. Chairing this group was hypersonics 
specialist John V. Becker, chief of the Aero-Physics Division. 28 Much larger 
and more formal than Brown's original little band of lunar enthusiasts, the 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

group chaired by Becker incorporated the Brown group, with the dynamic 
Brown himself serving as chairman of the new group's subcommittee on 
trajectories and guidance. Five other subcommittees were quickly organized: 
Howard B. Edwards of IRD chaired an instrumentation and communications 
committee; Richard R. Heldenfels of the Structures Research Division 
headed a committee on structures and materials; Paul R. Hill of the Aero- 
Space Mechanics Division was in charge of a committee on propulsion, flight 
testing, and dynamic loads; Eugene S. Love, Becker's assistant chief of the 
Aero-Physics Division, led a committee on reentry aerodynamics, heating, 
configuration, and aeromedical issues; and John C. Houbolt headed the 
rendezvous committee. Serving with Houbolt were Wilford E. Silvertson, 
Jr., of IRD and John Bird and John Eggleston, who were also members of 
his other rendezvous committee for the Manned Space Lab Group. 

Becker's Lunar Mission Steering Group was to take a "very broad look 
at all possible ways of accomplishing the lunar mission." At the time NASA 
envisioned a circumlunar rather than a landing mission. (By late summer 
1960, Lowell E. Hasel, secretary of Becker's study group, was referring to it 
in his minutes as the "LRC Circumlunar Mission Steering Group.") More 
specifically, the Becker group was to decide whether it approved of the 
general guidelines for lunar missions as established by the STG in meetings 
a month earlier, in April I960. 29 In the next six months, Becker's group met 
six times, sent representatives to NASA headquarters and Marshall Space 
Flight Center for consultation and presentation of preliminary analyses, and 
generally educated itself in the relevant technical areas. Its exploratory 
experimental data eventually appeared in 12 Langley papers presented at 
the first NASA/Industry Apollo Technical Conference held in Washington 
from 18-20 July 1961. Long before that time, however, Langley 's Lunar 
Mission Steering Group discontinued its activities. In mid-November 1960, 
when the STG developed its formal Apollo Technical Liaison Plan, which 
organized specialists in each problem area from every NASA center, the 
group was no longer needed and simply stopped meeting. 30 

Houbolt Launches His First Crusade 

In his paper presented before the Society of Automotive Engineers in 
April 1960, Houbolt had focused on "the problem of rendezvous in space, 
involving, for example, the ascent of a satellite or space ferry as to make 
a soft contact with another satellite or space station already in orbit." 
His analysis of soft rendezvous could have applied to a lunar mission, but 
Houbolt did not specifically refer to that possibility. 31 

He had been seriously studying it, as revealed" in the minutes of a meeting 
of Langley's Manned Space Laboratory Group held on 5 February 1960. On 
that occasion Houbolt discussed the general requirements of a "soft landing 
device" in a lunar mission involving LOR. He did so in spite of the fact that 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Houbolt's Early Crusades 



Presentation Audience 

Sept. 1959 


Manned Space Lab Group 

Dec. 1959 


Goett Committee 

Feb. 1960 


Manned Space Lab Group 

Apr. 1960 

New York 

Society of Automotive Engineers 

Spring 1960 


Robert Piland and STG members 

Spring 1960 


William Mrazek 

May 1960 


Intercenter Review 

Sept. 1960 


Seamans (informal) 

Nov. 1960 


Air Force Scientific Advisory 

Dec. 1960 


STG leaders 

Dec. 1960 


Headquarters staff 
including Glennan, von Braun, 
Seamans, and Faget 

this particular rendezvous committee was supposed to be focusing more 
narrowly on a rendezvous with an earth-orbiting space station. 32 

From this point on, Houbolt began to advertise LOR in meetings and 
conversations. In the spring of 1960, he talked about LOR with Robert O. 
Piland and other members of the STG at Langley. During the same period, 
Houbolt mentioned LOR to William A. Mrazek, director of the Structures 
and Mechanics Division at Marshall. Houbolt had been helping Mrazek to 
evaluate the S-IV stage (consisting of four uprated Centaur engines) of the 
Saturn rocket. 33 

In the summer of 1960, while making back-of-the-envelope calculations to 
confirm the savings in rocket-boosting power gained by the LOR approach, 
Houbolt experienced a powerful technological epiphany. Three years later, 
in a 1963 article, he described what happened: "Almost simultaneously, it 
became clear that lunar-orbit rendezvous offered a chain reaction simplifi- 
cation on all 'back effects': development, testing, manufacturing, erection, 
count-down, flight operations, etc." In this moment of revelation, Houbolt 
made an ardent resolve: "I vowed to dedicate myself to the task." From 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

that instant until NASA's selection of the mission mode for Project Apollo 
in July 1962, he tirelessly crusaded for the LOR concept. 34 

On 1 September 1960, Dr. Robert C. Seamans, who had a Ph.D. in 
aeronautical engineering and was a former member of an NACA technical 
subcommittee, became NASA's new associate director. One of his first 
official duties was visiting all the agency's field centers for orientations 
about their programs and introductions to their personnel. During his 
visit to Langley, one of the many people he encountered was an excited 
John Houbolt, who seized the moment to say something privately about the 
advantages of LOR. He told the associate administrator, "We ought to be 
thinking about using LOR in our way of going to the moon." 35 

Bob Seamans, in his previous job as chief engineer for RCA's Missile 
and Electronics Division in Massachusetts, had been involved in an air force 
study known as Project Saint an acronym for satellite interceptor. This 
"quiet but far-reaching" classified military project involved the interception 
of satellites in earth orbit. Project Saint predisposed Seamans to enter- 
tain ideas about rendezvous techniques and maneuvers. Houbolt explained 
to him that LOR would work even if less weight than that of the entire 
spacecraft was left in a parking orbit. If only the weight of the spacecraft's 
heat shield was parked, NASA could realize some significant savings. Im- 
pressed with the importance of leaving weight in orbit, and equally impressed 
with Houbolt's zeal, Seamans invited the impassioned Langley researcher to 
present his ideas formally before his staff in Washington. 36 

Before that presentation, however, Houbolt gave two other briefings 
on rendezvous: the first, in November 1960, to the Air Force Scientific 
Advisory Board at the Pentagon; the second, on 10 December, to leading 
members of the STG including Paul Purser, Robert Piland, Owen Maynard, 
Caldwell Johnson, James Chamberlin, and Max Faget. (Gilruth was not 
present.) In both talks, Houbolt spoke about all the possible uses of 
rendezvous. For LOR, the uses included a manned lunar landing, and 
for earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR) they included assembly of orbital units, 
personnel transfer to a space station, proper placement of special purpose 
satellites, and inspection and interception of satellites. Houbolt stressed 
that rendezvous would be both inherently useful and technically feasible in 
many space missions. Historians have missed this key point about Houbolt: 
he was advocating rendezvous generally, not just LOR. 

If humans were going to land on the moon using existing rocket boosters, 
or even the boosters that were then on the drawing boards, a combination 
of EOR and LOR would be required. "We would put up a component 
with a first booster; we would put up another component with another 
booster; then we would rendezvous the two of them in earth orbit. Then we 
would go to the moon with this booster system and perform the lunar-orbit 
rendezvous with the remaining spacecraft. The whole reason for doing it 
this way would be because the boosters were still too small." 


Space/light Revolution 

Although he presented several rendezvous concepts, Houbolt championed 
LOR. With charts showing a soft manned lunar landing accomplished both 
with the Saturn-class rockets then in development and with existing launch 
vehicles such as Atlas or Langley's Scout, Houbolt concluded his lecture 
by emphasizing the "great advantage" of LOR. In a lunar landing mission, 
the earth-boost payload would be reduced two to two-and-a-half times. "I 
pointed out over and over again" that if these boosters could be made bigger, 
then NASA "could dispense with the earth-orbit rendezvous portion and do 
it solely by lunar-orbit rendezvous." 37 

Houbolt recalls that neither the Scientific Advisory Board nor the STG 
seemed overly interested; however, they did not seem overly hostile. He was 
to experience this passive reaction often in the coming months. But not all 
the reactions were so passive. Some of them, from intelligent and influential 
people inside the space program, were loud, harshly worded, and negative. 

On 14 December 1960, Houbolt traveled to Washington with a group of 
Langley colleagues to give the staff at NASA headquarters the briefing he 
had promised Bob Seamans three months earlier. All NASA's important 
people were in the audience, including Keith Glennan, Seamans, Wernher 
von Braun, and the leadership of the STG. For 15 minutes, Houbolt moved 
carefully through his charts and analysis. He concluded, as he had done 
in the earlier briefings, with an enthusiastic statement about LOR's weight 
savings a reduction of earth payload by a "whopping" two to two-and-a- 
half times. 

When he finished, a small man with a receding hairline and a bow tie 
jumped up from the audience. Houbolt knew all too well who he was: the 
hot-blooded Max Faget, his longtime Langley associate and present member 
of the STG. "His figures lie." Faget accused. "He doesn't know what he's 
talking about." Even in a bull session at Langley, Faget's fiery accusation 
would have been upsetting. But "in an open meeting, in front of Houbolt 's 
peers and supervisors," it was "a brutal thing for one Langley engineer to 
say to another." 38 Faget had not bothered to voice these doubts four days 
earlier during the more private STG management briefing at Langley, when 
Houbolt and the others who were to give talks at headquarters had rehearsed 
their presentations. Faget continued his vocal objections in the hallway after 
the headquarters briefing was over. Houbolt tried to stay calm, but clearly 
he was agitated. He answered the charge simply by telling Faget that he 
"ought to look at the study before [making] a pronouncement like that." 39 It 
was an "ought to" that Houbolt would be passing on to many LOR skeptics 
before it was all over. 

Curiously, earlier at the same NASA headquarters meeting, Clint Brown 
had made a presentation based on a study he had done with Ralph W. 
Stone, Jr., of the Theoretical Mechanics Division. Brown had explained a 
general operational concept for an LOR plan for a manned lunar mission. 
Brown's basic idea was to develop an early launch capability by combining 
several existing rocket boosters, specifically the Atlas, Centaur, and Scout. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

He also illustrated the advantage of rendezvous for weight reduction over 
direct ascent. But oddly, Brown's talk unlike Houbolt's did not provoke 
a strong negative reaction. 40 Perhaps this was because Houbolt gave a 
more explicit analysis of the advantages of LOR over the direct approach, 
or perhaps it was because Brown had given his presentation first and Faget 
needed to build up some steam, or perhaps it was personal, with Faget 
simply liking Brown better than he liked Houbolt. 

The Feelings Against LOR 

The basic premise of the LOR concept that NASA would eventually 
develop into Project Apollo was to fire an assembly of three spacecraft into 
earth orbit on top of a single powerful (three-stage) rocket, the Saturn V. 
This 50,000-pound-plus assembly would include a mother ship or command 
module (CM); a service module (SM) containing the fuel cells, attitude 
control system, and main propulsion system; and a small lunar lander or 
excursion module. Once in earth orbit, the last stage of the Saturn rocket 
would fire and expend itself, thus boosting the Apollo spacecraft with its 
crew of three astronauts into its trajectory to the moon. Braking into lunar 
orbit via the small rockets aboard the service module, two members would 
don space suits and climb into the lunar excursion module (LEM), detach 
it from the mother ship, and pilot it to the lunar surface. The third crew 
member would remain in the CM, maintaining a lonely but busy vigil in 
lunar orbit. If all went well, the top half or ascent stage of the LEM would 
rocket back up, using the ascent engine provided, and redock with the CM. 
What remained of the lander would then be discarded to the vast void 
of space or crashed on the moon as was done in later Apollo missions for 
seismic experiments and the three astronauts in their command ship would 
head for home.* 

Knowing what we know now, that is, that the United States would 
land Americans on the moon and return them safely before the end of 
the decade using LOR, the strength of feeling against the concept in the 
early 1960s is hard to imagine. In retrospect, we know that LOR enjoyed 
as Brown, Michael, Dolan, and especially John Houbolt had said several 
advantages over its competitors. It required less fuel, only half the payload, 
and somewhat less new technology; it did not require a monstrous rocket 
such as the proposed Nova for a direct flight; and it called for only one launch 
from earth, whereas one of LOR's chief competitors, EOR, required at least 
two. Only the small lightweight LEM, not the entire spacecraft, would have 
to land on the moon. This was perhaps LOR's major advantage. Because 

One can summarize the LOR concept with three specifications: (1) Only a specially designed LEM 
would actually descend to the moon's surface; (2) Only a portion of that LEM, the ascent stage, would 
return to dock with the CM in lunar orbit; and (3) Only the CM or Apollo capsule itself, with its 
protective heat shield, would fall back to earth. 


Space/light Revolution 

the lander was to be discarded after use and would not be needed to return 
to earth, NASA could customize the design of the LEM for maneuvering 
flight in the lunar environment and for a soft lunar landing. In fact, the 
beauty of LOR was that NASA could tailor all the modules of the Apollo 
spacecraft independently without those tailorings having to compromise 
each other. One spacecraft unit to do three jobs would have forced some 
major concessions, but three units to do three jobs was another plus for LOR 
that no one at NASA, finally, could overlook. 

In the early 1960s, these advantages were theoretical, but the fear that 
American astronauts might be left in an orbiting coffin some 240,000 miles 
from home was quite real. If rendezvous had to be part of the lunar mission, 
many people felt it should be attempted only in earth orbit. If rendezvous 
failed there, the threatened astronauts could be brought home simply by 
allowing the orbit of their spacecraft to deteriorate. If a rendezvous around 
the moon failed, the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Nothing 
could be done. The specter of dead astronauts sailing around the moon 
haunted those responsible for the Apollo program. This anxiety made 
objective evaluation of LOR by NASA unusually difficult. 

John Houbolt understood NASA's fears, but he recognized that all the 
alternative schemes had serious pitfalls and dreadful possibilities of their 
own. He was certain that all the other options would be more perilous and 
did not really offer rescue possibilities. The LOR concept, in contrast, did 
offer the chance of a rescue if two small landing modules, rather than one, 
were included. One lander could be held in reserve with the orbiting mother 
ship to go down to the lunar surface if the number one lander encountered 
serious trouble. Or, in the case of an accident inside the command-service 
module, one attached LEM could serve as a type of "lifeboat."* Houbolt 
just could not accept the charge that LOR was inherently more dangerous, 
but neither could he easily turn that charge aside. 

The intellectual and emotional climate in which NASA would have to 
make perhaps the most fundamental decision in its history was amazingly 
tempestuous. The psychological obstacle to LOR's progress made the 
entire year of 1961 and the first seven months of 1962 the most hectic and 
challenging period of John Houbolt's life. 41 

On 5 January 1961, Houbolt spoke again on rendezvous during the 
first afternoon session of a historic two-day Space Exploration Program 
Council (SEPC) in Washington. This council had been created by NASA 
for "smoothing out technical and managerial problems at the highest level." 
Chaired by the associate administrator, this council meeting the first that 

This scenario would indeed happen during the mission of Apollo 13, when outward bound and 
200,000 miles from earth, an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks within the service module caused a 
leak in another oxygen tank and confronted NASA with an urgent life-threatening problem. NASA solved 
the problem by having the astronauts head home, without landing, and by moving them temporarily 
into the atmosphere of the LEM. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Seamans presided over included, as always, all program office heads at 
headquarters, the directors of all NASA field centers, and their invited guests 
and speakers. The SEPC had been meeting quarterly since early 1960, but 
this first meeting of 1961 was by far the most historic to date; it was the 
first meeting inside NASA to feature an agencywide discussion of a manned 
lunar landing. 42 

At the end of the first day of this meeting, everyone agreed that the 
mission mode for a manned lunar landing by NASA could be reduced to 
three options: direct ascent, which was still the front-runner; EOR, which 
was gaining ground quickly; and LOR, the dark horse on which only the 
most capricious gamblers in NASA would have ventured a bet. 

One speaker had presented each option. First, Marshall's impressive 
rocket pioneer from Germany, Wernher von Braun, reviewed NASA's launch 
vehicle program, with an eye to the advantages of EOR. Von Braun ex- 
plained how two pieces of hardware could be launched into space indepen- 
dently using advanced Saturn rockets then under development; how the two 
pieces could rendezvous and dock in earth orbit; how a lunar mission vehi- 
cle could be assembled, fueled, and detached from the joined modules; and 
how that augmented ship could proceed directly to the surface of the moon 
and after exploring, return to earth. The clearest immediate advantage of 
EOR, as von Braun pointed out, was that it required a pair of less powerful 
rockets that were already nearing the end of their development. Two of his 
early Saturns would do the job. The biggest pitfall of EOR, as with direct 
ascent, was that no one knew how the spacecraft would actually make its 
landing. On the details of that essential maneuver, von Braun said nothing 
other than to admit that more serious study would have to be done very 
quickly. 43 

Next, Melvyn Savage of the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs at NASA 
headquarters explained direct ascent. A massive rocket roughly the size of a 
battleship would be fired directly to the moon, land, and blast off for home 
directly from the lunar surface. The trip required one brute of a booster 
vehicle, the proposed 12-million-pound thrust Nova rocket. 

Late in the afternoon, Houbolt came to the podium to discuss rendezvous 
and highlight the unappreciated strengths of his dark-horse candidate. To 
him the advantages of LOR and the disadvantages of the other two options 
were obvious. Any single rocket such as Nova that had to carry and lift 
all the fuel necessary for leaving the earth's gravity, braking against the 
moon's gravity as well as leaving it, and braking against the earth's gravity 
was clearly not the most practical choice especially if the mission was to 
be accomplished in the near future. The development of a rocket that 
mammoth would take too long, and the expense would be enormous. In 
Houbolt 's opinion, EOR was a more reasonable choice than direct ascent but 
not as sensible as LOR. After the lunar-bound spacecraft left its rendezvous 
station around the earth, the rest of an EOR mission would be accomplished 
in exactly the same way as direct ascent. NASA's crew of astronauts would 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Houbolt's Later Crusades 



Presentation Audience 

Jan. 1961 


Space Exploration Program 
Council Meeting 

Jan. 1961 


STG members 

Jan. 1961 


Pearson (Low Committee) 

Jan. 1961 


NASA Headquarters staff 

Apr. 1961 



May 1961 

Letter to Seamans (NASA HQ) 

June 1961 


Lundin Committee 

June 1961 


International Space Flight 

July 1961 


Rehearsal with STG 

July 1961 

Washington, B.C. 

NASA/Industry Apollo Technical 

Aug. 1961 


Golovin Committee 

Aug. 1961 



Nov. 1961 

Letter to Seamans (NASA HQ) 

Jan. 1962 


Shea and STG 

Jan. 1962 

MSC, Houston 

Manned Spacecraft Center 

Feb. 1962 


Manned Space Flight Management 

Apr. 1962 

Report and papers sent to 
von Braun (MSFC) 

have to land an incredibly heavy and large vehicle on the surface of the 
moon. The business of backing such a large stack of machinery down onto 
the moon and "eyeballing" a pinpoint soft landing on what at the time 
was still a virtually unknown lunar surface would be incredibly tricky and 
dangerous. Those few NASA researchers who had been thinking about the 
terrors of landing such a behemoth (and getting the astronauts down from 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

the top of it using some little inside elevator!) knew that no satisfactory 
answers to these problems were on the horizon. 44 

Other talks were given that day, including an introduction by George 
Low, chair of NASA headquarters Manned Lunar Landing Task Group 
(formed in October 1960), and a technical talk by Houbolt's nemesis 
Max Faget outlining the hardware and booster requirements for several 
possible types of lunar missions. Everyone walked away from the meeting 
understanding that, if the United States was someday to reach the moon, 
NASA would have to choose a plan soon. 45 At this point, the odds were 
excellent that the choice would be direct ascent, which seemed simplest in 
concept. Coming in second, if a vote had been taken that day, would have 
been EOR. LOR, to many NASA officials present, was an option almost 
unworthy of mention. 

The Early Skepticism of the STG 

In the early months of 1961, the STG was preoccupied with the first 
manned Mercury flight and the hope soon to be crushed by Vostok 1 
that an American astronaut would be the first human in space. When 
any of its members had a rare moment to consider rendezvous, they were 
typically thinking about it "as one of several classes of missions around 
which a Mercury program follow-on might be built." 46 

At Langley on 10 January 1961, five days after the meeting of the SEPC, 
Houbolt went with three members of the Theoretical Mechanics Division 
the division chief Clint Brown, Ralph Stone, and Manuel J. "Jack" Queijo 
to an informal meeting at the center with three members of the STG's 
Flight Systems Division H. Kurt Strass, Owen E. Maynard, and Robert 
L. O'Neal. Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan, Gilruth's former 
chief assistant, also attended. At this meeting Houbolt, Brown, and the 
others tried to persuade representatives from the STG that a rendezvous 
experiment belonged in the Apollo program and that LOR was the way to 
go if any plans for a manned lunar landing were to be made. 47 

They were not persuaded. Although the STG engineers received the 
analysis more politely than had cohort Max Faget the month earlier, 
all four men admitted quite frankly that the claims about the weight 
savings were "too optimistic." Owen Maynard remembers that he and 
his colleagues initially viewed the LOR concept as "the product of pure 
theorists' deliberations with little practicality." In essence, they agreed with 
Faget's charge, though they did not come out and say it, that Houbolt's 
figures did "lie." The STG engineers believed that in advertising the earth- 
weight savings of LOR and the reduction in the size of the booster needed 
for the lunar mission, Houbolt and the others were failing to factor in, or 
they were at least greatly underestimating, the significant extra complexity, 
and thus added weight, of the systems and subsystems that LOR's modular 
spacecraft would require. 48 


Spaceflight Revolution 

This criticism was central to the early skepticism toward the LOR concept 
both inside and outside the STG. Even Marshall's Wernher von Braun 
initially shared the sentiment: "John Houbolt argued that if you could leave 
part of your ship in orbit and don't soft land all of it on the moon and fly it 
out of the gravitational field of the moon again, you can save takeoff weight 
on earth." "That's pretty basic," von Braun recalled later in an oral history. 
"But if the price you pay for that capability means that you have to have one 
extra crew compartment, pressurized, and two additional guidance systems, 
and the electrical supply for all that gear, and you add up all this, will you 
still be on the plus side of your trade-off?" Until the analysis was done (and 
some former NASA engineers still argue today that "this trade-off has never 
been realistically evaluated"), no one could be sure. Many NASA people 
suspected that LOR would prove far too complicated. "The critics in the 
early debate murdered Houbolt," von Braun remembered sympathetically. 49 

Houbolt recalls this January 1961 meeting with the men from the STG as 
a "friendly, scientific discussion." He, Brown, and the others did what they 
could to counter the argument that the weight of a modular spacecraft would 
prove excessive. Using an argument taken from automobile marketing, 
they stated that the lunar spacecraft would not necessarily have to be 
"plush" ; an "economy" or even "budget" model might be able to do the job. 
Houbolt offered as an example one of John Bird's lunar bugs, "a stripped- 
down, 2,500-pound version in which an astronaut descended on an open 
platform," 50 but the STG engineers did not take the budget model idea 
seriously. In answer to the charge that a complicated modular spacecraft 
would inevitably grow much heavier than the LOR advocates had been 
estimating, Houbolt retaliated with the argument that the estimated weight 
of a direct-ascent spacecraft would no doubt increase during development, 
making it an even less competitive option in comparison with rendezvous. 

But in the end, the substantive differences between the two groups 
of engineers went out the window. All Houbolt could say to the STG 
representatives was "you don't know what you're talking about," and all 
they could say to him was the same. "It wasn't a fight in the violent sense," 
reassures Houbolt. "It was just differences in scientific opinion about it." 51 

Whether the skeptical response to that day's arguments in favor of LOR 
was indicative of general STG sentiment in early 1961 has been a matter 
of some serious behind-the-scenes debate among the NASA participants. 
Houbolt has argued that the STG consistently opposed LOR and had to be 
convinced from the outside, by Houbolt himself, after repeated urgings, that 
it was the best mission mode for a lunar landing. Leading members of the 
STG, notably Gilruth and Faget, have argued that was not really the case. 
They say that the STG was too busy preparing for the Mercury flights to 
think seriously about lunar studies; they began considering such missions 
only after Kennedy's commitment. Gilruth recalls that when Houbolt first 
approached him "with some ideas about rendezvousing Mercury capsules 
in earth orbit" as "an exercise in space technology," he did in fact react 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Looking like a birdie for a badminton game, 
this early lunar excursion model was pro- 
posed by Langley researchers in the spring 
of 1961 for the suggested Project MALLIR 
(Manned Lunar Landing Involving Ren- 

negatively. It was a "diversion from our specified mission" according to 
Gilruth and, therefore, not something about which he as the head of Project 
Mercury then had any time on which to reflect. 52 

According to Gilruth, he did not know of Houbolt's interest in LOR until 
early 1961. By that time, NASA had begun studying the requirements of 
a manned lunar landing through such committees as the Manned Lunar 
Landing Task Group chaired by George Low (the Low Committee). The 
STG, although still overwhelmed with work, did its best to follow suit. When 
it did begin serious consideration of a lunar program, especially of landing 
men on the moon, LOR gained "early acceptance . . . notwithstanding the 
subsequent debates that erupted in numerous headquarters committees." 53 

"I was very much in favor of that mode of flight to the moon from the very 
beginning," Gilruth has since claimed. "I recall telling our people that LOR 
seemed the most promising mode to me far more promising than either the 
direct ascent or the earth orbital rendezvous modes." The most important 
thing in planning for a manned lunar program was to minimize the risk of 
the landing operation. Thus, LOR was the best of the contending modes 
because it alone permitted the use of a smaller vehicle specifically designed 
for the job. In Gilruth's view, he was always encouraging to Houbolt. In 
his estimation, he felt all along that "the Space Task Group would be the 
key in carrying the decision through to the highest echelons of NASA" and 
that, "of course, this proved to be the case." 5 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Although Houbolt was not the first 
to foresee the advantages of a moon 
landing via LOR, his total commit- 
ment and crusading zeal won the 
support of key people in NASA. 


Houbolt accepts very little of these ex post facto assertions; indeed, he 
violently disagrees with them. He points out that on several occasions in 
late 1960 he had briefed leading members of the STG about LOR and that 
Gilruth had to know his ideas. According to Houbolt, the STG had ignored 
and resisted his calculations as too optimistic and continued to ignore and 
resist them while insisting on the development of the large Nova boosters. 
As evidence, Houbolt points to many subsequent incidents in which his 
ideas were summarily discounted by the STG and to various statements of 
resistance from key STG members. One such statement came from Gilruth 
in an official letter as late as September 1961. "Rendezvous schemes are 
and have been of interest to the Space Task Group and are being studied," 
Gilruth informed NASA headquarters on 12 September. "However, the 
rendezvous approach itself will, to some extent, degrade mission reliability 
and flight safety." Rendezvous schemes such as Houbolt's "may be used 
as a crutch to achieve early planned dates for launch vehicle availability," 
Gilruth warned. Their advocates propose them "to avoid the difficulty of 
developing a reliable Nova class launch vehicle." 55 

Houbolt felt strongly that if he could just persuade Gilruth's people to do 
their homework on rendezvous, "then they too would become convinced of its 
merits." But for months he could not get them, or anyone else, to do that. 
LOR met with "virtually universal opposition no one would accept it 
they would not even study it." In Houbolt's words, "my perseverance, and 
solely mine" caused the STG and various other groups finally to study and 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

realize "the far-sweeping merits of the plan." "My own in-depth analysis, 
. . . my crusading, . . . paved the way to the acceptance of the scheme." 56 

In early 1961, when the Low Committee announced its plan for a manned 
lunar landing and its aspiration for that bold mission to be made part of 
Project Apollo, NASA still appeared to be resisting LOR. In outlining the 
requirements for a manned lunar flight, the committee's chief recommen- 
dation was to focus on the direct approach to the moon, thus leaving ren- 
dezvous out; LOR was not discussed at all. Low remembers that during the 
time of his committee's deliberations, he asked one of the committee mem- 
bers, E. O. Pearson, Jr., to visit John Houbolt at Langley and "to advise 
the Committee whether we should give consideration to the Lunar Orbit 
Rendezvous Mode." Pearson, the assistant chief of the Aerodynamics and 
Flight Mechanics Research Division at NASA headquarters, returned with 
the answer, "No," LOR "was not the proper one to consider for a lunar land- 
ing." A rendezvous 240,000 miles from home, when rendezvous had never 
been demonstrated Shepard's suborbital flight had not even been made 
yet seemed, literally and figuratively, "like an extremely far-out thing to 
do." 57 

Thus the Low Committee in early 1961, recognizing that it would be 
much too expensive to develop and implement more than one lunar landing 
mission mode, made its "chief recommendation": NASA should focus 
on direct ascent. "This mistaken technical judgment was not Houbolt 's 
fault," Low admitted years later, "but rather my fault in trusting a 
single Committee member instead of having the entire Committee review 
Houbolt's studies and recommendations." 58 

Mounting Frustration 

Everything that happened in the first months of early 1961 reinforced 
John Houbolt's belief that NASA was dismissing LOR without giving it 
due consideration. On 20 January, Houbolt gave another long talk at 
NASA headquarters on rendezvous. In this briefing, he displayed analysis 
showing a manned lunar landing using Saturn rockets and outlined a 
simplified rendezvous scheme that had been devised by Art Vogeley and 
Lindsay J. Lina of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley 's Aero- 
Space Mechanics Division. He also mentioned preliminary ideas for the 
development of fixed-base simulators by which to study the requirements 
for manned lunar orbit, landing, and rendezvous. 59 On 27 and 28 February, 
NASA held an intercenter meeting on rendezvous in Washington, but 
no LOR presentation was made by Houbolt or anyone else. As if by 
political consensus, the subject was not even brought up. This prompted 
one concerned headquarters official, Bernard Maggin from the Office of 
Aeronautical and Space Research, to write Houbolt a memo commenting 
on NASA's, and especially the STG's, lack of consideration for LOR. 60 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Institutional politics was involved in the unfolding lunar landing mission 
mode debate. The politics centered around the concern over where the work 
for the manned lunar program was going to be done. The organizations 
involved in building the big rockets were interested in direct ascent, which 
required the giant Nova, and in EOR, which required two or more Saturns 
per mission. Abe Silverstein, the director of the Office of Space Flight 
Programs at NASA headquarters, was working primarily from his experience 
as the former head of Lewis Research Center, which was the old NACA 
propulsion research laboratory now heavily involved in rocket development, 
so he naturally favored direct ascent. Wernher von Braun had to be thinking 
about the best interests of his Marshall Space Flight Center, which was 
primarily responsible at that time for developing the Saturns. 61 For the 
most part, the management staff of Langley kept out of these debates. No 
matter which mission mode was implemented, Langley researchers and wind 
tunnels would have plenty of work to do to support the program. 62 

In some articles and history books on Project Apollo, LOR has been 
called a pet concept of Langley, but that was not the case. Even within 
Langley, LOR was embraced only by a small but vocal minority. Langley 
management did not get behind LOR until after the STG and the rest of 
NASA did. The personal opinion of Langley Director Floyd Thompson, as 
well as that of most of his senior staff, mirrored that of the STG: LOR was 
too complicated and risky. Direct ascent or EOR was the better choice. 63 

Although a brilliant engineering analyst and an energetic advocate of the 
causes he espoused, Houbolt was not an overly shrewd behind-the-scenes 
player of institutional politics. Faced with the impasse of early 1961, his 
first instinct was simply to find more informed retorts to the criticisms he 
had been hearing. So, with the help of Brown, Vogeley, Michael, Bird, 
Kurbjun, and a few others, he developed elaborate and detailed studies 
of the lunar landing mission he envisioned along with extensive analyses 
of weight savings. Somehow, he felt, he must find a way to circumvent 
the problem and convince the agency that it was making a big mistake by 
dismissing LOR. 

On 19 April 1961, Houbolt was to give another briefing on rendezvous 
to the STG. In an effort to package his argument more convincingly, he 
created an "admiral's page." This was a short, visually convenient summary 
for "the admiral" designed to save him wading through a long report. For 
his STG briefing, Houbolt put 16 pages of charts, data plots, drawings, 
and outlined analyses taken from his own analysis as well as material 
supplied by Langley's John Bird, Max Kurbjun, and Art Vogeley onto 
one 17 x 22-inch foldout sheet. The title of his foldout was "Manned Lunar 
Landing Via Rendezvous" and on its cover was a telescopic photograph of 
the moon. Several important people attending the meeting received a copy 
of the foldout which helped them follow Houbolt 's talk more closely. 64 

As had been the case in Houbolt 's earlier presentations, this one also 
dealt with both EOR and LOR, but it had a clearly stated preference 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept 


Houbolt explains the critical weight-saving advantage of the LOR scheme. Because 
the lunar excursion vehicle ("L.E.V.") in Houbolt's plan weighed only 19,320 
pounds, compared to 82, 700 pounds for the lander required for direct ascent or EOR, 
the total weight that must be boosted to earth escape could be reduced by more than 
half using LOR. 

for LOR. In this talk, however, Houbolt advocated for the first time two 
specific projects for which he supplied project names and acronyms. 
The first of these ("Project 1") he called "MORAD" Manned Orbital 
Rendezvous and Docking. This was his old idea for a modest flight "exper- 
iment" follow-on to Mercury that would "establish confidence" in manned 
rendezvous techniques. An unmanned pay load from a Scout rocket would 
serve as a target vehicle for a maneuvering Mercury capsule in earth orbit. 
The second of the projects ("Project 2") he called "MALLIR" Manned 
Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous. This contained the essence of the 
controversial LOR scheme. 65 


Space/light Revolution 

In the last box of his foldout, Houbolt listed his recommendations for 
"Immediate Action Required." For MORAD, he wanted NASA to give 
a quick go-ahead so that Langley could proceed with a work statement 
preparatory to contracting with industry to do a study. For MALLIR, he 
wanted NASA "to delegate responsibility to the Space Task Group" so that 
the STG would have to give "specific and accelerated consideration" to 
the possibility of including rendezvous as part of Project Apollo. In place 
of the STG's apparent resistance to his rendezvous ideas and its current 
discretionary freedom to treat the matter of rendezvous as part of Apollo on 
a will-also-consider basis, he wanted a NASA directive that made rendezvous 
integral to an accepted project. Houbolt wanted something that would make 
the STG, finally, give rendezvous the attention it merited. "I simply wanted 
people to study the problems and look at [them], and then make a judgment, 
but they wouldn't even do that," Houbolt remembers with some of his old 
frustration. "It was that strange a position." 6 

Nothing came immediately from either one of his proposals. Again, the 
reaction seemed to him to be mostly negative, as if the STG still wanted 
no part of his ideas. His frustration mounted. "I could never find a real 
answer to why they wouldn't even consider it," Houbolt laments. Perhaps 
it was the not-invented-here syndrome, perhaps it was just because he was an 
"outsider" who was "rocking the boat on their own thinking, and they didn't 
want anybody to do that,"" 7 or perhaps the STG was just not prepared to 
think seriously about such an incredibly bold and seemingly treacherous idea 
when they were still not even sure that they would be able to make their own 
Mercury program a complete success. Mercury "was proving so troublesome 
that rendezvous, however simple in theory, seemed very far away." 

At this April 1961 briefing, however, a solitary STG engineer did demon- 
strate a clear and exceptional interest in Houbolt's rendezvous analysis. 
James Chamberlin approached Houbolt after the meeting and asked him for 
an extra copy of the foldout sheet and "for anything else he had on ren- 
dezvous." Interestingly, both Houbolt and Chamberlin recall Chamberlin 
telling him that he had known about Langley's rendezvous work but this 
was the first time he had heard any of the details about the lunar-orbit 
version. 69 One might indeed wonder then how widely the information from 
Houbolt's previous talks had spread within the STG. It seems significant 
that Chamberlin was not one of Gilruth's old-time associates from the 
NACA; he was one of the relative newcomers.* 

President Kennedy's Commitment 

Houbolt's April briefing to the STG came at the end of a humbling 
week for America. On 12 April the Soviets sent the first human into space, 

The former chief of design for the Avro Arrow aircraft, Chamberlin had been recruited by the STG 
in late 1959. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, beating the United States in the second leg of the 
space race. Three days later, with President Kennedy's hesitant approval, a 
confused invasion force prepared by the CIA landed at Cuba's Bay of Pigs 
only to be driven back quickly by an unexpectedly efficient army of 20,000 
led by communist Fidel Castro. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy's articulate press 
secretary, later called this period "the three grimmest days" of the Kennedy 
presidency. This national crisis proved in some ways to be more urgent than 
even the troubled aftermath of Sputnik. 70 

Up to this time, NASA had been preparing for a lunar landing mission 
as its long-term space goal. Some NASA visionaries, such as George Low, 
wanted to go to the moon sooner rather than later and were working to 
convince NASA leadership, now headed by a new administrator, James E. 
Webb, that such a program should be pushed with the politicians. Not all 
the politicians needed to be pushed. Most notably, Vice-President Lyndon 
B. Johnson was pressing NASA for a more ambitious space agenda that 
included a lunar landing program. 71 President Kennedy, however, needed to 
be convinced. The one-two punch of the Gagarin flight and Bay of Pigs fiasco 
followed by the welcome relief and excitement of Alan Shepard's successful 
Mercury flight on 5 May was enough to persuade the president. Sputnik 1 
and 2 had taken place in the previous Republican administration and had 
helped the dynamic young senator from Massachusetts nose by Eisenhower's 
vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, in the 1960 election. Now, in just a 
month, Kennedy's "New Frontier" had itself been undermined by crisis. 
Something had to be done to provoke the country into rebounding from its 
recent second-place finishes and national humiliations. 72 On 25 May, John 
Kennedy announced that American astronauts would be first to land on the 

Houbolt's First Letter to Seamans 

Six days before Kennedy's historic announcement, and unaware that 
it was coming, John Houbolt shot off "a hurried non-edited and limited 
note" of three single-spaced pages to Bob Seamans. Confident from past 
meetings that Associate Administrator Seamans was greatly interested in 
the subject of rendezvous, Houbolt took the liberty of cutting through 
several organizational layers to communicate with him directly. 

Houbolt's message was straightforward and not overly passionate: the 
situation with respect to the development of new launch vehicles was 
"deplorable." The Saturns "should undergo major structural modifications" 
and "no committed booster plan" beyond Saturn was in place. Furthermore, 
NASA was still not attending to the use of rendezvous in the planned 
performance of the Apollo mission. "I do not wish to argue" whether "the 
direct way" or "the rendezvous way" is best, Houbolt reassured Seamans. 
But "because of the lag in launch vehicle developments," it appeared to 


Spaceflight Revolution 

him that "the only way that will be available to us in the next few years 
is the rendezvous way." For this reason alone Houbolt believed that it was 
"mandatory" that "rendezvous be as much in future plans as any item, and 
that it be attacked vigorously." 73 If NASA researchers continued to dismiss 
LOR totally as they had been doing, Houbolt knew that someday they would 
be sorry. 

If Houbolt had known that an ad hoc task group at NASA headquarters 
was at that moment in the midst of concluding that rendezvous had no place 
in the lunar landing program, his letter to Seamans might have been more 
urgent. But nothing in his letter suggests that Houbolt knew anything 
about the meetings of the Fleming Committee. Established by Seamans 
on 2 May, the job of this committee was to determine, in only four weeks, 
whether a manned lunar landing was in fact possible and how much it would 
cost. Chaired by NASA's assistant administrator for programs, William 
A. Fleming, who unlike George Low was known to be neutral on the 
ideas of both a moon landing and the method for accomplishing it, this 
committee eventually recommended a lunar landing program based on a 
three-stage Nova. In essence, the Fleming Committee "avoided the question 
of rendezvous versus direct ascent." Seeing "no reason to base its study 
on a risky and untried alternative" and apparently not recognizing that 
using a huge and unproven launch vehicle was also "risky and untried" - 
the committee spent all four weeks trying to choose between solid-fuel and 
liquid-fuel propellants for the Nova stages. 74 

Houbolt and the other LOR advocates at Langley would have been dis- 
mayed. To them, development of the rendezvous concept was "the obvious 
thing" to do before a lunar mission, but to so many others, space rendezvous 
was still an absurdly complicated and risky proposition. Some, like Bob 
Seamans, were not sure what to think. On 25 May, after hearing President 
Kennedy's speech, the associate administrator called for the appointment 
of yet another ad hoc committee, this one "to assess a wide variety of pos- 
sible ways for executing a manned lunar landing." 75 Bruce T. Lundin, an 
associate director of NASA Lewis, would chair this new committee. 

Whether Houbolt 's letter, written nearly a week before, directly caused 
Seamans to create the Lundin Committee is not certain. But the letter 
surely was a contributing factor as two pieces of circumstantial evidence ap- 
pear to indicate.* First, in explaining why a new task force was necessary, 


Houbolt believes that Seamans created the Lundin Committee solely in response to his letter. "The 
story I got [from somebody else at NASA headquarters] was that my letter jolted Seamans, and he got up 
at five o'clock in the morning, got on the phone, called several people and said, 'Be at my office at seven 
o'clock'. . . . And then they formed the Lundin Committee." No documents exist to back up Houbolt's 
version of the story. Based on what Seamans has said about the formation of the Lundin Committee, 
there is no doubt that Houbolt's letter did contribute directly to its establishment but perhaps not as 
exclusively as Houbolt has heard. (Houbolt interview with author, Williarrisburg, Va., 24 Aug. 1989, 
transcript, p. 31, Langley Historical Archives.) 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Seamans explained to his director of Advanced Research Programs (Ira H. 
Abbott) and his director of Launch Vehicle Programs (Don R. Ostrander) 
that the Fleming Committee was finding it necessary "to restrict its con- 
siderations to a limited number of techniques by which it is feasible to ac- 
complish the mission in the shortest possible time." Consequently, "nu- 
merous other approaches" and Seamans specifically mentioned the use of 
rendezvous were not currently being assessed. Second, Seamans, a busy 
man, wrote to Houbolt on 2 June, thanking him for his comments and re- 
assuring the distressed Langley researcher that "the problems that concern 
you are of great concern to the whole agency." NASA headquarters had just 
organized "some intensive study programs," Seamans informed him, without 
mentioning the Fleming or Lundin committees by name. These programs 
"will provide us a base for decisions." 76 

Some historians have said that Seamans made sure that Houbolt was on 
the Lundin Committee; this is untrue. Houbolt was not an official member 
of that committee. Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., was Langley 's representative, 
although he apparently did not attend all the meetings. Houbolt did meet 
with and talk to the committee several times, and in his view, was "the real 
Langley representative" because Loftin did not attend as regularly as he. 77 

The idea behind the Lundin Committee, at least as originally conceived 
by Seamans, was to take an open-minded look into the alternative "modes" 
for getting to the moon. Primarily, Seamans wanted the committee to ex- 
amine those options involving "mission staging by rendezvous" and "alter- 
native Nova vehicles." In the committee's initial meeting, however, that 
original objective seems to have been seriously compromised. Larry Loftin, 
who attended the opening meeting in early June 1961, remembers that Bob 
Seamans came in the first day and "sort of gave us our marching orders." 
Then Abe Silverstein, director of the Office of Space Flight Programs at 
NASA headquarters, came in to address the men: 

Well, look fellas, I want you to understand something. I've been right most of my 
life about things, and if you guys are going to talk about rendezvous, any kind of 
rendezvous, as a way of going to the moon, forget it. I've heard all those schemes and 
I don't want to hear any more of them, because we're not going to the moon using 
any of those schemes. 

With those words of warning, which completely violated the reason for 
forming the committee in the first place, Silverstein "stomped out of the 
room.'' 78 

To its credit, the Lundin Committee disregarded Silverstein 's admonition 
and considered a broad range of rendezvous schemes. With a complete 
analysis of the rendezvous problems by Houbolt and assorted insights from 
invited analysts both from inside and outside NASA, the group looked into 
mission profiles involving rendezvous in earth orbit, in transit to the moon, 
in lunar orbit before landing, in lunar orbit after takeoff from the moon, and 
in both earth and lunar orbit. The committee even considered the idea of 


Space/light Revolution 

a lunar-surface rendezvous. This involved launching a fuel cache and a few 
other unmanned components of a return spacecraft to the -moon's surface a 
payload of some 5000 pounds and then landing astronauts separately in a 
second spacecraft whose fuel supply would be exhausted just reaching the 
moon. The notion, as absurd as it now sounds, was for the landed astronauts 
to leave their craft and locate the previously deposited hardware (homing 
beacons previously landed as part of the unmanned Surveyor program were 
to make pinpoint landings possible) and then to assemble and fuel a new 
spacecraft for the return trip home. The spacecraft would be checked out 
by television monitoring equipment before sending men from earth to the 
landing area via a second spacecraft. 

Houbolt thought this was "the most harebrained idea" he had ever heard. 
In the committee's final "summary rating" of the comparative value of 
the various rendezvous concepts, however, lunar-surface rendezvous finished 
only slightly lower than did Houbolt 's LOR. One anonymous committee 
member (most likely the JPL representative) chose lunar-surface rendezvous 
as his first choice. 79 

As Houbolt remembers bitterly, the Lundin Committee "turned down 
LOR cold." In the final rating made by the six voting committee members 
(Loftin voted, but Houbolt did not), it finished a distant third receiving 
no first-place votes and only one second-place vote. Coming in far ahead of 
LOR were two low-earth-orbit rendezvous schemes, the first one utilizing two 
to three Saturn C-3 boosters and the other involving a Saturn C-l plus the 
Nova. Both were concepts strongly favored by NASA Marshall staff, who by 
this time had grabbed onto the idea of EOR for its potential technological 
applications to the development of an orbiting space station. 80 

Houbolt was devastated when he heard the results. To have LOR placed 
on the same level as the ridiculous lunar-surface rendezvous was especially 
insulting. He had given the Lundin Committee his full-blown pitch complete 
with foldout sheet and slides. "They'd say, 'That sounds pretty good, John,' 
but then the next morning the same guys would come up and say, 'John, 
that's no good; we don't like it at all.'" For Houbolt, this perverse reaction 
was hard to understand. 81 Loftin reflects on the general fear and pessimism 
about LOR that ultimately ruled the committee: 

We thought it was too risky. Remember in 1961 we hadn't even orbited Glenn yet. 
We certainly had done no rendezvous yet. And to put this poor bastard out there, 
separate him in a module, let him go down to the surface, and then fire him back 
up and expect him to rendezvous. He didn't get a second chance; it had to be dead 
right the first time. I mean that just seemed like a bit much. 

Loftin and the others believed incorrectly that LOR offered no possibility 
for a rescue mission. In earth orbit, if something went wrong, NASA still 
might be able to save its astronauts. Loftin felt along with the others that 
the idea of LOR was just "kind of absurd." 82 The Lundin Committee could 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

not bring itself to acknowledge that all the other mission-mode options 
entailed greater risks. 

As discouraged as John Houbolt was after the Lundin Committee's 
recommendation, the situation would soon become worse. On 20 June, 
10 days after the Lundin Committee delivered its blow, Bob Seamans 
formed yet another task force. This one was chaired by his assistant director 
of launch vehicle programs, Donald H. Heaton. Following up on the 
summary ratings and recommendations of the Lundin Committee, Seamans 
asked Heaton's group to focus on EOR and to establish the program 
plans and the supporting resources needed to accomplish the manned 
lunar landing mission using rendezvous techniques. 83 Trying to stay within 
those guidelines, Heaton refused to let Houbolt, an official member of this 
committee, mention LOR. 

Houbolt felt he was caught in a bizarre trap of someone else's making. 
He was one of the strongest believers in rendezvous in the country, and that 
meant either kind of rendezvous. Just days before the Heaton Committee 
was formed, he had returned from France, where he had given a well-received 
formal presentation on EOR and LOR at an international spaceflight 
symposium. 84 He and his Langley associates had done the analysis, and 
they knew that LOR would work better than EOR for a manned lunar 
landing. He pleaded with Heaton to study LOR as well as EOR. Heaton 
simply answered, "We're not going to do that, John. It's not in our charter." 
"If you feel strongly enough about it," Heaton challenged, "write your own 
lunar-orbit report." 85 

Houbolt eventually did just that. As for Heaton's own report, which was 
published in late August, it concluded that rendezvous EOR, that is 
"offers the earliest possibility for a successful manned lunar landing." In 
postulating the design of the spacecraft that would make that type of lunar 
mission, however, the Heaton Committee previewed a baseline configuration 
that Houbolt regarded as a "beast." It involved "some five different pieces 
of hardware that were going to be assembled in the earth-orbit rendezvous," 
Houbolt remembers. "It was a great big long cigar." In his opinion, such an 
unwieldy concept "would hurt the cause of rendezvous." He feared NASA 
engineers, especially in the STG, would read the Heaton report and say, 
"Well, we knew it all the time: these rendezvous guys are nuts." 86 

Or they were being driven nuts. For many NASA engineers, the summer 
of 1961 was the busiest summer of their lives; it certainly was the busiest 
of John Houbolt's. "I was living half the time in Washington, half the 
time on the road, dashing back and forth." 87 In mid- July he was to be in 
Washington again, to give a talk at the NASA/Industry Apollo Technical 
Conference. This was an important meeting that was to include about 300 
potential Project Apollo contractors. It was so important that Langley 
management in association with the STG, in the tradition of N AC A/NASA 
annual inspections, was holding a formal rehearsal of all its presentations 
prior to the conference. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Direct Flight 

Lunar Rendezvous 

Relativ. VT( 7 ) *** \> J Relative V 7 

p^babUity N.1-X P^^'y N--/ probability \JL/ 

.98* 1 Launch 

38* 1 Launch 

.98 1 Launch part of escape payload 

.94* 2 Establish coasting orbit 

34 5 2 Establish coasting orbit 

.94 6 2 Establish coasting orbit 

-94 8 3 Earth escape 
.94 4 Midcoune correction 
.94 S Brake into lunar orbit 
.90 6 Descent and landing 
.96 7 Ascent 
.98 8 Lunar escape 
.98 9 Midcouree correction 
.99 10 Re-entry 
11 Touch down 

34 3 Earthescape 
39 4 Midcoune correction 
33 5 Brake into lunar orbit 
.95 6 Descent with lander 
SB 7 Ascent with lander 
35 8 Rendezvous 
39 9 Lunar escape 
39 10 Midcoune correction 
39 11 Re-entry 

.98 3 Launch remainder of escape payload 
.94 4 Establish parking orbit 
.94 5 Accelerate to transfer to outer orbit 
.90 6 Rendezvous (and fuel transfer) 
34 7 Earthescape 
.94 8 Midcoune correction 
.94 9 Brake into lunar orbit 
.90 10 Descent and landing 
.98 11 Ascent 

12 Touchdown 

.98 12 Lunar escape 

.98 13 Midcoune correction 

.99 14 Re-entry 

15 Touch down 



9fi t Overall probability 

Probability for equal 



.26 _ poundage on pad 

In making his pitch to various NASA committees and study groups in 1961 and 1962, 
Houbolt used this viewgraph comparing the propulsion steps involved in direct flight, 
LOR, and EOR, thereby demonstrating the much higher probability of success with 

Houbolt was to give his talk at the end of rehearsals because he had 
another NASA meeting earlier that day in Washington. "I was to rush out 
to the airport at Washington National, get on the airplane, they were to pick 
me up here and then bring me to where they were having the rehearsals." 
However, when he arrived breathless at the airport, the airplane could not 
take off. In refueling the aircraft, the ground crew had spilled fuel on one 
of the tires and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would not let 
the plane take off until the tire had been changed. That made Houbolt a 
little late and the STG member waiting for him a little impatient. "They 
dashed me back to the conference room," and with all of the other rehearsals 
finished, "everybody was sort of twiddling their thumbs," complaining, 
"'Where the hell is this Houbolt?'" 88 

With a brief apology, Houbolt moved right into his talk. Until the end, 
he purposefully said nothing about LOR; he spoke only about rendezvous 
in general. Then he showed three or four final slides. "There is a very 
interesting possibility that rendezvous offers," Houbolt ventured, feeling like 
a lawyer who was trying to slip in evidence that he knew the judge would 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

not allow, "and that is how to go to the moon in a very simplified way." He 
then described the whole LOR concept. 89 

People listened politely and thanked him when he had finished. "That's 
a damn good paper, John," offered Langley Associate Director Charles 
Donlan. "But throw out all that nonsense on lunar-orbit rendezvous." 
Houbolt remembers that Max Faget and several other members of the STG 
piped in with the same advice. 90 

The Lundin Committee had been strike one against Houbolt: LOR had 
been turned down cold. The Heaton Committee had been strike two: LOR 
would not even be considered. Houbolt's rehearsal talk was in a sense a 
third strike. But at least all three had been swinging strikes, so to speak. 
Houbolt had used each occasion to promote LOR, and he had given his best 
effort each time. Furthermore, he was allowed a few more times at bat. An 
inning was over, but the game was not. 

Houbolt's next time at bat came quickly, in August 1961, when he 
met with the Golovin Committee, which was yet another of Bob Seamans' 
ad hoc task forces. Established on 7 July 1961, this joint Large Launch 
Vehicle Planning Group was co-chaired by Nicholas E. Golovin, Seamans' 
special technical assistant, and Lawrence L. Kavanau of the DOD. This 
committee was to recommend not only a booster rocket for Project Apollo 
but also other launch vehicle configurations that would meet the anticipated 
needs of NASA and the DOD. 91 

Nothing in the committee's charge, which was to concern itself only with 
large launch vehicle systems, necessitated an inquiry into the LOR scheme; 
however, Eldon W. Hall, Harvey Hall, and Milton W. Rosen (all of the Office 
of Launch Vehicle Programs) and members of the Golovin Committee asked 
that the LOR concept be presented for their consideration in the form of a 
mission plan. 92 This was to be done as part of a systematic comparative 
evaluation of three types of rendezvous operations (earth-orbit, lunar-orbit, 
and lunar-surface) and direct ascent for manned lunar landing. The Golovin 
Committee assigned the study of EOR to Marshall Space Flight Center, 
lunar-surface rendezvous to JPL, and LOR to Langley. The NASA Office 
of Launch Vehicle Programs would itself provide the information on direct 
ascent. 93 

This commitment to a comparative evaluation of the mission modes, in- 
cluding LOR, constitutes a critical turning point in the torturous intellectual 
and bureaucratic process by which NASA eventually decided upon a mission 
mode for Project Apollo. The Golovin Committee would not conclude in 
favor of LOR. Its final somewhat vacillating recommendation, made in mid- 
October, was in favor of a hybrid rendezvous scheme that combined aspects 
of both EOR and LOR. However, the committee's preference was clearly 
for some form of rendezvous. Lunar-surface rendezvous, JPL's pet project, 
had been ruled out, and direct ascent was fading from the realm of possibil- 
ity. The engineering calculations showed clearly that any single rocket that 
had to carry all the fuel necessary for completing the entire lunar mission 


Space/light Revolution 





















By using drawings that compared the sizes of rockets (top) and lunar landing vehicles 
(bottom), Houbolt tried to convince the nonbelievers that LOR was the only way to 
go to the moon. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

was not a realistic option especially if the mission was to be accomplished 
anytime close to President Kennedy's deadline. 

For Houbolt and the other LOR advocates, the work of the Golovin 
Committee meant the first meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the 
merits of LOR in a full-blown comparison with the other viable options. 
This consideration was the opportunity that Houbolt had been asking for 
in all of his previously unsuccessful briefings. When he appeared before the 
Golovin Committee in August, "they were damn impressed." They asked 
him, to his delight, whether the STG knew all about LOR. Golovin turned 
to Aleck C. Bond, the STG's representative on the committee, and asked 
him to go back to Langley and "check with your fellows on what they're 
doing about this." A few days later, Houbolt was back in front of the STG 
talking to them about the same thing that they had told him not to talk 
about just the month before. 94 

The STG, with the Shepard and Grissom flights at least behind them 
and the Golovin Committee now urging them to study rendezvous, started 
to reconsider. Thus far, as other historians have noted, the STG had "seen 
little merit in any form of rendezvous for lunar missions," but reserved 
"its greatest disdain for the lunar orbit version." Now, at least, some 
STG engineers were showing solid interest. In early September 1961, 
Jim Chamberlin, who had asked for Houbolt's material after hearing the 
proposals for MORAD and MALLIR five months earlier, talked to Gilruth 
about an LOR plan for a lunar landing program and for a preparatory 
three-flight rendezvous experiment, both of which sounded similar to the 
ideas Houbolt had been promoting. Although Gilruth was not convinced of 
the merits of such a scheme, he was open to their further evaluation. 95 

Chamberlin's notion derived in part from the STG's August 1961 pro- 
posal for an accelerated circumlunar program; this proposal appeared as an 
appendix to its "Preliminary Project Development Plan for an Advanced 
Manned Space Program Utilizing the Mark II Two-Man Spacecraft." In 
essence, the larger document called for the start of what became known 
as Project Gemini, the series of two-man rendezvous and docking mis- 
sions in earth orbit that NASA successfully carried out between March 
1965 and November 1966. But the idea for Project Gemini, as proposed 
by Chamberlin at least, must also have had some important connection to 
Houbolt's April 1961 MORAD proposal. 96 

A Voice in the Wilderness 

During the late summer and early fall of 1961, Houbolt was busily 
preparing the formal report that the Golovin Committee had requested. 
Except for his "admiral's page," much of the analysis in favor of LOR was 
still in a loose form. With John Bird, Art Vogeley, Max Kurbjun, and the 
other rendezvous people at Langley, he set out to document their research 


Space/light Revolution 

findings and demonstrate what a complete manned lunar landing mission 
using LOR would entail. The result was an impressive -two-volume report 
entitled "Manned Lunar-Landing through Use of Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous." 
Published by NASA Langley on 31 October 1961, this report promoted what 
its principal author, John Houbolt, called a "particularly appealing scheme" 
for performing the manned lunar landing mission. 97 

This extremely thorough document might seem sufficient even for a 
zealous crusader like Houbolt, but it was not. The Heaton Committee had 
submitted its final report in August 1961 a report with which Houbolt 
fervently disagreed. Houbolt took committee chair Heaton up on his remark 
about submitting his own report. 

On 15 November 1961, Houbolt "fired off" a nine-page letter to Seamans 
with two different editions of his LOR admiral's page attached to it without 
ever thinking that it might cost him his job. He was again bypassing proper 
channels, a bold move for a government employee, and appealing directly 
to the associate administrator. "Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness," 
Houbolt's letter opened, "I would like to pass on a few thoughts that have 
been of deep concern to me over recent months." Houbolt's main complaint 
was about the bureaucratic guidelines that had made it impossible for the 
Heaton Committee to consider the merits of LOR. "Do we want to go to 
the moon or not?, and, if so, why do we have to restrict our thinking to a 
certain narrow channel?" He asked: "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size 
simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving 
rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive?" 

"I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unortho- 
dox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all 
that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt realized that Seamans might 
feel that he was "dealing with a crank." "Do not be afraid of this," Houbolt 
pleaded. "The thoughts expressed here may not be stated in as diplomatic 
a fashion as they might be, or as I would normally try to do, but this is by 
choice." Most important was that Seamans hear his heartfelt ideas directly 
and "not after they have filtered through a score or more of other people, 
with the attendant risk [that] they may not even reach you." s 

It took two weeks for Seamans to reply to Houbolt's extraordinary letter. 
When he did, the associate administrator agreed that "it would be extremely 
harmful to our organization and to the country if our qualified staff were 
unduly limited by restrictive guidelines." He assured Houbolt that NASA 
would in the future be paying more attention to LOR. 100 

Seamans also informed him that he had passed his long letter with its 
attachments on to Brainerd Holmes, who had just replaced Abe Silverstein 
as head of the Office of Manned Space Flight (recently renamed Space Flight 
Programs). Unlike Seamans, who apparently was not overly bothered by the 
letter being sent out of formal organizational channels, Holmes "didn't like 
it at all" and said so when in turn he passed Houbolt's letter on to George 
Low, his director of spacecraft and flight missions. Low was more forgiving. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

Although he too had been slow to ac- 
cept the LOR scheme, NASA leader 
George M. Low eventually became a 
devout believer not only in LOR but 
also in the essential role played by 
Houbolt in its adoption. 

Although he conceded that Houbolt probably should have followed standard 
procedures, he found the basic message "relatively sound." He, too, felt that 
"the bug approach" might yet prove to be "the best way of getting to the 
moon" and that NASA needed to give it as much attention as any other 
alternative. At the end of the memo to Holmes in which he passed on 
these feelings, Low recommended that Houbolt be invited to Washington to 
present in detail Langley's plan for a manned lunar landing via LOR. Low 
even went so far as to suggest that Houbolt should be made a member of 
Holmes's staff. 101 

That never happened, but another person who joined Holmes's staff at 
this time, Dr. Joseph F. Shea, came to play a major role in supporting 
Houbolt 's ideas and making the eventual decision in favor of LOR. Shea 
arrived at NASA the first week of January 1962 as Holmes's deputy director 
for spaceflight systems. From 1956 to 1959 the energetic engineer from 
the Bronx had served as the systems engineer at Bell Laboratories for a 
radio guidance project involving the Titan I rocket. In 1959 he moved to 
General Motors, where he ran the advanced development operation for its 
A. C. Sparkplug Division. His major achievement while in this job was to 
win a contract for the development of an inertial guidance system for the 
Titan II. 102 

With NASA, Joe Shea found himself thrust into the job of sorting out the 
best means of accomplishing the lunar landing mission. During his first days 


Space/light Revolution 

in office, Brainerd Holmes came to see him, with his copy of Houbolt's letter 
in hand. Shea perused the long letter and was taken down to Seamans' office 
where Seamans asked him if he thought anything of value could be found 
in Houbolt's message. Having received an unsure response, Seamans then 
advised the young systems engineer that NASA really did not know how it 
was going to go to the moon. Shea answered tactfully, "I was beginning to 
get that same suspicion." 103 

"Shea didn't know much about what was going on," John Houbolt 
remembers, but quickly he became informed. Within days of his meeting 
with Seamans and Holmes about the Houbolt letter, Shea was at Langley for 
a private conversation with Houbolt and for a general briefing attended by 
Langley management and the leadership of the STG. Going into the meeting, 
if Shea had a preference for any one lunar mission mode, it was a weak one for 
EOR, but after reading Houbolt's letter to Seamans and knowing Seamans' 
sympathetic reaction to it, Shea was not adverse to other options. Shea was 
an open-minded man who "prided himself on going wherever the data took 
him." 104 

This time the data took him to LOR. When Houbolt finished his much- 
practiced pitch, the receptive Shea admitted that the analysis looked "pretty 
good" to him. The new boy on the block of manned spaceflight then turned 
to Gilruth, Faget, and other members of the STG and asked them politely if 
they, too, had been thinking along the lines of LOR. Having gotten the word 
about the general skepticism to Houbolt's ideas, Shea expected a negative 
reaction. He did not receive one. Instead, the STG leaders responded in 
a mildly positive way that signified to Shea, as the discussion continued, 
that "actually, they had been doing some more thinking about lunar-orbit 
rendezvous and, as a matter of fact, they were beginning to think it was a 
good idea." 105 

Shea returned to Washington convinced that LOR was a viable option 
for Apollo and that the next step was for NASA to contract for an even 
more detailed study of its potential. On 1 March 1962, eight days after 
astronaut John Glenn's historic three-orbit flight in the Mercury spacecraft 
Friendship 7, NASA named Chance Vought Corporation as the contractor 
to study spacecraft rendezvous. The firm had on staff one of the original 
proponents of LOR, Tom Dolan. At Langley on 29 March 1962, a group of 
researchers led by Houbolt briefed a Chance Vought team on the center's 
LOR research and mission plan. On 2 and 3 April, Shea presented LOR 
as a possible mission mode for Apollo in a headquarters meeting that was 
attended by representatives of all the NASA centers. 106 The final decision 
to select LOR for Apollo was about to be made. 

The LOR Decision 

In the months following Houbolt's second letter to Seamans, NASA gave 
LOR the serious consideration that Houbolt had long been crusading for. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

To the surprise of many, both inside and outside the agency, the dark- 
horse candidate became the front runner. Several factors worked in LOR's 
favor. First, many were becoming disenchanted with the idea of direct ascent 
because of the time and money required to develop the huge Nova rocket. 
Second, technical apprehension was growing over how the relatively large 
spacecraft demanded even by EOR would be able to maneuver to a soft 
and pinpoint landing on the moon. As Langley's expert on the dynamics 
of rendezvous, Art Vogeley, has explained, "The business of eyeballing that 
thing down to the moon really didn't have a satisfactory answer. The best 
thing about LOR was that it allowed us to build a separate vehicle for 
landing." 107 

The first major group to break camp in favor of LOR was Bob Gilruth's 
STG, which during the critical months of the Apollo mission mode debate 
was harried not only with the planning for the first Mercury orbital flight 
but also with packing and leaving for its new home, the Manned Spacecraft 
Center in Houston. During an interview in the late 1980s, Houston's Max 
Faget recalled the details of how the STG Manned Spacecraft Center finally 
became convinced that LOR was the right choice. By early 1962, 

we found ourselves settling into a program that was not easy to run, because so 
many different groups were involved. In particular, we were concerned about the big 
landing rocket, because landing on the moon would, of course, be the most delicate 
part of the mission. The landing rocket's engine, which would be controlled by the 
astronauts, would have to be throttleable, so that the command-and-service module 
could hover, and move this way and that, to find a proper place to touch down. 

Obtaining that capability meant the need for "a really intimate interface, 
requiring numerous connections, between the two elements," as well as 
between Houston and NASA Lewis. 

Accordingly, we invented a new proposal for our own and von Braun's approach. It 
involved a simpler descent engine, called the lunar crasher, which Lewis would do. 
It wouldn't be throttleable, so the interface would be simpler, and it would take 
the astronauts down to a thousand feet above the lunar surface. There it would 
be jettisoned, and it would crash onto the moon. Then there would be a smaller, 
throttleable landing stage for the last thousand feet, which we would do, so that we 
would be in charge of both sides of that particular interface. 

At that point, however, Faget and his colleagues in Texas "ran into a real 
wall." 108 

Initially their thinking had been that the landing would be done auto- 
matically with radar and instrument control. Then the astronauts, along 
with a growing number of NASA engineers (primarily at Langley), began to 
argue that the astronauts were going to need complete control during the 
last phases of landing and therefore would require a wide range of visibil- 
ity from the descending spacecraft. How to provide that visibility "with a 

Space/light Revolution 

landing rocket big enough to get the command-and-service module down to 
the lunar surface and wide enough to keep it upright" was the problem that 
Houston began tackling in early 1962 and found very quickly they could not 
solve. "We toyed with various concepts," Faget remembers, such as putting 
a front viewing porch on the outside or a glass bubble on top of the CM 
similar to the cockpit of a helicopter. But all the redesigns had serious flaws. 
For example, "the porch would have to be jettisoned before lift-off from the 
moon, because it would unbalance the spacecraft." "It was a mess," Faget 
admitted. "No one had a winning idea. Lunar-orbit rendezvous was the 
only sensible alternative." ] 

Houbolt's role in the STG's eventual "coming-around" to LOR cannot be 
described without upsetting someone or at least questioning the accuracy 
of someone's memory. Faget, Gilruth, and others associated with the 
Manned Spacecraft Center believe that Houbolt's activities were "useful" 
but hardly as vital as many others, notably Houbolt himself, believe them 
to be. "John Houbolt just assumed that he had to go to the very top," 
Gilruth has explained, "he never talked to me." Gilruth maintains that "the 
lunar orbit rendezvous would have been chosen without Houbolt's somewhat 
frantic efforts." The "real work of convincing the officials in Washington and 
Huntsville," he says, was done "by the spacecraft group in Houston during 
the six or eight months following President Kennedy's decision to fly to 
the moon." Gilruth's group sold the concept, first to Huntsville and then, 
together with von Braun, to NASA headquarters. Houbolt's out-of-channels 
letter to Seamans was, in Gilruth's opinion, irrelevant. 11 

Houbolt calls the STG's version self-serving "baloney." He talked to 
Gilruth or his people many times, and not once did they tell him that they 
were really on his side. If just one time Gilruth or some other influential 
officer in the manned space program had said to him, "You can stop fighting. 
We are now on your side; and we'll take it from here," then, Houbolt claims, 
he would have been satisfied. But they never said that to him, and they 
certainly did not say it "during the six or eight months" after Kennedy's 
speech. In fact, their words always suggested just the opposite. Not until 
early 1962, after prodding from Joe Shea, did the STG give any indication 
that it, too, was interested in LOR. 11 

Significantly, the outsiders or third parties to the question of Houbolt's 
role in influencing the STG's position on the mission mode for Apollo tend 
to side with Houbolt. Bob Seamans remembers the STG showing nothing 
but disdain for LOR during 1961. 112 George Low agrees. To the best 
of his recollection, "it was Houbolt's letter to Seamans that brought the 
Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode back into the picture." Only after that 
did a group within the STG under Owen Maynard begin to study LOR. 
"Based on Houbolt's input" and on the results of the systems engineering 
studies carried out at the behest of Joe Shea's Office of Manned Space 
Flight Systems, "the decision was finally made" about the lunar landing 
mission mode. "Without a doubt," in Low's view, the letter Houbolt sent 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

to Seamans in November 1961 and the discussions at headquarters that it 
provoked "were the start of bringing LOR into Apollo." 113 

One final piece of testimony from an informed third party supports 
the importance of Houbolt's role in convincing the STG of the benefits 
of LOR. Starting in late 1961, NACA veteran Axel Mattson served as 
NASA Langley's technical liaison officer at the Manned Spacecraft Center. 
Mattson, who was responsible for coordinating the other NASA centers 
for the first NASA inspection, maintained a small office at the Houston 
facility for the timely moving of technical information between Langley and 
Gilruth's recently removed STG. Mattson's operation was not high profile, 
nor was it supposed to be. According to the agreement that had been worked 
out between Gilruth and Langley Director Floyd Thompson, Mattson was 
to spend most of his time with the engineers who were working on Mercury 
problems. 11 

In early 1962, sometime after the Shea briefing, Langley sent Houbolt to 
Houston. The purpose of his visit was, in Mattson's words, "to get the STG 
people really to agree that [LOR] was the best way to go and to support 
it." Mattson took him to practically everyone who had some interest in the 
mission mode issue, and Houbolt told them about LOR and answered all 
their questions. At the end of the day, Mattson felt that "it was all over." 
"We had the support of the Manned Spacecraft Center" for LOR. 115 

Significantly, on 6 February 1962, Houbolt and former Langley engineer 
Charles W. Mathews of the Manned Spacecraft Center gave a joint presenta- 
tion on rendezvous to the Manned Space Flight Management Council. This 
council was a special body formed by Brainerd Holmes in December 1961 
to identify and resolve difficulties in the manned spaceflight program on a 
month-to-month basis. In their presentation the two engineers compared the 
merits of LOR and EOR and clearly favored LOR. Gilruth had telephoned 
Houbolt personally to ask him to give this talk. In Houbolt's memory, the 
invitation was "the first concession" that Gilruth had ever made to him 
regarding LOR. 116 

With the STG now firmly behind LOR, its adoption became a contest 
between the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Marshall Space 
Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall was a bastion of EOR supporters. Von 
Braun's people recognized two things: EOR would require the development 
of advanced versions of Marshall's own Saturn booster, and the selection of 
EOR for the lunar landing program would require construction of a platform 
in earth orbit that could have many uses other than for Apollo. For this 
reason, space station advocates who existed in droves at the Alabama 
facility were enthusiastic about EOR. 117 To this day, many of them feel 
that EOR would have had the best long-term results. 

But von Braun, their own director, would disappoint them. During the 
spring of 1962, the transplanted German rocket designer made the decision 
to throw his weight behind LOR. He surprised his staff with this shocking 


Space/light Revolution 


Taking charge of every situation, Wernher von Braun (second from left) entertains 
his hosts during a visit to Langley in April 1966. To the far right stand Floyd 
Thompson and Charles Donlan. 

announcement at the end of a day-long briefing given to Joe Shea at Marshall 
on 7 June 1962: 

We at the Marshall Space Flight Center readily admit that when first exposed to the 
proposal of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode we were a bit skeptical particularly 
of the aspect of having the astronauts execute a complicated rendezvous maneuver 
at a distance of 240,000 miles from the earth where any rescue possibility appeared 
remote. In the meantime, however, we have spent a great deal of time and effort 
studying the four modes [EOR, LOR, and two Direct Ascent modes, one involving 
the Nova and the other a Saturn C-5], and we have come to the conclusion that this 
particular disadvantage is far outweighed by [its] advantages. . . . 

We understand that the Manned Spacecraft Center was also quite skeptical at 
first when John Houbolt advanced the proposal of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode, 
and that it took them quite a while to substantiate the feasibility of the method and 
finally endorse it. 

Against this background it can, therefore, be concluded that the issue of 'invented 
here' versus 'not invented here' does not apply to either the Manned Spacecraft Center 
or the Marshall Space Flight Center; that both Centers have actually embraced a 
scheme suggested by a third source. ... I consider it fortunate indeed for the 
Manned Lunar Landing Program that both Centers, after much soul searching, have 
come to identical conclusions. 


Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

The persuasive von Braun then elaborated on "why we do not recommend" 
the direct ascent and EOR modes, and "why we do recommend the Lunar- 
Orbit Rendezvous Mode." 118 

For Marshall employees and many other people inside NASA, von Braun's 
announcement seemed to represent a type of closure, that is, the culmination 
of a sociopolitical process "when a consensus emerges that a problem arising 
during the development of a technology has been solved." In this case, it 
was a very undemocratic form of closure, coming from von Braun himself, 
with very little support from his own people. But NASA, of course, was 
not a democratic organization. For closure to occur and LOR to become 
the mission mode for Apollo, referendum or consensus was not necessary; it 
only required that a decision be made and supported by a few key people: 
von Braun, Bob Gilruth, Bob Seamans, Administrator James Webb, and 
President Kennedy. 11 

How von Braun was persuaded is a historically significant matter. Al- 
though some questions about his motives remain unanswered, one apparent 
factor in his conversion was that he understood the necessity of moving 
ahead with the program if NASA was to meet President Kennedy's dead- 
line. No progress was possible until the decision about the mission mode 
was made. Both the Manned Spacecraft Center and Langley's John Houbolt 
had worked to convince von Braun to come over to their side. In April 
1962 Houbolt sent von Braun several papers prepared at Langley on a lu- 
nar landing mission using LOR, including the published two- volume report. 
Von Braun had requested the papers personally after hearing Houbolt 's pre- 
sentation at NASA headquarters. Von Braun not only passed copies of the 
Langley papers to Hermann Koelle in Marshall's Future Projects Office but 
also, after making his unexpected announcement in favor of LOR to the 
stunned crowd of Marshall employees in early June, reciprocated by send- 
ing Houbolt a copy of the remarks he had made. This was a noteworthy 
courtesy. The final sentence of the cover letter asked Houbolt to "please 
treat this confidentially since no final decision on the mode has yet been 
made." 120 

The LOR decision was finalized in the following weeks when the two 
powerful groups of converts at Houston and Huntsville, along with the 
original little band of true believers at Langley, persuaded key officials at 
NASA headquarters, notably Administrator James Webb, who had been 
holding out for direct ascent, that LOR was the only way to land on the 
moon by 1969. With the key players now supporting the concept, the NASA 
Manned Space Flight Management Council announced on 22 June 1962 that 
it favored LOR. On 11 July, the agency announced that it had selected the 
mode for Apollo. Webb made the announcement even though President 
Kennedy's science adviser, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, remained firmly opposed to 
LOR. 12f 

On the day that NASA made the public announcement, Houbolt was giv- 
ing a paper on the dynamic response of airplanes to atmospheric turbulence 


Space/light Revolution 

On 14 March 1969, four months before 
the first lunar landing, Life magazine fea- 
tured the LEM on its cover (right). The 
magazine proposed a cover featuring John 
Houbolt (below) but did not use it because 
of NASA 's concern for giving too much 
credit to any one person for the decision 
to go to the moon via LOR. 



Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar- Orbit Rendezvous Concept 

at a meeting of NATO's Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and 
Development (AGARD) in Paris. 122 His division chief, Isadore E. ("Ed") 
Garrick, was also at the meeting. A talented applied mathematician who 
had been working at Langley since the 1930s, Garrick had witnessed the 
evolution of his assistant's ideas on space navigation and rendezvous. He 
had listened sympathetically to all of Houbolt's stories about the terrible 
things that had been blocking a fair hearing of LOR. 

While at the AGARD meeting in Paris, Garrick saw a little blurb in the 
overseas edition of the New York Herald Tribune about NASA's decision 
to use LOR. Garrick showed the paper to Houbolt, who had not seen it, 
shook Houbolt's hand, and said, "Congratulations, John. They've adopted 
your scheme. I can safely say I'm shaking hands with the man who single- 
handedly saved the government $20 billion." 123 

In the ensuing years, whenever the question of Houbolt's importance 
for the LOR decision came up for discussion, Garrick said that he was 
"practically certain that without John Houbolt's persistence it would have 
taken several more years for LOR to have been adopted." Although "the 
decisions of many other people were essential to the process" and although 
"there is no controversy that Houbolt had help from others, . . . the essential 
prime mover, moving 'heaven and earth' to get the concepts across, remains 
Houbolt himself." 124 


Whether NASA's choice of LOR would have been made in the summer of 
1962 or at any later time without the research information, the commitment, 
and the crusading zeal of Houbolt remains a matter for historical conjecture. 
His basic contribution, however, and that of his Langley associates who in 
their more quiet ways also developed and advocated LOR, seem now to be 
beyond debate. They were the first in NASA to recognize the fundamental 
advantages of the LOR concept, and for a critical period in the early 1960s, 
they were also the only ones inside the agency to foster and fight for it. The 
story of the genesis of LOR underscores the vital role occasionally played by 
the unpopular opinion. It testifies to the essential importance of the single 
individual contribution even within the context of a large organization based 
on teamwork. And it demonstrates the importance of passionate persistence 
in the face of strong opposition and the pressure for conformity. 

Thousands of factors contributed to the ultimate success of the Apollo 
lunar landing missions, but no single factor was more essential than the 
concept of LOR. Without NASA's adoption of this stubbornly held minority 
opinion, the United States might not have reached the moon by the end of 
the decade as President Kennedy had promised. Without LOR, possibly no 
one even now near the beginning of the twenty-first century would have 
stepped onto the moon. 


Space/light Revolution 

No less an authority than George Low has expressed this same judgment. 
"It is my opinion to this day," Low wrote in 1982, "that had the Lunar Orbit 
Rendezvous Mode not been chosen, Apollo would not have succeeded." All 
of the other modes "would have been so complex technically, that there 
would have been major setbacks in the program, and it probably would 
have failed along the way." Low has also gone on record with his belief, that 
without "John Houbolt's persistence in calling this method to the attention 
of NASA's decision makers," and "without Houbolt's letter to Seamans (and 
the work that backed up that letter)," NASA "might not have chosen the 
Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode." Houbolt's commitment was a key factor 
in the adoption of LOR and was "a major contribution to the success of 
Apollo and, therefore, to the Nation." 125 

At 4:17 p.m. (EDT) on 20 July 1969, John Houbolt, now a senior con- 
sultant with the innovative Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, 
New Jersey, sat inconspicuously as one of the invited guests and dignitaries 
in the viewing room of Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in 
Houston. Like so many others around the world at that moment, he listened 
in wonder to the deliberately spoken yet wildly dramatic words of Apollo 1 1 
astronaut Neil Armstrong: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has 

Alternate cheering and shushing followed that precious moment, when 
Americans landed and stepped onto the moon for the first time. Turn- 
ing from his seat, NASA's master rocketeer, Wernher von Braun, found 
Houbolt's eye among all the others, gave him the okay sign, and said to him 
simply, "John, it worked beautifully." 126 



Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

The reason some of us wanted EOR was not just to go 
to the moon but to have something afterwards: orbital 
operations, a space station, a springboard. LOR was 
a one-shot deal, very limited, very inflexible. 

Jesco von Puttkamer 
NASA Marshall engineer 

By 1969, it was apparent that there was no logical se- 
quel to the lunar landing, and that the agency would 
have to redeploy its resources in a radically differ- 
ent direction. Had NASA selected earth- orbit ren- 
dezvous instead, the lunar landing could still have 
been achieved and NASA would have had at least a 
ten-year start on deploying an orbiting space station, 
rather than waiting until 1982 to let contracts for its 

Hans Mark and Arnold Levine 
The Management of Research Institutions 

No decision in NASA history had a greater impact on the course of 
the American space program than the selection of LOR as the mission 
mode for Apollo. The LOR decision led to a total of six successful lunar 
landing missions by 1972, thus enabling the United States to win the most 
important leg of the space race. Whether the United States reaped the 
many anticipated advantages of winning that race, given the critical national 
and international problems plaguing the country during the Vietnam era, 
is another matter altogether. The LOR decision, however, had other 
ramifications for the U.S. space program; it meant that the country would 
skip the well-laid plans for a manned space station. 


Space/light Revolution 

Excited NASA researchers had been studying space station concepts 
seriously for at least four years when NASA chose the LOR mode for Apollo; 
in truth, many researchers had been planning for a space station from 
the moment of NASA's beginning as an organization. Although the LOR 
decision did not stop all space station planning, it decisively changed space 
station studies by de-emphasizing the immediate importance of earth-orbital 
capabilities. Moreover, the goal of landing humans on the moon by the end 
of the decade became all-consuming, and researchers who did space station 
work in the wake of the mission-mode decision had to compete with Apollo 
for support. After Apollo, the situation did not improve; space station 
advocates then had to justify a return to the development of something 
that the country had once decided it did not need. NASA Marshall engineer 
Jesco von Puttkamer explains this predicament: 

After the close down of Apollo, we began to pay the price. We are trying to fill 
that gap, which we jumped over, and are having a tough time with a convincing 
justification to do it. Sometimes I wish we had done EOR. Then we would probably 
have a space station already. Then we wouldn't have to go back and rejustify 
something that looks to many people like a step backwards. And in a certain sense 
it is. We've been to the moon already, history knows, and now all of a sudden we're 
trying to fill this empty space. 

This was a major psychological and political obstacle for the champions of 
any space station concept to overcome. It explains why now, on the eve of 
the twenty-first century, "the next logical step" in space exploration after 
orbiting a human has not yet been taken. 

In the mid-1970s, the United States did launch an orbital space station, 
Skylab. The technology for this station was a direct outgrowth of the 
Apollo Extension System, a spin-off of the LOR-determined Apollo program. 
Skylab, as successful as it proved to be, was not the versatile and long- 
lasting station that NASA had planned since the late 1950s. Designed 
to satisfy the institutional need to do something after Apollo and to keep 
the NASA team together long enough to finish the lunar landing missions, 
Skylab was makeshift and temporary. NASA's space station engineers, 
in fact, deliberately built the station without the thrusters necessary to 
keep it in orbit for any significant amount of time. By limiting Skylab's 
"lifetime," they hoped to ensure the construction of a more permanent and 
sophisticated station one more in keeping with their original plans. When 
Skylab came down, they would replace it with the station they had always 
wanted that was the idea. In 1979, Skylab did fall to earth and made 
more news as a burning hunk of metal than it ever did as an operating 
space laboratory. The public feared that falling pieces of the spacecraft 
might destroy homes or kill children at play in school yards. Most of the 
orbital workshop landed in Western Australia, and none of it did any serious 
damage. Although Skylab came down, by the 1990s, NASA still had not 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

been able to replace it as hoped. Once skipped over, "the next logical step" 
proved increasingly difficult to justify. 2 

"As Inevitable as the Rising Sun" 

In imagining how humans would voyage to the moon and the planets, 
all rocket pioneers envisioned the value of a staging base in earth orbit. 
The Russian theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovskii recommended such an 
outpost in 1911 in his pioneering Investigation of Universal Space by Means 
of Reactive Devices, and the German scientist Hermann Oberth suggested 
likewise in his 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen. Austria's 
Guido von Pirquet envisioned the use of an earth-orbit station in his series 
of provocative articles on "Interplanetary Travel Routes" appearing in Die 
Rakete ( The Rocket) , which was published by the German Society for Space 
Travel in 1928 and 1929. Despite these early ideas for a station, rocket 
enthusiasts did not seriously consider building one until several years after 
the end of World War II and the appearance of the first practical jet and 
rocket engines. 3 

One of the first to offer a station design was the master designer of 
the V-2 rocket, Wernher von Braun. In 1952, having quickly acclimated 
himself to the American scene and recognizing the need to make spaceflight 
a respectable topic for public discussion, von Braun wrote an article for a 
special issue of the popular American magazine Colliers. This issue was 
devoted to the idea of space exploration. Von Braun called his contribution 
"Crossing the Last Frontier" and made its focus the imaginative design of 
a manned space station in permanent earth orbit. 4 

In the article von Braun wrote, "Development of the space station is as 
inevitable as the rising sun." "Man has already poked his nose into space" 
with sounding rockets, and "he is not likely to pull it back." "Within the 
next 10 to 15 years," von Braun predicted, "the earth will have a new 
companion in the skies." An "artificial moon," an earth-orbiting base "from 
which a trip to the moon itself will be just a step," will be "carried into space, 
piece by piece, by rocket ships." From there, the human civilization of deep 
space would begin. 5 

The space station conceived by von Braun was no crude affair; it was an 
elaborate and beautiful object, a huge 250- foot- wide wheel. The enormous 
torus rotated slowly as it orbited the earth to provide artificial or "synthetic 
gravity" for pressurized living spaces situated about the wheel's center. 
Writer Arthur C. Clarke and moviemaker Stanley Kubrick would borrow 
the torus design for their exhilarating (and baffling) 1968 movie epic 2001: 
A Space Odyssey. In the film, the space wheel turns majestically to the 
waltz of Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube," while a space shuttle vehicle 
with passengers aboard leisurely approaches the station. 


Space/light Revolution 

The hub of von Braun's wheel served as a stationary zero-gravity mod- 
ule for earth and space observations with an assembly of equipment and in- 
struments useful for a host of scientific and applied industrial experiments. 
On-board apparatuses would include "powerful telescopes attached to large 
optical screens, radarscopes, and cameras to keep under constant inspec- 
tion every ocean, continent, country, and city." At short distances from the 
station, there would be unmanned stationary platforms for remotely con- 
trolled telescopic observation of the heavens. While helping to uncover the 
secrets of the universe, the space station would also work to disclose the evil 
ambitions of humankind. With its telescopic and camera eyes, von Braun 
claimed, the station would make it virtually "impossible for any nation to 
hide warlike preparations for any length of time." Such would be the novel 
and unprecedented benefits of a permanent manned base in earth orbit. Von 
Braun predicted that the station would become a reality in a few decades. 6 

At NACA Langley in the 1950s, the prospects of an orbiting space station 
did not pass unnoticed. Several researchers speculated about the technology 
that would be needed someday to develop an operational space station 
such as the one von Braun had described. Suddenly, in 1958, interest 
in a space station exploded. While the ink was still drying on the Space 
Act, preliminary working groups concerned with space station concepts and 
technology came alive both within NASA and around the aerospace industry. 
NASA's intercenter Goett Committee was one of these early groups. 

At the first meeting of the Goett Committee on 25-26 May 1959, each 
member addressed the group for 10 to 15 minutes to propose ideas for the 
next manned spaceflight objective after Project Mercury. Of all the speakers 
at the meeting, no one sounded more enthusiastic about the potential of 
an orbiting space station than Langley representative Larry Loftin. In his 
presentation for what he called Project AMIS, or Advanced Man In Space, 
Loftin recommended that "NASA undertake research directed toward the 
following type of system: a permanent space station with a 'transport 
satellite' capable of rendezvous with the space station." According to 
Loftin, the space station should possess the following general characteristics: 
It should be "large enough to accommodate two or more persons for an 
extended period of time"; it should be "stabilized and oriented in some 
prescribed manner" ; it should be "capable of changing its orientation, and 
perhaps its orbit, under control of the crew"; and it should be able to attach 
to the transport satellite for supply and change of personnel. In addition, 
Loftin argued that the satellite transport or "rendezvous machine" should 
be able to alter, "through appropriate guidance and control systems, its 
initial orbit so as to rendezvous with the space station." It should possess a 
navigation system "which will ensure that that pilot can find and intercept 
the space station." The transport vehicle should be able to dock with the 
station "in such a way as to permit transfer of payloads between vehicles," 
and, importantly, it should be able to return from space and land, under 
control of the pilot, "at a preselected spot on the earth." 7 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 


One of Langley's early concepts for a manned space station: a self-inflating 75-foot- 
diameter rotating hexagon. 

For emergency use, Loftin explained, the station could be outfitted with 
a "space parachute," some sort of "flexible, kite-like" package that would 
deploy to make it possible for the station's occupants to survive atmospheric 
reentry. Otherwise, the space transport would make all trips to and from 
space. As for what this shuttle-like vehicle might be, Loftin indicated 
that the air force's X-20 Dyna-Soar manned boost-glider vehicle, "could be 
modified to perform the desired function." (The X-20 would not be built; 
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara canceled the multimillion-dollar, 
six-year-old program in 1963.) As an "initial step" to test the transport 
concept, Loftin suggested that a "proximity rendezvous of Dyna Soar" with 
some orbiting satellite might be undertaken. 8 


Space/light Revolution 

In his talk Loftin emphasized the many uses of the space station. It could 
serve as "a medical laboratory for the study of man and his ability to func- 
tion on long space missions." In the station, researchers could study "the 
effects of space environment on materials, equipment, and powerplants." 
NASA could use the station to develop new stabilization, orientation, and 
navigational techniques, as well as to learn how to accomplish rendezvous in 
space. With telescopes and cameras on board, the station could also serve 
as an orbiting astronomical observatory and as an "earth survey vehicle" 
for meteorological, geographical, and military reconnaissance. The minutes 
of the Goett Committee do not record the immediate reaction to Loftin's 
AMIS presentation specifically, but several members of the steering com- 
mittee did come away from their two-day meeting in Washington with a 
strong feeling that a manned space station should be the "target project" 
after Mercury. 9 

At NASA's First Anniversary Inspection a few months later, Loftin told 
a large audience at one of the major stops along the tour that NASA's long- 
range objectives included "manned exploration of the moon and planets 
and the provision of manned earth satellites for purposes of terrestrial and 
astronomical observation," and perhaps even for military surveillance. But 
"the next major step [author's emphasis] in the direction of accomplishing 
these long-range objectives of manned space exploration and use would 
appear to involve the establishment of a manned orbiting space laboratory 
capable of supporting two or more men in space for a period of several 
weeks." NASA Langley, Loftin told the crowd, was now focusing its research 
"with a view toward providing the technological background necessary to 
support the development of a manned orbiting laboratory." 10 

Interestingly, in his original typed comments for the inspection, Loftin 
had written: "I would like to stress that we at Langley do not intend to 
develop, build, or contract for the construction of such a vehicle." The 
center's goal, according to Loftin, in keeping with its conservative NACA 
policy not to design aircraft, was to "seek out and solve the problems which 
lie in the way of the development of such a vehicle system." Loftin, however, 
had crossed through this first line. Perhaps he realized that the times were 
changing; Langley could "develop, build, or contract" for NASA's space 
station. 11 This was NASA not the NACA, after all. 

The First Space Station Task Force 

When Larry Loftin spoke to the Goett Committee, he had already 
helped Floyd Thompson organize 15 of the center's brightest researchers 
into the Manned Space Laboratory Research Group. Thompson had made 
a surprising choice for the chair of the space station committee in veteran 
aeronautical engineer Mark R. Nichols, the longtime head of the Full-Scale 
Research Division. Nichols, a dedicated airplane man, had little interest 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

L-62-4088 L-62-4065 

Two key members of Langley's early space station research were Paul R. Hill (left) 
and Robert Osborne (right). 

in making the transition to space. As mentioned in chapter 4, Thompson 
made the appointment as an example to the many other airplane buffs at 
the center. Langley research was still a team effort, and the team was 
now moving beyond the atmosphere. Aeronautics staff members would be 
expected to become involved in space projects. No one should expect a 
deferment not even the head of a division. 12 

The Manned Space Laboratory Research Group consisted of six subcom- 
mittees responsible for the study of various essential aspects of space station 
design and operations: (1) Design and Uses of the Space Station, led by 
Paul R. Hill of PARD; (2) Stabilization and Orientation, led by the brilliant 
and mild-mannered head of the Guidance and Control Branch, W. Hewitt 
Phillips; (3) Life Support, headed by A. Wythe Sinclair, Jr., of the new 
Theoretical Mechanics Division; (4) Rendezvous Analysis, led by Houbolt, 
then the assistant chief of the Dynamic Loads Division; (5) Rendezvous Ve- 
hicle, led by Eugene S. Love, who was an extremely talented hypersonics 
specialist working in the Aero-Physics Division; and (6) Power Plant, led 
by Nichols himself.* According to handwritten comments by Thompson 
on the rough organization chart sketched by Loftin, the objective of the 
space station committee was to "develop technology and make pitch for do- 
ing it." The goal was to demonstrate that "this is possible and this is the 
way we can do it." As for how to organize and manage the work of the 

Due to Nichols' ambivalence about the space project, Paul R. Hill actually took over much of the 

leadership role for the group. 


Space/light Revolution 

committee, Thompson said only to "organize like WS 110," that is, similar 
to the support of the development of Weapons System 110, the air force's 
experimental B-70 strategic bomber. The organization would be informal 
so that it could cut across formal divisional lines, but its work would receive 
the highest priority in the shops. 13 

Thompson made one other revealing note at the bottom of the commit- 
tee's organization chart: "Plan whole organization of getting man to moon." 
This footnote implies that in Thompson's mind the clear and accepted ob- 
jective of NASA's manned space effort following Project Mercury was to 
send an astronaut to the moon and back. The way to achieve that objective 
was, as all the visionaries of space exploration had articulated, by moving 
out from an orbiting relay station. Langley's associate director was asking 
his in-house committee to study the entire enterprise involved not only in 
building and operating a space station but also in using it as a launchpad 
for the eventual manned lunar landing mission. 14 

Not everyone in NASA thought that the space station should be the tar- 
get project. Dr. Adolf Busemann, the German pioneer of the swept wing 
who came to Langley in 1947, argued that the space environment would offer 
experimenters no vital scientific or technological knowledge that researchers 
with some ingenuity could not acquire on earth. But with the exception of 
Busemann and the small group of lunar landing advocates mostly clustered 
around Clint Brown and the Theoretical Mechanics Division, nearly every- 
one else at Langley in the summer of 1959, including senior management, 
threw their weight behind the space station. Members of Nichols' group 
immersed themselves in a centerwide effort to define and answer a host 
of major questions related to placing and operating a manned laboratory 
in earth orbit. Inquiries and suggestions were pouring into Langley from 
the aerospace industry, notably from the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation, 
Chance Vought Astronautics, and the Martin Company, whose representa- 
tives had heard what NASA Langley was up to and wanted to participate 
in the development of the manned station. 15 

By the fall of 1959, the work of the Nichols committee had progressed to 
the point where Loftin could make a simple three-point statement of pur- 
pose. Langley would (1) "study the psychological and physiological reactions 
of man in a space environment over extended periods of time," thereby de- 
termining "the capabilities and limitations of man in performing long space 
missions" ; (2) "provide a means for studying materials, structures, control 
and orientation systems, auxiliary powerplants, etc., in a true space environ- 
ment"; and (3) "study means of communication, orbit control, rendezvous," 
as well as techniques for earth and astronomical observations. 16 In sum- 
mary, Loftin told the committee that Langley was primed and ready to take 
on the role of the lead center in all NASA's space station work quite an 
ambitious undertaking for the former NACA aeronautics laboratory. 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 
From the Inflatable Torus to the Rotating Hexagon 

If Langley researchers favored any particular kind of space station as 
they set out to examine the feasibility of various configurations in 1960, 
their preference was definitely a self- deploying inflatable. The Langley 
space station office had eliminated one-by-one the concepts for noninflatable 
configurations, some of which came from industry. Notions for a simple 
orbiting "can," or cylinder, and for a cylinder attached to a terminal stage 
of a booster were rejected as dynamically unstable; they had a tendency 
to roll at the slightest disturbance. A version of Lockheed's sophisticated 
elongated modular concept was turned down because it was too futuristic 
and required the launch of several boosters to place all the components into 
earth orbit. Proposals for hub-and-spoke designs, big orbiting Ferris wheels 
in space, were turned down because of the Coriolis effects. Disturbances of 
the inner ear, such as nausea, vertigo, and dizziness, would debilitate crew 
members moving radially in any system that was rotating too rapidly. 

Langley's space station team had sound technical reasons for doubting 
the feasibility of these proposals. However, the team possessed a strong 
institutional bias for an inflatable station. After all, the inflatable was 
developed at Langley. The concept also made good engineering sense. 
Hundreds of pounds of propellant were required to put one pound of payload 
into orbit. Any plan that involved lightening the payload meant simplifying 
rocket requirements. Because of their experience with the Echo balloon, 
Langley engineers also knew firsthand that a folded station packed snugly 
inside a rocket would be protected during the rough ride through the 

The first idea for an inflatable station was the Erectable Torus Manned 
Space Laboratory. A Langley space station team led by Paul Hill and 
Emanuel "Manny" Schnitzer developed the concept with the help of the 
Goodyear Aircraft Corporation. Their idea called for a flat inflatable ring 
or torus 24 feet in diameter, or about one-quarter the size of the Echo 1 
sphere. 17 

The inflatable torus had several major selling points. It was "unitized," 
meaning that all its elements were part of a single structure that could be 
carried to orbit by the launch of one booster, just as was the case with the 
Echo balloon. NASA would simply fold the station into a compact payload 
for an automatic deployment once the payload had reached altitude. The 
inner volume of the torus could be given a gravity capability of to 1 G. 
The station could be designed for both natural and artificial stability, for 
rendezvous-dock-abort capability, and for variable-demand power supply. 
The torus could also have regenerative life-support systems for a six-person 
crew. To provide their space station with electric power, Hill and Schnitzer 
pursued the possibility of using a solar turboelectric system, which used an 
innovative umbrella-like solar collector then under development by TRW 
as part of the NASA-supported Sunflower Auxiliary Power Plant Project. 


Space/light Revolution 


Langley researcher Rene Berglund (left) used this figure (right) in 1962 to illustrate 
some of the earliest space station configurations investigated at the center: (a) a 
large cylinder, (b) a smaller cylinder attached to a terminal-stage booster, (c) a 
boom with multiple docking ports powered by a nuclear power plant at one end, 
(d) a spoke configuration, (e) a modified spoke configuration with vertical rather 
than horizontal modules, and (f) a wheel or torus. 

By April 1960, Schnitzer was so enthusiastic about the inflatable torus 
that he made a formal presentation on the design to a national meeting 
of the American Rocket Society. A revised and updated version of his talk 
appeared as the feature article in the January 1961 issue of Astronautics 
Magazine. (In late 1962, Schnitzer moved to the Office of Manned Space 
Flight at NASA headquarters, where he would remain active in space station 
R&D and promote Langley's work in the field.) 18 

In the months following Schnitzer's presentation, Langley built and tested 
various models of the Erectable Torus Manned Space Laboratory, including 
a full-scale research model constructed by Goodyear. But researchers began 
to suspect that the design was lacking in certain key respects. The principal 
concern was the same one that had plagued the promoters of Echo: the 
danger of a meteorite puncturing the structure. Goodyear built the research 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

L-61-8027 L-61-8029 

Testing indicated that the inflatable torus could be packaged around the hub so that 
it occupied only 2 percent of its inflated volume. 


Looking like a huge pneumatic tire sitting on a giant car jack, Langley 's full-size test 
model of its 24-foot toroidal space station receives a visit from NASA Administrator 
James Webb in December 1961. Escorting Webb are Floyd Thompson (far left) and 
T. Melvin Butler, Langley 's assistant director for administration. 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Langley engineers check out the interior of the inflatable 24- foot space station in 
January 1962. 

model out of a lightweight three-ply nylon cord held together firmly by 
a sticky rubber-like material known as butyl elastomer. Such a large 
rubberized surface would certainly be vulnerable during a meteoroid shower. 
This concern proved much harder to dismiss for a manned station than for 
the unpiloted satellite. In addition, while the condition of being "dead soft" 
was seen as an advantage for the Echo balloon, it was a disadvantage for 
a busy manned space station. Some engineers worried that if the flexible 
material was not strong enough, crew members moving around vigorously 
in the space station might somehow propel themselves so forcefully from one 
side of the station to the other that they would break through a wall and 
go shooting into outer space. 

A more serious engineering concern arose that was related to the dynam- 
ics of the toroidal structure. When arriving crew members moved equipment 
from the central hub to a working area at the outside periphery of the ring, 
or when a ferry vehicle simply impacted with the station's docking port, 
Langley researchers believed that the station might become slightly unsta- 
ble, thus upsetting its precisely established orbit. Less strenuous activities 
might also disturb the fragile dynamics of the torus. Knowing that the hu- 
man occupants of the station would have no weight but would still have 
mass, the Langley space station group conducted analytical studies using 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

analog computers to calculate the effect of astronauts moving about in the 
station. The results showed that the mass distribution would be changed 
when crew members just walked from one part of the vehicle to another. 
This change produced a slight oscillation, or what the researchers called a 
"wobble," of the entire station. 

To discover whether they could alleviate this wobble, the Langley space 
station group decided to build a 10- foot-diameter elastically scaled model of 
the torus. This model did not become operational until the summer of 1961, 
however, and by that time NASA had realized that it must either develop 
a more rigid inflatable or abandon the idea of an inflatable altogether. 19 

While still in pursuit of the best possible inflatable torus, the NASA 
Langley space station group did explore other ideas. Most notably, in the 
summer of 1961 it entered into a six-month contract with North American 
Aviation for a detailed feasibility study of an advanced space station 
concept.* Developed by Langley engineer Rene A. Berglund, the design 
called for a large modular manned space station, which although essentially 
rigid in structure, could still be automatically erected in space. In essence, 
Berglund 's idea was to put together a series of six rigid modules that were 
connected by inflatable spokes or passageways to a central nonrotating hub. 
The 75-foot-diameter structure (initially planners thought it might be as 
large as 100 feet) would be assembled entirely on the ground, packaged into 
a small launch configuration, and boosted into space atop a Saturn rocket. 
One of Berglund 's prerequisites for the design was that it provide protection 
against micrometeorites. To accomplish this, he gave the rigid sections of 
the rotating hexagon air-lock doors that could be sealed when any threat 
arose to the integrity of the interconnecting inflatable sections. 20 

This sophisticated modular assembly was to rotate slowly in space, thus 
making it possible for its occupants to enjoy the benefits of artificial gravity, 
which virtually all space station designers at the time believed was absolutely 
necessary for any long-term stay in space. In fact, the diameter of 75 
feet was selected because it provided the minimal rotational radius needed 
to generate at low rotational velocities the 1 G desired for the station's 
living areas. Rotation was the only mechanism known at the time for 
artificially creating gravity conditions. The only part of the structure that 
would not rotate was the central hub; suspended by bearings, the hub 
would turn mechanically in the opposite direction of the hexagon at just 
the right rate to cancel all the effects of the rotation. Located in this 
nonrotating center of the space station would be a laboratory for various 
experiments, including comparative studies of the effects of zero and artificial 
gravity. The nonrotating hub would also contain the dock for the ferry 
vehicle. Preliminary experience with Langley's earliest rendezvous and 
docking simulators indicated that a trained pilot could execute a docking 

North American had been studying the logistics of a permanent satellite base and a global 
surveillance system for the air force, and the physics of meteoroid impact for NASA. 


Space/light Revolution 


With a 10- foot- diameter scale model 
(above), Langley researchers studied the 
attitude errors, wobbling motions, and 
other dynamic characteristics of a space 
station spinning in space. The effects of 
crew motion and cargo transfer within 
the station were simulated by an electri- 
cally driven mass moving around a track 
on the torus. To the right, a Langley 
engineer takes a walk in simulated zero 
gravity around a mock-up of a full-scale, 
24- foot- diameter space station. 



Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

maneuver with surprising ease as long as the station docking hub was fixed. 
If the hub rotated along with a rotating station, the maneuvering operations 
would have to be much more complicated. 

As engineers from North American and Langley probed more deeply into 
the possibilities of a rotating hexagon, they became increasingly confident 
that they were on the right track. The condition that the station be self- 
deploying or self-erecting (implying some means of mechanical erection or a 
combination of mechanical erection with inflation) was not negotiable, given 
the economic and technological benefits of being able to deliver the space 
station to its orbit via a single booster. Early on, the space station group 
talked with their fellow engineers in the Scout Project Office at Langley 
about using a Scout booster to launch the station, but Scout did not appear 
to be powerful enough to carry all 171,000 tons of the rotating hexagon 
to orbit altitude. The group also looked into using a Centaur, a liquid- 
fuel booster for which NASA had taken over the responsibility from the 
DOD. The Centaur promised higher thrust and bigger pay loads for lunar 
and planetary missions; however, Langley learned in early 1961 that the 
Centaur was "out of the question" because "nothing in the [high priority] 
NASA manned space programs calls for it." Furthermore, the Centaur was 
not yet "man-rated," that is, approved for flights with astronauts aboard, 
and a man rating was "neither expected nor anticipated." Centaur would 
prove to be a troublesome launch vehicle even for its specified unmanned 
missions, and the rocket never would be authorized to fly humans. 21 

Soon space station advocates turned to von Braun's Saturn. With its 
210,000-pound payload capacity, an advanced Saturn could easily lift the 
171,000-pound hexagon into orbit. A team of Langley researchers led by 
Berglund did what they could to mate their space station to the top stage 
of a Saturn. Working with a dynamic scale model, they refined the system 
of mechanical hinges that enabled the six interconnected modules of the 
hexagon to fold into one compact mass. As a bonus, the hinges also 
eliminated the need for fabric connections between modules, which were 
more vulnerable to damage. Tests demonstrated that the arrangement could 
be carried aloft in one piece with the three retractable spokes stowed safely 
inside the cavity of the assimilated module cluster. Once orbit was achieved, 
a series of screw-jack actuators located at the joints between the modules 
would kick in to deploy the folded structure. The Langley researchers also 
made sure that the nonrotating central hub of their hexagon would have a 
port that could accommodate ferry vehicles. Such vehicles were then being 
proposed for the Apollo circumlunar mission and, later, for a lunar landing 
via EOR. 

The estimated cost for the entire space station project, for either the 
erectable torus or the rotating hexagon, was $100 million, a tidy sum upon 
which Langley and NASA headquarters agreed. This figure amounted to 
the lowest cost proposal for a space station submitted to the air force at 
its space station conference in early 1961. But, as George Low pointed out 


Space/light Revolution 



63 FT 


1 03 FT 




L-62-8730 L-62-8732 

North American selected this space station design in 1962 for final systems analysis 
(diagram shown at top, models at bottom, left and right). Incorporating all the 
advantages of a wheel configuration, it had rigid cylindrical modules arranged in a 
hexagonal shape with three rigid telescoping spokes. This configuration eliminated 
the need for exposed flexible fabric. 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

at a space station meeting held at Langley on 18 April 1961, NASA did 
not have the money for a space station follow-on to Project Mercury; what 
funds NASA expected were "only enough to finish Mercury and $29 million 
for Apollo." 22 

For five more weeks, until President Kennedy's speech on 25 May, Apollo 
entailed only a circumlunar mission, with the possibility of building a space 
station as a by-product of the earth-orbital phase; however, as George Low 
observed, NASA had not guaranteed that such a phase would be part of 
Apollo. Low warned the assembled space station advocates that the chances 
were high that Apollo would not require a space station with artificial 
gravity. If that were the case, NASA would have neither the mandate nor 
the money to build a space station of any kind for some time to come. 

Such uncertainty put Langley in a difficult but not unfamiliar situation. 
Some sort of space station was possible for the Apollo era, and as long as that 
possibility existed, the basic technology needed for a station had to be ready, 
perhaps at short notice. To assure that Langley would be technologically 
prepared, exploratory research had to be ongoing. 

Larry Loftin made this point clear on 19 May 1961, six days before 
President Kennedy's lunar landing speech, in his testimony to the U.S. 
House Committee on Science and Astronautics, chaired by Overton Brooks 
(Democrat from Louisiana). "We have not been developing a manned 
vehicle," Loftin reassured the congressmen and their staffs. "We have been 
studying what we would consider to be salient or pertinent problems which 
would have to be solved" if the country decided that a station was needed. 
Loftin described in some detail Langley's manned space station work. "In 
order to try to fix what the problem areas were," he explained, "it was 
necessary to arrive at some sort of a concept of what the vehicle might 
look like." He then passed around a series of pictures showing Langley's 
concepts for both the inflatable torus and the rotating hexagon, expressing 
no preference for either design.* After reviewing the general characteristics 
of both designs, Loftin summarized Langley's assessment of the status of 
the space station: 

So far as we know, so far as we have gone at the present time, we don't see that there 
are required any fundamental scientific breakthroughs ... in order to design one of 
these things. However, we have not undertaken at the Langley Research Center a 
detailed engineering design study. If such a study were undertaken, you might run 
into some problems that we haven't been smart enough to think about that are 
fundamental. I don't know if you would, but you could. 

Moreover, Loftin concluded his testimony with a caution, "In such a careful 
engineering design, this is a long-term proposition. We are not really sure 

Two representatives of the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation, the primary contractor involved in 
Langley's study of the inflatable torus, were testifying the same day before the congressional committee. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

when you got all done whether you would have something you really want 
or not." 23 

Whether the politicians understood Loftin's essential point is uncertain, 
for they had a difficult time even fathoming what a manned space station was 
all about and how someday it might be used. Chairman Overton Brooks, for 
example, asked, "You are just going to allow that [thing] to float around in 
space?" When asked by Minnesota congressman Joseph E. Karth what the 
"primary function of this so-called space station" would be, Loftin answered, 
"It could have many functions. We are not really proposing a space station. 
What we are doing here is saying if you want one, we would like to look into 
the problems of how you might make it." Encouraged to say what those 
functions were, Loftin explained how the experience of having humans in 
an orbiting space station would be helpful and perhaps even necessary in 
preparing for long-distance space flights, perhaps even for the two-week 
trip from the earth to the moon and back that the United States was now 
planning. Certainly, if the United States was to attempt any flights to places 
more distant than the moon, Loftin explained, "it would be desirable to have 
a space station in orbit where we could put men, materials, different kinds 
of mechanisms. We could put them up there for weeks at a time and see if 
there are any undesirable effects that we have not foreseen. If these effects 
crop up, then you bring the man back." An astronaut already on course to 
a distant planet was not so easily retrieved. 24 

Betwixt and Between 

Six days after Loftin's appearance before the congressional committee, 
President Kennedy stunned NASA with his lunar landing speech. Apollo 
was no longer a manned circumlunar mission; it was now the project 
for landing a man on the moon by 1969. In one extraordinary political 
moment, step three of the space program had become step one. For 14 
months following Kennedy's speech, NASA debated the advantages and 
disadvantages of various mission modes. For at least the first half of this 
period, many in NASA were quite sure that the country would be going 
to the moon via EOR. In this mode, the lunar spacecraft would actually 
be assembled from components put into orbit by two or more Saturn 
launch vehicles. This EOR plan would therefore involve the development 
of certain orbital capabilities and hardware that might easily translate into 
the country's first space station. 

With this possibility in mind, Langley's space station team worked 
through the remainder of 1961 and into 1962 to identify and explore the 
essential problems facing the design and operation of a space station. 
The thrust of the center's research during this period of political and 
institutional limbo for the space station was divided among three major 
areas: (1) dynamics and control, or how to control a rotating structure in 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

orbit; (2) on-board power, or how to provide electrical power as well as store 
and use energy in the space station; and (3) life support, or how to ensure 
that the occupants of the station could best remain healthy and vigorous 
during (and after) long sojourns in space. 

From the start, almost all space station designers presumed the need 
for artificial gravity. From this presumption came the notion of a rotating 
structure, be it a rotating cylinder, torus, or hexagon, or of a centrifuge 
mechanism within a nonrotating structure that could provide a force that 
substituted for the lack of gravity. Whether it was absolutely necessary 
to substitute centrifugal force for the effects of gravity, no one really knew. 
Perhaps a human in space would need 1 G; perhaps as little as 0.25 G would 
do. One thing the space station researchers did know with some certainty 
was that they needed to be careful about this matter of gravitational effects. 
If the rotational radius was too small, or the structure rotated at too high 
an rpm, the astronauts inside would suddenly become ill. 

The rotation had to be controlled precisely, whatever the station's 
configuration. Thus, one set of problems that Langley researchers attempted 
to solve concerned a spinning space station's inherent vulnerability to 
disturbances in dynamic stability; this included compensating for the wobble 
motions that might occur when crew members moved about inside the 
station or when ferry vehicles pushed up against the outside structure during 

The Langley space station group found a solution for attitude control 
using a system of four pulse jets.* These small pulse jets could be mounted 
at 90-degree intervals around the outside rim of the station to reorient the 
station when necessary. Then, to dampen the wobbles caused by crew 
movements and other disturbances in mass distribution, Langley found that 
a spinning flywheel could be rotated to produce the necessary countervailing 
torques; the same flywheel could produce the torque required to keep the 
station rotating around its predetermined axis. If the flywheel failed to 
steady the wobbles, the pulse jets could be fired as a backup. In late 
1961 and early 1962, Langley researchers subjected full-scale models of 
both the rotating hexagon and the inflatable torus (the torus was then still 
being considered) to systematic tests involving these experimental control 
mechanisms. 25 

Langley researchers found little reason to disagree about what was needed 
for the dynamic control of the space station; however, bitter arguments 
arose over the power source for the station. Two main energy sources were 
considered: solar and nuclear. (A third possibility, involving the use of 
chemical energy from a regenerative fuel cell, was considered briefly but was 
summarily dismissed as "futuristic" and "unfeasible.") To many at Langley, 

A pulse jet is a simple jet engine, which does not involve a compressor, in which combustion takes 
place intermittently and produces thrust. In this case, 10 pounds of thrust per pulse jet is produced by 
a series of explosions. 


Spaceflight Revolution 

the obvious choice was solar. The sun's energy was abundant and available. 
If solar power was used, the space station would not have to carry the weight 
of its own fuel into orbit; photovoltaic or solar cells (which existed in 1960 
but not in a very advanced form) would simply convert the sunlight into the 
electrical energy needed to run the space station. 

Outspoken critics, however, argued that the technology did not yet exist 
for a solar-powered system that could sustain a spacecraft over long missions. 
With the rotation necessary for artificial gravity, situating and realigning the 
solar panels so that they would always be facing the sun became problematic. 
Depending on the station's configuration, some solar panels would be shaded 
from the sun most of the time. Solar panels, especially large ones, would 
also have an undesirable orbital drag effect. 

Some argued that the better choice was nuclear power. The problems 
of shielding living areas from the reactor's radiation and radioactive waste 
would have to be solved, of course, because humans would be on board, 
but once these problems were resolved, a small nuclear reactor could safely 
supply enough power (10 to 50 kilowatts) to sustain the operation of a station 
for a year or more. Yet engineers were not able to overcome the major 
logistical and safety problems of the proposed reactor systems. Particularly 
bothersome was the problem of replacing an operational reactor should 
it fail. Even the shielding problem proved more difficult to handle than 
imagined. In later space station designs, engineers tried to bypass the 
shielding problem by employing a large shadow shield and a long boom 
to separate the reactor from the habitation areas, but the boom required 
such a major reconfiguration of the proposed space station structure that 
the idea had to be abandoned. 

Some researchers rejected both solar and conventional nuclear systems 
and advocated a radioisotope system. In this arrangement a radioactive 
element such as uranium 238 or polonium 210 would emit energy over a long 
period and at a specific and known rate. This power system was based on 
the so-called Brayton cycle (also called the "Joule cycle" ) , which was a well- 
known thermodynamic cycle named after American engineer and inventor 
George B. Brayton (b. 1873). The Brayton cycle consisted of an isentropic 
compression of a working substance, in this case a radioactive isotope, 
the addition of heat at a constant pressure, an isentropic expansion to an 
ambient pressure, and, finally, the production of an exhaust. Such a system 
required minimum shielding and did not require booms or large panels. 
The availability of high-quality waste heat could also be used in thermal 
control and in the life-support system, thereby reducing the overall power 
system requirements. On the other hand, the isotope Brayton cycle power 
system did require internal rotating machinery that still needed considerable 
development. It would also require an increased radiator area as well as 
doors on the skirt of the radiator that could open to allow the isotope to 
radiate directly into space when the power system was not functioning. Even 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

nuclear enthusiasts had to admit that this machinery and auxiliary hardware 
would probably not be available for at least 10 years. 26 

In trying to choose between the various options for the on-board power 
supply, the "power plant" subcommittee of Langley's Manned Space Labo- 
ratory Research Group reviewed several pertinent R&D programs involving 
solar and nuclear power plants then under development by NASA, the air 
force, and the Atomic Energy Commission; however, after this review, the 
subcommittee was still undecided about the best power source. In a feasibil- 
ity study of the rotating hexagon conducted by North American Aviation, 
solar power was the favored source. According to the company's proposed 
design, a group of solar cells and associated electrical batteries could be 
mounted successfully on the six main modules as well as on the hub of the 
space station. When Langley's power plant subcommittee evaluated the so- 
lar modular system, they judged it to be the most feasible in the near term 
because the system did not require the development of much technology but 
was still adequate to meet the projected station's electric power needs. 27 

This evaluation only temporarily resolved the controversy about which 
type of power plant to incorporate in the study configurations. Several 
Langley researchers who favored a small on-board nuclear reactor (and who 
were to be closely associated with subsequent space station planning at the 
center) were never convinced by the arguments in favor of solar power. This 
small group, whenever the opportunity arose, would argue that energy from 
a naturally decaying radioactive isotope ultimately offered the best means of 
powering a space station. However, this group never could overcome the fear 
that many researchers had about a nuclear accident, no matter how remote 
that possibility might be. If the small canister carrying the radioactive 
isotope ever happened to crash into the earth, because of a launch failure, 
for instance, the results of the contamination could be catastrophic. 28 

The issue of the power supply was critical to the design of the space 
station because of the "human factor." As everyone involved with space 
station research understood, the greatest single draw on the power supply 
would be the systems necessary to keep the crew inside the space station 
alive and in good physical and emotional condition. In fact, the human 
factor was central to all the elements of space station design: the gravity 
and energy requirements, the sources of wobble, the number and sizes of 
modules and ferry vehicles, the number and length of missions, and the types 
of internal furnishings and accommodations. Human occupancy established 
the central parameters for the entire research and design process. The job 
of the Langley space station group was not to build the actual hardware 
that would sustain human life in space; rather, it was to "evaluate and 
originate basic concepts of life support systems." This evaluation was to 
include exploration of a range of prototypes to generate the technological 
knowledge that could form the basis for an "optimum-system concept." 29 

The essential requirements for a human life-support system aboard a 
long-duration spacecraft in earth orbit were not hard to determine. The 


Space/light Revolution 

system had to be lightweight and very dependable, and it had to consume as 
little energy as possible. It would have to provide oxygen for breathing; food 
for eating; accommodations for sleeping, exercising, washing, and taking 
care of other bodily functions; and it would have to somehow eliminate or 
recycle human and other waste products. 

Either through in-house research or by contracting out to industry, all of 
these basic matters of life support and many others were thoroughly studied 
by the Langley space station group in 1961 and 1962. Several contractors 
became specialists in the development of experimental mechanisms for 
collecting, treating, reclaiming, and disposing of solid and liquid wastes. 
For its rotating hexagon, North American invented a method for carbon 
dioxide removal involving a regenerative molecular sieve. Small silica gel 
beds removed water vapor from the air and passed it into the molecular sieve, 
which then either vented the absorbed water and exhaled carbon dioxide to 
the outside or shunted it to an oxygen regeneration system. 30 

None of the solutions proposed during this period, however, were com- 
pletely satisfactory. What Langley researchers wanted for their optimum 
space station was a totally closed water-oxygen system one that did not 
have to be resupplied from the ground. In the early years, many problems 
associated with such a closed life-support system appeared relatively easy to 
solve, but they proved troublesome. This was especially true for the water 
recovery and recycling system in which the astronauts' urine was to be con- 
verted into drinking water. In the early years, researchers tried such things 
as simply blowing air over the liquid waste, controlling the odor by using 
a bactericide, and evaporating the water on a cold plate. Unfortunately, a 
huge amount of power was needed to do that, and it was more power than 
any space station could afford. The astronauts' natural aversion to drinking 
water made in this manner also posed a problem. Psychological studies, 
however, showed that thirst would quickly overcome disgust. Today, after 
more than 30 years of space station research, effective technology for such a 
closed water recycling system still does not exist. 31 

Langley researchers went to great lengths to discover the unknowns of life 
in a spinning spacecraft. One fun-loving group made a trip to the amusement 
park at Buckroe Beach near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to ride the 
carousel. They took a bunch of tennis balls with them to throw back and 
forth while sitting atop their colorfully painted wooden ponies. The man 
attending the carousel soon threw the researchers off the ride because they 
were making children sick. But even this information was instructive about 
Coriolis effects on astronaut equilibrium and hand-eye coordination. 32 

Of course, the Langley researchers also carried out many less frivolous and 
more systematic simulations of human performance in space. To investigate 
how the effects of rotation might conceivably hamper astronaut performance, 
the space station group put several volunteers, including a few Langley test 
pilots, into simulators that mimicked the rotations of a space station. Some 
of these volunteers managed to stay in the simulator for several hours before 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

asking (or in some cases, demanding) to be let out. Data from other man- 
in-space simulations, some of them done to garner real-time data about how 
crews would do during 7-day and 14-day missions to the moon, also shed 
light on what to expect inside a space station. 33 

Overall, the early findings about the ability of humans to adapt to life in 
space were quite reassuring. Simple adjustments in sleep and work schedules 
alleviated astronaut fatigue and boredom. An on-board exercise program 
would forestall marked deterioration in muscle tone and other physiological 
functions at zero gravity. Most importantly, a weeklong confinement of a 
three-person crew within the close quarters of a module had no detrimental 
effect on performance, nor did it trigger psychological stress. In short, 
the Langley simulations of 1961 and 1962 reinforced a growing body of 
evidence that humans could indeed live successfully in space, and could 
remain physically and mentally healthy and able to carry out complex tasks 
for extended periods. 

Other critical matters, however, still demanded study. To see if a com- 
fortable "shirt-sleeve" working environment could be provided for astronauts 
inside the space station, Langley researchers worked with a thermal vac- 
uum chamber in which they put small, scale models of their inflatable torus 
and rotating hexagon designs. Built for Langley by Grumman, this cham- 
ber employed an arc that served as the "sun" and smaller electric heaters 
that served as analogues for heat-producing humans. After several weeks of 
tests with this thermal chamber, researchers found that the North American 
hexagon design, because of its insulated, protective walls, was superior to 
the torus. 34 

Protecting the occupants of the space station from the heat of the sun 
was one thing; protecting them from meteorite showers was still another. 
Into the early 1960s, according to a Langley study, NASA still faced "severe 
uncertainties regarding the basic structure of manned space stations." How 
should the walls of such a structure be built, and out of what materials? 
They had to be light because of launch-weight considerations and built of 
a material that would help in the control of internal temperatures. The 
walls also had to provide dependable and long-term protection from major 
meteoroid penetrations; some small chinks and dents in the sides of a space 
station might cause no trouble, but big hits, especially in the case of an 
inflatable torus, could prove disastrous. Thus, structures experts at both 
Langley and Ames looked for the type of wall structure that offered the 
greatest protection for the least weight. They turned to a sandwiched 
structure with an inner and an outer wall. Developed by North American 
for the rotating hexagon, the outer wall was a "meteoroid bumper" made 
of aluminum, backed by a polyurethane plastic filler that overlay a bonded 
aluminum honeycomb sandwich. Such a wall seemed to meet the design 
criteria, but no one could be sure because the actual velocities of meteoroid 
impacts were impossible to simulate in any ground facility. The only thing 
to do was to make further studies. For the inner wall, Langley's space 


Space/light Revolution 

station office looked into the efficacy of nylon-neoprene, dacron-silicone, 
saran, Mylar (E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.), polypropylene, 
Teflon (E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.), and other flexible and 
heat-absorbing materials. These materials could not be toxic or leak gases 
(especially oxygen), and they had to be able to withstand a hard vacuum, 
electromagnetic and particle radiation, and temperatures ranging from -50 
to 150F. 35 

At a symposium held at Langley in late July 1962, the Langley staff 
assembled in the large auditorium in the center's main activities building 
to present summary progress reports on their exploratory space station 
research. By the time of this symposium, Langley's space station researchers 
had arrived at four key conclusions: 

(1) The rotating hexagon was superior to the inflatable torus; a 15- 
foot scale model of the North American design had been undergoing tests 
at Langley for several months, whereas studies of the torus had virtually 
ceased. 6 

(2) Although the hexagon was preferable to the torus, the Langley 
researchers knew that they had not yet discovered the optimum design and 
were committed to carrying out "the conceptual design of several space 
stations in order to uncover the problem areas in such vehicles." 37 

(3) A flight program, something akin to a Project Shotput, was needed 
to extend space station research. The space environment was difficult to 
impossible to simulate in a ground facility, thus making tests of station 
materials impossible as well. As early as May 1961, members of the Langley 
space station office had proposed using a Scout rocket to test the deployment 
of a 10-foot version of the inflatable torus at an orbit of 220 miles; however, 
the idea for the test had gone nowhere. 38 

(4) Whatever R&D was to be done on space stations in the future, 
the researchers wanted their work to be guided by the broad objectives 
of learning how to live in space, of making the station a place for scientific 
research, and of finding ways to make the station "a suitable facility for 
learning some of the fundamental operations necessary for launching space 
missions from orbit." Moreover, they wanted their space station efforts to 
be better integrated with the overall NASA effort. 39 

Langley researchers regarded a manned space station as more than a 
jumping-off point for Apollo or for some other specific mission. They 
thought of it as a versatile laboratory in space, a Langley research operation 
that happened to be located hundreds of miles above the earth rather than in 
Tidewater Virginia. Just as Langley had always explored the basic problems 
of flight with a view to their practical solution, the ultimate use of a space 
station was "for continuing to advance the technology of space flight." 40 The 
objective was long-term, not just immediate. 

How the space station would fare without any direct application to 
the Apollo lunar landing program was a question that loomed over the 
researchers at the symposium. With an expensive Apollo program in 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

progress and LOR the chosen strategy, Washington's support for an earth- 
orbiting space station might quickly plummet, no matter what Langley 
scientists and engineers had to say about the potential benefits of space 
station operations. If the space station was to be built in the near future, 
Langley would have to quickly reconcile the objectives of the station with 
those of the Apollo mission. 

Manned Orbital Research Laboratory 

In the months following the in-house symposium, Langley management 
initiated a revised program of space station studies that would better dove- 
tail with the Apollo lunar landing program. In late 1962, this determination 
brought forth a more focused space station effort one that proved to be 
qualitatively quite different from the broader conceptual studies that had 
given birth to the inflatable torus and the rotating hexagon. As a result 
of this concentrated effort, Langley researchers in early 1963 conceived a 
smaller and more economical space station that would complement and make 
maximum use of the technological systems being developed for Apollo. They 
called it the Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory, or MORL, for short. 

The original MORL concept evolved within Langley's space station 
group. The idea was for a "minimum size laboratory to conduct a na- 
tional experimental program of biomedical, scientific, and engineering ex- 
periments," with the laboratory to be specifically designed for launch in one 
piece atop a Saturn I or IB. The goal of the MORL program was to have one 
crew member stay in space for one year, with three other crew members on 
board for shorter periods on a rotating schedule. Langley wanted to achieve 
this goal in 1965 or 1966, a few years before the anticipated first manned 
Apollo flight, and accomplish it in unison with Project Gemini, the NASA 
program that bridged Mercury and Apollo, whose basic purpose was to re- 
solve the problems of rendezvous and docking and of long-duration manned 
spaceflights necessary for a successful lunar landing via LOR. The MORL 
would be launched unmanned by a Saturn booster into a circular orbit from 
Cape Canaveral, and after a short checkout period, two crew members in a 
Titan-mounted Gemini spacecraft (then under development) would "ascend 
to the laboratory's orbit and complete a rendezvous and docking maneu- 
ver." A few weeks later, two more crew members would join the laboratory 
by the same method, completing the four-person crew. One new astronaut 
would enter the laboratory at each crew change, thus providing a check on 
the cumulative effects of weightlessness on the total capability of the crew. 
Three of the astronauts would occupy the space station for only parts of 
a year; only one crew member would try to complete a full year's mission. 
Every 90 days or less, an unmanned resupply spacecraft launched by an 
Atlas- Agena combination would be orbited and brought by radio control to 
a rendezvous with one of the laboratory's multiple docking ports. These 
ports would not only provide the means for the crew rotations and any 


Space/light Revolution 

emergency evacuations but also would serve as attachment sites for cargo 
and experiment modules. 41 

By the spring of 1963, Langley management judged the MORL design 
ready for industry evaluation. A contractor was to look for ways of 
improving and refining the concept into what engineers called a "baseline 
system," that is, a detailed plan for an optimum MORL configuration. In 
late April, Langley asked the aerospace industry to submit brief proposals 
by 14 May for a contract study of "Manned Orbital Research Laboratory 
Systems" capable of sustaining such a rotating four-person crew in space 
for one year. The Request for Proposals outlined an industry competition 
in two phases: Phase I was to be an open competition for "comparative 
study of several alternative ways to obtain the orbital laboratory which is 
envisioned"; Phase II was to be a closed contest between the two winners 
of the first competition, for "preliminary design studies." If all progressed 
well and NASA approved continued work on MORL, Langley might propose 
a follow-on to the second phase (Phase II-A) in which "a single contractor 
would be requested to synthesize into a mature concept" the design study 
that had been judged by NASA as the most feasible and to furnish a baseline 
configuration for a complete orbital laboratory system. Yet another phase 
(Phase II-B) might involve a final design stage, including test mock-ups of 
the laboratory and resupply spacecraft. 42 

Phase I, the open competition, lasted only until mid-June 1963, when 
Langley Director Floyd Thompson announced that from the 11 proposals 
received, he had selected those from Boeing and Douglas as the winners. 
An 11-member in-house MORL Technology Steering Committee, chaired by 
Paul R. Hill of the Applied Materials and Physics Division space station 
office, had helped Thompson with the selection. At the same time that 
Thompson established this ad hoc steering committee, on 6 June, he also 
created a small MORL Studies Office, which comprised originally only six 
members and was to report directly to the director's office. Thompson chose 
someone new to space station research to head the new office. William 
N. Gardner, formerly head of the Flight Physics Branch of the Applied 
Materials and Physics Division, and his six-person staff were to implement 
the management of the study contracts soon to be awarded to Boeing and 
Douglas. Thompson also formalized the many R&D efforts relating to a 
space station that had popped up inside the Applied Materials and Physics 
Division. He did this on 10 June by establishing a new 19-member Space 
Station Research Group, with Robert S. Osborne, a veteran of the center's 
previous space station office, in charge. 43 

Langley's revised space station effort had not progressed without a hitch. 
Earlier in 1963, still in the immediate wake of the LOR decision, NASA 
headquarters had threatened the cancellation of all the MORL research 
at the research center. To have it reinstated even on a provisional basis, 
Langley Associate Director Charles J. Donlan, who from the start had lent 
strong support to space station research at Langley, traveled to Washington 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

with some of the most articulate members of the center's space station group 
for several meetings with old friends and other NASA officials. Donlan had 
always been a strong supporter of Langley's space station research, and 
together with associates he argued that a manned space station was still 
"the next logical step," after Apollo, and was thus likely to be a central 
part of the agency's post- Apollo planetary exploration. Donlan pointed out 
that a manned orbital laboratory offered perhaps the only way of making 
many necessary studies such as the effects of weightlessness. 

Eventually, the lobbying paid off. In the spring of 1963, Bob Seamans 
issued MORL a reprieve, thus arranging for the authorization Langley 
needed to proceed with the first phase of the industry competition. At 
the start, that was the only permission Langley had. When Phase I started, 
NASA headquarters had not yet approved Phase II and had certainly not 
given the go-ahead for any follow-on phases. 44 

Some of the ground rules for Phase I of the MORL competition conformed 
closely to the general specifications of the rotating hexagon, but others 
reflected some significant changes in the way Langley was now thinking 
about space stations. The major shift in thinking was the realization, gained 
by American and Soviet experiences with manned spaceflight, that humans 
could in fact function quite well in zero gravity, at least for several orbits, 
without serious ill effects. If a few days of weightlessness did not debilitate 
an astronaut, the same would most likely hold true for a couple of weeks. 
Further experimentation certainly had to be done to determine exactly how 
long humans could perform in zero gravity, but as reflected in MORL ground 
rules, researchers were growing confident that a person might be able to 
perform well in space for as long as a year. When Langley asked industry 
in April 1963 to design MORL with zero gravity as the primary operating 
mode, it was abandoning once and for all the long-held notion that a space 
station must continually rotate to provide artificial gravity. 45 

Douglas and Boeing took Phase II of the competition seriously, each 
assembling its MORL personnel into a team situated at a single plant (Santa 
Monica for Douglas and Seattle for Boeing). Douglas had shown interest 
in a space station for some time; in 1958, the company had won a $10,000 
first prize in a contest for a design of "A Home in Space," which had been 
sponsored by the London Daily Mail. 4Q Douglas had also been a serious 
bidder for the NASA contract for a six-month study of Berglund's rotating 
hexagon concept, which NASA had awarded to North American in the 
summer of 1961. 47 Boeing, on the other hand, was something of a newcomer 
to the field of space exploration. However, as the reader shall learn in more 
detail in the next chapter, the well-known airplane manufacturer was at 
this time completing a solid performance in the Bomarc missile program 
and was keen to be involved with the civilian space program. Not only did 
Boeing want the space station study contract, it also wanted to become the 
prime contractor for the ambitious Lunar Orbiter project, the unmanned 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Douglas engineers incorporated the 
idea of a two-person centrifuge into 
their winning MORL baseline con- 
figuration proposal in 1963 (right). 
The centrifuge (bottom, second cut- 
away from left) was to serve as a 
possible remedial or therapeutic de- 
vice for enhancing the astronauts' 
tolerance to weightless conditions and 
for preconditioning crew members 
for the stresses of reentry. 



Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

photographic mission to the moon which NASA was planning in order to 
select the best landing sites for Apollo. 

A NASA "technical assessment team" consisting of 43 engineers (36 
of them from Langley) and organized into four review panels ("Major 
Systems Configuration and Integration," "Subsystems Configuration and 
Integration," "Operations," and "Management and Planning") looked very 
carefully and fairly at both MORL studies in late September 1963 before 
recommending the Douglas study to the Langley director. 48 Perhaps NASA 
was reluctant to give a company inexperienced in space exploration the 
responsibility for doing two big new jobs at one time. (Boeing had just been 
awarded the contract for Lunar Orbiter.) More likely, however, the Douglas 
proposal was simply superior. Members of the MORL Studies Office at 
Langley had spent many hours at the plants of the contractors assessing 
their space station work, and they knew firsthand the capabilities of their 
assembled teams. 

For the next two months, NASA Langley negotiated with Douglas (and 
with NASA headquarters, where the approval for Phase II-A was still 
uncertain) over the details of what would come next: a six-to-nine-month 
study at the end of which Douglas would furnish a baseline system that 
would be so detailed and fully documented that a final design could be 
prepared from it, if NASA so chose. By mid-December all the parties 
involved reached an agreement, and on 20 December, as a nice little 
Christmas present, NASA awarded Douglas a Phase II-A nine-month study 
contract worth just over $1.4 million to refine its winning MORL concept. 49 

The baseline configuration fleshed out by the Douglas engineers between 
December 1963 and August 1964 proved, not surprisingly, to be a mixture of 
old and new ideas. As had been the case with Langley's former pet concept, 
the Berglund/North American rotating hexagon, Douglas's baseline facility 
would be carried into orbit as a unit aboard a Saturn launch vehicle. As had 
been proposed for the hexagon, the first generation MORL would be powered 
by solar cells, but with either a nuclear reactor or isotope Brayton cycle 
system phased in at an early date. The same life-support systems for meeting 
the physical needs of a small crew in a shirt-sleeve working environment 
would also be part of MORL. As before, many of MORL's design features, 
such as separate zero-gravity and artificial- gravity operational modes, would 
in effect serve as experiments that would yield data applicable to other 
manned space programs. 

Because Langley's thinking changed about what was best for a space 
station in the age of Apollo, Douglas's baseline system for MORL involved 
key differences from all the previous space station concepts. Unlike the 
earlier configurations, which had unitized structures, MORL would consist of 
a series of discrete modules. The modular approach would promote greater 
flexibility of function: MORL could grow with evolving space technology 
and over time serve multiple purposes for a varied constituency, including 
perhaps the DOD. The DOD had been carrying out its own manned space 


Space/light Revolution 


According to the briefing manual submitted by Douglas to NASA Langley in August 
1964, MORL "provides a flexible, expandable facility developed in a manner similar 
to current submarine concepts that permit redundancy of life-support equipment and 
evacuation from one compartment to another. "As shown in this illustration from 
the manual, MORL was to be launched by an Apollo Saturn SIB. 

station R&D since the Military Test Space Station (MTSS) project of the 
late 1950s and was currently involved in a study of what it called the 
National Orbiting Space Station (NOSS). 50 

Besides benefiting the military, the MORL could serve the progress 
of science, in general. This was a mission capability that had not been 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 


Two Langley engineers test an experimental air lock between an arriving spacecraft 
and a space station portal in January 1964- 

especially emphasized in the earlier space station studies. When consider- 
ing the inflatable torus and rotating hexagon, Langley researchers and their 
contractors had envisioned only a limited role for general scientific exper- 
imentation aboard the station, but the Douglas engineers were beginning 
to see the MORL as a facility for research covering the spectrum of scien- 
tific disciplines. In addition to carrying one or more astronomical telescopes 
(a capability that proponents of a space station had in fact been pushing 
from the start), the MORL could be designed to have a self-contained mod- 
ule for biological studies involving animals, plants, and bacteria. Such re- 
search had potential applications not only in basic life sciences research but 
also in medicine and pharmaceuticals. For geologists, oceanographers, and 
meteorologists, Douglas provided a specialized nine-lens camera system for 
multiband spectral reconnaissance of earth features and weather systems. A 
special radar system could be placed on board to garner the data necessary 
for large-scale topographical mapping. 

This was not all that the MORL could provide. The orbital station would 
also be the ideal place to study subsystems for interplanetary vehicles and 
their propulsion systems, technologies that could not be tested adequately 
on the ground. Douglas's integrated plan even included using the MORL 
in lunar orbit to provide surface observation and mapping, landing site 
selection, and LEM support. With such capabilities, NASA might not need 


Space/light Revolution 


William N. Gardner, head of the MORL Studies Office, explains the interior design 
of the space station at the 1964 NASA inspection. 

the unmanned Lunar Orbiter program. If equipped with a state-of-the-art 
landing stage, the MORL could land on the moon and become a long-term 
base for exploration. MORL could serve as the jumping off point for a 
manned mission to Mars and as a module of a planetary-mission vehicle 
in which a crew would investigate the physical environment and assess the 
habitability of a selected planet. 51 

In fact, as Douglas touted it, there was little that the MORL system 
could not do, if NASA wanted it done. Thus, while trying to stay within the 
political and economic framework of Apollo, the proponents of the MORL 
were actually demonstrating how a versatile space station could greatly 
expand U.S. capabilities in space and make new exploration possible. The 
MORL would have spin-off studies in areas such as biology, medicine, and 
possibly industrial manufacturing, which would ultimately benefit all sectors 
of society. The lunar landing program, by itself, would make few of those 
things possible. But in 1964 that was a point that neither the Langley space 
station advocates nor their counterparts in industry dared to make, given 
the national commitment to Apollo. 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 
Keeping the "R" Alive 

All in all, Langley was happy with the baseline system that Douglas 
submitted to NASA in August 1964 and was interested in moving to 
Phase II-B in which full-scale mock-ups of the laboratory would be tested in 
preparation for a final MORL design. By 1964, however, MORL was facing 
stiff competition from other space station concepts, not to mention space 
projects proposed by other NASA centers. 

As Phase II-A of the MORL began in early 1964, the Office of Manned 
Space Flight at NASA headquarters was considering what to do next with 
several other space station designs. Most of these ideas came from either 
Houston or Huntsville. The most ambitious of these schemes called for 
a Large Orbiting Research Laboratory (LORL), a huge structure to be 
launched unmanned by a Saturn V, with a volume more than seven times 
that of MORL (67,300 cubic feet compared with MORL's 9000) and a weight 
more than 10 times greater (74,600 pounds versus 6800). According to the 
plan, LORL would be capable of holding a 24-person crew for five years; as 
such, it was the "Cadillac" of NASA's space station concepts at the time. 
At the other end of the design spectrum was a "Volkswagon" version known 
as "Apollo X." This space station (only 600 cubic feet in volume) was based 
entirely on Apollo technology; a modified Apollo command module would 
be used as a small orbital workshop. Manned from time of launch, Apollo 
X would thus be a small "limited-life" laboratory serving a crew of two for 
30 to 120 days. Between these two extremes were various designs for some 
type of Apollo Orbital Research Laboratory (AORL), a medium-size station 
(5600 cubic feet in volume) that would have an extended life of two years, 
with a crew of three to six. 52 

Besides the NASA concepts, military space station ideas also had to be 
considered. Interagency agreements had been made related to the Gemini 
program requiring that all planning for manned earth-orbital missions and 
supporting technology be coordinated between NASA and the DOD. As 
mentioned earlier, the DOD, particularly the air force, was busy conducting 
its own space station studies. By late 1963, experts in the DOD were keenly 
interested in the potential military applications of MORL or of a revised 
MORL design for an air force Gemini-based Manned Orbiting Laboratory 
(MOL) in which NASA's research component was left out. Even before the 
Phase II contract was awarded to Douglas, managers in the OART at NASA 
headquarters had been referring not to MORL studies, but simply to MOL, 
which Secretary of Defense McNamara and NASA Administrator Webb were 
coming to see as a way of combining DOD and NASA first-generation space 
station objectives. 53 

Surprisingly, Langley researchers seem to have accepted the shift from 
MORL to MOL without complaint. In the minutes of the 28 October 1963 
meeting of the Langley MORL Technology Steering Committee, secretary 


Spaceflight Revolution 


The MORL-Saturn IB launch combination undergoes aerodynamic testing in the 
8-Foot Transonic Tunnel in October 1965. 

John R. Dawson noted with emphasis that MORL was being "redesignated 
MOL" and that "MOL Phase IIA was now planned so as to fit with DOD 
coordination requirements." In all the committee minutes following that 
meeting, Dawson always referred to "MOL Phase II" rather than to MORL 
Phase II. 54 So, too, would the Langley press release of 2 December 1963 
refer to MOL Phase II. (In this release, NASA announced that Douglas 
had won the second round of competition over Boeing for a "follow-on 
study contract for refinement and evaluation of a NASA Manned Orbital 
Laboratory concept.") Somehow the "R" in the space station plan was 
being erased as Langley tried to justify a space station as part of the Apollo- 
driven national space program. 

At Langley, researchers did what they could to keep the spirit of MORL 
alive. Looking beyond the industry study contracts, Langley engineers and 
managers invested thousands of hours in MORL/MOL research. In 1963 
and 1964, basic studies continued on a broad front. 

In the area of life-support systems, Langley researchers tried to stay 
particularly active. As outlined earlier in this chapter, Langley early on had 
taken the lead among the NASA centers in this vital field. In 1963, Langley 
researchers wanted to extend their efforts with a fully operational prototype 
of a space station life-support system. In such a prototype, they could 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

Langley's Otto Trout suggested as early as 
1963 that zero-gravity activities could be 
simulated by immersing astronauts in a 
large tank of water. Years later, Marshall 
Space Flight Center turned Trout 's abortive 
idea into a major component of NASA 's 
astronaut training program. 

test all the integrated mechanisms for water management and sanitation, 
oxygen regeneration, ridding the system of waste heat and gases, and all 
other required functions. They wanted a ground test facility a wind tunnel 
of sorts but one equipped for the physiology of humans rather than for the 
physics of air molecules. 

Langley explored several options before it found the right facility to meet 
these research needs. Engineers working with the MORL Studies Office built 
a small life-support test tank but found that the device could not be used 
in manned tests because of safety concerns. As William Gardner, head of 
the MORL Studies Office remembers, "Essentially, the medical profession 
killed it. The medical experts who came in as consultants would not endorse 
anything we were doing. We couldn't get the medical people to say it would 
be safe to do the tests." 55 Another bold idea came from Otto Trout, an 
ingenious engineer working in the Space Systems Division. Trout suggested 
that the space station group simulate zero gravity by immersing test subjects 
in a tank of water for long periods. Robert Osborne curtly dismissed Trout's 
novel idea, a hasty decision that Osborne came to regret when engineers at 
Marshall Space Flight Center took up the idea and turned it into a major 
component of NASA's astronaut training program. 56 

Osborne and others did not want Gardner's little tank or Trout's big tank 
of water but sought an enclosed, self-sustaining life-support system in which 
four human subjects could live for as long as six months. A rivalry existed 


Space/light Revolution 

The $2.3 million ILSS arrives at Langley 
by barge (right) from its manufacturer, 
the Convair Division of General Dynam- 
ics, in August 1965. Below is the home 
of the huge 30-ton life-support tank in 
Building 1250. Test subjects occupied 
this facility for as long as 28 days at a 




Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

between Gardner's MORL group and Osborne's life-support studies group. 
In this case the Osborne group won. In late June 1963, he and his colleagues 
got their wish when NASA awarded a contract to the Astronautics Division 
of the General Dynamics Corporation for the design and construction of an 
Integrative Life Support System (ILSS). Funded by the OART's director of 
Biotechnology and Human Research, this facility was to be built by General 
Dynamics at its plant in San Diego and shipped to Langley at a total cost 
of $2.3 million. 57 

Two years passed before General Dynamics finished the ILSS unit. The 
unique structure stood 18 feet tall, weighed 30 tons, and was housed in a 
cylindrical tank 18 feet in diameter. When the big chamber arrived by barge 
at the dock of Langley AFB in August 1965, a more curious structure had 
not been delivered since the 85-ton pressure shell for the laboratory's historic 
Variable-Density Tunnel had arrived atop a railcar from the Newport News 
Shipyard and Dry Dock Co. in February 1922. 

The ILSS did not prove to be the landmark facility that the Variable- 
Density Tunnel became, but it did contribute significant data. In the years 
following its long-anticipated arrival, manned and unmanned tests in the 
big test chamber provided a wealth of new information about how various 
life-support systems would work individually and together. The longest 
human occupancy experiment lasted 28 days. The ILSS test program 
even included microbiological experiments on possible toxic contaminants 
in space. Langley management heartily supported the ILSS program, thus 
allowing it to encompass the efforts of dozens of Langley staff members in 
the Space Systems and Instrument Research divisions. Associate Director 
Charles Donlan even worked personally on some aspects of the project. 58 

By the time ILSS came on-line at Langley in August 1965, however, 
NASA knew that its space station research must, out of political and 
economic necessity, become more sharply defined. With costs for Gemini and 
Apollo rapidly outstripping early estimates and the nation in an increasingly 
expensive war in Vietnam, the space agency realized that if any manned 
orbiting facility was to obtain funding and become a reality, it would have 
to be a part of Apollo. 

Understanding Why and Why Not 

The economical Apollo Extension System became NASA's surrogate 
choice for its first orbiting space station. This crushed Langley researchers' 
dreams for MORL. Instead of a versatile laboratory with an extended 
life of five years in which all sorts of experiments could be done, NASA 
would settle, at least for the time being, for a small space station with 
a limited life. This station would be launched as soon as possible after 
Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon. For the Apollo Extension System, 
NASA headquarters asked Langley researchers to devise potential mission 


Spaceflight Revolution 

experiments, tempting them with the responsibility of acting as principal 
investigators. Osborne's panel on space station experiments responded 
by collecting experiments in 11 categories ranging from regenerative life- 
support systems to extravehicular activities, horizon sensing, and radiation 
effects. 59 

Two years would pass before a new president, Richard Nixon, and the 
Congress extinguished what remained of Langley's hopes for a multifaceted 
U.S. space program. In 1967 the Apollo Extension System became the 
Apollo Applications Program. NASA headquarters called upon Langley, 
Houston, and Marshall to carry out independent studies to "identify the 
most desirable Agency program for the Saturn workshop," noting "the 
constraints of projected funding limitation." The outcome at Langley 
was one of the research center's last major contributions to space station 
development: an "Intermediate Orbital Workshop System Study" issued by 
the MORL Studies Office on 28 June 1968. 60 

The concluding remarks of this 1968 in-house report encapsulate the 
years of hard work and intellectual energy Langley designers and researchers 
had devoted to the idea of a U.S. civilian space station. The report described 
a versatile facility that "should be and can be inherently capable of growth 
into the ultimate space station which will provide broad capability manned 
systems." True to the original Langley vision, it called for a two-phase 
program that would begin with a manned orbiting workshop, followed by a 
space station similar to MORL. The report emphasized that "definition of a 
real manned experiment program and supporting requirements is mandatory 
to the true understanding of spacecraft system needs and total flight system 
scope." 61 

Not even the economical first phase came to pass as conceived. In 
late 1968, a spending-weary Congress slashed the budget of the Apollo 
Applications Program to one-third of the NASA request. A down-scaled 
concept, the Skylab orbital workshop, would be launched in May 1973, 
carrying with it an experiment package developed by Langley researchers. 
By that time, however, with personnel reductions and program shifts 
resulting from severe budget cuts within NASA, Langley was largely out 
of the space station business. When so-called Phase B Definition Studies 
for NASA's space station program began in 1969, they were managed by 
the Marshall and Johnson centers. 62 

Bigger ideas were stealing the thunder from the Langley concept. At 
Houston in 1968, engineers were working on plans for a huge "Space 
Base" weighing a million pounds, with room for thousands of pounds of 
experiments, and a crew of 75 to 100 people. According to the plan, the 
Space Base would provide .1 G by spinning at 3.5 rpm at the 240-foot 
radius of the living module and would operate "on a permanent basis to 
take advantage of the economics of size, centralization, and permanency." 
The base would be constructed in an orbital buildup of hardware delivered 
by no less than three Saturn launches. 63 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

Although everyone recognized that this large space station would have 
to come after the Apollo Applications workshop, Houston's grandiose 
idea nonetheless had "a significant effect on agency planning" and one 
that in the end did not help the ultimate cause of the space station 
program. 64 When Phase B Definition began in late 1969, with major con- 
tracts awarded to McDonnell Douglas and North American Rockwell, the 
notion of a large station held sway. The contractors were asked to explore 
the feasibility of a smaller but still rather large station, 33 feet in diameter, 
to be launched by a Saturn V and manned initially by a crew of 12. The 
NASA/industry space station teams were to do this "in concert with stud- 
ies of future large space bases," involving crews of 100 people or more, as 
well as with manned missions to Mars. Crews for some of these space base 
concepts exceeded 100 and included plans for an advanced logistics system, 
which was soon to be named the "Space Shuttle." 65 

In 1971, when the decision was made to go forward with the development 
of the manned Space Shuttle, NASA redirected its space station contractors 
to consider a modular design, with the modules to be placed in orbit, not 
by Saturns, but by a totally reusable shuttle. The purpose of Phase B from 
that point on, into 1972, was to define the modular concepts. A large space 
station with the Space Shuttle to assemble and service it was now "the 
next logical step" in NASA's manned space program following the Apollo 
Applications Program and Skylab. 

Politics and budget pressures, however, once again meant a missed step. 
The nation had neither the will nor the money for NASA's entire mission 
package. As Howard McCurdy points out in his 1990 analysis The Space 
Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice, NASA 
officials, having failed to win the support of the Nixon administration for 
their internal long-range plan, decided to shift their strategy. "Rather than 
seek a comprehensive, Apollo-style commitment, they decided to pursue the 
steps in their plan one by one." 66 NASA would ask first for an economical 
Space Transportation System, the Shuttle, then they would ask for the space 
station. The result, after Nixon accepted NASA's compromise, meant that 
"the next logical step" would be skipped once again. 

Lost in Space? 

The majority of Langley researchers involved in the pioneering space 
station studies of the early 1960s believe that the decision not to develop 
and deploy the MORL was a major national mistake. As many of them 
have asserted in retrospect, the Soviet's tremendously successful MIR space 
station of the 1980s (the spacious follow-on to the more primitive Salyuts 
first launched in 1971) "would prove to be almost exactly like what MORL 
would have been." 67 W. Ray Hook, a member of Langley 's MORL Studies 
Office, expresses the general sentiment of Langley researchers: 


Space/light Revolution 

Skipping over a space station for a second time 
left William N. Gardner, head of Langley's 
MORL office, with a bitter taste for his pi- 
oneering work of the 1960s and a judgment 
that NASA, unlike NACA, was too much the 
creature of presidential projects or the lack of 

them. ^___^^^^_______ 


Our goal was to get one man in space for one year. That was the simple objective. 
Of course, it has since gotten a lot more complicated. I have often thought that if 
we'd stuck with that simple-minded objective, we would have, thirty years later, one 


man in space for one year, which we don't. 

If the modular MORL had been ready for deployment on the heels of Skylab, 
as MIR was ready to go after the Salyuts, the United States like the Soviets 
would have amassed countless man-hours in space and conducted numerous 
useful experiments. If the country had supported MORL, it might have been 
easier to design and justify Space Station Freedom, and instead of being in 
the present position of considering the purchase of a MIR from the former 
Soviet Union and proceeding toward an international space station, Alpha, 
the United States might today be operating its own station. 

The most bitter among Langley space station enthusiasts feel that the 
decisions regarding the station were not only mistakes but also symptoms of 
a basic flaw in NASA's organizational character. "It finally dawned on 
me," explains William Gardner, the head of the MORL Studies Office, 
"that NASA wasn't intended to be a real federal agency." NASA did 
not enjoy a long-term goal like the former NACA an agency designed 
"to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with 
a view to their practical solution," or even like the FAA, whose job was 
to make air travel effective and safe. "NASA was just a project of the 
presidential administration," and under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and 
Nixon, the project was "just to put a man on the moon." "We do spectacular 
things when the Administration wants spectacular things done," Gardner 
challenges, and when it does not, "we don't really have .a mandate." 69 


Skipping "The Next Logical Step" 

But Langley researchers, out of technological conviction or political 
naivete, or both, kept working on the space station as if they had such 
a mandate. The effort was not in vain. In persisting with their design and 
redesign of space stations and seeking to understand how humans could live 
and work in space, they contributed to the successes of Apollo, Skylab, and 
the Space Shuttle, and they laid a solid foundation upon which to build 
when NASA in the early 1980s created a new Space Station Task Force 
and once again began examining the program options for "the next logical 
step" a step that may in its own time be skipped over for something else. 
In the wake of the spaceflight revolution, it would take all the running space 
station researchers could do, just to keep in the same place. 



To Behold the Moon: 
The Lunar Orbiter Project 

But, Cliff, you said we weren't going to improvise like 
this . . . 

But, listen to what I say now! We 've worked out the 
numbers. It's worth the risk. 

Conversation between Boeing engineer 
project manager Robert J. Helberg 
and Clifford H. Nelson, head of 
Langley's Lunar Orbiter Project Office, 
concerning a change in the mission 
plan for Lunar Orbiter I. 

The bold plan for an Apollo mission based on LOR held the promise 
of landing on the moon by 1969, but it presented many daunting technical 
difficulties. Before NASA could dare attempt any type of lunar landing, 
it had to learn a great deal more about the destination. Although no one 
believed that the moon was made of green cheese, some lunar theories of 
the early 1960s seemed equally fantastic. One theory suggested that the 
moon was covered by a layer of dust perhaps 50 feet thick. If this were true, 
no spacecraft would be able to safely land on or take off from the lunar 
surface. Another theory claimed that the moon's dust was not nearly so 
thick but that it possessed an electrostatic charge that would cause it to 
stick to the windows of the lunar landing vehicle, thus making it impossible 
for the astronauts to see out as they landed. Cornell University astronomer 
Thomas Gold warned that the moon might even be composed of a spongy 
material that would crumble upon impact. 1 

At Langley, Dr. Leonard Roberts, a British mathematician in Clint 
Brown's Theoretical Mechanics Division, pondered the riddle of the lunar 


Spaceflight Revolution 

surface and drew an equally pessimistic conclusion. Roberts speculated 
that because the moon was millions of years old and had been constantly 
bombarded without the protection of an atmosphere, its surface was most 
likely so soft that any vehicle attempting to land on it would sink and be 
buried as if it had landed in quicksand. After the president's commitment 
to a manned lunar landing in 1961, Roberts began an extensive three-year 
research program to show just what would happen if an exhaust rocket 
blasted into a surface of very thick powdered sand. His analysis indicated 
that an incoming rocket would throw up a mountain of sand, thus creating 
a big rim all the way around the outside of the landed spacecraft. Once 
the spacecraft settled, this huge bordering volume of sand would collapse, 
completely engulf the spacecraft, and kill its occupants. 2 

Telescopes revealed little about the nature of the lunar surface. Not even 
the latest, most powerful optical instruments could see through the earth's 
atmosphere well enough to resolve the moon's detailed surface features. 
Even an object the size of a football stadium would not show up on a 
telescopic photograph, and enlarging the photograph would only increase 
the blur. To separate fact from fiction and obtain the necessary information 
about the craters, crevices, and jagged rocks on the lunar surface, NASA 
would have to send out automated probes to take a closer look. 

The first of these probes took off for the moon in January 1962 as part 
of a NASA project known as Ranger. A small 800-pound spacecraft was 
to make a "hard landing," crashing to its destruction on the moon. Before 
Ranger crashed, however, its on-board multiple television camera payload 
was to send back close views of the surface views far more detailed than 
any captured by a telescope. Sadly, the first six Ranger probes were not 
successful. Malfunctions of the booster or failures of the launch-vehicle 
guidance system plagued the first three attempts; malfunctions of the 
spacecraft itself hampered the fourth and fifth probes; and the primary 
experiment could not take place during the sixth Ranger attempt because 
the television equipment would not transmit. Although these incomplete 
missions did provide some extremely valuable high- resolution photographs, 
as well as some significant data on the performance of Ranger's systems, 
in total the highly publicized record of failures embarrassed NASA and 
demoralized the Ranger project managers at JPL. Fortunately, the last 
three Ranger flights in 1964 and 1965 were successful. These flights showed 
that a lunar landing was possible, but the site would have to be carefully 
chosen to avoid craters and big boulders. 3 

JPL managed a follow-on project to Ranger known as Surveyor. Despite 
failures and serious schedule delays, between May 1966 and January 1968, 
six Surveyor spacecraft made successful soft landings at predetermined 
points on the lunar surface. From the touchdown dynamics, surface- 
bearing strength measurements, and eye-level television scanning of the 
local surface conditions, NASA learned that the moon could easily support 
the impact and the weight of a small lander. Originally, NASA also 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

planned for (and Congress had authorized) a second type of Surveyor 
spacecraft, which instead of making a soft landing on the moon, was to 
be equipped for high-resolution stereoscopic film photography of the moon's 
surface from lunar orbit and for instrumented measurements of the lunar 
environment. However, this second Surveyor or "Surveyor Orbiter" did not 
materialize. The staff and facilities of JPL were already overburdened with 
the responsibilities for Ranger and "Surveyor Lander"; they simply could 
not take on another major spaceflight project. 4 

In 1963, NASA scrapped its plans for a Surveyor Orbiter and turned 
its attention to a lunar orbiter project that would not use the Surveyor 
spacecraft system or the Surveyor launch vehicle, Centaur. Lunar Orbiter 
would have a new spacecraft and use the Atlas- Agena D to launch it into 
space. Unlike the preceding unmanned lunar probes, which were originally 
designed for general scientific study, Lunar Orbiter was conceived after a 
manned lunar landing became a national commitment. The project goal 
from the start was to support the Apollo mission. Specifically, Lunar Orbiter 
was designed to provide information on the lunar surface conditions most 
relevant to a spacecraft landing. This meant, among other things, that 
its camera had to be sensitive enough to capture subtle slopes and minor 
protuberances and depressions over a broad area of the moon's front side. 
As an early working group on the requirements of the lunar photographic 
mission had determined, Lunar Orbiter had to allow the identification of 45- 
meter objects over the entire facing surface of the moon, 4.5-meter objects 
in the "Apollo zone of interest," and 1.2-meter objects in all the proposed 
landing areas. 5 

Five Lunar Orbiter missions took place. The first launch occurred in 
August 1966 within two months of the initial target date. The next four 
Lunar Orbiters were launched on schedule; the final mission was completed 
in August 1967, barely a year after the first launch. NASA had planned five 
flights because mission reliability studies had indicated that five might be 
necessary to achieve even one success. However, all five Lunar Orbiters were 
successful, and the prime objective of the project, which was to photograph 
in detail all the proposed landing sites, was met in three missions. This 
meant that the last two flights could be devoted to photographic exploration 
of the rest of the lunar surface for more general scientific purposes. The final 
cost of the program was not slight: it totaled $163 million, which was more 
than twice the original estimate of $77 million. That increase, however, 
compares favorably with the escalation in the price of similar projects, such 
as Surveyor, which had an estimated cost of $125 million and a final cost of 
$469 million. 

In retrospect, Lunar Orbiter must be, and rightfully has been, regarded 
as an unqualified success. For the people and institutions responsible, 
the project proved to be an overwhelmingly positive learning experience 
on which greater capabilities and ambitions were built. For both the 
prime contractor, the Boeing Company, a world leader in the building of 


Space/light Revolution 


The most successful of the pre-Apollo probes, Lunar Orbiter mapped the equatorial 
regions of the moon and gave NASA the data it needed to pinpoint ideal landing 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

airplanes, and the project manager, Langley Research Center, a premier 
aeronautics laboratory, involvement in Lunar Orbiter was a turning point. 
The successful execution of a risky enterprise became proof positive that 
they were more than capable of moving into the new world of deep space. 
For many observers as well as for the people who worked on the project, 
Lunar Orbiter quickly became a model of how to handle a program of space 
exploration. Its successful progress demonstrated how a clear and discrete 
objective, strong leadership, and positive person-to-person communication 
skills can keep a project on track from start to finish. 6 

Many people inside the American space science community believed that 
neither Boeing nor Langley was capable of managing a project like Lunar 
Orbiter or of supporting the integration of first-rate scientific experiments 
and space missions. After NASA headquarters announced in the summer 
of 1963 that Langley would manage Lunar Orbiter, more than one space 
scientist was upset. Dr. Harold C. Urey, a prominent scientist from the 
University of California at San Diego, wrote a letter to Administrator James 
Webb asking him, "How in the world could the Langley Research Center, 
which is nothing more than a bunch of plumbers, manage this scientific 
program to the moon?" 7 

Urey's questioning of Langley's competency was part of an unfolding 
debate over the proper place of general scientific objectives within NASA's 
spaceflight programs. The U.S. astrophysics community and Dr. Homer E. 
Newell 's Office of Space Sciences at NASA headquarters wanted "quality 
science" experiments incorporated into every space mission, but this caused 
problems. Once the commitment had been made to a lunar landing mission, 
NASA had to decide which was more important: gathering broad scientific 
information or obtaining data required for accomplishing the lunar landing 
mission. Ideally, both goals could be incorporated in a project without one 
compromising the other, but when that seemed impossible, one of the two 
had to be given priority. The requirements of the manned mission usually 
won out. For Ranger and Surveyor, projects involving dozens of outside 
scientists and the large and sophisticated Space Science Division at JPL, 
that meant that some of the experiments would turn out to be less extensive 
than the space scientists wanted. 8 For Lunar Orbiter, a project involving 
only a few astrogeologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and a very few space 
scientists at Langley, it meant, ironically, that the primary goal of serving 
Apollo would be achieved so quickly that general scientific objectives could 
be included in its last two missions. 

The "Moonball" Experiment 

Langley management had entered the fray between science and project 
engineering during the planning for Project Ranger. At the first Senior 
Council meeting of the Office of Space Sciences (soon to be renamed 


Space/light Revolution 

the Office of Space Sciences and Applications [OSS A]) held at NASA 
headquarters on 7 June 1962, Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan 
had questioned the priority of a scientific agenda for the agency's proposed 
unmanned lunar probes because a national commitment had since been 
made to a manned lunar landing. The initial requirements for the probes 
had been set long before Kennedy's announcement, and therefore, Donlan 
felt NASA needed to rethink them. Based on his experience at Langley and 
with Gilruth's STG, Donlan knew that the space science people could be 
"rather unbending" about adjusting experiments to obtain "scientific data 
which would assist the manned program." What needed to be done now, 
he felt, was to turn the attention of the scientists to exploration that would 
have more direct applications to the Apollo lunar landing program. 9 

Donlan was distressed specifically by the Office of Space Sciences' recent 
rejection of a lunar surface experiment proposed by a penetrometer feasi- 
bility study group at Langley. This small group, consisting of half a dozen 
people from the Dynamic Loads and Instrument Research divisions, had 
devised a spherical projectile, dubbed "Moonball," that was equipped with 
accelerometers capable of transmitting acceleration versus time signatures 
during impact with the lunar surface. With these data, researchers could 
determine the hardness, texture, and load-bearing strength of possible lunar 
landing sites. The group recommended that Moonball be flown as part of 
the follow-on to Ranger. 10 

A successful landing of an intact payload required that the landing loads 
not exceed the structural capabilities of the vehicle and that the vehicle 
make its landing in some tenable position so it could take off again. Both of 
these requirements demanded a knowledge of basic physical properties of the 
surface material, particularly data demonstrating its hardness or resistance 
to penetration. In the early 1960s, these properties were still unknown, and 
the Langley penetrometer feasibility study group wanted to identify them. 
Without the information, any design of Apollo's lunar lander would have to 
be based on assumed surface characteristics. 11 

In the opinion of the Langley penetrometer group, its lunar surface 
hardness experiment would be of "general scientific interest," but it would, 
more importantly, provide "timely engineering information important to 
the design of the Apollo manned lunar landing vehicle." 12 Experts at JPL, 
however, questioned whether surface hardness was an important criterion 
for any experiment and argued that "the determination of the terrain was 
more important, particularly for a horizontal landing." 13 In the end, the 
Office of Space Sciences rejected the Langley idea in favor of making further 
seismometer experiments, which might tell scientists something basic about 
the origins of the moon and its astrogeological history.* 

Later in Apollo planning, engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston thought that 
deployment of a penetrometer from the LEM during its final approach to landing would prove useful. The 
penetrometer would "sound" the anticipated target and thereby determine whether surface conditions 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


Associate Director Charles J. Donlan understood that the requirements of the 
manned lunar landing took priority over pure science experiments. 

For engineer Donlan, representing a research organization like Langley 
dominated by engineers and by their quest for practical solutions to applied 
problems, this rejection seemed a mistake. The issue came down to what 
NASA needed to know now. That might have been science before Kennedy's 
commitment, but it definitely was not science after it. In Donlan's view, 
Langley's rejected approach to lunar impact studies had been the correct 
one. The consensus at the first Senior Council meeting, however, was that 
"pure science experiments will be able to provide the engineering answers 
for Project Apollo." 14 

Over the next few years, the engineering requirements for Apollo would 
win out almost totally. As historian R. Cargill Hall explains in his story 
of Project Ranger, a "melding" of interests occurred between the Office 

were conducive to landing. Should surface conditions prove unsatisfactory, the LEM could be flown to 
another spot or the landing could be aborted. In the end, NASA deemed the experiment unnecessary. 
What the Surveyor missions found out about the nature of the lunar soil (that it resembled basalt and 
had the consistency of damp sand) made NASA so confident about the hardness of the surface that it 
decided this penetrometer experiment could be deleted. For more information, see Ivan D. Ertel and 
Roland W. Newkirk, The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology, vol. 4, NASA SP-4009 (Washington, 1978), 
p. 24. 


Space/light Revolution 



Langley gathered information specifically for the accomplishment of Apollo. Top, a 
Langley engineer monitors the structural dynamics of a simulated lunar landing in 
early 1963. Bottom, Lunar Orbiter III maps a potential Apollo landing site. The 
large crater is Kepler, which is 30 miles across. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

of Space Sciences and the Office of Manned Space Flight followed by a 
virtually complete subordination of the scientific priorities originally built 
into the unmanned projects. Those priorities, as important as they were, 
"quite simply did not rate" with Apollo in importance. 15 

Initiating Lunar Orbiter 

The sensitive camera eyes of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft carried out a 
vital reconnaissance mission in support of the Apollo program. Although 
NASA designed the project to provide scientists with quantitative infor- 
mation about the moon's gravitational field and the dangers of micro- 
meteorites and solar radiation in the vicinity of the lunar environment, the 
primary objective of Lunar Orbiter was to fly over and photograph the best 
landing sites for the Apollo spacecraft. NASA suspected that it might have 
enough information about the lunar terrain to land astronauts safely with- 
out the detailed photographic mosaics of the lunar surface compiled from 
the orbiter flights, but certainly landing sites could be pinpointed more ac- 
curately with the help of high-resolution photographic maps. Lunar Orbiter 
would even help to train the astronauts for visual recognition of the lunar 
topography and for last-second maneuvering above it before touchdown. 

Langley had never managed a deep-space flight project before, and 
Director Floyd Thompson was not sure that he wanted to take on the burden 
of responsibility when Oran Nicks, the young director of lunar and planetary 
programs in Homer Newell's Office of Space Sciences, came to him with the 
idea early in 1963. Along with Newell's deputy, Edgar M. Cortright, Nicks 
was the driving force behind the orbiter mission at NASA headquarters. 
Cortright, however, first favored giving the project to JPL and using 
Surveyor Orbiter and the Hughes Aircraft Company, which was the prime 
contractor for Surveyor Lander. Nicks disagreed with this plan and worked 
to persuade Cortright and others that he was right. In Nicks' judgment, JPL 
had more than it could handle with Ranger and Surveyor Lander and should 
not have anything else "put on its plate," certainly not anything as large 
as the Lunar Orbiter project. NASA Langley, on the other hand, besides 
having a reputation for being able to handle a variety of aerospace tasks, had 
just lost the STG to Houston and so, Nicks thought, would be eager to take 
on the new challenge of a lunar orbiter project. Nicks worked to persuade 
Cortright that distributing responsibilities and operational programs among 
the NASA field centers would be "a prudent management decision." NASA 
needed balance among its research centers. To ensure NASA's future in 
space, headquarters must assign to all its centers challenging endeavors that 
would stimulate the development of "new and varied capabilities." 16 


Space/light Revolution 

Cortright was persuaded and gave Nicks permission to approach Floyd 
Thompson.* This Nicks did on 2 January 1963, during a Senior Council 
meeting of the Office of Space Sciences at Cape Canaveral. Nicks asked 
Thompson whether Langley "would be willing to study the feasibility of 
undertaking a lunar photography experiment," and Thompson answered 
cautiously that he would ask his staff to consider the idea. 17 

The historical record does not tell us much about Thompson's personal 
thoughts regarding taking on Lunar Orbiter. But one can infer from the 
evidence that Thompson had mixed feelings, not unlike those he experienced 
about supporting the STG. The Langley director would not only give Nicks 
a less than straightforward answer to his question but also would think 
about the offer long and hard before committing the center. Thompson 
invited several trusted staff members to share their feelings about assuming 
responsibility for the project. For instance, he went to Clint Brown, by 
then one of his three assistant directors for research, and asked him what 
he thought Langley should do. Brown told him emphatically that he did 
not think Langley should take on Lunar Orbiter. An automated deep-space 
project would be difficult to manage successfully. The Lunar Orbiter would 
be completely different from the Ranger and Surveyor spacecraft and being 
a new design, would no doubt encounter many unforeseen problems. Even 
if it were done to everyone's satisfaction and the proposed schedule for the 
first launches sounded extremely tight Langley would probably handicap 
its functional research divisions to give the project all the support that it 
would need. Projects devoured resources. Langley staff had learned this 
firsthand from its experience with the STG. Most of the work for Lunar 
Orbiter would rest in the management of contracts at industrial plants and 
in the direction of launch and mission control operations at Cape Canaveral 
and Pasadena. Brown, for one, did not want to be involved. 18 

But Thompson decided, in what Brown now calls his director's "greater 
wisdom," that the center should accept the job of managing the project. 
Some researchers in Brown's own division had been proposing a Langley- 
directed photographic mission to the moon for some time, and Thompson, 
too, was excited by the prospect. 19 Furthermore, the revamped Lunar 
Orbiter was not going to be a space mission seeking general scientific 
knowledge about the moon. It was going to be a mission directly in 
support of Apollo, and this meant that engineering requirements would be 
primary. Langley staff preferred that practical orientation; their past work 
often resembled projects on a smaller scale. Whether the "greater wisdom" 
stemmed from Thompson's own powers of judgment is still not certain. 
Some informed Langley veterans, notably Brown, feel that Thompson must 

Edgar Cortright and Oran Nicks would come to have more than a passing familiarity with the 
capabilities of Langley Research Center. In 1968, NASA would name Cortright to succeed Thompson 
as the center's director. Shortly thereafter, Cortright named Nicks as his deputy director. Both men 
then stayed at the center into the mid-1970s. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

have also received some strongly stated directive from NASA headquarters 
that said Langley had no choice but to take on the project. 

Whatever was the case in the beginning, Langley management soon 
welcomed Lunar Orbiter. It was a chance to prove that they could manage 
a major undertaking. Floyd Thompson personally oversaw many aspects 
of the project and for more than four years did whatever he could to make 
sure that Langley's functional divisions supported it fully. Through most of 
this period, he would meet every Wednesday morning with the top people in 
the project office to hear about the progress of their work and offer his own 
ideas. As one staff member recalls, "I enjoyed these meetings thoroughly. 
[Thompson was] the most outstanding guy I've ever met, a tremendously 
smart man who knew what to do and when to do it." 20 

Throughout the early months of 1963, Langley worked with its counter- 
parts at NASA headquarters to establish a solid and cooperative working 
relationship for Lunar Orbiter. The center began to draw up preliminary 
specifications for a lightweight orbiter spacecraft and for the vehicle that 
would launch it (already thought to be the Atlas- Agena D). While Langley 
personnel were busy with that, TRW's Space Technologies Laboratories 
(STL) of Redondo Beach, California, was conducting a parallel study of 
a lunar orbiter photographic spacecraft under contract to NASA head- 
quarters. Representatives from STL reported on this work at meetings at 
Langley on 25 February and 5 March 1963. Langley researchers reviewed the 
contractor's assessment and found that STL's estimates of the chances for 
mission success closely matched their own. If five missions were attempted, 
the probability of achieving one success was 93 percent. The probability of 
achieving tv/o was 81 percent. Both studies confirmed that a lunar orbiter 
system using existing hardware would be able to photograph a landed Sur- 
veyor and would thus be able to verify the conditions of that possible Apollo 
landing site. The independent findings concluded that the Lunar Orbiter 
project could be done successfully and should be done quickly because its 
contribution to the Apollo program would be great. 21 

Project Management 

With the exception of its involvement in the X-series research airplane 
programs at Muroc, Langley had not managed a major project during the 
period of the NACA. As a NASA center, Langley would have to learn 
to manage projects that involved contractors, subcontractors, other NASA 
facilities, and headquarters a tall order for an organization used to doing all 
its work in-house with little outside interference. Only three major projects 
were assigned to Langley in the early 1960s: Scout, in 1960; Fire, in 1961; 
and Lunar Orbiter, in 1963. Project Mercury and Little Joe, although 
heavily supported by Langley, had been managed by the independent STG, 
and Project Echo, although managed by Langley for a while, eventually was 
given to Goddard to oversee. 


Space/light Revolution 

To prepare for Lunar Orbiter in early 1963, Langley management re- 
viewed what the center had done to initiate the already operating Scout and 
Fire projects. It also tried to learn from JPL about inaugurating paperwork 
for, and subsequent management of, Projects Ranger and Surveyor. After 
these reviews, Langley felt ready to prepare the formal documents required 
by NASA for the start-up of the project. 22 

As Langley prepared for Lunar Orbiter, NASA's policies and procedures 
for project management were changing. In October 1962, spurred on by its 
new top man, James Webb, the agency had begun to implement a series 
of structural changes in its overall organization. These were designed to 
improve relations between headquarters and the field centers, an area of 
fundamental concern. Instead of managing the field centers through the 
Office of Programs, as had been the case, NASA was moving them under 
the command of the headquarters program directors. For Langley, this 
meant direct lines of communication with the OART and the OSSA. By 
the end of 1963, a new organizational framework was in place that allowed 
for more effective management of NASA projects. 

In early March 1963, as part of Webb's reform, NASA headquarters is- 
sued an updated version of General Management Instruction 4-1-1. This 
revised document established formal guidelines for the planning and man- 
agement of a project. Every project was supposed to pass through four 
preliminary stages: (1) Project Initiation, (2) Project Approval, (3) Project 
Implementation, and (4) Organization for Project Management. 23 Each step 
required the submission of a formal document for headquarters' approval. 

From the beginning, everyone involved with Lunar Orbiter realized that 
it had to be a fast-track project. In order to help Apollo, everything about 
it had to be initiated quickly and without too much concern about the letter 
of the law in the written procedures. Consequently, although no step was 
to be taken without first securing approval for the preceding step, Langley 
initiated the paperwork for all four project stages at the same time. This 
same no-time-to-lose attitude ruled the schedule for project development. 
All aspects had to be developed concurrently. Launch facilities had to 
be planned at the same time that the design of the spacecraft started. 
The photographic, micrometeoroid, and selenodetic experiments had to be 
prepared even before the mission operations plan was complete. Everything 
proceeded in parallel: the development of the spacecraft, the mission 
design, the operational plan and preparation of ground equipment, the crea- 
tion of computer programs, as well as a testing plan. About this parallel 
development, Donald H. Ward, a key member of Langley's Lunar Orbiter 
project team, remarked, "Sometimes this causes undoing some mistakes, 
but it gets to the end product a lot faster than a serial operation where 
you design the spacecraft and then the facilities to support it." 24 Using the 
all-at-once approach, Langley put Lunar Orbiter in orbit around the moon 
only 27 months after signing with the contractor. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

Israel Taback (left) and Clifford H. 
Nelson (right), head of LOPO, 
ponder the intricacies of the space- 
craft design. 


On 11 September 1963, Director Floyd Thompson formally established 
the Lunar Orbiter Project Office (LOPO) at Langley, a lean organization 
of just a few people who had been at work on Lunar Orbiter since May. 
Thompson named Clifford H. Nelson as the project manager. An NACA 
veteran and head of the Measurements Research Branch of IRD, Nelson was 
an extremely bright engineer. He had served as project engineer on several 
flight research programs, and Thompson believed that he showed great 
promise as a technical manager. He worked well with others, and Thompson 
knew that skill in interpersonal relations would be essential in managing 
Lunar Orbiter because so much of the work would entail interacting with 

To help Nelson, Thompson originally reassigned eight people to LOPO: 
engineers Israel Taback, Robert Girouard, William I. Watson, Gerald 
Brewer, John B. Graham, Edmund A. Brummer, financial accountant 
Robert Fairburn, and secretary Anna Plott. This group was far smaller 
than the staff of 100 originally estimated for this office. The most important 
technical minds brought in to participate came from either IRD or from the 
Applied Materials and Physics Division, which was the old PARD. Taback 
was the experienced and sage head of the Navigation and Guidance Branch 
of IRD; Brummer, an expert in telemetry, also came from IRD; and two 


Spaceflight Revolution 

new Langley men, Graham and Watson, were brought in to look over the 
integration of mission operations and spacecraft assembly for the project. A 
little later IRD's talented Bill Boyer also joined the group as flight operations 
manager, as did the outstanding mission analyst Norman L. Crabill, who 
had just finished working on Project Echo. All four of the NACA veterans 
were serving as branch heads at the time of their assignment to LOPO. This 
is significant given that individuals at that level of authority and experience 
are often too entrenched and concerned about further career development 
to take a temporary assignment on a high-risk project. The LOPO staff set 
up an office in a room in the large 16- Foot Transonic Tunnel building in the 
Langley West Area. 

When writing the Request for Proposals, Nelson, Taback, and the others 
involved could only afford the time necessary to prepare a brief document, 
merely a few pages long, that sketched out some of the detailed requirements. 
As Israel Taback remembers, even before the project office was established, 
he and a few fellow members of what would become LOPO had already 
talked extensively with the potential contractors. Taback explains, "Our 
idea was that they would be coming back to us [with details]. So it wasn't 
like we were going out cold, with a brand new program." 25 

Langley did need to provide one critical detail in the request: the 
means for stabilizing the spacecraft in lunar orbit. Taback recalls that an 
"enormous difference" arose between Langley and NASA headquarters over 
this issue. The argument was about whether the Request for Proposals 
should require that the contractors produce a rotating satellite known as 
a "spinner." The staff of the OSSA preferred a spinner based on STL's 
previous study of Lunar Orbiter requirements. However, Langley's Lunar 
Orbiter staff doubted the wisdom of specifying the means of stabilization 
in the Request for Proposals. They wished to keep the door open to other, 
perhaps better, ways of stabilizing the vehicle for photography. 

The goal of the project, after all, was to take the best possible high- 
resolution pictures of the moon's surface. To do that, NASA needed to 
create the best possible orbital platform for the spacecraft's sophisticated 
camera equipment, whatever that turned out to be. From their preliminary 
analysis and conversations about mission requirements, Taback, Nelson, and 
others in LOPO felt that taking these pictures from a three-axis (yaw, pitch, 
and roll), attitude-stabilized device would be easier than taking them from 
a spinner. A spinner would cause distortions of the image because of the 
rotation of the vehicle. Langley's John F. Newcomb of the Aero-Space 
Mechanics Division (and eventual member of LOPO) had calculated that 
this distortion would destroy the resolution and thus seriously compromise 
the overall quality of the pictures. This was a compromise that the people 
at Langley quickly decided they could not live with. Thus, for sound 
technical reasons, Langley insisted that the design of the orbiter be kept 
an open matter and not be specified in the Request for Proposals. Even 
if Langley's engineers were wrong and a properly designed spinner would 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

be most effective, the sensible approach was to entertain all the ideas the 
aerospace industry could come up with before choosing a design. 26 

For several weeks in the summer of 1963, headquarters tried to resist the 
Langley position. Preliminary studies by both STL for the OSSA and by 
Bell Communications (BellComm) for the Office of Manned Space Flight 
indicated that a rotating spacecraft using a spin-scan film camera similar to 
the one developed by the Rand Corporation in 1958 for an air force satellite 
reconnaissance system ("spy in the sky") would work well for Lunar Orbiter. 
Such a spinner would be less complicated and less costly than the three-axis- 
stabilized spacecraft preferred by Langley. 27 

But Langley staff would not cave in on an issue so fundamental to the 
project's success. Eventually Newell, Cortright, Nicks, and Scherer in the 
OSSA offered a compromise that Langley could accept: the Request for 
Proposals could state that "if bidders could offer approaches which differed 
from the established specifications but which would result in substantial 
gains in the probability of mission success, reliability, schedule, and econ- 
omy," then NASA most certainly invited them to submit those alternatives. 
The request would also emphasize that NASA wanted a lunar orbiter that 
was built from as much off-the-shelf hardware as possible. The development 
of many new technological systems would require time that Langley did not 
have. 28 

Langley and headquarters had other differences of opinion about the 
request. For example, a serious problem arose over the nature of the con- 
tract. Langley's chief procurement officer, Sherwood Butler, took the con- 
servative position that a traditional cost-plus-a-fixed-fee contract would be 
best in a project in which several unknown development problems were 
bound to arise. With this kind of contract, NASA would pay the contractor 
for all actual costs plus a sum of money fixed by the contract negotiations 
as a reasonable profit. 

NASA headquarters, on the other hand, felt that some attractive financial 
incentives should be built into the contract. Although unusual up to this 
point in NASA history, headquarters believed that an incentives contract 
would be best for Lunar Orbiter. Such a contract would assure that 
the contractor would do everything possible to solve all the problems 
encountered and make sure that the project worked. The incentives could be 
written up in such a way that if, for instance, the contractor lost money on 
any one Lunar Orbiter mission, the loss could be recouped with a handsome 
profit on the other missions. The efficacy of a cost-plus-incentives contract 
rested in the solid premise that nothing motivated a contractor more than 
making money. NASA headquarters apparently understood this better than 
Langley's procurement officer who wanted to keep tight fiscal control over 
the project and did not want to do the hairsplitting that often came with 
evaluating whether the incentive clauses had been met. 29 

On the matter of incentives, Langley's LOPO engineers sided against 
their own man and with NASA headquarters. They, too, thought that 


Space/light Revolution 

incentives were the best way to do business with a contractor as well 
as the best way to illustrate the urgency that NASA attached to Lunar 
Orbiter. 30 The only thing that bothered them was the vagueness of the 
incentives being discussed. When Director Floyd Thompson understood 
that his engineers really wanted to take the side of headquarters on this 
issue, he quickly concurred. He insisted only on three things: the incentives 
had to be based on clear stipulations tied to cost, delivery, and performance, 
with penalties for deadline overruns; the contract had to be fully negotiated 
and signed before Langley started working with any contractor (in other 
words, work could not start under a letter of intent); and all bidding had 
to be competitive. Thompson worried that the OSSA might be biased in 
favor of STL as the prime contractor because of STL's prior study of the 

Q 1 

requirements of lunar orbiter systems. L 

In mid- August 1963, with these problems worked out with headquarters, 
Langley finalized the Request for Proposals and associated Statement of 
Work, which outlined specifications, and delivered both to Captain Lee 
R. Scherer, Lunar Orbiter's program manager at NASA headquarters, for 
presentation to Ed Cortright and his deputy Oran Nicks. The documents 
stated explicitly that the main mission of Lunar Orbiter was "the acquisition 
of photographic data of high and medium resolution for selection of suitable 
Apollo and Surveyor landing sites." The request set out detailed criteria 
for such things as identifying "cones" (planar features at right angles to 
a flat surface), "slopes" (circular areas inclined with respect to the plane 
perpendicular to local gravity), and other subtle aspects of the lunar surface. 
Obtaining information about the size and shape of the moon and about 
the lunar gravitational field was deemed less important. By omitting a 
detailed description of the secondary objectives in the request, Langley made 
clear that "under no circumstances" could anything "be allowed to dilute 
the major photo-reconnaissance mission." 32 The urgency of the national 
commitment to a manned lunar landing mission was the force driving Lunar 
Orbiter. Langley wanted no confusion on that point. 

The Source Evaluation Board 

Cliff Nelson and LOPO moved quickly in September 1963 to create a 
Source Evaluation Board that would possess the technical expertise and 
good judgment to help NASA choose wisely from among the industrial 
firms bidding for Lunar Orbiter. A large board of reviewers (comprising 
more than 80 evaluators and consultants from NASA centers and other 
aerospace organizations) was divided into groups to evaluate the technical 
feasibility, cost, contract management concepts, business operations, and 
other critical aspects of the proposals. One group, the so-called Scientists' 
Panel, judged the suitability of the proposed spacecraft for providing 
valuable information to the scientific community after the photographic 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

mission had been completed. Langley's two representatives on the Scientists' 
Panel were Clint Brown and Dr. Samuel Katzoff, an extremely insightful 
engineering analyst, 27-year Langley veteran, and assistant chief of the 
Applied Materials and Physics Division. 

Although the opinions of all the knowledgeable outsiders were taken 
seriously, Langley intended to make the decision. 33 Chairing the Source 
Evaluation Board was Eugene Draley, one of Floyd Thompson's assistant 
directors. When the board finished interviewing all the bidders, hearing 
their oral presentations, and tallying the results of its scoring of the 
proposals (a possible 70 points for technical merit and 30 points for business 
management), it was to present a formal recommendation to Thompson. He 
in turn would pass on the findings with comments to Homer Newell's office 
in Washington. 

Five major aerospace firms submitted proposals for the Lunar Orbiter 
contract. Three were California firms: STL in Redondo Beach, Lockheed 
Missiles and Space Company of Sunnyvale, and Hughes Aircraft Company of 
Los Angeles. The Martin Company of Baltimore and the Boeing Company 
of Seattle were the other two bidders. 34 

Three of the five proposals were excellent. Hughes had been developing 
an ingenious spin-stabilization system for geosynchronous communication 
satellites, which helped the company to submit an impressive proposal for a 
rotating vehicle. With Hughes's record in spacecraft design and fabrication, 
the Source Evaluation Board gave Hughes serious consideration. STL also 
submitted a fine proposal for a spin-stabilized rotator. This came as no 
surprise, of course, given STL's prior work for Surveyor as well as its prior 
contractor studies on lunar orbiter systems for NASA headquarters. 

The third outstanding proposal entitled "ACLOPS" (Agena-Class 
Lunar Orbiter Project) was Boeing's. The well-known airplane manu- 
facturer had not been among the companies originally invited to bid on 
Lunar Orbiter and was not recognized as the most logical of contenders. 
However, Boeing recently had successfully completed the Bomarc missile 
program and was anxious to become involved with the civilian space pro- 
gram, especially now that the DOD was canceling Dyna-Soar, an air force 
project for the development of an experimental X-20 aerospace plane. This 
cancellation released several highly qualified U.S. Air Force personnel, who 
were still working at Boeing, to support a new Boeing undertaking in space. 
Company representatives had visited Langley to discuss Lunar Orbiter, and 
Langley engineers had been so excited by what they had heard that they 
had pestered Thompson to persuade Seamans to extend an invitation to 
Boeing to join the bidding. The proposals from Martin, a newcomer in the 
business of automated space probes, and Lockheed, a company with years 
of experience handling the Agena space vehicle for the air force, were also 
quite satisfactory. In the opinion of the Source Evaluation Board, however, 
the proposals from Martin and Lockheed were not as strong as those from 
Boeing and Hughes. 


Space/light Revolution 

The LOPO staff and the Langley representatives decided early in the 
evaluation that they wanted Boeing to be selected as the contractor; on 
behalf of the technical review team, Israel Taback had made this preference 
known both in private conversations with, and formal presentations to, 
the Source Evaluation Board. Boeing was Langley's choice because it pro- 
posed a three-axis-stabilized spacecraft rather than a spinner. For attitude 
reference in orbit, the spacecraft would use an optical sensor similar to the 
one that was being planned for use on the Mariner C spacecraft, which fixed 
on the star Canopus. 

An attitude-stabilized orbiter eliminated the need for a focal-length spin 
camera. This type of photographic system, first conceived by Merton E. 
Davies of the Rand Corporation in 1958, could compensate for the dis- 
tortions caused by a rotating spacecraft but would require extensive 
development. In the Boeing proposal, Lunar Orbiter would carry a 
photo subsystem designed by Eastman Kodak and used on DOD spy 
satellites. 35 This subsystem worked automatically and with the precision of 
a Swiss watch. It employed two lenses that took pictures simultaneously on 
a roll of 70-millimeter aerial film. If one lens failed, the other still worked. 
One lens had a focal length of 610 millimeters (24 inches) and could take 
pictures from an altitude of 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) with a high resolution 
for limited-area coverage of approximately 1 meter. The other, which had 
a focal length of about 80 millimeters (3 inches), could take pictures with 
a medium resolution of approximately 8 meters for wide coverage of the 
lunar surface. The film would be developed on board the spacecraft using 
the proven Eastman Kodak "Bimat" method. The film would be in contact 
with a web containing a single-solution dry processing chemical, which elim- 
inated the need to use wet chemicals. Developed automatically and wound 
onto a storage spool, the processed film could then be "read out" and trans- 
mitted by the spacecraft's communications subsystem to receiving stations 
of JPL's worldwide Deep Space Network, which was developed for commu- 
nication with spacefaring vehicles destined for the moon and beyond. 36 

How Boeing had the good sense to propose an attitude-stabilized plat- 
form based on the Eastman Kodak camera, rather than to propose a rotator 
with a yet-to-be developed camera is not totally clear. Langley engineers had 
conversed with representatives of all the interested bidders, so Boeing's peo- 
ple might possibly have picked up on Langley's concerns about the quality of 
photographs from spinners. The other bidders, especially STL and Hughes, 
with their expertise in spin-stabilized spacecraft, might also have picked up 
on those concerns but were too confident in the type of rotationally stabilized 
system they had been working on to change course in midstream. 

Furthermore, Boeing had been working closely with RCA, which for 
a time was also thinking about submitting a proposal for Lunar Orbiter. 
RCA's idea was a lightweight (200-kilogram), three-axis, attitude-stabilized, 
and camera-bearing pay load that could be injected into lunar orbit as part of 
a Ranger-type probe. A lunar orbiter study group, chaired by Lee Scherer 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


Lunar Orbiter was essentially a flying camera. The payload structure was built 
around a pressurized shell holding Eastman Kodak's dual-imaging photographic 
system, which used a camera with wide-angle and telephoto lenses that could 
simultaneously take two kinds of pictures on the same film. 

at NASA headquarters, had evaluated RCA's approach in October 1962, 
however, and found it lacking. It was too expensive ($20.4 million for flying 
only three spacecraft), and its proposed vidicon television unit could not 
cover the lunar surface either in the detail or the wide panoramas NASA 
wanted. 37 

Boeing knew all about this rejected RCA approach. After talking to 
Langley's engineers, the company shrewdly decided to stay with an attitude- 
stabilized orbiter but to dump the use of the inadequate vidicon television. 
Boeing replaced the television system with an instrument with a proven 
track record in planetary reconnaissance photography: the Eastman Kodak 
spy camera. 38 

On 20 December 1963, two weeks after the Source Evaluation Board made 
its formal recommendation to Administrator James Webb in Washington, 
NASA announced that it would be negotiating with Boeing as prime con- 
tractor for the Lunar Orbiter project. Along with the excellence of its pro- 
posed spacecraft design and Kodak camera, NASA singled out the strength 
of Boeing's commitment to the project and its corporate capabilities to 


Space/light Revolution 

Capt. Lee R. Scherer served as Lunar 
Orbiter's program manager at NASA 


complete it on schedule without relying on many subcontractors. Still, the 
choice was a bit ironic. Only 14 months earlier, the Scherer study group 
had rejected RCA's approach in favor of a study of a spin-stabilized space- 
craft proposed by STL. Now Boeing had outmaneuvered its competition by 
proposing a spacecraft that incorporated essential features of the rejected 
RCA concept and almost none from the STL's previously accepted one. 

Boeing won the contract even though it asked for considerably more 
money than any of the other bidders. The lowest bid, from Hughes, was 
$41,495,339, less than half of Boeing's $83,562,199, a figure that would 
quickly rise when the work started. Not surprisingly, NASA faced some 
congressional criticism and had to defend its choice. The agency justified 
its selection by referring confidently to what Boeing alone proposed to do 
to ensure protection of Lunar Orbiter's photographic film from the hazards 
of solar radiation. 39 

This was a technical detail that deeply concerned LOPO. Experiments 
conducted by Boeing and by Dr. Trutz Foelsche, a Langley scientist in the 
Space Mechanics (formerly Theoretical Mechanics) Division who specialized 
in the study of space radiation effects, suggested that even small doses 
of radiation from solar flares could fog ordinary high-speed photographic 
film. This would be true especially in the case of an instrumented probe 
like Lunar Orbiter, which had thin exterior vehicular shielding. Even if 
the thickness of the shielding around the film was increased tenfold (from 
1 g/cm 2 to 10 g/cm 2 ), Foelsche judged that high-speed film would not make 
it through a significant solar-particle event without serious damage. 40 Thus, 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


Representatives of NASA Langley and Boeing signed the Lunar Orbiter contract 
on 16 April 1964 ana sen t it to NASA headquarters for final review. Three weeks 
later, on 7 May, Administrator James E. Webb approved the $80-million incentives 
contract to build five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. 

something extraordinary had to be done to protect the high-speed film. A 
better solution was not to use high-speed film at all. 

As NASA explained successfully to its critics, the other bidders for the 
Lunar Orbiter contract relied on high-speed film and faster shutter speeds 
for their on-board photographic subsystems. Only Boeing did not. When 
delegates from STL, Hughes, Martin, and Lockheed were asked at a bidders' 
briefing in November 1963 about what would happen to their film if a solar 
event occurred during an orbiter mission, they all had to admit that the 
film would be damaged seriously. Only Boeing could claim otherwise. Even 
with minimal shielding, the more insensitive, low-speed film used by the 
Kodak camera would not be fogged by high-energy radiation, not even if 
the spacecraft moved through the Van Allen radiation belts. 41 This, indeed, 
proved to be the case. During the third mission of Lunar Orbiter in February 
1967, a solar flare with a high amount of optical activity did occur, but the 
film passed through it unspoiled. 42 

Negotiations with Boeing did not take long. Formal negotiations began 
on 17 March 1964, and ended just four days later. On 7 May Administrator 
Webb signed the document that made Lunar Orbiter an official NASA 


Space/light Revolution 

commitment. Hopes were high. But in the cynical months of 1964, with 
Ranger's setbacks still making headlines and critics still faulting NASA for 
failing to match Soviet achievements in space, everyone doubted whether 
Lunar Orbiter would be ready for its first scheduled flight to the moon in 
just two years. 

Nelson's Team 

Large projects are run by only a handful of people. Four or five key 
individuals delegate jobs and responsibilities to others. This was certainly 
true for Lunar Orbiter. From start to finish, Langley's LOPO remained 
a small organization; its original nucleus of 9 staff members never grew 
any larger than 50 professionals. Langley management knew that keeping 
LOPO's staff small meant fewer people in need of positions when the project 
ended. If all the positions were built into a large project office, many careers 
would be out on a limb; a much safer organizational method was for a small 
project office to draw people from other research and technical divisions to 
assist the project as needed. 43 

In the case of Lunar Orbiter, four men ran the project: Cliff Nelson, 
the project manager; Israel Taback, who was in charge of all activities 
leading to the production and testing of the spacecraft; Bill Boyer, who 
was responsible for planning and integrating launch and flight operations; 
and James V. Martin, the assistant project manager. Nelson had accepted 
the assignment with Thompson's assurance that he would be given wide 
latitude in choosing the men and women he wanted to work with him in the 
project office. As a result, virtually all of his top people were handpicked. 

The one significant exception was his chief assistant, Jim Martin. In 
September 1964, the Langley assistant director responsible for the project 
office, Gene Draley, brought in Martin to help Nelson cope with some of 
the stickier details of Lunar Orbiter 's management. A senior manager 
in charge of Republic Aviation's space systems requirements, Martin had 
a tremendous ability for anticipating business management problems and 
plenty of experience taking care of them. Furthermore, he was a well- 
organized and skillful executive who could make schedules, set due dates, 
and closely track the progress of the contractors and subcontractors. This 
"paper" management of a major project was troublesome for Cliff Nelson, 
a quiet people-oriented person. Draley knew about taskmaster Martin from 
Republic's involvement in Project Fire and was hopeful that Martin's acer- 
bity and business-mindedness would complement Nelson's good-heartedness 
and greater technical depth, especially in dealings with contractors. 

Because Cliff Nelson and Jim Martin were so entirely opposite in per- 
sonality, they did occasionally clash, which caused a few internal problems 
in LOPO. On the whole, however, the alliance worked quite well, although 
it was forced by Langley management. Nelson generally oversaw the whole 
endeavor and made sure that everybody worked together as a team. For 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


In contrast to the quiet, people- oriented LOPO director Cliff Nelson (left), James 
"Big Jim" Martin (right) breathed fire when it came to getting consistent top-grade 
performance from the NASA contractors. 

the monitoring of the day-to-day progress of the project's many operations, 
Nelson relied on the dynamic Martin. For example, when problems arose 
with the motion-compensation apparatus for the Kodak camera, Martin 
went to the contractor's plant to assess the situation and decided that 
its management was not placing enough emphasis on following a schedule. 
Martin acted tough, pounded on the table, and made the contractor put 
workable schedules together quickly. When gentler persuasion was called for 
or subtler interpersonal relationships were involved, Nelson was the person 
for the job. Martin, who was technically competent but not as technically 
talented as Nelson, also deferred to the project manager when a decision re- 
quired particularly complex engineering analysis. Thus, the two men worked 
together for the overall betterment of Lunar Orbiter. 44 

Placing an excellent person with just the right specialization in just 
the right job was one of the most important elements behind the success 
of Lunar Orbiter, and for this eminently sensible approach to project 
management, Cliff Nelson and Floyd Thompson deserve the lion's share of 
credit. Both men cultivated a management style that emphasized direct 
dealings with people and often ignored formal organizational channels. 
Both stressed the importance of teamwork and would not tolerate any 
individual, however talented, willfully undermining the esprit de corps. 
Before filling any position in the project office, Nelson gave the selection 
much thought. He questioned whether the people under consideration were 
compatible with others already in his project organization. He wanted to 
know whether candidates were goal-oriented willing to do whatever was 


Space/light Revolution 

necessary (working overtime or traveling) to complete the project. 45 Because 
Langley possessed so many employees who had been working at the center 
for many years, the track record of most people was either well known or easy 
to ascertain. Given the outstanding performance of Lunar Orbiter and the 
testimonies about an exceptionally healthy work environment in the project 
office, Nelson did an excellent job predicting who would make a productive 
member of the project team. 46 

Considering Langley's historic emphasis on fundamental applied aero- 
nautical research, it might seem surprising that Langley scientists and en- 
gineers did not try to hide inside the dark return passage of a wind tunnel 
rather than be diverted into a spaceflight project like Lunar Orbiter. As has 
been discussed, some researchers at Langley (and agencywide) objected to 
and resisted involvement with project work. The Surveyor project at JPL 
had suffered from staff members' reluctance to leave their own specialties 
to work on a space project. However, by the early 1960s the enthusiasm 
for spaceflight ran so rampant that it was not hard to staff a space project 
office. All the individuals who joined LOPO at Langley came enthusiasti- 
cally; otherwise Cliff Nelson would not have had them. Israel Taback, who 
had been running the Communications and Control Branch of IRD, remem- 
bers having become distressed with the thickening of what he calls "the 
paper forest" : the preparation of five-year plans, ten-year plans, and other 
lengthy documents needed to justify NASA's budget requests. The work he 
had been doing with airplanes and aerospace vehicles was interesting (he 
had just finished providing much of the flight instrumentation for the X-15 
program), but not so interesting that he wanted to turn down Cliff Nelson's 
offer to join Lunar Orbiter. "The project was brand new and sounded much 
more exciting than what I had been doing," Taback remembers. It appealed 
to him also because of its high visibility both inside and outside the center. 
Everyone had to recognize the importance of a project directly related to 
the national goal of landing a man on the moon. 47 

Norman L. Crabill, the head of LOPO's mission design team, also decided 
to join the project. On a Friday afternoon, he had received the word that 
one person from his branch of the Applied Materials and Physics Division 
would have to be named by the following Monday as a transfer to LOPO; as 
branch head, Crabill himself would have to make the choice. That weekend 
he asked himself, "What's your own future, Crabill? This is space. If you 
don't step up to this, what's your next chance. You've already decided not 
to go with the guys to Houston." He immediately knew who to transfer, 
"It was me." That was how he "got into the space business." And in his 
opinion, it was "the best thing" that he ever did. 48 

The Boeing Team 

Cliff Nelson's office had the good sense to realize that monitoring the 
prime contractor did not entail doing Boeing's work for Boeing. Nelson 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

approached the management of Lunar Orbiter more practically: the con- 
tractor was "to perform the work at hand while the field center retained 
responsibility for overseeing his progress and assuring that the job was done 
according to the terms of the contract." For Lunar Orbiter, this philosophy 
meant specifically that the project office would have to keep "a continu- 
ing watch on the progress of the various components, subsystems, and the 
whole spacecraft system during the different phases of designing, fabricating 
and testing them." 4 Frequent meetings would take place between Nelson 
and his staff and their counterparts at Boeing to discuss all critical mat- 
ters, but Langley would not assign all the jobs, solve all the problems, or 
micromanage every detail of the contractor's work. 

This philosophy sat well with Robert J. Helberg, head of Boeing's 
Lunar Orbiter team. Helberg had recently finished directing the company's 
work on the Bomarc missile, making him a natural choice for manager of 
Boeing's next space venture. The Swedish-born Helberg was absolutely 
straightforward, and all his people respected him immensely as would 
everyone in LOPO. He and fellow Swede Cliff Nelson got along famously. 
Their relaxed relationship set the tone for interaction between Langley and 
Boeing. Ideas and concerns passed freely back and forth between the project 
offices. Nelson and his people "never had to fear the contractor was just 
telling [them] a lie to make money," and Helberg and his tightly knit, 220- 
member Lunar Orbiter team never had to complain about uncaring, paper- 
shuffling bureaucrats who were mainly interested in dotting all the i's and 
crossing all the t's and making sure that nothing illegal was done that could 
bother government auditors and put their necks in a wringer. 50 

The Langley/NASA headquarters relationship was also harmonious and 
effective. This was in sharp contrast to the relationship between JPL 
and headquarters during the Surveyor project. Initially, JPL had tried 
to monitor the Surveyor contractor, Hughes, with only a small staff that 
provided little on-site technical direction; however, because of unclear 
objectives, the open-ended nature of the project (such basic things as 
which experiment packages would be included on the Surveyor spacecraft 
were uncertain), and a too highly diffused project organization within 
Hughes, JPL's "laissez-faire" approach to project management did not 
work. As the problems snowballed, Cortright found it necessary to intervene 
and compelled JPL to assign a regiment of on-site supervisors to watch 
over every detail of the work being done by Hughes. Thus, as one 
analyst of Surveyor's management has observed, "the responsibility for 
overall spacecraft development was gradually retrieved from Hughes by JPL, 
thereby altering significantly the respective roles of the field center and the 
spacecraft systems contractors." 51 

Nothing so unfortunate happened during Lunar Orbiter, partly because 
NASA had learned from the false steps and outright mistakes made in 
the management of Surveyor. For example, NASA now knew that before 
implementing a project, everyone involved must take part in extensive 


Spaceflight Revolution 

preliminary discussions. These conversations ensured that the project's 
goals were certain and each party's responsibilities clear. Each office should 
expect maximum cooperation and minimal unnecessary interference from 
the others. Before Lunar Orbiter was under way, this excellent groundwork 
had been laid. 

As has been suggested by a 1972 study done by the National Academy 
of Public Administration, the Lunar Orbiter project can serve as a model 
of the ideal relationship between a prime contractor, a project office, a field 
center, a program office, and headquarters. From start to finish nearly 
everything important about the interrelationship worked out superbly in 
Lunar Orbiter. According to LOPO's Israel Taback, "Everyone worked 
together harmoniously as a team whether they were government, from 
headquarters or from Langley, or from Boeing." No one tried to take 
advantage of rank or to exert any undue authority because of an official 
title or organizational affiliation. 52 That is not to say that problems never 
occurred in the management of Lunar Orbiter. In any large and complex 
technological project involving several parties, some conflicts are bound to 
arise. The key to project success lies in how differences are resolved. 

The "Concentrated" versus the "Distributed" Mission 

The most fundamental issue in the premission planning for Lunar Or- 
biter was how the moon was to be photographed. Would the photography 
be "concentrated" on a predetermined single target, or would it be "dis- 
tributed" over several selected targets across the moon's surface? On the 
answer to this basic question depended the successful integration of the 
entire mission plan for Lunar Orbiter. 

For Lunar Orbiter, as with any other spaceflight program, mission plan- 
ning involved the establishment of a complicated sequence of events: When 
should the spacecraft be launched? When does the launch window open and 
close? On what trajectory should the spacecraft arrive in lunar orbit? How 
long will it take the spacecraft to get to the moon? How and when should 
orbital "injection" take place? How and when should the spacecraft get to 
its target (s), and at what altitude above the lunar surface should it take the 
pictures? Where does the spacecraft need to be relative to the sun for taking 
optimal pictures of the lunar surface? Answering these questions also meant 
that NASA's mission planners had to define the lunar orbits, determine how 
accurately those orbits could be navigated, and know the fuel requirements. 
The complete mission profile had to be ready months before launch. And 
before the critical details of the profile could be made ready, NASA had to 
select the targeted areas on the lunar surface and decide how many of them 
were to be photographed during the flight of a single orbiter. 53 

Originally NASA's plan was to conduct a concentrated mission. The 
Lunar Orbiter would go up and target a single site of limited dimensions. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

Top NASA officials listen to 
a LOPO briefing at Langley 
in December 1966. Sitting to 
the far right with his hand on 
his chin is Floyd Thompson. 
To the left sits Dr. George 
Mueller, NASA associate ad- 
ministrator for Manned Space 
Flight. On the wall is a di- 
agram of the sites selected for 
the "concentrated mission. " 
The chart below illustrates the 
primary area of photographic 

L-66- 10290 










Spaceflight Revolution 

The country's leading astrogeologists would help in the site selection by 
identifying the smoothest, most attractive possibilities for a manned lunar 
landing. The U.S. Geological Survey had drawn huge, detailed maps of the 
lunar surface from the best available telescopic observations. With these 
maps, NASA would select one site as the prime target for each of the five 
Lunar Orbiter missions. During a mission, the spacecraft would travel into 
orbit and move over the target at the "perilune," or lowest point in the 
orbit (approximately 50 kilometers [31.1 miles] above the surface); then 
it would start taking pictures. Successive orbits would be close together 
longitudinally, and the Lunar Orbiter's camera would resume photographing 
the surface each time it passed over the site. The high- resolution lens would 
take a 1-meter-resolution picture of a small area (4 x 16 kilometers) while at 
exactly the same time, the medium-resolution lens would take an 8-meter- 
resolution picture of a wider area (32 x 37 kilometers). The high-resolution 
lens would photograph at such a rapid interval that the pictures would just 
barely overlap. The wide-angle pictures, taken by the medium-resolution 
lens, would have a conveniently wide overlap. All the camera exposures 
would take place in 24 hours, thus minimizing the threat to the film from a 
solar flare. The camera's capacity of roughly 200 photographic frames would 
be devoted to one location. The result would be one area shot in adjacent, 
overlapping strips. By putting the strips together, NASA had a picture of a 
central 1-meter-resolution area that was surrounded by a broader 8-meter- 
resolution area in other words, it would be one large, rich stereoscopic 
picture of a choice lunar landing site. NASA would learn much about that 
one ideal place, and the Apollo program would be well served. 54 

The plan sounded fine to everyone at least in the beginning. Langley's 
Request for Proposals had specified the concentrated mission, and Boeing 
had submitted the winning proposal based on that mission plan. Moreover, 
intensive, short-term photography like that called for in a concentrated 
mission was exactly what Eastman Kodak's high-resolution camera system 
had been designed for. The camera was a derivative of a spy satellite photo 
system created specifically for earth reconnaissance missions specified by the 


In the top-secret DOD system, the camera with the film inside apparently would reenter the 
atmosphere inside a heat-shielded package that parachuted down, was hooked, and was physically 
retrieved in midair (if all went as planned) by a specially equipped U.S. Air Force C-119 cargo airplane. 
It was obviously a very unsatisfactory system, but in the days before advanced electronic systems, it 
was the best high-resolution satellite reconnaissance system that modern technology could provide. Few 
NASA people were ever privy to many of the details of how the "black box" actually worked, because 
they did not have "the need to know." However, they figured that it had been designed, as one LOPO 
engineer has described in much oversimplified layman's terms, "so when a commander said, 'we've got 
the target,' bop, take your snapshots, zap, zap, zap, get it down from orbit, retrieve it and bring it 
home, rush it off to Kodak, and get your pictures." (Norman Crabill interview with author, Hampton, 
Va., 28 August 1991.) 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

As LOPO's mission planners gave the plan more thought, however, 
they realized that the concentrated mission approach was flawed. Norman 
Crabill, Langley's head of mission integration for Lunar Orbiter, remembers 
the question he began to ask himself, "What happens if only one of these 
missions is going to work? This was in the era of Ranger failures and 
Surveyor slippage. When you shoot something, you had only a twenty 
percent probability that it was going to work. It was that bad." On that 
premise, NASA planned to fly five Lunar Orbiters, hoping that one would 
operate as it should. "Suppose we go up there and shoot all we [have] on one 
site, and it turns out to be no good?" fretted Crabill, and others began to 
worry as well. What if that site was not as smooth as it appeared on the U.S. 
Geological Survey maps, or a gravitational anomaly or orbital perturbation 
was present, making that particular area of the moon unsafe for a lunar 
landing? And what if that Lunar Orbiter turned out to be the only one to 
work? What then? 55 

In late 1964, over the course of several weeks, LOPO became more 
convinced that it should not be putting all its eggs in one basket. "We 
developed the philosophy that we really didn't want to do the concentrated 
mission; what we really wanted to do was what we called the 'distributed 
mission,'" recalls Crabill. The advantage of the distributed mission was 
that it would enable NASA to inspect several choice targets in the Apollo 
landing zone with only one spacecraft. 56 

In early 1965, Norm Crabill and Tom Young of the LOPO mission 
integration team traveled to the office of the U.S. Geological Survey in 
Flagstaff, Arizona. There, the Langley engineers consulted with U.S. 
government astrogeologists John F. McCauley, Lawrence Rowan, and Harold 
Masursky. Jack McCauley was Flagstaff's top man at the time, but he 
assigned Larry Rowan, "a young and upcoming guy, very reasonable and 
very knowledgeable," the job of heading the Flagstaff review of the Lunar 
Orbiter site selection problem. "We sat down with Rowan at a table with 
these big lunar charts," and Rowan politely reminded the Langley duo that 
"the dark areas on the moon were the smoothest." Rowan then pointed to 
the darkest places across the entire face of the moon. 57 

Rowan identified 10 good targets. When Crabill and Young made orbital 
calculations, they became excited. In a few moments, they had realized that 
they wanted to do the distributed mission. Rowan and his colleagues in 
Flagstaff also became excited about the prospects. This was undoubtedly 
the way to catch as many landing sites as possible. The entire Apollo zone of 
interest was 45 longitude and 5 latitude, along the equatorial region of 
the facing, or near side of the moon. Within that zone, the area that could 
be photographed via a concentrated mission was small. A single Lunar 
Orbiter that could photograph 10 sites of that size all within that region 
would be much more effective. If the data showed that a site chosen by the 
astrogeologists was not suitable, NASA would have excellent photographic 
coverage of nine other prime sites. In summary, the distributed mode would 


Space/light Revolution 








Lunar Orbiter's "Typical Flight Sequence of Events" turned out to be quite typical 
indeed, as all five spacecraft performed exactly as planned. 

give NASA the flexibility to ensure that Lunar Orbiter would provide the 
landing site information needed by Apollo even if only one Lunar Orbiter 
mission proved successful. 

But there was one big hitch: Eastman Kodak's photo system was not 
designed for the distributed mission. It was designed for the concentrated 
mission in which all the photography would involve just one site and be 
loaded, shot, and developed in 24 hours. If Lunar Orbiter must photograph 
10 sites, a mission would last at least two weeks. The film system was 
designed to sustain operations for only a day or two; if the mission lasted 
longer than that, the Bimat film would stick together, the exposed parts of 
it would dry out, the film would get stuck in the loops, and the photographic 
mission would be completely ruined. 

When Boeing first heard that NASA had changed its mind and now 
wanted to do the distributed mission, Helberg and his men balked. Accord- 
ing to LOPO's Norman Crabill, Boeing's representatives said, "Look, we un- 
derstand you want to do this. But, wait. The system was designed, tested, 
used, and proven in the concentrated mission mode. You can't change it 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

now because it wasn't designed to have the Bimat film in contact for long 
periods of time. In two weeks' time, some of the Bimat is just going to go, 
pfft! It's just going to fail!" Boeing understood the good sense of the dis- 
tributed mission, but as the prime contractor, the company faced a classic 
technological dilemma. The customer, NASA, wanted to use the system to 
do something it was not designed to do. This could possibly cause a disas- 
trous failure. Boeing had no recourse but to advise the customer that what 
it wanted to do could endanger the entire mission. 58 

The Langley engineers wanted to know whether Boeing could solve the 
film problem. "We don't know for sure," the Boeing staff replied, "and we 
don't have the time to find out." NASA suggested that Boeing conduct tests 
to obtain quantitative data that would define the limits of the film system. 
Boeing's response was "That's not in the contract." 59 The legal documents 
specified that the Lunar Orbiter should have the capacity to conduct the 
concentrated mission. If NASA now wanted to change the requirements for 
developing the Orbiter, then a new contract would have to be negotiated. A 
stalemate resulted on this issue and lasted until early 1965. The first launch 
was only a year away. 

If LOPO hoped to persuade Boeing to accept the idea of changing 
a basic mission requirement, it had to know the difference in reliability 
between the distributed and concentrated missions. If analysis showed that 
the distributed mission would be far less reliable, then even LOPO might 
want to reconsider and proceed with the concentrated mission. Crabill gave 
the job of obtaining this information to Tom Young, a young researcher 
from the Applied Materials and Physics Division. Crabill had specifically 
requested that Young be reassigned to LOPO mission integration because, 
in his opinion, Young was "the brightest guy [he] knew." On the day Young 
had reported to work with LOPO, Crabill had given him "a big pile of stuff to 
read," thinking he would be busy and, as Crabill puts it, "out of my hair for 
quite a while." But two days later, Young returned, having already made his 
way through all the material. When given the job of the comparative mission 
reliability analysis, Young went to Boeing in Seattle. In less than two weeks, 
he found what he needed to know and figured out the percentages: the 
reliability for the concentrated mission was an unspectacular 60 percent, 
but for the distributed mission it was only slightly worse, 58 percent. "It 
was an insignificant difference," Crabill thought when he heard Young's 
numbers, especially because nobody then really knew how to do that type 
of analysis. "We didn't gag on the fact that it was pretty low anyway, but 
we really wanted to do this distributed mission." The Langley researchers 
decided that the distributed mission was a sensible choice, if the Kodak 
system could be made to last for the extra time and if Boeing could be 
persuaded to go along with the mission change. 60 

LOPO hoped that Young's analysis would prove to Boeing that no 
essential difference in reliability existed between the two types of missions, 
but Boeing continued to insist that the concentrated mission was the legal 


Space/light Revolution 

requirement, not the distributed mission. The dispute was a classic case 
of implementing a project before even the customer was completely sure of 
what that project should accomplish. In such a situation, the only sensible 
thing to do was to be flexible. 

The problem for Boeing, of course, was that such flexibility might cost 
the company its financial incentives. If a Lunar Orbiter mission failed, the 
company worried that it would not be paid the bonus money promised in the 
contract. Helberg and Nelson discussed this issue in private conversations. 
Floyd Thompson participated in many of these talks and even visited Seattle 
to try to facilitate an agreement. In the end, Langley convinced Helberg 
that the change from a concentrated to a distributed mission would not 
impact Boeing's incentives. If a mission failed because of the change, LOPO 
promised that it would assume the responsibility. Boeing would have done 
its best according to the government request and instructions and for that 
they would not be penalized. 61 

The missions, however, would not fail. NASA and Boeing would handle 
the technical problems involving the camera by testing the system to 
ascertain the definite limits of its reliable operation. Prom Kodak, the 
government and the prime contractor obtained hard data regarding the 
length of time the film could remain set in one place before the curls 
or bends in the film around the loops became permanent and the torque 
required to advance the film exceeded the capability of the motor. From 
these tests, Boeing and LOPO established a set of mission "rules" that 
had to be followed precisely. For example, to keep the system working, 
Lunar Orbiter mission controllers at JPL had to advance the film one frame 
every eight hours. The rules even required that film sometimes be advanced 
without opening the door of the camera lens. Mission controllers called these 
nonexposure shots their "film-set frames" and the schedule of photographs 
their "film budget." 62 

As a result of the film rules, the distributed mission turned out to be a 
much busier operation than a concentrated mission would have been. Each 
time a photograph was taken, including film-set frames, the spacecraft had to 
be maneuvered. Each maneuver required a command from mission control. 
LOPO staff worried about the ability of the spacecraft to execute so many 
maneuvers over such a prolonged period. They feared something would 
go wrong during a maneuver that would cause them to lose control of the 
spacecraft. Lunar Orbiter /, however, flawlessly executed an astounding 
number of commands, and LOPO staff were able to control spacecraft 
attitude during all 374 maneuvers. 63 

Ultimately, the trust between Langley and Boeing allowed each to take 
the risk of changing to a distributed mission. Boeing trusted Langley to 
assume responsibility if the mission failed, and Langley trusted Boeing to 
put its best effort into making the revised plan a success. Had either not 
fulfilled its promise to the other, Lunar Orbiter would not have achieved its 
outstanding record. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

Simple as this diagram of Lunar Orbiter 
(left) may look, no spacecraft in NASA his- 
tory operated more successfully than Lunar 
Orbiter. Below, Lunar Orbiter I goes 
through a final inspection in the NASA 
Hanger S clean room at Kennedy Space 
Center prior to launch on 10 August 1966. 
The spacecraft was mounted on a three- axis 
test stand with its solar panels deployed 
and high-gain dish antenna extended from 
the side. 




Spaceflight Revolution 

Lunar Orbiter I lifts off from Cape 
Kennedy on 10 August 1966. With a 
payload weighing only 860 pounds, the 
spacecraft was light enough to fly on 
an Atlas- Agena instead of the more 
expensive Atlas-Centaur. 


"The Picture of the Century" 

The switch to the distributed mission was not the only instance during 
the Lunar Orbiter mission when contract specifications were jettisoned to 
pursue a promising idea. Boeing engineers realized that the Lunar Orbiter 
project presented a unique opportunity for photographing the earth. When 
the LOPO staff heard this idea, they were all for it, but Helberg and 
Boeing management rejected the plan. Turning the spacecraft around so 
that its camera could catch a quick view of the earth tangential to the 
moon's surface entailed technical difficulties, including the danger that, 
once the spacecraft's orientation was changed, mission controllers could 
lose command of the spacecraft. Despite the risk, NASA urged Boeing to 
incorporate the maneuver in the mission plan for Lunar Orbiter I. Helberg 
refused. 64 

In some projects, that might have been the end of the matter. Peo- 
ple would have been forced to forget the idea and to live within the cir- 
cumscribed world of what had been legally agreed upon. Langley, how- 
ever, was not about to give up on this exciting opportunity. Cliff Nelson, 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


With "the picture of the century" proudly displayed before them, key members of 
the LOPO team report the success of Lunar Orbiter I at a press conference in 
August 1966. Left to right are Oran W. Nicks, director of Lunar and Planetary 
Programs at NASA headquarters; Floyd Thompson; Cliff Nelson; and Isadore 
G. Recant, the Langley scientist in charge of data handling for the spacecraft. At 
the podium is the U.S. Geological Survey's Dr. Larry Rowan, the young geologist 
who helped LOPO identify the most promising landing sites. 

Floyd Thompson, and Lee Scherer went to mission control at JPL to talk 
to Helberg and at last convinced him that he was being too cautious that 
"the picture was worth the risk." If any mishap occurred with the space- 
craft during the maneuver, NASA again promised that Boeing would still 
receive compensation and part of its incentive for taking the risk. The en- 
thusiasm of his own staff for the undertaking also influenced Helberg in his 
final decision to take the picture. 65 

On 23 August 1966 just as Lunar Orbiter /was about to pass behind the 
moon, mission controllers executed the necessary maneuvers to point the 
camera away from the lunar surface and toward the earth. The result was 
the world's first view of the earth from space. It was called "the picture of the 
century" and "the greatest shot taken since the invention of photography." * 


The unprecedented photo also provided the first oblique perspectives of the lunar surface. All 
other photographs taken during the first mission were shot from a position perpendicular to the surface 
and thus, did not depict the moon in three dimensions. In subsequent missions, NASA made sure to 
include this sort of oblique photography. Following the first mission, Boeing prepared a booklet entitled 
Lunar Orbiter I Photography (NASA Langley, 1968), which gave a detailed technical description of the 
earth- moon photographs; see especially pp. 64-71. 


Space/light Revolution 

Not even the color photos of the earth taken during the Apollo missions 
superseded the impact of this first image of our planet as a little island of 
life floating in the black and infinite sea of space. 66 

Mission More Than Accomplished 

Lunar Orbiter defied all the probability studies. All five missions worked 
extraordinarily well, and with the minor exception of a short delay in the 
launch of Lunar Orbiter I the Eastman Kodak camera was not ready- 
all the missions were on schedule. The launches were three months apart 
with the first taking place in August 1966 and the last in August 1967. 
This virtually perfect flight record was a remarkable achievement, especially 
considering that Langley had never before managed any sort of flight 
program into deep space. 

Lunar Orbiter accomplished what it was designed to do, and more. Its 
camera took 1654 photographs. More than half of these (840) were of the 
proposed Apollo landing sites. Lunar Orbiter s /, //, and /// took these site 
pictures from low-flight altitudes, thereby providing detailed coverage of 
22 select areas along the equatorial region of the near side of the moon. One 
of the eight sites scrutinized by Lunar Orbiters II and /// was a very smooth 
area in the Sea of Tranquility. A few years later, in July 1969, Apollo 11 
commander Neil Armstrong would navigate the lunar module Eagle to a 
landing on this site. 67 

By the end of the third Lunar Orbiter mission, all the photographs needed 
to cover the Apollo landing sites had been taken. NASA was then free to 
redesign the last two missions, move away from the pressing engineering 
objective imposed by Apollo, and go on to explore other regions of the 
moon for the benefit of science. Eight hundred and eight of the remaining 
814 pictures returned by Lunar Orbiters IV and V focused on the rest of the 
near side, the polar regions, and the mysterious far side of the moon. These 
were not the first photographs of the "dark side"; a Soviet space probe, 
Zond III, had taken pictures of it during a fly-by into a solar orbit a year 
earlier, in July 1965. But the Lunar Orbiter photos were higher quality 
than the Russian pictures and illuminated some lunarscapes that had never 
before been seen by the human eye. The six remaining photos were of the 
spectacular look back at the distant earth. By the time all the photos were 
taken, about 99 percent of the moon's surface had been covered. 

When each Lunar Orbiter completed its photographic mission, the 
spacecraft continued its flight to gather clues to the nature of the lunar 
gravitational environment. NASA found these clues valuable in the planning 
of the Apollo flights. Telemetry data clearly indicated that the moon's 
gravitational pull was not uniform. The slight dips in the path of the Lunar 
Orbiters as they passed over certain areas of the moon's surface were caused 
by gravitational perturbations, which in turn were caused by the mascons. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


Lunar Orbiter V provided the first wide-angle view of the moon's mysterious "dark 
side. " 


Spaceflight Revolution 


One of the most spectacular mosaics produced by Lunar Orbiter II was this close-up 
of the enormous crater Copernicus with its 300-meter-high (984-3 feet) mountains 
rising from the crater floor. On the horizon are the Carpathian mountains with the 
920-meter-high (3018.4 feet) Guy-Lussac Promontory. 

The extended missions of the Lunar Orbiters also helped to confirm that 
radiation levels near the moon were quite low and posed no danger to 
astronauts unless a major solar flare occurred while they were exposed on 
the lunar surface. A few months after each Lunar Orbiter mission, NASA 
deliberately crashed the spacecraft into the lunar surface to study lunar 
impacts and their seismic consequences. Destroying the spacecraft before it 
deteriorated and mission controllers had lost command of it ensured that it 
would not wander into the path of some future mission. 68 

Whether the Apollo landings could have been made successfully without 
the photographs from Lunar Orbiter is a difficult question to answer. 
Without the photos, the manned landings could certainly still have been 
attempted. In addition to the photographic maps drawn from telescopic 
observation, engineers could use some good pictures taken from Ranger and 
Surveyor to guide them. However, the detailed photographic coverage of 
22 possible landing sites definitely made NASA's final selection of ideal sites 
much easier and the pinpointing of landing spots possible. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 


In August 1967, Lunar Orbiter V photographed the 90-kilometer-wide (55.9 miles) 
Tycho crater, one of the brightest craters seen from earth. A young impact crater, 
Tycho reveals its central peak, rough floor, and precipitous walls. 

Furthermore, Lunar Orbiter also contributed important photometric 
information that proved vital to the Apollo program. Photometry involves 
the science of measuring the intensity of light. Lunar Orbiter planners had 
to decide where to position the camera to have the best light for taking 
the high-resolution photographs. When we take pictures on earth, we 
normally want to have the sun behind us so it is shining directly on the 
target. But a photo taken of the lunar surface in these same circumstances 
produces a peculiar photometric function: the moon looks flat. Even 
minor topographical features are indistinguishable because of the intensity 
of the reflecting sunlight from the micrometeorite-filled lunar surface. The 
engineers in LOPO had to determine the best position for photographing 
the moon. After studying the problem (Taback, Crabill, and Young led the 
attack on this problem), LOPO's answer was that the sun should indeed be 
behind the spacecraft, but photographs should be taken when the sun was 
only 15 degrees above the horizon. 69 

Long before it was time for the first Apollo launch, LOPO's handling of 
the lunar photometric function was common knowledge throughout NASA 


Space/light Revolution 

and the aerospace industry. The BellComm scientists and engineers who 
reviewed Apollo planning quickly realized that astronauts approaching the 
moon to make a landing needed, like Lunar Orbiter, to be in the best 
position for viewing the moon's topography. Although a computer program 
would pinpoint the Apollo landing site, the computer's choice might not be 
suitable. If that was the case, astronauts would have to rely on their own 
eyes to choose a spot. If the sun was in the wrong position, they would not 
make out craters and boulders, the surface would appear deceptively flat, 
and the choice might be disastrous. Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong 
did not like the spot picked by the computer for the Eagle landing. Because 
NASA had planned for him to be in the best viewing position relative to the 
sun, Armstrong could see that the place was "littered with boulders the size 
of Volkswagens." So he flew on. He had to go another 1500 meters before 
he saw a spot where he could set the lunar module down safely. 70 

NASA might have considered the special photometric functions involved 
in viewing the moon during Apollo missions without Lunar Orbiter, but 
the experience of the Lunar Orbiter missions took the guesswork out of the 
calculations. NASA knew that its astronauts would be able to see what they 
needed to see to avoid surface hazards. This is a little-known but important 
contribution from Lunar Orbiter. 

Secrets of Success 

In the early 1970s Erasmus H. Kloman, a senior research associate with 
the National Academy of Public Administration, completed an extensive 
comparative investigation of NASA's handling of its Surveyor and Lunar 
Orbiter projects. After a lengthy review, NASA published a shortened 
and distilled version of Kloman 's larger study as Unmanned Space Project 
Management: Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter. The result even in the 
expurgated version, with all names of responsible individuals left out was 
a penetrating study in "sharp contrasts" that should be required reading for 
every project manager in business, industry, or government. 

Based on his analysis of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, Kloman concluded 
that project management has no secrets of success. The key elements are 
enthusiasm for the project, a clear understanding of the project's objective, 
and supportive and flexible interpersonal and interoffice relationships. The 
history of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, Kloman wrote, "serves primarily 
as a confirmation of old truths about the so-called basic principles of 
management rather than a revelation of new ones." Kloman writes that 
Langley achieved Lunar Orbiter's objectives by "playing it by the book." 
By this, Kloman meant that Langley applied those simple precepts of 
good management; he did not mean that success was achieved through 
a thoughtless and strict formula for success. Kloman understood that 
Langley's project engineers broke many rules and often improvised as 
they went along. Enthusiasm, understanding, support, and flexibility 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

allowed project staff to adapt the mission to new information, ideas, or 
circumstances. "Whereas the Surveyor lessons include many illustrations of 
how 'not to' set out on a project or how to correct for early misdirections," 
Kloman argued, "Lunar Orbiter shows how good sound precepts and 
directions from the beginning can keep a project on track." 71 

Lunar Orbiter, however, owes much of its success to Surveyor. LOPO 
staff were able to learn from the mistakes made in the Surveyor project. 
NASA headquarters was responsible for some of these mistakes. The 
complexity of Surveyor was underestimated, unrealistic manpower and 
financial ceilings were imposed, an "unreasonably open-ended combination 
of scientific experiments for the payload" was insisted upon for too long, 
too many changes in the scope and objectives of the project were made, 
and the project was tied to the unreliable Centaur launch vehicle. 72 NASA 
headquarters corrected these mistakes. In addition, Langley representatives 
learned from JPL's mistakes and problems. They talked at great length 
to JPL staff in Pasadena about Surveyor both before and after accepting 
the responsibility for Lunar Orbiter. Prom these conversations, Langley 
acquired a great deal of knowledge about the design and management of an 
unmanned space mission. JPL scientists and engineers even conducted an 
informal "space school" that helped to educate several members of LOPO 
and Boeing's team about key details of space mission design and operations. 

The interpersonal skills of the individuals responsible for Lunar Orbiter, 
however, appear to have been the essential key to success. These skills cen- 
tered more on the ability to work with other people than they did on what 
one might presume to be the more critical and esoteric managerial, concep- 
tual, and technical abilities. In Kloman's words, "individual personal qual- 
ities and management capabilities can at times be a determining influence 
in overall project performance." 73 Compatibility among individual man- 
agers, Nelson and Helberg, and the ability of those managers to stimulate 
good working relationships between people proved a winning combination 
for Lunar Orbiter. 

Norman Crabill made these comments about Lunar Orbiter's manage- 
ment: "We had some people who weren't afraid to use their own judgment 
instead of relying on rules. These people could think and find the essence 
of a problem, either by discovering the solution themselves or energizing 
the troops to come up with an alternative which would work. They were 
absolute naturals at that job." 74 

Lunar Orbiter was a pathfinder for Apollo, and it was an outstanding 
contribution by Langley Research Center to the early space program. The 
old NACA aeronautics laboratory proved not only that it could handle a 
major deep space mission, but also that it could achieve an extraordinary 
record of success that matched or surpassed anything yet tried by NASA. 
When the project ended and LOPO members went back into functional 
research divisions, Langley possessed a pool of experienced individuals who 
were ready, if the time came, to plan and manage yet another major 


Space/light Revolution 


Although most people have come to associate the first picture of the "Whole Earth" 
with the Apollo program, Lunar Orbiter V actually captured this awesome view of 
the home planet. When this picture was taken on 8 August 1967, the spacecraft was 
about 5860 kilometers (3641-2 miles) above the moon in near polar orbit, so that the 
lunar surface is not seen. Clearly visible on the left side of the globe is the eastern 
half of Africa and the entire Arabian peninsula. 


To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project 

project. That opportunity came quickly in the late 1960s with the inception 
of Viking, a much more complicated and challenging project designed to 
send unmanned reconnaissance orbiters and landing probes to Mars. When 
Viking was approved, NASA headquarters assigned the project to "those 
plumbers" at Langley. The old LOPO team formed the nucleus of Langley's 
much larger Viking Project Office. With this team, Langley would once 
again manage a project that would be virtually an unqualified success. 



In the Service of Apollo 

We were working beyond the state of the art. Nobody 
had done things like this before. 

E. Barton Geer, associate chief 
of Langley's Flight Vehicle and 
Systems Division during the 
Apollo era and member of the 
Apollo 204 Review Board 

And just as we got to the transonic field, then all of 
a sudden we opened up with the supersonic field and 
find out we 're flying militarily anyway we 're flying 
at speeds of [MachJ 2 and 3. And you just get that 
pretty well understood and, Holy Smoke, here we are 
going to the Moon and things like that. 

Floyd L. Thompson, Langley director 
and chairman of the Apollo 204 
Review Board 

The crowning moment, as well as the denouement, of the spaceflight 
revolution came at 4:18 p.m. on Sunday, 20 July 1969, when American as- 
tronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., made the 
first manned lunar landing. The realization of this spectacular moment 
required the most sudden burst of technological creativity and the largest 
commitment of resources ever made by any nation in peacetime: an esti- 
mated $24 billion. At its peak the Apollo program employed approximately 
400,000 Americans and enlisted the support of over 20,000 industrial firms 
and universities. As President Kennedy had said in his May 1961 speech, 
"It will not be one man going to the moon it will be an entire nation. For 
all of us must work to put him there." l 


Space/light Revolution 

"All of us" also meant all the NASA facilities, including the research 
centers. To be sure, Langley did not serve as the heart of the Apollo 
program, as it temporarily had for the man-in-space effort before the STG 
left for Texas. Apollo would not be managed by any of the field centers 
but by a well-staffed central program office within the Office of Manned 
Space Flight at NASA headquarters. Of course, the spaceflight centers (the 
Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center 
in Huntsville) were deeply involved. A large, well-funded Apollo program 
office at Houston was responsible for the budget, schedule, technical design, 
and production of the three- module Apollo spacecraft; moreover, Houston 
was the home of Mission Control, the nerve center of NASA's manned flight 
operations and the place where all the news reporters went after the launch 
at Cape Kennedy. At Marshall the von Braun team handled the awesome 
task of developing the giant Saturn rocket. 2 These were the two NASA 
centers where the staff "lived and breathed" Apollo. But neither Langley 
nor any of the other NASA facilities were left out. Nor could they be. There 
was too much work to do, too much to learn, and too little time. All NASA 
centers eventually became heavily involved in the program, and with the 
exception of Houston and Huntsville, none was more involved than Langley. 

Yet, when it came to the Apollo flights themselves and their worldwide 
publicity, Langley and the other centers were not part of the big show. By 
the time the Apollo spacecraft sat atop the huge Saturn V at Launch Com- 
plex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in July 1969, Langley's contributions to 
the Apollo program had already been made and mostly forgotten. That, 
after all, was the purpose and the predicament of a research center: to lay 
the groundwork for the technological achievements that others would pursue 
and for which others would receive the credit. Of course, John Houbolt's 
concept of LOR would not be forgotten in the dramatic days of Apollo 11, 
nor would the flights of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. But many other el- 
emental tasks that Langley had done in the service of Apollo would not 
be remembered: the basic rendezvous and docking studies, the wind-tunnel 
investigations of the aerodynamic integrity of the Saturn- Apollo launch com- 
bination, the work on reentry heating and its potentially fatal effects on the 
returning Apollo spacecraft, and the simulation training that helped prepare 
the astronauts not only for the rendezvous and docking in space but also 
for the actual landing of a manned spacecraft and for astronaut locomotion 
activities on the moon. From launch to splashdown, there was no aspect 
of the Apollo mission that scientists, engineers, and technicians at Langley 
had not helped to develop in one way or another. All this work, however, 
had been done long before the two Apollo astronauts skillfully maneuvered 
their lunar module Eagle down to the Sea of 'Tranquility on that historic 
day in July 1969. All that Langley employees could do on that hot Sunday 
afternoon in July was sit in front of televisions in their own living rooms, 
sip cool glasses of lemonade, and applaud with the rest of the country what 
everyone together had accomplished. 


In the Service of Apollo 
Langley's "Undercover Operation" in Houston 

Langley was in a novel situation during the heyday of Apollo. It was 
the original (and for over 20 years only) NACA center, not to mention the 
"mother" of many of the other centers (including the Manned Spacecraft 
Center in Houston), but during the Apollo period, it was relegated to 
the periphery of NASA's most urgent task. Langley management was not 
accustomed to being in a marginal position and did not especially like being 

Members of the local Hampton elite did not like it either. For them and 
other groups of Langley supporters, the unfortunate situation was the work 
of conniving politicians who had stolen their precious STG for Texas. The 
bitterness over this did not fade quickly. On occasion, concern for Langley's 
displacement led those who knew better to make imprudent remarks. For 
example, in December 1961 during James Webb's first visit to Langley after 
becoming NASA administrator, Floyd Thompson, as savvy a person as ever 
sat in the Langley director's chair, mentioned to Webb that the area's city 
fathers were wondering exactly what they might expect in terms of new 
jobs and government contracts as a result of the lunar landing program. 
Webb responded sharply with a statement that echoed the already famous 
line from President Kennedy's inaugural address: "The city fathers should 
be asking not what Apollo can do for them, but what they can do for 
Apollo." 3 Thompson never forgot the sting of this retort and resolved 
never to give Webb or anyone else reason to question the effort that his 
own research center was putting into the nation's lunar landing program. 

At a meeting of NASA center directors and program office directors held 
in the so-called control room on the top floor of the NASA headquarters 
building in early 1962, the question of Langley's contribution to Apollo did 
come up. For Jim Webb, Apollo was everything, and he wanted assurances 
from the center directors that they were doing all they could to support the 
program. Characteristically, Thompson bided his time, waiting while his 
counterparts at the other NASA centers answered. Then in his deliberate 
and rather high-pitched midwestern voice, he reported with confidence, 
"Well, we have a senior man in Houston who keeps track of all that we're 
doing for it, and is on the spot ready to contact us whenever anyone down 
there wants us to do anything more." 4 Such a remark was typical "Tommy" 
Thompson, and Webb let it pass. He had no idea that such a thing was going 
on down in Houston or that the Houston organization would even allow it, 
but he took Thompson at his word. 

The Langley center director did have a "senior man" on duty in Houston 
and only in part so that he could give such smart answers to "Big Jim" Webb. 
In April 1962, which was a few months before the STG had completed its 
move to the Southwest, Thompson had dispatched Langley veteran Axel 
T. Mattson to Houston to serve as research assistant for Manned Spacecraft 
Projects. The experienced assistant chief of the Full-Scale Research Division, 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Under the wily direction of Floyd 
Thompson (left), Langley did every- 
thing it could to support Project 
Apollo and satisfy Administrator 
Jim Webb (right). 


Mattson was to report his findings to Langley Associate Director Charles 
Donlan, Thompson's right-hand man. 5 

This was an interesting and unusual development; no other NASA center 
had such an arrangement, and certainly no other center but Langley could 
have gotten away with it. Langley had an official explanation of the 
purpose of this liaison: "to create a mechanism for the timely exchange 
of information on manned space programs and projects of mutual interest 
to the Langley Center and the Manned Spacecraft Center and to provide a 
means for quickly initiating action at Langley as may be required in support 
of manned spacecraft projects." 6 In truth, Mattson was acting as a sort of 
spy a Langley agent. 

"I was running an undercover operation, really, in the technical sense," 
Mattson remembers, his eyes glimmering. "Here we were a research outfit 
trying to get involved more directly not only with the Apollo work but with 
the big Apollo money. It had to do with the way the funding was set up; this 
was the big controlling factor. For everything Langley was doing in support 
of the Office of Manned Space Flight and Apollo, it was my assignment 
to try to get a transfer of funds from Houston, which was getting a lot of 
money, to Langley, which wasn't." The scheme seems a bit dishonest, but 
Mattson liked even that aspect of his work. "I was bootlegging material. 


In the Service of Apollo 

I was transferring certain material [from Houston to Langley] without any 
official authorization." At Langley, Donlan made it clear to Mattson that 
he should not initiate any work on Apollo for which Langley would have to 
go running to NASA headquarters for approval and funding. Donlan had 
told him, "Get it from Houston." That was the real reason Langley had 
quietly sent Axel Mattson to Houston in April 1962. 7 

At the same time that Americans were becoming enamored with the 
much exaggerated romance of spies through the first James Bond movies, 
the free-spirited Mattson fell in love with the intrigues of his espionage 
work. What made it "so beautiful" for him was the freewheeling nature of 
the assignment the freedom to innovate and take some chances. "I didn't 
fool with protocol or with the big shots. I dealt almost exclusively with the 
troops in the field who would be honest and open with me." During the 
working day, he walked from office to office, starting conversations, finding 
out what was going on, what the problems were, and what Langley might be 
able to do about them. In the evening, he socialized at the many Houston 
area cocktail and dinner parties, where he made the important personal 
contacts that led to office meetings the next day. Besides enjoying convivial 
relations with his Houston buddies, many of whom he had known at Langley, 
Mattson also developed close professional and social relationships with many 
of the NASA contractor representatives. These relationships allowed him to 
tap a gushing pipeline of Apollo-related technical data. 8 

Through this technological espionage, Mattson was able to obtain valu- 
able information for Langley. Whenever an important new technical mat- 
ter was being discussed by Houston engineers and industry representatives, 
Mattson would say, "Gee, I'm awfully interested in that," and those involved 
would give him all the information they had. "You wouldn't believe it. I 
went over to their offices the next day and they just gave it to me," all 
the data, all the technical reports. Conversely, "when they wanted some 
information, they called me and I'd get it. It would come in my suitcase 
[from Langley] and I'd go peddle it out." Much of it was raw data, "no for- 
mality, nothing to it," a transfer of basic and sometimes even unprocessed 
information that went unrecorded and was never revealed in any formal doc- 
umentation. Mattson tried to feel out "when a guy was just having troubles 
even with calculations. He would be grunting them out and not too sure 
of the inputs, and I'd bring them back to Langley and have the guys look 
at it and say, 'How about critiquing it and see if you can change numbers 
by using the latest test information' and things like that." It was basically 
"a back-scratching operation." Mattson sometimes went even farther. He 
admits now that he occasionally would "take a man's calculations right off 
his desk, make a carbon copy," without the man's knowledge, and put it in 
his suitcase or in the mail for Langley. 9 

"Let me tell you, my suitcase was full whenever I came back to Langley," 
not only with papers but also with the slides and films that were being 
produced at Houston by the carton. Such goodies made Mattson something 


Space/light Revolution 

of a star attraction at Langley department meetings and senior staff get- 
togethers where he provided some special entertainment. At some point 
in such proceedings, Mattson remembers, Floyd Thompson would typically 
pause and joke, " 'Well, I guess we might just as well see if Mattson's got 
another film to show us.' And sure enough, I had another film to show them, 
or slides, or something." 10 This was the way Langley kept up with what 
was going on in Houston and minimized the loss of its STG to Texas. 

The other NASA centers, with no direct ties to the STG, could not have 
placed a man inside the Manned Spacecraft Center; Bob Gilruth and his 
men would not have tolerated such interlopers. Other centers were left out 
in the cold. Sometimes those who knew about Langley's operation tried to 
tap Mattson for information. "Once in a while," Mattson remembers, "I 
would get a call from a guy at Lewis or Ames about something he wanted 
that was available down in Houston." For such casual requests, especially if 
he knew the guy, Mattson usually did his best, but he always kept Langley's 
interests foremost in his mind. 11 

It is rather amazing that the fledgling Houston organization put up with 
Mattson for as long as it did, which was to the time of the first Apollo flights 
in 1968. Certainly this would not have been possible without the good graces 
of Gilruth, who was Floyd Thompson's good friend. Not everyone at the 
Manned Spacecraft Center wanted Mattson nosing around. In one meeting 
not long after the opening of the Houston center, Gilruth was surprised to 
encounter Mattson and wanted to know what Mattson was doing there. Max 
Faget answered, "He's doing nothing as far as I know." In Mattson's opinion, 
Faget did not know. Mattson had stayed as far away from Faget as possible, 
knowing that the former member of PARD and the STG did not like him 
or the idea of his walking the halls of the new Houston space center. To 
the extent that he reported to anyone at Houston, Mattson dealt exclusively 
with Paul Purser, Gilruth's deputy director, a longtime friend and Langley 
veteran. Purser knew what Mattson was up to, generally speaking, but for 
a short period of time at the beginning had failed to tell his boss anything 
about it. 12 

Immediately after that first encounter with Mattson, Gilruth called both 
Purser and Mattson "on the carpet" and demanded the details of the latter's 
assignment. Mattson explained his operation and what Thompson and 
Donlan wanted out of it, and Gilruth grudgingly gave his okay. Whether 
Gilruth ever brought up the matter of Mattson's presence in Houston with 
his former Langley compatriots, Thompson and Donlan, is unknown, but he 
probably did. Whatever the details of that conversation were, the outcome 
was that Mattson stayed at Houston off and on for the next several years 
despite Max Faget's objections. In key respects, the assignment was a 
thankless job, not only professionally but also personally; by Mattson's 
own admission, it forced him to neglect his family in Virginia. 13 But such 
sacrifices were consistent with the demands of the spaceflight revolution, 


In the Service of Apollo 


Axel Mattson (far left) flashes the winning smile that made it possible for him, an 
outsider, to walk the halls of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston for months at 
a time. Robert R. Gilruth (center), the Houston center director grudgingly indulged 
Mattson's presence. (This photo was actually taken at Langley in 1967 at the foot 
of the Lunar Landing Research Facility.) To the right of Gilruth is Charles Donlan, 
Langley 's deputy director; to his right is Donald Hewes, the Langley engineer in 
charge of the Lunar Landing Research Facility. The identity of the man in the 
NASA overalls is unknown. 

and he could always take comfort in the romantic notion that he was an 
agent in Langley's secret service for Apollo. 

The Dynamics of Having an Impact 

Only in one or two isolated instances did Mattson's presence in Houston 
contribute in any dramatic way to Apollo's ultimate success. As discussed 
in chapter eight, in early 1962, not long after starting his assignment in 
Houston, Mattson helped win support for John Houbolt's LOR concept in 
the face of some stubborn opposition at the Texas center. Mattson took 
Houbolt to every person Mattson thought might be willing to listen, and 
at the end of the day, at least in Mattson's opinion, the majority of the 


Space/light Revolution 

Houston center engineers supported the LOR concept as the best mission 
mode for Apollo. A few months later, thanks to some rather keen technical 
insight regarding the kind of test data NASA might need to assure the 
design integrity of the returning Apollo command module, Mattson made a 
less significant but still notable contribution one that does not appear in 
the formal NASA record. 

The story of that contribution begins three months after Mattson 's 
arrival in Houston that was when Mattson first got wind of an important 
full-scale test being planned to measure the impact dynamics of the Apollo 
command module. The North American Aviation Corporation, which in 
November 1961 had won the contract to design and build the command and 
service modules of the Apollo spacecraft, had built a swimming-pool-like 
facility with a big gantry next to it at the site of its Space Information 
Systems Division in Downey, California; the purpose of this facility was to 
acquire data on the pressure and acceleration loads placed on the command 
module upon impact with the ocean. In late 1962 and early 1963, North 
American and NASA engineers had already put the command module 
through preliminary impact tests at the facility and were planning for a 
final verification test involving the highest and most severe impact drop 
angle and an Apollo capsule configuration systematically equipped with 
pressure transducers to measure the impact loads. Inside the capsule the 
engineers were even installing instrumented mannequins, as in automobile 
crash tests, to see how astronauts would come through the jolting splash 
into the water. 14 

Mattson became interested in the details of this important test. He 
made contacts with some of the informed NASA researchers and contractor 
representatives and started reading up on it. From his knowledge of similar 
capsule-drop tests carried out in the Back River at Langley on the Mercury 
capsule, he understood that such a test would prove troublesome. First, a 
flexible bottom surface on a space capsule, such as the heat-shield system 
designed for the underneath side of the Apollo command module, would 
cave in or "oilcan" upon any hard impact. Second, when transducers were 
put on a boilerplate capsule for the purpose of measuring the loads of 
the impact pressure, the Langley engineers had found that the pressure 
would just "wash out" or dissipate, thus making it impossible for them to 
obtain the needed data. "There would be so much resonance and what-not 
in the structure," Mattson explains, "that the damn pressure transducers 
wouldn't give you that instantaneous spike [i.e., the unusually high and 
sharply defined maximum or pointed element in the graph]. And that was 
what busted things up [when one dropped a space capsule from a great 
height into the water]. It wasn't all that other trash. It was that instant 
spike." In the Mercury program the only way that the Langley engineers 
could get that spike in the recorded data was to work not with boilerplates 
but with solid models. This solution had worked perfectly. 15 


In the Service of Apollo 

Immediately upon hearing about the proposed Apollo tests, Mattson 
called Sandy M. Stubbs, a bright young engineer in the Impacting Struc- 
tures Section of Langley's Structures Research Division. Stubbs was then 
conducting a test program on the water landing characteristics of various 
spacecraft models. Mattson asked Stubbs if he was getting any data on a 
solid model that duplicated the Apollo command module. Stubbs answered 
that he had no such data; he was not using the Apollo configuration because 
North American's capsule design was already fixed and was not going to be 
changed. That was not the answer Mattson wanted to hear, so he tried 
coaxing Stubbs into adding an Apollo model to his test. Stubbs replied that 
he was "running a little short" on funds and was in charge of a "low-key 
kind of operation." He would like to do it, of course, as he was trying to do 
a systematic study and was planning to write a formal technical report. If 
Mattson could obtain the funding, Stubbs told Langley's agent in Houston, 
then he would be glad to go ahead with the test. 16 

Mattson made an appointment with the Manned Spacecraft Center's 
Joseph N. Kotanchik, NASA's main technical monitor for spacecraft struc- 
tures work on the North American contract. Kotanchik, like many of the 
other Houston officials, was a Langley old-timer; he had been a key member 
of the design team that had built Langley's Structures Research Laboratory 
in 1939-1940. Unfortunately, he and Mattson did not get along well. Per- 
haps it was because Kotanchik was quite formal, a northerner, and an MIT 
graduate, whereas Mattson was usually informal, a loquacious southerner 
by disposition if not by birth (he was born in New Jersey), who was edu- 
cated at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Perhaps the friction 
also stemmed from the professional difficulties Kotanchik had experienced 
while at Langley. If Mattson had not had previous dealings with Kotanchik, 
he would not have even bothered to make an appointment. Mattson usu- 
ally just walked into someone's office, gave a warm greeting, sat down, and 
started talking. No one just walked in on Kotanchik except his bosses. 

Kotanchik did not want to be bothered with Mattson and told him to be 
quick. Mattson promptly asked for a transfer of $40,000 to cover the costs of 
Sandy Stubbs's impact loads test on a solid model of the Apollo command 
module at Langley. Kotanchik flatly refused, and essentially told Mattson to 
get out of his office. According to Mattson, Kotanchik said, "Don't you know 
that we're going to have a full-scale test that we've spent a million dollars on? 
Don't you know that it will get us all the information we need?" Mattson 
tried to explain about Langley's experience with the problem of flexible 
bottom structures oilcanning and the resonance of impacting boilerplate 
capsules, about the character of the data spike, and about the need for 
solid-model testing, but Kotanchik would not listen. "Well, I got kind of 
hot about that," Mattson remembers. "But the business I was in, you 
couldn't stay hot too long. You just momentarily got shook up, but then 
forgot about it real quick. But I put it on the back burner and I made 
my contacts with North American." In addition, he told Charles Donlan 


Spaceflight Revolution 



One of Langley's notable behind-the-scenes contributions to the success of Project 
Apollo was its testing to assure the landing integrity of the returning command 
module whether the capsule splashed down into water (top) or maneuvered to a soft 
landing on earth (below). 


In the Service of Apollo 

about Kotanchik's refusal. Donlan, understanding the good sense of what 
Mattson was trying to do, told him to tell Sandy Stubbs to go ahead and 
include a solid model of the Apollo command module in his tests, because 
Stubbs wanted to do the systematic testing anyway. Langley management 
would just have to find another way to pay for it. 17 

By the day of the big drop test in California in late September 1964, 
Mattson had developed such good rapport with one of the North American 
representatives that Mattson's office had been hooked up by telephone to 
the North American office in Houston, which was linked to the test site in 
California, so he could hear a blow-by-blow, "real-time" narration of the 
entire command module drop test. The test did not go well. As Mattson 
remembers, the gist of the telephone narration originating in Downey was 
as follows: "All right, the capsule drops. It lands in the water. My God, 
it's sinking. It has gone in and split wide open. All the mannequins are 
drowning. The whole spacecraft is in ruins." At that moment, it was clear 
to everyone that a minor catastrophe was at hand; at that moment, also, 
Mattson's telephone hookup was cut off. 18 

Mattson knew he had "a hot one." Raw technical data existed at Langley, 
or soon would, that might be the key to solving the problem; but what 
exactly was he to do with this knowledge, and when? He decided it was 
best to bide his time and see what developed, because before long something 
would surely "hit the fan." In a few days, NASA and North American put 
together an Impact Test Program Review to look into the splashdown of 
the wrecked command module. "You wouldn't believe the collection of 
structural experts and spacecraft experts that all convened at Houston." 
Into these meetings sneaked Axel Mattson. He sat in the back trying to be 
inconspicuous but listening carefully to all that was said. By the third day 
of these meetings, chaired by Kotanchik, the engineers involved had come 
up with a plan of attack for solving the Apollo spacecraft's splashdown 
structures problem; the plan was basically to retest after strengthening the 
overall structure of the command module with special attention to increasing 
the thickness and stiffness of the heat-shield structure. The only way to 
strengthen the structure was to add material and move toward a solid-model 
capsule test program similar to the one that had been conducted at Langley 
for Mercury. At this point, very late in the course of the meetings, Mattson 
began to "lick his chops," because the questions then became: "Who has got 
the impact loads? Who knows what they are?" These data were apparently 
not available, but Mattson and Mattson alone knew how to get them. 19 

Joe Kotanchik knew Mattson knew. Prom his seat in the front of the 
auditorium, the chairman of the meeting nervously looked around the room 
until he spotted the one man in the back with a wry smile on his face; then, 
Kotanchik called for a coffee break. He immediately got up and pointed his 
finger at Mattson and motioned the Langley interloper to follow him into 
his office. Inside he asked Mattson if he had heard what it was that was 
needed to move on with the spacecraft verification program. Mattson, with 


Space/light Revolution 

more than a little personal satisfaction, answered that he had indeed heard 
and that it was "exactly what I was talking about in here when I came in 
two months ago, Joe. I was trying to get that damn spike. They don't know 
what that spike is. They don't know the magnitude of the impact loads 
that busts things up." Kotanchik, however, close to panic, was in no mood 
for such a speech and told Mattson to shut up. Mattson did, his victory 
sweet enough without rubbing it in. He told Kotanchik that he would have 
Sandy Stubbs on an airplane and in Houston by tomorrow morning which 
he did. "And that's how NASA got the information it needed." Stubbs 
did a terrific job presenting his research findings to Kotanchik's assembled 
experts: he discussed the pertinent parameters of his 1/4-scale model of the 
Apollo command module, presented the acceleration and pressure data for 
the capsule's landings on water, and explained a slide with a cross section 
of the solid model showing its construction details. In the ensuing years, 
Stubbs went on to make a major contribution to understanding the impact 
dynamics that would affect the Apollo command module upon splashdown. 20 
Mattson never wrote a report on the affair, but he, too, had made a 
contribution. It was the sort of undercover technical work that did not 
make its way into the history books, but nothing in his service for Apollo, 
or for Langley, ever gave Mattson greater pride or satisfaction. 

Inside the Numbers 

Mattson did write other reports. At least once a year, he put together a 
detailed inventory, "Langley Research Center Tests of Interest to Project 
Apollo," for Bob Gilruth at the Manned Spacecraft Center and Floyd 
Thompson at Langley. The document described briefly the tests being done 
by Langley researchers in support of Apollo, identified the research divisions 
and facilities in which the work was being done and the project engineers 
conducting it, gave the scheduled test dates, and offered some associated 
remarks. The purpose of the report was dual: to demonstrate how much 
Langley was doing to support the lunar landing program and to show the 
Manned Spacecraft Center the wide range of Langley research that could 
perhaps be useful to Apollo. Mattson distributed copies of this unpublished 
typescript to four or five of the most important Apollo program managers 
in Houston, including the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office 
(in 1963, Joseph F. Shea). 21 

Although it was self-serving, Mattson 's regular inventory nevertheless 
provided a rather accurate survey of everything being done at Langley 
that was in any way related to Apollo. Every item listed was legitimate. 
Nothing was invented, although the breadth or depth of certain studies was 
sometimes stretched a bit to make them seem more applicable to Apollo 
than they really were. Still, these informal reports provide an unusually 
complete record of how much Langley did in the service of Apollo, at least 
as reported by Mattson between December 1962 and February 1968. 


In the Service of Apollo 


Project Fire explored the effects of reentry heating on Apollo spacecraft materials. 
Although the ultimate tests involved Atlas rockets carrying recoverable reentry 
packages, the flight tests from Cape Canaveral were preceded by a series of important 
wind-tunnel tests at Langley, as shown in this photo from 1962. 

Langley's work on Apollo grew steadily from 1962 to 1968, with an 
apparent peak in the period covered by Mattson's March 1966 report. Of the 
three major research groups in Langley's organization after the laboratory's 
formal reorganization in late 1964, Group 1, under the direction of Francis 
B. Smith, did the most work for Apollo 133 projects (85 of them discrete) 
compared with 92 (46 discrete) for Group 2, headed by John E. Duberg, 
and 98 (51 discrete) for Group 3, headed by Laurence K. Loftin, Jr. 

Besides the three research directorates, two other major organizations 
at the center contributed to Apollo. One of them, the Office for Flight 
Projects, led by Eugene C. Draley, actively supported Apollo; within the 
office, the Applied Materials and Physics Division reported 43 Apollo-related 
projects. This organization, formerly PARD, was particularly busy with 
work for Project Fire, an important NASA effort to study the effects of 
reentry heating on a spacecraft returning to earth at a high speed. Fire, 
for which Langley created a special program office in May 1961 (under the 
direction of Herbert A. "Hack" Wilson), not only consisted of flight tests 
from Cape Canaveral involving Atlas rockets carrying recoverable reentry 
packages but also involved a considerable amount of Langley wind-tunnel 
testing. Two Fire missions eventually took place. The first, launched on 
14 April 1964 from Wallops Island, fired a payload into the atmosphere 


Spaceflight Revolution 

Number of Langley Research Projects 
Directly Related to Apollo Program, 1962-1968 














Group 1 
































Group 2 






















Group 3 





























Flight Projects 






















Engineering and 

Technical Services 














x division did not exist FSRD Full-Scale Research Div. 

ACD Analysis and Computation Div. LOPO Lunar Orbiter Project Office 

FID Flight Instrumentation Div. MORL Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory 

IRD Instrument Research Div. AMPD Applied Materials and Physics Div. 

SMD Space Mechanics Div. FVSD Flight Vehicles and Systems Div. 

OLD Dynamic Loads Div. ESD Electrical Systems Div. 

SRD Structures Research Div. MSD Mechanical Services Div. 

APD Aero-Physics Div. PMD Plant Maintenance Div. 

FMTD Flight Mechanics and Technology Div. RMFD Research Models and Facilities Div. 


In the Service of Apollo 

at a speed in excess of 40,000 kilometers an hour, the velocity that the 
Apollo spacecraft returning from the moon was expected to reach. The 
second, on 22 May 1965, basically confirmed the findings of the first 
mission, which indicated that "the radiation and the temperatures that 
would be experienced by an Apollo spacecraft reentry were less severe than 
expected." 22 Spacecraft engineers at Houston and North American made 
use of this important data from Project Fire in designing and qualifying 
Apollo's heat shield. 

Even Langley's Office of Engineering and Technical Services, Langley's 
fifth directorate, which normally was not involved in much research, took on 
a special Apollo project by conducting a study of an electrolytic chlorinator 
for water sterilization. 

The Simulators 

The most active of all Langley divisions in Apollo work was the Space 
Mechanics Division (SMD) of Group 1. This division conducted more studies 
related to the lunar landing mission than did any other division at Langley, 
perhaps because it was in this division, previously known as the Theoretical 
Mechanics Division, that LOR had germinated. 

The essence of SMD's contributions to Apollo rested in its simulation 
research. This was a field of work that dated, at the center, to the early 1940s 
when manned simulation for aeronautical R&D began because of the need 
for World War II pilot trainers. In the following 15 years, with significant 
advances in servomechanism and control theory and, more importantly, in 
analog and digital computers, simulation technology made a quantum leap 
forward. A new generation of intricate and capable machines was developed 
just when such simulators were needed for spaceflight. As Langley's foremost 
simulation expert, Arthur W. Vogeley, head of SMD's Guidance and Control 
Branch, said in a speech to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 
in 1966, "Simulation is now big business. In total investment of professional 
manpower and facilities it is larger now than the whole aviation industry 
was not many years ago. Simulation is growing rapidly exponentially, it 
seems. Where it will go in the next 15 years is anybody's guess." 23 

The Sputnik crisis had made simulation research and astronaut training 
absolutely vital in large part because human ambitions began to outstrip 
human understanding; simulators were needed to fill in the gaps in the 
basic knowledge about spaceflight. Building simulators to investigate the 
interface between the airplane and the pilot had been a difficult challenge 
for aeronautical researchers prior to the spaceflight revolution; building 
machines that simulated the interface between astronaut and spacecraft in 
the weightless environment of outer space was an even tougher job but 
one that had to be done. In Projects Gemini and Apollo, astronauts and 
spacecraft were to be committed to major, complex, and untried maneuvers 


Spaceflight Revolution 

which, of necessity, had to be carried through to a successful completion, 
and usually on the first attempt. Simulation was vital to success. 

Very little simulation was necessary for Project Mercury, but Project 
Gemini entailed orbital rendezvous and docking, which was a more danger- 
ous and complex maneuver than sending a capsule into orbit. Learning how 
to link two spacecraft or spacecraft modules in orbit an operation required 
by Apollo's LOR mode ultimately became the primary purpose of Project 
Gemini, NASA's second man-in-space program. Many people fail to appre- 
ciate the basic purpose of Project Gemini, which was to serve as a bridge 
between Mercury and Apollo and to develop the techniques of rendezvous 
and docking, spacewalking, and long-duration flights required by the Apollo 
lunar landing mission. 24 

Docking itself was a straightforward operation, very much like the mid- 
air refueling of a jet airplane, which was a maneuver that experienced pilots 
routinely managed just by flying "all eyeballs" and by the seat-of-the-pants. 
Rendezvous, however, seemed to be an altogether different matter. Michael 
Collins had more than his share of experience with the "dark mysteries" of 
rendezvous during his Gemini X and Apollo 11 flights: "Sir Isaac Newton, 
when formulating the laws of gravity and motion, had no idea how difficult 
he was making it for those of us who would fly his circles and ellipses. It 
was simple enough to explain, with a chalkboard or, better yet, a powerful 
digital computer, but in flight one had to be extraordinarily careful not 
to make a false move, not to trust the eyes alone, not to fire the engines 
unless each maneuver had been checked and double-checked." Collins, one 
of the most thoughtful astronauts (and best writers) to comment on his 
experiences in space, captures what it was like for a Gemini pilot to try to 
catch and rendezvous with his Agena target/docking vehicle some 2 miles 
ahead of him: 

The pilot sees the Agena's twinkling light out the window, points the nose of the 
Gemini at it, and fires a thruster to move toward the Agena. For a short time 
all seems well, and the Agena grows in size. Then a strange thing happens: the 
Agena begins to sink and disappears under the Gemini's nose. Then minutes later 
it reappears from below, but now it is going faster than the Gemini and vanishes 
out front somewhere. What has happened? When the Gemini fired its thruster it 
increased its velocity but also its centrifugal force, causing its orbit to become larger. 
As it climbed toward its new apogee, it slowed down, so that it began to lose ground 
compared to the Agena. The Gemini pilot should have fired a thruster to move away 
from the Agena, causing him to drop down below it into a faster orbit, and begin to 
overtake it. Then, when the Agena reached a precisely calculated angle above him, 
he could thrust toward it and his resulting orbit would intercept that of the Agena. 
Sir Isaac demands that you play his game his way. 

Rendezvous in space could turn sour with paralyzing swiftness. An on-board 
computer might fail, a gyroscope might tilt the wrong way, or some other 
glitch might occur to complicate the performance of a necessary maneuver. 


In the Service of Apollo 

Pilots of both the LEM and the CM had to be ready to make crucial decisions 
instantaneously. They could not simply say to one another "Meet Me Over 
St. Louis" and expect their two spacecraft to rendezvous successfully in 
space. The usual way of piloting in atmospheric flight just would not work. 
Because of these stark new realities about flight in space, Collins notes, "a 
great amount of care and pre-planning had to go into the planning of, and 
hardware for, the rendezvous missions." 25 

Engineers in Langley's Theoretical Mechanics Division (which was ac- 
tually renamed the Aero-Space Mechanics Division before becoming SMD) 
had become heavily involved in certain aspects of spaceflight simulation 
even before Sputnik. Their work for the X-15 program (when they were 
still NACA employees) had led them to construct and "fly" an X-15 atti- 
tude and control simulator. But Sputnik set them loose; over the course 
of the next 10 years they conceived, built, and operated nine new simu- 
lators. These included a Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, a Rotating 
Vehicle Simulator to study the effects on astronauts of long stays in a ro- 
tating space station, and a Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator that was 
used to evaluate the effects of lunar gravity on man's walking and running 
capabilities (with and without pressure suits). A Lunar Orbit and Let- 
down Approach Simulator (LOLA), a $1.9-million facility, was designed so 
that pilots could experience the same sort of visual cues that they would 
encounter while navigating and controlling a spacecraft in the vicinity of 
the moon. The Lunar Landing Research Facility, a mammoth $3.5-million 
facility, simulated manned lunar landings, and a Projection Planetarium 
was built that could either project stars on a plastic dome while test pilots 
sat on a rotating gun turret "spacecraft" to get the feel of heavenly move- 
ment or generate a horizon-to-horizon view of Florida as seen from about 
100,000 feet for "out-the-window" studies of Apollo launch-abort problems. 
The Virtual Image Rendezvous Simulator used a closed-circuit television 
system and analog computers to represent a moving target vehicle for ren- 
dezvous and docking studies; a Water Immersion Simulator used a water 
tank for investigating problems associated with manned extra- and intra- 
vehicular activities in reduced-G environments; and a One-Man Propulsion 
Research Apparatus suspended a person equipped with vertical thrusters 
and translation and attitude controllers from a lightweight gimbal unit 
for maneuverability studies in reduced-gravity fields. 26 Two of the space- 
flight simulators in particular the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator and 
the Lunar Landing Research Facility made significant contributions to the 
successes of projects Gemini and Apollo. 

In the months following NASA's adoption of the LOR concept, a 
team of Langley engineers led by Arthur W. Vogeley and Max C. Kurbjun 
of the Space Mechanics Division, and including Roy R. Brissendon, 
Alfred J. Meintel, Jr., Jack E. Pennington, and Marvin C. Waller, designed 
an unusual research facility explicitly for the purpose of studying the special 
problems of rendezvous and docking. In its essentials, the design belonged 


Spaceflight Revolution 


L-64-1610 L-62-9652 

The Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator suspended from the roof of the West 
Area airplane hangar (top). Bottom left, a time-lapse look at a successful docking. 
Bottom right, an unidentified pilot "eyeballs " his way to a docking by peering through 
the portal in his capsule. 


In the Service of Apollo 

to Vogeley, the head of SMD's Guidance and Control Branch, and entailed 
full-scale mock-ups of the Gemini and Apollo cockpits that could be hung 
from an overhead carriage and cable-suspended gimbal system. This entire 
assembly could then be attached to an overhead moving crane that moved 
along a 210-foot track running along the rafters of Langley's cavernous West 
Area hangar. Pilot astronauts could then "fly" the cockpits both in night- 
time and daylight conditions to rehearse and perfect rendezvous and docking 

Upon its completion in early 1963, SMD began using this ingenious 
simulator to study the finer points of various rendezvous missions. (The 
simulator included a general-purpose analog computer, which made it 
possible for the pilot inside the gimbal to experience all six degrees of 
motion freedom.) Experience with the facility confirmed something that 
Vogeley and other experienced guidance and control experts at Langley had 
believed for some time: rendezvous, if practiced, was not as mysterious or 
as difficult as many people imagined. In fact, it could be accomplished quite 
easily. 27 

Nonetheless, without their experience in the Rendezvous and Docking 
Simulator, the Gemini and Apollo astronauts would not have been as well 
prepared for handling the pressures of rendezvous. "We trained an awful 
lot of astronauts," Vogeley remembers with pride, "who all appreciated the 
realism of the simulator's visual scene. It gave us a lot of satisfaction just 
to show that NASA could do that sort of thing in a unique piece of ground 
equipment that only cost about $300,000. I think we got our money's 
worth." 28 In his branch office Vogeley kept a picture of the simulator 
that was signed by all the pilots who ever used the facility with one 
exception. Apollo astronaut Ed White, who visited Langley twice to fly 
on the simulator, died in the tragic launchpad fire at Cape Kennedy on 
27 January 1967 before he could add his autograph to the list. 

The other simulator to contribute in a significant way to the success 
of Apollo was the Lunar Landing Research Facility, an imposing 250-foot- 
high, 400-foot-long gantry structure that became operational in 1965 at a 
cost of nearly $4 million. Conceived in 1962 by engineer Donald Hewes and 
built under the careful direction of his quiet but ingenious division chief, 
W. Hewitt Phillips, this gigantic facility was designed to develop techniques 
for landing the rocket-powered LEM on the moon's surface. Because the 
moon had no atmosphere and its gravitational pull was only one-sixth that 
of the earth's, piloting the LEM would be completely unlike atmospheric 
flying. The thrust of the LEM's rockets in a vacuum would produce unusual 
and abrupt up-and-down, side-to-side, or rolling motions. In addition, the 
lack of an atmosphere would create a harsh light. As the astronauts landed, 
they would face this bright glare, as well as deep, dark shadows, which would 
skew depth perception. Some unique problems had to be overcome to make 
a pinpoint lunar landing. Some means of simulation seemed called for; the 
question was how to do it. 


Space/light Revolution 

L-69-7140 L-63-3268 

The two men responsible for the design and early operation of the Lunar Landing 
Research Facility were Donald Hewes (left) and his division chief, William Hewitt 
Phillips (right). 

Hewitt Phillips, a soft-spoken, MIT-educated engineer born in Port 
Sunlight, England, remembers how the idea for the Lunar Landing Research 
Facility originated between 1962 and 1963: "Since we knew that the 
moon's gravity is one-sixth that of the Earth's, we needed to support 
five-sixths of the vehicle's weight to simulate the actual conditions on the 
moon." 29 Perhaps, some practical method could be devised to lower the 
apparent weight of a mock-up LEM to its lunar equivalent by a method of 
suspension using vertical cables attached to a traveling bridge crane. 

From this basic notion, the design evolved. A huge gantry structure was 
built that would dominate Langley's landscape for years to come. Phillips 
and Hewes wanted the supporting gantry to be even taller, but because 
of the heavy military air traffic from adjacent Langley AFB, the structure 
was limited to 200 feet. The completed facility, however, stood 240 feet 
6 inches, excluding the top warning lights and antennae. Two long cables 
provided the desired vertical lifting force equal to five-sixths of the vehicle's 
weight, thereby opposing the pull of the earth's gravity and simulating the 
low gravitational force of the moon's surface. The cables were attached to 
a servocontrolled hoist system in a dolly unit mounted under a traveling 
bridge; the hoist system was controlled automatically by load cells in each 
support strut. As the test vehicle moved up and down and back and forth in 
response to the controlling pilot, the bridge and dolly responded to signals 
from the vehicle and from cable angle sensors at the top of the cables to 


In the Service of Apollo 


Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility, completed in 1965, helped to prepare the 
Apollo astronauts for the final 150 feet of their lunar landing mission by simulating 
both the lunar gravity environment and the full-scale LEM vehicle dynamics. 

stay directly over the vehicle at all times and to keep the cables vertical. 
Because the bridge and dolly system were driven hydraulically, they provided 
a responsive servocontrol system. Moreover, safety features were built into 
the system to prevent the lunar landing vehicle from crashing or the bridge 
and the dolly from overrunning their tracks in the event of an equipment 
malfunction or the pilot exceeding the safety limits of the system. 

The lunar landing test vehicle itself could be flown up to about 17 miles 
per hour within the confines of the overhead structure, which provided a 
travel range 400 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 180 feet high. The vehicle could 
also be hoisted to the overhead platform, where two cables connected to 
the trolley units on the lower horizontal truss structure could catapult the 
vehicle downward at 35 miles per hour. To make the simulated landings 
more authentic, Hewes and his men filled the base of the huge eight-legged, 
red-and-white structure with dirt and modeled it to resemble the moon's 
surface. They erected floodlights at the proper angles to simulate lunar 
light and installed a black screen at the far end of the gantry to mimic the 
airless lunar "sky." Hewes personally climbed into the fake craters with 
cans of everyday black enamel to spray them so that the astronauts could 
experience the shadows that they would see during the actual moon landing. 


Space/light Revolution 



Langley engineers designed the control cab of the Lunar Landing Research Facility 's 
original landing module (top left) from the cockpit of a Bell helicopter. To make it 
similar to the actual LEM, they eventually redesigned it with a stand-up cab (top 
right and bottom). 


In the Service of Apollo 

L-69-4361 L-67-3857 

With floodlights shining down to simulate lunar light and the base modeled to 
resemble the lunar surface, 24 astronauts practiced landings at the Lunar Landing 
Research Facility between 1965 and 1969. 

As a final touch to the facility, Hewes attached to an overhead, lightweight 
trolley track a simple contrivance, which came to be known as the Reduced 
Gravity Walking Simulator. Made of canvas slings, steel cables, a small 
trolley, and a wooden walking surface, this rig tilted a walker some 80 de- 
grees from vertical by holding him up with two cables. Astronauts, thus 
suspended, could practice moonwalking down the plywood surface. They 
made 12-foot jumps with ease, rapidly climbed a "vertical" pole with one 
hand, and generally got a feel for what it would be like to traverse the lunar 
surface. 30 The Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator became quite a hit with 
all press members who visited Langley during the Apollo era. In 1968, for 
example, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite suited up in an orange astronaut 
outfit for what turned out to be a rather comical televised walk on the moon. 

Of course, the landing facility was a complicated system and had kinks 
that had to be ironed out. The electrohydraulic system that kept the crane 
platform directly over the flight vehicle and the cables vertical was extremely 
involved. The facility had a wonderful assortment of structural, cable- 
stretch, and pendulous frequencies that were unpredictable and required 
innovative compensation systems. The LEM model was attached to the 
cables through gimbal rings allowing pitch, roll, and yaw motions produced 
by a hydrogen peroxide rocket attitude control system. The one-sixth weight 
not lifted by the cable system had to be lifted by throttleable hydrogen 


Spaceflight Revolution 


The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media, including then-CBS 
news anchorman Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous 
Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator a series of cable- 
supported slings hanging down from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed 
to approximate lunar locomotion. 

peroxide thrusters fixed to the vehicle structure. With such marvelous 
complexities, it is no wonder that it took some time for the Langley engineers 
to perfect their gargantuan but sensitive and responsive mechanism. 

As Neil Armstrong testified, once the kinks were ironed out, the Lunar 
Landing Research Facility was "an engineer's delight." The flying volume 
was "limiting, but adequate to give pilots a substantive introduction to 
Lunar flight characteristics." Moreover, thanks to the built-in safety fea- 
tures, whereby the cable system could be locked if the vehicle was out of 
control, the astronauts were able to "investigate unorthodox attitude, tra- 
jectory and control combinations which would be impractical in a free-flying 
simulator." 31 

Armstrong knew the limitations of other simulators from personal expe- 
rience. On 6 May 1968, during a test flight of a free-flying Lunar Landing 
Training Vehicle at NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in 
California, he was almost killed. Historian Richard Hallion, author of the 


In the Service of Apollo 

definitive book on the history of NASA's Flight Research Center, relates the 

While hovering 10 meters above the ground, the vehicle suffered a loss of helium 
pressure in its propellant tanks, causing shutdown of its attitude control rockets. It 
started nosing up and rolling over, and Armstrong immediately ejected. His zero- 
zero seat kicked him away from the stricken craft, which tumbled into the ground 
and exploded as the astronaut safely descended by parachute. 

"It was a sad fate for a pioneering flight craft," writes Hallion, a great 
lover of flying machines. Indeed, but it almost sealed a far worse fate for 
America's first man on the moon. 32 Prom that day on, Neil Armstrong 
made no flights in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle or any other free- 
flying test vehicle simulating lunar landings. He did, however, continue to 
use Langley's facility to practice landings. 

Ironically, in the early days of the facility's development, many people 
associated with the Apollo program did not see the need for such a facility 
and questioned whether it would ever work. How could a vehicle hanging 
from cables, like a child's top jumping at the end of a string, adequately 
simulate moon landings? Axel Mattson recalls that Gilruth's engineers 
in Houston never expressed much enthusiasm for the device. They felt 
that the best simulations would be provided by helicopters approximating 
final descent trajectories (all Apollo crew members did in fact become 
qualified helicopter pilots) by a test program involving a modified Bell 
X-14A VTOL aircraft, or by the special free-flight lunar landing research 
vehicles being developed by NASA for the test flights at Edwards. All these 
research vehicles made significant contributions to developing techniques 
for the lunar landing. But Langley's controversial Lunar Landing Facility 
provided astronauts with a unique experience. So realistic was its imitation 
moonscape, for example, that Neil Armstrong remarked that when he saw 
his shadow fall upon the lunar dust, it was exactly as he had seen it at the 
landing facility at Langley. 33 

Some of Langley's other simulators did not make significant contributions 
to Apollo or to any other program. The clearest case in point was the 
intricate LOLA, which started operating in 1965 at an imposing cost of 
nearly $2 million. This simulator was designed to provide a pilot with 
a detailed visual encounter with the lunar surface; the machine consisted 
primarily of a cockpit, a closed-circuit TV system, and four large murals or 
scale models representing portions of the lunar surface as seen from various 
altitudes. The pilot in the cockpit moved along a track past these murals, 
which would accustom him to the visual cues for controlling a spacecraft in 
the vicinity of the moon. Unfortunately, such a simulation although great 
fun and quite aesthetic was not helpful because flight in lunar orbit posed 
no special problems other than the rendezvous with the LEM, which the 
device did not simulate. Not long after the end of Apollo, the expensive 
machine was dismantled. 34 


Space/light Revolution 


Although as much fun as riding through the fun house at the county fair, the 
$2 million LOLA proved unnecessary. In this photo from 1965, a Langley technician 
takes great care to make sure that the surface features of the moon are being 
represented exactly. 

Rogallo's Flexible Wing 

More than any other division at Langley, the Full-Scale Research Division 
acted as a "service effort" for Apollo. Testing in the high-speed wind 
tunnels of this division provided essential data in the transonic regime for 
the moon shot. Not all Apollo work carried out in the Full-Scale Research 
Division, however, involved high-speed aerodynamics. Perhaps the most 
interesting and potentially significant technologies developed in this division 
involved low-speed aerodynamics specifically, a proposed Apollo capsule 
recovery system that used a controllable paraglider. This concept, which 
was eventually turned down both for Gemini and Apollo, was the brainchild 
of Francis M. Rogallo, an ingenious thinker and kite-flying enthusiast who 
worked in the 7 x 10-Foot Tunnel Branch. 

Although Bob Gilruth and many other engineers responsible for Project 
Mercury considered the ballistic capsule approach "an elegant solution" to 
the problem of quickly putting a person in orbit, no aeronautical engineer 
was especially happy with the plan. 35 Their dream was for the spacecraft 


In the Service of Apollo 

to return to earth using "wings and wheels" that is, to really fly down 
through the atmosphere to a landing on a conventional runway. 

NASA placed its hopes for such an airplane-like landing on an unusual 
inflated- fabric flexible wing, or parawing. Such a wing was being developed 
at Langley in the early 1960s under the intellectual direction of Francis 
M. Rogallo. Rogallo's idea for Gemini, as well as for Apollo, was to pack 
away a carefully designed parawing like a parachute until the spacecraft fell 
to about 60,000 feet, at which time an elaborate unstowing and unfurling 
process began. By 20,000 feet, if all went well, the descending spacecraft 
would turn into the world's heaviest hang glider, suspended under a dart- 
shaped parawing. The astronauts themselves would then bring the soaring 
craft down to a landing either on water or on soil. 36 

Rogallo had started at NACA Langley in 1936 after graduation from 
Stanford University, and since 1945 the flexible wing had been a pet project. 
A survey of the history of the parawing provides not only an understand- 
ing of the genesis of one of Langley's most intriguing if never used 
developments for Apollo but also insight into the sudden and dramatic im- 
pact of Sputnik and the spaceflight revolution on the course of independent 
research at Langley. 

Rogallo and his wife, Gertrude, spent their spare time flying home-built 
kites at their beach house at Nags Head, North Carolina, which is near 
Kitty Hawk. By the end of World War II, this hobby had begun to give the 
couple ideas for unconventional vehicles, such as hydrofoil boats, ground- 
effect machines, V/STOL aircraft, and flexible wings. Because they could 
not find any organization, including their own NACA, to support R&D for 
their ideas, they "decided to do what we could privately as time permitted." 
Initially their efforts focused on configurations resembling boat sails; later, 
their designs were similar to parachutes. Finally, they concentrated on 
shapes somewhere between boat sails and parachutes flexible wings. By 
the end of 1948, the couple had developed a flexible kite, which the Rogallos 
called "Flexi-Kite," and a type of gliding parachute, which they later named 
a "paraglider." 37 

In 1948, Rogallo and his wife filed a patent for a V-shaped flexible wing, 
which was awarded (U.S. Patent No. 2,546,078) in March 1951. From 
the outset, the inventors had thought of their parawing as a wing not 
only for sport gliders but also for military and civil powered aircraft. No 
one, however, took their proposals seriously. As Rogallo remembers, when 
meeting friends and acquaintances, they were generally greeted with, "How's 
the kite business?" The Rogallos had resorted to selling their Flexi-Kite as 
a toy in order to illustrate the parawing principle and help finance their 
work. Francis Rogallo would often say in later years that toys should copy 
the real thing and not the other way around. 38 

For the first seven years of its development, the motivation behind the 
flexible wing had been "purely aeronautical," but that changed in 1952 
when the Rogallos saw the Colliers magazine that ran the exciting series 


Space/light Revolution 

Francis and Gertrude Rogallo (right), in- 
ventors of the V-shaped flexible "para- 
wing." In December 1961, Langley flight- 
tested a 50-foot parawing 's ability to bring 
down safely a model of a manned space 
capsule from a few thousand feet above 
Plum Tree Island (below), an old army 
bombing range near Langley Field. 




In the Service of Apollo 

of stories about spaceflight. Francis Rogallo was struck by the issue's 
beautiful illustrations of rigid- winged gliders mounted on top of huge rockets. 
As he recalled later in a 1963 speech to the American Astronautical 
Society, "I thought that the rigid-winged gliders might better be replaced 
by vehicles with flexible wings that could be folded into small packages 
during the launching." In August 1952 he met Dr. Willy Ley, one of 
Colliers consultants, and told Ley his thoughts about flexible wings for 
astronautics. In the conversation Rogallo mentioned that the technology of 
flexible wings might someday prove very useful when spacecraft commute 
regularly between planets: a rocket ship returning from Mars could pop out 
flexible wings as it entered the earth's atmosphere and glide the last 100 
or 200 miles home, saving "the stockholders" that much fuel. "But the 
time was not yet ripe." 39 (Note that Rogallo imagined, perhaps in jest, 
that private corporations would be sponsoring the interplanetary travel, not 

In April 1954, hoping to gain acceptance of his concept for aerospace 
applications, Rogallo gave a presentation, complete with glider model 
demonstrations, to the local Tidewater reserve unit of the Air Force Research 
and Development Command. Two months later, he submitted a proposal 
to include parawing research in the NACA budget, but the proposal was 
rejected. Indefatigable, he submitted a proposal to discuss his flexible wing 
concepts at the annual meeting of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences 
(IAS). This was "the first [proposal] that actually reached the program 
committee after several tries," but it too was turned down. The IAS 
rejection letter read: "Although the paper is out of the ordinary and looks 
like it might be fine to hear, it just does not fit into our program." 40 

As it did for so many research projects, the launch of Russia's Sputnik 1 in 
October 1957 changed the course of history for the parawing. Even before 
the formation of NASA in 1958, Rogallo had received NACA approval to 
make a few crude wind-tunnel and model flight investigations of parawings 
in the 7 x 10-Foot Tunnel Branch. In December 1958, he made a presen- 
tation to the Langley Committee on Aerodynamics, and as he remembers, 
"gradually people in other divisions became interested and volunteered to 
investigate parawings in their facilities." During 1959 cloth parawings were 
tested in the 4- Foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel at Mach 2, and still other 
parawing models were deployed at high altitudes (150,000 to 200,000 feet) 
at nearly Mach 3 from rocket launchings at Wallops Island. In August 1959, 
von Braun invited Rogallo to Huntsville for a presentation, so "business was 
picking up." 41 

For the next year and a half, into early 1961, Rogallo gave talk after 
talk on his parawing concept to various technical groups. He spoke at 
the national aeronautics meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers 
(April 1960); at Ryan Aeronautical Company and North American Aviation 
(May 1960); at the annual IAS meeting in New York City (Jan. 1961); 
and at local IAS chapter meetings in Lancaster, California, and San Diego 


Space/light Revolution 

(March 1961). By the end of 1960, the Ryan company, the same company 
that built Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, began building a powered 
man-carrying "Ryan Flex- Wing" at its own expense; Rogallo was on hand in 
San Diego to witness its first flight. Also, in early 1961, NASA Marshall gave 
Ryan and North American contracts to study the feasibility of recovering 
Saturn boosters by means of parawings. NASA in-house studies of the 
technological capabilities of the wing were made at Marshall and Langley 
and demonstrated that recovery of the (later canceled) C-2 rocket stage 
was feasible. By the end of 1961, the DOD let its first parawing contract, 
to Ryan, for flight tests of the Flex- Wing. The aircraft was later sent to 
NASA Langley for investigation in the Full-Scale Tunnel. Thereafter, the 
number of projects and contracts related to parawings increased too rapidly 
to mention in this brief history. 42 

"It looked like parawings were here to stay," Rogallo rejoiced at the time, 
and Sputnik was the reason. 43 By the summer of 1963, it appeared that the 
concept had achieved worldwide acceptance and that the time had come for 
his parawing study group to give the U.S. government royalty- free license to 
use its patents, which it did in a ceremony in Washington on 18 July 1963. 
In a short speech, Rogallo expressed his hopes for the invention: "We feel 
confident that the civil and military agencies of the government will carry on 
this work, and we hope private industry will promote use of the concept for 
business and pleasure as effectively as they have for astronautics and military 
aeronautics." In a separate ceremony a day earlier, Dr. Hugh Dryden, depu- 
ty administrator of NASA, presented Francis Rogallo and his wife with a 
check for $35,000 for their development of the flexible- wing concept; at that 
time, it was the largest cash award ever made by the space agency to an 
inventor. 44 

Unfortunately, the spaceflight revolution, which had so quickly turned 
circumstances in the wing's favor, just as quickly turned circumstances 
against it. That is often the nature of revolutions to take things full 
circle. From the beginning, NASA's interest in Rogallo's paraglider grew 
primarily from the possibility of using it as a controllable space capsule 
recovery system. When that interest waned, so too did NASA's support for 
the innovative flight technology. 

Given NASA's formal go-ahead for research, Rogallo and his colleagues in 
the Full-Scale Research Division invested much time, energy, and emotion in 
the paraglider concept. Several Langley employees shared Rogallo's enthusi- 
asm for the innovative flight technology and even conducted manned flexible- 
wing flight research during weekends on the Outer Banks with privately 
owned equipment. Although qualitative in nature, these investigations 
proved "valuable in providing quick answers and indicating promising di- 
rections for the much more costly and time-consuming instrumented but 
unmanned NASA flight research." 45 In wind-tunnel studies at Langley, 
this research covered a broad spectrum of parawing design parameters 
everything from the original concept of a flexible lifting surface (indicated 


In the Service of Apollo 

in the engineering data as a "limp paraglider") to rigid frame gliders with 
conical and cylindrical canopies. 

As this research on the basic technology of the parawing gained momen- 
tum at Langley, NASA's STG, still at Langley at this time, grew inter- 
ested in the possible application of the foldable, deployable, inflatable-frame 
paraglider to its Gemini EOR program. Specifically, the STG believed it 
might be used as part of Mercury Mark II, the follow-on to Project Mercury, 
which ultimately (in January 1962) became Project Gemini. The STG felt 
that such a wing could be deployed either before or after reentry to provide 
controlled glide and horizontal landing. Even on a lifting reentry body 
NASA was giving "lifting body" technology considerable attention in re- 
lation to space station studies during this period (see the epilogue) tests 
at Langley and other NASA facilities were showing that a parawing could 
improve the postentry flight or landing characteristics. 46 

In early July 1961, a few weeks before the second manned Mercury flight 
by Gus Grissom, Gilruth's organization initiated three well-funded design 
study contracts on the paraglider concept with Ryan, North American, and 
Goodyear. Of these three companies, North American would eventually 
produce the most acceptable plan a study to explore the parawing as an 
earth-landing system for Project Apollo. 47 A few weeks later, the STG 
began requesting that studies of the Rogallo-type paraglider be conducted 
at NASA centers. At Langley this led, on 31 August, to a research 
authorization for "Free-Flight and Wind- Tunnel Tests of Guided Parachutes 
as Recovery Devices for the Apollo Type Reentry Vehicle." By late fall, all 
of this work came together as a formalized NASA paraglider development 
program, with Langley and Ames responsible for the wind-tunnel tests and 
the Flight Research Center for scheduling manned flight tests. Starting in 
mid- 1963, 12 manned flight tests were actually made at Edwards with a 
so-called Parasev. 48 

If the United States had not been in a hurry to go to the moon, the 
Rogallo paraglider might have been used as the capsule recovery system 
for Gemini and Apollo; of course, if the country had not been in such a 
hurry, it would not have gone to the moon at all in the 1960s and perhaps 
would not have gone there ever. As it turned out, the paraglider became 
"hopelessly snarled in a financial, technical, and managerial morass."^ 
Richard Hallion recollects the specific problems encountered during the flight 
tests at Edwards: 

Paraglider development involved solving major design difficulties in deploying the 
wing, ensuring that crew would have adequate control over the parawing-equipped 
craft, and providing stability, control, and handling qualities. The Flight Research 
Center's technical staff was never convinced that the scheme was workable. Eventu- 
ally, because of poor test results and rising costs and time delays, the idea was dropped 
from Gemini in mid-1964. FRC engineers and pilots had believed that any vehicle 
so equipped might present a pilot with a greater flying challenge than contemporary 
advanced airplanes. 


Space/light Revolution 


An early version of the single-seat Paraglider Research Vehicle ("Parasev") is test 
"flown" in Langley's Full- Scale Tunnel in January 1962. 

These conclusions were based on experience. Flights with the small, single- 
seat experimental Parasev had proved extremely tricky even in the hands of 
experienced test pilots. The first machine, Parasev /, flew as if "controlled by 
a wet noodle." As Hallion records, during one ground tow, a veteran NASA 
test pilot "got out of phase with the lagging control system and developed 
a rocking motion that got worse and worse; just as the tow truck started 
to slow, the Parasev did a wing-over into the lakebed, virtually demolishing 
the Parasev and injuring [the pilot], though not seriously." This was not 
the only time that a paraglider test vehicle would slam into the ground. 50 

The Parasev, built and rebuilt several times, eventually made over 
100 flights at Edwards and showed enough progress that it might have proved 
feasible for capsule reentry if further developed. However, NASA could 
not wait for its maturation. Besides, the paraglider was "not absolutely 
necessary, being more technological frosting than cake." 51 NASA did not 
need an elegant reentry plan, just a workable one. By early 1964, NASA was 
committed to a water landing for Apollo. In mid- 1964, Gemini's program 


In the Service of Apollo 

manager, Charles W. Mathews, a former Langley STG engineer, canceled 
the paraglider. Rogallo's idea would not fly anyone or anything back from 

Rogallo never gave up on his pet concept and continued to develop it 
even after he retired and moved with Gertrude to Nags Head. There they 
spent all their time working on their paragliders for sport aviation and other 
applications. Before leaving NASA Langley, Rogallo and his colleagues 
in the Low- Speed Vehicle Branch had continued to explore a very broad 
spectrum of wing shapes and structures for his flexible wings. Never again, 
however, would his concept receive the same high level of NASA support 
and funding that it had received when linked to the manned space programs 
of the early 1960s. Nevertheless, a Parawing Project Office (under engineer 
Dewey L. Clemmons, Jr.) continued at Langley until 1967 and kept the 
research alive. 

The Apollo Fire Investigation Board 

Langley played one other significant, if very sad, role in the Apollo 
program. The program seemed to be moving along extremely well, so well 
in fact that by New Year's Day 1967 many observers believed that President 
Kennedy's "by the end of the decade" deadline for landing a man on the 
moon might be achieved a couple of years ahead of schedule. Then tragedy 
struck making it abundantly clear to NASA and the nation just how high a 
price would have to be paid to pursue such bold ventures into the unknown. 
Early in the evening of 27 January 1967, a fire broke out inside the Block I 
Command Module sitting on top of the uprated Saturn I 204 rocket on the 
launchpad of Complex 34 at Cape Kennedy. The fire killed three Apollo 
astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee who 
were in the capsule for a prelaunch test. 52 

The next day, Deputy Administrator Robert C. Seamans, Jr., speaking 
for Administrator Webb, named Floyd L. Thompson chairman of the 
Apollo 204 Review Board. 53 Serving with Thompson were five other NASA 
officials, one air force official, and one official from the U.S. Bureau of 
Mines. No one institution was better represented on the board than 
Langley. Besides Thompson (and probably because of him), the board also 
included E. Barton Geer, associate chief of Langley's Flight Vehicles and 
Systems Division, and George Malley, Langley's chief counsel. Furthermore, 
Max Faget, then of the Manned Spacecraft Center, but formerly a Langley 
engineer, also served on the board.* 

* The other members of the Apollo 204 Review Board were Col. Charles F. Strang, chief of the 
Missiles and Space Safety Division, air force inspector general, Norton AFB, Calif.; Lt. Col. Frank 
Borman, astronaut, Manned Spacecraft Center; George C. White, Jr., director of reliability and quality, 
Apollo Program Office, NASA headquarters; Dr. Robert W. Van Dolah, research director, Explosive 
Research Center, Bureau of Mines, U.S. Department of Interior, Pittsburgh, Pa.; and John J. Williams, 
director of Spacecraft Operations, NASA Kennedy Space Center. 


Spaceflight Revolution 


Floyd Thompson (left), chairman of the Apollo Fire investigation board, talks with 
Thomas O. Paine (right), who took over from James Webb as NASA administrator 
in September 1968. 

NASA was handing a terribly difficult job to Langley's 69-year-old di- 
rector, who was only a year and some months away from retirement. Iron- 
ically, someone like Floyd Thompson, with no national public reputation 
and a surface personality that even some close friends described as a bit 
"hayseed," would have been out of the question for the investigation com- 
mittee that was appointed after the Challenger accident even as a commis- 
sion member let alone as its chairman. 54 But, as the results of the Apollo 
fire investigation and the subsequently successful Apollo program demon- 
strated, Thompson would be the perfect man for the Apollo job. As Robert 
Seamans once said about Thompson, "I think he acted to fool people a 
little bit so he could get their measure and then watch out, you know. 
Very adaptable. At Langley, through all this chaotic period, he kept it out 
front doing the right kind of things. And then of course the real crunch 
came when we had the Apollo fire. The question was, 'Who do we have who 


In the Service of Apollo 

has the ability and the credibility to be responsible for that review?' That's 
when we put Tommy into that very, very difficult job." 55 Interestingly, after 
the mishap of Apollo 13, when exploding oxygen tanks in the service module 
forced the highly dramatic return of the three astronauts even before they 
had reached the moon, NASA appointed another Langley center director, 
Edgar M. Cortright, Thompson's successor, to chair the accident review 
board. Perhaps this was in part a testimony to how well Floyd Thompson 
had conducted the Apollo fire investigation. 

Within 24 hours of the command module inferno, Thompson and the rest 
of his committee were on hand at Pad 34, beginning the long and arduous 
process of finding out why the tragedy had happened. Under Thompson's 
disciplined direction, the investigation marched along quickly and quietly. 
This low-profile progress was possible because the inquiry was an internal 
NASA investigation without the national media exposure that those on the 
Challenger investigation committee would face. By 5 April, after spending 
about 10 weeks on the job, most of it on site at the Kennedy Space Center, 
the Apollo 204 Review Board was ready to submit its formal report, which 
was several thousand pages long including appendixes. According to its 
terse prose, arcs from faulty electrical wiring in an equipment bay inside 
the command module had started the fire. In the 100-percent oxygen 
atmosphere, the crew had died of asphyxia caused by inhalation of toxic 
gases. The board report concluded with a list of 11 major recommendations 
for hardware and operational changes. 56 

NASA would need two more years to fix all the problems with Apollo. A 
special Apollo Configuration Control Board, chaired by George Low, even- 
tually oversaw the completion of over 1300 design changes for the space- 
craft. The mending process had really begun, however, with the Apollo 204 
Review Board's fast action to a first draft of an investigation report. As 
chairman and as a person well aware of the inherent dangers of flight re- 
search, Floyd Thompson wanted everyone to know that his board's written 
description of "the defects in the Apollo Program that led to the condi- 
tion existing at the time of the Apollo 204 accident" should not be in- 
terpreted as "an indictment of the entire manned space flight program" 
or as a "castigation of the many people associated with that program." 
"Nothing is further from the Board's intent," Thompson emphatically de- 
clared. The function of his board had been "to search for error in the 
largest and most complex research and development program ever under- 
taken," and that was why the report on the fire commented only on the 
deficiencies uncovered and did not present a total picture of the Apollo 
program, including the good points with the bad, or look for scapegoats. 
However, the report tried to make clear to the nation that such tragedies 


Space/light Revolution 

All three astronauts who died in the 
Apollo fire had spent a consider- 
able amount of time in simulators 
at Langley. Gus Grissom (right) 
at the controls of the Rendezvous 
and Docking Simulator in 1963; be- 
low, Roger Chaffee strapped into the 
Lunar Landing Research Facility's 
Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator 
in 1965. Unfortunately, a picture of 
Edward White while in training at 
Langley was not found. 



In the Service of Apollo 
would occasionally occur if the bold venture into space was to continue and 



It is unfortunate that tragic accidents such as the Apollo fire and 
the Challenger explosion have to happen for errors to be discovered and 
corrected. Both events made NASA and its contractors more cautious, and 
in the case of the Apollo fire, they actually slowed the pace of work so that 
tasks could be performed more carefully. "It gave everyone not working on 
fire-related matters a breather, a period to catch up on their work." "In 
the race for the moon," as Apollo astronaut/historian Michael Collins has 
written, "no one wanted his piece of the machine to be the laggard, the one 
to hold up the whole procession. Consequently, no one wanted to admit 
being 'the long pole in the tent' as it was called, and managers were apt 
to fudge their schedules a bit, hoping someone else would admit to being 
even farther behind. Many long poles got whittled down to manageable 
size during the time North American was struggling to get the Command 
Module back on track." 58 

This scenario really did not apply to NASA Langley; its work to achieve 
the lunar landing objective was for the most part over by the time the Apollo 
command module was fixed and ready for its first manned flight (Apollo 7, 
11-22 Oct. 1968). Langley's contributions to Apollo had little to do with 
final preparations but rather rested largely in the groundwork for such an 
ambitious program. By the time of Apollo 11 's historic first lunar landing 
on 20 July 1969, Langley's multifarious R&D efforts for Apollo had been 
largely forgotten; except for the Hampton area press, the media gave the 
center little attention. But without Langley, an American lunar landing 
that summer day may not have been possible. 

"We had a target and a goal," says John Houbolt, one of the few from 
Langley privileged with an invitation to watch the historic lunar landing 
event from the viewing room at Mission Control in Houston. "Congress 

By the authority granted to the center in a letter from Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans on 
27 February 1967, NASA Langley became "the custodian of all pertinent physical evidence, reports, files, 
and working materials dealing with the investigations and review of the Apollo 204 accident." (Copy in 
Apollo 204 Review Board files, Langley Central Files.) In 1978, Langley shipped all the documentary 
records of the review board to the National Archives; however, it kept all the related hardware, including 
the Apollo capsule itself. In 1990 preparations were made to send the "Apollo storage container," which 
included the capsule, to the Kennedy Space Center for an appropriate burial with remnants of the Space 
Shuttle Challenger. However, those preparations halted after a controversy ensued over the historical 
significance of the Apollo capsule and its possible use in a museum exhibition. Thus, in the summer 
of 1990, NASA made the decision to keep the Apollo hardware right where it was, in a warehouse 
at Langley. (The press was allowed to view the remains briefly, in part to confirm that Langley still 
possessed them.) On 7 November 1990, Langley Director Richard H. Petersen ordered his director of 
operations "to seal the entrance to the Apollo 204 storage container" and not to break it "without my 
written approval." For the relevant documentation, see the Apollo 204 Review Board files, Langley 
Central Files. 


Space/light Revolution 


The Lunar Landing Research Facility staff crowds around Apollo astronaut Neil 
Armstrong (center) in March 1967, 28 months before he was to become the first 
human to set foot on the moon. 

was behind it. Funding was available. The entire nation mobilized for a 
common goal." In his opinion, to this day, "the landing on the Moon was 
undoubtedly mankind's greatest technological achievement and engineering 
accomplishment. We started essentially from scratch in 1962 and seven years 
later we were on the Moon. It was a remarkable achievement and remains 
unsurpassed." 59 

Indeed, Apollo was the crowning achievement of the spaceflight revolu- 
tion, but it had also served as NASA's only guiding star through nearly all 
of the 1960s. Apollo shone so spectacularly, few aboard NASA suspected 
that it would ever dim. Unfortunately, near the end of the program, in- 
terest in spaceflight waned, and Apollo's brightness proved to be that of a 
supernova dazzling yet brief. Once Apollo had faded, NASA found itself 
traveling without direction. 



The Cortright Synthesis 

A new era had already started. All I did was acceler- 
ate it. Thompson was wedded to the Langley way of 
doing things and under Tommy everything would be 
done well, but done their way and in their good time. 
All I did was speed it up, I think, what was bound to 
happen eventually. 

Edgar M. Cortright, Langley director 

Cortright came down here with the idea that he knew 
everything and that he was going to control every- 
thing. And this made it very difficult for some of us. 
Some of us could adjust to it, some of us didn't. I'm 
one of those who didn't. 

Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., former 
Langley director of aeronautics 

Every revolution needs its culminating figure, its rationalizer, its 
Napoleon, who synthesizes chosen elements of the old regime and the rev- 
olution to create a new order. Under the firm and confident direction of 
this dynamic leader, a revolutionary episode calms down, grows structured, 
becomes what is expected, and establishes norms. The revolution eventually 
becomes the social and intellectual world in which the new generation lives, 
awaiting the next major upheaval. 

For NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California, this 
culminating and dominating figure was Dr. Hans Mark, who succeeded 
NACA Langley veteran H. Julian "Harvey" Allen as center director in 
February 1969. 1 For Langley, it was Edgar M. Cortright, who would serve 
as Langley center director from May 1968 to August 1975. In the first 
36 months of his tenure, Cortright put Langley through the most sweeping 


Space/light Revolution 

reorganization in the center's history, be it NACA or NASA. At the end of 
it, Langley was not the same place it had been. Many of Langley's most 
vital links to the old culture of NACA research were eliminated or retired. 
In their place would be established a still very reputable and effective orga- 
nization but one completely adapted to even tamed by the criteria and 
standards set by the spaceflight revolution. 

Putting a comprehensive treatment of the Cortright reorganization and 
its aftermath at the end of this long study of the spaceflight revolution 
at Langley, however, would be like piggybacking a complete study of the 
Napoleonic period on top of a history of the French Revolution from the 
fall of the Bastille to the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire. The two subjects, 
although intricately related, need to be treated separately because they are 
both so vast. In this conclusion, the reader will find discussed only a few 
of Cortright 's changes and their ramifications. I include them to illustrate 
the dialectical process by which Cortright institutionalized the spaceflight 
revolution at Langley. 

The Stranger 

Up to the time of Cortright, whenever a Langley center director left his 
job, he had been replaced by someone already working at the laboratory. 
In 1925 upon the resignation of Leigh M. Griffith, young Henry Reid, an 
electrical engineer who had been working in Langley's instrument research 
laboratory since 1921, became the engineer in charge. In 1960 upon Reid's 
long-awaited retirement, Floyd Thompson succeeded him; Thompson had 
been working at Langley since 1927, and for the past several years he had 
been Reid's associate director. In office, Thompson immediately faced the 
problem of naming his own second-in-command. Prior to the spaceflight 
revolution, the director had always given this position to a close and trusted 
associate, someone who had been working at Langley for some time. But 
in the new political and bureaucratic environment of NASA, Thompson 
hesitated. For over a year, he acted as his own associate director, naming no 
one to replace him in his old position until he could thoroughly think through 
the appointment. Cagey Thompson was considering an unprecedented 
move: the appointment of a non-Langley person, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger 
of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. By naming Stuhlinger, one of 
von Braun's rocketeers, Thompson would prove to NASA headquarters 
that he was not so parochial as to only consider Langley researchers for 
the job. Approached confidentially so that no one at Langley would hear 
about the offer until it was finalized, Stuhlinger eventually turned down the 
job. Thus, almost no one heard about or even now know of the offer 
to Stuhlinger. Only after Stuhlinger's refusal did Thompson turn to his 
talented young friend at Langley, Charles Donlan. By selecting Donlan as 


The Cortright Synthesis 

the associate director, according to Langley tradition, Donlan was anointed 
as Thompson's heir apparent. 

Donlan, however, was never given the directorship because the spaceflight 
revolution would interfere with the tradition of succession at Langley. In 
March 1968, NASA named not Donlan but Edgar M. Cortright, a virtual 
stranger to Langley, as the center's new director. Donlan found himself out 
in the cold; he soon left Langley to serve as deputy associate administrator 
for manned spaceflight at NASA headquarters. Donlan did this even before 
Cortright named another outsider, Oran W. Nicks, his former assistant in 
the office of unmanned spaceflight in Washington, as his associate director. 
Floyd Thompson made a fuss over none of this; after all, eight years earlier, 
he had himself tried to bring in Stuhlinger as his number two man. Moreover, 
Thompson had not retired voluntarily as Langley's director. Instead, NASA 
headquarters announced unilaterally that "Dr. Floyd L. Thompson, Director 
of Langley Research Center, will retire when he reaches the age of 70 
on November 25, 1968, and that Edgar M. Cortright, Deputy Associate 
Administrator for Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters, will replace 
him as Director of Langley Center on May 1, 1968." This would enable 
Thompson, NASA headquarters said, to "utilize a large part of his time 
on agency- wide planning and evaluation activities." His first extra-Langley 
task was to be as special consultant to the NASA administrator, Dr. Thomas 
O. Paine, who in March had succeeded James We