Putting the Moon First
Eisenhower’s appointee as NASA’s first Administrator was, in the words of historian Roger Launius, “the perfect choice.”8 He was trained as an engineer and had worked in government, industry, and the university world. Aged 52, he took leave of absence from the presidency of Cleveland’s Case Institute of Technology. Glennan shared Eisenhower’s view that the Soviets should not determine the U. S. space agenda. He wanted NASA to develop a space program on America’s own terms. He did, however, intend to position NASA to compete with the Soviet Union and ultimately achieve leadership in this competition. Like President Eisenhower, however, he wanted NASA to be a relatively small agency. He did not favor “big government.” The way he wished to get started, therefore, was to consolidate governmental institutions transferred from NACA and DOD and operate mainly through contracts with industry and universities.
The government-by-contract model became the enduring NASA approach, even though the agency expanded enormously in the Apollo years. Glennan’s deputy was the previous chief operating officer of NACA, Hugh Dryden, a physicist. Under these two political appointees were various associate administrators, most of whom were government career officials. The senior associate administrator, Richard Horner, served as “general manager.” Others headed various NASA programs. The key associate administrator for the new mission of spaceflight was Abe Silverstein, an engineer and NACA veteran. Under him was Homer Newell, a scientist, who came to NASA from the Office of Naval
Research. The fact that science was under what was perceived as Silverstein’s human spaceflight operation bothered the scientific community. Scientists wanted the status of their unit raised to equal that of an engineering-oriented operation.
As NASA gradually began to succeed in launching rockets into space—with the Soviets still substantially ahead in weights they could lift—it became increasingly obvious that the prime arena of competition would be human spaceflight. NASA established a “man-in-space” program called Mercury and began to recruit the first group of astronauts. In various ways, Glennan began to emphasize the Moon as a possible destination. If humans were going to go to the Moon, however, robotic scouts would have to go first. Hence, from the outset, human and robotic programs were competitive in some ways and linked in others.
Glennan claimed not to be a “space cadet,” but he was an active and forceful proponent of space, although not as much as some in NASA would have liked or some in Congress would have preferred. He reported to Eisenhower, who was cool to any notion of a “crash” program to catch up to the Soviets. Glennan established the four program emphases that NASA would have thereafter: human spaceflight, space science, space applications (e. g., weather and communication satellites), and aeronautics.
The man responsible for creating a space science program at NASA was Newell. Age 43 at the time, Newell had a PhD in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin and had subsequently turned to physics and high-altitude research. In 1955, when the Naval Research Laboratory was assigned the task of developing the Vanguard launch vehicle for the IGY satellite program, he was named Vanguard science program coordinator. Newell joined NASA shortly after it opened in 1958.
Recalling the mood at NASA at the time, Newell later wrote that “everything seemed to be happening at once.” The agency was new and had “to sell itself.” The exciting mission and novelty of the agency served to attract many young scientists, engineers, and technical managers. “In the white hot light of public interest,” it had to organize a staff, prepare budgets, develop a program of activity, and work out relations internally and with external constituencies. Newell had to work on several fronts at once, and space science, like the rest of NASA, showed growing pains.9
Building a staff, establishing internal and external relationships, and designing an unprecedented program—all these activities took enormous time and energy. Newell found two external institutions particularly important as representing scientists’ views on policy relevant to space. One was the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), and the other was the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). NAS set up a Space Science Board (SSB) to advise NASA. It was a strong advocate for a higher science profile in the agency and an Office of Space Science that would be independent of the Silverstein operation.
Although these terms were not specifically used, Newell’s Science Office clearly had two thrusts: “little science” and “big science.” Little science referred to grants and contracts to individuals and specific groups of investigators chiefly at universities. Big science referred to major projects involving science aboard space vehicles, using NASA field centers. The science “payload” and rockets together constituted technical systems that required more money, more organization, more diverse individuals and institutions, and complex management mechanisms. Newell regarded it as headquarters’ role to provide policy management for “programs,” with technical management for specific missions or projects at the level of field centers. For the largest projects, this division of labor was inevitably blurred. However, the notion of decentralizing technical management was clear as NASA got under way. Headquarters and field centers would have to partner in the actual management, but there were differences in what each would do. The field centers expected headquarters to get the resources from the White House and Congress and send them to the field centers, which would handle decisions day to day to get projects carried out.
Each headquarters office had certain field centers assigned to it. For space science, this meant two field centers in particular. One was Goddard, which was given responsibility for missions in near-Earth space. The other was JPL, which was charged with deep space—meaning the Moon and planets. Other field centers could contribute in terms of their expertise as agency needs so required. Early on, Ames Research Center (primarily under the Aeronautics Office) developed an interest in “exobiology.” Nobel Prize-winning Stanford biologist Joshua Lederberg lobbied NASA to concern itself with possible contamination of the Moon and Mars with earthly machines. He was intrigued by the possibility of life on other planets, especially Mars. He took his case directly to Glennan. Glennan was responsive and set up a research activity concerned with extraterrestrial life and contamination issues. Ames took responsibility for this mission. It was Lederberg who coined the field’s name, “exobiology,” a field detractors characterized as a science without a known subject.10
Organizationally, it was up to headquarters to determine direction and pace of programs and projects. That meant decisions about which programs to emphasize and how fast to go. Within headquarters, Administrator Glennan was quite clear that he wanted NASA to go at a measured pace, step by step, so as to spend taxpayer dollars prudently. Such a policy required Newell to emphasize the Moon over the planetary programs when it came to big science. Newell recollected that Glennan “just did not want to talk about planetary things.”11 Mars, therefore, would have to wait in line for resources. This policy was not what the director of JPL, William Pickering, wanted to hear, and he fought for resources to give the planets, especially Mars, greater attention.