NACA's Metamorphosis Begins

The explanation for Wood's action and for the general prudence of NACA in dealing with the Air Force on space matters in the spring of 1958 lay in the contents of the space bill sent by the Eisenhower administration to Capitol Hill on April 14 and then being debated in Congress. This proposal appeared likely to transform NACA into the focal point of the nation's efforts in space.

From the initial discussions in 1954 of a United States International Geophysical Year satellite project, President Eisenhower's position had been that space activities should be conducted solely for peaceful purposes. The nature and objectives of Project Vanguard had reflected this policy. He summed up his feelings in a letter to Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, dated January 12, 1958. Describing the demilitarization of space as "the most important problem which faces the world today," he proposed that -

... outer space should be used only for peaceful purposes.... can we not stop the production of such weapons which would use or, more accurately, misuse, outer space, now for the first time opening up as a field for man's exploration? Should not outer space be dedicated to the peaceful uses of mankind and denied to the purposes of war? ...27

Consistent with this "space for peace" policy, the concentration on February 7, 1958, of Federal space activities in the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department had been only an interim measure pending establishment of a new, civilian-controlled space management organization. Shortly before the creation of ARPA, Eisenhower had turned to his newly appointed, 18-member President's Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC), chaired by President James R. Killian, Jr., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and including among its members NACA Chairman Doolittle. Eisenhower instructed the Committee to draw up two documents: a broad policy statement familiarizing Americans with space and justifying Government-financed astronautical ventures, and a recommendation for organizing a national program in space science. The "Killian committee," as the early PSAC was called, chose two subcommittees. One, on policy, was headed by Edward H. Purcell, a physicist and executive vice-president of Bell Telephone Laboratories; the other, on organization, was led by Harvard University physicist James B. Fisk.

The Fisk subcommittee on organization finished its work first. After talking with Doolittle and NACA Director Dryden, Fisk and his colleagues made a crucial report to PSAC late in February. A new agency built around NACA should be created to carry out a comprehensive national program in astronautics, emphasizing peaceful, civilian-controlled research and development. The White House Advisory Committee on Government Organization, consisting of Nelson B. Rockefeller, [83] Killian, and Maurice H. Stans, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, used this PSAC subcommittee report as the basis for a formal recommendation on a national space organization, which Eisenhower received and approved on March 5. Five months after Sputnik I, the administration began drawing up proposed legislation for consideration by the Congress. As Dryden later observed, NACA's cautious post-Sputnik strategy had "paid off, in the long run."

PSAC's rationale for space exploration, entitled "Introduction to Outer Space," was issued on March 26. This statement proclaimed that "the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover," "the defense objective," "national prestige," and "new opportunities for scientific observation and experiment" were "four factors which give importance, urgency, and inevitability to the advancement of space technology."28

On April 2, Eisenhower sent his formal message on space matters to Congress. The document again indicated the President's intense conviction that space should be primarily reserved for scientific exploration, not military exploitation. It called for the establishment of a "National Aeronautical and Space Agency," which would absorb NACA and assume responsibility for all "space activities ... except ... those projects primarily associated with military requirements." The executive authority in the new organization would be exercised by one person, a director, who would be advised by a 17-member "National Aeronautical and Space Board." The proposal for a loose advisory board represented little more than an extension of the NACA Main Committee. The idea for a single executive, however, stemmed mainly from the opinions of Eisenhower's legislative experts and the officials of the Bureau of the Budget. They wanted authority in the new agency to be centralized, not diffused in a committee as was the case with NACA and the Atomic Energy Commission. The second and more critical departure from NACA history was Eisenhower's stipulation that the proposed organization would have not only research but development, managerial, and flight operational responsibilities. Unlike NACA, then, it would possess extensive authority for contracting research and development projects.29

Twelve days later, on April 14, the Eisenhower administration sent to the Democratic-controlled Congress its bill to create such an agency, drafted largely by the Bureau of the Budget.30 In the House of Representatives and the Senate, special committees began hearings on the bill. The measure would undergo extensive amendment and reworking at the hands of the legislators. But it soon was apparent that a new agency would come into being, that NACA would constitute its nucleus, and that it would undertake large-scale development and operational activities in addition to research. The odds were better than good that a manned satellite project would fall within the domain of the civilian organization.

Proceeding on this assumption, engineers working at all of the NACA installations - at the ranges and wind tunnels at Langley and Ames, in the high-temperature jet facilities and rocket-test chambers at Lewis and Langley, at the [84] rocket launch pads and control panels on Wallops Island, and in the flight hangars at the High Speed Flight Station - stepped up their research in materials, aerodynamics, and control.31 By early 1958, according to Preston R. Bassett, chairman of NACA's renamed Committee on Aircraft, Missile, and Spacecraft Aerodynamics, approximately 55 percent of all NACA activity was already applicable to space flight.32 According to another set of NACA statistics, the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) was expending 90 percent of its effort on space and missile research; the rest of the Langley laboratory, 40 percent; Ames, 29 percent; and Lewis, 36 percent.33 Virtually every member of NACA's technical staff eagerly anticipated a national program of space exploration. Since the raison d'être of NACA always had been to improve the performance of piloted aircraft, most NACA engineers viewed manned space flight as an even more challenging and rewarding form of activity.

[85] Not everyone in the NACA laboratories, however, was convinced that the agency's destiny lay in developing hardware, managing programs, and carrying out satellite launchings. Many scientist-engineers subscribed wholeheartedly to the official NACA position enunciated by Headquarters in January and February: While NACA ought to labor mightily in the furtherance of space science, it should continue to solve problems posed by other agencies engaged in development and operations, not handle programs itself. The "research-minded" element within the NACA technical staff probably was strongest at Ames. Most of the Ames complement had gone to work for NACA because of the nature of the organization. Its quasi-academic focus on research, its receptiveness to new and sometimes radical concepts, its relative obscurity and freedom from politics appealed to them. At the California institution the prospect of managing programs, which entailed fighting for appropriations, wrangling with industrial contractors, and perhaps competing with the military, seemed exceedingly distasteful.34

This attitude was not so prevalent at the two other laboratories or at the High Speed Flight Station. The years of direct participation with Air Force, Navy, and contract personnel in the research aircraft projects had given Walter Williams and his staff at the Flight Station a rather clear operational orientation, albeit with airplanes and not with space rockets and satellites. The Lewis and Langley staffs included a sizable number of research workers who, while enjoying the intellectual liberty of NACA, felt it would be quite a challenge to carry out a program of their own instead of simply providing advice for the military and industry. They looked on approvingly as the Eisenhower administration sent to Congress a measure substantially embodying their ideas.

The academic approach to aeronautics and astronautics pervaded much of Langley, the oldest and in some ways the most tradition-minded of the NACA laboratories. The commitment to basic research and the devotion to theoretical calculations and wind tunnels as the most efficacious means of gathering aerodynamic data were as strong among some Langley engineers as among the Ames investigators. But in the Flight Research, Instrument Research, and Pilotless Aircraft Research Divisions at Langley; at the semiautonomous Pilotless Aircraft Research Station on Wallops Island, 70 miles away across Chesapeake Bay; and in the FlightResearch Division at Lewis, there were people who had gained the bulk of their experience by working with airfoils mounted on the wings of airplanes in flight and from air-launched and ground-launched scale models propelled by rockets. For years they had been close to "development" and "operations" in their research activities, but they had turned their telemetered findings over to someone else for practical application. Now it seemed that the Soviet artificial moons might have given these ambitious aeronautical engineers a chance to put their imagination and technical experience to use in a manned space flight program. As Paul E. Purser, then head of the High Temperature Branch of PARD, put it, "In early 1958 we simply assumed we would get the manned satellite project. So we started to work."35

[86] Over the years the PARD specialists had perfected their techniques of launch, guidance, automatic control, and telemetry on small rockets, and had steadily added to the mountain of experimental data on hypervelocity performance and aerodynamic heating. Their rockets, while remaining small in thrust and payload, had become more and more sophisticated. During 1957, by firing five-stage research rockets, they had been able to achieve a final-stage velocity of mach 16.36 And they already were doing conceptual work on a new and larger multistage research rocket, designed to boost scale models in their own stability and heat-transfer studies and to send up small instrumented satellites and space probes for the Air Force. Later called the Scout, this four- or five-stage, solid-propellant configuration could fire its stages sequentially to place either a 150-pound payload in a 300-mile orbit, 100 pounds in a 5,000-to-10,000-mile orbit, or 30 pounds in an orbit more than 22,000 miles from Earth.37

In the hectic weeks and months following the Soviet satellite launchings, the advocates of manned space flight at Langley, realizing that their experience in nose-cone research was directly transferable to the design of manned satellite vehicles, turned their attention to spacecraft design as never before. NACA's initial agreement of March 14, 1958, to collaborate with the Air Force in drawing up plans for a manned orbital project gave official sanction to research they already had been doing largely on their own time. Theoretically this work still was in support of the Air Force and industrial manned-satellite studies. As it turned out, the Langley engineers were doing the early development work for their own enterprise, later to become Project Mercury.

The spark plug behind much of this activity was Maxime A. Faget, head of the Performance Aerodynamics Branch in PARD. Thirty-seven years old in 1958, Faget had been born in British Honduras, the son of an honored physician in the United States Public Health Service. In 1943, when his father was developing sulfone drugs for the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, the diminutive Faget received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Louisiana State University. After his discharge from the Navy's submarine service in 1946, he joined the staff at Langley. He soon devised choking inlets for ramjets, a flight mach number meter, and several mathematical formulas for deriving data from Richard T. Whitcomb's area rule.38 Like Robert R. Gilruth and others before him at Langley, Faget preferred to enlarge his knowledge in aerodynamics and thermodynamics not in wind tunnels but by observing and telemetering data from vehicles in free flight.

In mid-March, less than a week after the conclusion of the Air Force man-in-space working conference in Los Angeles, Gilruth, as Assistant Director of Langley, called Faget and his other top engineers together to determine what should be the "Langley position" on optimum spacecraft configurations at the NACA Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics, to be held at the Ames laboratory beginning March 18. The consensus of the meeting was that the Langley-PARD representatives should present a united front at Ames behind a ballistic concept.39

[87] The Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics, the last in a long line of full-dress symposiums held by NACA, attracted most of the luminaries in the organization, including Dryden, Silverstein, Eggers, H. Julian Allen, Walter Williams, and the members of the Committee on Aircraft, Missile, and Spacecraft Aerodynamics. Military personnel and representatives of most of the aircraft and missile firms also attended this forum. The 46 papers read at the conference, dealing with hypersonic, satellite, and interplanetary flight, represented the most advanced thinking in aerodynamics within NACA. Taken together, the papers demonstrated how far some NACA engineers trained in aeronautics had pushed their research into the new discipline of astronautics.40

Much interest centered around three presentations proposing alternative configurations for manned orbital flight. The first of these papers was authored by Faget, Benjamine J. Garland, and James J. Buglia. Faget presented it as the orbital configuration regarded most favorably by PARD personnel - the wingless, nonlifting vehicle. Faget and his associates pointed out several advantages of this simple ballistic approach. In the first place, ballistic missile research, development, and production experience was directly applicable to the design and construction of such a vehicle. The fact that it would be fired along a ballistic path meant that automatic stabilization, guidance, and control equipment could be kept at a minimum, thus saving weight and diminishing the likelihood of a malfunction.

The nonlifting vehicle simplified return from orbit because the only necessary maneuver was the firing of retrograde rockets - "retrorockets" - to decelerate the spacecraft, deflecting it from orbit and subjecting it to atmospheric drag. And even that maneuver need not be too precise for the accomplishment of a safe recovery. After retrofire, successful entry depended solely on the inherent stability and structural soundness of the ballistic vehicle. Faget, Garland, and Buglia acknowledged that the pure-drag device necessitated landing in a large and imprecisely defined area, using a parachute, and dispensing with lifting and braking controls to correct the rate of descent, the direction, or the impact force. Rather severe oscillations might occur during descent. But Faget and his associates noted that tests with model ballistic capsules in the 20-foot-diameter, free-spinning tunnel at Langley had shown that attitude control jets, such as those used on the X-1B, X-2, and X-15 rocketplanes, could provide rate damping and help correct the oscillations, while a small drogue parachute should give still more stability.

The three Langley engineers went so far as to propose a specific, if rudimentary, ballistic configuration - a nearly flat-faced cone angled about 15 degrees from the vertical, 11 feet long and 7 feet in diameter, using a heat sink rather than an ablative covering for thermal protection. Although the space passenger would lie supine against the heatshield at all times, during orbital flight the capsule would reverse its attitude so that the deceleration loads of reentry would be imposed from front to back through the man's body, the same as under [89] acceleration. The authors concluded that "as far as reentry and recovery is concerned [sic], the state-of-the-art is sufficiently advanced so that it is possible to proceed confidently with a manned satellite project based upon the ballistic reentry type of vehicle."41

One dissenter from the Langley consensus favoring a manned projectile was John Becker, of the Langley Compressibility Research Division and a veteran of X-15 development, who read a paper at the conference on possible winged satellite configurations. Becker's main concern was the reentry heating problem in conjunction with some maneuverability within the atmosphere. Combining his theoretical findings with those of Charles W. Mathews of Langley, Becker suggested a glider-like configuration. Instead of entering the atmosphere at a low angle of attack and using lift to return to Earth, it would deliberately come in at a high angle of attack, employing its lower wing surface as a heatshield. Deceleration loads still could be held at a little over 1 g in this fashion. The gross weight of such a low-lift, high-drag vehicle would be only about 3,060 pounds. "Thus ... the minimum winged satellite vehicle is not prohibitively heavier than the drag type," concluded Becker. "The weight is sufficiently low to permit launching by booster systems similar to that for the drag vehicle described in a previous paper by Maxime A. Faget, Benjamine J. Garland, and James J. Buglia."42

What some Langley researchers had come to regard as the "Ames position" on manned satellites was described in a paper by Thomas J. Wong, Charles A. Hermach, John O. Reller, and Bruce E. Tinling, four aeronautical engineers who had worked with Eggers. They presented a polished, more detailed version of the blunt, semilifting M-1 configuration conceived by Eggers the previous summer. For such a vehicle a lift/drag ratio of 1/2 could be effected simply by removing the upper portion of a pure ballistic shape, making the body somewhat deeper than that of a half-cone, and adding trailing edge flaps for longitudinal and lateral control. Maximum deceleration forces would be only 2 g, low enough to permit a pilot to remain in control of his vehicle. Blunting would reduce heat conduction; the vehicle would be stable and controllable down to subsonic speeds and would provide substantial maneuverability; and structural weight would remain relatively low. Thus "it appears that a high-lift, high-drag configuration of the type discussed has attractive possibilities for the reentry of a satellite vehicle."43

The Ames engineers' presentation was not in the form of a spacecraft design challenge to the Langley-PARD aerodynamicists. Eggers and various others at Ames remained convinced of the overall superiority of the lifting body for manned satellite missions. But as Eggers explained, "Ames was not enthusiastic in 1958 to participate in an operational program for building and launching spacecraft of any kind, manned or unmanned."44 While some Ames people were rather avidly pushing the M-1 concept, their avidity did not stem from any desire for operational dominance in a civilian space program. [90] The California NACA scientists were quite willing to leave the business of building prototypes, carrying out full-scale tests, and then managing a program to their more "hardware-oriented" colleagues across the continent.

To Faget, Purser, and Gilruth the choice between the semilifting configuration favored by the Ames group and their nonlifting device really was an academic one. Given the assumption that a manned satellite should be fired into orbit as quickly as possible, then the Atlas ICBM, not the still untested Titan or a Thor-fluorine combination, should serve as the launch vehicle for a one-ton spacecraft. The Atlas was following a tortuous route toward status as a reliable operational rocket, but it was still the only ICBM anywhere near being ready. The criterion already adopted by Faget and his associates, that an attempt to orbit a man should follow the simplest, quickest, and most dependable approach, negated a heavier, semilifting vehicle; this would have required adding an extra stage to the Atlas or some other rocket. The same criterion even ruled out Becker's low-lift, high-drag proposal. If the first manned orbital project was to adhere to and profit from ballistic missile experience, then the capabilities of the Atlas should be the first consideration. Faget himself did not have detailed data on the Atlas' design performance before, during, or for some time after the Ames conference; such information was highly classified and he lacked an official "need to know." About two months after he delivered his paper he learned through conversations with Frank J. Dore, an engineer-executive of Convair, what he needed to design a manned ballistic payload.45 In the weeks following the Ames conference, Faget's and other Langley-PARD research teams, centering their efforts on the basic ballistic shape, started working out the details of hurling a man-carrying projectile around the world.46

While the engineers at the NACA Virginia installations hurried their designs, tests, and plans, and while Congress received Eisenhower's space bill, the organizational transformation of NACA began. After the White House Advisory Committee on Government Organization recommended that a national civilian space program be built around NACA, Director Dryden and his subordinates in Washington began planning the revamping that would have to accompany the reorientation of NACA functions. Dryden called Abe Silverstein of Lewis to Washington to begin organizing a spaceflight development program. On April 2, as part of his space message to Congress, Eisenhower instructed NACA and the Defense Department to review the projects then under ARPA to determine which should be transferred to the new civilian space agency. NACA and Defense Department representatives, in consultation with Bureau of the Budget officials, reached tentative agreements on the disposition of practically all the projects and facilities in question, with the notable exception of manned space flight. In accordance with Eisenhower's directive that NACA "describe the internal organization, management structure, staff, facilities, and funds which will be required," NACA set up an ad hoc committee on organization under the chairmanship of Assistant Director Ira Abbott.47

27 Quoted in Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 88 Cong., 1 sess. (1963), Documents on International Aspects of the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 1954-1962, Staff Report No. 18, 52-53. See also Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City, N.Y., 1965).

28 President's Scientific Advisory Committee, Introduction to Outer Space, in Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, 85 Cong., 2 sess. (1958), Compilation of Materials on Outer Space, No. 1, 45-46. The foregoing account of the work of PSAC in the late winter of 1958 is taken mainly from interviews with Dryden, Wood, and Dembling, Washington, Aug. 31, Sept. 1 and 2, 1965; and memo, Dryden for Eugene M. Emme for NASA Historical Files, "The NACA-NASA Transition, October 1957 to October 1958," Sept. 8, 1965.

29 Levine, "U.S. Aeronautical Research Policy," 151-156; Ambrose, "National Space Program," I, 79-87; Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), 6-12; Dryden interview. Eisenhower's message of April 2 is reprinted, among many other places, in House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, 85 Cong., 2 sess. (1958), Astronautics and Space Exploration, Hearings, 820-821.

30 The administration bill is reprinted, among other places, in Astronautics and Space Exploration, 11-15. The legislative history of the bill is discussed in detail in Alison E. Griffith, The National Aeronautics and Space Act: A Study of Public Policy (Washington, 1962).

31 Indicative of the widespread and growing concern at Langley over the prospect of space flight was a special course in basic space technology, given by members of the Flight Research Division from Feb. to May 1958. The lectures covered such subjects as lunar orbits, rocket operation, aerodynamic heating of spacecraft, and the medical problems of space flight. See "Notes on Space Technology Compiled by the Flight Research Division," Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Feb.-May 1958. One of the members of the Flight Research Division at the time has referred to these collected lectures as "essentially the first U.S. textbook in space flight technology." John P. Mayer, comments, Sept. 8, 1965.

32 This estimate was broken down into 30 percent space research in aerodynamics, 20 percent in pr Decsion, and 5 percent in structures. Minutes, NACA Committee on Aerodynamics, Moffett Field, Calif., March 21, 1958, 6.

33 "National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Organization and Distribution of Effort Related to Space Research for the Fiscal Year 1958," chart in Astronautics and Space Exploration, 404-405.

34 These generalizations are based on conversations with various senior members of the technical staff at what is now the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., April 22-23, 1964. During this visit mottoes such as "NACA Forever" and "NASA Go Home" were observed posted around the laboratories.

35 Paul E. Purser, interview, Houston, Feb. 12, 1964.

36 See Ms., anon., "NACA Research into Space," Washington, Dec. 1957; and William M. Bland, Jr., "The Design of Multistage Rocket Vehicles for Hypersonic Research," Langley, 1958.

37 For the characteristics of the Scout see "Considerations Affecting Satellite and Space Probe Research with Emphasis on the 'Scout' as a Launch Vehicle," NASA Tech. Report R-97, Washington, 1961.

38 Maxime A. Faget, biography sheet, NASA/MSC, May 1963.

39 Charles W. Mathews, interview, Houston, Feb. 24, 1964; Faget, interview, Houston, Aug. 24, 1964; Purser, log of administrative activities related to space and missile research, Jan. 4, 1956, to April 25, 1958.

40 "NACA Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, Calif., March 18, 19, and 20, 1958: A Compilation of the Papers Presented."

41 Maxime A. Faget, Benjamine J. Garland, and James J. Buglia, "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites - Wingless Configurations: Nonlifting," ibid., 9-34.

42 John V. Becker, "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites - Winged Configurations," ibid., 45-58.

43 Thomas J. Wong, Charles A. Hermach, John O. Reller, Jr., and Bruce E. Tinling, "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites - Wingless Configurations: Lifting Body," ibid.35-40.

44 Letter, Alfred J. Eggers to C. C. A., June 24, 1964.

45 Faget interview.

46 For the specific problems in launching and recovering a manned satellite being examined at Langley, see the outline "Manned Satellite Program, Prepared by the NACA staff, March 12, 1958."

47 Rosholt, Administrative History of NASA, 37-40; memo, Warren J. North to NASA Administrator, "Background of Project Mercury Schedules," with enclosures, Aug. 14, 1960.

This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
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