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Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

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Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

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Sep 12, 2011


This exciting survey of the American space science program is the work of a top NASA administrator. Ranging from the laboratory to launching pad and from international conference halls to lunar wastelands, it chronicles technological advances, explores the relationship of space science to general science, and places the space program in a broader social, political, and economic context.
Homer E. Newell was instrumental in the founding of NASA and worked for the agency from its inception until 1973. In the early 1960s, he influenced or directly controlled virtually all of the free world's nonmilitary unmanned space missions. Newell's insider perspective offers fascinating insights into the personalities, opinions, and steady advance of ideas that characterize the U.S. space program.
Sep 12, 2011

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Beyond the Atmosphere - Homer E. Newell


Introduction to the Dover Edition

In late 2001 I was invited to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to give a lecture about a book I had written on the early days of space exploration. a It was only a few weeks after the September 11 attacks so security was especially tight and I had to be escorted at all times by a young engineer working at the center.

As we drove past the Homer E. Newell Memorial Library on the way to the lecture hall I exclaimed that I was pleased to see such an important man honored and added that he had been particularly helpful to me as a young journalist covering space in the late 1960s.

Never heard of him except as the name on the library, was the response. Who was he?

The father of Space Science, I said.

That was the short answer. The longer answer is that Homer E. Newell (1915— 1983), a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1944 to 1958, was the science program coordinator for Project Vanguard and acting superintendent of the atmosphere and astrophysics division. He was also a key advocate and participant in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a sixty-seven-nation effort to unlock the secrets of the physical world, which took place between 1957 and 1958 and was considered the greatest scientific research program ever undertaken.

Newell was an early advocate of civilian, rather than military, control of space and championed the creation of what was to become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As it became operational he transferred to NASA to assume responsibility for planning and development of the space science program. After President Kennedy’s 1961 speech pledging to put Americans on the moon, and the first flights of Project Mercury, the agency embarked on several science programs to prepare for a moon landing. Under Newell’s direction in the post of Associate Administrator of the Office of Space Science and Applications between 1962 and 1968, NASA sent Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to study the Moon. These robotic vehicles provided scientists and engineers with a greater understanding of interplanetary space and lunar geography. Newell not only established the lunar science program and set the direction for space science at NASA, but also spurred initiatives for communications, weather, and earth observation satellites. Over the course of his career, he became an internationally known authority in the field of atmospheric and space sciences.

Newell was not only a brilliant scientist and top administrator but also a masterful speaker and writer. In 1959 his testimony on NASA’s plans to explore the planets with probes and rovers left a group of Senators speechless but impressed according to the New York Times, which also said The Senators’ silence was no reflection on Dr. Newell’s ability to expound on the intricacies of the new space age, for there are few more lucid speakers on the subject than he. His is a knowledge that comes from a deep understanding and love of the subject.

He was the author of numerous scientific and popular magazine articles on space and seven books, including a primer on space for children.

Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science is a remarkable work in that it is at once a memoir and a lively, compelling narrative on the birth and early development of space science which, as he points out in his introduction, was often more about the politics of science than about science: The pursuit of scientific truth gets caught up in a struggle not only with nature but also with oneself and one’s fellow beings. Ambition, cooperation, strife, humility, arrogance, envy, admiration, frustration, and courage undergird and overlie the scientific process, making it more important as a story of human endeavor and achievement than as a mere accumulation of human knowledge. So it was with space science; there appeared to be a continual clash of opinions over what to do first, or next, or instead of what was being done.

So if you are looking for a dry pedestrian recounting of early scientific achievement, this book is probably not for you, but if you prefer to look over the shoulders of those that made it all come together and learn what really went on in those early days, this book has no equal.



From the rocket measurements of the upper atmosphere and sun that began in 1946, space science gradually emerged as a new field of scientific activity. In the United States high-altitude rocket research had developed a high degree of sophistication by the time the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite of the earth in 1957. That surprise launch proved that the USSR had been pursuing a similar course.

During the period between the orbiting of Sputnik 1 and the creation of NASA, these activities—scientific research in the high atmosphere and outer space—began to be thought of as space science. The first formal use of the phrase that I recall was in the pamphlet Introduction to Outer Space prepared by members of the President’s Science Advisory Committee and issued on 26 March 1958 by President Eisenhower to acquaint all the people of America and indeed all the people of the earth with the opportunities which a developing space technology can provide to extend man’s knowledge of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. A few months later the phrase appeared in the title of the Space Science Board, which the National Academy of Sciences established in June 1958. Use of the term spread rapidly. From the start NASA managers referred to that part of the space program devoted to scientific research by means of rockets and spacecraft as the space science program.

The researches that came under the new rubric were themselves not new. Space science initially consisted of researches already under way that the new tools of rocketry promised to aid substantially. The large number of disciplines—such as atmospheric research and meteorology, solar physics, cosmic rays, and eventually lunar and planetary science—and the recognized importance of many of the problems that could be attacked with the new tools, attracted large numbers of scientists, giving the field of space science broad support at the outset. Even in the life sciences, where the potential contributions of space techniques were less obvious than in the physical sciences, quite a few leading researchers showed a lively, if tentative, interest.

As the program unfolded, the wide range of interest became both a source of strength and a cause for tension. For those able to penetrate beneath the impersonal exterior that science so often seems to present to the outsider, the whole gamut of human emotions is to be found. The pursuit of scientific truth gets caught up in a struggle not only with nature but also with oneself and one’s fellow beings. Ambition, cooperation, strife, humility, arrogance, envy, admiration, frustration, and courage undergird and overlie the scientific process, making it more important as a story of human endeavor and achievement than as a mere accumulation of human knowledge. So it was with space science; there appeared to be a continual clash of opinions over what to do first, or next, or instead of what was being done.

To the normal attraction of probing the unknown were added the excitement bestowed by roaring rockets and speeding spacecraft and the awareness that these had opened a vast new region to the presence of man. Moreover, circumstances placed space science to a considerable extent in competition with other aspects of the space program. Congressional concern over the serious questions of national defense raised by the Soviet accomplishments in space focused attention on the nation’s launch capability and technological strength rather than science. Understandably, most onlookers displayed more interest in the glamour and excitement of the Apollo program to land men on the moon than in studying cosmic rays or the earth’s magnetosphere. Nevertheless, partly in its own right and also as an important supporting element to other activities in space, space science enjoyed a recognized place in the program from the outset.

In telling some of the space science story—particularly the early years when it was emerging as a vigorous new field of activity—I hope to relate this new activity to the rest of the space program on the one hand and to science in general on the other. It is a multifaceted tale, ranging from the very technical to the highly political, from the intensely personal to the institutional, from the national to the international. For long periods the participants are weighed down with the routine drudgery of calculations, painstaking testing in the laboratory and the field, and seemingly endless paper work. Then comes the reward—lifting one to the very pinnacle of excitement—when a spacecraft lands on the moon and its amazing appendages dig into the ancient soil, or from a quarter of a million miles away a breathlessly awaited voice announces, . . . the Eagle has landed, or when yet a different spacecraft visits a distant world like Mars and photographs craters, volcanic peaks, and huge rifts never before seen by man. The whole world—nay, the solar system—is the stage, and the drama is played now in the comfort and safety of the computer laboratory, now amid the rigors and dangers of the launching pad, at times in the whirl of intellectual challenge in the international conference hall, at times face to face with the physical challenges of the high seas, the polar wilderness, or the ominous loneliness of the lunar wastelands.

I hope to convey some of the flavor of this complex program. To do this I shall trace several main threads as they weave their way through the story. First, of course, there is space science itself, what results have been obtained from the use of rockets and spacecraft—including manned spaceflights. What progress in various scientific disciplines can be credited to what is now called space science? It is not my intention, however, to produce another textbook on space science. Such a survey would carry well beyond the planned scope of this book. I seek rather to bring out in broad perspective the main lines of advance in major areas of research, to highlight new areas of investigation, and especially to dwell on changed and changing concepts in the different disciplines. Seeking guidance in this aspect of the task, I sent a questionnaire to a number of the foremost workers in the various disciplines of space science asking for their insights as to what the most significant contributions of space science have been. More than 60 scientists responded, and their views are incorporated into chapters 6, 11, and 20, the chapters that deal with the technical side of the story. I wish to convey here my thanks for that assistance.

The flavor of the story cannot be conveyed in isolation from the context in which the research was done. It will be necessary, therefore, to trace several threads other than space science results. On one side was the relationship of space science to science in general, while on the other were its relationships to the rest of the space program and to the social, political, and economic context.

Space science, while cohering strongly as a new activity, nevertheless is quite correctly viewed as simply a continuation and extension of numerous traditional scientific disciplines. To appreciate the significance of this observation, it is necessary to pay some attention to the meaning and nature of science.

Very little of modern science can be carried out in isolation from other activities of society—certainly not space science. Much of science today requires large pools of manpower, special facilities, and expensive equipment that private sources often cannot afford. When industry does support research, its relevance to the profit-making objectives of the company is always in mind. When government furnishes the support, relevance to national needs and objectives must be taken into account. The years of political struggles to obtain approval and funding for the National Science Foundation; the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Greenbank, West Virginia; the Enrico Fermi high-energy particle accelerator in Illinois (which the proponents first appeared to lose, but then won); and the Mo-hole project to drill through the earth’s crust (which the scientists first won and then lost) provide classic examples of the difficulties encountered in seeking support of large-scale, expensive scientific undertakings.

So it was with space science. In the early years, when a few sounding rockets were launched, the field received but little attention and meager support. With the appearance of Sputnik, however, space science was precipitated into prominence as an important part of a broad space program that the country suddenly found itself compelled in its own interest to undertake. Almost overnight dollars to pay for the research were no longer a problem, and numerous individuals and institutions, both at home and abroad, became interested in taking part in the program.

Two other main threads in the narrative—organization and management, and institutional relationships—concern such aspects of the space science story. Organization and management include leadership, planning techniques, budget preparation and defense, and organization and management of teams of specialists. Institutional relationships include those with the many groups that played important, often essential, parts in the program. This thread will weave into the story the roles of universities, industry, the military and other government agencies, the National Academy of Sciences, and the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Working with the Congress was an essential element in securing and maintaining support for the program. As with NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, advisory committees played an important role in the planning and conduct of the space science program.

Paradoxically these aspects appeared as both a hindrance and a help to space scientists. The necessity to fight continually for resources, to compete with other elements of the space program, to labor on advisory committees, and to wrestle with the mountains of paper work required by management interfered with the research. On the other hand, these distractions were necessary, for without proper organization and management, substantial resources, and far-flung teams, space science could not have expanded into the intensive probing of the solar system and the universe that it became. Moreover, one sensed the possibility of a salutary effect in having continually to be on one’s toes.

From the time of the earliest sounding rockets in 1945-1946 to the end of 1973 when I left NASA, I was a participant in the space science program. It was my good fortune to take part in the pioneering work of the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, in the International Geophysical Year rocket and satellite programs, and in organizing and conducting NASA’s space science program. Inevitably what I write is colored by my own experiences. Nevertheless, this book is intended to be something more than a memoir.

I have attempted to survey the field in retrospect, consulting the literature, files, and records in an effort to discern the course of the space science program in proper perspective. It has been interesting to note that sometimes matters were not as I perceived them at the time, and occasionally were quite different. Particularly in telling of controversies in which I was among the disputants, I have tried neither to overemphasize nor to short-change my own views. Writing the text in the third person has helped, I believe, to be objective.

There are, of course, many vantage points from which a valid picture of the space science program could be drawn. One appropriate aspect would be the story as seen by scientists outside of NASA—in the universities, the National Academy of Sciences, and elsewhere—for these comprised the greater part of the scientists in the program. A different and significant view would be obtained from scientists in other countries who took part in NASA’s international cooperative program. The engineers could be expected to tell it quite differently from the scientists. A revealing, not always flattering, picture would likely come from those in industry whose talents provided much of the hardware and operations that lay at the heart of the country’s space science missions. Within NASA itself a writer from the research and development centers and field stations—where lay most of the technical and operational strength of the agency—would certainly provide a decidedly different slant from that which a headquarters writer would find natural. I have, of course, tried to capture some of the flavor of all these points of view, but the principal orientation is that of headquarters management.

Another aspect of that vantage point must be considered. Most of this book deals with NASA and its program. How legitimate is this? After all, the military services, particularly the Air Force, were active in space research—through sounding rocket research, study programs, and exploratory development—before there was a NASA, and continued after NASA was established to expend billions of dollars a year on space. Also there were those other participants alluded to in the preceding paragraph. And very much in the foreground has been the Soviet Union, which precipitated worldwide interest in space by launching the Sputniks.

I believe the concentration on NASA to be legitimate, for as time went on scientists in the United States came to view NASA as the prime source of support for space science, as they had come to look to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for general support of science. The legislators who created NASA as a civilian agency intended it to be the aegis for the U.S. national space program, which, especially on the international scene, it quickly became. Other countries interested in space research turned to NASA with their proposals to cooperate on space science projects. In the United States, in only a few years the space science program and the NASA space science program became almost synonymous.

In the USSR the situation was different. There the space program and the military space program were equivalent. Space science, like all other aspects of the program, was cloaked in military security and came into view only well after the fact, when the Soviet Union felt ready to report the results of a successful mission. Yet it would be erroneous to characterize the Soviet space science program as purely military in its import. Considerable attention to lunar and planetary research contributed to an image of Soviet scientific and technological strength, but could hardly be accorded any great military value.

While it is necessary to say enough about Soviet space science to show its more important contributions, and particularly to highlight relationships to the overall field, the main emphasis of the book is on the U.S. program. Even here there is no attempt to be exhaustive. Rather, I intend to select examples that illustrate the interplay of personalities and opinions and the steady advance of ideas that characterized the program, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.

Overlying the space science story is a most important factor, which I like to refer to as the inexorability of the scientific process, a factor that applies not only to space science, but to all science. In the turmoil of human relations—while the battles rage over funding, priorities, control of programs, personal recognition, bureaucratic despotism, and individual shortcomings—the scientific process, as long as it is sufficiently nourished, steadily, I say inexorably, adds to the store of knowledge. To appreciate the role of the scientific process, one must begin by considering, at least briefly, the meaning and nature of science and the context in which scientists pursue their profession in the modern world. Those are the subjects of part I.

I would like to express my appreciation to the staff of the NASA History Office for the extensive encouragement and assistance I received throughout the time I worked on this book. I must single out archivist Lee Saegesser; his tireless efforts deserve special thanks. Thorough reviews of the manuscript by Dr. Norman Ness and Dr. John O’Keefe of the Goddard Space Flight Center, and many personal conversations with Dr. O’Keefe, were most helpful. Indeed, a large number of reviewers generously furnished comments on parts or all of the manuscript. Their criticisms were an invaluable aid, for which I am grateful.

Alexandria, Virginia

January 1979

Homer E. Newell

Part I

Nature of the Subject

For out of olde feldes, as men seith,

Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere;

And out of olde bokes, in good feith,

Cometh al this newe science that men lere.



The Meaning of Space Science

The science managers in the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration of 1958 for the most part had limited experience in the management of science programs. By comparison with the broad program about to unfold, the previous sounding rocket work and even the International Geophysical Year programs were modest indeed. Yet the evolving perceptions of these individuals as to the nature and needs of science would play a major role in the development of the U.S. space science program. At first those perceptions were largely intuitive, growing out of personal needs and experience in scientific research, although a rather extensive literature made the thoughts and experience of others available. In addition, in launching the new program the space science managers had the benefit of the wise counsel of Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden and Administrator T. Keith Glennan, both of whom had had considerable experience in managing science and technology programs.

Because of the central role played by the concepts of science that NASA managers brought to bear—sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously—on the planning and conduct of the NASA space science program, some of those concepts are set forth here at the outset. Moreover, the reader should bear in mind that these concepts are implicit in the author’s treatment of space science in this book. The exposition below, while a substantial elaboration of a summary presented to Congress in the spring of 1966, is still highly condensed, and runs the risk of oversimplification.¹


A major theme throughout this book is that of science as a worldwide cooperative activity, a process, by which scientists, individually and collectively, seek to derive a commonly accepted explanation of the universe. The author recalls learning in the ninth grade that science was classified (i.e., organized) knowledge, only to have to discard that definition years later as the very active nature of science became apparent. To be sure, organized knowledge is one of the valuable products of science, but science is far more than a mere accumulation of facts and figures.

Science defies attempts at simple definition. Many—both professional scientists and others—who have sought to set forth an accurate description of the nature of science have found it necessary to devote entire volumes of elaborate discussion to the subject.² None has found it possible to give in a few sentences a complete and simple definition, although James B. Conant perhaps came close: Science is an interconnected series of concepts and conceptual schemes that have developed as a result of experimentation and observation and are fruitful of further experimentation and observations.³

On a casual reading, this definition may again appear to characterize science as a static collection of facts and figures. One must add to the definition the activity of scientists, their continuing exchange of information and ideas, and their penetrating criticism of new ideas, working hypotheses, and theories. A static mental construct alone is insufficient; one must include the process that constantly adds to, elaborates, and modifies the construct. All of this Conant—himself an eminently successful chemist—does actually include in what he is trying to convey in his brief definition, as is patent from the amplification he provides in the rest of his treatment. Indeed, the last clause of the quoted definition, requiring that the concepts and conceptual schemes of science be fruitful of further experimentation and observations, clearly implies the ongoing nature of science.

The difficulty of conveying in brief the nature of science, particularly to the layman, has led in exasperation to such statements as, Science is what scientists do. The circularity of this definition can be frustrating to one seriously trying to understand the subject—a legislator, for example, endeavoring to appreciate the significance of science for the country and his constituents, and to discern what science needs to keep it healthy and productive. Yet the definition suggests probably the best way of approaching the subject; that is, to tell just what it is that scientists do.

Scientists work together to develop a commonly accepted explanation of the universe. In this process, the scientist uses observation and measurement, imagination, induction, hypothesis, generalization and theory, deduction, test, communication, and mutual criticism in a constant assault on the unknown or poorly understood. Consider briefly each of these activities.

The scientist observes and measures. A fundamental rule of modern science is that its conclusions must be based on what actually happens in the physical world. To determine this the scientist collects experimental data. He makes measurements under the most carefully controlled conditions possible. He insists that the results of experiment and measurement be repeatable and repeated. When possible, he measures the same phenomenon in different ways, to eliminate any possible errors of method.

To experimental and observational results the scientist applies imagination in an effort to discern or induce common elements that may give further insight into what is going on. In this process he may discover relationships that lead him to formulate laws of action or behavior, such as Newton’s law of gravitation or the three fundamental laws of motion, or to make hypotheses, like Avogadro’s hypothesis that under the same pressures and temperatures, equal volumes of different gases contain equal numbers of molecules.b It is not enough that these laws be expressed in qualitative terms; they must also be expressed in quantitative form so that they may be subjected to further test and measurement.

The scientist generalizes from the measured data and the relationships and laws that he has discerned to develop a theory that can explain a collection of what might otherwise appear to be unconnected or unrelated facts. In seeking generalization, the scientist requires that the new theory be broader than existing theory about the subject. If the new theory explains only what is already known and nothing more, it is of very limited value and basically unacceptable.

The new theory must predict by deduction new phenomena and new laws as yet unobserved. These predictions can then serve as guides to new experiments and observations. By taking predictions and working them together with other known facts and accepted ideas, the scientist can often deduce a result that can be put to immediate test either by observation of natural phenomena or by conducting a controlled experiment. Out of all the possible tests, the scientist attempts to choose those of such a clear-cut nature that a negative result would discredit the theory being tested, while a positive result would provide the strongest possible support for the theory.

In this connection, it must be emphasized that the scientist is not seeking "the theory, the absolute explanation of the phenomena in question. One can never claim to have the ultimate explanation. In testing hypotheses and theories the scientist can definitely eliminate theories as unacceptable when the results of a properly designed experiment contradict in a fundamental way the proposed theory. In the other direction, however, the scientist can do no more than show a theory to be acceptable in the light of currently known facts and accepted concepts. Even a long-accepted theory may be incomplete, having been based on inadequate observations. With the continuing accumulation of new data, that theory may suddenly prove incapable of explaining some newly discovered aspect of nature. Then the old theory must be modified or expanded, or even replaced by an entirely new theory embodying new concepts. Thus, in his efforts to push back the frontiers of knowledge, the scientist is continually attempting to develop an acceptable best-for-the-time-being" explanation of available data.

In all this process the scientist continually communicates with his colleagues through printed journals, in oral presentations, and in informal discussions, subjecting his results and conclusions to the close scrutiny and criticism of his peers. Ideally, observations and measurements are examined and questioned, and repeated and checked sufficiently to ensure their validity. Theories are compared against known observation and fact, against currently accepted ideas, and against other proposed theories. Acceptable standing in the growing body of scientific knowledge is achieved only through such a searching trial by ordeal.

One should hasten to add that this is not a process of voting on the basis of mere numbers. Even though the majority of the scientific community may be prepared to accept a given theory, a telling argument by a single perceptive individual can remove the theory from competition. Thus, the voting is carried out through a continuing exchange of argument and reasoned analysis. Those who have nothing to offer either pro or con in effect do not vote.

This process or activity called science has developed its rules, its body of tradition, from hard and telling experience. Recognizing that the scientific process cannot yield the absolute in knowledge, scientists have sought to substitute for the unattainable absolute the attainable utmost in objectivity. The scientific tradition wrings out of final results as much as possible of the personal equation by demanding that the individual subject his thoughts and conclusions to the uncompromising scrutiny of his skeptical peers.

The above are things that scientists do, and through the complex interchanges among scientists these activities amalgamate into what is called science. But at this point one must ask what factor distinguishes science from a number of other endeavors, Observation and measurement, imagination, induction, hypothesis, generalization and theory, deduction, test, communication, and mutual criticism are used in various combinations by the economist, the legislator, the social planner, the historian, and others who today in partial imitation of the scientists apply to their tasks and studies their concepts of what the scientific method is. The distinguishing factor is fundamental: underlying the pursuit of science is the basic assumption that, to the questions under investigation, nature has definite answers. Regardless of the philosophical dilemma that one can never be sure of having found the right answers, the answers are assumed to exist, their uniqueness bestowing on science a natural, intrinsic unity and coherence. In contrast one would hardly argue that societal, political, and economic problems have unique answers.

These latter problems are concerned with the human predicament, and the human equation enters not only into the search for answers, but into the very solutions themselves. Human invention and devising are necessary ingredients of the solutions achieved. In science, however, although imagination and invention are important elements of the discovery process, the human factor must ultimately be excluded from its findings, and to this end the scientific process is designed to eliminate as much personal bias and individual error as possible. This aspect gives science its appearance of objectivity and impersonality, while bestowing a universality that transcends political and cultural differences that otherwise divide mankind.

The reader is again cautioned not to be misled by oversimplification. One must not conclude from the above orderly listing of activities and processes of thought, either that they constitute a prescribed series of steps in the scientific process or that one can identify a single scientific method subscribed to and followed by all scientists. On the contrary, individual scientists have their individual insights, styles, and methods of research. Conant is emphatic on this point:

There is no such thing as the scientific method. If there were, surely an examination of the history of physics, chemistry, and biology would reveal it. For as I have already pointed out, few would deny that it is the progress in physics, chemistry and experimental biology which gives everyone confidence in the procedures of the scientist. Yet, a careful examination of these subjects fails to reveal any one method by means of which the masters in these fields broke new ground.

While there is no single scientific method, there is method, and each researcher develops his own sense of order and line of attack. And major elements of the various methods are sufficiently discernible that they can be identified. Indeed, there is enough of method to the profession to lead John Simpson, professor of physics at the University of Chicago, to assert that even the plodder, while he may never make brilliant contributions, can through systematic effort aid in the progress of science.

Nevertheless, the role of insight and perceptiveness is crucial. The application, however, cannot be equated with induction in the Baconian tradition.⁵ The inductive step from the singular to the general, while an important element in science, is far from routine. Often seemingly haphazard, this step calls into play inspiration, insight, intuition, imagination, and shrewd guesswork that are the hallmark of the productive researcher. Conant alluded to the elusive character of this phase of the scientific process: Few if any pioneers have arrived at their important discoveries by a systematic process of logical thought. Rather, brilliant flashes of imaginative ‘hunches’ have guided their steps—often at first fumbling steps.

Each individual has his own devices for trying to discern from the particular what the general might be. Certainly the reasoner does not approach his task with no preconceptions. To the new data he adds other facts and data already known, and he calls into play previously accepted ideas that appear relevant. Whatever the method, the ultimate test is whether it works.

A continuing task of the space science manager was to assess progress in the program, and various criteria for measuring the worth of scientific accomplishments have been used. In this regard the author finds attractive a number of concepts provided by Thomas S. Kuhn.

A scientist approaches a new situation or problem with a definite mental picture of how things ought to be, what processes should be operative, what kinds of results are to be expected from different experiments. This mental picture—which, with some leeway for differing points of view, he shares with scientific colleagues working in the same field—has developed over the years from experimentation and observation, hypothesizing, theorizing, and testing. It has stood the ordeal of searching tests and has proved its value in predicting new results and in integrating what is known of the field into a logically consistent, useful description of nature.

To this shared mental construct, Kuhn gives the name paradigm, a substantial extension of the usual meaning of the term. Thus, the ionosphericists share a paradigm, in which each knows—or at least agrees to accept—that there is an ionosphere in the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere consisting of electrons and positive and negative ions, varying in intensity, location, and character with time of day, season, and the sunspot cycle. He knows, or agrees, that most of the ionization and its variation over time are caused by solar radiation, and that the ionosphere has a complex array of solar-terrestrial interrelations. The ionosphere is affected by and affects the earth’s magnetic field. It has a profound influence on the propagation of many wavelengths in the radio frequency region of the electromagnetic spectrum and acts like a mirror reflecting waves of suitable wavelength, a phenomenon that before the advent of the communications satellite afforded the only means of round-the-world short-wave radio transmissions. To develop thoroughly the paradigm shared by ionospheric physicists would be a lengthy proposition,⁸ but the reader may find the above sufficiently suggestive.

As another example, solar physicists share a paradigm in which the sun is regarded as an average sort of star, about 10 billion years old and with some billions of years still to go before it evolves into a white dwarf. It originated as a condensation of dust and gases from a huge nebula and was heated by the gravitational energy released by the falling of the nebular material into the contracting solar ball until internal temperatures rose sufficiently to initiate nuclear burning of hydrogen, the major source today of the sun’s radiant energy. And so on.⁹ Workers in the field of solar studies understand each other, they have a common way of looking at things, they approach problems with a similar orientation.

Individual scientists usually share a number of paradigms with different colleagues. The paradigms of the upper atmosphere physicist and the ionosphericist overlap greatly. While an ionospheric investigator is applying his ionospheric paradigm to his work, he also has in the back of his mind that the laws of physics and chemistry must apply to the ionosphere, and when appropriate the ionospheric researcher brings to bear the paradigms of chemistry and modern physics. Likewise the solar physicist must constantly borrow from the paradigms of astronomy, astrophysics, physics, nuclear physics, and plasma physics.

The importance of the currently accepted paradigm or paradigms in guiding a scientist in his researches, in determining—and determining is not too strong a word—what he will perceive when he encounters a new situation, cannot be overestimated. Even the nonscientist, by osmosis from the press, television, and literature, in addition to his formal schooling, absorbs many significant concepts from the paradigms of the working scientists. Most of the fundamental concepts about the nature of the universe shared by modern man have derived from the scientific developments of the last two centuries. With these concepts infused into one’s thinking, an enormous effort would be required to see the universe and the world as they were visualized by the medieval thinker. As Herbert Butterfield put it:

The greatest obstacle to the understanding of the history of science is our inability to unload our minds of modern views about the nature of the universe. We look back a few centuries and we see men with brains much more powerful than ours—men who stand out as giants in the intellectual history of the world—and sometimes they look foolish if we only superficially observe them, for they were unaware of some of the most elementary scientific principles that we nowadays learn at school. It is easy to forget that sometimes it took centuries to discover which end of the stick to pick up when starting on a certain kind of scientific problem. It took ages of bitter controversy and required the cooperative endeavor of many pioneer minds to settle certain simple and fundamental principles which now even children understand without any difficulty at all.¹⁰

Thus the concept of the paradigm is more than a mere convenience. In terms of the paradigm one can discern several stages in the scientific process. First of all, the existence of shared paradigms in a scientific area indicates some measure of maturity of the field. In its beginning, a newly developing field tends to fumble along without any accepted conceptual framework, and each new datum or observation may seem to heighten the complexity and confusion. In time, however, discerning minds begin to perceive some order, and a workable paradigm begins to evolve. A good example is furnished by the birth of modern chemistry in the very confused, yet highly productive, second half of the 18th century.¹¹

In its maturity a field of science exhibits alternating periods of what Kuhn refers to as normal science and scientific revolution. During a period of normal science, the accepted paradigm appears to work well, satisfactorily explaining new observations and results as they accumulate. It is a period in which measurements and observations tend to illuminate and expand upon the accepted paradigm, but not to challenge it. Most scientific work is normal science in this sense.

Occasionally new experimental results don’t appear to fit the framework of the accepted paradigm. When that occurs, attention is directed toward finding an explanation. Generally the first efforts are to find a way of retaining the accepted paradigm, particularly if it has proved highly productive and illuminating in the past. Perhaps the paradigm can be extended or even bent to accommodate the new results. In fact, the scientist’s inclination is to tolerate a considerable amount of misfit to save a particularly useful paradigm.

But when the challenge to the previously accepted paradigm becomes too severe, and acceptable modifications or extensions won’t accommodate the new results, then a change in paradigm becomes necessary. Such periods, bringing a forced change of paradigms, Kuhn designates as scientific revolutions. Periods of scientific revolution are likely to be exciting (at least to scientists), highly active, with much debate and a lot of fumbling around trying to find a way out. Classical examples of scientific revolutions are furnished by the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian relativity and from classical to quantum physics.¹² A more recent example is to be found in the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in geophysics and geology leading to the now general acceptance of the concepts of sea-floor spreading, continental drift, and plate tectonics as fundamental features of the paradigm that today guides the researcher in experimenting and theorizing about the nature of the earth’s crust.¹³

For this book the concepts of paradigm, normal science, and scientific revolution furnish a way to trace and assess the development of space science through the first decade or so of NASA’s existence. Nevertheless, the reader is cautioned that the concept of the paradigm in the scientific process—or the manner in which the concept is used—has been extensively criticized.¹⁴ A major concern has been the difficulty of supplying the concept with any great degree of precision and the consequent fuzziness in the picture one can draw of the role really played by the paradigm in science. Critics have pointed out that Kuhn himself has used the concept in numerous different ways. Also, the simultaneous existence at times of conflicting paradigms, each receiving support from its separate group of adherents—as, for example, in the many years during the 18th century when both the caloric and mechanical theories of heat had their supporters—is pointed to as indicating that Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolution is too simplistic to embrace the whole picture of how science moves and how revolutions occur in scientific thought.

In spite of the criticism the paradigm appeals to the author as useful and even fundamental; he suspects the criticism can be met. At any rate, for this book the straightforward interpretation of the role of paradigm in science will suffice and should be useful.


This book is about space science. The subject is simple in concept, comprising those scientific investigations made possible or significantly aided by rockets, satellites, and space probes. But in its realization space science turns out to be very complex because of the diversity of scientific investigations made possible by space techniques.

Interest in the phenomena of space is not recent, its origins being lost in the shadows of antiquity. Impelled by curiosity and a desire to understand, man has long studied, charted, and debated the mysteries of the celestial spheres. Out of this interest came eventually the revolution in thought and outlook initiated by Copernicus, supported by the remarkably precise measurements of Tycho Brahe, illuminated by the observations of Galileo and the insights of Kepler, and given a theoretical basis by Newton in his proposed law of gravitation. The Copernican revolution continues to unfold today in human thought and lies at the heart of modern astronomy and cosmology.¹⁵

Yet, until recently outer space was inaccessible to man, and whatever was learned about the sun, planets, and stars was obtained by often elaborate deductions from observations of the radiations that reached the surface of the earth. Nor were all the inaccessible reaches of space far away. The ionosphere, important because of its role in radio communications, was not as far away from the man on the ground below as Baltimore is from Washington. Nevertheless, until the advent of the large rocket, the ionosphere remained inaccessible not only to man himself but even to his instruments. As a result many of the conclusions about the upper atmosphere and the space environment of the earth were quite tentative, being based on highly indirect evidence and long chains of theoretical reasoning. Time and again the theorist found himself struggling with a plethora of possibilities that could be reduced in number only if it were possible to make in situ measurements. Lacking the measurements, the researcher was forced into guesswork and speculation.

Small wonder, then, that when large rockets appeared they were soon put to work carrying scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere for making the long needed in situ measurements. From the very start it was clear that the large rocket brought with it numerous possibilities for aiding the investigation and exploration of the atmosphere and space. It could be instrumented to make measurements at high altitude and fired along a vertical or nearly vertical trajectory for the purpose, falling back to earth after reaching a peak altitude. When so used the rocket became known as a sounding rocket or rocket sonde, and the operation was referred to as sounding the upper atmosphere.

A rocket could also be used to place an instrumented capsule into orbit around the earth, where the instruments could make extended-duration measurements of the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere or observations of the sun and other celestial objects. Or the rocket might launch an instrumented capsule on a trajectory that would take it far from the earth into what was referred to as deep space, perhaps to visit and make observations of the moon or another planet. The orbiting capsules were called artificial satellites of the earth; those sent farther out came to be known as space probes or deep space probes. Finally, the ultimate possibility of carrying men away from the earth to travel through deep space and someday to visit other planets emphasized dramatically the new power that men had acquired in the creation of the large rocket.

A language of rocketry emerged, which the news media popularized. Familiar words took on new meanings, and new terms were encountered: artificial satellite, spacecraft, space launch vehicle, rocket stages, countdown, liftoff, trajectory, orbit, tracking, telemetering, guidance and control, retrorockets, reentry—and space science.

Through all the centuries of scientific interest in space phenomena, the phrase space science had not gained common use. That the terminology did not come into use until after rockets and satellites brought it forth gives force to the definition of space science given at the start of this section. That definition sets forth the meaning in mind when in June 1957 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences combined the functions of the IGY Technical Panel on Rocketry and the IGY Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program into a single board, naming it the Space Science Board. That is the meaning implied by the discussions in the first book-length publication by the Space Science Board a few years later.¹⁶ That is the meaning picked up by Samuel Glasstone in 1965 in his comprehensive survey of space science:

The space sciences may be defined as those areas of science to which new knowledge can be contributed by means of space vehicles, i.e., sounding rockets, satellites, and lunar and planetary probes, either manned or unmanned. Thus space science does not constitute a new science but represents an important extension of the frontiers of such existing sciences as astronomy, biology, geodesy, and the physics and chemistry of Earth and its environment and of the celestial bodies.¹⁷

While the basic meaning of space science was clear and unvarying from the start, the exact nature of the activity, and in particular its relationship to the rest of science, was not always so clear. Glasstone’s use in the above quotation of space sciences in one place and space science in the very next sentence reflects one question that arose often during the first years of the NASA program. Is space science a new scientific disciplinec or, if not yet, will it in time develop into a new discipline? The question arose primarily because of the pure-science character of space science and the strong coherence that quickly developed in the field, but also because of the broad range of scientific topics to which research was addressed. The initial answer to the question generally agreed to by those in the program was that given by Glasstone: space science was not a new discipline and should not be expected to become one. The initial response was probably intuitive, but in retrospect it is seen to have been the correct answer.

Space science makes extensive contributions to geophysics; but this part of space science remains a part of the discipline of geophysics, using its techniques and instrumentation and employing and extending its basic theory—sharing its paradigm, that is. The researchers using space techniques for geophysical investigations, while perhaps thinking of themselves as space scientists, continue to call themselves geophysicists, to be members of geophysical societies like the American Geophysical Union, to present their papers at geophysical meetings and to publish them in geophysical journals.

Space science also makes numerous contributions to astronomy, but again the parts of space science devoted to astronomy remain a part of the discipline of astronomy, and space scientists using rockets for astronomical research continue to view themselves as astronomers. Their results are presented at meetings like those of the American Astronomical Society or the International Astronomical Uniond and are published in their journals or proceedings.

Cosmic ray physicists find space methods advantageous in many of their researches, but continue to be cosmic ray physicists first and space scientists only incidentally. Examples can be multiplied at length.

Nevertheless, for several years following Sputnik the thought that space science might evolve into a separate discipline persisted. One can understand why. The demands imposed by rockets and spacecraft on the running of a science program were severe, giving a coherence to the field akin to that characteristic of a scientific discipline. But rockets and spacecraft did not rest upon or stem from the scientific disciplines they served. Rather, they were simply trucks to provide transportation to otherwise inaccessible places, while the genuine techniques and instrumentation of the investigations were those of the individual disciplines that benefited from the new means of transportation.

To emphasize the diverse scientific disciplines, writers sometimes chose to use the phrase space sciences. At other times authors used science in space to imply that space science was not separate from science on the ground and was neither more nor less than the familiar, everyday science carried out in a new arena. These initial uncertainties were reflected in the changing names given to the space science group in NASA Headquarters by the author and his colleagues. In 1958 and 1959 the division in the Office of Space Flight Development that had responsibility for scientific research in space was labeled Space Science. When NASA Headquarters reorganized under the new administrator, James E. Webb, the space science program was elevated to the level of a separate office, which called attention to the plural nature of its activity in its title: Office of Space Sciences. Finally, in the reorganization of 1963 that brought science and applications together under one head, NASA settled on space science as its choice for the rest of the 1960s, designating the new entity as the Office of Space Science and Applications.¹⁸

If space science had been distinctly separate from the rest of science, NASA might well have felt less impelled to draw in the wide participation that the agency encouraged in the program. As it was, recognizing that no single agency could reasonably expect to bring within its own halls the expertise needed for all the separate disciplines, NASA consciously sought broad participation from the outside scientific community, especially from the universities, where the greatest interest in pure science was to be found.

Within the universities the question arose in a somewhat different form. As the numbers of those entering space science research grew apace, a need to provide training for new scientists who might wish to pursue space research as a career became evident. Should this be done by setting up departments of space science in universities? The instinct of NASA program managers was not to do so, and when asked they advised against it, recommending instead that opportunities be provided within the traditional departments of astronomy, physics, geophysics, geology, etc., for taking on space-related problems as thesis topics. Most universities saw it this way, although a few decided to experiment with separate space science departments. e

The inseparability of space science from the rest of science and the broad range of disciplines to which space techniques promised to contribute gave impetus to the rapid development of science in the national space program. It must be emphasized that scientists came into the program with problems that had been under attack by other methods and that appeared to need some new approach if they were to be solved. The promise to provide that new approach drew researchers first to sounding rockets and later to satellites and space probes.

Writing about six years after the start of sounding rocket research in the United States, in what was probably the first book devoted to the subject, the author was able to find in the scientific literature significant results to report on upper atmospheric pressures, temperatures, and densities; atmospheric composition; solar radiations in the ultraviolet and x-rays; upper-air winds; the ionosphere and the earth’s magnetic field; cosmic rays; and high-altitude photography. A year later the list was extended even further in a book reporting the papers presented at the first international conference on the subject of high-altitude rocket research, arranged by the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel (see chap. 4) of the United States and the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society of London. ¹⁹ In 1956, just a decade after the start of rocket sounding of the upper atmosphere, the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, extrapolating from its sounding rocket experience, turned its attention to the researches that would be possible with instrumented satellites of the earth. These deliberations were published in the first book on the subject to be assembled by persons professionally engaged in high-altitude research.²⁰ To the research topics listed above, the book added some new ones: meteors and interplanetary dust, particle radiations from the sun, the aurora, stellar astronomy, meteorology, and geodesy. The potential contributions to science of both manned and unmanned spacecraft were discussed in the Space Science Board’s first book. While most attention was devoted to unmanned exploration of space, the ultimate potential of manned spaceflight was recognized in such words as: The significant and exciting role of man lies in the exploration of the Moon and planets.²¹

Such scientific investigations, made possible by sounding rockets and spacecraft, came to define what is meant by space science. Much of the potential of space science was already discernible before ever a satellite had been launched, and by the end of 1960—by which time the first NASA administrator, Keith Glennan, had set the agency firmly on its course—the broad sweep of space science was fully apparent. By the end of a decade space science research had become worldwide, and a steady flow of results was pouring into the literature.²²


The Context

To divorce modern science, including space science, from other pursuits of society is impossible. What scientists do obviously and pervasively affects the rest of society. Reciprocally, the complex activities of society, its motivations and changing objectives, what it chooses to develop and use of technology, as well as the specific support that society—for a variety of reasons—provides to science, determines in large measure what researches scientists undertake. A properly rounded history of space science should treat of more than the technical subject matter of the science itself.

As might be supposed, scientists are usually moved to take up their researches by a curiosity that impels them to find out how nature works. The scientist is likely to be driven by his personal fascination with his profession. He is willing to devote long, physically and mentally taxing hours to his work and to endure hardships and danger—like the astronomer in the small hours of the night at the mountain top observatory, or the atmospheric scientist wintering over through the long Antarctic darkness, or the undersea explorer—if only he be given the necessary resources for pursuing his researches.

But why should society support an individual in what so often appears to be a highly personal endeavor, particularly when the price tag today can run into millions or hundreds of millions of dollars? Those seeking support for science have to wrestle with this fundamental question constantly. The answer for science often can be quite simplistic. From the knowledge acquired through scientific investigations, it is argued, come eventually many of the technologies and their practical applications that people want and will pay for in the marketplace (like radio, television, home appliances, modern textiles, better automobiles, and boats) or need and must pay for (like improved agriculture, health care, modern communications, and transportation of food, materials, and supplies). That is the principal reason why society finds it profitable to support a considerable amount of science.

But the simplistic answer gives no hint of the complexity of the vexing questions that arise when government and industry are asked to foot the bill, particularly for what is sometimes called pure science. What applications will result? How long will it take? How much scientific research will be needed? What kind of research would be best for an optimum practical return on the investment? Where should the research be done—in industry, the universities, government laboratories, or research institutes? Who should decide what research to do?

There is no absolute answer to any of these questions, and circumstances can make some of them exceedingly perplexing. The literature on the subject is overwhelming, and any discussion of such matters demonstrates quickly that science has many aspects and complex relationships with other human endeavors. It becomes important, for example, to distinguish among science, technology, and application.

Technology is not science, nor is science technology, but there are important relationships between them. Technology is technical know-how, the knowledge and ability to do things of a technical or engineering nature, including the field of industrial arts. On the basis of considerable know-how, or technology, the Babylonians built and operated a remarkable irrigation system; equally remarkable was the technology of the ancients in construction. But neither technology derived from science as we know it. On the other hand a tremendous amount of technology does flow from the results of scientific research. Examples are to be found in electronics, synthetic materials, transportation, and medicine.

Technology also supports science. Electronics provides invaluable service to science in detection and measurement; the technology of materials is important in radiation-detection instruments; computer technology is a great boon to the theorist; and modern engineering is fundamental to the design and construction of modern astronomical telescopes, huge particle accelerators, and nuclear reactors. Rocket technology made space science possible; that technology in its turn rests on the results of considerable scientific research.

Application is the last step in the chain from technical know-how to actual use. Thus, the use of meteorological satellites for weather observations is an application of both scientific knowledge (of the atmosphere) and technology (of spacecraft construction, instrumentation, and operation).

The intimate relationships among science, technology, and applications give rise to many questions like those cited earlier. Some sort of rational response must be made to such questions when the public is asked to spend billions of dollars of tax money a year for scientific research and many more billions of dollars a year on civilian and military technical development. The need to respond to such queries has been a continuing requirement throughout the space science program, and most certainly will continue. These issues should be examined, therefore, in enough depth to understand how they influenced the space science program.¹

Take, for example, the question: What applications will result? If the question is asked about applied research that is intentionally directed toward a specific application already in the

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