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Our Plans for Outer Space

Published: July 28, 2016

By T. Keith Glennan, Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as told to Robert Cahn 

The head of our new space agency describes our program to launch a manned satellite —Project Mercury— and, this summer, put a 110-foot sphere into orbit. 

Originally published on February 2, 1959 

Ever since the Russians sent their Mechta —”dream” —space vehicle past the moon and into orbit around the sun early last month, I have been hearing the same questions from almost everyone I meet in my job as Administrator of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“Why are the Russians ahead of us?” I am asked. “What are we doing in our space pro-gram? When will we send a man to the moon?”

These are questions which must be answered. But there are no pat replies. We are now in the midst of organizing the plans by which we hope to overcome the obstacles in the path of our conquest of outer space. In this article I will attempt to explain the goals of our national space program and answer as many of the questions as I can.

One thing I want to make clear. Our concern about the Soviet challenge—and it is a very real concern —does not mean we should mold our program after theirs. The only way to get ahead in this business, in my opinion, is to plan and then carry out a sound, long-range program of scientific exploration and techno-logical development to meet our own goals. To get into a race with Russia and operate our space program solely because we think they are going to do this or do that, and then try to beat them at it, would guarantee their always being in command of the situation. We’re in a race all right, but we must run it the way we want and toward goals we set for ourselves.

Any assessment of the Russian space achievements must take into consideration that their launching rockets were obtained from a determined military-missile program started soon after the end of World War II. By 1954 they had a sound basis for undertaking the exploration of space. This led to putting up the first Sputnik, in October of 1957. It was followed by heavier satellites, such as the one carrying the dog Laika. Their successful launching of a heavy payload which passed within 5000 miles of the moon on its journey to outer space added dramatically to the evidence that the Russians possess some capabilities in excess of our own at this time.

In the United States, our thoughts about venturing into space were formulated later and until recently were more diffuse. In the last few months, however, we have been working night and day, not only building an organization capable of carrying out our plans but hammering out the short-range national space pro-gram to do the things now possible, plus making the long-range plans for the space ventures in the years to come.

Almost a year ago, in a special message to Congress outlining his request for a national aeronautics and space agency, the President urged a civilian setting for the administration of space activities because it would emphasize the deep concern of our nation that outer space be devoted to peaceful and scientific purposes. The National Aeronautics and Space Act passed by Congress last July, which set up NASA, specifically provides that “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.”

Of course, we are finding that, as is the case in any field of scientific exploration today, there is very little that is exclusively civilian or exclusively military. Almost all of the progress made so far toward space flight has been based on “booster” rockets inherited from the military-missiles program. NASA will continue to draw on the military for this and other types of assistance. And while our program will be oriented toward civilian-directed exploration of space, all our technological developments, such as more powerful rocket engines or advanced guidance systems, will be coordinated with and will be of interest to the Department of Defense.

There is some confusion today about the terms “space” and “outer space,” and neither the scientists nor the lawyers have yet been able to agree on a definition which satisfies everyone. In fact, the House Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration recently announced that one of the most pressing international needs was to define exactly what and where is “outer space,” so that agreements as to its use could be worked out peacefully among all nations.

The reason for the confusion is that there is no clear-cut upper limit to the earth’s atmosphere. At NASA we make no distinction between “space” and “outer space,” although until further scientific breakthroughs occur, even our long-range planning is limited to investigation of the moon, sun, nearby planets and the space within our own solar system.

Some people have asked, why all this urgency about a space program? There are several good reasons. The simplest is man’s basic curiosity. Throughout history he has attempted to get away from being earth-bound. He finally made it on a limited scale with the airplane. Now, for the first time, the advancements of science and technology have made it possible for him to take his first faltering steps toward the stars.

Curiosity alone is not enough to war-rant spending the billions of dollars it will take before the first man can step onto the surface of the moon. There also must be some tangible payoff to the American taxpayers, who will have to foot the bill.

We know already that there are definite possibilities for commercial applications.

The recent Department of Defense experiment contained in the 150-pound payload of the “talking” Atlas missile sent into orbit was only a small example of what lies ahead in communications, suggesting such exciting possibilities as worldwide television. United States Weather Bureau experts estimate that savings of billions of dollars a year through helping business and agriculture and minimizing storm damage would be possible if the accuracy of weather forecasting could be improved by as much as 10 per cent. And scientists tell us that not only are improved weather-forecasting results probable within the next few years through the use of satellites but also that advances in space science and technology may lead to some slight degree of weather modification in the not-too-distant future.

The military objectives of executing a bold space-exploration program are obvious. As long as the possibility exists that space can be used by others for military purposes, we must be prepared to use space to defend ourselves and to maintain a strong deterrent potential.

After a slow start, the United States space program has been picking up momentum. Despite early failures, the record for 1958 is not at all discouraging. As part of the United States participation in the International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.), four American satellites were put into orbit around the earth, and the Air Force and Army also launched deep space rocket probes, both of which went out more than 65,000 miles. And the Department of Defense communications experiment noted above also succeeded in guiding an entire Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) weighing 8700 pounds into orbit.

Much valuable scientific information has been gained from these satellites and deep space probes. For instance, their use led to discovery of two previously unknown bands of high-intensity radiation. These radiation fields might harm or kill a space traveler who stayed within them for an extended period of time, unless he had adequate protective shielding.

In the latter part of 1958 it became increasingly apparent that the national programs in the space field, both military and civilian, needed to be more clearly defined. Along with the establishment of NASA, a National Aeronautics and Space Council was set up, headed by President Eisenhower, who presides over all council meetings. Other members of the council are the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of NASA, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and four appointees of the President—one from government and three from civilian life. The council advises the President on space matters and provides for coordination between NASA and the Department of Defense.

Although space science and technology advanced tremendously during 1958, we have hardly scratched the surface. Our limitations far exceed our present capabilities, and we do not yet even know all of the problems that face us in our efforts to soar into space.

Development of a national space program will be especially difficult because the course is uncharted and the possibilities are almost unlimited. A great many able scientists and engineers have ideas— and good ones too—about what we should be doing. Unfortunately, the costs of doing everything are so tremendous that we cannot hope to satisfy everyone.

The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences brings to us some of the best of the concepts proposed by their scientific committees in all fields concerned with space. Every aircraft and missile company and hundreds of other industrial organizations send their top scientists and engineers to our offices with suggestions. Military personnel frequently offer exciting projects, for which there may not be immediate defense requirements, but which nevertheless have excellent possibilities. Among our own NASA headquarters staff and at our laboratories in the field, ideas come up every hour of the day, every day of the week.

A man came to my office the other day with a suitcase. He had an idea for a launching pad, which he thought would add to the thrust of a rocket. He unfolded his model on the floor and set it up. It seemed obvious to me that it wouldn’t work, but he had his hearing. We can’t afford to pass up any possibility.

After listening to all the proposals, the NASA staff will boil them down, and the best ideas will be put together into a balanced program. There are many needs to be satisfied. We must conduct research in pure science—research that may lead to later achievements in the applied fields of technology. We must provide for improved fuels and space vehicles. Applied projects must be programed to make sure we are not ignoring the possibilities of a real contribution to the civilian economy in such things as meteorology and communications.

When we estimate the cost of all these projects, we know that we will find our-selves faced with a program that would run into the billions. We don’t have the ability to spend that kind of money sensibly at this stage of our development. On the other hand, we must stretch our capabilities to the utmost to accomplish what needs to be done. Our final selections of projects for inclusion in our program are being made with these realities in mind.

At the same time we were planning our program last fall, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense was readying its budget, which included some activities that overlapped ours. We got together with the ARPA staff to eliminate the duplication. Some of our projects, such as particular communications satellites, had urgent military requirements, so we deferred to ARPA. Where there was no specific military requirement, NASA assumed the project. On some projects the two agencies will work together.

The act under which we operate says that—except for matters involving the national security—we shall tell the people who pay the bills, the American taxpayers, what we have done. I include, very definitely, telling about our failures as well as our successes. I also believe the public easily can be misled by wild exaggerations or by setting rigid goals of accomplishment and then failing to keep up with them. But I am perfectly willing to outline in advance our goals. It may not be a glamorous program, but it is realistic.

Our program for the balance of 1959 and the first half of 1960 covers a wide range of projects.

In the area of manned flight operations, the only project ready for testing is the X-15 experimental research airplane, a cooperative venture started seven years ago by the armed forces, industry and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Although not a true space vehicle, the X-15 will for the first time allow man to experience a few minutes of flight at altitudes in excess of 100 miles and at speeds of more than 3600 miles per hour. Preliminary flights at lower altitudes and speeds will be started soon by North American Aviation Company test pilot Scott Crossfield.

The X-15 is really an experiment in the transition from aeronautics to space. Its maximum flight time is less than an hour. But in it we expect to study the problems of space flight and learn much about the control problems in the thin layers of air and the heating and control problems of re-entry into the more dense portions of the atmosphere.

In our basic investigations of space we have planned a large amount of scientific research. We will continue the upper-atmosphere probes and satellites started as part of the I.G.Y. program. We will also deploy deep space probes by which we hope to uncover some of the mysteries of the moon, the near planets and the sun. The scientists need to know more about the atmosphere of the earth—how far does it extend, how is it affected by the sun or by other influences? Where are the fields of heavy radiation and how strong are they? What further can we learn about cosmic rays? How is the aurora formed? Does the moon have a magnetic field? What are the chemical properties of the other planets and their atmospheres? Does life in any form exist on the moon or on Mars? These are only a few of the subjects for study.

We plan to use small vertical sounding rockets which can carry scientific instruments out as far as 4000 miles and which will enable the study of a cross section of this territory much better than can be done with orbiting satellites. Over the next couple of years we expect to fire eighty or more of these rockets.

We have planned more than twenty satellite and deep space-probe launchings in the next year. Some of these will carry on quite unusual scientific experiments. For example, we will try to place one satellite in a highly elliptical orbit, which may range from several hundred miles out to 40,000 miles or more.

Another satellite, not yet firmly scheduled, may carry a so-called “atomic-clock” experiment to attempt confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Clocks accurate to one part in 100,000,000,000 which operate by atomic frequencies are being developed to work in satellites. We can then check Einstein’s theory that they would run faster out in space, where the gravitational field is reduced, than a similar clock on the earth.

There will be little glamour attached to most of these continuing scientific studies. We cannot expect startling discoveries from every shot. We will need to repeat measurements, not only to get more ac-curate information but also to determine data variations with time. We know that some of the radiation fields vary in intensity and area over a period of time. Thus, no single set of measurements would be sufficient.

Several small instrument packages are expected to be sent far into space beginning this spring. The exact timing for launching these probes depends on development of the vehicles and the scientific instruments to be carried.

At this point, perhaps I should recall that Pioneer III, which the Army and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology fired in December under NASA direction, was programed to travel beyond the moon and then move into orbit around the sun, never to return to the earth. That Pioneer III failed to accomplish this mission was largely due to the fact that the first-stage rocket booster burned out three seconds too soon, before the desired velocity of 25,000 miles an hour had been reached.

The purpose of these deep space probes is not simply to establish new distance records measured in multimillion-mile units. Rather, we are developing the capacity to provide a reliable communications link over these vast distances. We must be able to send back to our receiving stations on earth the scientific data that our space vehicles collect. This will require long-life, lightweight power sources stowed inside the probe, to transmit radio signals carrying the information to earth.

One way will be to collect energy from the sun to provide the electrical power to operate the telemetry and other communications equipment in the probe. Another will be to develop similarly reliable, long-life, lightweight energy sources using nuclear power. Intensive work on both systems is in progress.

Getting back a little closer to the earth, we shall, of course, be sending additional probes near the moon. These will be similar in most respects to Pioneers I and III, which reached out almost one third the distance to the moon, 238,000 miles. We hope to get pictures, crude though they may be, of the hidden side of the moon; we hope to measure the radiation, electrical and gravitational fields of the moon.

In a communications experiment this summer, we hope to launch a 100-foot plastic reflecting sphere into an orbit about 800 miles high. Tests will be run to check out the possibilities of worldwide instantaneous communications through ultra-short wave or microwave radio. If successful, later tests could lay the foundation for global television, using satellites as relay points.

We are developing several advanced satellites for meteorological experiments, although none of these will be ready to go this year. Some will be stabilized with respect to the ground, thereby extending their capabilities over the present ones, which rotate. Later, others will be set in equatorial orbits of 22,300 miles altitude. When the delicate control problems involved can be mastered, the equatorial satellites will circle the earth at the same rate that the earth turns, thus appearing— to earth observers—as fixed in space. The potential of these satellites to measure such things as cloud cover, storm location and wind direction should do much toward improving weather forecasting. The satellites may also double in usefulness as communications relay stations.

One of our major problems today is to develop engines for launching the heavier payloads required in advanced space exploration. The biggest United States launching vehicle now available is the Atlas I.C.B.M., which has a combined thrust of almost 400,000 pounds from its three engines. NASA’s first major development contract was let a few weeks ago to the Rocketdyne division of North American Aviation Company for a giant-sized liquid-fuel rocket engine to develop from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 pounds of thrust. This single-chamber engine should be ready for operational use in four to six years.

Research is going on now to develop rocket engines using high-energy propellants, including hydrogen, fluorine and hydrazine. These engines will be especially useful for second- or third-stage rockets. By using hydrogen in place of kerosene for an upper stage, for instance, payload capability can be more than doubled with the same launch weight.

Solid-propellant fuels may offer some advantages. NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia recently initiated development of the Scout, a relatively inexpensive four-stage solid-propellant rocket which will be capable of launching earth satellites with weights up to 100 pounds. Other work is in progress toward solid-propellant rockets for upper-stage boosters and retrorockets to slow down vehicles for approaching the moon or planets and for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

The present NASA budget supports re-search being performed jointly with the Atomic Energy Commission on nuclear rockets. Research is also in progress at several laboratories—civilian and Government—on electrical-propulsion systems. At present, both nuclear and electrical propulsion appear to be a long way off. In theory, the scientists know how to develop these engines, which are extremely efficient and would be especially valuable for long-distance space flights lasting several years. But before achieving these engines, we must develop lightweight reactors, heat and corrosion-resistant materials. lightweight electrical-generating equipment and huge cooling radiators— to name a few of the more critical items.

Every week we get hundreds of letters with inquiries about manned space flight. Just the other day three boys In Oklahoma wrote, “…We would like to be on your first manned rocket to the moon, on the condition that you don’t send it in the next ten years. After that it will be O.K. because we will have finished college.”

While we can’t give encouragement to these Oklahoma youngsters, it is a fact that our present budget contains a project for a manned earth satellite. We call this effort Project Mercury, and the objective is to send a man into orbit around the earth and return him safely. This will not be done during 1959, although we are pushing the program as fast as possible.

Last month, after a competition be-tween twelve United States companies, we took the first big step toward this manned satellite. A contract was awarded to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation for the construction of a small capsule for use in an experimental program which should lead to manned space flight at some time in the next few years.

The capsule is engineered to protect the man from the violent accelerations of take off and re-entry and from the intense heat incurred at re-entry. The cone-shaped seven-foot-diameter capsule looks almost like a giant TV tube. The man will recline on his back on a couch at the base of the capsule which sits atop the booster rocket. He has the protection of an escape system which will operate in a split second to lift him clear of the rocket and high enough to parachute safely to the ground should the rocket explode or fail during launching.

In the period when engineering problems are being worked out, candidates for the job of this modern-day Mercury will undergo training in the nation’s aeromedical laboratories to determine in advance their ability to cope with the physical and psychological stresses of space travel. They will ride in space-simulation machines to experience the high stresses they will encounter during re-entry. And they will work along with the engineers who prepare the capsules, in order to become thoroughly familiar with the vehicle’s capabilities and limitations. One hundred and ten men, all graduates of military test-pilot training schools, in top physical condition and holding degrees in physical sciences or engineering, have been chosen for this program. Twelve will be selected to man our first Mercury capsules.

Before manned orbital flight is attempted, preliminary tests will be made by releasing the capsules from high-altitude aircraft and balloons. Unmanned capsules will be fired from Redstone rockets to travel at sub-orbital speeds; later from the Atlas into orbit. Next, animals will undergo tests in the capsules and be launched from the rockets.

Should all of these tests prove the launch and recovery systems reliable— and not until then—the first man will be boosted into orbit. Just who this man will be will not be known until the final hours preceding the flight. A few minutes after launching, when the rocket has reached a speed of 18,000 miles per hour, the capsule will separate from the rocket, go into orbit at an altitude of from 100 to 150 miles and make several circuits of the earth. In orbit, small control jets will operate to stabilize the capsule. A small porthole is provided to give the traveler a glimpse of outer space.

After a few hours, the return process will start. Retrorockets will be fired to slow the capsule just enough to take it out of the orbit into slightly lower altitudes, where the higher density of air particles will cause rapid deceleration. In less than fifteen minutes he will be slowed to about 500 miles per hour. During this time a beryllium shield will soak up the intense re-entry heat. Finally, a parachute will lower the capsule safely back to earth.

No date has been set for this first manned-satellite operation. In addition to the problems already noted, we must establish adequate tracking and communications systems all over the world to monitor the orbit of our first man in space. We do not want to have him off in space without contact with our ground stations. We must be able to find him quickly if he lands in the jungle or the sea.

We will take no chances on Project Mercury. People may be killed in space exploration—many have lost their lives in aviation-flight testing. But no life will be lost because we tried to do something before we were ready.

In space exploration we are working with systems in which perfection is necessary. It is not like building a new airplane, where a pilot can test it and say, “Well, it doesn’t quite come up to maximum speed and is a little sluggish on the controls, but it is still a darned good air-plane.” For the highly complicated and difficult space missions, we have to expect that some developments will go slowly and some test vehicles will fail. We don’t like delays. But when pushing the state of the art so far and so fast, we have to operate on a flexible timetable to avoid disastrous failures.

To show the perfection sometimes required, let me cite an example that gave me chills when it was mentioned by one of the NASA scientists looking far ahead. He said that in one method that might be used for firing a man-carrying rocket to the moon, it would be necessary to launch the vehicle with a velocity of 23,900 miles per hour. This is so close to the speed of escape from the earth’s gravitational field that if the performance of the rocket system was underestimated only slightly, the traveler could be shot out into space— never to return. However, it is clearly evident that we would not use a flight plan like this that had no provisions for correction after launching.

Once we have succeeded with Project Mercury and repeat manned orbital flights enough times to work out all the problems, it will be time to worry about journeys to the moon and the planets in our solar system. From our present viewpoint, manned exploration of the moon is dependent upon a technology not yet achieved. But we do have a long-range research-and-development program looking toward such a possibility.

Several items in our budget are vital to this long-range planning. Midcourse and terminal guidance systems to orient space vehicles is one research project. Developing improved tracking systems and better methods for transmitting and receiving data are others. We are also doing research toward launching into space laboratories themselves, which can be stabilized and used for experimental purposes. We are sponsoring a study of the systems and subsystems necessary for space rendezvous, where vehicles can be sent up to join satellites already in orbit. These space stations could be used for the assembly of large pieces of equipment— possibly nuclear reactors—needed in such really long-distance space travel as going to the far planets.

I realize it is one thing to have a lot of plans, but quite another to get the job done. We have a really top-notch team in the making—a team which includes many of the nation’s best people in science, administration and industry.

NASA itself is built on the foundation of the highly respected National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, whose 8000 employees and facilities were taken over intact when we opened for business last October. This includes the Langley Research Center at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia; the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California; the Lewis Research Center, in Cleveland; the High Speed Flight Station at Edwards, California; the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station at Wallops Island, Virginia, and the Plum Brook Research Reactor Facility of Sandusky, Ohio. Although specific programs at these facilities are being changed in many instances, the underlying NACA objective of improvement for all realms of flight—civilian and military—will be carried on.

Our new organization has been fortunate also in obtaining many of the NACA executives to assist in administering the new program. The space agency’s deputy administrator, Dr. Hugh L. Dry-den, brought to the job his brilliance as one of the nation’s leading aerodynamicists plus his outstanding administrative ability in heading NACA for the past eleven years. Our director of space-flight development is Dr. Abe Silverstein, who was in charge of all research at the Lewis laboratory. The new director of aeronautical and space research is John W. Crowley, Jr., formerly associate director for research of NACA. Dr. Homer Joseph Stewart, director of planning and evaluation, came to us from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, where he was chief of the liquid-propulsion-systems division.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act provided for the transfer by the President to NASA of programs and facilities from other agencies. In that way we acquired 150 members of the Naval Research Laboratory’s satellite-launching Vanguard group, as well as a team of about sixty upper-atmosphere specialists from NRL. Last December, the Army’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech was turned over to NASA. By this move we gained some 2300 trained workers in jet propulsion and missiles. We also have made arrangements for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Alabama, to work under contract on NASA projects.

At Beltsville, Maryland, a space center is under construction. Here will be con-ducted various basic and applied research activities and the national co-ordination of tracking and data acquisition. The Vanguard group will complete their I.G.Y. satellite tasks and then turn to new space activities at the center. Man-in-space research, now being done at Langley, may be moved to Beltsville.

Our laboratories will conduct less than 20 per cent of the total space-research program now envisioned. And we will do no large-scale development work, nor will we get into the production business. These will be the job of private industry, both large and small. Wherever the Space Administration’s requirements can be clearly defined, contract awards on a fixed-price basis will be made to the lowest responsible bidder. Contracts also will be negotiated by NASA with educational institutions and other nonprofit organizations for the conduct of specified research and development.

The task ahead is not easy. It is going to cost a great deal of money. Our first year’s budget was $301,000,000, and for fiscal 1960 we will need nearly $500,000,000 to carry out our program. We hope and fully expect, however, that the long-range benefits in even the few practical applications we now foresee in weather forecasting and improved communications will far outweigh the costs.

I will not even try to predict when we will land a man on the moon. Nor will I try to predict what great things may be ahead for mankind resulting from our space exploration—although we already have learned enough not to be surprised at any possibility. I learned my lesson about crystal gazing more than thirty years ago when I was a young engineer installing sound-motion-picture equipment in theaters in the West. At that time, I made the bold prediction that there would never be a full-length all-talking motion picture. I don’t intend to repeat that kind of mistake.

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