Happy Birthday, Explorer 1

Apparently, the space program is the ultimate has-been. Fifty years ago today, the most important news in the world was that the United States had responded to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth Satellite, by launching Explorer 1, the first American satellite. Today, if Google News is to be believed, very few newspapers or other media bothered to commemorate that anniversary.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had stunned the world by beating the US to the punch during the scientific achievements commemorating the International Geophysical Year.  The USSR launched Sputnik 1, a silver volleyball that circled the Earth every 96 minutes, continuously emitting a beep that seemed to be saying to the US scientists and engineers of the rival Vanguard program, "I beat you...I beat you...I beat you..." The insult was repeated a month later when Sputnik 2 was launched.

This was not merely a matter of scientific one-upmanship. If the Soviets could launch a satellite before we could, what about nuclear missiles? The people of the United States were shocked to learn that they did not have a monopoly on high technology and might even be surpassed by a deadly rival.

Fortunately, Sputnik came as no surprise to the Army's ballistic missile agency. Having little faith in the success of Vanguard, they had modified their "reentry vehicle" (a multistage research rocket used to test missile nose cones) so that it could, in a pinch, launch a small satellite into orbit. And under the Army's direction, Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been developing just such a satellite. Since this was an open secret, President Eisenhower went to the Army and asked "how long would it take you?" the answer was "ninety days." The go-ahead was given and the promise was kept, fifty years ago today.

I was at JPL in those days and had the honor of mixing up a batch of acid to etch the Explorer casings. (I managed to save one of the white-striped cylindrical casings for myself and now have the only one outside of the Smithsonian.) In the forty years that followed, I was almost continually connected with various NASA programs. Therefore, I think I can speak as well as anyone about what went right and what went wrong with NASA and the space program. So here goes.

Fifty years ago the space program was manned by enthusiastic and dedicated scientists and engineers.  It still is and always has been. Fifty years ago, the space program was  directed by the Army, whose sole goal was to succeed for the sake of the country. It was then transferred to a small civilian bureaucracy that grew into a big one, called NASA, with an ever growing hierarchy of career-bureaucrat managers and ever more complex internal politics. Fifty years ago, the goal was obvious and the Executive and Congress let the directors of the space program do the planning. Since then, the space program has become a political football, with ever changing goals and ground rules.

The result has been a long string of (thanks to the scientists and engineers) dazzling successes---punctuated with catastrophic failures and waste due to cancellations of expensive programs, changes of objectives, and cover-ups of failures and errors of judgment. The causes of this fall from grace were :

  • Sheer size; the bigger the organization, the more it is liable to be undermined by politics, bureaucratic ambition, inefficiency, and waste.
  • Absence of urgent purpose; to repeat  the words of JPL's William Carroll, "NASA changed from an organization with a mission into an organization whose mission is survival."
  • Publicity; the ever-present eye of the media is like a blazing sun that can cause sunstroke or blindness.
I say these things today in the hope that they will be taken to heart by those proposing or discussing major national programs such as homeland security and healthcare.

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