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A Perspective on Apollo
By JAMES E. WEBB
After hundreds of thousands of years of occupancy, and several thousand years of recorded history, man quite suddenly left the planet Earth in 1969 to fly to its nearest neighbor, the Moon. The ten-year span it took to accomplish this task was but a blink of an eye on an evolutionary scale, but the impact of the event will permanently affect man's destiny.
In reflecting on the Apollo program, I am sometimes overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of the task and the temerity of its undertaking. When Apollo was conceived, a lunar landing was considered so difficult that it could only be accomplished through exceptional large-scale efforts in science, in engineering, and in the development of operational and training systems for long-duration manned flights. These clearly required the application of large resources over a decade.
Industry, universities, and government elements had to be melded into a team of teams. Apollo involved competition for world leadership in the understanding and mastery of rocketry, of spacecraft development and use, and of new departures of international cooperation in science and technology. Like the Bretton Woods monetary agreement, President Truman's Point Four Program, and the Marshall Plan, the Apollo program was a further attempt toward world stability—but with a new thrust.
This chapter will review the origins of this policy and how it was successfully implemented. Subsequent chapters describe how particular problems were solved, how the astronauts and other teams of specialists were trained and performed, how the giant spaceboosters were built and flown, and how all this was joined together in a fully integrated effort. In many of these essays you will find indications of the meaning of the Apollo program to those who devoted much of their lives to it.
In the pre-space years the main defensive shield of the free world against Communist expansion was the preeminence of the United States in aeronautical technology and nuclear weaponry. These were an integral part of a system of mutual-defense treaties with other non-Communist nations.
In the 1950s, when the U.S.S.R. demonstrated rocket engines powerful enough to carry atomic weapons over intercontinental distances, it became clear to United States and free world political and military leaders that we had to add technological strength in rocketry and know-how in the use of space systems to our defense base if we were to play a decisive role in world affairs.
In the United States the first decision was to give this job to our military services. They did it well. Atlas, Titan, Minuteman, and Polaris missiles rapidly added rocket power to the basic air and atomic power that we were pledged to use to support long-held objectives of world stability, peace, and progress.
The establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission as a civilian agency had emphasized in the 1940s our hope that nuclear technology could become a major force for peaceful purposes as well as for defense. In 1958 the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, again as a civilian agency, emphasized our hope that space could be developed for peaceful purposes.
NASA was specifically charged with the expansion into space of our high level of aeronautical know-how. It was made responsible for research and development that would both increase our space know-how for military use, if needed, and would enlarge our ability to use space in cooperation with other nations for "peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind."
A FERMENT OF DEBATE
The Apollo program grew out of a ferment of imaginative thought and public debate. Long-range goals and priorities within our governmental, quasigovernmental, and private institutions were agreed on. Leaders in political, scientific, engineering, and many other endeavors participated. Debate focused on such questions as which should come first—increasing scientific knowledge or using man-machine combinations to extend both our knowledge of science and lead to advances in engineering? Should we concentrate on purely scientific unmanned missions? Should such practical uses of space as weather observations and communication relay stations have priority? Was it more vital to concentrate on increasing our military strength, or to engage in spectacular prestige-building exploits?
In the turbulent 1960s, Apollo flights proved that man can leave his earthly home with its friendly and protective atmosphere to travel out toward the stars and explore other parts of the solar system. In the 1970s the significance of this new capability is still not clear. Will there be a basic shift of power here on Earth to the nation that first achieves dominance in space? Can we maintain our desired progress toward a prosperous peaceful world if we allow ourselves to be outclassed in this new technology?
Policymakers in Congress, the White House, the State and Defense Departments, the National Science Foundation, the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA, and other agencies agreed in the 1960s that we should develop national competence to operate large space systems repetitively and reliably. It was also agreed that this should be done in full public view in cooperation with all nations desiring to participate. However, this consensus was not unanimous. Critics thought that the Apollo program was too vast and costly, too great a drain on our scientific, engineering, and productive resources, too fraught with danger, and contended that automatic unmanned machines could accomplish everything necessary.
Specialized groups frequently overlooked the multiple objectives of developing a means of transporting astronauts to and from the Moon. Some manned spaceflight enthusiasts deplored NASA's simultaneous emphasis on flights to build a solid base of scientific knowledge of space. Some critics failed to recognize the value of having trained men make on-site observations, measurements, and judgments about lunar phenomena, and sending men to place scientific instruments where they could best answer specific questions.
A vast array of government agencies participated in the network of decision-making from which the basic policies that governed the Apollo program evolved. Collaboration between academic and industrial contributors required procedures that often seemed burdensome to scientists and engineers. Even some astronauts failed at times to appreciate the potential benefits of precise knowledge as to the effect of weightlessness and spaceflight stress on their bodies. Fortunately our Nation's most thoughtful leaders recognized the necessity as well as the complexity of the various components of NASA's work and strongly endorsed the Apollo program. It is a tribute to the innate good sense of our citizens that enough of a consensus was obtained to see the effort through to success.
THE GOAL OF APOLLO
The Apollo requirement was to take off from a point on the surface of the Earth that was traveling 1000 miles per hour as the Earth rotated, to go into orbit at 18,000 miles an hour, to speed up at the proper time to 25,000 miles an hour, to travel to a body in space 240,000 miles distant which was itself traveling 2000 miles per hour relative to the Earth, to go into orbit around this body, and to drop a specialized landing vehicle to its surface. There men were to make observations and measurements, collect specimens, leave instruments that would send back data on what was found, and then repeat much of the outward-bound process to get back home. One such expedition would not do the job. NASA had to develop a reliable system capable of doing this time after time.
At the time the decision was made, how to do most of this was not known. But there were people in NASA, in the Department of Defense, in American universities, and in American industry who had the basic scientific knowledge and technical know-how needed to predict realistically that it could be done.
Apollo was based on the accumulation of knowledge from years of work in military and civil aviation, on work done to meet our urgent military needs in rocketry, and on a basic pattern of cooperation between government, industry, and universities that had proven successful in NASA's parent organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The space agency built on and expanded the pattern that had yielded success in the past.
Systems engineering and systems management were developed to high efficiency. So was project management. New ways to achieve high reliability in complex machines were worked out. New ways to conduct nondestructive testing were developed. The best of large-scale management theory and doctrine was used to bring together both organizational (or administrative) optimization and join it to responsibility to work within the constraints of accepted organizational behavior.
LARGE ISSUES OF POLICY
In 1961, when President Kennedy asked me to join his administration as head of NASA, I demurred and advised him to appoint a scientist or engineer. The President strongly disagreed. At a time when rockets were becoming so powerful that they could open up "the new ocean of space," he saw this Nation's most important needs as involving many large issues of national and international policy. He pointed to my experience in working with President Truman in the Bureau of the Budget and with Secretary Acheson in the State Department as well as to my experience in aviation and education as his reasons for asking me to take the job. Vice President Johnson also held this view, and emphasized the value of my experience with high-technology companies in the business world.
I could not refuse this challenge, and I found that large issues of policy were indeed to occupy much of my energy. How could NASA, in the Executive Branch, do its work so as to facilitate responsible legislative actions in the Congress? How could public interest in space be made a constructive force? How could other nations' help be assured? In resolving policy and program questions, NASA was fortunate that Dr. Hugh Dryden, as Deputy Administrator, and Dr. Robert Seamans, as Associate Administrator, also had backgrounds of varied experience that could bring great wisdom to the decisions. We early formed a close relationship and stood together in all that was done.
Soon after my appointment, several significant events occurred in rapid succession. The first was a thorough review with Dr. Dryden and Dr. Seamans of what had been learned in both aeronautics and rocketry since NASA had been formed in 1958 to make projections of these advances into the future. We examined the adequacy of NASA's long-range plans and made estimates of the kind of scientific and engineering progress that would be required. We reviewed estimates of cost and found that sufficient priority and funds had not been provided.
The second event was the U.S.S.R.'s successful launch of the first man into Earth orbit, the Gagarin flight on April 12, 1961. A few weeks before this spectacular demonstration of the U.S.S.R.'s competence in rocketry, NASA had appealed to President Kennedy to reverse his earlier decision to postpone the manned spaceflight projects that were planned as a followup to the Mercury program. In his earlier decision, President Kennedy had approved funds for larger rocket engines but not for development of a new generation of man-rated boosters and manned spacecraft. The "talking paper" that I used to urge President Kennedy to support manned flight included the following:
"The U.S. civilian space effort is based on a ten-year plan. When prepared in 1960, this ten-year plan was designed to go hand-in-hand with our military programs. The U.S. procrastination for a number of years had been based in part on a very real skepticism as to the necessity for the large expenditures required, and the validity of the goals sought through the space effort.
"In the preparation of the 1962 budget, President Eisenhower reduced the $1.35 billion requested by the space agency to the extent of $240 million and specifically eliminated funds to proceed with manned spaceflight beyond Mercury. This decision emasculated the [NASA] ten-year plan before it was even one year old, and, unless reversed, guarantees that the Russians will, for the next five to ten years, beat us to every spectacular exploratory flight....
"The first priority of this country's space effort should be to improve as rapidly as possible our capability for boosting large spacecraft into orbit, since this is our greatest deficiency....
"The funds we have requested for an expanded effort will bring the entire space agency program up to $1.42 billion in FY 1962 and substantially restore the ten-year program....
"The United States space program has already become a positive force in bringing together scientists and engineers of many countries in a wide variety of cooperative endeavors. Ten nations all have in one way or another taken action or expressed their will to become a part of this imaginative effort. We feel there is no better means to reinforce our old alliances and build new ones....
"Looking to the future, it is possible through new technology to bring about whole new areas of international cooperation in meteorological and communication satellite systems. The new systems will be superior to present systems by a large margin and so clearly in the interest of the entire world that there is a possibility all will want to cooperate—even the U.S.S.R."
President Kennedy's March decision had been to proceed cautiously. He had added $126 million to NASA's budget, mostly for engines, but postponed the start on manned spacecraft. In March of 1961, he was not yet ready to move unambiguously toward a resolution of the great national and international policy issues about which he spoke when he asked me to join the administration.
Gagarin's successful one-orbit flight in Vostok in April 1961 changed Presidential caution into concern and resulted in the Apollo decision.
A thoughtful scholar, Dr. John Logsdon, has described the situation in these words:
"The Soviet Union was quick to capitalize on the propaganda significance of the Gagarin flight. In his first telephone conversation with Gagarin, Nikita Khrushchev boasted, 'Let the capitalist countries catch up with our country.' The Communist Party claimed that in this achievement 'are embodied the genius of the Soviet people and the powerful force of socialism.' ... Soviet propaganda stressed three themes: (1) The Gagarin flight was evidence of the virtues of 'victorious socialism'; (2) the flight was evidence of the global superiority of the Soviet Union in all aspects of science and technology; (3) the Soviet Union, despite the ability to translate this superiority into powerful military weapons, wants world peace and general disarmament."
"New York Times correspondent Harry Schwartz suggested that it appeared likely 'that the Soviet leaders hope their space feat can further alter the atmosphere of international relations so as to create more pressure on Western governments to make concessions on the great world issues of the present day.'"
Logsdon also wrote: "... the events of April produced a time of crisis, a time in which a sense of urgency motivated space planners and government policymakers to reexamine our national space goals and space programs. This reexamination resulted in a presidential decision to use the United States space program as an instrument of national strategy, rather than to view it primarily as a program of scientific research. This decision identified, for the world to see, a space achievement as a national goal symbolic of American determination to remain the leading power in the world."
There were, of course, many other elements of national policy and commitment, but it is not easy to relate them to any one event such as the Gagarin flight. Continued Congressional understanding and support was the product of years of work by outstanding legislative leaders, and by devoted committee members and staffs. Cooperation and participation by Department of Defense elements and leaders were essential and are shown throughout this volume.
WORKING WITH INDUSTRIES AND UNIVERSITIES
There is another event, however, that relates to what was done and how NASA proceeded with Apollo. This event was a visit from a sophisticated senior official of a large corporation holding many aerospace contracts. He hit me right between the eyes with the question: "In the award of contracts are you going to follow 100 percent the reports of your technical experts, or are there going to be political influences in these awards?" My answer was just as direct: "In choosing contractors and supervising our industrial partners, we are going to take into account every factor that we should take into account as responsible government officials."
Excerpted from Apollo Expeditions to the Moon by Edgar M. Cortright. Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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