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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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Present at the Creation: Paul G. Dembling, Author of NASA’s Founding Legislation

    By Edward S. Goldstein, Gregory C. La Rosa and David S. Schuman

    NASA’s founding can be credited to a number of figures, some famous like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who determined that a civilian agency should lead America’s space exploration efforts, then-Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed for a strong American effort in space. Behind the scenes, people like Paul G. Dembling, general counsel to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later NASA, and Johnson’s legislative aides Eilene Galloway and Glenn Wilson, helped to shape NASA’s legislative charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. In this compilation of two interviews, Dembling, who also ran NASA’s Legislative Affairs Office under Administrator James Webb, discussed his role in drafting the Space Act and other major events he witnessed. Dembling is now retired and living in Florida.

    Proud architect - Space Act author Paul Dembling during NASA’s early years and today, where he admires a poster highlighting NASA’s founding legislation and the agency’s first headquarters at the Dolly Madison House.Q. Glenn Wilson [former Senate aide to Lyndon Johnson] has described the process in drafting the Space Act as a textbook case of how law spurred by technological advancement should be made.

    A. We didn’t have a lot of experience in drafting legislation, but I’ll address what we did at that time. When Sputnik went up, there was a great clamor within NACA as to what we ought to do. About 25 percent of NACA’s work, mostly at Wallops Island, was related to space research … Many NACA personnel felt that there ought to be a recognition of NACA’s work, but it appeared that the managers were just sitting waiting to see what would happen.

    As a result, NACA’s leaders Dr. [Jimmy] Doolittle [chairman] and Dr. [Hugh] Dryden [director] invited young NASA engineers and scientists to a dinner to express their views. I was included, even though I am not a scientist or an engineer.

    Proud architect - Space Act author Paul Dembling during NASA’s early years and today, where he admires a poster highlighting NASA’s founding legislation and the agency’s first headquarters at the Dolly Madison House.Back then there was competition among the agencies as to what organization would be designated to lead the U.S. efforts in space. The Army felt very strongly about it because they had Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal. The Air Force felt that it was obvious that it should be the one. And the Atomic Energy Commission ran a very intense lobbying effort to seek that designation. The reason that the AEC was interested was they maintained that we would not be able to go into space unless nuclear power was used. So there was a real effort by various agencies to obtain the space program. … Since I felt I couldn’t contribute from a technical standpoint, I went to Dr. Dryden and said, “Why don’t you give me some time away from my regular duties, and I can go off in a corner and draft a piece of legislation that we would be satisfied with if we got the choice of being the agency to handle the space program?” He said, “Fine.”

    I’ve remarked that Washington operates on the first draft it gets. I had noticed that in the Congress, in the agencies, in various agency meetings, at the White House, etc., that the person who shows up with the first draft seemed to be the one that would lead the other people there. The others might come in and have something, but the first draft seemed to be the one which became the pivotal one.

    I must tell you that Dr. Dryden’s No.2 in NACA, the executive secretary, John F. Victory, taught me a lot about this strategy. When he went to the Pentagon or other agencies, with me serving as his special assistant, he would have a draft and he would put it in front of the person with whom he was talking, whose assistance or agreement or confirmation he was seeking, and he would lay it down and say, “Take a look at this. Now, here is a pencil, and you make any changes you want.” If the man touched it or the person started to change it, Victory would start referring to it as that person’s draft.

    I remember once we went over to see the head of the Air Force, and John had a piece of paper. He put it before Gen. Hap Arnold and said, “Here, take a look at this, make your own changes.” When Gen. Arnold started making changes, Victory started saying, “Well, our draft is pretty good, and it looks like you agree with it, and we can take it away and do something with it.” I had observed that Washington had a predilection to handle first drafts that way. They started to make changes on that first draft. So I figured, well, let’s do it that way. All told, the NASA Act provided the agency more authority than any other department or agency.

    You’ve indicated that the legislative process for the Space Act took place in a hurry. It was not a low pressure situation.

    Well, again, the reason it was not low pressure was because these other agencies were seeking the mantle, and we didn’t know exactly where we all stood. We knew that they were trying to convince the administration and Congress. Once the draft was done, it was sent over to the Bureau of the Budget.

    In addition to that, what we in NACA started to do was talk to the people on the Hill. We started working with the staffs of the Congressional committees. We worked with Sen. Johnson’s staffers Glen Wilson and Eilene Galloway. Johnson was majority leader, and he took the lead in handling space legislation. To show you the kind of situation we were up against, Sen. Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, didn’t want to meet with me at his office. He didn’t want to come over to our offices. He stated that if the military legislative liaison saw me over there or his visiting our office, he would be criticized. He didn’t want that. They would criticize him and call him a traitor to the cause of the armed services. So he would meet me at the Hotel Carlton. I would call the president of Aerojet Corporation [Victor Immanual] who had a suite at the Hotel Carlton. Whenever he was coming into town, he would call Styles Bridges and tell him of my request to meet. He and I would meet, and I would bring him up to date, brief him on what we were doing. So it shows you what kind of a hostile environment we were working in at the time.

    In drafting the Space Act you reviewed previous General Accounting Office (GAO) decisions on the extent of agencies’ authority. How large a task was that for you?

    I knew that an agency could only perform those duties and functions that are prescribed and authorized by law. There was no one place where one can check off functions of agencies. The only source is by examining General Accounting Office [now the Government Accountability Office] decisions. The Congress has placed the authority to interpret the appropriation and authorization laws in the comptroller general of the United States, the head of the GAO. Hence GAO decisions are the source of determining whether or not an agency may or may not expend appropriated funds on a specific activity. This was my reason for using the GAO decisions in drafting the bill that became the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.

    In the GAO I found lots of authorities for department or agency actions. I went through those very carefully as I worked on the draft legislation during January and February, 1958. I used to come home about 8, 9 o’clock at night. And I worked weekends to get a bill finished. Several times, when on a roll, I worked all night. Somewhere in that period of time a first draft was sent over to the Bureau of the Budget … The president approved the draft bill by March. That meant that it also had been approved by the Bureau of the Budget after its five-man committee (on which I served) had reviewed it. The draft had also been sent to the departments and agencies for comment. But the Bureau of the Budget [now the Office of Management and Budget] only gave the agencies 24 hours to review the draft bill and submit their comments. In the Congressional hearings on the bill, you will see that Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles spent most of his time complaining that 24 hours didn’t give DoD enough time to send it to the Air Force, Army and Navy, and receive their comments.

    You are proud that the Space Act gave NASA authority to perform “contracts, leases, cooperative agreements and other transactions as may be necessary.” Can you explain the significance of the term “other transactions?”

    Well, I tried to cover everything else that was stated in GAO rulings. When somebody said, “Well, suppose we have this kind of a transaction or that kind of a transaction?” I figured, it may not be covered under contracts, leases and cooperative agreements. I couldn’t think of any other terminology to use, so I used, “Other transactions as may be determined or necessary in the conduct of its work.” So it was a sort of catchall phrase that I tried to use. This gives NASA a great deal of flexibility since the language places the decision with the administrator as he deems necessary. The significance of this provision is that it is not subject to any regular procurment or any other rules or regulations.

    In the early legislative history of the Space Act, on one hand there seemed to be a desire to establish NASA as a purely civilian agency, but yet, at the same time, specific reference is made to our ability to cooperate with the Defense Department.

    Well, the Department of Defense insisted upon inclusion, and the best it was able to obtain was section 102. I am very pleased that the Congress, placed the act under the general welfare clause of the Constitution, and it stated that the aeronautical and space activities shall be the responsibility of and shall be directed by a civilian agency. Then it says “except that activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations, or the defense of the U.S. shall be the responsibility and directed by DoD.” DoD fought hard getting that provision into the bill. The Department of Defense said it would not cooperate unless it had that provision in the bill.

    Are there any aspects of the Space Act that in retrospect you believe are inadequate?

    I can’t really think of anything that came up that wasn’t encompassed by the act. Now, you mentioned the Department of Defense problem. We also had problems with the State Department. The original draft bill provided that the administration could engage in a program of international cooperation. The State Department opposed that language and insisted that it had to be under the foreign policy guidance of the president. That was the compromise. When President Eisenhower signed the act, he took a reservation and said something along the line that it is clearly understood that the international activities of NASA will be done under the foreign policy guidance of the president and the State Department. He took an exception, he stated a reservation regarding the authority. Those were the two big areas that we had most of our problems: the State Department and DoD. The DoD more so.

    Look, when you talk about the civilian agency, we had the Gemini program. The Air Force tried to copy that and ran their own, which they called the Blue Gemini program. So there were problems all along. The administrator and the secretary of defense periodically had meetings and often Jim Webb came back storming about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

    Let’s talk about some of the events you witnessed. Can you speak about NASA’s involvement in the official cover story when our U-2 spy plane and its pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviet Union in 1960?

    After Gary Powers was captured, President Eisenhower was embarrassed since he said he didn’t know anything about it. The White House then had NASA handle all the media. In adddition to its covert activities, the U-2 also sent back meteorological data. These were then used in the technical papers that NACA/NASA published. Many people didn’t know that NACA/NASA was the front for the CIA’s U-2 program. President Eisenhower had insisted the U-2 program also be a civilian one. He was concerned that if military personnel were involved, it would further hamper his announced “open skies” policy, originally turned down by the Soviet Union. … In fact, when Glennan was appointed administrator, Dryden said to me, “I guess we’ve got to tell Glennan about the U-2 program.” It wasn’t until after many months that he was in office. It was a highly kept secret.

    You once sat in on a meeting between NASA Administrator James Webb and President Kennedy early in the Kennedy administration. Could you tell us about that meeting?

    Primarily it was a meeting to discuss how they were going to handle the fact Vice President Johnson had wished to be head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. That legislation had passed, and instead of having the president act as chairman of that council it was the vice president. There was a concern by both President Kennedy and Jim Webb that as the head of the Space Council, Lyndon Johnson might take over since he was very aggressive anyway. Mr. Webb suggested that if the president were to control the agenda of the council, they could then control what the council worked on. And that was done. It was decided that the president control and set the agenda for the council, and the council would carry forward from that. It was an interesting piece of maneuvering I thought, and I still think it was quite a feat.

    Administrator Webb once had to tussle with Budget Director David Bell about NASA funding. Can you describe that?

    A month after he became administrator, Mr. Webb had a meeting with David Bell shortly after Webb concluded that NASA needed to have an increased budget. David Bell said, “Well, we’re only going to recommend something less than that.” Webb said, “Don’t give me that, David. You can advise the president, but you can’t do anything to my request. I used to sit in that chair.” Webb had been budget director back in Truman’s administration. And he said, “Don’t flimflam me. You can flimflam some of the new guys in town. You can advise the president, but you don’t make the decision for the president. I will take the budget to the president, and you can come with me if it’s your desire.” And that is the way it went. NASA received the increase!

    Were you involved in any of the decisions about opening up NASA jobs to minorities?

    We did some recruiting actually for the General Counsel’s office. It was a period when Gov. [of Alabama] George Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama [to block African-American students from enrolling]. NASA had a lot of interplay with the Huntsville portion of the University of Alabama. Webb called Wallace once and said, “I don’t want you messing with Huntsville, because if you mess with Huntsville, we’re going to pull out everything we have in Alabama.” George Wallace never did anything in Huntsville.

    Could you describe the importance of the U.N. Outer Space Treaty and your role in this treaty?

    I was a member of the United States delegation to the U.N. and served on the legal subcommittee. Drafts of space treaties had been submitted by various countries. Consideration was given by members of the legal committee, and debate continued for a long time. The treaty was agreed to by all of the parties. At that time there were only 52 countries in the U.N. There were certain compromises made because the smaller countries were concerned that the big powers would monopolize all space activities and outer space itself. The treaty provides for the peaceful purposes of space; that there would be no claims on celestial bodies and no appropriation; space would be free to be used by everyone; and that there would be dissemination of information. For example, when we picked up the moon rocks, NASA sent pieces to every country that was interested so they could do research on them.

    What was your involvement in NASA’s response to the Apollo 1 tragedy?

    It’s surprising you ask about this right after asking about the Outer Space Treaty. As it happened, there was a simultaneous signing of the Outer Space Treaty by the various countries in London, Moscow and Washington on Jan. 27, 1967. President Johnson held a reception that evening. While we were at the reception, James Webb got a call from the Kennedy Space Center and was told about the tragedy [the Apollo 1 fire]. He went around and summoned a group of us, and we went back to his office to try to see what could be done. … A couple of days after talking about the situation and working on this, Jim Webb said to the president, “We’re going to run the investigation. And I don’t want other special investigating committees.” He went to the Hill and said the same thing. He said, “If you don’t like what we’re doing, you can fire me, and you can do your own investigation. But we want to do an investigation that’s going to be thorough and honest.” The agreement made with the Senate and House of Representatives was that Associate Administrator Bob Seamans would report the status of the investigation every Friday. That carried. Congress agreed and the president agreed, and there were no simultaneous investigations. There were 1,501 witnesses called during the NASA investigation. A report was rendered, and lots of changes were made to the capsule, and lots of changes made to NASA’s procedures.

    At that time the North American Company [prime Apollo Command Module contractor] had fulfilled all the conditions of their contract and was due a bonus. Jim Webb said to the head of the North American group, “I can’t give you a bonus. People around the country would raise hell about this. So I’m sorry, you can sue us. You can do whatever you want. I will try to make it up to you in some way, but you’re not getting a bonus at this time.”

    What were your recollections about Apollo 8?

    One of my favorite memories is an incident that occurred during the flight. Frank Borman and the crew read from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve. That night one of NASA’s public relations people at Cape Canaveral got a call from a Japanese reporter who said, “We heard they read something, can we get a transcript?” So the NASA person said to him. “Where are you calling from?” The reporter responded, “From my hotel.” The reporter was told, “Open the drawer, and you will find a book, and the words are there.” And the reporter said, “Awww. NASA thinks of everything!" [laughter].

    Did Headquarters have a role in suggesting how Neil Armstrong handle the first words on the moon?

    Yes it did. Willis Shapley who was the associate deputy administrator at the time headed a committee. He, Arnold Frutkin (Assistant Administrator for International Affairs), Julian Scheer (assistant administrator for Public Affairs) and I worked on a statement regarding what should be said. The fear was that somebody might say, “I’m taking this for the United States,” which would be contrary to what the Outer Space Treaty said. So rather than leave it to the astronauts to make up their own idea, there was the thought that maybe we ought to give them something that might lead them. I don’t think he [Neil Armstrong] said it exactly the way it was written down, but he transmitted the meaning.