By Roger D. Launius
Due to its strong mission orientation, NASA has been uniquely favored with a plethora of superb leaders, visionaries and designers drawn to challenging projects. At critical moments in NASA’s development, these individuals made a huge difference. They helped establish the agency and managed its programs, formulated its long term goals and strategies, designed and engineered spacecraft and systems, and successfully focused NASA’s workforce on the agency’s goals. Presented here are brief tributes to some special individuals who made an indelible mark through their service.
First leadership team - President Dwight Eisenhower flanked by NASA’s first Administrator T. Keith Glennan (right) and Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden (left).
In NASA’s first years, a cadre of leaders helped to form the agency into an efficient organization that could accomplish the tasks set for it. Four key leaders guided it in those days. They included T. Keith Glennan, NASA’s first administrator, his deputy, Hugh L. Dryden, Space Task Group Director Robert R. Gilruth and scientist Homer Newell.
Glennan was the perfect choice to lead the new organization. An engineer who had worked in government, industry and academia, he took a leave of absence from the presidency of Cleveland’s Case Institute of Technology to become NASA’s first administrator. Glennan emphasized long-range goals that would yield genuine scientific and technological results. As he told everyone at the time, “Our strategy must be to develop a program on our own terms which is designed to allow us to progress sensibly toward the goal of ultimate leadership in this competition.” Recognizing political realities, Glennan also positioned NASA so that it could serve as the vehicle for competing with the Soviet Union in developing a space race.
Program builders - Charles Donlan, deputy head, and Robert Gilruth, head, Space Task Group, with Langley Research Center engineers, eye a Mercury capsule scale model.
Glennan found an able second in Dryden, the technical director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) who stayed on as NASA’s deputy administrator until his death in 1965. In that capacity Dryden handled the day-to-day operations of the agency and oversaw its technical efforts while Glennan handled politics and larger strategic issues. Dryden threw himself into the intricacies of spaceflight. The conception and planning of Project Mercury, for instance, bore his mark from the very beginning, because it emphasized the scientific component. His quiet oversight of the agency helped immeasurably in keeping it on track.
Robert R. Gilruth had been NACA engineer since graduating from college in the latter 1930s, and shortly after NASA’s establishment, he became director of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center. In May 1961, Gilruth’s life changed forever. When President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo decision of reaching the moon by the end of the decade Gilruth was flying to a meeting in Tulsa. He recalled that he was “aghast” after all, he now had to accomplish it. In the process Gilruth’s organization grew exponentially, moving to Houston, Texas, in 1962 to establish the Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973) and carry out the Apollo moon landings.
Cheers for spacewalker - Left to right: Astronaut Ed White, President Lyndon Johnson (with photos of White’s June 3, 1965 Gemini IV spacewalk) NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, astronaut Jim McDivitt, Manned Space Center Director Robert Gilruth and Administrator James E. Webb.
Gilruth had excellent people working for him, and they read like a who’s who of space history. Gilruth and his staff were the people who made the dreams of spaceflight real. There is a moving ballad in the science fiction folk song community that captures the essence of this group. Written by Mary Jean Holmes in 1992, “Everyman” begins with the lament that these individuals will never leave the ground. But they enabled the astronauts to do so. The chorus states:
Gilruth spent 10 years directing 25 human spaceflights, from Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight in May 1961, through the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969, to the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971. His close associate in Houston, George Low, said of him, “There is no question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been a Mercury, Gemini or an Apollo program. He built in terms of what he felt was needed to run a manned spaceflight program … it is clear to all who have been associated with him that he has been the leader of all that is manned spaceflight in this country.”
The president and the rocket man - President John F. Kennedy touring the Marshall Space Flight Center with center director Wernher von Braun (Sept. 11, 1962).
Working closely with Gilruth, first at Langley and later at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, engineering iconoclast Max Faget designed the Mercury spacecraft in the latter 1950s and maintained a guiding hand on every human spaceflight vehicle built through the space shuttle. A Cajun from Louisiana, Faget was known throughout the space community for his cantankerousness, his eccentricities, his commitment to spacefaring and his genius. No one could underestimate his impact on NASA’s engineering culture and pattern of success through more than three decades at the space agency. When he left NASA, Faget began working on private-sector spaceflight technology to expand opportunities to reach beyond Earth. He remained committed to the human exploration and development of flight until his death in 2004. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident, he told journalists it was time to move beyond the space shuttle that he had done so much to help make a reality, giving it an honorable retirement and building a new human spaceflight vehicle. If Americans were unwilling as a people to make that investment, Faget flatly stated, “we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”
Finally, in those earliest years, Homer Newell established and placed on a firm footing NASA’s scientific pursuits. His greatest accomplishment involved taking science to the moon during Project Apollo, gaining the involvement of key scientists and winning support from the engineering community. Under Newell’s leadership, scientists exploited the opportunity to place more than 75 experiments on the various Apollo missions and to have one of their own, geologist Jack Schmitt, undertake field work on the moon on Apollo 17 crew. The science packages deployed on the moon led eventually to an impressive array of more than 10,000 scientific papers and a major reinterpretation of the origins and evolution of the moon. As reported in the March 30, 1973 issue of Science, “Man’s knowledge of the moon has been dramatically transformed during the brief three years between the first and last Apollo landing.”
Grand designer - Max Faget.
Coming somewhat later to NASA were three key officials who served the agency well. First, James E. Webb became NASA administrator in 1961 and shepherded the agency during the Apollo era. Enjoying a long career in public service that went back to the New Deal, Webb knew every senior official in town, and had favors he could call in when necessary. For seven years after President Kennedy’s 1961 lunar landing announcement through October 1968, Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. The longtime Washington insider was a master at bureaucratic politics. In the end, through a variety of methods, Webb built a seamless web of political liaisons that brought continued support for and resources to accomplish the Apollo moon landing on the schedule Kennedy had announced. Webb left NASA in October 1968, just as Apollo was nearing a successful completion. It is impossible to conceive of NASA’s success with Apollo had Webb not been in Washington overseeing the politics of the program.
Webb molded NASA in ways that might not have been anticipated in response to the moon landing mandate. During his tenure the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were carried to fruition. While it is appropriate to note that the agency was successful in reaching the moon in no small measure because of the diligence of more than 400,000 civil servants and contractors, Webb deserves credit for selecting numerous key officials to carry out these programs. These included George P. Mueller and Samuel C. Phillips, who oversaw the effort at NASA Headquarters. Webb also placed exceptionally capable leaders in positions of responsibility at NASA centers. They, in turn, presided over others involved in reaching the moon. Webb established the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and what became the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. He greatly expanded other NASA facilities to meet the needs of the agency. He also presided over robotic missions to the moon (Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter), Venus (Pioneer Venus), Mars (Mariner 4), and planning for missions to land on Mars (Viking 1 and 2), and investigate the outer planets (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2); far-flung aeronautics research to enhance air transport safety, reliability, efficiency and speed (X-15 hypersonic flight, lifting body flight research, avionics and electronics studies, propulsion technologies, structures research, aerodynamics investigations); applications satellites for communications (Telstar) and weather monitoring (TIROS); a plan to develop an orbital workshop for astronauts (Skylab); and an initiative to construct a reusable spacecraft for traveling to and from Earth orbit in 1967 that eventually became the space shuttle.
Those also serve who wait - While grounded from flight status with a heart condition Deke Slayton served the program as director of flight crew operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Here he wishes a good flight to Apollo 17 command module pilot Ron Evans (Dec. 7, 1972).
Second, Wernher von Braun joined NASA in 1960 and directed the Marshall Space Flight Center throughout the decade. One of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s, von Braun had led the team that built the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany during World War II, led a campaign to convince the public of the possibilities of spaceflight in the United States in the 1950s, built the rocket that launched the first American orbital satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, and oversaw the development of the mighty Saturn V moon rocket in the 1960s. One of the few non-astronaut NASA personnel known to the public, von Braun was a superb engineer, designer and leader of research organizations who also communicated effectively with the American public. He burst on the nation’s stage in the fall of 1952 with a series of articles in “Collier’s,” a popular weekly periodical of the era. He also became a household name following his appearance on three Disney television shows dedicated to space exploration in the mid-1950s. He followed this with exceptionally effective leadership of rocket development efforts that helped Americans reach the moon during Project Apollo.
Third, in terms of leadership of the space program during the 1960s, few were more significant than Deke Slayton. Chosen as a member of the original seven Mercury astronauts in 1959, he was initially scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission but was relieved of this assignment due to a heart condition discovered in August 1959. Instead he became the titular head of the astronauts, officially assuming the role of director of flight crew operations in 1963. For a decade he oversaw the activities of the astronauts, most importantly making crew assignments and managing the full range of astronaut activities. Slayton personally chose all of the flight crews, determining among other things that Neil Armstrong would be the first person to walk on the moon in July 1969. He eventually returned to flight status and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in July 1975 – a joint spaceflight culminating in the first historical meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. But it was his role as leader of the astronauts that sets him apart from all of those whose names we recall from the heroic age of human spaceflight, ensuring that they were ready to accomplish their missions beyond this planet.
Since Apollo there have been a range of key leaders, visionaries and designers that have effectively guided NASA to its current place. James C. Fletcher led NASA between 1971 and 1977, and again between 1986 and 1989, both periods of difficulty. In his first tour as administrator, NASA had to deal with the post-Apollo budget downturn and the new mission of building the space shuttle. In his second tour, he led an agency recovering from the Challenger accident.
From orbit to leadership team - Fred Gregory (NASA deputy administrator, 2002-2005 and acting administrator, 2005) and Ellen Ochoa (Johnson Space Center deputy director 2007-present) are among a number of veteran astronauts who have served in important agency leadership positions.
Both Sally Ride and Guy Bluford broke new ground for NASA when they became the first American woman and first African American to fly in space during two separate shuttle flights in 1983. Both have remained close to NASA since that time, engaging in outreach, education and engineering assessments at various times over the years.
Likewise, other astronauts have moved into key NASA leadership roles following their experiences in space. Frederick D. Gregory was selected as an astronaut in 1978 and spent much of the remainder of his career with NASA. He flew on three Shuttle missions and has logged over 455 hours in space. He served as pilot on STS-51B (April 29-May 6, 1985), and was the spacecraft commander on STS-33 (November 22-27, 1989), and STS-44 (November 24-December 1, 1991). Thereafter he moved to NASA Headquarters to become the associate administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (1992-2001), associate administrator for the Office of Space Flight (2001-2002), lastly as NASA deputy administrator (2002-2005) and acting administrator (2005). Ellen Ochoa entered astronaut training in 1990, the first Hispanic woman astronaut, and flew on four space shuttle flights – STS-56 (1993), STS-66 (1994), STS-96 (1999), and STS-110 (2002). In all, she logged 978 hours in space. A scientist, she was instrumental in studies of the Sun’s effect on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, ozone depletion, and as a co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images. She also served as director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and in September 2007 was named as Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center after Bob Cabana, who had been named director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, departed for his new NASA assignment.
Accomplished women - Space shuttle Atlantis (STS-112) pilot Pam Melroy and mission specialist Sandra Magnus greeted by Kennedy Space Center official JoAnn Morgan after their landing from a mission to expand the size of the International Space Station (Oct. 18, 2002).
JoAnn Morgan began work as a summer intern at what became the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1958. Studying engineering at the University of Florida, her first job at the launch center was in the blockhouse. She recalled how one of the most demeaning things faced in those early years was that there were no women’s restrooms in Blockhouse 34, and when she needed to use the facilities, a security guard had to clear it for her and stand guard. She said, “my console row [in launch control] was on the second floor, and I used to just hate to have to go down there … how embarrassing it was for me to have to go down to the men’s room and stand in line.” She worked her way up the chain of command at Kennedy in a succession of increasingly responsible positions, and eventually retired as the center’s third-ranking official. As she recalled in 2002, “I think women are [now] on a par in the professional and in administrative, and now in the senior executive level. It’s just a pleasure to me to see some women that I’ve mentored over the years as directors. For a long time I was the only woman senior executive.”
John R. Casani began working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in 1956, and in the 1960s he served as spacecraft design leader and system manager for the Mariner spacecraft that flew to Venus, Mars and Mercury. He went on to manage the Voyager beginning in 1976, Galileo (1977-1989) and Cassini missions, and as JPL’s first chief engineer, among other positions. When he first arrived at JPL, he learned that what was most important for project success involved bringing good people on board, getting them to come together as a team and setting up the mechanisms to keep them communicating. He found that this was the key to all successful projects – of course, he would be the first to admit that it was not as simple as it sounds. He emphasized face-to-face meetings, both formal and informal communication, and his success as a manager of complex projects demonstrated his mastery of this complex balancing effort. His legacy in the accomplishment of planetary science missions at NASA is secure.
Former NASA associate administrator for Space Science Wesley Huntress.
Physician James P. Bagian served as a shuttle astronaut and flight surgeon between 1980 and 1998, flying on STS-29 in 1989 and STS-40 in 1991, where he engaged in on-orbit life sciences research using the Spacelab Life Sciences platform to investigate how the heart, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys and hormone-secreting glands respond to microgravity, the causes of space sickness and changes in muscles, bones and cells that occur in humans during spaceflight. He was also first to employ a treatment for space motion sickness that has become the standard of care for sick astronauts. Equally important, Bagian served as a medical investigator for the 51-L accident board in 1986. He was the astronaut on-scene adviser for the salvage operations of the space shuttle Challenger crew module and was also the individual who dove and made the positive identification of the Challenger crew module debris on the ocean floor. He returned to spaceflight to assist the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as chief flight surgeon and medical consultant in 2003.
From the standpoint of space science in the more recent era, no individual was probably more important than Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. First joining NASA JPL in 1969, from 1993-1998 Huntress served as NASA associate administrator for space science. The missions that resulted from his organization’s efforts – an armada of probes flown to Mars, spacecraft sent to both Jupiter and Saturn, two missions undertaken to the moon, and the establishment of the low cost Discovery missions – rewrote our understanding of the cosmology of the universe. During this same period the robotic space science missions emerged as the shining jewel of NASA when so many of the other activities of the space agency seemed to either be in the doldrums or in sustained decline. Under Huntress’ leadership NASA embraced a “faster, better, cheaper” methodology for conceiving and executing space missions – the idea was to decrease the time of designing, building and launching new spacecraft while holding down the typically staggering costs – and it proved a fortunate strategy. While this methodology was not universally successful, the box score on those missions was greater than 80 percent successful, just about the same percentage as more expensive projects.
Physician astronaut James Bagian.
Finally, such recent leaders as N. Wayne Hale, Jr., have placed an important stamp on the human spaceflight program. Since the loss of Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, the human spaceflight effort of the United States had been on hiatus. The supposed “return-to-flight” of STS-114 in August 2005 was not as successful as desired – the problem that had caused the loss of Columbia, foam insulation from the external fuel tank, had been inadequately repaired – and NASA spent nearly a year seeking to overcome that situation. Enter Hale as the new manager of the Space Shuttle Program in September 2005. Responsible for overall management, integration and operations of the Space Shuttle Program, Hale shook up the program, reordered processes, improved systems and instilled a new sense of mission into the effort that has not been seen since the return-to-flight after the 1986 Challenger accident. He helped to overcome a sense of underlying depression permeating all of NASA in the aftermath of this shuttle accident.
A sense of mission - Wayne Hale, manager, Space Shuttle Program Office, Johnson Space Center, flanked by Administrator Michael D. Griffin and Mike Wetmore, associate director for Engineering and Technical Operations, Kennedy Space Center.
After taking over the program, his Hale-grams became emblematic of this new attitude. These missives described in uniquely personal terms his interior life and priorities and what it signals for NASA, the future of the United States, and the cause of space exploration. Thoughtful, reflective and sometimes funny, Hale through force of will brought NASA back from the doldrums to the July 2006 overwhelmingly successful STS-121 mission. He admits his own culpability for what had gone before. He wrote in one treatise after learning that no top official at NASA had ever accepted any responsibility for the Columbia accident: “I cannot speak for others but let me set my record straight: I am at fault. If you need a scapegoat, start with me. I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster. We could discuss the particulars: inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness. The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.” His willingness to accept this responsibility, when so many others shirked theirs, is both refreshing and heroic.
The success of Hale and his team of engineers, technicians and others is doubly significant because of the agedness of the fleet, the abandonment of the program by political leaders and the decision to retire the space shuttle by 2010. Nonetheless, under his guidance the shuttle workforce steeled itself and overcame an overwhelming feeling of tragedy and failure. Coupled with the difficulties of return-to-flight and a true sense that the program is destined to end sooner rather than later, the workforce under Hale has accomplished remarkable results. An example of this is the ground processing team at the Kennedy Space Center, which replaced 5,000 gap fillers in record time for the launch of Discovery on July 4, 2006. And the flight was picture perfect. Hale’s leadership has been important in offering a fitting tribute to the people who have flown the shuttle for so long, as the vehicle enters an honorable retirement in the next few years.
From Glennan to Hale, from Slayton to Bagian, from Newell to Huntress, from Gilruth to Casani, and from Morgan to Ride and Bluford, NASA has enjoyed during its 50 years of existence a remarkable set of leaders, visionaries and designers who have charted a course off this planet. The first 50 years of space exploration were marked by fantastic dreams and a compelling sense of destiny in space, made real by the leaders of NASA, and this thrill of exploration continues into the next half century. Who knows what transforming discoveries will be made that will alter the course of the future?