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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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NASA and its Interagency, Academic, Industry and International Partners

    By Roger D. Launius

    From NASA’s very origins, its leaders, as well as other government officials, realized that the agency would need a variety of partners to accomplish its expansive exploration and research mission. In terms of the interagency, academic, industry, and international partnerships that were struck by NASA, an unusual set of relations emerged in the first years of the agency. In no small part, the approach sought to build on the capabilities of each external organization rather than duplicate them across many groups.

    International teamwork - Senior foreign government officials participating in the International Space Station visiting the Kennedy Space Center. At center (front row, sixth from left) is NASA’s ninth administrator, Daniel Goldin.

    International teamwork - Senior foreign government officials participating in the International Space Station visiting the Kennedy Space Center. At center (front row, sixth from left) is NASA’s ninth administrator, Daniel Goldin.

    T. Keith Glennan, NASA’s first administrator, proved prescient in ensuring that NASA remained relatively small and had much of its work done under contract to private industry and educational institutions. This was in line with many people’s concerns about the growing size and power of the federal government. When NASA grew, as he knew it would, Glennan tried to direct it in an orderly manner. Along those lines, he tenaciously worked for the incorporation of the non-military space efforts being carried out in several other federal agencies into NASA so that the space program could be brought together into a meaningful whole.

    The most important set of relations that NASA had to develop was with other federal agencies, especially the Department of Defense (DoD). The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 established NASA with a broad mandate to explore and use space for “peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” The core of NASA came from the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with its 8,000 employees and three research laboratories. NASA quickly incorporated other organizations, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala.

    Within a short time after NASA’s formal organization, the new agency took over management of space exploration projects from other federal agencies, including the U.S. Air Force. These activities relied fully on the expertise and resources of the U.S. Air Force in seeing them to fruition. One of the earliest borrowings of DoD technology came to NASA as launch vehicles originally developed for the delivery of nuclear weapons. Most of the launchers used by NASA during its formative years originated as military ballistic missiles. It was, and remains, the fundamental technology necessary for civil space exploration, and it came largely from the military.

    In its infancy, NASA’s leaders also established the manner in which the agency would deal with industrial partners. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 anticipated that the agency would contract with industry for much of its activities. In a significant policy action, it extended to NASA the procurement authority contained in the Armed Services Procurement Act of 1947. This recognized that NASA would be establishing a partnership with many of the same companies with which the DoD already had longstanding relations, and that partnership would be similar to that already established with the DoD.

    During the Apollo era NASA extended this basic approach to dealing with industry. To incorporate the great amount of work undertaken to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s into the formal bureaucracy never seemed a particularly savvy idea, and as a result during the decade somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of NASA’s overall budget went for contracts to purchase goods and services from others. James Webb, NASA’s administrator between 1961 and 1968, found that this approach was both good politics and the best way of getting Apollo done on the presidentially-approved schedule. It was also very nearly the only way to harness the talent and institutional resources already in existence in the emerging aerospace industry and the country’s leading research universities.

    This basic approach continues to guide NASA programs. The bulk of the work has been done by industry with NASA oversight and management.

    On another front, NASA had a longstanding interest in nurturing science and technology projects at universities. In 1958, Glennan set in motion the first coordinated effort by establishing a University Research Program Office at the NASA Headquarters under the direction of the Office of Aeronautical and Space Research. This organization, at the behest of the technical program offices, oversaw a small “research by contract” program. In May 1960, Glennan reorganized this structure and created the Office of Research Grants and Contracts as an administrative unit of NASA to coordinate research conducted by nonprofit institutions. This effectively made the new organization the liaison between NASA and most universities, acting on behalf of program offices for work performed outside the agency.

    American industrial might - Contractor employees undertake checkout of the Apollo 17 flight hardware, including the lunar roving vehicle and lunar module, at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Astronauts like Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan (on the rover) relied on the talents of NASA employees and private sector contractors to get them to the moon and back.

    American industrial might - Contractor employees undertake checkout of the Apollo 17 flight hardware, including the lunar roving vehicle and lunar module, at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Astronauts like Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan (on the rover) relied on the talents of NASA employees and private sector contractors to get them to the moon and back.

    Within a few months of the Apollo commitment in 1961, Webb led NASA down one of its most innovative paths of the era. He established the Sustaining University Program (SUP) to use universities for socioeconomic goals. SUP involved a broad-based set of initiatives to increase the size and quality of scientific and technical (S&T) education programs with the goal of reshaping the nation through large-scale S&T activities. Using fellowships, grants and facilities monies, it aimed at expanding the number of scientists and engineers, especially with advanced degrees; spreading federal largesse far beyond the previously set bounds into geographically and ethnically and racially separated institutions. Webb hoped to entice outstanding students to enroll in programs across the nation rather than at only a few elite schools. He also sought to use these funds for interdisciplinary research across broad areas of research, even including social scientists, who would study the impacts of science and technology. Finally, Webb intended SUP as a strategic, proactive effort to advance society as a whole, with NASA playing a key role. SUP proved successful in building support for NASA and the Apollo program during the 1960s, in no small measure because large sums of money with relatively few restrictions were made available nationwide. But Webb’s larger goal of using universities for NASA-based socio-industrial progress, despite its idealistic origins and noble objectives, proved elusive. Training large numbers of scientists and engineers, which SUP facilitated, epitomized what the program did best. NASA’s efforts to transform American society in this way, were at best marginally successful.

    Today, NASA’s Office of Education, led by Joyce Leavitt Winterton, focuses on targeted investments in America’s K-12 schools, university systems and informal education aimed at helping develop the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce of the future through a diverse portfolio of education initiatives. These initiatives, coordinated through the agency’s Education Coordinating Committee, seek to inspire, engage, educate and employ the next generation of explorers through lessons, materials, research opportunities and hands-on activities that draw on NASA’s unique missions.

    Finally, the Cold War context in which the U.S. civil space program arose ensured that foreign policy objectives dominated the nature of the activity. This naturally led to the need for cooperative ventures with allies. Congress said as much in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, when it inserted a clause mandating the new space agency to engage in international projects with other nations for the betterment of all humankind. This legislation provided authority for international agreements in the broad range of projects essential for the development of space science and technology. The scope of NASA’s international program has been fortified since that time by repeated involvement with the United Nations, bilateral and multilateral treaties, and a host of less formal international agreements.

    NASA has often wrestled with how best to implement its broad mandate to conduct international partnerships. Early on, agency leaders developed a set of essential principles guiding its relations with international partners. These remained in place until the partnership, in the early 1990s, to build the International Space Station.

    • Cooperation is undertaken on a project-by-project basis, not on an on-going basis for a specific discipline, general effort, etc.
    • Each cooperative project must be both mutually beneficial and scientifically valid.
    • Scientific/technical agreement must precede any political commitment.
    • Funds transfers will not take place between partners, but each will be responsible for its own contribution to the project.
    • All partners will carry out their part of the project without technical or managerial expertise provided by the other.
    • Scientific data will be made available, for early analysis, to researchers all nations involved in the project.
    Cooperative projects offered two very significant advantages of use to the agency in the national political arena. First, by the time of the lunar landings they brought greater legitimacy to NASA’s overall mission. Second, although far from being a coldly-calculating move, agreements with foreign nations could also help to insulate space projects from drastic budgetary and political changes. International partners, then, could be stabilizing factors for any space project, in essence a bulwark to weather difficult domestic storms.

    Student power - University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama A&M students count down to launch rockets containing science experiments at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. The students participated in a program sponsored by the Marshall Space Flight Center that motivates students to pursue science, math and engineering careers.

    Student power - University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama A&M students count down to launch rockets containing science experiments at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. The students participated in a program sponsored by the Marshall Space Flight Center that motivates students to pursue science, math and engineering careers.

    In 50 years, NASA has concluded more than 2,000 cooperative agreements with other nations for the conduct of international space projects. While most of these have been bilateral in focus – such as the very first which led to the Alouette mission with Canada in 1962 – while many, and increasingly so, are multinational efforts. NASA’s international activities took a new and strikingly more complex path in the 1980s with the establishment of a space station program. From its outset both NASA and the Reagan administration emphasized it as an international effort. NASA forged agreements among thirteen nations – including Japan, Canada and several European nations – to take part in what was then called the Space Station Freedom program in 1985. This partnership was intended to maximize technological capability while reducing the cost to each participating nation. But the ingenious aspect of the arrangement was that it helped replace the rivalry of the Cold War as a means of stabilizing support and funding for NASA by linking the space program’s major effort to yet another U.S. foreign policy objective – in this case, international cooperation. In so doing, every partnership brought greater legitimacy to the overall program and helped insulate it from drastic budgetary and political pressures.

    This new spin on an old idea took a dramatic turn in the fall of 1993 when NASA negotiated a landmark decision to include Russia in the building of an international space station. In the post-Cold War era, as the United States wrestled with foreign policy questions aimed at supporting democratic reforms in Eastern Europe and Russia, this decision provided an important linkage for continuation of the space station effort into the 21st century. Just as some members of Congress in the early 1960s thought of space exploration primarily as a tool of foreign policy goals, some members in the 1990s considered the modern cooperative agreements for the International Space Station (ISS) more important than the other reasons for building the station.

    With the addition of Russia as a station partner in 1993, however, the U.S. position on international collaboration changed. Whereas Europe and Japan contributed add-on pressurized research modules and other “plug-in” components, the Russians were to provide several critical space station modules without which the system could not function. This approach to collaboration evoked concern in the space policy community. Domestic objections to dependence on Russian technology were based on concerns about logistics supply, political and economic stability, questions about technical reliability, the potential for loss of U.S. jobs, and traditional pressures to maintain U.S. control over critical mission elements.

    As a part of this international agreement, NASA also gained access to the Russian space station Mir, launched in 1986 and added to there after. A series of Shuttle/Mir docking missions followed between 1995 and 1998. At a fundamental level the space station Mir should be considered a tremendous success story for the Soviet Union/Russia. It combined the bluster of former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the grace of Russian – U.S. ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, the genius of Russian author and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the paranoia of former Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin, and the brilliance of Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov to create a weird, ugly and highly successful space vehicle. Mir conjured characterizations as diverse as great and graceful, incongruous and awkward, esthetically pleasing and troubling, all in the same mind. Some have described Mir as a giant Tinkertoy®, a term that recalls its construction and ungainly physical characteristics. Inside, Mir looked a cluttered mess with obsolete equipment, floating bags of trash, the residue of dust, and a crust that grew more extensive with the passing years. Astronaut Michael Foale said it reminded him of “a frat house, but more organized and better looked after.” Even so, Mir served its purpose until it finally deorbited in the spring of 2001, 15 years after its launch.

    The first docking mission took place in July 1995 when the space shuttle Atlantis STS-71, docked with Mir. This was the first of nine shuttle/Mir link‑ups between 1995 and 1998, including rendezvous, docking, and crew transfers. These missions signaled a new age of cooperation in space, where exploration of the universe would be measured more in terms of what a coalition of states had accomplished rather than what a single nation had done.

    After the ceremonies following the rendezvous and docking of Atlantis to Mir, the two groups of spacefarers undertook several days of joint scientific investigations inside the Spacelab module tucked in Atlantis' cargo bay. Many of the experiments were aimed at increasing understanding of the human body and the microgravity environment.

    The international consortium building the ISS took another leap forward in 1998 with the launch of its first elements – the Russian-built Zarya and American-built Unity modules – that were mated together. Other elements followed and in the fall of 2000 the first crew of one astronaut and two cosmonauts occupied the station. A total of 16 crews have continuously served aboard the station for months at a time through the end of 2007. While there have been enormous difficulties to be overcome in the project – cost overruns, questions about the quality of science to be undertaken, the role of civilians who want to fly – one may appropriately conclude that the ISS effort has thus far proven successful.

    Celebrating Columbus - NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel (in red), European astronauts, Everet Dudek (EADS Space Transportation), and European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain in Bremen, Germany, on May 3, 2006, to mark the completion of ESA's International Space Station Columbus module. Photo credit-EADS/dpa

    Celebrating Columbus - NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel (in red), European astronauts, Everet Dudek (EADS Space Transportation), and European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain in Bremen, Germany, on May 3, 2006, to mark the completion of ESA's International Space Station Columbus module.
    Photo credit: EADS/dpa

    As the first decade of the twenty-first century proceeds, the effort to develop the ISS promised a future permanent presence in space and the possibility of renewed exploration of the moon and Mars. A truly international effort, 17 nations are working together on the project, including Canada, the nations of Western Europe, Japan, the United States and Russia. Even so the ISS remains a difficult issue as policymakers wrestle with competing political agendas without consensus. In the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003 President George W. Bush called for completion of the ISS, retirement of the space shuttle fleet by 2010, and eventual phasing out of the ISS. At present, NASA and the international partners are committed to continuing the ISS construction effort, but how long after that it will remain operational in orbit remains undecided.

    So what does all of this mean? The significance of these joint missions largely rests on their international context and what they signal for the future of human spaceflight. Humans of several hundred years hence may well look back on this experience as the tangible evidence of the beginning of a cooperative effort that was successful in creating a permanent presence for Earthlings beyond the planet. It could, however, prove to be only a minor respite in the competition among nations for economic and political supremacy. The most important thing to remember about it, perhaps, is that the future is not yet written and that humans in the “here and now” have the unique opportunity to support and contribute to the success of international space exploration efforts.

    One of the key conclusions that we might reach about both the course of international cooperation is that it has been an enormously difficult but rewarding process. I am reminded of the quote from Wernher von Braun, “we can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” Perhaps the hardest part of space flight is not the scientific and technological challenges of operating in an exceptionally foreign and hostile environment but in the down-to-earth environment of rough-and-tumble international and domestic politics. But even so, cooperative space endeavors have been richly rewarding and overwhelmingly useful, from all manner of scientific, technical, social, and political perspectives.

    In the history of NASA and its broad based partnerships, much has been accomplished, some efforts have failed, and others offer continuing hope of success. At some level these efforts are a metaphor for the space age as a whole. Perhaps journalist Greg Easterbrook said it best, writing eloquently about the significance of spaceflight in Time magazine just after the Columbia accident:

    A spacecraft is a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the Earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there – a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind. The spacecraft rises toward the heavens exactly as, in our finest moments as a nation, our hearts have risen toward justice and principle.

    Only one feature of spaceflight is inevitable: The unexpected will occur. Space is full of achievements, disappointments, and surprises; perhaps we will use it to create a more hopeful future. It provides an important opportunity for humans to learn how to live on a small and precious world and to leave for others.