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NASA, Dryden center a new age
Feb. 2005
At the beginning of John F. Kennedy's presidency, no one familiar with his public life could have predicted his decisive role in the early American space program. Indeed, until he entered the White House in January 1961, he showed virtually no enthusiasm for the subject. In fact, during the first weeks of the Kennedy Administration, NASA Administrator James Webb tried to interest the president in a project to fly astronauts to the moon. Kennedy replied in no uncertain terms that curbing federal spending took precedence over space travel.

Dr. Wernher von Braun, center, explains the Saturn launch system to President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 16, 1963, at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans is at left of von Braun. Image provided by James B. Hill, audiovisual archivist at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass. NASA Photo Image Right: Dr. Wernher von Braun, center, explains the Saturn launch system to President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 16, 1963, at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans is at left of von Braun. Image provided by James B. Hill, audiovisual archivist at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass. NASA Photo

Two events changed his mind. First, between April 17 and 20 of the same year, a band of about 1,500 exiles trained and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency mounted an attack on the south coast of Cuba at the Bahía de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs. They suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Cuban army, which captured and imprisoned 1,173 of the insurgents. A week before this disaster unfolded - on April 12, 1961 - Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, aboard Vostock I, became the first human being to orbit the Earth. The American response the following month only added to the sense of despair. Alan Shepard's suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7 lasted a mere 15 minutes.

Thus, elected over Richard Nixon to be tough on the Soviets, Kennedy suffered two humiliating setbacks just three months into his presidency. Only at this point did he become a convert to space flight - not for its own sake, but as a way to regain the initiative in the Cold War and to counteract Soviet claims of technological superiority.

The solar-powered Helios Prototype returns from its record-altitude mission on Aug. 13, 2001. High-flying uninhabited air vehicles like the Helios could be part of Dryden's future. NASA Photo by Nick Galante Image Right: The solar-powered Helios Prototype returns from its record-altitude mission on Aug. 13, 2001. High-flying uninhabited air vehicles like the Helios could be part of Dryden's future. NASA Photo by Nick Galante

After just a few weeks of investigation (in which NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden played a pivotal role), the president decided to take a high-stakes gamble. Rather than trade incremental steps with the Soviets, he announced a project so ambitious that it forced the U.S.S.R. to abandon many of the technologies on which it based its early space successes and to compete anew in this contest. His challenge - to send astronauts to the moon and back - had a secondary advantage; it swung the psychological momentum of the Cold War back to the U.S.

The president conveyed his decision to Congress in late May 1961 in a message entitled "Urgent National Needs." Although he hid the true cost (a staggering $33 billion in 1961 dollars, estimated accurately by Dryden), Kennedy spoke frankly about the burdens about to be imposed on the nation. He also urged the lawmakers either to embrace the project completely, or to reject it outright.

    "Let it be clear - and this is a judgment which the Members of Congress must finally make - let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action - a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: $531 million dollars in fiscal '62 - and estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all." (author's italics)

Because Project Apollo evolved during an age of intense superpower rivalry in which nuclear catastrophe threatened the world, the president presented it to Congress as a question of national survival, a non-negotiable initiative requiring a yes or a no vote. During the next five years, Congress not only embraced it, but almost pressed more money into James Webb's hands than he could spend responsibly. Despite two sobering reversals - the Apollo 1 fire and the Apollo 13 near-disaster - the lunar program became the crowning achievement of NASA, a phenomenal success all the more remarkable because it happened during the Agency's infancy.

Because Apollo took wing during this formative period, it left a deep imprint on NASA's habits and attitudes. These early triumphs instilled a conviction among many that the Agency had somehow been inoculated against failure, that no technological feat lay beyond possibility, and consequently, that NASA ought to enjoy a status distinct and separate from other federal institutions.

With ablative coating and external tanks, the X-15 No. 2 launches from the NB-52B. NASA Photo Image Right: With ablative coating and external tanks, the X-15 No. 2 launches from the NB-52B. NASA Photo

Dryden Flight Research Center (known since July 1954 as the NACA High-Speed Flight Station, and then in September 1959 as the NASA Flight Research Center) experienced its own version of the Apollo legacy. After several years of preliminary studies, in 1954 NACA Director Hugh L. Dryden launched the famed X-15 program. Although he served as the project's catalyst, Dryden recruited the U.S. Air Force to be its sponsor. Just as Apollo won its funding because of its association with the Cold War, the X-15 won the backing of the armed forces because Dryden posed its development not so much as a technical accomplishment, but as an augmentation to national security.

The story of the X-15 is well known. During nearly a decade of flight (1959 to 1968) it flew 199 times, produced eight astronauts, entered space (altitudes over 264,000 feet) 13 times, and breeched the hypersonic region (above Mach 5) on 112 occasions. Despite the advanced nature of the project, it resulted in a few major injuries and in one fatality.

In exchange for the risks, the X-15 program rewarded researchers with a treasure of technical data. Its flight research program had direct application to the later Space Shuttle Orbiter, but it also proved invaluable to designers of other hypersonic vehicles and to scientists who used it as a platform to fly hundreds of experiments.

Just as Apollo became the jewel in NASA's crown, the X-15 served the same role for the Dryden Flight Research Center. Both assumed mythic status, becoming the standard for all subsequent projects and the standard NASA's friends (and critics) applied to later research.

But the golden heritage of Apollo and X-15 proved nearly impossible to sustain. Those engineers and scientists who joined NASA's ranks after these projects found it hard enough to measure up to the legendary accomplishments of the past. Harder still, they found that changes in domestic and international politics made it increasingly difficult to pursue bold new ventures of any kind.

One political factor involved money, or its absence. Even before Apollo 11, successive Congresses voted for a steady retrenchment of the NASA budget, which declined in every year but one between 1965 and 1975. President Richard Nixon accelerated the process. Under pressure to reduce federal spending, Nixon felt that NASA needed to shed the heroic persona of the Apollo days and become more practical. The president and like-minded policymakers felt that the lunar missions had satisfied John Kennedy's ultimate objective of evening the score on the Cold War battlefield. As a result, Nixon and his advisors turned their backs on expansive projects and embraced more attainable ones. Any thought of mounting missions to other worlds evaporated in the new climate of budgetary restraint.

NASA's NB-52B  airlaunched the X-43A Image Right: NASA's NB-52B airlaunched the X-43A "stack," comprising a modified Orbital Sciences Pegasus booster rocket with the ATK GASL X-43A testbed attached to its nose. Powered by its air-breathing scramjet engine, the X-43A separated as planned and flew to about Mach 7 during its March 27, 2004, flight. NASA Photo by Jim Ross

But powerful forces outside the U.S. also dictated change. During the 1970s, Cold War rivalries cooled somewhat, at least temporarily. Soviet and American negotiators agreed to a partial truce known as Détente, resulting in a congressional mood less inclined toward supporting futuristic new planes and visionary new spaceships. After a resumption of tensions during the 1980s, at the end of the decade the Cold War came to an abrupt end. Despite an attempted coup aimed at restoring Communism in the Soviet Union - and regardless of the many political and economic uncertainties inherent in refashioning the Russian economy and politics - the fight for supremacy between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. diminished, and with it the original basis for pursuing space flight in the first place.

Yet, the demise of the Cold War represented only one factor contributing to NASA's woes. In addition, the Agency's bright reputation lost some of its luster during the years after Apollo, all the more newsworthy because of the mystique of perfection that flourished during the lunar program. Indeed, some critics even pointed out flaws in Apollo itself, reinterpreting the terrible fire that killed three in Apollo 1 and the events that nearly took three more lives in Apollo 13 less as heroic events than as serious lapses. Many raised doubts about the value of human space flight itself, contrasting it with the relatively cheap yet astoundingly successful missions in which robotic systems toured the solar system during the 1970s.

Later on, the Space Shuttle drew fire due to cost overruns and doubts about the degree to which it actually lowered the cost of access to space and increased the frequency of launches. The Challenger incident in 1986 shocked the nation as well as NASA itself. The Agency suffered still more scrutiny because of the famous astigmatism of the Hubble Space Telescope, and later in the 1990s for the budget overruns with the International Space Station.

As a result of these events (not surprising in light of the Agency's mandate to pursue high-risk ventures), Congress slowly reversed its assessment of NASA. By and large, during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program, legislators treated NASA like the government's prodigal son. For many years afterward, NASA administrators traded on these early achievements to win funding for new projects. In effect, one standard existed for all other federal entities, and a different one for NASA.

But by the 1980s, the Agency had become fallible. By then, those in control of the nation's purse did not hesitate to question NASA's requests. In fact, after a number of reductions in size and capacity due to budget cuts, the International Space Station survived a congressional showdown by just one vote. Since then, NASA has been expected to conform to the requirements imposed on the rest of the federal establishment: curb cost overruns, be willing to outsource a portion of its work, be able to account for its budget and even generate revenue to defray some expenses. Far from being The Elect of government service, NASA became no different than other Executive Branch institutions.

At first glance, the history of NASA seems to leave it ill prepared to thrive in present circumstances. Gone is the Cold War, from which NASA sprang. Distant are the early successes, from which NASA won its reputation and drew strength for many years. Gone is the exemption from the normal strictures of bureaucracy, from which NASA can no longer escape. But if these conditions have disappeared, what does the future hold for NASA, and for Dryden? Most likely, it suggests a time in which few historic, national programs like Apollo and the X-15 will dominate the workplace. Instead, the Agency, and this Center, will find themselves in need of partnerships, cost-sharing arrangements and a reliable base of customers. These new relationships probably will result in a cluster of meaningful, although perhaps different projects than the Center and the Agency may have considered in the past.

But if some of NASA's history no longer applies, other parts remain as relevant and timely as ever. Still prominent is the NACA and NASA tradition of trying untested or unorthodox concepts in an atmosphere of open inquiry. Equally alive is the tradition of relying on strong in-house technical competency. Finally, the time-honored legacies of NACA and NASA flight research - incremental and systematic envelope expansion, the pursuit and analysis of the highest quality data and the protection of human life - remain the polestars by which NASA navigates now and in the future.

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Michael H. Gorn
Acting Chief, Code T