What We’ve Learned Since Sputnik

Oct. 1, 1959

What have we learned from our successes and failures of the past year? And what are we planning for the future as a result of our experiences — both good and bad

In the first place, we have learned that we are not nearly so far advanced in space technology as we had thought or hoped. Our experiences in the space vehicle field have been less than completely satisfactory. The ratio of successful launches to what has been termed by some as “successful failures” has not improved very much in the past year. And as soon as we began to plan for second-generation experiments we found that we were facing some hard facts of life in the propulsion and guidance fields. Even today, every shot we make — either by the military or by ourselves in NASA — is a shot in which there is little or no margin for even a slight deviation from planned performance parameters. In thrust capability, in guidance-injection, midcourse and terminal — in thrust control — in all of these areas there is much that must be learned and applied before we undertake the difficult missions we all talk about so glibly.

Secondly, it is becoming clear that we cannot and should not attempt to undertake all of the hundreds of projects that are being recommended to advance our understanding of the space environment. We haven’t the manpower, the facilities, or the funds. More important than any of these, however, is the fact that it seems to me that we will make progress faster if we move at a rate that will enable us to understand a bit more about the things we have already done and the information we have already acquired from successful experiments that are behind us.

Probably more than any other single matter, the question that plagues all of us is one of reliability. When will we be able to count on being successful in launching and placing into orbit or on the desired trajectory in deep space as many as three out of four of our intended experiments? We should admit, quite frankly, that with distressingly few exceptions we have not achieved complete success in any mission to date — success in the sense that the payload has been injected into orbit or into a deep space trajectory within reasonable limits of the planned flight objectives and in the sense that the payload has performed its mission satisfactorily.

Let me hasten to say that our competitors in the USSR have reported only their successful flights to date. We know they had failures. We don’t know, in any instance, whether even their announced successes have really come any closer to the intended objectives than have ours.

We are the one nation in this world which has developed its position of leadership through the application of science and technology to the alleviation of man’s backbreaking burdens while continuing to protect the rights of the individual citizen. For us to play second fiddle in this space business is to admit that we have lost a part of our genius for experiment — for taking a competitive risk — for searching out new facts about nature that ultimately will improve the well-being of mankind everywhere. No, we cannot and I am sure we will not fail to demonstrate once again that free men — when challenged — can rise to the heights and overcome the lead of those who build on the basis of the subjugation of the rights of the individual as they dictate to him the path he must take in response to the demands of the state.

That may seem to be a bit of histrionics… but it is the creed by which we must guide our actions in the days ahead. And we are not going to achieve our goals by wishful thinking about difficult technical problems.

Having told you very, very briefly about the more important bits of realism that have been impressed upon us during the past year, let me now tell you of our thinking about the future.

First, as to program — we have had to face up to the fact that we simply cannot do everything that is proposed either by members of the scientific community, other agencies, or by our own people. Some of the firing schedules we developed nine months ago lacked the realism that now characterizes our planning.

Within the next year, I think you will be able to note an orderliness about the attack our people will be making in the space sciences area. Thus far we have been engaged in completing experiments planned for they IGY. In fields such as astronomy, meteorology, and the physical sciences, we are developing a determined and well-planned program. Lead times for most of these experiments will be long and will call for continuing high levels of effort and support. Unless we can achieve this goal, we will lack, ultimately, the underpinning for the entire space program and may miss the really important discoveries that now lie hidden from our view.

We plan to concentrate our initial efforts in deep space on lunar missions — near miss, orbiting and hard and soft landings of payloads. In this program we will develop the techniques necessary to accomplish missions into deeper space and will use them for such missions as their reliability and the opportunity permit.

Second — as to basic research and advanced technology — we expect to support greater effort in the universities, other nonprofit institutions, and in industry in both basic research and in advanced development of system components. In the development of better methods and devices in the fields of guidance, control, telemetry, auxiliary power units and sensors of all types — in all of these areas, we see the need for greater concentration of effort. Through such actions we hope to improve the reliability of the systems which will employ these components.

Third — as to booster systems — it is becoming increasingly apparent that greater efforts must be placed on simplification and reliability. As a corollary, it seems quite clear that continue attention must be given to reduction in the number and varieties of rockets and rocket-booster systems for use in the space business. It is unlikely that these systems will become off-the-shelf production items in the foreseeable future. With limited numbers of firings in prospect, reliability can be expected only if the variety of systems is kept at a minimum. It will be cheaper to waste payload space in using an oversize booster that becomes reliable through continued use than to tailor boosters for each specific mission with the attendant lowered reliability that surely will result from infrequent use.

As we move ahead in our program, using newly developed vehicles of larger size and with more stages, the problems of achieving successful flights will increase. Recognizing the statistical success thus far achieved with the single- and two-stage missiles and the number of firings required in their development period, we must ask the question as to the probable success of a seven-stage vehicle required to land a man on the moon and return him to earth. Clearly, major advances in research and development techniques leading to greater vehicle reliability must be accomplished. Both the cost and development time will be prohibitive if vehicle development depends, as it does now, so heavily on “trial by fire.” As a part of our program we are currently studying methods for development that might lead to earlier success of our flight vehicles, and the progress we make here may well determine how long it will take to do the advance missions.

Finally — as in most other advanced technologies — a vast new area of materials research is being opened up by our space exploration requirements. As you well know, many materials exhibit different properties when used in radiation fields and in the vacuum of space. These materials must be improved or other materials found or developed to replace them.

My point is simply this: we have used up much of our missile technology. We have drawn heavily on our capital — the knowledge and experience accumulated by the military services, by industry, and by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and others over the past ten years or so. We must replenish that capital with new knowledge. From here on out, space research is going to be a matter of the same determined plugging away that has characterized aeronautics research – and, indeed, all scientific endeavor.

As for Russian space achievements, we have learned that while they use their successes effectively for propaganda — and are able to hide their failures — their public claims have been, to the best of our knowledge, factual. Their scientists, however, are not the giants they would have us believe — they simply stated working in this particular field six or seven years before we did. It would be tragic if we had to admit they were working harder today than we. But they have set for us some targets by the success of their efforts thus far announced.

Mr. Glennan, as the first Administrator of NASA, has responsibility for the civilian phase of the national space effort. The material above is condensed from a speech given at the August 24 Missiles and Space Technology Symposium sponsored by the USAF Ballistic Missile Division.