Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Summer Chick Bergen
Kirkland, Washington – 27 August 1998
This is an interview with Dr. George Mueller on August 27, 1998, for
the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, interviewed by Summer
Chick Bergen, and assisted by Carol Butler.
Good morning. We thank you so much for agreeing to participate in
Oh, and I'm so sorry for missing you last evening, but I was involved
in a few things. Running a little project like this keeps you fairly
I'll bet it does. That's perfectly okay. We're just honored that you're
agreeing to speak with us. It's a privilege.
Well, let's start back at the beginning of your career involvement
in the space industry. How did you first get involved working in space?
Well, let's see. I was teaching at Ohio State, and I took a year's
leave of absence to go to work for a little start-up company called
Ramo-Wooldridge [Inc.]. Ramo-Wooldridge, it turned out, was doing
the systems engineering and technical direction for the ballistic
missile program. This was before the Russian space activities started,
but we knew about them. So when the Vanguard Program failed, the Air
Force moved in, as did the Army, to launch some spacecraft. As it
turns out, before Sputnik started, Ramo Wooldridge started their satellite
program. There was both the secret one, in which I was not involved,
but the overt one where we built the first of the Pioneer vehicles.
Actually, we built a lunar probe. That was a small, wonderfully compact
little vehicle that was supposed to go out to the moon and survey
it. It actually had a little camera on board to take pictures of the
moon. This was about 1958.
Unfortunately, the launch vehicles were not that reliable at that
time, and although we had three attempts, we actually never got one
to go out to the moon. The very first one went part way and got up
to—I don't know, got out into space a fair distance, halfway
around the world, as a matter of fact, but it didn't qualify as an
That was my first introduction to space, as such, and that led eventually
to my being asked to go back to run the manned space flight program.
I don't think that many people realize how much was accomplished in
those few years, though, beginning in about 1953 through '60, in developing
the basic technology we're using today throughout the space program,
because I remember, for one thing, we developed what was then the—I'm
drawing a mental blank on the name of the program—it was the
Thor Program, which is now the Delta. I was thinking the Delta and
trying to remember what Thor was. But the Thor started out as a short-range
ballistic missile, and was developed in one year starting from the
idea to flight of the first vehicle. Of course, the first vehicle
It wasn't terribly unusual back then, was it?
No. But it was amazing how quickly we were able to—we actually
deployed them in two years, so they were over in England launching
out of pads over there within two years of when we started the program.
That kind of ability to move out is to some extent lost today. We've
become so involved in doing everything by rote that we can't break
the rules and get out of that habit to do something new and exciting.
You did lots of exciting things. From my research it looks like you
worked on the Atlas and the Titan and the Minuteman.
That's right. I was involved in the guidance control systems, really
the electronics laboratory at Ramo-Wooldridge I ran for a while. That
did all of the guidance and control for the ballistic missile program.
We actually did all of the software there, because that gave us the
insight into the programs that you need for being able to do the technical
direction and the systems engineering on it. We were fortunate in
getting a tremendously capable group of people working on the program
and recruited from everywhere. But it was an exciting thing. It was
one of these programs that was super secret, so no one was supposed
to know anything about it, and very few people did.
We really developed a whole new technology in that time frame, which
took place in about six or seven years. Then it grew and grew and
grew like things do. Si and Dean [phonetic] started out in a schoolhouse,
and, well, actually started in that little storefront office on the
street, but then moved into a schoolhouse, and then eventually began
to build buildings so that you have that complex which is now down
in Manhattan Beach and Torrance that they have built and developed,
which is now shrinking, which is characteristic of life. If you aren't
growing, you're shrinking.
You were involved in Pioneer I, which was considered the first successful
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, that was the lunar probe. It didn't quite make it, but it did
get far enough to get into the record book. It was an interesting
development. We built the first of the digital telemetry systems for
it, because we couldn't figure out how to make an analog system work
all the way out to the moon and back.
I, at that time, set up the first of the deep space network. This
was an Air Force project. We put sixty-foot dishes in. We actually
used the radio telescope in England as part of that, but we also put
in the sixty-foot dishes down at the Cape [Canaveral], and we put
one up in Australia at that time. We had to have the dishes working
within the time frame that we had to launch the vehicle. I think we
started it in 1958 and we lost it in 1959. Of course, the launch vehicle
was earlier. Although we did develop a new upper stage at that time
frame for this thing as well, that was called the Able stage.
Besides the digital telemetry, which was new, we also did a fair amount
of work on thermal control. We developed these little disks that adjust
the temperature by the radiation [striking] the vehicle, and they
are thermostatically controlled with a little spring that keeps it
at the same temperature, hopefully.
Quite a lot of interesting developments in that time frame. We developed
the idea of a—we were spinning the vehicle for stability, and
at the same time we put on a little photo detector that would scan
the surface so that we got a scanner built in as we were going around,
and we were going to use that for sending back the pictures of the
That must have been very exciting working on that, just getting into
Well, it was interesting because I was doing that and running that
program in addition to running the laboratories. So I spent my days
working in the lab organizing and keeping things going there, then
I spent the nights working on this thing. We had a few other people.
It's amazing what you can do with a very few people. I think we didn't
have more than ten people working on the spacecraft itself, plus some
But I remember very well that we were about halfway through the program,
NASA took it over, so we had some NASA people out watching the program.
So they kept asking my bosses, "If George is running the program,
how can he do that? He's never working on it?" Of course, I was
doing my work at night, and they weren't around. [Laughter]
Spent a lot of hours then/
Well, those are days when you slept just enough.
Then at some point you left Space Technologies Laboratory [STL] and
went to work for NASA as a deputy associate administrator for manned
No, as the associate administrator.
As the associate administrator. Okay.
Actually, I started that associate administrator business. I was the
first of that breed. Homer [E.] Newell became an associate administrator
for space science. Let's see, who was running the technology group
at that time? Associate administrator for technology was—he
went to work for Avco up in Connecticut when he left us. Well, his
name will came back. That long ago, names are a little more difficult
When you entered your job at NASA as associate administrator, what
did you think was ahead for you at that time?
Well, you know, back in STL we had been participating in the Apollo
Program. We worked with GE [General Electric] and made a proposal,
and eventually [unclear] for the original Apollo Program. So I was
relatively familiar with that. By that time I was actually running
the [business development as] STL became a profit-seeking corporation.
I was running the marketing as well as the engineering at that time.
We were short-handed and I did a lot of things.
But in any event, we were involved in that proposal, so I knew a fair
amount about the Apollo Program before I went back there. I also had
worked with the various—well, for example, STL provided the
engines for the lunar LEM, Lunar Excursion Module. So I got to know
the contractors as well as the NASA management team during that period.
Matter of fact, we were working rather closely with Marshall at that
time to convince them that they needed some systems engineering support.
Wernher [von Braun] thought that was a great idea, so [he] went back
and sold it at headquarters, and they hired GE to do it instead of
STL. But those are the kinds of things that happen when you're bidding
It turned out that when I went back to NASA, [D.] Brainerd Holmes
had just been allowed to leave, and so I came in at a time when it
had been somewhat chaotic, about the time that Congress was asking,
"Is this something that we really ought to fund?" Will it
work, is what it amounted to. Probably, from what I had seen of the
operations around the country, it didn't look like it would work,
because there wasn't any coherent drive that was well enough organized
to make it come together. You had three centers involved. Well, you
actually had five or six centers involved, with three principal ones,
and they barely talked to each other. We just weren't going to get
there, in my opinion, unless we changed the organization.
So, before I came back from NASA, I had discussed sometimes with Jim
[James E.] Webb what I felt I had to do in order to be able to run
the program. He agreed, and we set up this associate administrator
with the centers reporting directly to me at that time, and they restructured
NASA with associate administrators with the other centers reporting
to the other associate administrators. That gave me the control I
needed, but it still didn't provide the organizational basis on which
you can build to go forward.
I had observed what it took to run a program in the military, and
one of the basic problems is getting free communications throughout
the organizations so at least you know what's going on everywhere
and everybody knows what's going on. That was one of the things that
caused me to set up the management structure that I did employ at
that time, which consisted of essentially my five boxes, one of which
was systems engineering, which was an important ingredient to any
program, and what I did was to have these program—well, I set
up a program office for Gemini, and one for Apollo, and one for advanced
programs. So we had three program offices to begin with.
The Apollo Program office—at that time Gemini was just starting,
but it was far enough along and it was a small enough program, it
didn't make sense to have a lot of program offices around, so we had
one in Washington and one at the Center, which is now Johnson [Space
Center]. But I did set up in there the same equivalent set of organizations
internal to the program office that linked from Washington to Johnson
at that time.
But for Apollo, because it involved all of these centers in great
depth, I set up an organization that started with a program office
in Washington and then program offices in each of the three centers,
with their own program managers, who reported directly back to the
program director in Washington. Initially I was the program director
in Washington, among other things. That was just until I could get
that organized and running.
Then each of these program offices, in turn, had these five disciplines
which also reported, or just communicated directly with their counterparts
in Washington. So you had five boxes with the three centers, five
boxes in Washington, each one of which was communicating independently
of the program office, but part of the program office, but had their
own disciplines that they kept track of throughout the operations.
These were called the GEM boxes, or G-E-M boxes?
Yes, among others, in polite times. [Laughter] But it did establish
then lines of communication by discipline within the program offices,
and those, in turn, then kept the program themselves informed as where
things were and what the problems were. It floated them up more quickly
than they had in the past. But in order for that to work, I had to
get the center directors to become part of the solution. So I set
up the Program Management Council, which was the three center directors
and myself, and we met monthly to go over the program. These center
program managers reported both to the center director and to the program
office in Washington. So they had dual reporting responsibility, and
that took a while for NASA to understand. Dual reporting was not a
normal part of that culture. That took a while to put in place. By
the time of the fire, it was working very well indeed, and it carried
us through the trauma associated with that and following, and really
made it possible to recover and move out with Apollo 8.
Since you brought up the fire, can you go ahead and talk a little
bit about some of the circumstances surrounding that?
That's one thing I'd just as soon forget. In all honesty, that was
a traumatic experience. We were having a dinner plotting the future
course of the space program with our key contractors, and Jim Webb
was there, Bob [Robert C.] Seamans [Jr.], and everybody at this dinner
in Boston, when the fire occurred at the Cape. Jim did exactly the
right thing in setting up immediately a review committee, an independent
investigation committee under Tommy [Floyd L.] Thompson of Langley.
Then we moved out to find out what had happened.
That was, however, one of the things that caused a great deal of stress
within the organization, both internally and externally. It was very
difficult to hold everybody at a calm and keep them organized and
moving at that time, because Congress was investigating, the newspapers
were investigating, the White House was investigating, everybody was
investigating. As is characteristics of these things, probably the
problem was simple and straightforward, and you would never do it
if you thought about it, but the use of pure oxygen in an enclosed
space is quite dangerous, and certainly it's more dangerous as the
pressure increases. So although we had used pure oxygen, and really
in order to condition the astronauts for the extravehicular activities
as much as anything, and to save weight on Mercury, on the Gemini,
and on Apollo, until the fire, and we really had no appreciation of
what happens when you have a spark in pure oxygen in an enclosed space
like that. We discovered that that was a problem, and we spent a great
deal of time trying to find the source of the problem, the source
of the fire, but literally it was a time bomb just sitting there waiting
to go off.
But the good part of that—that was an experience I would rather
not go through, the astronauts' wives and all of the funerals, and
the investigation, testifying, and trying to explain that it was inevitable
that something would happen sometime. Unfortunately, it had to happen
then. But we did persevere, and I would say that the good thing that
came out of it was that we really understood what causes fires on
spacecraft. We really redid most of the wiring, not that we knew the
wiring was at fault, but rather we redid the wiring on Apollo, and
did it much more professionally than the first time around. I think
that's probably why the Apollo Program was relatively accident-free.
Talking about making the corrections, one of the things that was brought
up in the investigation was the Phillips Report, and there's, of course,
been a lot said about that, but, in hindsight, do you think you should
have handled the Phillips Report any differently than what you did
at that time?
Well, you know, I didn't think the Phillips Report existed, because
if I had known it would have gotten a wide distribution, I would have
handled it differently, because the one thing you know about Washington
is, if it's in writing it's going to be—we had rather naively,
I thought, caught it before it got into print. It turns out I was
wrong. It got printed before I caught it, but I didn't realize that
at the time. I don't think Sam realizes either. So the copies began
to show up all over the landscape.
Now, the basic reason for not wanting that distributed was that it
was a fairly negative report that was not, however, constructive.
It didn't say what had to be done; it simply said what was wrong.
That kind of thing, if you feed it into the newspapers—and remember,
we were in a fishbowl in Apollo. I didn't want to get a whole set
of negative things out about one of our major contractors, and then
have to explain to Congress and everybody else how that was good that
we were learning things and we were moving forward. It's much more
difficult when you start from a negative point view than from a positive.
Then the fire came along, and this was after I thought I had buried
that report deeply, and was replacing it with—it never was published,
it was a draft. I replacing it, getting them to replace it with what
needs to be done rather than what was wrong. But then the fire came
along, and it surfaced in the course of the investigation. No, if
I had known it would have existed, I would have immediately disclosed
of it. The one thing about Washington, if you've got any problem,
better to tell everybody early rather than later.
It's a hard lesson learned. In speaking about the Phillips Report,
which was written by Sam [Samuel C.] Phillips, you initially wanted
him to be a representative on that investigation board, but Joe [Joseph
F.] Shea felt that he should be the representative. Can you tell us
a little bit about that situation?
Joe, of course, is the person responsible for the capsule. It was
a question as to who was the best person for the investigation. Joe
knew so much about it, it made sense for him to be on the investigating
committee. He knew all the interior problems more than anyone else
did. In retrospect, I wish that I had had Sam serve on it instead
of Joe, because Joe got so deeply emotionally involved that he lost—well,
he really had a nervous breakdown, and that created a whole host of
personal problems for him and for us as well. Because of that situation
we had to replace him. Very difficult. He was a friend, a very good
friend, of mine, and one of the most brilliant people I've ever known.
Yet he became too involved, too emotionally upset about it, that he
just became unable to do the kind of constructive things that we needed
at the time. Spent too much time worrying about what had happened,
not enough about how to get from where we were to where we needed
But the program did continue. I want to go back just a little bit
and talk about some more positive things, hopefully. You were the
one responsible for deciding on the all-up testing procedure.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to that decision?
Oh, it was easy. You just looked at the schedule, and you could see
that if you went through the test program that Marshall [Space Flight
Center] had laid out for the launch vehicle, that you weren't going
to be landing on the moon in the decade. I don't think that anyone
really who had been involved in the program disagreed with that. I
don't know that that time they were all that convinced that we they
were going to be able to land on the moon in the decade.
Did you convince Dr. von Braun and his associates that that was a
That was an interesting move, I must say, and it was also necessary
to convince Bob Gilruth and his associates that it was a reasonable
idea, because they weren't used to doing that either. But Werner probably
had the more vocal opposition.
It was easy. You laid out the program and then—well, we started
with what we had, and then we spent some time working with the centers,
because by now I had the program offices in place, or at least beginning
to be in place, and so we laid out a schedule that made sense. Looking,
from my experience in flying these things, it was clear that you're
much more likely to have a failure on the second stage than you are
on the first stage, because you spend more time on the first stage
than you do on the second stage, and so on and on and on.
We were in production on these things, so we were bringing everything
together as rapidly as we could and in a sequence that would get them
all together at the same time. So it didn't make much sense to fly
the first stage and then fly it with the second stage, or fly the
second stage separately, which was also proposed, and so on. By the
time you had to do all of the work necessary to fly a single stage
by itself, you hadn't really done the work you needed to fly the whole
stack. If you lost a vehicle, you were likely to lose it at any stage
so you might as well go as far as you can and find out where the problems
are. At least that was my philosophy at the time. Still is.
So we went around talking to the centers, and the first time through
they looked askance, and said, "You couldn't possibly think of
anything so silly." They didn't quite say it that way, but made
it real clear. It turns out that Kurt [H.] Debus was a strong supporter
of the idea as soon as he thought about it, because he'd seen the
same things I had, things blowing up all over the place, and indiscriminately
stage-wise. So we had a major meeting at Marshall when he had all
of his troops together and we talked about it. I finally said, "Well,
the only way I can see to get to the moon in this decade is through
this program." Werner finally said, "Well, it's risky, but
I agree. I support that idea."
I must say we had a precursor to that. We had an offsite where we
had all of the center directors together, and we talked through the
program and what the alternatives were so that everybody was on the
same baseline at the time. But it was a decision that I did make,
and it wasn't unanimous by any measure or means.
Did you watch the Apollo 4, the first all-up test launch?
Oh, yes. Yes, of course.
What were you thinking? Were you a little anxious when you did that
Actually, I was deeply enough involved in the program so that at that
time I was more interested in making sure that everything that I could
think of, or anybody else could think of, was done so it was going
to work right. Of course, it worked very well. The 505 didn't work
quite so well.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
It was a great learning experience. One of the things that our organization,
the organization we had set up with the program offices and the technical
groups supporting and so on, worked exceedingly well in terms of identifying
the problems and curing them, and identifying them clearly enough
so that we certainly knew what the problem was, because that's always
a problem when you're dealing with things at a distance.
We produced the problem on the ground and made the corrections necessary,
and then we went through the entire history of those two flights,
to be sure there weren't other anomalies in them, in as much depth
as I've ever seen programs reviewed, and on the basis of that we felt
confident enough that this thing was going to fly, that we flew the
next one to the moon.
And that decision to send Apollo 8 around the moon, you weren't initially
convinced that was a good idea, were you?
No, as a matter of fact, I thought it was great.
Oh, did you?
But I wanted to make sure that we did this thorough review, and so
I used it as a—I said, "You've got to convince me it's
going to be safe." No, I used that as a lever to get that kind
of a review, which really found a few things and straightened them
out before we were satisfied that it was safe to go.
You sent Apollo 8 around the moon, and it was successful, but several
flights later on Apollo 13 there was a lot of problems on that flight,
but they got back with the lunar module. Did that make you reflect
any differently on Apollo, what you had done on Apollo 8?
No, it proved that I was right. Of course, I was out by then.
It was Dale [D.] Myers—we're working together on this thing
now—that was running it. I told him it was his fault. [Laughter]
This was later, of course. But, no, we had anticipated that kind of
a problem. If we would have known what the problem was, it wouldn't
have happened. But we anticipated that there could be problems that
had that kind of a consequence, and we had looked at how to get back,
and that's the case. It was worse than we had anticipated, but still
So as you were working on the Apollo Program, you realized that there
as going to have to be something after Apollo.
Yes. Or I hoped there was going to be something.
What eventually came after Apollo was Skylab. So how did that all
Let's see. It was clear that if you wanted—we had set up the
Apollo Applications Program Office at the same time we started the
other program offices. So we kept that going, trying to find applications
for the Apollo hardware on other programs. One of the things that
we did was to look at what we needed to do in order to get into space
really, and that's what led to the Space Shuttle. It became clear
that if you're going to really exploit the space environment, you
had to have a cheap means, an inexpensive means, of getting into space
and out of space. As you know, we did a long-range plan, and part
of the plan involved the creation of space stations in order to serve
as a node in the transportation system going out to the planets or
to the moon, for that matter.
The real question, though, at that time was whether or not people
could survive for long periods of time in weightlessness, without
having to have artificial gravity. A big debate that still goes on
between artificial gravity and zero gravity for human exposure over
long periods of time. And the only way to prove that is to do it.
We set up the Skylab really to test long-duration exposure of man
to space, and that was about the same time we started the studies
on the Space Shuttle, because in order to get to Mars we needed to
have some ways of getting into space more cheaply than we were doing,
and with a lot more energy than we had at the time. So we started
the two programs almost together in their studies phases. It's been
studied to death since.
The Skylab itself then was envisaged to not only test the long-term
exposure of weightlessness in human beings, but also to test what
you could do while you were in space. So I thought, I guess, of what
are the things that one can do in space that are important. One of
these is telescopes to look at the universe from outside the atmosphere.
So we did some studies on telescopes. In fact, at one time I proposed
to the astronomers in California, one of our advisory board members
headed the telescope of the Astronomical Observatories along the West
Coast. So they had a meeting and I came out and proposed that we fly
one of their telescopes on our Saturn V, and we would provide them
with all of the viewing they could hope for outside the atmosphere.
They didn't think that was possible, but, as a matter of fact, my
In any event, so the Skylab was developed, first of all, to be an
S-IVB stage that was refurbished in orbit. That S-IVB stage was to
be flown on one of the Saturn I rockets and placed in orbit, and then
we were going to build the crew quarters and stuff once it's in space.
Werner was given the task of doing it because he had enough infrastructure
there, we thought he could do a lot of the work in house, because
I was trying to get them back into doing some in-house work as well
as managing programs. I have the view that one needs to have a combination
of program management, but you have to have a solid internal structure
to support that program management, or else you have to hire somebody
else to do it. NASA had, certainly in Marshall, a tremendous internal
competence in building these kinds of things. So they got the task
of doing the conversion of the S-IVB stage, because it was their stage
After we had it along to the point of starting the design, Werner
got the idea of building a neutral buoyancy facility to see just what
was involved in doing that in space. So he built this thing down there,
and without any permission from anybody. One day when I was visiting,
Werner always had Eberhard [F. M. Rees] take me around the controversial
things so if I blew up, I'd find some refuge. Anyway, Wernher [had]
Eberhard [take] me over to show me this new facility they had in one
of their old hangars, which was this huge neutral buoyancy facility
which is big enough to take the S-IVB stage, or at least most of it
down there, so they could actually carry out the activities that they
were planning to do in orbit. It was a great idea, I thought. I was
happy he didn't ask for permission, because it might have taken some
time to get permission to do it.
I decided I wanted to see for myself what was going on. So that was
my first experience with scuba diving, was to go down there and see
how hard it was to move the valves and so on. So I did that one Saturday,
and decided then that it wasn't likely we were going to be able to
refurbish this thing in space. It's just too hard to work in a neutral
buoyancy environment. If you're in a spacesuit, it's even worse. You
had to do the initial refurbishment, or furbishment, I guess, without
air. So you had to be in a spacesuit and you had to do all of the
preliminary work in a spacesuit. I figured by the time we did that,
why, we would have exhausted several astronauts and our program in
So after that, and after we got a little further along in the design,
I made the decision to fly it on a Saturn V instead of on the S-1C.
Surprisingly, there was a fair amount of objection to changing it,
because I guess everybody was conditioned to the earlier thing. But
it was clear that if we wanted this thing to really work, we had to
simplify the process of putting it into operation. So we built it
on the ground.
I got Raymond Lowey to come in to work on it to provide—because
looking at what the original design was, it didn't look to me like
anybody would want to stay there or be able to stay there for ninety
days, which is what our objective was.
It just wasn't a place you could live that long. Now, people can live
under very trying conditions, but it didn't seem like we wanted to
make it too difficult.
So Raymond came in and did a great deal of human factors work on it
that I think was outstanding. At first the engineers objected to the
idea that here's this character who designs automobiles coming in
and telling them how to build a space station, but I think eventually
they recognized the—and certainly the astronauts did when they
got up there. That was a major step forward. I've always regretted
that they decided not to fly the second one, and regretted even more
that they made the—well, they had depended upon the Space Shuttle
to maintain its orbit, and the Space Shuttle slipped several years,
and the thing eventually came in before they could get up to give
it a boost to a higher orbit.
There was a little controversy over the Apollo telescope mount when
you were working on designing development of Skylab. Can you tell
us a little bit about that, what that controversy was about, and a
little bit about the LM-ATM [Lunar Module-Apollo Telescope Mount]
Well, I don't recall it as being a controversy so much as it was a
question as to was this something useful to do and should we spend
our resources on something like this. The engineering group at both
Marshall and certainly at Johnson were never very enthusiastic about
scientific experiments or science as such. They were more interested
in the things they wanted to do. But it was clear that astronomy was
one of the real uses of space. So I convinced them, I guess, that
we needed to do some things that were scientifically useful.
They had the same problem on the Lunar Program. Initially, everybody
was just going to go up there and come home. But the scientists were
complaining, and I thought that was justified that, after all, you're
going to do all this, you ought to do something scientifically useful
as well as engineering prowess or demonstration.
You claim to be a real proponent of space science. Did you work with
many people that felt like you did, or did you encounter more opposition
Well, you know, it's interesting. Of course, basically, my background
is in science, so it was something I thought of as being important.
My background's also in engineering, so I have both sides of the coin.
There was not a great deal of enthusiasm initially anywhere in the
organization for science, but because it was impacting Johnson more
than it was Marshall, Marshall was much more enthusiastic about science
than Johnson was. So it took a fair amount of direction to get a scientific
program installed in the program. It wasn't so much opposition to
it as it was, well, they didn't really see why it was useful. And
none of the astronauts, of course, had any scientific background,
so they weren't particularly—In fact, Jack [Harrison H.] Schmitt
was the only one that had any scientific training, and he almost didn't
get to fly.
So do you think that ensuring that science was done on those helped
Oh, it did indeed. In fact, the amazing thing was shortly after the
program ended, one of the chief opponents of the Apollo programs from
the scientific community came around and said, "You know, we
were wrong. We should have insisted on more science and more flights."
Because it turned out to be very, very useful, and certainly if we
had continued the program, it would have been very valuable from a
scientific point of view, because we had a far more capable exploration
tool in the lunar excursion module than we're likely to have in any
of the robotic programs we now are contemplating.
One thing we didn't talk about when we were talking about Apollo was
how you felt when you watched from Mission Control the landing of
the lunar module on Apollo 11.
Tell us about that.
Tell us about that?
That was a fascinating time. I was in the little side room they have
there, and listening and listening and listening, and thinking, "Are
they going to be able to land?" It happened very rapidly. So
they had landed by the time all of the worries got organized in my
mind. But that was a traumatic moment. And as it turns out, it was
one of those things, that somebody decided that they would just do
a little experiment on the landing altimeter and left it running instead
of turning it off as it was supposed to be, and that just overloaded
the shift registers in the computer. Fortunately, it was self-correcting,
so it would come back on again, but then this landing radar would
cause it to overload and shut down, I guess. That was driving them
until they got down to the ground. It turned out that the folks on
the ground, the support troops, recognized the problem, or [they]
analyzed it and recognized it in the few moments they had to do it,
and decided it was safe to proceed. But that was a hectic five or
That was in 1969, and that's the same year you left NASA. Why did
you decide to leave NASA and go back to industry at that time?
Well, several reasons. One is that the decision had been made to terminate
the Apollo Program, and that was a good time then to leave before,
and let someone else take over for the next phase. From a practical
point of view, I needed to go make some money so I could keep my family
going. It was costly for us to join the Apollo Program. My salary
was half what I was making in industry when I went there, and it was
just a strain to keep the family going and work going at the same
time. So I went back to industry.
It was nice to leave with the triumph of landing on the moon.
Well, it was a good time to leave in that sense. You know, it looked
like it would be another five or ten years before the next program
was going to come to fruition. There's also the general thing that
if you stay in Washington long enough, if you do anything, you create
enough enemies to make it difficult to get anything done. I'd left
before I think I created that set of enemies, but it's clear that
you have a limited time of effectiveness in Washington if you really
are doing anything. If you're not doing anything, you can stay there
We're coming to the end of our time here for our appointment that
we had scheduled. Before I wanted to close the interview, I wanted
to ask Carol if she had any questions for you.
Just one brief one, hopefully. Looking back, you were talking about
the science and how there wasn't a lot of support for the science
programs in the early time frame when you were working on the Skylab.
Do you think now there has been a fundamental change in NASA, because
now if they don't have a good scientific justification they're not
going to get the money to do the program? Has there been a change
in thought like that?
Well, there was always the science group that was enthusiastic about
science. They just thought manned space flight was siphoning off all
their money so that they couldn't get their science programs done.
In actuality, the opposite was true. I was siphoning money into them
off of the Apollo Program to keep them going, in a sense. Through
our scientific work we asked them to manage it, keep it going. That
was why we brought the deputy director, Homer Newell's deputy over
to be my deputy in order to provide that link into the scientific
community. Not Homer Newell. He went back to Langley eventually. I'll
remember his name after we finish this, probably. [Edgar M. Cortright]
I think that today it isn't the scientific justification, it's the
lack of a vision of where man is going in space that causes the problem,
and to try to justify manned space flight on purely a scientific basis,
I don't think it will work. The scientists have an experiment. They
are able to develop that experiment in such a way that you don't need
men involved unless you could take them there. Now, they would be
sure, if they could go up there and do it, that it would be much better,
and it would be. But since our ability to take people into space is
so limited, it creates a negative feeling about manned space flight
that shouldn't be there. You think of the pioneers that opened up
the West. Well, you ought to think of pioneers opening up space in
the same fashion. If we'd only found diamonds on the moon, we would
have been able to really get that program going. [Laughter]
One more question about science before we close the interview. You
established the Science and Technology Advisory Committee. Who made
up this committee and how did that contribute to the space program?
You have the list of names, and I'm having a little trouble remembering
them. Actually, it was started because we'd had so much flak from
the scientific community, from the White House Science Group and so
on, that I needed to do something to offset that. So I asked Charlie
[Charles H.] Townes, whom I knew from Bell Labs days, whether he would
be willing to organize this Scientific Technology and Advisory Committee.
I got Jim Webb to agree that this was something that would be useful.
Charlie went and selected a remarkable group of engineers and scientists
that represented every aspect of the spectrum of science at that time,
and were also characteristically interested in something new and exciting.
They were not the scientists that have a single-track mind; they were
the multi-tracks-mind scientists. Well, three of them were Nobel or
became Nobel [Prize] scientists. The others could have been, or should
have been. That was done both to bolster our internal science, because
I needed somebody or some group to foster science within the—most
of the experiments on the lunar modules were developed or suggested
by this group. They became quite involved in the program.
Charlie and I went down to Arecibo to set up a first radar measurements
of the moon to determine whether or not there was that hundred feet
of dust that Tommy [Thomas] Gold insisted was there. Well, we were
trying hard to answer some of the criticisms in some logical or scientific
way. Because at that time we'd lost two Surveyors, and it wasn't clear
we were going to get one to land. But we did, and answered that question.
But that group was very instrumental in deflecting the criticism.
You couldn't criticize three Nobel scientists, is what it amounts
to, although I guess two of them got their Nobel laureates after.
So the scientific community criticisms were somewhat blunted. We got
some really very useful advice, and actually they promoted some of
the experiments. I told you one of them was the head of this astronomy
group on the West Coast, and he brought me out and I talked to them
about the wonders of space and what was all going to happen in the
future, and how important it was to have telescopes in space. [Francis
Clauser] That was the way we interacted with the scientific community,
which was important in building that, and at least keeping them from
undermining our approach, and in some instances getting positive support.
Science of space has added greatly to our lives here on Earth. I think
that was an important contribution made by the space program.
I know. What I'm trying to do is get us out into space. [Laughter]
We thank you so much for your time that you've spent with us.
I'm jealous of John Glenn. I very much wanted to go on Apollo 8, but
Jim Webb wouldn't let me.
Yes, John Glenn is very fortunate.
Yes, he is.
We'll be hearing a lot more about him in another month.
You'll just have to put in your little program plan for getting yourself
up there. Sell yourself to Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin.
[Laughter] Ah, yes. Well, I don't have quite the political clout that
Again, we thank you so much for participating.
You're most welcome. I enjoyed it.
It's been very interesting. We've enjoyed it.
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