NASA Headquarters NACA
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
News, Virginia –
3 May 2008
Johnson: Today is May 3, 2008. This oral history is being conducted
with Edwin Kilgore as part of the NACA [National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics] Oral History Project sponsored by the NASA Headquarters
History Office. This interview is being held in Newport News, Virginia,
during the NACA Reunion Number XII. The interviewer is Sandra Johnson,
assisted by Rebecca Wright. I want to thank you for joining us today
and allowing us to come into your home to do the interview. I would
like to start by asking you to briefly describe your background and
how you first became interested in aeronautics and wanted to study
that when you went to Virginia Tech [Virginia Polytechnic Institute
(VPI) and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia].
I first started at the Norfolk division of [College of] William and
Mary and VPI, Norfolk [in 1940]. It's now Old Dominion University.
In those days, they only had two buildings, and I was interested in
mechanical engineering. While there, I worked at the J. G. Wilson
Rolling Steel Door Company over in South Norfolk, and during the early
parts of the war [World War II], while I was still in school, I was
given a job at J. G. Wilson to design the rolling steel doors for
the CV Class Aircraft Carriers.
At that time, I hadn't had any Strength of Materials [engineering
class], so I set up stands out in the shop and loaded the design door,
to the load [required by] the Navy. Navy came out and inspected it
and okayed it, and those were the doors on the [exterior of the] aircraft
carrier. It may have been one of the [most important] engineering
jobs I ever did, but I was still in my freshman year of college. I
was quite proud of that at the time. [I won an American Society of
Mechanical Engineering (ASME) award for a talk I gave at an ASME convention
on the door design.]
Then I went on to Virginia Tech for my last two years, and while there,
I was in the class with Bob [Robert F.] Thompson and Chris [Christopher
C.] Kraft, and others who were key people both in NACA and NASA. They
were part of the Cadet Corps, so they got taken out and sent to the
war. Since I was civilian student coming from the Norfolk division,
they left me in to finish, and when I finished, they inducted me into
the Navy. I had about three months before I went in the Navy. So I
said, "Well, I've heard of NACA. I don't really know what the
acronym stands for, but I've seen all the work that they've done through
some of [their technical] reports." I said, "That'd be a
wonderful place to get acquainted with." So I went over, and
that same day, they put me to work. I was interested in doing design
work, so they put me in a design section in this—picture this
building that I showed you earlier. It was a three-story building
with shops down below. No air conditioning. It wasn't anything except
it was a very intriguing, very challenging place to work.
I really enjoyed the three months I was there, but then the Navy called
me so I had to go to Richmond [Virginia], and they put me on a train
going to Sampson, New York for [Navy boot camp] training. I'd been
on the train an hour or so when [a] Shore Patrol policemen came through,
and said, "Kilgore, Kilgore!" That disturbed me. Nobody
knew me from Adam. Well, he said, "We've got to get you off at
the next stop, and we're going to send you back to Richmond, and send
you back to NACA."
Apparently, the NACA had an agreement with the government; they needed
technical people. What they needed was to get another five or ten
miles an hour out of those airplanes to fight the Zeros [Japanese
fighter plane]. Since I had already worked there for about three months,
they decided they wanted me back. So they made an agreement with the
Navy, and they sent me back, and they put me in the Air Corps, which
is more appropriate to what NASA did at that time. It wasn't long
after that that I was made head of the model group.
The model group was a group that was responsible for [designing] all
the models, from the size of your finger all the way up to the size
of full-scale airplanes. So we had quite a diversity of work as a
result of this. [For example,] I developed a machine that would cut
steel airfoils [for wind tunnel] models in order to take the increased
loads as airplanes increased [up to supersonic speeds].
So that's the way I got started in NACA. A little later in my career,
I got very interested in some of the things that we were doing on
Wallops Island [Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia]. I had a group
that designed [multi-stage] rocket-powered models. There were five
stages, and we would fire three stages going up and two stages coming
back in, so you went [through] transonic speed. And it was the only
way, at that time, that we had any way of getting aerodynamic data
[at] transonic speed. We didn't have any transonic tunnels. So we
got [our first] data [at] transonic speeds from these models coming
back into the atmosphere. So I got very interested in the missile
work, the rocket work, along with the aeronautics in the model business.
Floyd [L.] Thompson, who was head of [NACA] Langley [Aeronautical
Laboratory, now NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia] at
the time was an interesting guy. He [generally] never charged anybody
with a specific task, he just challenged you to go do something. He
challenged me to help [Langley] get into the space business. So I
took it on myself to instigate projects like Echo [satellite] and
Scout [solid-fuel rocket]. I acted as the co-project manager for Scout
[when it started].
Our objective on the Scout was to design a research vehicle that would
reach orbit for about a million dollars. Well, of course you wouldn't
even think of that today. But we came close to doing that. For about
a million and a half, we developed four of them. Three of them went
into the swamp [at Wallops Island out of control]. But we found the
problem, and the fourth one made orbit. So it was the first four-stage,
solid-fuel vehicle in the world that made orbit, and it was used for
years after that as a cheap [reliable] vehicle for research.
Ling-Temco-Vought was the contractor, and they made a lot of money
by selling it. The Italians got into it in a big way, and they built
a station off of the coast of Africa in order to get an equatorial
launch [using] the Scout. So it had quite a history after that.
So then, to go on with my career, I was asked to go to [NASA] Headquarters
[Washington, D.C.] and be the Deputy Associate Administrator of OART
[Office of Advanced Research and Technology], and Langley was one
of the Centers that belonged to OART. [NASA] Lewis [Research Center,
Cleveland, Ohio] was another one, which is now Glenn [Research Center],
Wallops Island, [NASA Dryden] Flight Research Center in the desert
in [Edwards] California [and Ames Research Center in California].
So while I was there, a fellow named Roy Jackson, who was a Vice President
of Northrop [Corporation] at the time, agreed to be the Associate
Administrator over these Research Centers for a period of two years.
I never knew about his two years at the time, he was just a very [exceptional]
boss and a very ingenious kind of guy, and even some of the aeronautics
programs that are being worked today came out of the program that
he put together. For example, the [V-22] Osprey, the tilt rotor [aircraft],
that all started out of a program that we started. He went into [pushing]
the Centers into more systems research. Things like the tilt rotor
would end up being a useful [end] product, [as well as greatly accelerate
the development of new technology].
A lot of the researchers rebelled at this, because as you get to be
an expert in a field like aerodynamics, or anything else, you get
to know more and more about less and less, and you get to be an expert
in that. You get to go to these conferences all over the world, and
you make speeches and all this. Well, Roy Jackson [wanted to make
a more meaningful impact]. We needed to awaken the system a little
bit and get [researchers focused on the most immediate aircraft technology
I was also able, at the time, to get some of the people interested
in space, and some of them came in kicking and screaming. They didn't
want to leave, they were expert in something here, and here they're
going into something entirely [new]. There were a lot of doubts about
what happens if you go into a space program. Of course the Lunar Orbiter
[and the Viking were] like this. I encouraged a number of the people,
including my deputy at the time at Langley, to go into [these projects].
[Fortunately], they ended up as very successful programs.
There was one other thing that I omitted in telling you as to what
Langley was when I first came there. Langley was totally different
from anything that I guess I had expected. I'll take the example,
Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth. Bob Gilruth was head of [NASA] Johnson [Space
Center, then Manned Spacecraft Center] for a number of years. He was
head of the Flight Research Program [at Langley], a very bright guy.
I used to play tennis with him while he was [at Langley]. He was one
of 10,000 people who took the Federal Service Exam for a job at Langley,
and he's the one that got it. That's a pretty highly selective method
of getting a job. [Many] of the [Langley engineers] were of equal
One fellow, for example, [who] was head of all the [supersonic research]
programs in Italy [during the war was helped to escape and brought
to Langley]. Of course, at the same time they got [Wernher] von Braun
and brought him over to work the Missile Program. But it was a highly
selective program, and we were all known as “Brain Busters”
by the [Hampton] locality, and the locality didn't have too much fondness
for the Brain Busters. They were a little different, we were different
people, and it took a long time for them to really accept that as
a part of the community. Of course, it was economically a very big
part of the community, because the NASA Research Center had 1,000
people and they contributed to the economy here.
Shortly after, my former wife Ann was elected Mayor of Hampton. At
the time, there were only 25 or 30,000 people, a very small village
type of thing. As she was involved in politics and being the Mayor,
it grew to over 100,000 people, so it was a rapid, very rapid growth,
and she was very interested. That was her baby, Hampton. So the people
not only accepted the people at NASA, we became a part of the community
and a part of the leadership of the community. So that's the way Langley
got and the way it is today. It's not only accepted, it's a part of
During those first years, I want to go back to that and maybe touch
on some of the details of that. You worked here for three months,
as you said, for a while, and then you got on the train thinking you
were leaving. Did you have any idea that they wanted to bring you
back, or was that a surprise to you?
No, I had no idea. It was a great surprise to me.
When you first started working, you were in that area where you were
Yes, I was in a model group. Matter of fact, it was headed by Caldwell
[C.] Johnson. Caldwell Johnson and Max [Maxime A.] Faget are the fathers
of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, the design of those vehicles.
[Johnson] was one of the best designers that I've ever really seen,
and Faget, he was the dreamer. He was the guy who saw way ahead what
needed to be done. Caldwell Johnson made the designs and put it into
hardware. Now of course all that was [eventually] contracted out [to
be developed], but the basis of it all came from those two guys. I
was put in [Johnson’s] group when I first came here. Well, shortly
after, he was taken out and given another job, and they gave me the
How much experience did you have as far as making models, and how
did you learn that? Was there some sort of training that you went
through, or did you just start working?
Well, I learned a lot from Caldwell Johnson. I got to work with him
about three or four months, and in that short time, believe it or
not, I got to learn a great deal about models. But the model business
changed dramatically, because as the speed changed, we had to have
stronger and stronger models, and I was able to develop plastic fiberglass
models, which were not only stronger than the wooden models they'd
used before, but they were a lot easier to make. So the wood shop
became the plastic shop, really.
The other thing we did as a model group was that all the propellers
for the wind tunnels around the world were all made of wood. The problem
with it is that if anything [broke] loose and went down [the tunnel],
it just tore [out] a whole set of blades. These blades were whirling,
and this [loose projectile] went through there and just tore the whole
thing out. So I decided that we needed something a little more substantial.
So taking the experience we had with the fiberglass models, we developed
a fiberglass wind tunnel blade, and we put it in the eight foot, high-speed
tunnel, which was run by Dick [Richard T.] Whitcomb [of area rule
fame]. But anyway, it was put in as one of the blades and all the
rest were wooden blades. I got a call one day [which] said, "All
the blades came out," and I said, "Uh oh, here goes my job."
It turned out when I got over there, there was this plastic blade
standing up there like a new penny, all shiny, not a scratch on it.
So all the blades since then in wind tunnels around the world, practically
all of them are made of fiberglass.
What caused all the other blades to break at that point?
Well, they're wooden, they just shatter when something hits them.
Oh, so something hit them.
Yes, it was like a baseball bat. You hit it too hard, it breaks, shatters.
But the fiberglass was very resistant. Matter of fact, they make bulletproof
vests and all this out of that kind of material. Not exactly what
we used. So it was a very interesting time, and a lot went on.
I was at an advantage in running the model group in that I got to
see aeronautics, I got to see subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic
aerodynamics, because we were making models for all these people,
so you had to understand the load, you had to understand what happened
to it as much as we could at the time. That was one way that I got
a very broad aeronautic background. Then, of course, I got interested
in the space business by Floyd Thompson prodding me a little bit.
Bob Gilruth asked me to go to Houston with him when the [Space] Task
Group went to Houston, but my wife was Mayor [of Hampton, Virginia]
at the time, and I was very interested in getting this space activity
started at Langley, so I stayed there, and I'm happy that I did, in
a way. But a couple years later, I went to Headquarters [to] OART.
Later I became the Associate Administrator for Management Operations,
with [institutional] responsibility for all the Centers. We had ten
Centers at the time.
In those first years, World War II was still going on when you joined
the NACA, and shortly, a couple years later after the war ended, the
things you were doing research on, did they change as far as did you
start working more with commercial ventures than DoD [Department of
Well, that's right. See, I came in '44, which was getting close to
the end of the war, and we were still fighting hard, as I said, to
get another five or ten miles an hour out of the airplanes to fight
those Zeros. After the war, the commercial companies were very interested
[in NACA research]. We had an advantage in those days, which NASA
doesn't have now at Langley. Now everything is [considered] proprietary.
Boeing [Company] is [reluctant] to put a model in a wind tunnel at
Langley, because they are obligated to make that data public. Then
Martin Marietta [Corporation] gets a hold of it, and then everybody
else in the world gets hold of it, Airbus and so forth. That's the
way that the government is set up.
So Langley can do basic research because it's available to everybody,
but they're highly constrained as to what work they can do for Boeing
or what work they can do for Martin or so forth. That wasn't the case
back in [the early] days. Aeronautics was still in its infancy, commercial
aeronautics in particular. So everybody climbed on board. People were
tickled to death to have their models put in the wind tunnels, and
then the data was distributed everywhere, but the big companies [used
the data and prospered]. The Boeings and so forth, they all came out
as the upper-most companies in that field, because they used the data
more wisely than other people did [to make better airplanes].
But that's kind of a major difference between aeronautics program
of today and the aeronautics program then. The aeronautics program
then was the aeronautics program for the United States of America.
There were a few others that were contributing pieces here, but NACA
was it. You learn in management school, anywhere you go to management
school, that you can't run anything with a committee. Committees are
terrible. But NACA was probably the best-run organization that I ever
worked for. NACA was run by a committee. It was the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics. It had people like [James H.] Doolittle
and Orville Wright and people like this, [Jerome C.] Hunsaker, the
real pioneers in aviation, on the committee.
The other reason it worked is that they only met once a year, and
they reviewed what Langley and what Lewis had done, and they decided
that, "Well, that's very good, but we need to do this and this
and this." They were reflecting the views of the aeronautic community
for the whole United States, and we're missing that just a little
bit. No, we're missing it a lot now. But my point is that that was
run by a committee, and it was very successful and the best-run organization
that I know of.
There was very little bureaucracy in Langley. It was all done by a
handshake or a phone call or whatever it was, and that, of course,
changed a great deal under NACA. When I finally went to Washington,
you didn't do anything without two or three memos, and it's probably
true in every Center including Johnson now. This is what you do. People
were encouraged to go off on their own, with people like Floyd Thompson
as the Director, and do things, do innovative things, do something
you're not [even directly] responsible for. If you can make a success
out of it, we'll create a whole [new] organization that's that way.
So it was the premier research organization for aeronautics in the
country, and primarily because it had very little bureaucracy and
it was run by a committee of wise people who said, "This is what
you should do, this is what aeronautics needs."
I've noticed in the other interview, I heard you mention that you
worked on the full-scale tunnel, the redesign of the scale system.
You want to describe that for us and give us some details about what
That was one of my first jobs when I came into Langley. The full-scale
tunnel system needed some innovation. Well, one thing, the the loads
were higher and the scale needed to be changed. But we also needed
a way of changing models, models being full-size airplanes in that
case, more easily. So what I did was design a system that had movable
plates and rotating plates, so that you could accommodate different
airplanes and attach them to the scale system down below.
Now, that was all very nice, but it wasn't too long that it was all
changed, because strain gauges came in. With strain gauges, you could
measure all these forces on models and all without having beam balances
[with their inherent problems]. You had to let them settle out. It
was like you get on a set of scales, and the hand wavers a little
bit, the pointer wavers a little bit. Well, you had to wait for all
that to settle out. They had some [pressure measuring manometer] tubes,
you had to wait for those. But the sensor [data] systems improved
probably more than almost anything in research in a period of four
or five years after I came in. Electronic sensors, strain gauges,
those kinds of things. We got probably ten times the amount of data
per unit of time that we did with the old scale system, [which was
essentially obsolete even with the redesign].
You mentioned the technology changing. While you were there, over
your years, the technology changed quite a bit as far as things like
the different systems, but also computers. When you first started
there, how much interaction did you have with the female computers
that were there to do the math calculations?
I had a lot. We depended on them for those Friden calculations. They
didn't have any computers other than the Friden, but they did all
of our calculation. In the model work, for example, when I came in
they had no way of translating [airfoil coordinates] The wings were
straight generally, and so it was easy. Airfoils were in the air stream
direction of the wing. But when we got into swept back wings, then
the airfoil was diagonally across that. We had to have some way of
translating the airfoil sections into [stream wise coordinates]. So
I worked out a [formula] to do that, [which] I gave to the computers,
and any time that we made a model, a swept back wing model, they figured
out the coordinates for the wing. They were very good at it.
Of course, now this formula I worked out is all computerized and in
a matter of a few seconds, you've got the answer, where it used to
take them a half a day going through to get the answer. So everything
here has changed dramatically, mostly because of electronics. See,
in my lifetime, [I was] very lucky, because almost everything except
the printing press and the steam engine were invented in my lifetime.
Now, the car came out a little earlier, but really, it never got to
be—I was born in '23—it never got to be many cars that
people rode in until after 1923. It's a very unusual time to have
lived, and I'm very happy, looking back, to have had that opportunity
to live at the right time. I didn't have anything to do with it, but
it was there. [My generation was fortunate.]
While you were there, and of course you were still with the NACA,
Sputnik [Russian satellite] launched in 1957, and things began to
change somewhat. Can you describe what, once that launch took place,
were you working on at that point in your career and how did that
change? Or did it change at all after Sputnik?
Well, at the time, I was personally doing a lot of work on Echo. Echo
was intended to be a communication satellite, and you'd put up a number
of them and you'd bounce the signals off and back down to the Earth.
Because nobody believed that you could make electronic equipment that
would stand the rigors of space. Well, that turned out to be folly.
Of course, now we not only do that, but we do a lot more with it.
So the main thing that came out of Echo, the big thing that came out,
was everybody in the world could see it. So that really was the first
competitor that we had for Sputnik. Everybody could see the Echo.
Sputnik, they could hear it beep, but that was about all. There was
a lot of doubt about whether the thing was really beeping or what
was happening, but Echo, everybody could see it. So it turned out
to be a real godsend, from the country's standpoint, and it wasn't
intended to be that at all.
What were you working on with Echo as far as what were your duties?
Were you helping to develop the design?
Yes. Well, as I said, I developed the first sub-satellite using this
Mylar material, and the problem was getting it scaled up to 100 feet
diameter and put into a small ball. I remember the problem we were
having with folding it. If you ever tried to take several acres of
Mylar, which is kind of flimsy, and fold it, it just wants to go here
and there and everywhere. So it was a real problem.
I was home one rainy morning, and I was getting ready to go to work,
and my wife took out her rain hat. You've seen rain hats, you just
flip, and they come into a very neat [strip], and you unfold them
and they come into a hemisphere [to fit] your head. I said, "I've
got to have that." She says, "I need it." I said, "No,
I've got to have it worse than you." So I took this out and I
gave it to one of the guys down at the shop, and I said, "Look,
you go out to the company that's building this Echo balloon, and you
take this and you make some forms out of plywood, and make it a real
orderly process so that it will look just like this rain hat."
That's the way that the thing got folded.
They were having trouble. They had it in a room and they'd push one
end, and the other end would go out the other door. They couldn’t
even get it in a room. We had to get it into a 19-inch [diameter]
container. Well, we ended up folding it so tight that we had to put
spacers on the inside. That was quite a folding job as it turned out.
The reason it had to be folded this tight was that if it had air on
the inside, residual air, left inside the balloon, it would blow up
the minute it was exposed to space. The first one did.
We had a trial balloon, so to speak, in which we fired a rocket going
up and then the rocket coming back down, and on the way down it released
the capsule and the pyrotechnics fired to open the capsule, and the
balloon came out. But what came out were just 10,000 pieces of confetti.
It had all this residual air in it, [which] just blew it all to smithereens.
It doesn't take much in a vacuum to blow things up, and this, of course,
is [a] fragile material anyway. So we had to get the residual air
out of it, and that's the reason that it's packed in such a tight
But that's essentially a long way of answering your question [as to]
what was I working on at that time. That was one of the things I was
working on, trying to solve that problem. But we had the Scout that
we were working on. We had a lot of those projects that were related
to space at the time.
From what I've read, there was a lot of excitement, as you mentioned.
People could see Echo once it was launched successfully, and there
were some attempts that failed, obviously. Once it was launched successfully,
President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower sent a message. Do you remember that
moment, or do you remember hearing that and knowing that it was coming
What was the feeling at that time?
Those of us concerned at Langley with the space activities were euphoric.
The aeronautics people weren't [overly] happy with anything having
to do with space. I'm not talking about all of them. But many of those,
if you attended the [NACA reunion] last night, many of those sitting
in that room didn't want anything to do with space. They were all
aeronautics, and that's their life, and [they wanted] to continue
that. It's very difficult to get some of those people to change horses,
but some of them did, and some of them became very successful in doing
that. People don't like change. You probably know that yourself.
What made you want to go into the space side instead of staying with
the aeronautics side?
It was all new. I mean, it was totally new. We were really pioneering.
I was working with what will be considered in future years the space
pioneers. Guys like Chris Kraft, we were all the same age, all working
together, all feeling our way along. There were no classes in schools
that taught you the things and the problems that you were going to
end up in. Bob Thompson was my doubles partner for years in tennis,
and we won a lot of tennis tournaments, and [he] became the [Space]
Shuttle Project Manager. He didn't take anything in school that told
him how to be a Shuttle Project Manger, or even how to build a Shuttle.
But we all just kind of felt our way, and those people will be known
as the space pioneers in future generations.
Bob Gilruth certainly was a space pioneer. He had a lot to do with
pushing it. I rode back on the NASA airplane from Houston to Washington
with Bob Gilruth in the latter years, and he said, "Ed, I'm going
to Washington to try to stop the manned space program." I said,
"What the heck are you doing that for? You've made the cover
of Time Magazine, you're a hero to the Americans." He said, "Well,
you just don't realize what would happen if we ever have a catastrophe
in which we lose astronauts." Well, anyway, he didn't have his
way with the powers that be, and he was lucky. We all were lucky.
Every one of those Moon landings worked. It was in the latter days,
with the Shuttle and the [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L accident]
and so forth, the press has gotten into it, and any time you have
a failure like the Challenger, of course the press is going to make
a big deal out of that. Now, if you have a success in going to the
Moon, you get very little publicity out of that. So Bob Gilruth was
right. I didn't realize what would happen.
I was playing in a tennis tournament down in Florida, and somebody
came up, knew I worked for NASA, tapped me on the shoulder and said,
"The Challenger has had an accident." Well, I stopped playing,
went up and listened to the TV. But first thing I thought about was
Bob Gilruth's prophetic words. If we ever have that, you can't realize
what's really going to happen.
When the Apollo 13 [accident] happened, I was on the investigating
committee for that, and I'm not sure that we, as an investigating
committee, would ever have found the smoking gun, the absolute thing
that happened there. But Rocco [C.] Petrone, who was head of the project
at Houston, we gave the task of trying [with his project people] to
find out what happened. Well, they mocked up the oxygen tank, you
know, it was an oxygen tank that exploded. Fortunately, it exploded
outward. If it had exploded inward, we'd never heard from them again,
but it exploded outward. Rocco and his troops mocked up the oxygen
tank, and they found out within a matter of a couple weeks that it
was a little thermal sensor about the size of your thumb that was
What it was put in there for is [that] on the pad, the oxygen tank
[periodically] needs to have some heat in order to keep [the oxygen
liquid], and so the [tank] thermostat was supposed to tell it when
to turn the heat on. Well, it did, but then it welded shut because
it was underrated. Some electrical engineer somewhere along the line
just didn't do the job right, and it's that little simple thing. You
could have bought that in a hardware store, probably for five dollars.
But it [eventually] cost the country one heck of a lot of money.
My point in all this is that since the press, the government and [the
public have] gotten into all these failures, they try to exclude the
[project] people who work on it. Well, that's folly. We [may] never
have found [the Apollo 13] problem, if it hadn't been for Rocco Petrone
and his group who mocked [up the oxygen tank] and found it.
The Challenger accident. Well, they had a bunch of people on there
who were high-powered people, but [they generally lacked engineering
competence]. They had some high-powered scientists. In retrospect,
they should have had NASA people who actually worked on it, but see,
they were afraid of a cover-up. When you get in Washington, you realize
how much people think in those terms, a cover-up kind of thing. That's
not in the culture of NASA. The culture of NASA has always been, in
my experience, to find out what went wrong, correct it, and go ahead.
In the Challenger, if they had let the project people get in and find
out what was wrong, they could have fixed that in a matter of six
months, and a year later been flying, at one hundredth of the cost.
Well, I got way off the subject, but anyway.
That's okay. Let's go back to when you said earlier that Floyd Thompson
asked you to coordinate the activities there at Langley for the Space
Program. Do you want to describe exactly what he was asking you to
do and what you did to coordinate those activities?
Well, Floyd was never very specific. Matter of fact, he probably had
other people in his office just after me, one I know of, John [C.]
Houbolt, he told the same thing. "We want Langley to be a player
in this space program, and we want it to be a major player in the
space program, and see what you can do to push the people into that
direction." I'm sure he talked to half a dozen people with that
same story, and a half a dozen people responded, and they in turn
got many, many more people responding. The ones that didn't were the
diehard aeronautics people, "We are not going to work on space,
we are going to work on aeronautics." I had a little bit to do
with maybe unraveling that, when I went to Washington with the Centers
to get it a little more oriented toward the real world and a little
less toward just calculating, speculating. Well, anyways, that's another
So you helped coordinate. Did you go to some of the other Centers
to help coordinate that with Langley? Did you visit other Centers
and help to pull people in?
Yes. I went to, of course, a lot of meetings. We were talking at the
time, on Echo, we had to fit the Echo into a launch system, so I had
a lot of dealings with universities, a lot of dealings with the aerospace
companies, and a lot of dealings with the other Centers, because the
other Centers, even on the Scout, the Johnson Center—well, I
had a lot of dealings with Wernher von Braun and his people at the
time. As a matter of fact, Headquarters wanted to transfer the Scout
because—this was before NASA—wanted to transfer it to
Houston. So Thompson sent me down to Houston to talk to von Braun
Well, von Braun had this conference room and welcomed me graciously,
and he had all of his head-knockers sitting around the table, and
behind them was their American counterpart—all [the principles
were] German that time, and behind them were their American counterpart.
When I made my presentation as what a great system this was, how cheap
it was, what all this could accomplish, he said, "Well, I don't
think this is quite the scale of the thing we are going to be doing
here," and he said, "But we'll take a vote on it."
Well, they went around, you know how that came out. That was unanimous.
So I went back with my tail between my legs, and the Scout stayed
at Langley throughout its history, [which in retrospect was a very
The Scout Program, you were using off the shelf products. Is that
correct, to create the Scout?
The first stage was a new contract. The second stage was a military
missile. And the third stage was a military missile. The fourth stage
was a new contract, so half of it was military missiles, and half
of it was new.
You actually worked with the contractor and had a long relationship
with LTV Missiles and Electronics Group of Dallas that worked on the
What was that like, that relationship of working with a contractor
developing that program?
Well, at times, it was a little testy, because we had lots of problems.
First of all, we were new in project management of a major system
like this. We learned as we’d go along. A fellow named Bill
[William E.] Stoney [Jr.] was a co-Project Manager with me. I handled
all the contracts and all the business arrangements, and he handled
all the trajectory work and all that. I've lost my thought, I'm sorry.
That's okay. We were just talking about working with the contractors
and how difficult that was at times.
It was a lot less difficult in those days than it was later on. They
were willing to do almost anything to get in the business. For example,
the contract that Ling-Temco-Vought gave us for the Scout, I'm sure
it cost them twice as much to make the first Scout as what they got
out of it, but it was worth it to them. They made it up later on because
of repeat business. This was true of most of the companies in those
days. They were perfectly willing to take a chance at very little
dollars just to get in the business and establish their place in the
The STG [Space Task Group] was forming during that same time period,
and you mentioned that you were asked by Bob Gilruth to join it, but
you decided to stay. When you stayed, what were you thinking you were
going to be doing, and how did your career follow after that time
before you went to Headquarters? What positions were you in at that
You see, as I said, the decision was partly personal, because my wife
was Mayor of Hampton at the time, and she loved the job. She'd done
a lot to build the city up, and I couldn't see pulling up stakes.
I was perfectly happy at Langley. Matter of fact, I felt that I could
contribute more by being at a broader scope. That is, dealing with
more space projects than just Mercury. Well, there was no Gemini and
Apollo, it was Mercury at the time. But the guys who left, Bob Thompson,
Kraft—they became the leaders of that program and they did a
bang-up job with it, no question about it. It would have been an interesting
career, totally different from what I had. But in Washington I got
to play probably a bigger role than I would as a part of Houston,
as the Associate Administrator.
Did the other employees you mentioned, the aeronautics people that
didn't want to have anything to do with that, was there a general
feeling that when people were moving on and going into the space program,
were people worried that aeronautics was going to shrink and that
their jobs were in danger?
Well, they almost intuitively knew it was. There was a question of
when, it was just going to happen, because there's only one pot of
money. Of course, the pot of money increased dramatically. I was in
a meeting with [James E.] Webb, who was the second [NASA] Administrator,
but the one that really started the Apollo Program. And he said, "I
got a call from the White House." Webb had been head of the Bureau
of the Budget, and he'd done everything in Washington. He knew everybody
by a first name basis, and he was the perfect man to be the Administrator
of NASA at that time, because he had all kinds of influence. When
you heard him testify before Congress, you would have thought he was
the world's renowned scientist. He was a lawyer, but he picked up
on stuff very rapidly, and he could sell a bill of goods to almost
But anyway, to go on with my story, he said, "I got a call from
the White House, from Jack." [President John F. Kennedy] He called
everybody by their first name, he knew them all by first name. He
said that Jack said, "Look, I want to go to the Moon."
[Webb] said, "Well, that probably could be done, but I'm not
sure we should."
[Kennedy said,] "Look, I want to do it."
[Webb] said, "Well, if you want to do it, we'll do it. I'll do
it under one circumstance. You go with me over on the [Capitol] Hill,
and we'll talk to the majority party and the minority party in both
the [U.S.] House [of Representatives] and the Senate, and so if they
all agree, then I'll do it."
He says, "Of course, I would have done it anyway if he said go
He went over on the Hill with Jack Kennedy, and they did just what
he said. He met with every one of them. So what he ended up with was
a blank check, you know, anything he wrote in terms of a budget. When
they brought the budget to him for the Apollo, he said, "I looked
at it, and I doubled it right there on the spot." He said, "I
thought about it overnight, I doubled it again. It turned out to be
about right." So I always tell people that if they're in the
estimating business, pay a lot of attention to that story.
During NACA, they had their annual inspections, and you had visitors
that would come, and then when they were moving into the Space Program,
of course, the astronauts were training at Langley. Can you talk for
a moment about maybe some of the people that came to Langley that
you remember, or anything special about any of those inspections?
Of course, the [NACA] Committee came. Hunsaker, Doolittle, Orville
Wright—this type of people. And they all went over to the full-scale
tunnel and they arranged seats over there, and they all had their
picture made, and those pictures are quite historic in terms of the
people who were there. Of course, I was a young engineer, and I was
lucky to get to go look in and see them have their picture made. That
was about the extent of my participation in those days. But that was
a part of their being briefed on what had happened the year before.
Langley put great stock in not only writing reports that were not
only readable but were accurate and were helpful in whatever field
it was. A fellow named [W.] Hewitt Phillips was Chris Kraft's boss,
and Chris still gives him credit for his success in his career, and
Hewitt Phillips kind of wrote the book on what reports should look
like in NACA. In other words, to be readable, to be accurate, and
to have somebody want to read them—that they've got something
in there that they want. So everybody kind of followed this mold from
then after. Tell me your question again.
I was asking about some of the people that had visited Langley during
that time period.
I was saying that—also Langley put great stride and a lot of
work into these exhibitions, as I call them. Inspections, they called
them. The different research organizations were asked to come up with
their best innovation of the year, and to be able to present it in
a concise and interesting way that people like Doolittle and all would
raise their eyebrows, "Yeah, that's pretty good stuff."
It turned out to be that way. They got very interested in it. So Langley
was one of the few government agencies in probably all of history
that got more money from the Congress than they asked for every year.
We'd love to be in that position today. But we'll never be again.
That was a very effective way of keeping up with what was going on
in the NACA. The other Centers came in, and at times the inspection
would be at Lewis [and Ames], and at times it'd be at Langley. They
[would] alternate them so that this Committee and all the other dignitaries
got a chance to see the Centers, meet the people, and hear about the
[NACA research] program. Because a lot of Congress was there, too,
that was one of the reasons we got more money than they ever asked
for. [They wanted NACA to] "do more."
What about the astronauts when they were training? The early Mercury
astronauts—did you have any interaction with them?
Well, I didn't have a whole lot of dealings with them. They were over
on the east side, NASA Langley was primarily on the west side [of
Langley Air Force Base]. I started out on the east side, then everything
moved to the west side of the landing field. So Bob Gilruth took all
his people and went over to the east side again, and that's where
the astronauts were trained. Now, I met a number of them through being
the husband of the Mayor, but that was about the extent at that time.
Later on, I got to know all the astronauts pretty well. Matter of
fact, Neil [A.] Armstrong and I had adjoining offices while he was
in Washington for quite a while. Interesting guy, he's very intelligent,
but he's not an outgoing kind of guy, and even today, he’s—I
correspond with him at Christmas through Christmas cards, but that's
about it. That's the way he handles everybody, just kind of hands
But I learned something from Neil: you can't be a national hero and
do a job, a specific job. No way you can do it. As I said, I had adjoining
offices, and Senators and Congressmen would come bring their constituents
in there to get him to sign whatever it was. He could not do his job.
He finally had to leave. He went to the University of Cincinnati [Ohio]
to teach, same thing happened to him out there. They'd interrupt his
class, people coming in. And so he went to farm out in Ohio, and I
think that's what he's doing now. As I say, I don't have a whole lot
of details, because he doesn't open up to anybody very much.
But I guess if you had to pick a guy to be the first man on the moon,
and to know that he's never going to cause the country any problems—see,
the astronauts were quite different, the ones I knew, the original
astronauts. They were a fast-living, don't-think-anything-can-ever-happen-to-me
kind of guys. “It's not a risk. As long as I do it, I'm going
to come out okay.” That was their feeling. The movie that was
made about them is pretty representative of what they were. Neil was
quite different, and [John H.] Glenn was quite different, too. They
were the two astronauts that were quite different from the rest in
that sense. They were very staid. And of course, Glenn had quite a
career in the Senate, and the [NASA] Center's named for him now, rightly
so. But Neil just kind of stayed to himself all this time. But, you
know, you've got to give a guy like that credit. He's going to be
a national hero forever. He is the first man on the moon.
We've heard a lot of people describe the Langley Center, when it was
under NACA in those early years, as a family. Because the community
didn't know what to do with you—as you mentioned earlier, they
weren't real sure about these people coming in, and a lot of the people,
the employees, socialized together and that sort of thing. Did you
find that true?
Well, as I said before, we were the Brain Busters. Matter of fact,
the [NACA] people tended to find apartments in Hampton. In one area
of Hampton, on Elizabeth Road. That's where I started out. We socialized
together. We had the Green Cow Dances, that was the social events.
Green Cow, C-O-W.
Now, how it got its name, nobody knew. It's just like Virginia Tech,
that I went to, is a Hokie. Nobody knows why. Don't know where it
came from. Green Cow, nobody knew where it came from as far as I know.
Well, anyway, we socialized together. We had [dances and parties],
this kind of thing. We lived together in communities, [which eventually]
changed. I think Ann had a lot to do with changing that. When she
got into politics and people got to recognize that, well, these people
aren't all that different from the rest of us. Matter of fact, most
of my good friends now are people who were born and raised in Hampton,
and you know, their fathers were fishermen and all this, whatever
they did in Hampton. That's what they did mostly, crabbing, fishing
in the early days.
To some extent, the people were quite different, and you can understand
why the locality didn't accept them. They were not only well-educated,
they were above well-educated [and perhaps a little haughty]. I remember
my next-door neighbor—he worked in the towing basin, the tank,
to get data on sea-planes. Lloyd [J.] Fisher—Lloyd was quite
a technical guy, and he was going to buy a carpet sweeper. Well, he
went down to the stores, and they gave him the bill of goods about
how this is better than that, so he came back and he says, "Look,
the one thing you want on a carpet sweeper, you want high suction.
The thing's got to have suction. That's it." So be borrowed a
manometer out of the full-scale tunnel, and he went around to all
these stores, so he hooked it up [and measured the sweepers suction].
Well, you could see how these people would [roll their eyes and] get
[a brain buster] impression. But on the other hand, after he left,
everyone of them individually called him up and said, "How'd
mine make out?"
They could have used that as a statement.
That kind of represents the way people thought about it. They appreciated
him after the fact, when they found out that they could be a part
of the community doing some good.
Your wife, obviously being in politics in a time that not that many
women were doing that sort of thing—and there were some women
at Langley but not very many, a lot of them were in those computer
positions. Do you remember any of the early women engineers that came
in, and how that was handled and how that worked out?
Yes. There was one mechanical engineer [named Kitty Joyner]—matter
of fact, she worked for me afterwards. She was a very capable engineer,
but in the early days, she wasn't given [an opportunity]. There was
a lot of feeling that women shouldn't be engineers. That's probably
the reason there weren't any more of them. But the woman who [made
a tremendous contribution was] the head computer at Langley, [Pearl
Young]. She probably did more for Langley in terms of making sure
the reports—she took this data, and put it into a usable form,
and the engineers would come to her and they'd have all this calculus
and [math] gibberish, but she was a mathematician so she'd change
all this into a very readable form. They got to depend on her. She
was it. If she approved of a report, that was a good report.
Let's talk about when you were offered a job and moved on to Headquarters.
How did that come about, that position?
A fellow I knew from Ling-Temco-Vought, from the Scout Program was
in Headquarters. He was in OART at the time, and he was there only
temporarily. I didn't really know that. But he asked me to come up
and be his deputy. I had worked with him before. I said, "Well,
that'd be interesting." He said, "You know, you don't have
to leave your family. You just come up and work for a year, or six
months, or whatever." It turned out I [essentially] worked the
rest of my career [at NASA Headquarters], and I commuted the whole
time. I'd leave Friday afternoon, and then I'd come back Sunday night,
and spend the whole week in Headquarters. I did that for several years.
That's a struggle, too, I'll tell you. But it was an interesting place
You cannot change NASA or NACA from a Center. You can change that
Center, can do a lot of things, but if you've got different Centers
and different organization, the only place you can make a change is
from Headquarters, because [they are] the only people who have the
responsibility for more than one Center at a time. That's the reason
Roy Jackson and I were able to start that Aeronautics Program and
change the Aeronautics Program for all the Centers. We had the responsibility
to do that at that time. Oran [W.] Nicks, shortly after, came to Langley
to work and became the Deputy Director here at Langley. He was just
on a temporary assignment in Headquarters. I was in charge of OART
until they brought Roy Jackson in from Northrop, and then I was his
deputy. Then when he left, I was made the Acting Administrator for
a couple years. Then I organized Management Operations, which [was]
responsible for all the Centers. I was given the job of organizing
that [by the NASA Administrator] and spent [most of] the rest of my
career [in that organization].
Talk about some of the things that you did in those positions. I know
that one of the things that I heard was that you designed a performance
rating system for NASA?
Yes. The Congress voted, and it was suggested by the Civil Service
Commission, that we have a Senior Executive Service [SES]. And theoretically,
this was the people who were the managers in NASA at a level of, say,
Deputy Center Director up. Well, in some cases, Division Directors
at Centers would be Senior Executive Service. It was up to the agencies
themselves to design a system for rating the people and deciding who
went into the Senior Executive Service. In my job as Associate Administrative
Management Ops, I inherited the job of doing all that, so I pulled
together a group and designed the appraisal system.
My problem with appraisals prior had been that sometimes it gets misused,
because people go about it in the wrong way. They come out with the
wrong answer. They've got ten questions down here, and you answer
those questions, and depending on how people answer those questions,
I get a higher rating than you do, see? Well, that may not be right
at all. You may be twice as good as I am. So you needed some leeway
at the top in rating people, in using your judgment as to the job
that they're performing. You need a system by which the people themselves
can set what their goals are going to be, along with you reviewing
them afterwards and agreeing that that's a good goal. Then at the
end of the time you see, “How did you do on those goals? How
many of those did you carry out? How successful were you in your job?”
The second part of the Senior Executive Service that I saw as necessary
was this role of the manager. That the people were managers. and that's
the toughest one to handle, because you've got some very, very bright,
individual workers in NACA and NASA. NACA was full of them. NASA has
less of them, because it's more a business-like organization with
contractors and all that. But you needed some system that determined
who were the managers and who were the individual workers, and you
can't ignore the individual workers. You've got to have a route for
them to come up, money-wise, to a higher level.
Those you have in the Senior Executive Service, the ones who are going
to manage organizations, you had to make sure, first of all, that
they wanted to manage. They wanted to do things through other people.
They weren't going to be individual managers and [try to] do it all
themselves. I'll never forget sitting in on a conference over at Wallops
in which the Director at Wallops [remarked about a young man] in the
other room being interviewed. He said, "Watch this guy."
He said, "He's going to be Director of Wallops one of these days."
So the interviewer asked him, "What did you enjoy doing?"
"Well, I built this, I built that."
He said, "How did you do that? Did you have people helping you?"
"Oh no, I did it all myself." Everything he did, he did
all by himself. Well, you could just see this guy, very bright guy,
getting to be the Director of an organization like Wallops and being
an individual worker. He had no interest in managing people or bringing
people along, training people, the kind of things you need to do.
So that was what I strove to do [with the system; make sure people
had both the interest and ability to manage.].
I don't know what the appraisal system looks like today. It probably
doesn't look anything like that. But that was my objective at the
time, and it worked pretty good for the years that I was there, I
thought. I think we had a pretty fair system of rating people and
making sure that people who came into the Senior Executive Service
were truly managers and not individual workers. Also, as I said, making
sure [at the same time] that the individual workers got their due
in money and [prestige]. But just keep the two systems separate. Using
those thoughts, we were able to pick out the people that—as
far as I know, it’s still being used—that Center Directors
would be SES level something of other, Associate Administrators would
be at level so and so.
Then of course you've got the political appointees, which you don't
have anything to do with. White House handles that. But NASA was very
lucky in that respect. When I was there, the Administrator, the Deputy
Administrator, and the Chief [Council] were the only political appointees
we had. Now, when [President James E.] Carter came in, he had some
people who wanted more influence in NASA. So he sent a [few] people
over, and we were required to place them. And we did place them in
jobs, but they were innocuous kind of jobs, and after a while, they
became dissatisfied and left. So we ended up with those three people
again, [as our only political appointees].
During your career, and you were talking about the SES System and
being able to be a good manager, who would you say you patterned your
management style after? You started managing pretty early on in your
[Several] people had a great influence on me. [One was Floyd Thompson.
He could hear many varied recommendations, sort them out and in concise
terms lay out a simple plan of action. Another] was Webb. Webb had
a management style of not only making sure he knew the people involved—and
knew them as personally as he could get to know them. Secondly, he
managed by options. Now, what I mean by options—I know as a
kid I was reading a story about a train. The engineer on this train
thought one day, "What would I do if I met another train on that
track?" He says, "Well, I know exactly what I would do."
It happened to him [when] there were a bunch of boxcars on [the track
ahead. He had previously decided to] just keep going; otherwise, he
would have derailed and killed a lot of people. He just plowed through
all these [cars with no major damage].
I learned the object lesson from that, that if you have thought [ahead]
about the things that can happen on a project or on an organization
that you've got, and you've got a solution to that in your head, that's
managing by options. That's what Webb did. Webb thought about everything.
"What happens if the Congress doesn't give money for this?"
Or, "What happens if we get—” He had already considered
that, and he had an answer to it in the back of his mind, and that
I learned from him, and that kind of set my management style as much
The other guy was Roy Jackson, from Northrop, who was brought in as
Head of OART, which Langley came under at the time. He only had two
years to shape that organization up. The organization had become very
ingrained. They only thought about their little organization, their
little bailiwick in Headquarters. I got there about six months ahead
of him, so I met with him, and we discussed it. He knew exactly what
he had to do. He came in, we reorganized the whole place. We got some
new talent in, got some people in from the centers and revamped the
whole thing, [including more relevant research].
But the other thing that Roy had to do [because he had a limited time],
he had to be the general. Now, that's not my management style, and
it never will be. But there are times when you have to employ that.
If you only got two years to do something, to shape something up,
or a limited time, you've got to be the general. That's why, in the
military, generals are generals: because they only have a limited
time to shape up things. "You'll do it this way. My way. I'm
not going to discuss it with you. My way." That's the general
Well, Roy was the general, and I knew what he was doing, [in the near
term to promote rapid change]. But my [long range] management style
[was] quite different in that I believe in trying to build a lasting
organization, because I intended to stay with it for a long time.
And that was my style. That and managing by options, I think. Of course,
a concern for the people. That's a part of that building a lasting
organization. Making sure the people are trained properly.
I found out one other thing: that if you could put a person in a job
in which they are interested, they're [generally] going to be a success.
If they're not interested, they'll play lip service to it and [find
other outlets for their talents]. I know a lot of people at Langley
who, in the early days, went outside Langley [to fulfill their interests].
They went into the Church, or they went into Boy Scouts, and they
were happy because they were doing something that they liked to do.
One fellow’s sole interest in life was in making money [and
his job included supervising the cafeteria]. Well, of course, you
can't [get rich] working for Langley, or in the government. But that
was his motivation. When he played poker, he wanted to make money.
Everything was money. That was his sole motivation. When he inherited
the cafeteria, the cafeteria was in kind of the doldrums, and it certainly
didn't make money. It lost money. He says, "Ed, this thing's
going to [change]."
They had a problem with the inspectors. The inspectors would come
over, you know, and they [would find] dirty this and dirty that. First
thing he did, he said, "Every person in here is going to get
a crisp five dollar bill every month if you get a good inspection.
If any one person gets a bad [report], nobody gets money." They
never had any problems from then on. That was the cleanest place you'd
ever seen. But it illustrates my point. He made a profit out of that
place within six months by just running it properly, because that
was a job that, in his mind, he liked to do. He liked to make money
out of things. Well, you can't always find a job to fit people like
that. But if you can, you're just lucky, because they're going to
be a success at it.
It sounds like it. You stayed with NASA until 1981, is that correct?
And then you retired. What did you do after that? Did you continue
Yes. I did quite a bit of consulting. [However, I did more than I
wanted.] I really wanted to retire. I have a lot of interests. I have
my art, I have my woodworking, I have my tennis. I like to read. I
like to do all these other things—and I was offered a lot of
jobs, and everybody is, when you go from Associate Administrator,
the industry [is interested]. They want you for your name more than
anything else, not what you know. But anyway, I decided, "I'm
not going that route. I'm not going to take a job." So I didn't.
But the Academy of Public Administration came to me and said, "What
do you think is the major thing, if you could improve it, in the Federal
Government?" I said, "Bureaucracy. It's easy. Bureaucracy's
going to hang the Federal Government," and we see more evidence
of it every day. The Congress is gridlocked and everything's gridlocked,
and [no one knows] how you get out of it.
Well, they took that on as a challenge, they got their people working
on how do you get rid of bureaucracy in agencies, and I think it made
some impact [in reduced paperwork], but not big. Because bureaucracy
[has a firm grip]. It's there, and it's going to stay. The only way
to cure bureaucracy [may be] to start over. I remember at Langley.
In my early days, we were in a big old warehouse building. Later we
moved into over on the west side, into an old barracks kind of building—most
productive organization I ever had. Nobody had air-conditioning, nobody
had a fancy desk. Then we got a brand new building later on, and everybody
had a [new] desk, you had air-conditioning, and productivity wasn't
near what it was with that [original] group. So something about people
kind of sharing their misery by putting it into the productivity.
I don't know if that's a good thing to do. You may have noticed that
yourself, that the better the surroundings get, the more people tend
to socialize, the more they tend to not be productive.
The atmosphere during those early years, too, was more of a can-do,
everybody— people were more willing to take chances.
Yes. No bureaucracy, as I was starting with. Everything's done with
a handshake or a telephone call. If somebody said they were going
to do something for you in a telephone call, you can hang up and be
pretty sure that was going to be done. If it went to Headquarters,
you make a telephone call, and unless you wrote ten memos, you'd be
pretty darn sure it wasn't going to be done. It's just a difference
in a bureaucratic organization and a non-bureaucratic. But in either
case, you've got to learn to live with whatever it is.
You mentioned earlier, too, while you were at Headquarters, you were
able to dispel some of that feeling that you were talking about at
Langley at that time—more of a Center-focused and being more
territorial. You were able to make some changes when you got to Headquarters.
How did you do that?
I did it as much through the Senior Executive Service as anything
else. I had a real stick to wave over people, and if they weren't
doing the management job and coordinating with the other Centers'
programs—split the programs up so that both of them have a share
in the program. Matter of fact, Viking—Lewis [Research Center]
had a big part in Viking. And when it started out, they didn't much
want to deal with Langley, even though Langley was the [lead Center]
in this program. A fellow named Jim [James S.] Martin [Jr.] was the
Project Manager [at Langley and it didn’t] take very long to
push them back into [the team] under the Senior Executive Service,
you could replace people.
That's a pretty big stick, so you shape these people up by telling
them, "Look, you either shape up or you find something else to
do." Pretty soon, that gets to be a way of life. I don't know
how it is now, I can't tell you, among the Centers. I suspect there
may be more competition now than there used to be because there's
a limited budget, there's a limited program. And as to what Centers
get, I'm sure they're battling like heck to get their share of whatever
In Langley, there's a lot of working to stay alive because the aeronautics
program—like I said, mainly because of the fact that Boeing
and these other companies aren't coming in here to test. They've got
their own wind tunnels nowadays, so Langley's going to have to fall
back, which I'm sure they have, on basic research. And hopefully they
do the right basic research to get to be a player in the aeronautics
industry. Hopefully some of the space activities they're doing will
also fit in with the new Administrator's long-range plan, [which is
probably] going to change if we get a new administration. [Every new
administration has a new plan which they never fully fund.]
That's right. Just have to wait and see.
Yes. I was just lucky to start out in its infancy, when we really
had a blank check to do something. To go to the Moon. That will never
happen again. Everybody since then, every President, said, "Well,
we're going to give them another blank check. Go to Mars." That
gets about that far, and then the money gets cut off. That's it.
Looking back over your entire career with the NACA, and then again
with NASA, is there anything that stands out in your mind as the most
challenging time of your career?
I think the most challenging time was when I was [Acting] Associate
Administrator of the [NASA] research organization, OAST, and Associate
Administrator [for Management for NASA]. The headquarters time. That
was the most challenging. Every 15 minutes of the day was scheduled.
I mean, it was a high-stress; [however], I'm not a high-stress person.
I didn't let it bother me, but that's just the way the jobs at that
level are [by design].
Is there anything that stands out in your mind of maybe a project
or something that you worked on that you're most proud of?
I can think of a lot of them that I enjoyed. I'm not sure about one
that I'm most proud of. The Scout, I loved that. I loved Echo. The
system for evaluating people for NASA. The system I set up for training
people—we've got a school at Wallops that trained people, I
set that up.
What was that? What type of school did you set up at Wallops?
It's a management school. We have a lot of very bright young people.
If we can single out those young people at an early age—now,
we may have made some mistakes—but go ahead, single out those
people at an early age, and challenge them by giving them something
to do, and put them through management courses, and put them through
courses where they understand NASA and they totally understand the
Centers and the organization and all this. That's what the school
at Wallops that I set up does. [There were] about three sessions a
year—each Center was allowed to send a couple people, a couple
young [“comers”], to it. These supposedly were people
who were young comers, you know? They were going to be the next generation
management. A lot of them, I'm glad to see, are now in the management
chain and making the decisions.
But that was the idea behind it. I can't tell you how it stands right
now. I made it a point to go talk to each class for about ten years,
[and challenge them to accept management responsibility], I've just
kind of dropped out because I'm not very [close] to NASA these days.
Not because I wouldn't like to be, it's just that I've been out of
the business too long. The new Administrator [Michael D. Griffin]—I've
had lunch with him a couple times—he's not only a very bright
guy, I think he's got his head screwed on right. We'll have another
administrator, I guess, if the politics go the way they look like
they're going now. That's a shame, because this guy was really doing
some good things with NASA.
Yes, he's done a lot.
The only thing he's not doing good, and he has no control over it,
is the budget. If they just give him a couple million more dollars,
instead of putting it into social programs, you think of all the things
they could do. When I was the Associate Administrator, the Administrator
asked me, "Is there any way to quantify in terms of dollars what
NASA technology has meant to the gross national product at that time?"
I said, "Well, let me get some economic experts and see."
So I went out and talked to a few of them, and finally I hired a group
to look at it. They took [past] projects and tried to follow the projects
through to see what kind of an impact they had in terms of becoming
products that could be sold, or have an influence on industry. [Like
all economics, it’s a somewhat] inexact science.
But what they came out with was that for every dollar that was put
into technology for NASA, there was a nine-dollar return to the gross
national product. Even if that's off by a factor of two, you could
buy into that almost any day. The report still exists someplace of
what all this is based on. I think it's probably pretty accurate.
If you really believe that, if the Congress and the President believed
that, they'd put several more dollars into NASA, because the return
on the investment in technology alone—I don't care what you
say, "We're going to the moon, we're going here," you need
projects like that in order to foster technology.
There's two ways you can foster technology. One is to have a war.
That's a terrible way. Technology really [accelerates] up during wars.
The other way is through some kind of a [major] scientific endeavor.
[NASA has even played a small role in aiding health systems, like
the diabetes implant.] It gives [diabetics] a shot of insulin on the
right schedule. [A doctor] at Johns Hopkins [Baltimore, Maryland]
came over and we worked with him in terms of batteries and miniaturizing
[the hardware]. So we've had an impact on the health system to some
extent. Instead of into social programs, you need to put—maybe
you've got to do that too—but you need to put money into something
that's going to develop technology [and increase the gross domestic
product]. That's what NASA is set up to do [if given the opportunity].
If you don't mind, I'm going to ask Rebecca if she has any questions
that we haven't covered that she may have thought of.
I wanted to ask you about your involvement with the [Virgina] Air
and Space [Center].
When it was formed, I was on the committee that solicited funds for
it. The day it opened—they had an organization and I was made
President of it. We had the Governor and all the dignitaries down,
and I took them through and showed them the place. I was President
of it for about five or six years. It was tough going in those days,
because any time you start a new museum, it's going to take several
years for the people to discover it and to get the habit of going
back. [But that] finally happened. Now it's making money. But we almost
didn't have enough money to pay the help there for a number of times,
we were about to go bankrupt. We had a stopgap, the city [of Hampton]
would have had to subsidize us, but they never did. It all turned
out all right financially, we were okay. I’m still on the Board,
I'm Emeritus. I go down and see what they're doing every now and then.
But that's one of the things I'm very proud of in this city, that
Air and Space Center.
The only other question I had is when we arrived, you mentioned that
you and Chris Kraft of course went to school together, and then you
worked on a project together at Langley. Did you have an opportunity
to work with him closely through those next years, especially after
Oh yes, very close. When I was the Associate Administrator, all of
the Centers reported to me, so I had a lot of meetings with Chris
and all the other Center Directors. Matter of fact, we had Center
Director meetings a couple times a year, where they all came to Headquarters
and we all got together. They didn't like them, but [we needed to
bring the agency closer together by sharing ideas].
You got to see old friends and classmates?
That's right, yeah. As I said, Bob Thompson was the head of the Space
Shuttle. Have you met Bob?
Yes, we have.
He still plays golf. Can't get him to play tennis anymore.
Well, that's all I have. Thank you.
This has been very helpful. Is there anything else that we haven't
talked about that you wanted to mention?
Well, there are probably a lot of things, but I can't think of them
We appreciate you taking your time out and talking to us.
Well, thank you.
more about Edwin C. Kilgore:
Space and Aeronautics Technology - Past
and Present, by Edwin C. Kilgore (PDF - 2.4MB)