Homer Newell and the Beginnings of the NASA Space Science Program

Homer Newell

Homer Newell

When Congress established NASA in 1958 it explicitly charged the new space agency with “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” In fulfillment of that mandateNASA created the Office of Space Sciences and installed as its head the respected scientist, Homer E. Newell, brought over from the Naval Research Laboratory. During the next several years the place of Newell’s bailiwick in the NASA organization—as well as its size, scope, and method of operations—was hammered out both within the institution and in the outside scientific community.

Newell proved an inspired choice. He had earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in 1940 and served as a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1944-1958. During part of that period, he was science program coordinator for Project Vanguard. For more than a decade he guided the NASA science program, establishing a Space Science Steering Committee, with subcommittees, to provide advice and technical support. Broadly based, this effort involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the nation. They took control of efforts to develop programs of research in their specific fields, reviewed proposals for experiments on any scientific mission, and established priorities.

In spite of some rocky disturbances early in NASA’s history, Newell built close relationships between members of the scientific community was by the early 1960s relatively stable and collegial, cobbling together a NASA/university/industry/research installation partnership to execute a broad range of scientific activities in the 1960s. By fostering a divergence of opinion from all interested parties in this process, Newell ensured that decisions were not only better than could be obtained by any one person but also a broad consensus. He also encouraged the scientists and engineers to communicate effectively so that a mission was ready for development and that the program office had chosen the best possible experiments.

Homer Newell with John Kennedy and others at the time of the Mariner 2 mission to Venus in 1962.

Homer Newell with John Kennedy and others at the time of the Mariner 2 mission to Venus in 1962.

Through this effort Newell placed on a solid footing methodologies for choosing space science experiments and allocating support, be it financial or otherwise. He solicited proposals for projects from research facilities, educational institutions, other government organizations, the National Academy of Science’s Space Science Board, and industry. These would then be considered, along with proposals from NASA’s scientists, for adoption and funding by NASA. Participants in any given space science research project usually included representatives from each of the major constituencies involved in the solicitation process.

Most important, each chosen project was to be executed under the direction of a NASA program scientist who was, according to a memorandum on the approach issued by Newell in 1960, “generally responsible for the overall coordination of the activities of the various participants…and will have responsibility and authority for resolution of any disagreements between and among various participants.”

Over time, Newell and his successors established a structure for space science that worked democratically even though it was far from efficient. The scientists themselves developed decadal surveys to coalesce the various priorities of the disciplines and to rank them for future implementation. These surveys, developed through a politicized process within the National Academies of Sciences, emerged for astronomy in 1964. Written by a diverse collection of scientists from a variety of institutions, with inputs from many others, it surveyed the current state of the field, identified research priorities, and made recommendations for the coming decade, hence the name.

Decadal surveys soon followed in other scientific disciplines in the latter part of the 1960s, each providing a rallying point around which the community of scientists speak with one voice. Indeed the various “Decadals,” as they quickly came to be known, served as the necessary first step in the development of initiatives to be pursued. The basic ranking of missions, projects, and programs furthered the political process as NASA pursued these initiatives. Both the White House and Congress have respected the findings of these “Decadals” and generally follow them without serious question. This has largely altered political decision-making from discussions of scientific merits by lawmakers and others without scientific credentials to acceptance of the findings and then deliberating over funding issues. Accordingly, space science has rarely been something that has been politically sensitive, controversial, or partisan.

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