Homer Newell and the Early Post-War Space Science Program


Homer Newell

Homer Newell

Homer E. Newell (1915-1983) is one of the NASA leaders I am profiling in a book I have underway. His career was remarkable. He 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. In 1958 he transferred to NASA and quickly assumed leadership of the new space agency’s science program.

In 1961 Newell assumed directorship of the office of space sciences; in 1963, he became associate administrator for space science and applications. Over the course of his career, he became an internationally known authority in the field of atmospheric and space sciences. He chronicled his activities in Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science (Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4211, 1980), a book I would recommend to anyone. I am confining my comments below to Newell and his early work in space science before his NASA experiences.

Beginning in 1945 the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), where Newell worked as a scientist, organized a rocket research component to explore the possibilities of this new technology developed by various nations, especially Germany with its V-2 program, in the immediate post-war era. Named the Rocket Sonde Research Section, NRL viewed this organization as necessary to the long-term future of national defense. Germany had demonstrated with its V-s that this technology held potential for the United States, and all of the federal organizations engaged in research.

Newell joined the NRL Rocket Sonde Research Section immediately, and in 1946 was named to head it. He commented in his 1980 memoir that the members of this section were inexperienced and somewhat naive at first:

No one in the section was experienced in upper atmospheric research, so the section immediately entered a period of intensive self-education. Members lectured each other on aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, telemetering—whatever appeared to be important for the new tasks ahead. The author gave a number of talks on satellites and satellite orbits. Indeed, the possibility of going immediately to artificial satellites of the earth as research platforms was considered by the group, which assimilated carefully whatever information it could obtain from military studies of the time. The conclusion was that one could indeed begin an artificial satellite program and expect to succeed, but that the amount of new development required would be costly and time consuming (p. 33).

Newell’s purpose in this effort had more to do with science than engineering, however, and he guided the Section away from efforts to reach orbit as a near term goal. Instead, he emphasized the development of small and less complex “sounding rockets” designed to reach the upper atmosphere where scientists could use instrument packages to measure cosmic rays and other physical phenomena of interest. As he wrote in his memoir, “scientists could not hope to have their instruments aloft for some years to come and, anyway, were not likely to get their hands on the necessary funds. The Rocket Sonde Research Section accordingly shelved the satellite idea and turned to sounding rockets” (p. 34).

A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s.

A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s.

In the context of scientific exploration of the upper atmosphere Newell first demonstrated on a broad stage one of his chief skills, the scientist as entrepreneur. The bespectacled, balding scientist had the ability to persuade divergent people with divergent interests and priorities to agree on fundamental steps and to execute them. This proved one of his most important talents throughout his later career. He fashioned repeatedly coalitions of scientists, engineers, military and government officials to support various initiative that at first seemed impossible.

For example, he proved central to efforts to persuade the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which wanted to develop rockets for national security purposes, to allow scientists to place scientific instruments atop them. Newell accepted JPL’s condition that these efforts be utilitarian science that either directly supported the larger defense mission or was a natural byproduct of it. Beyond that, he persistently advocated the role of science and oversaw efforts to place on some of the Army’s test vehicles instruments that provided data about the upper atmosphere, solar and stellar ultraviolet radiation, and the aurora. This became a very successful scientific program that was carried out with limited fanfare and funding. As a result, scientists taking part in this program used JPL’s WAC-Corporal rocket, and later the Department of Defense’s (DoD) captured V‑2s, as well as follow-on missiles, for scientific research throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The breakthrough in Newell’s, and several of his colleagues’, campaign for science on military rockets came on January 16, 1946, when several physicists and astronomers interested in cosmic ray, solar, and atmospheric research gathered at NRL along with representatives of the military services to discuss possible cooperation. “It was plain from the deliberations that a number of groups,” he recalled in his memoir, “both in universities and in the military would be interested in taking part in a program of high-altitude rocket research” (p. 34).

This meeting led to the creation of the V‑2 Upper Atmosphere Panel to oversee this effort in February 1946 to “develop a scientific program, assign priorities for experiments to fly on the V‑2s, and to advise the Army Ordnance Department on matters essential to the success of the program” (quoted in “Minutes of V‑2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel Meeting,” V‑2 Report #1, February 27, 1946).

In March 1948 it became the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel and in 1957 the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel. It prioritized the use of these vehicles to study solar and stellar ultraviolet radiation, the aurora, and the nature of the upper atmosphere. As a result, the panel served as the “godfather” of the infant scientific field of space science. This successful collaboration led to numerous important scientific results, including measurement of the ionosphere, solar radiation, cosmic radiation, micrometeorites, sky brightness, biomedical research, and photography of Earth from space.

Newell played a key role in these activities throughout the pre-Sputnik period. Initially chaired by Ernst Krause, whom Newell worked for at NRL, the panel later had James Van Allen as chair and thereafter Newell. He and the other members of this Panel put the V‑2s to good scientific used. For example, between 1946 and 1951, 67 captured V-2s were test launched, most with some scientific payload aboard. The Panel also oversaw development of new sounding rockets and continued to control the nation’s sounding rocket program until NASA Headquarters took over this function in 1958. After the formation of NASA, several members of the Panel, including Newell, joined NASA and applied the experience they had gained to the organization and management of NASA’s space science program.

Viking #11 was fired at White Sands on May 24, 1954 and soared to an altitude of 158 miles and attained a speed of 4,000 miles per hour.

Viking #11 was fired at White Sands on May 24, 1954 and soared to an altitude of 158 miles and attained a speed of 4,000 miles per hour.

At the same time, Newell was involved as the space science coordinator for the Naval Research Laboratory’s Viking rocket program. Built by the Glenn L. Martin Co. the first Viking launched from White Sands on May 3, 1949, while the twelfth and last Viking took off on February 4, 1955. The program uncovered significant scientific information about the upper atmosphere and took impressive high-altitude photographs of Earth. All of these were sounding rockets, and their science experiments were coordinated through the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel.

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