NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Carol Butler
22 June 1999
Butler: Today is June 22, 1999. This oral history with Dr. Robert
Seamans is being conducted at his office at MIT [Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, Cambridge]. This oral history is being conducted by
Carol Butler, assisted by Rebecca Wright, for the Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project.
Thank you for joining us today.
I'm happy to be with you. Thank you for coming all the way to Boston,
or Cambridge, rather.
Our pleasure. Our pleasure. It's been interesting. To start with—and
this is the third in a series of interviews—but to begin with,
when you first came to NASA, you expected to come in for a couple
of years, and this was early in the program. This was before Alan
[B.] Shepard [Jr.] had gone up. What were NASA's plans at the time?
[President John F.] Kennedy hadn't yet made his challenge to go to
the moon. What did you come in expecting?
That's a good question. I had been following NASA somewhat from afar.
I was at that time working for RCA [Radio Corporation of America],
running a laboratory for them up in the Boston area, out in Burlington,
actually. I can remember well when Sputnik went up and I was sort
of chagrined that we didn't put up a satellite first, because even
before I left MIT, we were conducting courses in satellites, so it
wasn't a brand new thought at all. [Many there] knew it was coming.
Then the question was, what were we going to do about it. The first
thing I heard was that Jim [James R.] Killian was going to be President
Kennedy's science advisor. And that was a new idea. Presidents never
had a science advisor up till then. I knew Jim Killian, and I thought,
"What's he going to be able to accomplish?" What he actually
did was to take a look at the various laboratories that we had in
the country to see whether we should start a brand new one, or whether
to make over some kind of existing organizations to do more in the
The decision was made to take the NACA, the National Advisory Committee
on Aeronautics, and convert that over into the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration, NASA. I'd been a consultant for the NACA
for at least ten years at that point, so I knew quite a bit about
the laboratories. Even though NACA was run out of Washington, what
they used to call the mother lode, sort of the heart of the old NACA
was down at Langley Field [Langley Research Center, Virginia]. That's
where it all started in 1915. Then various groups were spun off—the
Lewis Lab [Lewis Research Center] in Cleveland [Ohio] and the Ames
Lab [Ames Research Center] for high-speed research out at Moffett
Field [California], south of Palo Alto. So I knew these groups, so
I knew what to expect there.
As to what the program was, the astronauts, the first seven had all
received tremendous amount of publicity. It was very exciting, and
not surprising that Life magazine had a contract with them. When Life
magazine in those day had a contract with somebody, you know darn
well there would be a lot about it, pictures of the astronauts on
the cover and all this.
As to what some of the other projects were, some of the unmanned scientific
and so on, as well as the details of the lunar Ranger unmanned program
and some of the planetary, I just knew in a general sort of way at
the time I joined NASA, which was the first of September, 1960.
[T.] Keith Glennan, who was the [NASA] administrator under [President
Dwight D.] Eisenhower, was wonderful to me. I think he was a wonderful
administrator. He said that I should take the month of September,
a good part of it, and just travel around to all the centers and find
out what I thought was going on and where things weren't going well.
He gave Dick [Richard E.] Horner a consulting contract to help me
out. Dick Horner was the first associate administrator of NASA, and
in those days what it meant was general manager, the general manager
of all of the programs, be they the research programs or the old NACA
labs or the Mercury Project or whatever.
So I started off at Langley Field at [mid-week]…and one of the
first things I did [when I arrived] was take a look at the Mercury
Project. There was a simulator you could pile into that had the instruments
located…just like the Mercury capsule. You could pull the [hatch]
down. So John [H.] Glenn [Jr.] fastened me in and turned the simulation
on for a while so I could see what was going on. I remember that very
clearly. I think we're going to talk about John [C.] Houbolt a little
later, so I'll save discussion of my meeting with him.
I went and looked at some of the wind tunnel work and some of the
control work, which happened to be my field, automatic control, that
I was already familiar with and that I had been consulting on, got
Then came back to Washington [D.C.] for a day or two…[My family
were moving down from our home in Beverly, Massachusetts. We'd bought
a house by then in Delaware, but the furniture hadn't come, so we
had to spend the night in a hotel. Then the next day we borrowed mattresses
from friends and spent that night in our new house. The van arrived
with our furniture just as the car came to pick me up to continue
my center visitations.] The Goddard [Space Flight] Center [Greenbelt,
Maryland] was just getting under way, which was the old Naval Research
Lab group that was in charge of…the Vanguard Project. Eventually
I took myself out to JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California],
which was just then being transferred over to NASA. That was the only
part of NASA that was not civil service; that was a contract with
Caltech [California Institute of Technology], Bill [William H.] Pickering
and the people there.
Then I guess it was somewhat later I went to the Marshall [Space Flight]
Center [Huntsville, Alabama], even though officially Marshall had
not been dedicated. It was agreed that it would become part of NASA,
taken away from the Army over their dead bodies. I had the interesting
experience of appearing there in their conference room with Wernher
von Braun's major captains or lieutenants, the heads, the chiefs of
all of his laboratories and so on, and he was often late. I remember
he came in just a little bit late and shook hands all around. It was
very interesting to have him and his lieutenants explain rocketry
and take me around later and look at all the test stands.
One thing that impressed me very much was there was one test stand
with still construction work going, so I had to have a hard hat on
in this elevator. We were about to step in when Wernher sort of stepped
back, and a big, husky black construction worker was sort of holding
back, recognizing Wernher, and Wernher said, "You get in first.
We'll wait for the next time up, because you're doing the real work
So at the end of a month I became reasonably facile [with] what was
going on, and knew that I was going to have to meet with Congress
right after Christmas, so I was starting to put together material
in some kind of a logical way so that I could study it and feel that
I was really pretty well grounded in all of the projects and what
they were costing and so on. So that was my early experience.
Just jumped right into things there.
Had to. Keith Glennan was sort of a bulldog of a man. He'd say, "When
are you going to really grab hold of things?" He'd make sort
of a fist like this, like I was supposed to go out and grab a hold
of all the reins and have directors at all the centers that are pulling
on the traces, you know, to get everything moving ahead. It was a
pretty exciting experience.
I bet. And to have to prepare right away to be able to go and talk
to Congress about all of it in such a short time frame, just a few
Keith took me…over to see Maury [Maurice H.] Stans. He was then
what was called Director of the Budget, now called the Office of Management
and Budget [OMB]. There were two things that Keith wanted added. The
budget stood at just a slight bit over a billion dollars, the authorization
that we were requesting for the following year—you know, [1,009,000,000]
or something like that. And Keith wanted to add in ten million dollars
for communication satellites, because we didn't have anything at that
time other than the Echo balloon that you could call a communications
satellite. That was just a balloon you bounce signals off it and receive
them somewhere else.
At that point there had been…an agreement with the Department
of Defense [DoD] that they had some so-called active communication
satellites under development. One of them was called Advent. And Keith
thought that NASA should have ten million dollars for that purpose,
to get something started in the civilian, or non-defense, side of
things. Maury Stans gave a little ground on that. He said we could
show ten million in the budget, but another place in the budget we
had to show the reimbursement for it. In other words, we could put
one up, but it had to be paid for, let's say, by AT&T, and they
would put in the ten million and we, in effect, would do what they
wanted for the ten million. That was not very satisfactory.
The other was that Keith felt very strongly that in the course of
a year, things would come up pretty rapidly and you didn't have a
chance to go up to Congress and all that, so he wanted a fifty-million-dollar
contingency fund. When Keith presented that, Maury Stans just laughed.
"Come on, Keith." And Keith was a person who got exasperated
pretty easily, and he said, "What do you really want? What are
you really looking for in the space area?" And Maury said something
like, "What I want is a bargain basement figure, in dollars."
So anyway, that was [my first budget].
The next experience was maybe a few weeks later, to go to a Cabinet
meeting where there were two presentations. One was by [George B.]
Kistiakowsky. He was the President's science advisor who had replaced
Jim Killian, who had come back to MIT, where he was the president…
Kistiakowski presented a study that PSAC, the President's Science
Advisory Committee, had carried out on the possibility of a manned
lunar landing. You could tell the Cabinet members were not just about
to accept a program like that. Then he ended up by saying their cost
estimate was something between twenty and forty billion dollars. And
people sort of went, "Oh," like this and sort of sighed.
Somebody said, "I suppose if we give those scientists forty billion
dollars to go to the moon, the next thing you know, they're going
to want another forty to go to the planets."
Then Eisenhower said something like, "I wish somebody could tell
me what is the best space program, the best balanced program that
costs no more than a billion dollars." Of course, that was the
figure that Maury Stans had worked out for him. And Keith came along
after that, presented the budget that actually had been arrived at.
So, anyway, there were other interactions with President Eisenhower
on communication satellites, for example, but I'd say those were sort
of the highlights, to me, of the tag end of that administration, because
by then there had been an election. [Vice President Richard M.] Nixon
had not been elected. We didn't have any direct tie with the new [Kennedy]
administration. That's pretty much par for the course. It's also par
for the course to have some kind of committee put together for the
President-elect to come up with specific ideas for his new administration.
Such a committee had been put together under Jerry [Jerome B.] Wiesner,
who later became the president of MIT.
As you were going along working in both administrations, and then
especially in the Kennedy administration, as the program began to
grow, not only was it involving NASA personnel and then government,
but it also involved different contractors around the country for
all of the programs, and especially Apollo.
In the earlier interviews you talked about the interactions between
the Department of Defense and the NASA centers and so forth, but how
was it between NASA and the contractors?
Obviously, selecting contractors is a fine art, or it can be, or you
can do it very badly. But there was already in place, in the Eisenhower
administration, the mechanism for letting contracts, but it was refined
to some extent under Jim [James E.] Webb when he became administrator.
I'll just give you a little flavor for it. The first thing that has
to happen is that whoever is running a project, whatever it may be,
say the Apollo Program, to take a big example, those that are running
it have to come up with a plan that divides the project up into pieces,
and you divide it up and you have to select a bunch of contractors,
or you can decide you want to have a single overall contractor and
then it's up to them to divide it up and subcontract.
At any rate, the first thing is, you've got to have a procurement
plan, and the general manager in both the administrations, mainly
myself, was responsible for approving the plan. It gets into a lot
of detail as to (A), what it is you're going to put out on the bid
request, what are you going to specifically ask the competitors to
bid on. And then before—perhaps not before you put out the bid,
but certainly before the bids come back, you have to know how you're
going to evaluate the proposals and what kinds of teams of people
are you going to pull together. I'd say, in general, the project people
are going to put together in detail what it is they want. They're
going to be working with the procurement office, the functional office
that oversees procurement, to make sure that all the Is are dotted
properly and so on. And that's all folded into what is really quite
a detailed document, that is the procurement plan.
Then there has to be a notification that this bid request is going
out. Oftentimes you'll have a bidders' conference, where they come
in and this package is presented to them and questions can be asked
at that time. Then there's a given period of time when they have to
submit their proposals. If during this time one of the contractors
comes in with a question about some specific aspect, they have to
realize that you're going to give them the answer, but you're going
to give everybody else the answer, too. You can't play cozy with one
contractor who's in competition with the others.
Finally, all the proposals come in, and you have a team of people
which now is not just the project people, but you pick teams of people,
some from headquarters, some from the labs, some are technical people,
some are more administrative procurement-type people, and they have
to go through and evaluate the proposals according to a plan that
is approved by the general manager before they've seen any of the
proposals. Now, they may find afterwards that it didn't quite turn
out the way they expected. They may want to change the way they do
the scoring, in which case when they present their findings, they
have to explain why they changed it.
On all the projects over—and I forget what the level was, over
a billion or something like that, they had to come to the administrator
for a final selection. In some cases it was felt that even though
the dollar amount was not that large, that the administrator should
be involved. There could be some policy issue that was very important.
The evaluation team made their presentation with the center director
present, with the key project people present, but actually the presentation
was made to Mr. Webb… Hugh [L.] Dryden, the deputy, and I were
both there. A lot of questioning of how they went about the evaluation,
as well as questions about their findings. It wasn't quite as clear
in the Eisenhower administration whether they thought they were making
a selection or just evaluating. Jim Webb made it clear that they were
not involved in selection; they were involved in evaluation.
He did a rather novel thing, I think, which was, after all of this,
there would be sixty people in the room or something, we'd go into
his office and he'd bring in—say it was something to do with
Apollo—Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth, who was the head of the Manned
Spacecraft Center [MSC], Johnson [Space] Center [JSC, Houston, Texas],
George [E.] Mueller, and probably Sam [Gen. Samuel C.] Phillips, were
the two headquarters people. I would be there, and Hugh Dryden, and
a member of the so-called secretariat, who took the notes and so on.
He would ask the question of the center people and the project people,
"Is there anything that we ought to know about that hasn't been
covered in the presentation?" And it could be anything. It could
be some matter of policy. You never quite knew what it could be.
After that, Hugh and Jim and I would stay in his office and discuss
it a little bit. I was the junior member, so he'd usually [turn] to
me and say, "Okay, Bob, how do you feel about it? What do you
think ought to be done and why?" So I'd give my reasons, and
then Jim and Hugh would discuss it. I won't say they'd always agree
with me. And we would agree as to why we were making the decision.
What were the determining factors?
A guy named Larry Vogel [phonetic] was there, at least for quite a
bit of the time, who was from the secretariat, and he would put together
two things. He'd put together a one-page document that the three of
us would sign, which said, "Why?" And he'd also put together
the news release, "NASA today has selected" and so on. And
both Hugh and I would review that before it was sent out, but that
was all done in a matter of maybe two hours or something like that,
We were dealing with pretty large sums of money on some of these,
and we never got tripped up. The closest we ever came to a real issue
over the selection was after the Apollo fire, and the question came
up as to why we had selected North American [Aviation, Inc.] when
the [Glenn L.] Martin Company, in the evaluation, had scored higher.
By then, Dr. Dryden was no longer living, and I was a deputy. This
was a big political football at that point.
Why had we picked essentially the number two? Well, even in the discussion
that we had had particularly with Bob Gilruth during the sequence
I've described, concern was expressed by him about the Martin Company,
because they were no longer making airplanes, and it was felt that
the experience of cockpit design and a lot of things of that sort
with a human pilot or astronaut interaction was a skill that was going
to be very important in the design, and Martin really didn't have
Just saying that, when Congress really got hot on this issue, was
obviously not enough. In going over my files, I found a piece of paper
in Hugh Dryden's handwriting—and Hugh's handwriting was very
distinct. It was very small and very precise, and there could be no
question in anybody's mind if they looked at a letter he'd written,
they'd look at see that he'd written it, even though it didn't say
so on it. And he had written down the work that had been done by North
American, the X-15, the fighter planes that they'd built and so on,
and just having that in his handwriting and indicating that this was
an important consideration really stemmed the tide, as it were, so
that we never were forced to make a change.
A guy named Bobby Baker had been a real political animal, and he was
sort of close to Lyndon Johnson. There was a lot of talk that we at
NASA had bent to that kind of pressure, for example, which we had
It paid off.
[Yes, the procedures we followed] paid off.
And North American did get the Apollo Program to the moon.
And all of the subcontractors and everyone did their part in making
it all work. Looking at subcontractors, too, and being here at MIT,
Draper Labs was involved heavily in the Apollo Program. Can you tell
us a little bit about their involvement, even though it didn't directly
go through you?
Well, it did, actually, because they were not subcontractors. I'll
double back on that a little bit, because I used to work in that lab.
Dr. [Charles Stark] Draper was my boss for fifteen years. I knew him
very, very well… One of the great [good] fortunes of my life,
was [that] I ended up working with him for fifteen years.
Just before I went down to Washington, I told Keith Glennan I just
had to wrap up what I'd been doing and get ready to move, I was going
to have to have a few weeks. While I was in this interim mode, I got
a call from Doc, and he said, "Before you go down there and get
involved in [every]thing, how about spending a half a day over at
the lab so we can tell you what we're doing, that we think ought to
be at least considered by NASA as part of the space program."
So I went over, and they had some work going on in connection with
the moon, mostly lunar and planetary kinds of equipments, instruments,
and so on. I said, "Shouldn't this be tied in with JPL?"
They said, "Well, maybe it should be, but they don't seem to
be very interested in having us involved."
So when I was out at JPL, I inquired as to what extent they had looked
at the Draper Lab as a resource. People in laboratories are very competitive.
You tend to think they're wonderful scientists and very objective
and never get emotional. That's not true. And you can sort of tell
that the Jet Propulsion Lab was not about to give the Draper Lab a
piece of the action that involved high intellect. They might give
them some [equipment] to build or something like that.
So I talked to Abe Silverstein about it, who was in charge of all
programs at that time, who worked for me, and he agreed. So at the
time, right after Kennedy announced that now was the time to take
greater strides and go to the moon and so on, and we were getting
our organization squared away for it and were obviously thinking about,
as part of the organization, who the contractors would be, he actually
came in with a suggestion that we ought to get Draper involved in
the sort of man-machine guidance system that we're going to need to
go to the moon—the telescope and the computers and all of that.
And that came very early on at just the time we were putting together
the so-called bid package for the Apollo capsule. If you're going
to take a big piece out of a major contract, people have to know that
when they're bidding on it.
So I think the first action that was taken in NASA for the Apollo
Program was to give the Draper Lab a sole-source contract for the
guidance. I brought this up with Jim Webb and Hugh Dryden. I said,
"I know I'm prejudiced. I used to work in that laboratory. But
if we want to have the most imaginative, innovative work done on that
very key piece, I think it should be the Draper Lab, and that's what
Abe Silverstein and Bob Gilruth have recommended."
Hugh Dryden said, "Jim, you know Doc Draper. He used to build
equipment related to the Sperry Gyroscope Company when you, Jim, were
vice president of Sperry Gyroscope Company."
And Jim Webb said, "One of the important things, when you're
contracting, is to know what you're going to get, and the best way
of knowing is to know who the people are." And he said, "You
shouldn't look at yourself as being prejudiced. That's the kind of
information we need." And so we did go with a sole-source contract.
Now, if you talk to Doc, later on—and some of the people in
the laboratory, they would say that the decision was made in quite
a different way. They will say that Jim Webb thought it probably would
be a good idea to have the Draper Lab involved in the guidance, and
Jim Webb got in touch with Draper, invited him to his house, and they
sat around the house, and finally Webb said to Doc Draper, "Can
you build a guidance system to go to the moon?" And Draper said,
"Sure, I can build it," and that's how the decision was
made. Now, I think both stories, or both accounts, probably have some
truth in them. I know mine does. [Laughter] And Jim Webb was one who…didn't
just take the information that his organization provided; he oftentimes
reached out, got advice outside of NASA, and he could very well have
invited Draper to come over and…put him to the test.
What a better way to find out than by talking to him right there.
We had a funny time right after that. I got a letter from Doc, and
he said—and I knew this anyway—he said, "You know,
every device that I've ever developed (and there were many of them),
I've always wanted to be involved in the first flight, to make sure
everything worked properly. I'd like to have you and your boss Jim
consider me as an astronaut."
I took it in to show Jim Webb, and he got very excited. He said, "Isn't
that wonderful, one of our scientists is interested in going and being
directly involved." He said, "I think I'll take it over
and show it to President Kennedy tomorrow when I'm with him."
And Hugh Dryden said, "Wait a minute, Jim. Doc Draper is over
sixty years old. I'm not sure his health would permit it. We can get
in a terrible mess if we start selecting astronauts that way."
And Doc Draper never let me forget it. He said, "You never acted
on my suggestion. I was all ready to go to the moon and you wouldn't
let me go."
I'm sure he would have done a good job at it.
I'm sure he would have.
Well, let's see. Where do you think we are?
I think we're moving along. As we're talking about the contractors
for Apollo and you were talking about having to review the contracts
as they came in and knowing something about what it would be doing,
but when the first contract for Apollo, for North American, was put
out, a method of getting there hadn't fully been decided yet.
Lunar orbit and earth orbit and direct descent. When did you first
hear about that, and how did that all go?
Well, I've already mentioned that very early on I went down to Langley
to learn about the effort there. I don't know who arranged the schedule
for the day. Tommy [Floyd L.] Thompson was the director. So I went
from project to project, and one of the projects that was discussed
was not really even a project at that time; it was a small study.
We went into a small conference room, and I think there was one chart
at the end of the room, and I was introduced to John, John [C.] Houbolt,
and he had a couple of people with him. He said, "You know, we've
been thinking about what's the best way to get to the moon. You start
off from the earth with everything it takes. Then you go and land
on the moon, and then you have to go back home with just what you
have already on the moon." He said, "It's not a very efficient
way to go." That was in those days called direct ascent, which
was already being discussed, even though the possibility of a lunar
program under the Eisenhower administration was felt to be after the
year '70… It didn't say whether that might be after '80 or '90
or the year 2000.
So it was being discussed and being studied to some extent with contractor
studies. He said, "The problem you get into is, you have to have
this tremendous big booster to do it, and… [when you] return
[into] the atmosphere, you have to have a lot of heavy heat shielding…
So the question is, why bother to take a lot of that heavy stuff down
to the moon and take it back up into lunar orbit." He said, "To
do that, when you're going around the moon, you're going 4,000 feet
a second, and you have to slow it down. That takes energy. Then you
have to speed it up again. So why not leave the return vehicle in
orbit around the moon and that will save tremendously on the energy
required," he said, "by a factor of 2." So you could
have a launch vehicle that would be half as big or half the capacity.
It made a lot of sense to me at that time. He got some numbers they
worked out on the computer and so on. It was about a—I don't
know, maybe it was a forty-minute discussion or something like that,
and on to the next item.
Well, even before Kennedy was sworn in, we were starting to do lunar
studies. Things were sort of in ferment. Kennedy had indicated even
during the campaign that he felt not enough was being done in space
and not enough was being done by the Department of Defense with missiles.
A lot of it was political, obviously. Your opponents are very conservative,
and the country needs to be more aggressive and forward-looking and
so on. But we really didn't know during that interregnum what might
happen. We even discussed whether or not the new administration, from
sort of rumors we were picking up, might even want to abolish NASA.
You know, you have to consider all—of course, I personally had
to wonder whether I was still going to have a job or not with the
But in any event, we did start studying a number of possible ways
to go, including the direct ascent and the so-called earth orbit rendezvous,
where you sling stuff up into earth orbit and then put them together
and then go from there the same way. That got us into a lot of trouble
when we tried to do it in detail, whether you could take up two packages,
each weighing half the amount, and put them together, but have it
come out so the packages were sort of neat and tidy, because you can't
take an oxygen tank and cut it in two, for example. But we were already
thinking a lot about it, and then finally in May 21, whatever it was,
when Kennedy went to the Congress, we were already thinking about
all the things that needed to be done. There were a long raft of things
that had to be considered. One of them was, what would that mode be.
I guess the first letter I got from John Houbolt was some [time in
the summer.] I [can't] tell you exactly. You may have copies of those
letters. But the first one was a fairly mild letter. He said he hoped
that in all the different reviews that were taking place, that lunar
orbit rendezvous was being considered. I think I sent him a note back,
saying it [would be]. But, in fact, it really wasn't. I recognized
it as a possibility, but when it came up for discussion in the various
committees that were studying it, various groups, they were really
not considering it.
So [D.] Brainerd Holmes then was in charge of the manned spacecraft
programs, and I discussed it with Brainerd. His background was running
big projects, but they were primarily electronic in nature. He was
involved in putting together the so-called BMEWS, ballistic missile
early warning system, with massive construction up in northern Greenland
and things like that. This was right in my area of interest…guidance
and control was my business, and that's what this is all about. So
I told him that from my background, this [was] something that not
only John Houbolt thought we ought to think about it, I thought we
ought to think about it.
But then not much happened, and it was never really discussed openly,
and nobody seemed to be talking about it. When I got the second letter
from John—and I've got a copy of it at home—again I can't
quite remember the date, but it may very well have run into the following
year. It might have been in '6. When was Kennedy sworn in? In '6?
He was sworn in '61, so it might even have been in '62 [Nov. 15, 1961].
But it was a hot letter. It said, "I know you're not supposed
to write letters like this, and I'm a plain-spoken person. I've just
got to speak my mind on this." He went on and on and on. When
you get a letter like that, your first reaction is to say, "Get
this guy off my back." The question is, should I call Tommy Thompson
and say, "Get this guy to hold off. I'm sick of getting these
letters." But I really thought he was right. Also, my style was
to try to go to people's offices and get out to the centers rather
than expect everybody to come into my office.
So I called Brainerd and said, "I'm coming right over. I want
to talk to you." I brought the letter along. He said, "As
a matter of fact, we're starting to think that this is not a bad idea."
He said, "It's not all settled yet." Then you'd have to
find out from Brainerd or somebody, all of the ins and outs of it,
but by about then, Bob Gilruth felt that this was the way to go, that
there was another advantage that John really wasn't aware of or hadn't
thought about, and that is, by going this way you could design a vehicle
to [descend] to the moon that was designed for a vacuum. It never
had to come back into the atmosphere. It could be very light, it could
be very maneuverable. It would be much more stable on landing; it
wouldn't tend to tip over.
On the other hand, the German team, they liked to think of building
the big rockets, and they tended to want to go that way, until, to
everybody's surprise—and I don't know why Wernher shifted his
point of view—at one of the meetings—I wasn't present—Brainerd's
management team, which included Kurt [H.] Debus from the Cape [Canaveral,
Florida, later renamed Cape Kennedy] and Bob Gilruth and Wernher von
Braun himself, the overall management team, at one of those meetings,
Wernher came out and said he thought that was the right way to go,
the lunar orbit rendezvous. And his own people couldn't believe it,
because they did not agree with that.
Then a very strange thing happened. I thought it was very strange.
At about that point, Joe [Joseph F.] Shea came into the organization,
and he worked for Brainerd before he went down to Houston. He tells
me—and I don't even remember this, but he told me several years
ago before he died that I had said, when he came in, he had already
worked things out with Brainerd, but I think he came around to see
me and he said, "Now, what do you hope I accomplish?" And
I said, "Your number-one job is to sell lunar orbit rendezvous."
In any event, it was lucky he was there, because right at that point
the White House said, "This is the wrong decision." Jerry
[Jerome B.] Wiesner had working for him somebody named Nick [Nicholas
E.] Golovin, and Nick Golovin had worked for NASA, was working for
NASA when I came aboard. He'd been hired by Dick [Richard E.] Horner.
He was an expert on reliability and safety, and it was done by the
numbers, statistical analysis, and he came to the conclusion that
his analyses showed that lunar orbit rendezvous was the most dangerous
way to go.
So it took about three months of time to work through this impasse,
and Jerry Wiesner was putting pressure on Webb to reverse me and the
team running it. He was doing it by saying we hadn't studied it enough
and we had to do more studies. There was a lot of correspondence.
I've got some of it, letters back and forth on this subject from Webb
to Wiesner and so on.
It finally…reached a boiling point at a time when Kennedy said
he wanted to see what was going on in the program, and it started
off with Lyndon Johnson in one airplane, because he was in charge
of the Space Council [as]Vice President, and Kennedy in another airplane,
going from place to place. We went down to Huntsville and we went
down to the Cape, then we went over to Houston, and then we went to
McDonnell-Douglas [Corp.] and so on. Webb said to me, "I want
you to be with the President, because you're about his age, you're
young, and I'm going to go with Johnson. I know Lyndon Johnson, and
we're sort of old politicians together."
So I can remember we got on the floor there of the big assembly building
at Huntsville, Kennedy saying, "Now, hasn't there been some discussion
as to the best way to go to the moon?" And Jerry was there, and
we were all sort of in a huddle out in the middle of the floor. The
press were held in the back. They could see us all. They couldn't
tell what we were talking about. We got into a real argument there,
right in front of the President, of the best way to go to the moon.
Afterwards, of course, the press wanted to know, "What was going
on? What was being said there?" Of course, they were able to
start putting the pieces together. It became a hot political issue.
Finally, the President himself had to make some kind of a decision,
and he finally, in effect, said, "Look, Jerry. It's you and Nick
Golovin versus NASA and 30,000 employees. Which way do you think I
ought to go?" Anyway, he backed us up.
Made the right decision.
Yes, he did.
That's interesting to look at lunar orbit rendezvous, how at first
very few people even thought about it, and yet at the end that ended
up the right way to go. Shows a lot of that for just Apollo in general,
there was so much that had to be learned and figured out along the
way in a short time frame.
And it's really interesting if you take a look at what the Russians
were doing. We knew during the sixties that the Russians were building
a very large, large vehicle. We got overhead photographs of it. We
really didn't know what they were doing as far as the capsule and
things of that sort, and it wasn't until '93 or somewhere in there
that Jack [L.] Kerrebrock, who's a professor here, and two others
from here, faculty members, were over there. This is now after things
had really started to change in Russia, but people were still not
quite sure what the rules were, but they were showing these three
faculty members here around their laboratory. They walked by a lab
in which our guys could see some space vehicles, and they said, "What's
in there?" And the guy sort of wasn't quite sure he ought to
tell. He said, "Well, some things we were doing in space."
So they went in, and I guess one of them knew a little bit of Russian,
and said "lunar lander." So he said, "Is that the lunar
lander?" And the guy said, "Yes, it's the lunar lander."
"Mind if we take a picture of it?" The guy didn't know quite
what to do. They took a picture of it, and it ended up on the front
page of the New York Times, that snapshot. They were using
lunar orbit rendezvous. Whether they went that way on their own or
whether they were copying us, nobody will ever know, because they
had—what was the guy's name, who was in charge of design of
all their stuff? I'll think of it in a minute. But anyway, he had
an appendix in '67 or '68 and died on the operating table.
Korolov. Yes. Why they were going that route I think only he knew,
That's interesting that it ended up being the same, even though they
didn't actually go.
They had an additional wrinkle to it; they also had [earth] orbit
rendezvous. They were going to put everything up in earth orbit, without
their cosmonauts aboard, and then take the cosmonauts up separately,
rendezvous and dock, then go to the moon, and then up there again
have, I think—I forget whether it was one or two cosmonauts
go down to the moon, but leave one up going around, in orbit around
Slightly different approach but very much the same.
Interesting. How much were you aware at time of the Soviet progress?
We were aware of everything you could see. A small group of us at
NASA were cleared for the overhead photography that was available.
It was very closely held at that time. But we had one room at NASA
that was built so that we could actually have somebody come over,
chained to their wrist, and take it out and show it, then rechain
it to their wrist and leave, and all that kind of business. It was
a glass room inside of a room, so that there was no window to the
outside for people to get the vibration of the window and intercept
the conversation that way, and all this spook stuff.
So we had briefings from the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]…
(A), when anything exciting happened, and, (B), quarterly, their estimate
of what was going on. As I say, we tracked the big vehicle, because
they had to have a big vehicle if they're going to go to the moon,
and their big vehicle, instead of taking things out to the pad vertically,
they took the things out horizontally. The first thing we saw was
a great big long building with a track going out to where the pad
was. Well, that was the first clue. Then we caught the thing on the
track on the way out, and then we had got a picture of it sitting
there ready to take off. Then the next thing we got a picture of was
a big hole in the ground; it exploded. Then we saw another one coming
along, and that one also exploded. So we had a pretty good feel for
it, pretty good. We were also picking up conversation, with satellites,
because Korolov at the time was using his car phone, and we were able
to intercept some of that.
That's interesting. As the program was moving along—and this
is actually jumping back a little bit—and once Kennedy had announced
that we should take this challenge and go to the moon, and the program
was going to have to grow and have to change, and the decision was
made to move down to Houston, how much were you involved in that decision
That's a good question. Our overall thinking on it, I was involved
in the overall, but this is one decision I was not involved in specifically.
I'll tell you how it was done. We felt that [the program] was going
to [require] the movement of pretty large vehicles, large enough that
the only real method was going to be by water, and that if we were
going to put together a big first stage of something, for example,
we ought to pick a place that was on a waterway. We finally did pick
the Michoud [Assembly Facility] plant, which was down there in New
Orleans, which is right on a waterway, obviously. We had to also figure
out what kind of vehicles, a water vehicle, we were going to use.
We went to something called a roll-on, roll-off system, where the
stuff actually could go up a ramp and get in the vehicle. We worked
with the Navy on that and we worked with the Maritime Commission.
That was sort of a headache, but we finally got on top of that.
Then we weren't too sure, when you got through with the boosters,
how big the equipment might be, what we thought of as the capsule
and the things Houston was doing, we thought that might be some pretty
large stuff there, too, and we might want to use a waterway for that.
So thinking in those terms, you're talking about the Gulf area. We
also thought that we were going to have to do some things outdoors,
so we didn't want to have, say, Minnesota, even though it might be
on a waterway, or Boston; we wanted to be down in the southern part
of the country. California would fit, on the coast. That's where the
second stage of the Saturn was made.
Anyway, we knew we had to get out of Langley. We had 1,000 people
working on the Space Task Group on Mercury, and we knew that was going
to have to grow substantially. There was no infrastructure in that
Langley area. You'd have to move in the workforce and so on if you're
going to really expand there. So we were looking for a place where
you would have a lot of technical engineering, scientific, administrative
From there on, obviously you're getting into a political area. I think
in part to protect me, Hugh Dryden was given the job of making the
study. I'll leave it to your judgment as to whether you think it was
purely coincidental that the chairman of our appropriation committee
in the House…namely Congressman [Albert] Thomas, and were where
the chairman of our authorization committee, [Olin E.] “Tiger”
Teague, happened to have their two districts right there. Now, some
people think that might have been a political decision. I'll leave
it to everybody's judgment as to whether that's so or not. [Laughter]
Well, whether it is or isn't, that's where the center is now.
It proved to be a very good decision from the standpoint of attracting
lots of competent people, of getting tremendous support from that
area. Rice [University] was there, of course, and that kind of support.
The property that we used there was actually given to the government.
It wasn't all altruistic. They didn't give all their property, and
all the property around it they still own[ed], and it appreciated
in value by a very substantial amount.
But I would say that it was a good decision, and it did not meet with
any political head winds. A lot of talk by the Republicans, but they
[didn’t] do anything about it.
It's worked out pretty well. It has. We've heard from several people
that talked about the reception coming down there, that it was—
And for a civil service team to be moved that way is very unusual.
I think we only lost one person in that move. It had to be optional,
whether people wanted to move or not.
But the spirit in that group was so great that everybody wanted to
be part of it. I think a few people moved even though they realized
that they were probably risking their marriage in the process.
It's quite a move to go from Langley to Houston.
There were some similarities. They're both pretty hot in the summer,
a little hotter down at Houston, but the bayous and so on are sort
of like the tideland area down in the Chesapeake. Anyway, it worked
A lot of the in-between areas were covered in your first couple of
interviews, so now we'll actually kind of jump forward some. You mentioned
earlier the Apollo fire, and that was a tremendous tragedy. How did
you help work through that with NASA? How did that affect you and
your career and help NASA come back on track and make the moon landing
I think the history of that day is pretty well known, but just for
the record, it was to be a really big day for NASA. Gemini had been
completed, and that was an extremely satisfactory program. I guess
there were nine manned flights, nine or ten, twelve flights in all.
It finally ended up on schedule, and so much was done that was important
to the Apollo success, including learning how to rendezvous and dock.
It was going to be a celebration for the contractors who had been
in charge of Gemini, including the McDonnell [Aircraft Corp.] people
and Mr. [James S.] McDonnell [Jr.] himself and so on. It was to be,
at the same time, a start-up or a reinvigoration, you might say, for
all the Apollo contractors, [the Boeings,] the North Americans and
the Grummans [Aircraft Engineering Corp.] and so on. And it was to
be tied in with a big White House affair, the signing of a space treaty
at the White House, and there was going to be a big dinner afterwards.
Now, I'd already arranged to have a dinner party at my house with
Don [Donald F.] Hornig, science advisor, and Doc Draper, and about
twelve of us, and Jim Webb said, "Why don't you stick with that."
So when I left the White House, I went home and I opened the door,
and my wife was on the phone and she said, "He's coming in the
door now." So I picked up the phone. This happened quite often.
And it was George [M.] Low, and George said, "They're all three
dead." Those were his first words to me. And I said, "What
three?" And he said, "The three astronauts." …They
were having a test run that day of the Apollo that was going to be
the first to be launched… So I said, "George, rather than
talk to me standing up here at the phone, I want to get much more
information on this from you and from others. I'm going to go back
to my office."
I'd had an experience maybe a year before, when we had trouble with
Neil [A.] Armstrong on a Gemini flight, where he had rendezvoused
with an Agena vehicle and he started to spin. But this was the first
rendezvous, and I thought it was very important. I stayed home from
the dinner, one of these big Washington dinners, until we'd docked
successfully. I then drove over to the hotel there, I forget which
one of the big hotels it was, the Shoreham, I guess, and I was met,
when I came up the driveway, when I came up to the curb, by somebody
with a long face, saying, "We've got real trouble." But
I said, "Okay, let's go in a room here somewhere. Tell me about
it." I found out that Neil Armstrong was spinning very rapidly
and the question was what was going to happen next, and whether he
was going to make it or not.
Well, the mistake I made was to feel I ought to brave it out and go
into that dinner. I was sitting next to Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey,
who was going to be the principal speaker. But I arranged with somebody
right behind the curtain there at the head table would be kept informed
from Mission Control and kept letting me know how things were going.
I think I made a mistake of leaving at one point to talk to Walter
Cronkite on the phone and I guess Jim Webb was biting his nails back
[at Headquarters]. This was all on live TV and everything.
Then Hubert Humphrey started to speak, and I was going to tell him—I
told the whole audience what was going on, because I knew it would
be leaking around. People were stunned, and they thought I was joking,
and then they realized this was for real, we had an astronaut up there
who was in serious trouble.
I was able to say to Humphrey—even he was starting to have trouble
continuing with his speech, even though he was a very gifted speaker—that
it appeared that Neil Armstrong and Dave [David R.] Scott were okay.
I caught hell from Webb for doing that. He said, "You took a
…After that happened, I looked over the rules we had for serious
accidents, how to handle them, and we rewrote them. Then this happened
about a relatively short while after that, after we'd rewritten the
regulations and so on. So, in effect, I got going on it, got back
to my office and did a little more phoning with George and others
as to what happened, and then I started making calls. I obviously
checked with Jim Webb right off the bat and made sure he knew all
about it, which he did. I got a call from [Secretary of Defense Robert
S.] McNamara's office. They wanted to know what was going on.
Right in the middle of that, an operator cut right in on my phone
call and said, "This is an emergency." The emergency was
an NBC commentator whom I knew, who said, "The country is desperate.
You've just got to come over to the studio to calm everybody down."
What was the guy's name? [Peter Hacker, NBC News]
I said, "That's ridiculous, anyway. I don't know exactly what
the facts are now, and the last thing I want to do is to go over and
speculate on it."
So anyway, the things that had to be done, of course, were to make
a governmental decision as to who was going to carry out the accident
investigation. Should it be within NASA or external to NASA? Everything
that I had conceived of beforehand indicated that we would do it.
I had never conceived of a presidential commission being set up. Jim
Webb was ahead of me on that. He realized that might happen, immediately
went to President Johnson and said, "I want a handshake with
you, Mr. President, that we, NASA, will carry out the investigation."
And he got that agreement.
My job was to figure out who…[should be on the accident review
team]. George Mueller was by then head of the program. Obviously there
had to be an astronaut involved, for example, so Frank Borman was
an excellent choice for that. We thought so at the time, and he turned
out even better than we imagined. We wanted to have an expert on fire,
for example, so we got somebody from the Bureau of Mines for that.
We wanted to have somebody, if the Air Force or military had experience
with [this] kind of [fire], we wanted the benefit of that, and we
got the colonel who had been in charge of an investigation of an explosion
in a silo that had killed people. We had to cover all the…[factors
involved]. Wanted to have a legal person.
Then the question was who should head it up, and everybody seemed
to agree that Tommy Thompson from Langley would be ideal for it. Then
there was the question of calling Tommy and telling him that he'd
been selected. I guess by then it was maybe one or two in the morning,
and I told Tommy that the airplane would be picking me up at six in
the morning and I'd pick him up on the way and we'd go down and get
started. And wrote out the directive that set up Tommy Thompson as
the only person who could touch anything. Nothing was to be removed,
touched, destroyed. It was entirely up to this accident committee,
and that Tommy Thompson was in charge of it. Sent it out as a press
release right out of the Cape. I went down to the Cape for that.
At the height of the review, there were 5,000 people working on [the
review]. We made available a sister ship, a capsule exactly the same
as the one that was destroyed by the fire, or nearly destroyed, and
then they took the one that was destroyed apart as they took the one
that wasn't destroyed apart, so [they] could figure out what [they
were] looking at as [they] went along. There were all kinds of analyses
and so on that were made, as well as taking a look at the procedures
that were being used, etc., etc.
Then [the question of] how the results were going to be presented
was a big issue. The press were just as eager as they could be to
find out who made the “horrible mistake.” We decided we
did not want to get the committee, the accident committee, in a situation
where they would say one day they believed that something had happened
this way, and then they'd find out a week later that it was some other
way. Then in trying to explain away the first release, [they’d]
waste a lot of time, and it [might spoil] the credibility of the group
and so on.
So I was commissioned to go down there, in the beginning, once a week
and observe myself what was going on and write my own assessment of
where things stood as I flew back in the airplane to Washington, turn
that report over to Webb. And the first time I did it, there were
parts he didn't like, so I rewrote it. Then he would take it to the
White House immediately. They could have it for two hours before they
would release it to the principal committees and the Congress, and
they, in turn, could hold it for, I think, half a day before it went
to the press. This did not satisfy the press one bit…
But if you followed the Challenger, what happened then when they had
[a Presidential] commission and they were releasing stuff all the
time, and they were tending to incriminate people, even though later
it might prove that these people had nothing to do with it, it was
a big mess. I have since taken a look at the length of time it took
us to get going again on Apollo versus the time it took the Shuttle
to get going again, and it was a factor of, I think, either two or
Quite a difference between the two.
Yes. It was still no fun at all, and I made a very large blunder,
which I think [is] in [my] book. I did think that Mr. Webb was somewhat
paranoid about some of the issues. To explain that, we were testifying
before a Senate committee when Senator [Walter F.] Mondale started
asking questions about a report. He said he understood a report had
been written about North American, that they were doing unsatisfactory
work, a report written before the accident, and how about it. Mr.
Webb referred to George Mueller to answer the question. He said he
didn't know of any such report. Sam Phillips said he didn't know about
any such report.
We had had a tiger team go in and look at North American about three
months before the accident, because we weren't satisfied with what
they were doing. As a result of that, Sam Phillips had come in with
some viewgraphs to explain some of their findings. With that in the
back of my mind, I said, "I myself don't know of any specific
report, but I do know that from time to time we do study a contractor
performance and so on, and we have made studies of North American."
Well, after the hearing, people tend to rush up, and people were sort
of rushing up to us. Webb yanked me by the arm and said, "Come
with me." We got in his—he refused to have a limousine
in the sense that you'd call a limousine, but he got a black taxicab.
[He] could crank the window up so the driver couldn't hear what was
being said. He really gave me hell. He said, "You don't volunteer
information like that." He said, "There can be millions
and millions of dollars in litigation involved in what's happened."
I said, "But the thing I'm concerned about, Jim, is that Mondale
may have the results of some of these studies and he's calling them
He said, "Well, just don't bring up things like that."
So I got back to my office, and I was steaming mad and sitting in
my office, stewing away when [Paul G.] Dembling, who was our general
counsel, who was also in the back of the car, came in with exactly
what I was afraid of. It had all the viewgraphs stapled together or
bound together, and then there was one paragraph that was right at
the front, that said, "This report shows the results of a recent
North American review," but it had the word "report."
So I said, "Paul, I can't bear to do it. You take it in and show
it to the man." As I say, I felt that Jim was overly concerned
about the press and the things that were going on.
So about a week later, I'd already made my first report, I'd been
down there to the Cape, and Julian Scheer, who was in charge of public
affairs, came to me and he said, "A couple of the press, the
media, whom you know," and he named them, "thought it might
be a good idea just to have a simple lunch today and just sort of
talk over what's going on, [call it a background discussion]."
I said, "Okay." And I never should have said okay.
So we were talking about it, and I was trying to be careful in what
I said, but also sort of explained to them the scope of what was going
on and the fact that all these people were doing this study and everything.
And they said, "Why didn't you just haul those people right out
of there when the fire started?"
And I made the mistake of saying, "You couldn't do it, because
as soon as the fire started, the pressure built up inside and the
door opened inward. So we couldn't open the door because the pressure
was there." This is supposed to be not even a [full] backgrounder,
but just giving them some feel for what was going on. Well, of course
it got in the newspaper the next day, and Webb was really mad with
me. That was the beginning of the end of a beautiful friendship, which
is discussed in the book.
But before it was all over, it ended on a positive note with Mr. Webb,
which I can mention right now, perhaps just talking about this. I
could tell that it was going to be very difficult for the two of us
to work together running NASA, where the feelings are really running
pretty high. He really sincerely felt that the engineering, the technical
people and the project had let them down, that what happened was inexcusable.
He at first, when I'd go to see him, would say, "I just don't
understand how George Mueller could have made such a horrible mistake,"
and I'd try to explain that George Mueller had been doing a wonderful
job, and all of the things he had done of a positive nature. He said,
"Yeah, but look at this mess."
Then I found out that he was talking to some other people and saying,
"How could Bob Seamans have let this mess happen?" and so
on. I just felt that after a while the best thing to do, since I'd
only planned to be down there two years, that it would be best if
I just got out of the way. And I wasn't quite sure exactly how to
do it gracefully, so I got my brother, who's a lawyer, to come down.
I got Walter Sawyer, who had been our general counsel for Paul Dembling,
to come down from New York, because he knew NASA well and knew Jim
Webb well. So first I told him the whole situation. They agreed that
I should resign. Then we composed a letter and my wife typed it. I
took it in to Mr. Webb, and he took one look at it and he said, "How
do you think your peers are going to look at the job you've done here
I said, "Jim, I think they'll feel I did all right."
He said, "I'm going to take this right over to the President."
I said, "That's fine." So it was announced that afternoon.
But I did stay on for three months, and I still had a role to play.
When I left, I was made a consultant.
But I did have an exit interview with Gene [Eugene M.] Emme, who's
a historian, and I made it clear to Gene at that time that some of
that interview was going to be [privileged,] not to be opened for
twenty-five years. Well, all of a sudden Jim Webb was calling me,
saying, "Don't you think it would be a good idea if the two of
us did some kind of a history of NASA together?" And I said,
"I'm not so sure, Jim, that your views and mine will coincide
But then as time went on further, and particularly after I became
administrator of ERDA [Energy Research and Development Administration],
I could see more clearly some of the problems the administrator has
of dealing with the press, dealing with the President, dealing with
the Congress. I realized that he'd done a wonderful job for NASA.
Then he became ill, as you know. But I used to go around and see him
when he was quite ill, and he'd always have something for me to take
home and read. He'd say, "I'd like to have you read this and
just drop me a note and tell me what you think of it," just as
if I was still working for him. So we ended up on good terms.
That's good. The Apollo fire was a rough time for everyone.
It was rough.
Your friendship was strong enough to come through.
It was terribly rough on Joe Shea, because he was to be in the capsule,
to make things even worse, and at the last minute his headset didn't
work, so he thought, "Well, there's no point in lying there in
the capsule if I can't hear anything," so he went and got in
a plane that was flying back to Houston when he got the news. I guess
the doctor in charge of all of the medical stuff associated with the
[Dr. Charles A.] Chuck Berry?
Chuck. I talked to him quite a bit during this period, because he
was helping the astronaut wives and he was helping all kinds of people
who were deeply distressed by all of this. He told me that people
would come to Washington to testify and do various things and they'd
be sort of sobbing all the way to Washington. I mean, it was a very
Let me pause here for a moment to change the tape.
Okay. He [President Kennedy] said to his friend Senator [George A.]
Smathers would probably come with him, senator from Florida, and,
"We'll call you back in half an hour." So anyway, this is
a model of what he was actually pointing at of the real thing sitting
there on the pad. It was a Saturn I. This second stage was going to
be used for the first time. It had liquid hydrogen [as a fuel,] which
we were going to use for the first time in a Saturn… It was
going to put the [heaviest] load in orbit…[up to that time.]
So anyway, we showed [the President the vehicle. This is Wernher von
Braun in the photograph, along with the President and myself. Then]
we got in his helicopter and flew over the ground that was being prepared
for the vertical assembly building…and then, still staying in
the helicopter, flew out and saw a Polaris [launching]… We [flew]
in the helicopter with Senator Smathers and with an admiral [Gallatin]
whose name escapes me at the moment. It was a half-an-hour flight
out, a half back…[so we had ample time to chat.] That was on
a Saturday, and…he was shot the following Friday. And by the
following Monday, I guess it was, the very same plane [that brought
him to the Cape] was flying over the cemetery, Arlington Cemetery,
where he was buried. All in a very short period of time.
Something like that can happen just so fast and unexpected.
Very unfortunate. Very.
Let's see. How have we done on this list?
Doing pretty well. We're a good ways through. Just a few more questions,
and we should tie off in some pretty good time.
I guess the next question is, you talked about how you had then resigned
from NASA and you had initially said, and even then you repeated that
when you'd come on it was for a short-term job and ended up being
long term. What had prompted you to stick with it?
Well, I think it's pretty easy to answer that. I mean, it was exciting,
you know, and it was probably the most exciting job you can imagine
for me, because it tied in so well with my previous work both here
at MIT and then for RCA. It was sort of a natural sort of extension
of it, but obviously with a lot more at stake, obviously with a lot
more public interest and a lot more excitement. It was just the greatest
job that anybody could have. But it was fortunate that I had…written
[my acceptance] letter [stating, “we are thinking in terms of
a two-year period for family planning purposes,”] because I
could make use of that in resigning.
I was asked by the [Washington] Post to come over
not long after it was announced that I was leaving, and they started
grilling me on, "Why leave at this time when you're just about
to go to the moon? Why would you want to leave now?" And I said,
"Well, you know, I think we have corrected the design flaws that
we had. I think things are in good shape. The time to leave is when
you have things in good shape. And I have been down here for seven
years and I really only intended to stay two." And I was never
really questioned beyond that, so it was a nice way to exit the scene.
I thought a lot about…[my] relationship with Jim Webb…because
we were really so close together. I used to stop in at his office
every day when I'd be leaving, assuming he was there and I was there…maybe
that was half the time, and tell him, try to bring him up to date
on the problems that had come to my attention, and he'd tell me about
some of the problems that he had. He'd usually say something, as I
left, like, "Well, you'll have to admit it's interesting,"
even though it had been terrible. So it was just great until this
fire came along. And probably we wouldn't have gone to the moon in
the decade if we hadn't had that fire, because we did have some incipient
Also we brought [The] Boeing [Company] in to be the integrator of
the whole vehicle, and that was very fortuitous. It's a question of
whether that [effort] would have been done properly if we hadn't had
Boeing's capability. They were already working on the first stage,
so it was a natural growth for them to take on all of the mechanical,
electrical, hydraulic, and other issues you get into when you bring
all these different elements together within the structure that takes
off, as well as with the ground.
So whether the gods were kind or whether they were unkind, who's to
say, but it did come off. By then I was in the Air Force, so I was
able to get down and see the liftoff, and I was there at Houston when
they landed, so I had the thrill of seeing that happen. By then I
had a whole other set of problems I was working on for the Air Force,
who were deeply involved in Southeast Asia.
New problems and new challenges, very important ones, too. How did
your work at NASA benefit you then in working with the Air Force and
then in ERDA?
Well, again I think I was pretty lucky. My first experience with complex
groups of people was here at MIT. I worked with Dr. Draper during
the war, where I was one of the technical members of his team, working
on fire control, how to aim guns to shoot down kamikazes, those kind
Then right after the war, there were some issues relating to fighter
planes and their ability to follow the controls that were putting
them in the right maneuvers for air-to-air combat. This was a project
of about thirty-five, forty people that I ran, but where I had to
have not just aeronautical people working with me, but I had to have
electrical and hydraulic and all the different engineering disciplines,
or not all of them, but a lot of them.
As a result of that, in 1948 I was asked to be the technical director
of something called the Meteor Project, and it involved seven departments
here, three different schools, the supersonic wind tunnel, other sort
of major facilities. And that had a lot of elements that were very
difficult to bring all these things together at MIT and at the same
time working with Bell Aircraft Company that wanted to build [the
so-] called Meteor, a missile, and there were a bunch of other contractors
involved, and the Navy pressing us and so on. I learned quite a few
things that you don't want to do, as well as some things you do want
to do. I learned from making…[some] poor mistakes [myself],
but it was very educational.
That was very helpful in getting a little feel for how you get nine
government centers to work together and what you need in addition,
the glue you need to get them working together. That, in turn, was
helpful in the Pentagon. We had 35,000 people when I left NASA, working
for NASA. When I joined the Air Force, we had a million and a quarter
people, which 900,000 were military and the rest civilian people,
operating in thirty-three different countries and so on.
So there were problems there that I had never dealt with before, and
the research and development issues of what I'd been addressing in
NASA, but in addition you had the problems of the command and control
on the operational side. Although the service secretaries are not
in the chain of command, the chain of command is…from the President
[to the Joint Chiefs]. You don't even have to go to the Secretary
of Defense. The President, if he wants, can go directly to the chairman
of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], and there…to what's called the
unified commands. One's the Atlantic Command, one's the Strategic
Command, Tactical Command, and so on.
The chief of the Air Force, in my case…General Ryan, worked
for me on issues relating to men and material, research, development,
but when it came to fighting a war, say, in Vietnam, he wasn't in
the chain of command either, except as he was a member of the Joint
Chiefs. So it's a much more complicated organization—it has
to be—because of its tremendous size and so on than NASA was.
But it was fascinating, first of all, to be involved in so many activities
in so many countries.
I did a little traveling when I was in NASA…For example, I went
down to Africa, where we were working with the Italian Government
on a live site pretty close to the equator. Let's see. We got down
to Mombasa and then up the coast a ways, and they had what they call
Capabasa [phonetic], their base camp, which actually the operations
were out on a platform out in the Indian Ocean. Let's see. Another
time I went to—I guess the same trip, I went through New Delhi,
talked to the Indian Government about their desire to put up some
satellites for educational purposes. Then to Australia, where we dedicated
a tracking station that was going to be used on Apollo. I cut the
ribbon with Prime Minister Holt, the prime minister of Australia.
But compared with that, in the Air Force you had to deal with U.S.
personnel who were in thirty-three…[or more] countries, [with
duties] including such esoteric things as flying all the supplies
from New Zealand down to McMurdo Bay in Antarctica…or [to] the
stations that we had in northern Scotland, northern Greenland, and
northern Alaska. I tried to get to every place in the world where
we had Air Force personnel, and that was exciting. And just great
people, men and women.
I went into Southeast Asia, not just South Vietnam… A lot of
flying was done out of Thailand. There was a whole clandestine operation
out of Laos, where we were working with tribesmen. Got up in there,
which was sort of a never-never land, where in that little country
you had the government in Vientine, where you had representatives
from Russia and China and Vietnam and the United States, and they'd
go to embassy parties together, and where you could look out and see
planes fighting. Then sub rosa, we had aircraft flying there
where the U.S. personnel involved had to take their uniforms off and
leave their identity behind and go up there and fly, and if they were
killed in action, their families would be told they were killed somewhere
else… And we were working with the Mao tribesmen. I met the
general, General Van Pao [phonetic]. He had five wives, because there
were five subtribes of the Mao. He didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings,
so he had a wife from each one. You go all the way from that kind
of an operation to the sophistication of, say, NATO or meeting with
our ambassador to England, who wanted to know about our bases there,
you know, there were all different kinds of levels of things going
on that were real exciting.
You probably would have never imagined, when you first started out
as a student, or even as a youngster, where your career could take
That's true. No, just a country boy from Boston, and all of a sudden.
Let's see. What else you got? Anything else?
You've worked in both government and in the private sector. What are
your thoughts on how private and industry and the relationship with
the space program and the government—for example, USA, United
Space Alliance, working with the Shuttle Program now? Do you have
any thoughts on that or how that relationship will grow or change?
That's a really good question. The relationship between government
and industry is one that I tried to describe to some extent earlier
perhaps in my previous meetings, where there's…some kind of
government effort that everybody agrees the public, the Congress,
[the President.] This is [a program] that the government's responsible
for, but it can't do it all by itself.
One of the issues we had right in the beginning of Apollo…[was
the extent] NASA [should] grow versus the amount of contracting…
We decided that we would grow NASA as little as possible, and we went
from something like 18,000 to 35,000. It about doubled, but the amount
of effort that we took on went up by over six times, went up to over
six billion dollars. I think I understand that relationship pretty
darn well and how to make it effective and how you can bungle it.
I've seen some bad projects as well as a lot of good projects.
But then there's the issue of the [responsibilities] once you privatize…
I'm for privatizing when it's appropriate, but if you have something
where the funding is coming almost entirely from the government, I
don't think you can completely privatize. I think if it's government
money that's involved, the government has to have responsibility to
see [that the] money is used wisely and correctly, and you can't abrogate
that by having a company…[accept the funds] and saying, "Now
it's private." I think wherever there is more than the government
involved, where there are other companies that need the service, say,
of a communications satellite, then you can privatize it. Then it
can be truly something that's done competitively. But I think there
are times when we try to privatize when it's really not appropriate.
To just repeat, if the money is coming from the citizens of the United
States, through the taxpayer, and going to the government to run a
government program to accomplish some objective, then the government
has got to see that it's properly run. So, in other words, you can't
just turn it over to some company and say, "Here's the money.
You go do it."
The challenge is to figure out the proper balance for each individual
I think so. And I think as we've been going along in time, there have
been more and more uses for space activity. When we first started
remote sensing, it was first done for reconnaissance, highly secret,
and then all of a sudden when we started looking at these images from
space, it was obvious that there were other uses than just reconnaissance.
But you had to have people become familiar with it in order to use
it—geologists and agronomists and all the different disciplines
that could make use of space photography. But for a while we couldn't
make it available because we weren't even supposed to have it. But
then we put up satellites, multispectral kind of satellites for this
purpose. We kept having a terrible time getting the money for it,
because they'd say, "Who needs it? If there's a need for it,
the money would be there." And you'd say, "But there's no
need for it now because people don't even know that such a thing exists."
We were gradually able to get these satellites out, the ATS [Applications
Technology Satellites] satellites, and now it's starting to be big
business. You put satellites up and get this data, and you can sell
it, to the point where the French are ahead of us on it, you know,
for example, selling stuff. I guess it's Motorola [that] has got their
system…[in space, a system] that involves sixty-two satellites,
all put up there by private money, and that's great because [there’s]
a commercial use for it.
But it's pretty hard for me to see the commercial use for having a
man in space. Maybe there will be in time. If there could be, say,
very special manufacturing which might include pharmaceuticals, there
could be the pharmaceutical industry might have an interest in performing
certain developments in space, something like that. It's possible.
Even just tourism. [Laughter]
Yes. Believe it or not, I've got a student, a thesis student, going
to be working on his thesis this fall on this very subject.
Oh, really. Interesting.
Which I'm going to supervise. Yes. I've told him, at the start, I'm
very dubious, but I'll be happy to supervise his thesis and it will
be done without prejudice.
That should be interesting to see what his arguments are.
Yes. If you could take somebody in orbit for $100,000, why, you could
probably sell quite a few tickets.
I'm sure you could. It's all that excitement around it. I know I'd
love to go up if I could afford it. [Laughter]
Looking back over your career with NASA, what was your greatest challenge?
I don't know. You had it on [your list of questions,] too, and I should
have thought about…[it so that I could] give you a good answer
right now. There certainly were some pretty interesting challenges.
But I guess I'd have to say that the Apollo fire was the greatest
challenge, dealing with the Apollo fire as…a specific.
…[In] a more general…[way], what's the most difficult,
I would say…involve[s] people…an attempt to judge whether
or not an individual is doing their job properly. In most cases they
were, but in some cases questions would arise, and then the issue
of how do you determine whether the person should stay in the job
or not and if it's [necessary] to make a change, how to make the change
without ruining somebody's life. Those kind of issues are pretty tough.
Very tough. Very tough decisions. And important, too, because it does
And you have to, I think, bear in mind that your responsibility to
the whole is more important than the individual, yet the individual
is very important, too.
Again a place for balance. In reflection, what would you consider
to be your most significant accomplishment?
At NASA? [Laughter]
Oh, I don't know.
Or most significant contribution.
Yes. Well…there were a very large number [of projects] in the
seven and a half, whatever it was, years I was there, we had a whole
bunch of projects, manned projects, Mercury, Gemini, and then the
start of Apollo before I left. And then there were [missions] like
the Ranger and the Surveyor [and the lunar orbiter to the Moon] and
the Mariner going out to the planets, [plus] all the projects that
involved [satellites] going in orbit, communication, [weather forecasting,]
and various [others]. I think the role I had working with the project
teams responsible for all these activities on the one hand and working
with Jim Webb and Congress and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget]
and so on, on the other, to match up the resources that were available
with the projects and to help keep that whole machinery going was
my greatest accomplishment.
That is certainly significant. Not everybody could do that, and not
everybody could do it as well as you did.
Well, I don't know, but anyway, you could try to single out one specific
thing like, say, the lunar orbit rendezvous. I personally feel that
if we had not gone the lunar orbit rendezvous [route], we'd never
have gone to the moon. I think it [was] that critical a decision,
and I think it [was] a pretty close call, and I had a role in it.
But John Houbolt had a big role in it, and Brainerd Holmes had a role
in it, and a lot of other people had a role in it, so I think that
my role was to—let me just say one more word about my accomplishment.
My experience had been in RCA and then at MIT that you can't run things
by sitting at a desk. Yes, reports are important, but you only can
run things by dealing with people, and that you not only have to meet
with people who come into your office or if you have a project status
room where you can look at a lot of material and have people here,
you've got to get out in the field.
As soon as we had a simulator for Gemini, where you could practice
rendezvous down at Houston, I went down there and sat with Neil Armstrong,
side by side, and went through the maneuvers. Before Ed [Edward H.]
White [II] went out into space in Gemini IV, extravehicular, I went
down again to Houston where in two dimensions you could try it out
by standing on a steel bed, where you had air flow flotation, in effect,
and you could move around friction-free, holding this gun and maneuver
Then I came back, and the question was whether or not we should have
that particular project on Gemini IV. Hugh Dryden was absolutely dead
set against it. He said that [Alexei A.] Leonov had a space walk,
so called, to the Soviets, and here we were just copying them, and
we weren't ready for it. And I argued for doing it. Jim Webb didn't
want to go ahead until he got agreement from the two of us. So I wrote
a memorandum where, in effect, I said, "There's high risk in
every flight that we make in space for the astronaut involved, and
our role should be to accomplish as much as we possibly could on every
one." I felt that we were ready for this. I've been down and
I've tested it myself, and I thought we should go with it.
And Hugh Dryden, finally, I think somewhat reluctantly, signed off
on it. So it wasn't just a question of getting dollars for these projects;
it was a question of understand[ing] them enough that you knew whether
to really support it or not. I mean, there was a case at one time
where the German people felt that we were going to have trouble moving
the big boosters around the country fast enough. This is…before
we'd decided to go the southern route using ships. They wanted to
use dirigibles at one point, and they came in and wanted to get some
money to take over Lakehurst, where, you know, dirigible towers and
stuff. Well, there's one where you had to just say, "Come on.
Quit wasting my time. Cut it out." Then they wanted to build
a special airplane to do it.
So it wasn't always a question of support; it was a question of trying
to figure out which were the right things and which didn't make sense,
and then helping the project groups get the resources to do it. To
me, that's my accomplishment.
That's quite an accomplishment. That certainly is a challenge to help
that whole program come together and make all those pieces work. Definitely,
definitely an accomplishment.
At this point I'll see if Rebecca has any questions.
It was Bill Hines [phonetic], not Bob. He was not only my nemesis,
but he was a very difficult person to deal with, and for some reason
he had a real vendetta against NASA. He was syndicated and he got
a Thursday night column in what was then the Washington Star.
This is somewhat apocryphal, but I would come home and the Star
would have already been delivered to our house, and instead of waiting
for my wife to say terrible or—the rule was, if it was really
bad, she'd have a dry martini ready for me when I got home. [Laughter]
That's a good arrangement. Worked well.
And so did you have one that afternoon?
I had to drink a lot of martinis. [Laughter] Do you have any questions?
I think just one, if you'll share with us. This year makes the thirtieth
anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, and you helped set
that foundation for that to happen. Can you tell us were you were
and what you were doing at that time, when all the eyes of the world
were set in one direction?
I'll give you the sequence of events. When I left NASA, I didn't know
exactly what I was going to do, but it didn't take long before I got
a call from Howard Johnson, who by then was President [of MIT], and
he said, "You know, we want you to come back to MIT. Once you
come up here, to begin with we'll get you a joint appointment with
Sloan School of Management and the Engineering School."
So I came back here. My family was still left down there because of
schools and stuff. This was in the wintertime. In the late spring,
I definitely was going to stay here at MIT, and I was going to end
up in this department, the aero[/astro] department, with an appointment
more specific than the first one. So we had to figure out where we
were going to live. We kept our house in Beverly down by the ocean,
but I felt that if I were going to be here at MIT, I wanted to be
closer by, so I actually did something very unique to me. I went and
bought a house on my own, without my wife seeing it. I asked to look
around for houses here with a real estate agent, and he showed me
a lot of houses that were not very attractive. Then he showed me one
that had just come on the market, where I was the first one to look
at it, and I knew it was exactly what my wife would like, nice and
sunny inside and everything. So this was a Friday. I said to the real
estate guy, "I'll call you Monday." I get to the airport
and I thought, "Gee, if he shows that to somebody else, this
is Friday, maybe it will be sold by Monday," because it was a
really nice house. So I called him from the airport and said, "I'll
Then in the fall, we got our children in school up here and we were
making fairly extensive renovations to parts of the house, to the
point where my wife—a lot of dust and so on—she got a
serious asthma attack. So by the middle of December, she was in the
I got a call from Mel Laird, and he said, "By any chance are
you going to be down in Washington in the next few days?" Well,
the truth of the matter was, I was going down the next day, which
I think was on a Friday, to get on a NASA plane to go down and see
Apollo 8 take off. So I told him that. He said, "I'd like you
to have lunch with me." So I had lunch with him. I couldn't imagine
what he wanted to talk about. He had a suite there. He finally ended
up by saying, "Look. I've got Dave Packard going to be the deputy
secretary of Defense." Dave Packard, you know, Hewlett Packard,
a tremendous appointment. He told me how it was going to be possible
for a man of his wealth and so on to get rid of all the conflicts
of interest. Very complicated and very interesting. It boiled down
to the fact that any appreciation in the value of his stock while
he was in the Pentagon, he would give to charity. So when he left
the Pentagon, he gave away 18 million dollars.
Among other things. And then he said, "I want to have one holdover
from the previous administration," which is really a unique thing
to do, a wonderful thing to do. "I want to get Stan Resor, Secretary
of the Army, and I want to get one political person, John Chafee,
who had been three-time governor of Rhode Island, to come in and be
Secretary of the Navy, and I want one technical person, and that's
And I said, "That's insane. We've got a house and we're still
renovating it. My wife's in the hospital."
He said, "You can't say no to me today. Are you going to be back
here next week?"
I said, "As a matter of fact, I'm coming back on Monday to sign
the papers on our house." We just finally sold our house in Washington.
So I saw him on Monday, after going down to see the Apollo 8 liftoff.
So the men were going around in orbit, you may remember. No, they
weren't going around in orbit; they were still on their way to the
moon. I said, "Christmas is three days from today. My wife's
in the hospital. I can't make sense out of this thing, but [if] you…give
me till the 26th of December and I'll give you [a thoughtful] answer."
So I had a chance to talk to all my kids, and I said, "I know
how you all feel about Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War. What would
you think of your father being the Secretary of the Air Force?"
I thought they'd be so horror-stricken. I talked to them separately,
though they may have caucused by themselves. Anyway, they all said
they thought I ought to take it. My wife, all she would say is, "It's
up to you."
So I picked up the phone on the 26th of December and I still wasn't
quite sure what I was going to say on the phone, but I did take it.
Then I did get a slight stay of execution [so] that I [did] not have
to come aboard on inaugural day, that I could have an extra couple
of weeks to finish up what I'd agreed to do here at MIT.
Then all of a sudden I was immersed in a zillion different things
going on in the Defense Department, so I didn't have too much time
to think about the manned program until about May, when Nixon wanted
to put together a special committee, decide what to do in space after
Apollo. He wanted to have the Secretary of Defense and Administrator
of NASA and his own science advisor, and I guess the head of OMB on
it. Well, Laird said, no, he'd prefer to have me on it.
So I ended up on that committee, and this got me sort of reinvolved
and thinking about NASA and what to do in space. I guess I disappointed
NASA, because I felt that there was not the support for [sending]
men to Mars immediately. NASA was really hot to trot… They brought
Wernher von Braun into Washington to be the spokesman and all of that.
Vice President [Spiro T.] Agnew was head of the Space Council. He
liked it, boy, he liked the publicity. He'd already said down there
[at the Cape at the time of] Apollo 8, I think, "After we go
to the moon, we're going to go to Mars."
Then all of a sudden it was July, and I was invited to come down the
night before. [For] President Johnson[’s]…small dinner
party… By then [we] had the fire in Washington. We'd lost Kennedy,
we'd lost [Martin Luther] King, the shooting. Things were getting
pretty violent. So Abernathy was down there, [too,] with a team of
mules to see the launching. Then there was the countdown and the liftoff
and everything went just perfectly.
[I] came back to Washington and then went down to Mission Control
for the landing, and obviously there was tremendous holding of the
breath at the very end. Was it going to be possible to land or not?
We were almost running out of fuel. Then we had six hours before they
were going to egress, so we all went out to get something to eat.
I went out with Doc Draper, who was down there. Let's see. Who else?
Jackie Cochran. Did you ever hear of her?
Jackie was there. She joined us for dinner and a few others. We came
back, and lo and behold, damned if an astronaut didn't come—sort
of a silhouette of an astronaut came out and stepped on the moon and
jumped on the moon and made the great statement, "Small step
for [a] man, large step for mankind," or whatever it was.
It was very interesting to see whether they could walk or not, because
we'd done a lot of work at Langley Field, for example, simulating
the moon by having somebody suspended so they were almost horizontal,
and you could generate in [the inclined] plane…the same gravity,
in effect, that you have on the moon. And sure enough, they could
sort of jump around like kangaroos.
We actually took off the next morning to come back to Washington before
they lifted off, but I heard…over the radio…[from the
airplane] that they carried out their rendezvous and their docking
and so on.
Then I had to be in London for the next liftoff, and Nixon went down
for it. It was a thunderstorm, you might remember. In fact, all the
[electricity] went out when they went through the thunderstorm. They
probably generated their own electricity. That was really, in a way,
a close call… One of the smaller technical decisions [early
in the program] had to do with what kind of memory to have in the
guidance computer. It was decided that—Draper was pretty insistent
that it be a wire-wound system with a basic memory. You have magnetic
cores and the wires go through, so it's a permanent memory. That memory
held up, even though this great charge of electricity had gone through.
It was conceivable this whole thing could have toppled over…
[Perhaps] they really should never have gone, even though the President
Then the next one was 13, and I happened to be at a luncheon. About
halfway through, I guess they were on their way back all right. It
was a small luncheon given by the British ambassador, and he was making
a statement which I think was quite correct. He said, "We in
Great Britain feel that if you can bring 13 back, it's an even greater
achievement than landing on the moon, because obviously you hadn't
anticipated it was going to happen."
A lot of the reprogramming that had to be done—or not a lot
of it—the programming that had to be done to bring them back
as fast as possible was done by the Draper Lab, a guy named [Richard
E.] Dick Battin, and he's two offices down from right here, was responsible
for it. It had to be done quickly, because the longer you waited,
the more time it would take to recorrect and come back. So they had
to [re]write the computer [instructions] and so on here in Cambridge.
It had to be telefaxed down to Houston and sent up to the astronauts,
that permitted them to change their course. That was a really great
So that was all three of those flights. Then I don't remember about
14, but 15 I remember well, because there were three Air Force. Dave
Scott was in charge. There was two commander conferences a year where
you got the sixteen four-star generals in the Air Force together with
the Secretary and the assistant secretaries, and we were holding it
out in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Academy, and used that occasion
to give the Air Force Distinguished Medal to those three astronauts.
Then number 17 was particularly exciting because it was the only individual
who had not [originally] been a pilot…went up, Jack [Harrison
H.] Schmitt…[who had a doctor’s degree from] Harvard in
the Department of Geology, and he had a lot to do with the protocol
for the geological work on the moon on all the missions, and he went
himself on 17. So that was a particularly exciting one for that reason.
Then, unfortunately, two things had happened. One was that the Electronic
Research Center, which we'd set up here for NASA, was canceled by
President Nixon, and it was all going to be closed down. The reason
was political. It was looked at as a Kennedy repository. Then Nixon
was not too pleased to carry on the Apollo either, so the last planned
flights for Apollo were canceled. When I say planned, we had the hardware
for it, and now that hardware sits down at Houston. I guess it's down
at the Cape, some of it.
So it's a lot to reflect on.
It must have been very rewarding to see those missions that were successful,
to see them land for the first time, then so many others after that.
The scientific community were not very pleased with Apollo, of course,
because it looked to them—it's very easy to say, "Gee,
if we only had that money for scientific work that's really important,"
you know, all of that money. People don't realize that the money isn't
sitting there ready to be used for something else. I mean, if you
cancel Apollo, it didn't mean automatically that any of that money
would go into these other projects. But that's the way people tend
to look at the budget. They couldn't see any real scientific merit
in going. Jerry Wiesner himself had a lot of trouble with that. He
was the science advisor to Kennedy, and he kept saying to the President—and
I think [he] was right—that the reason for going to the moon
was not really for scientific purposes. But as it turned out, there
was a lot of scientific value in going to the moon. A lot was accomplished
Absolutely. It may have started as more politically oriented, but
the scientific return was very good. Are there any areas that we didn't
I think you did a pretty good job. Let's see.
I think we covered most everything that I had and certainly have covered
quite a bit in your previous two interviews, too.
There may very well be some overlap.
Any last thoughts or anything like that? Of course, if you come up
with anything, too, we can always add that in at a later point.
Let me say, I personally think it's great that you're doing this.
Here I'm showing my education at the foot of Jim Webb. He felt very
strongly about the value of history. I don't know to what extent you're
familiar with the [National] Air and Space Museum program. Sometime
after our relationship had not only cooled down, but we were really
starting to enjoy being together again, he said, "What would
you think of having a program, we could call it the Glennan-Seamans-Webb
Program or something of that sort, to try to have good interviews
with the key people on Apollo, and have it done by the Air and Space
Museum." By then he was—what was the right word—maybe
a trustee of the Smithsonian [Institution]. And they wanted to do
it, but they didn't have the money for it. I thought it was a good
idea and I thought we could raise the money for it. We raise[d] about
$60,000, I think. He said, in effect, "Will you help me get Keith
Keith was always very wary of Jim, and a little bit vice versa, so
I was sort of the intermediary. Keith agreed to do it. He was one
of the first to be approached for an interview, and he called me.
He'd had something like three interviews. He'd spent a lot of time
and he called me on the phone, he said, "Bob, this has got to
stop. I've had three half-day interviews, and I'm not yet married
to my wife." [Laughter] I said, "Why don't you tell them
you want to get on a little more rapidly?" Anyway, that was done.
But then it ended somewhat abruptly, because the then-head of the
Air and Space Museum didn't want us to go and raise any more money,
because he wanted to raise money for their new big museum out at Dulles,
and he thought this would interfere. I couldn't see how raising another
20 or 30 thousand dollars could interfere with raising 136 million,
but anyway, that's the way he looked at it. So there is a lot of that
material there now, which is somewhat lying fallow. I don't think
it's being used to any great extent.
I believe it is to some extent.
Martin Collins is the chief honcho there. So I'd like to think that
what you're doing will be done somewhat in collaboration, if you want
to call it that, with them.
We did try and look at what they had, and, of course, they did spend
many, many hours with you.
This book here, to some extent, rests on that. I've told some of these
war stories about my meetings with Johnson and other people, sort
of interesting stories, and people say, "Have you ever thought
of writing a book?" So finally I heard of a person who was helping
people write their own autobiographies, named Webster Bull, and so
I called him on the phone. He came over and I showed him some of the
material that I had, and asked him if he'd be interested in working
with me on it. Signed a contract to make up to fifty copies. It was
rather a specific contract. He took this material I gave him, and
we talked some. He sort of took my words but put it in the form of
what he thought might make a book. He did it remarkably well, but
it didn't satisfy me … So then that got me really going to do
a lot of the additional writing.
We're certainly glad that you did, and I'm sure that your family is
glad that you did.
So that's about it, I guess.
We want to thank you for sharing all this with us. We really appreciate
I guess I ought to ask you, what are you going to do with all this
That's a very good question. Right now we'll take it back and transcribe
it, and again send it to you to let you review.
I thought the first came out very well.
Wonderful. We're glad to hear that. Thank you. It came out well because
you spoke so well. We are hoping with this to make it available to
the public and hopefully on the Internet, is what we're hoping to
In the short-term future. We worked last year, part of our project
included talking to some Shuttle-Mir participants, and that project
is now in the next stages and we're actually working on a web site
with that one in particular. So we're seeing how that goes, and we
may be able to use that as a stepping board for what we can do with
this one, so with this we're talking to more people over a longer
period of time. But we're hoping the Shuttle-Mir one will come out
this summer, and we'll certainly let you know on that.
Right now these are being taken over to the Scientific and Technical
Information Center at JSC, and archived there and processed there
and put into the system so that people can have access to them, but
we do want to try and get more access. That's the immediate hopes.
Johnson Space Center now has a historian in residence, who is in close
contact with [NASA Chief Historian] Roger Launius and another historians
through the centers. They trade lots of information when they know
people are doing special projects, and they tend to send each other
materials. For instance, if somebody's doing some of the early days
and looking for information on you, we're able to pass that on to
them. Then it keeps them up to date on what you're doing. At the same
time it doesn't take another half a day of your time to go back. And
if they need to ask you questions, they can be more specific. So it's
a way to route the information and get it out there for them.
Then also for just, again as Carol said, on the web, we're hoping
that everyone from junior high students to Ph.D.s will be able to
get on that site and look for the information that they can find and
help fill in all those blanks that they might have questions about.
And to be able to hear it from you yourself. That's one of the things
you mentioned earlier, that your job was a great opportunity and just
so exciting, and ours is, too, because we're able to hear directly
from you that we're involved in it. So we're hoping that by putting
it on the web, we can help others that weren't able to see it, to
be able to hear it first-hand.
Good. That's a great program. Did [JSC Center Director] George [W.
S.] Abbey come up with the idea? How did you happen to do it, do you
George Abbey came up with the idea, or in talking with people came
up with the idea, and thought it was very important, thought there
were a lot of important people that we needed to talk to, and started
it in late '96, and came up with a list of names. It was him and a
couple of other people who came up with a list of the first names
that we should talk to, and we're still talking to some of them, and
our list is growing. Every time we add a new name and find new information,
every time we talk to somebody, we hear something new. So that's wonderful.
He's been pleased with it so far.
I think now we've talked to—I think it's about eighty or ninety
individuals now that we've had a chance to talk with.
You've talked with some people at Huntsville?
Yes. We're trying to talk to as many people as we can, and we're going
all over the country doing it.
And you're becoming pretty knowledgeable yourselves, I'd say, from
We're learning quite a bit. It's fascinating and fun.
And what makes our project a little different from some folks' is
that we do research and we compile the materials [unclear].