TAPE 1, SIDE 1
DR. DEVORKIN: This is the fifth in our series of oral history interviews with Dr. Robert Gilruth. The interviewers today are Dr. John Mauer and Dr. David DeVorkin. The date is February 27, 1987. Also in the room we're happy to have Mrs. Gilruth. John Mauer has worked on your history and will be working with me today in the interview, asking specific questions in areas that we have discussed before, but also a lot of new areas. Just to give you some idea of what we'll be talking about, we would like to talk to you more about your feelings and recollections of the sense of confidence that we could get into space, just after Sputnik, recollections of Hugh Dryden. We'd like to know more about Hugh Dryden and your work with him, more about the transition years from NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] to NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], and so on. We have plenty to discuss here, so I'd like to make sure that we have a good voice check before we start, so if you'll introduce yourself?
DR. GILRUTH: I'm Bob Gilruth, and I live in Virginia.
DEVORKIN: That's good.
DR. MAUER: I'm John Mauer. I've been contracted to come and help you with these interviews.
DEVORKIN: Great. That will help the transciber identify voices. Mrs. Gilruth, would you like to say something? Just in case you say something later on. I think we can identify your voice quite well, though.
MRS. GILRUTH: I'm happy to be here.
DEVORKIN: I'll be taking the name list as usual and John will be asking questions. I'll be working in follow-up, if that is all right.
MAUER: Dr. Gilruth, I've worked on a lot of very specific dates over a relatively short period of time, from when Sputnik was actually launched into the hectic period of early 1958, as NACA was rushing to become NASA. What I'm interested in doing is, by refreshing your memory about these dates -- trying to see how you were brought into the picture at NACA headquarters from your job as assistant director at Langley, and what your perceptions were as these events unfolded. They unfolded very, very rapidly, as I can reconstruct important milestones.
MAUER: You've already described in earlier interviews your reactions when you heard that the Soviets had put up Sputnik 1. I don't think we need to go into those reactions because you've already described them so beautifully. What I would like to start with is -- you indicated in your earlier interviews that you had a sense of confidence that the United States could meet this challenge. The Soviets having launched Sputnik in a way made putting a man into space worthwhile. You'd had doubts about it before, as to whether it was just a stunt or not, but this now gave it a meaning. I don't want to put words into your mouth, and if I'm not saying it correctly, indicate what your opinion was at that time.
GILRUTH: All right. Let me tell you that to the best of my knowledge, I had never thought of flying people in space before Sputnik. When the Sputnik went up, it was a shock. And it was not just a shock to me, but it was a shock all the way through the technical people of the United States, including a man who was my "big boss" in Washington. By that time Dr. George Lewis who had been the head of NACA for many many years and was responsible for all the wind tunnels and things like that...Hugh Dryden, who was affiliated with the National Bureau of Standards, was working sort of free-lance at the time after Sputnik went up, trying to help the country get hold of itself and get a program that would do well. The Sputnik went up on October 4, 1957, and on November 3rd they put a second Sputnik up with a dog in it. On that second flight with the dog in it, I said to myself and to my colleagues, "This means that the Soviets are going to fly a man in space. They've got so many accolades from all of the people all around the world. The Soviets' stock, so to speak, went way up, and they began to emerge as the leading technical nation in the world.
So after the dog went up -- that was on November 3rd -- on November 7th President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Dr. James R. Kilian a Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, which meant that even Eisenhower was affected quite heavily by this. Then, on November the 21st Dr. Dryden, who was filling in now for NACA, created a Space Technology Committee at the NACA. He was, of course, on that Committee along with
Wernher von Braun, Guy Stever -- who was a member of many committees, a good man, and myself. Also, Jim Dempsey, who was head of the firm that was building the Atlas rocket, and Dr. Randolph Lovelace, who was the head of the Lovelace Institute a doctor who was a very big help to us in our man-in-space programs. There were several other people. So there were quite rapid reactions to the fact that Sputnik went up. Jimmy Doolittle was also very instrumental along with Dryden in talking to the President mostly through the President's Science Advisory Committees. That was pretty much the situation. Early in 1958, the people particularly in the center at Langley Field, worked on a space document for Headquarters that described the activities that we already had going in the space field, showing that NACA was active.
DEVORKIN: Were these things that were building your confidence, or did you have the confidence in the beginning before any of this happened?
GILRUTH: I think that I had confidence that if anybody could put a man in space, we could.
GILRUTH: Because I'd worked with flying machines all my professional life, and I had worked with rockets and electronics at Wallops Island for four or five years. I had a pretty darned good background in what you could do with flying machines and with rockets and with electronics.
MAUER: There had been work going on at Wallops as well as other NACA centers, at least looking at the idea of what it would take to put a man into space. Max Faget had been involved, had he not?
GILRUTH: NACA was flying airplanes, starting with the X-1, going to the X-2, and then the D558, which was the Navy version of X-1. It was a turbojet however, not a rocket airplane. Then there was the X-15, which was built to really be a hypersonic glider. It was flying in the early days of the space program, although it really was not an answer to what the Soviets were doing or planning to do. Max Faget was directly involved in the plan that we evolved to fly our first man in space.
MAUER: In January of 1957, there had been a Lifting Body Conference at Ames.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: PARD had made a minority report in which PARD people were saying that if United States was going to approach the subject of putting a man into space, the ballistic approach would be the one to be used.
GILRUTH: I think that was our feeling. Max was one of my people at Wallops Island, one of the people at Langley, and we were very close. He was our representative on this committee that met at Ames.
MAUER: What's interesting is -- this is January of 1957. This is quite a bit before Sputnik is put up into space and there are discussions, if we do put a man into space, how should we do it? Am I reading it correctly?
GILRUTH: I don't think you are.
MAUER: Okay, fine. I'm reading books that have been written...
GILRUTH: That is NOT my memory of it.
DEVORKIN: What is your memory, then?
GILRUTH: My memory is that when the dog went up, we said: "This is going to be a national program. This obviously means they're going to fly a man. It will be a competition between the United States and Russia on who will get the man in space first." We hadn't gone beyond that. We certainly weren't thinking of flying to the moon. Goodness no.
MAUER: Okay, so that's the key, putting the dog up into space. That's kind of what put things together in people's minds and said, "This is what the Soviets are going to do."
GILRUTH: That's my memory of it.
DEVORKIN: If I could ask even further bifurcation, that was certainly true in your mind.
DEVORKIN: Do you know that that's how other people felt as well?
GILRUTH: I don't think other people were thinking about man in space.
MAUER: How about Max Faget? Do you think putting Sputnik 2 up was the thing that also keyed his thinking about it?
GILRUTH: Yes, I think that prior, he might have thought -- I don't know what he was thinking about. He never talked to me about it as far as I know.
MAUER: Prior to the launching of Sputnik 2?
GILRUTH: Prior to the dog. After Sputnik 2 it seemed evident to us. We started scheming about, what could you do.
MAUER: Let me ask you about something that happened just before the naming of the Special Committee on Space Technology. You weren't a part of this, but the two seem to be related. I'm wondering if you have any memories about it, because from November 18th to the 20th, 1957, the NACA main committee met on the FORRESTAL.
GILRUTH: Yes, that's right.
MAUER: The decision to create the Special Committee on Space Technology, was it made in that meeting of the main committee?
GILRUTH: I think so.
MAUER: When you were named to the Special Committee on Space Technology, was anything said to you about the discussions held on the FORRESTAL, or were you just told that you had been appointed to the committee and needed to get to work on its job?
GILRUTH: I'm sure that when Dryden came back from that he told us what he thought about everything. He was the kind of guy that was low-key. He would tell you what he thought would help you, what you ought to know. He was the kind of guy that pushed his people who worked for him to give all they could and be as good as they could be.
DEVORKIN: Did anybody ask where the money was coming from?
GILRUTH: Yes. It had to come from Uncle. No other way. That's where the money would come from.
DEVORKIN: There's one thing I wasn't aware of in the previous interviews, the question about competence. I read very carefully your memoir, from Wallops to Mercury. There's a very valuable insight in there, as well as in some of the other notes. It was clear, not directly from what you said, but it was evident from what you were talking about and what other historians have got out, that while the NACA budget overall had been diminishing quite seriously through the fifties, the fraction of the budget devoted to space-related research was increasing. Did you really have the feeling that within the NACA there was support, given that scenario, to put us into space quickly?
GILRUTH: Certainly the amount of work going into high speed flight was increasing, but for anything above Mach I NACA was not able to do in their big wind tunnels. The thing that they had been famous for was their big wind tunnels. Dr. Lewis had through all the years, considered that wind tunnels was what made NACA great.
I was in the flight section and I was glad to be there, because it was the right place for a guy that wanted to fly things. What we did was make flight tests of things that would show that the wind tunnel was either right or wrong. In other words, free flight was the way you gave the marks to the wind tunnels, how good they were doing. That was the purpose of the flight research division at Langley. It was not to probe ahead of things that hadn't been done, but to show that the wind tunnels were giving the right answers. But it's rapidly changed from that, because pretty soon you got to the speed of sound and the wind tunnels were not able to do that, with the kind that they had. I had invented a thing called wing flow, which was really a stop-gap but it was very, very useful, and industry used it a lot. But it just absolutely made the wind tunnel people ill. Especially because it had a low Reynolds number. Actually, the things that happened around Mach 1 were so powerful that the Reynolds number was a minor factor. In any case, that was where I got started with that sort of thing.
It was right in the middle of my working with the wing flow that I was put in charge of Wallops Island, which, at that time, was supposed to be some kind of a missile testing ground where we would fly the missiles of the Air Force and the Navy and the Army. Of course, I knew something about that. I knew that the Air Force had their own proving ground and the Army had their own proving ground and the Navy had two of them, because there were two parts to the Navy and they didn't like each other any better than they liked the Army or the Air Force. So I said, "what's Wallops Island going to do?"
MAUER: When you were first given the job at Wallops Island, before the announcement of the actual direction you were going to take, the direction that leads to the creation of PARD, who were you talking this out with? Were you talking with your bosses at Langley, or were you talking with people that were working with you in flight research?
GILRUTH: I talked pretty much with my bosses at Langley, with Floyd Thompson and Gus Crowley. I'd had no secrets from them.
MAUER: No, that's not my point. I'm sure you didn't.
GILRUTH: I told them that I didn't think that there was a place for NACA.
MAUER: You related in an earlier interview that, I believe it was Dryden, was very much relieved when you told him your plans.
GILRUTH: No, that was Dr. Lewis who was still the director of aeronautical research at that time, although he was a sick man.
MAUER: But it was with Crowley and...
GILRUTH: No, he went to Wallops Island along with the whole NACA, which was...
MAUER: What I'm asking about that's not been clear to me from the previous interviews is the timing -- like we talked about before we started the interview -- the importance of the relationship, one to the other. Let me take you back just before Dr. Lewis came out to Wallops, and you had the conversation with him. Who were the people that you talked with about what you wanted to do with Wallops, and came upon the decision to--
GILRUTH: Oh, Okay. Quite clearly that was Floyd Thompson, who was my direct boss and chief of research. Henry Reid was still the engineer in charge, but really the place was run by Floyd Thompson.
DEVORKIN: Were there others, let's say, at a lower level, like Paul Purser?
GILRUTH: Yes, he was directly working with me.
DEVORKIN: Did you talk more closely with them about details?
GILRUTH: Yes, sure. Max and Paul Purser and Paul Hill, a lot of good guys.
MAUER: This is a critical decision. What I'm trying to get at is, how did you go about deciding how you wanted to develop Wallops Island? Because you were handed what was supposed to be missile research you knew that wasn't going to work. You're a relatively junior man, and yet you're coming to very important decisions.
GILRUTH: That's true. It didn't make any difference whether you were junior, you could still think.
MAUER: I know that. I know that.
GILRUTH: I know pretty well how to sell.
MAUER: I understand that. What I'm trying to get at is, how do you go about selling? Who do you talk to? How do you work out the ideas, and then how do you go about selling them?
GILRUTH: What you sold was something that the country needed. The country needed to know how you flew through the speed of sound and how you flew supersonic. You needed to know how to design and make good guided missiles as well. The way to do this was with a place like Wallops Island. It was an ideal place to do it. What we had at NACA and at Langley was some people that were based in aerodynamics and in the principles of flight, but they also were young and they had a lot of imagination on things that you could do. We had a so-called missile range, and we found out that the Navy would give us all of the solid rockets we wanted for free of charge.
MAUER: How did you go about finding that out? Did you just talk to people you knew?
GILRUTH: There was a Navy base over there, Chincoteague Naval Air Station, and they had rockets. All we had to do was ask for them and they'd give them to us.
MAUER: They already had plenty of the rockets at the Naval Air Station?
GILRUTH: They had them. When we needed bigger rockets, we found that you could buy them for a fairly small price. They weren't highly technical things.
DEVORKIN: All of this pre-procurement, finding out, did this all play a role in your developing your case before you stated it?
GILRUTH: Yes, in a way. The other thing we found that we had were some radars that were in existence. There was a Doppler Radar that was just used as a sentry in the military. It would squeal if something moved. They put them up around the camps. But you could shoot a rocket model up and when it burned out and coasted, this radar was so accurate in measuring its velocity that you could differentiate that curve and get the drag acceleration. So just by shooting a rocket -- with a measurement of the air density with one of these sounding balloons, to determine the exact variation of the density of the air with height -- you could get a very accurate measurement of the drag of whatever it was you shot. We conceived the idea of having a basic body, a fuselage that the rocket motor would fit in, with fins on it so it would be stable, and then we put different kinds of wings on that having different thicknesses, different sweepback, aspect ratios and airfoil sections.
MAUER: Now, this was before Wallops ever really got started.
GILRUTH: No, this was part of the starting. We had already done enough of this that we could show results at the time Dr. Lewis and the fathers of NACA came over to Wallops Island. I put up a program. I said, "We're going to do this kind of wings and this kind of bodies and so on." He was pleased, because it was systematic research that was going to be good for American industry. The people in the industry later on passed a resolution in one of their committees that recommended they'd triple our budget, which the Congress did, which was a big help.
MAUER: The Doppler Radar, where did that idea come from? Where did you learn this about the Doppler Radar?
GILRUTH: That was due to Ed Buckley and his people. They were electronic people but they were fascinated by this thing. As I said, they used it for a sentry in the military, but we used to track the research missiles. This radar was very accurate, and we were pretty good at tracking. We said, "Well, gosh, what a find that is, we won't have to even put a telemeter in this for drag tests." They found the radar but we found the perfect use for it. And there was another radar, the tracking radars which we used also, just to find what the trajectory was, so you knew the flight path.
MAUER: You, through your work with airplanes, at times putting models out on the wings, already had experience with testing models.
MAUER: Putting models onto rockets was just a different application of things that you were already doing. Am I correct in that?
GILRUTH: It was just an engineering operation. You had to make them strong enough. There was a lot of high velocity air at sea level, so we did have some problems at first, getting the wings to stay on. I remember, the first time we had Dr. Lewis over there, the wings came off. The head of NACA said, "Well, so your idea is no good."
DEVORKIN: He said that directly to you?
GILRUTH: He said that directly out loud in front of the whole thing, "So your idea's no good."
DEVORKIN: In your memoir you answered him.
GILRUTH: I answered him. I did. I stood up and said, "Oh, no, it's not that bad, we'll just have to make the wings stronger."
DEVORKIN: You didn't say in your memoir what happened next.
GILRUTH: We made the wings stronger.
MAUER: That's one engineer talking to another. When you say no, it's not a fundamental problem, it's just a matter of working out a minor technical aspect, that satisfied him, no problem?
GILRUTH: That's right. He just spoke his mind. I don't know whether he was convinced or not.
MAUER: You were able to continue your work, very obviously.
MAUER: Fairly quickly the Monsanto solid propellant rockets and the other ones that were provided to you by the Navy...
GILRUTH: For the Tiamat, yes.
MAUER: Quickly I get the impression, particularly in reading Schortal's history on Wallops, their performance just didn't keep up with what you needed to do. You had to start getting better rockets.
GILRUTH: One of our first projects was a Tiamat. It was a guided missile that was being built by one of the firms, I can't remember which firm right now. We tried to make a real guided missile, but without the warhead. It had a Monsanto rocket in it, a big Monsanto booster. It had an autopilot and wings and things.
DEVORKIN: I've seen the photograph.
GILRUTH: It was one of the very first things that we did. It wasn't a bad thing to do because it was fairly hard to do and you had to have a lot of things, but it was very evident to me when we finally flew that thing, that we weren't going to get much return from it. We finally made an autopilot work, but you knew you could make autopilots work if you worked hard and right on them. But we didn't have any product from that to give to the industry. All we could say is, we flew a guided missile at Wallops Island and it flew so far and made a turn. So we didn't do much more of that kind of thing.
DEVORKIN: What do you mean, you didn't have a product that you could give to industry ?
GILRUTH: We hadn't really learned anything new.
DEVORKIN: I'd like to keep that sort of a goal in mind. That was the NACA feeling. You were out there to learn basic research.
GILRUTH: Yes. We had to pay our way by getting information.
MAUER: That information, as I understand it, was providing data to industry and to the military that they could apply directly in projects that they were working.
GILRUTH: That's right. Projects or new projects.
MAUER: Right. That's why you were testing the differing shapes of the wings.
MAUER: I want to leap forward in time just a little bit, into June of 1951, the middle, late 1951. The manufacturers on June 14 and 15 of 1951 invited...
GILRUTH: '51 is way back beyond where...
MAUER: Yes, but it's tied into it very directly. Manufacturers of missiles invited NACA to give suggestions on the directions that new research should go. There was a proposal that missiles should be tested at the speeds of Mach 5 through 10. One aspect was industry saying that they just were not as successful as Wallops and PARD at getting data.
DEVORKIN: Who was saying they weren't as successful?
MAUER: Industry. Later in '51 the Atlas program even asked NACA to start looking at speeds up to Mach 20. So by 1951, there is expression of interest on the part of industry and of the military to start looking at higher Mach numbers. I get a sense that this started Wallops into developing new rockets...
GILRUTH: We did. We went all the way to a five-stage solid rocket. We got up to somewhere around Mach 15 or perhaps a little higher than that. I don't remember the exact amount. We put some re-entry bodies on those rockets and measured the heat transfer. It was a good effort because that was high enough so that you got the right answer for what you did with the Atlas and things like that later on.
MAUER: In late 1951, as this expression of interest was coming into NACA, you reported, I think to the main committee, that work at Wallops had progressed so that you were capable of getting speed data to Mach 4 and stability and control testing data to Mach 1.7. So between late 1951 and Sputnik you'd gone from this much slower speed to where you had a five-stage solid propellant rocket and were doing testing at Mach 15. That represents a great leap forward in the development of technology.
GILRUTH: Yes. It was all due to the state of the art in solid rockets. Better aluminum cases and so on, to make them lighter.
DEVORKIN: Was there equivalent improvement in the sensitivity of the Doppler Radar systems for tracking these things?
GILRUTH: Yes, we did, we started...
DEVORKIN: As you were moving into the higher Mach numbers, did you have to worry about all of your sensing and your range data?
GILRUTH: Yes, we got a new Doppler Radar. The first one was this TPS -- I can't remember the number -- that was the sentry. Then we went back to the company that built that and asked them to build a big one, a powerful one with a lot of range. We got that and we used that.
DEVORKIN: So this was all development that was done by industry for you.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: You didn't engage in improving range testing.
GILRUTH: We did not have the staff to do that kind of thing. We had a few good people that could tell the manufacturer what we needed.
DEVORKIN: Did it ever hold you up?
GILRUTH: Of course, but when we got it, it gave us a chance to do a lot better work.
DEVORKIN: But what I meant was, did you have the rockets ready to go to test, but not the field testing equipment at any time? Or were you always instrumented adequately?
GILRUTH: No, we were not adequately instrumented. We were always glad to get a better instrument. We did the best we could with what we had, and we tried our best to get new and better stuff all the time.
DEVORKIN: Did you always have the money, the procurement power for it, or was it sometimes a question that...
GILRUTH: Well, you never have enough money. We did pretty well but it helped when the Committee said we should have our budget tripled.
MAUER: It was also quite a vote of confidence, too.
GILRUTH: Yes, it was. We didn't spend very much money, compared to some of those big supersonic wind tunnels that cost millions of dollars.
MAUER: When were you appointed to the Committee on Aerodynamics, do you remember? Were you on the Committee on Aerodynamics when it met in June of 1952 and made its statement that it was authorizing the study of "unmanned and manned flight between 12 and 50 miles at Mach numbers between 4 and 10 and a modest effort to problems associated with unmanned and manned flights at an altitude from 50 miles to infinity at speeds from Mach l0 to the velocity of escape from the earth's gravity." Now, this is June 24, 1952, the Committee on Aerodynamics gave...
GILRUTH: Yes, I think I was on the committee then. I'm not sure.
MAUER: That's fine. That's something that can be checked without too much trouble. But do you remember that commitment by the Committee on Aerodynamics, and what difference did it make for you?
GILRUTH: It always was good to have a body of well-thought-of people say that it was important to press forward and increase your coverage of speed and scale and all those things.
MAUER: That reply in some ways leaves me with a sense that a statement of general policy was nice, but more important for you were the practical problems of the jobs that you were actually needing to complete. Am I hearing you correctly? How would you characterize it?
GILRUTH: I don't know quite what you mean now.
MAUER: Sometimes I can get obscure. If I am, excuse me. What was it that helped you determine whether you were going to worry about getting new rockets, determine what type of new projects that you were going to take on? Moving on into hypersonic research in the early 1950s -- supersonic was far beyond what conventional jets were going to do, and yet in the early 1950s here's the indication that there was interest in doing hypersonic research. Why move into hypersonic research?
GILRUTH: It was quite evident that for re-entry, for something like the Atlas, you needed to know something about how heat shields worked through the speed of very high Mach numbers. That was that. I mean, you just had to know how to do that. A lot of people said you couldn't do it. Arky Kantrowitz was very big in that. Wernher von Braun said he was the guy that found the simple way, and that was just using the ablator. He said, "We'll just use an ablator." Kantrowitz said, "Oh, it's got to be a highly polished metal thing with very high heat conductivity." We had these different camps of people. Obviously you had to have some way of finding out what worked. It took the Atlas rocket in order to prove that it worked at the Reynolds numbers and everything, but you had to develop those rockets anyway if you were going to have a ballistic missile. It was when they finally flew the Atlas nose cone that they were sure they had the answer. But we'd already thought that there were ways of doing it. By the time the missile was ready to go, they'd answered their own questions.
DEVORKIN: My dates may be wrong here, but in your memoir you talked about the High Speed Subcommittee.
DEVORKIN: Effectively it seemed to be a lobby to Congress from corporate interests such as McDonnell-Douglas people, at that time, Douglas Aircraft people. You mentioned before, it was great when you got your appropriation increased by a factor of three, and that when you had a confirmation from NACA headquarters and certainly from Congress, that this was a vote of confidence. To what degree, though, was this pressure from industry that you were providing new information, that you feel played a role in this sort of confidence? Was it really a vote of confidence from industry, that they looked to you for R and D?
GILRUTH: Yes, I think it was a vote of confidence. They wanted more of that kind of work done. They got together and said so.
DEVORKIN: Was there ever any pressure or offers to you from any of these industry contacts to consider doing it within industry?
DEVORKIN: None at all?
GILRUTH: No. I don't think they felt that they could do it. It took a lot of doing. I think they wanted to know the answers. They wanted to build the things that made them money, and that was when they built these weapons for the country. They would never have made much money if they'd tried to run a thing like we did. They were not interested in doing that. They were interested in what we were doing, and they wanted somebody to do a good job, but I don't think there was any idea that they wanted to take over that. Never felt any pressure like that.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
MAUER: Mrs. Gilruth, you were asking me if Dr. Gilruth had answered my question in a roundabout fashion. It just seems to me that, Dr. Gilruth, when I started asking you about this decision on the part of Committee on Aerodynamics, it really hasn't stuck in your memory. Am I correct in that perception, that that particular decision in 1952 doesn't seem to ring a bell?
GILRUTH: No, it doesn't.
MAUER: And that's in the nature of memory. It's a long time ago.
MAUER: Let me ask you about another specific date which you may or may not remember. You were talking about the importance of Atlas and ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] work in stimulating research at Wallops, developing ultimately to the five-stage solid rocket. Another stimulus, as I understand it, was the work being done in manned rocket flight that you've already alluded to. More specifically, as X-15 became more and more real, there was thought about what to do after X-15. And on February 14 of 1957, NACA established a steering committee to study what was being called Round 3.
MAUER: I know you remember Round 3, but do you remember the establishment of the steering committee in February of '57?
GILRUTH: I remember that I was not a member of that committee that worked on Round 3, but Hartley Soul was.
DEVORKIN: What was that name again?
GILRUTH: Soul. He was an associate director there at the lab. At Round 3, Max Faget also went there and gave a paper.
MAUER: But that's later. I think that's the meeting in Round 3 in October, wasn't it?
GILRUTH: I don't know. That's the one I remember, where they sort of came upon it, and some of the boys who were there...
DEVORKIN: Was this the meeting right after Sputnik?
GILRUTH: Yes. My people who were out there sort of said,
"Really, you've got to think ahead. Flying man in space is going to be a very important thing." We started with everything we had to figure out how to do it. Round 3 was about the time when all this was happening.
MAUER: What sort of work -- this meeting, October 15, as I remember, I have the date right down here, October 15 was the conference at Ames, but it had been planned for a long time.
MAUER: The type of work that Faget had been doing, and other people who attended the meeting, what had been the origin of that?
GILRUTH: Here's what happened. When Sputnik went up, when the dog went up, we there at NACA Langley decided that -- and I was kind of the ring leader of it, although Max was, I would say, the guy that did the most technical work on it -- that it was going to be important, and we tried to put together a plan. While we were doing this at Langley Field, Dryden got hold of me and said," How about you and some of your guys coming up to Washington, and we'll try to put together some kind of a plan of what should NACA do if it becomes the space agency?"
MAUER: Asking what day this happened, your memory's not going to be...
GILRUTH: Well, I've got some numbers. It was after Sputnik.
MAUER: After Sputnik, right. You were named on the Special Committee on Technology, November 2lst.
GILRUTH: That's right. I do know this. On August 1st of 1958, I presented to Congress testimony of how we would put man in space, with the whole plan, and we did it exactly like that. I'm amazed at how accurate that was, on how we were going to do it, and that it worked just that same way. That was August 1st.
MAUER: Do you remember the first meeting of the Committee on Space Technology? It met on February 13. Had you been called by Dryden to come up and work on the budget before that February 13 meeting?
GILRUTH: Let me see. I'll tell you. The first meeting was February 13, and Vanguard was launched and Explorer failed and the President on April 2nd sent a message to Congress establishing a new civilian space agency.
MAUER: But when did Dr. Dryden call you to come up and work on the budget? You came up to Washington on February 13th for this first meeting of the Committee on Space Technology. Had you been to Washington before that? Do you remember that trip up on February 13th?
GILRUTH: On January 8, '58, Dryden, Crowley, Gilruth and some others worked on a space document at headquarters describing NACA activities in the space field. It was January 16th that the Special Committee on Space Technology was created.
MAUER: But what I'm curious about, Dr. Gilruth is, you've talked about Dryden calling you up to work on the budget. Can you relate that to any of these dates, as to when he called you?
GILRUTH: That's the date at which Dryden called us up to come up and work there at...
MAUER: Right. I was wondering how that related to your involvement on the Committee On Space Technology, whether it was going on at the same time.
GILRUTH: Yes, I'm sure it was.
MAUER: You went up on January 8th and met with Dryden about the document getting NACA into the space business. Do you remember any of that effort now or not?
GILRUTH: I remember.
MAUER: What was the environment like? What was Dryden's attitude?
GILRUTH: Dryden was great to work with.
GILRUTH: Because he was so bright and also so down to earth. He understood how everything worked in Washington, and he was just fun to work with.
MAUER: Can you remember what he was saying to those of you who were working on this document about what direction you ought to go, and what he wanted for NACA in terms of space?
GILRUTH: He had to think of all sorts of things about the space program. All I was thinking about was man, flying man. I didn't have to know about everything.
MAUER: What were you thinking about flying man at this very early stage?
GILRUTH: We were trying to put together an overall plan. We only had one rocket that was capable of putting man into orbit, and that was the Atlas. Usually about one out of three blew up, at that time, but it had the power to put a man in space. It couldn't weigh over 2000 pounds, and that isn't very much for a craft to fly a man in space. But those were the ground rules, and we tried to put together a plan of how to do that. And we did. Dryden got the go-ahead on it, and almost before the Space Act was passed, we were out selecting contractors and so on.
DEVORKIN: I'd like to ask about Dryden's change of opinion about the ballistic design, the re-entry design.
GILRUTH: Yes, he once made a remark that, what was it? Flying it was like...
DEVORKIN: Shooting a lady out of a cannon.
GILRUTH: Shooting a lady out of a cannon. He did say that.
MAUER: Was this very early on?
GILRUTH: He said this, too, when he heard about Wernher's idea of having a launcher right by a swimming pool with an ejection seat, so that if something went wrong it would eject the man right into the swimming pool.
DEVORKIN: This was on page 32 of your memoirs.1
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: Saying that he was at first skeptical of the ballistic re-entry design, prior to Mercury. That's where you used the term, quoted him as saying, "shooting a lady out of a cannon."
DEVORKIN: You, and certainly Max Faget, were considering the blunt design at that time.
GILRUTH: Yes. Absolutely.
DEVORKIN: What changed Dryden's mind? Because as you said, during Mercury he approved it very quickly, within a few months. Because it was then a buildup phase to orbital flight. He'd approved testing of the spacecraft. I'm interested, considering what you were talking about. You only had the Atlas, you only could loft 2000 pounds, but it indicates that prior to Sputnik, you were in a different mind-set as far as the future of this whole program was. I'd like to know what that term "buildup phase" means, to try to lead you into, without putting the words in your mouth...
GILRUTH: I don't really think that I had any fixed idea of what the program was. It was only when we looked at what we had, and as I say, it was the Atlas or the Titan, and the Titan was not as far developed as the Atlas. The only possible way of putting a man in space was with a blunt body, because a glider was way too heavy, and...
DEVORKIN: Would it have been too heavy if you'd had the time to wait for the Titan?
GILRUTH: The Titan wasn't big enough either. It didn't have anymore power. Now, the Titan 2 did have more power, but it still didn't have enough for a glider. And a glider, you had to say, what do we want to go to space for? Just so you can come gliding in like an airplane? Or what's the difference whether you come in with a blunt body or whether you come in on a wing? If you can do it more efficiently with a blunt body, why not do it that way?
DEVORKIN: I think the point I'm driving at is that clearly there were expedients that had to be made after Sputnik, after you saw that the Russians were in a program and you knew you were in a race. You had the option of a lifting body, but that was too heavy. You had the Atlas to work with. You had the bullet design, well-known. You had that weight restriction. But you also had a different attitude. You had to design a program--in your own words on page 37 of your memoir2 --the Mercury program had to involve a "minimum of new developments," using a progressive building up of tests. You had to get this thing done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Is this part of Dryden's own change of attitude? Was it because you were in a race? This no longer became a developmental program, but a program simply to do it?
GILRUTH: No, it was a developmental program. You just didn't want to take on more than you absolutely had to. It was a terribly tough job to do. If you wanted to make it gold-plated all the way around, you'd never have done it. It wasn't because we were cutting the corners or anything. It was, how could you do this in time to be of any competition in the international space race? Time was important, even though you'd say, well, we're above all of that. You know, you couldn't say that. The American people--they wanted the country to be ahead. They didn't want to be behind.
DEVORKIN: Did you see this as a developmental phase leading to an operational system at that time?
GILRUTH: I don't think we were thinking that far ahead. Although we were concentrating on, how do you make a reasonably safe way to fly a man in orbit and bring him back? That was what we were trying to do. And we cut out everything -- we didn't cut out an escape system. We had a first-class escape system, which we know now is very important.
DEVORKIN: That you did. Absolutely.
MAUER: Yes, I'm afraid that going back and reading over comments that you and Dr. Faget made, when the whole idea of the escape system--and why you developed it--seem prophetic now. Because you looked at the performance of the Atlas, and you saw that putting a human being on top of that rocket in a small capsule, there had to be some way out.
GILRUTH: Yes. You have to give them a way out.
DEVORKIN: That's absolutely right.
GILRUTH: Do the best you can for them.
MAUER: Let me pick up on something that David's been saying, something I think I hear. Once again, if I'm putting words in your mouth, stop me and correct me. But I get a sense that once you determine a goal, once you decide our job is to put a man in space, you want to do it the most efficient, safest way possible. When people start proposing lifting bodies, your tendency is to say, "If it doesn't contribute to the immediate job, why do it." Am I correct?
GILRUTH: Yes. The lifting body was a less efficient way of doing the job.
MAUER: This is a philosophy that I think I see going way back in your career. This is something that is an approach to projects that you had over many years. Am I correct?
GILRUTH: I think any good engineer should do that. Do it the best way.
DEVORKIN: There are plenty of engineers who can never, never give a project over to--let's say somebody who's a user. They would constantly tinker, constantly refine. I mean, we all know the stereotypical German engineer who over-designs. True or untrue, we have these ideas. But your philosophy of engineering, is towards efficiency, simplicity, and getting the stated job done.
MAUER: Not worrying about what this will lead to way in the future, but more concerned, this is the job, let's get this job done.
GILRUTH: You come out with a new car the next year and it's better. You don't take the old Ford and goose it up more. You build the best one you can and use it. You do that with airplanes.
MAUER: But every so often you do stop and goose it up. You do stop and make a tremendous jump.
GILRUTH: Yes, sure, if it makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, you don't do it.
MAUER: You have to have a job for it. Just to run out and do something as an engineering exercise doesn't make any sense.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: If you have a job that you can't get done with what you have, then you start looking at new ways of doing it.
DEVORKIN: John, are you leading into asking Dr. Gilruth about the new projects?
MAUER: We're heading that way, except in a way, there are other portions I still haven't covered.
DEVORKIN: This is the sort of thing likely to lead on to the new projects eventually, so that's why we're asking these questions.
MAUER: Yes, thank you, David. Excuse me for slipping back into earlier times, but we grab hold of something, then we follow it through, and then there's still information that I haven't covered and we may not. If you don't remember, that's fine. Obviously you remember when Jimmy Doolittle was named to be NACA chair in October of 1956. Doolittle was an important change, looking from the outside into NACA, because--retired military officer, an engineer and not a scientist. Now, for you, working at Langley in charge of subs as well as other aspects of Langley, what difference did the coming of Doolittle make, in terms of the environment in which you were working?
GILRUTH: I would say, very little. Everybody liked Jimmy Doolittle. He was a national hero, a bright man, and had done a lot in aviation. We were glad to see him as the titular head, so to speak. He and Dryden were close friends.
DEVORKIN: That means something now, titular head. Of course we know what that means in the dictionary definition.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: Was he not concerned with actual operational parts of NACA policy?
GILRUTH: He did his job as the head of the committee. You know, that was the part. He did not spend a lot of hours every week on that job.
MAUER: But let's contrast Doolittle with his predecessor, Hunsaker. Hunsaker was very negative on space-type work.
GILRUTH: And rockets.
MAUER: Yes. Anything relating to space.
MAUER: Whereas Doolittle I think had a bit different perspective, didn't he?
GILRUTH: Yes, I'm sure he did. I know that Hunsaker had certain things -- that he didn't like. I always liked him, though, and he liked me. I didn't feel that he hurt the NACA during the years that he was the head.
MAUER: I think those are somewhat separate questions, but in a way, if Hunsaker had been chair of the main committee after Sputnik, do you think that there might have been a difference in the response? That's speculation, I know, and you may not feel comfortable with that.
GILRUTH: I don't know. I think it would have been hard for him. I don't think he would have taken the job at the time when there was so much to do in rocketry and space.
DEVORKIN: Let's go back to Hunsaker and Doolittle. You did say that it made very little difference to you when Doolittle came in, in your work at Wallops.
DEVORKIN: And Langley. What does that say? That rings a bell in my mind. The institution transcends the individuals, no matter who they are?
GILRUTH: Well, it was not a big problem. We knew what we ought to do, and we were doing it. The head of NACA -- Hunsaker was not against Wallops Island. In fact, he was the guy who over there had said, "It's no good, it broke." You remember, when the wings came off of the rocket model. But he was just ornery, and he just said that, and I knew he would say something like that. Everybody else knew what he was too.
DEVORKIN: So you were saying that when Doolittle came in, in a way he was a titular head. Then possibly that role of the central NACA committee was very much titular?
GILRUTH: That's right. Doolittle was very helpful at the time of the transition from NACA to NASA, because he was well thought of by all. He knew the Presidents. He knew everybody, and he was well liked by everyone, so he was a great guy to have in charge as the titular head of NACA. He actually did spend a lot of time during the transition in going to committee meetings and talking with the President and all that sort of thing, so he was more than a titular head at that time.
DEVORKIN: Certainly big things were happening post-Sputnik, but so too in '53, with Eisenhower and DOD [Department of Defense] reorganization and the wiping out of some of the statutory agencies, and boards and panels like the Research Development Board disappeared at that point. Was Doolittle brought in to do something to the NACA, to change it's venue? Apparently if he did, it didn't affect you, as you just said, but were there rumblings?
GILRUTH: I never heard of any of those things. But I was in the bowels of the ship, I wouldn't know.
MAUER: You weren't a part of this, but obviously you would have had to have heard about it -- the so-called Young Turks or Doolittle Dinner...
GILRUTH: Yes, yes.
MAUER: Which was December 18.
GILRUTH: Yes. John Stack really did himself in that night.
DEVORKIN: What happened?
GILRUTH: Well, I guess, it's a long time afterwards. He was burning up because he didn't think that Dryden and company got enough money from Congress. They had this dinner in which Stack and a number of people were there. I was not. I was too far down in the bowels of the ship to be there. But anyway, he had too much to drink. He got up and he loved to use swear words and this particular time--of course, Dryden was almost a lay minister, a very, very religious man. He was shocked when Stack told him off; that they were pussyfooting around and they ought to go in and...
MAUER: Called Dryden an old fool, is one account that I heard.
GILRUTH: I wasn't there, but I know he did bad. He did a lot of swearing, and it was too bad because John was really a very great guy, but he was off. That was the end of Stack as far as Dryden was concerned.
DEVORKIN: There was another--at the same dinner, maybe this is what you're referring to in Wally McDougall's book, The Heavens and the Earth. You made a notation that in his book, page 165, where he's talking about the Young Turks' dinner, that even Doolittle said--that here it is. "The timid NACA leaders still held back until internal protests at the Young Turks' dinner."3 At that dinner, December 18, 1958, Doolittle hosted, and Dryden was called an old fogey.
DEVORKIN: Was that by Doolittle or by Stack?
GILRUTH: No, it wasn't by Doolittle.
MAUER: That was Stack.
GILRUTH: That's a cleaned-up version of what I heard.
MAUER: It was much stronger than that.
GILRUTH: That's good enough, though, for a history.
DEVORKIN: But how did Dryden emerge from that dinner? How soon after that did you see him? How was he feeling?
MAUER: Let's not move on just yet. I want to talk a little more about the dinner. It's called the Doolittle Dinner. Was it his idea, or do you know?
GILRUTH: Was it Doolittle's idea? I don't know, but I know he was the man who hosted it, picked up the tab.
MAUER: Earlier that day you may or may not remember, the various lab directors had been in a meeting at NACA headquarters.
MAUER: Those lab directors were basically opposed to moving into manned space, from what I understand. Is that your understanding?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I don't think so but I don't know.
MAUER: But at the dinner, much more junior people were brought in, Charles Donlan and I've forgotten who all.
GILRUTH: Donlan was brought in. I know he was one of them who was there. I don't think that John Stack was ever a great proponent of space. He was a proponent of aeronautical research, and he needed lots of money and lots of wind tunnels and things like that. He was a wind tunnel man.
MAUER: So his comments weren't tied to space, but rather he wasn't getting as much money as he wanted for his budget?
GILRUTH: He did not think that NACA was getting enough money from the Congress to do the job they ought to be doing. I want to make sure that--you know, he was not a bad man, he really felt very keenly that he was not getting the backing from top management.
DEVORKIN: I'm sure that given the circumstances, that it was probably a very comfortable dinner, that he was simply the one who broke the ice.
GILRUTH: Yes, probably so. But that was -- he did things that Dryden could never forgive, in the way he talked. Too bad. Too bad.
MAUER: The next day, on December 19th, Dryden prepared a report for the Killian Committee.
DEVORKIN: James R. Killian.
MAUER: Right, exactly. When did Dryden really start indicating that he wanted NACA to get strongly involved in the manned space effort, that the country was -- ?
GILRUTH: That was when he called me up to Washington to put together, along with Max and the other guys, a plan for Project Mercury, only we didn't call it that. That was right around the beginning of the year. Let's see, it was right around January. I don't have it on this list here, but--it was early in '58.
MAUER: So very early on Dryden was interested in getting NACA an important role.
GILRUTH: No problem with him on the re-entry body.
DEVORKIN: After Sputnik.
GILRUTH: After Sputnik. I had no problem. He was very, very sharp technically. He realized that's the only way we could do it in the foreseeable future, and so he said, "Fine." It was in August of that same year that I presented the whole plan before the Congress.
DEVORKIN: That's right. August 1.
GILRUTH: August 1, that's right. That was the result of our efforts during that early part of that year.
DEVORKIN: I'd just love to ask about that. This was a series of testimonies, this was testimony for NASA.
GILRUTH: Yes, for the budget.
DEVORKIN: For the budget, and you were called. This is the authorization of construction for NASA.
GILRUTH: Yes, that's right.
DEVORKIN: Just for the record, it's HR 13619, hearing before the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: Dr. Dryden introduced you.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: That was just after O'Sullivan spoke. And I'm curious, this is the same William J. O'Sullivan we talked about before, a man that I'm eternally interested in for a number of reasons. He was reporting on scientific work, and then you came to provide the budget for the manned portion. Was there any link between the two or--why did Dryden place you after O'Sullivan? Because he said here, "I think we will reverse the order and take the manned work next." Was it originally intended that the manned work go first?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I don't know. All I knew was, I was supposed to talk about that. I forget what O'Sullivan... He worked with this big balloon that he flew in space.
GILRUTH: Echo. That might have been what he was going to talk about. Echo.
DEVORKIN: So they were leading up to various--I'm just speculating at this point, and if you could correct me for the record, this is speculation. I'm interested in Dryden's rationale for how he presented the plan to Congress. The most utilitarian things first, such as Echo, which was the beginning of passive communications systems, which were obviously of use for space. Then moving on to the things that maybe were more provocative, such as manned space flight, things that may cause a little more debate in Congress. What do you think? How did Dryden work when it came to dealing with Congress?
GILRUTH: Dryden felt that the man in space was a very important part of the new agency. He had to have that. I think he wanted to get that out of the way, be sure he had a good hearing on that, and that somebody wouldn't dissolve the meeting and put it off to the next week or something like that. I think he wanted to run that off and get it into the record.
DEVORKIN: But he didn't want it first.
GILRUTH: I don't know. But I do know that O'Sullivan was there at the time, and I can't remember, it must have been Echo that he was talking about.
DEVORKIN: Because the person who followed you was Cartwright, and he was to describe the program that dealt with advanced technology, bigger boosters, higher energy fuels, things like that, which are even further down the line. I guess Echo was something that was possible quite quickly. So maybe it was chronological, as to what NASA could do first, then next.
GILRUTH: I don't know.
MAUER: I keep coming back to an earlier time.
DEVORKIN: I hope we're not being too exasperating?
GILRUTH: No. No.
MAUER: We each grab hold of a bit different thing, and run with it a little while. When you were called up to do the budget work, what specifically was your role in developing the budget for Dryden, preparing to turn NACA into NASA and get into manned space?
GILRUTH: I had to put together a plan for doing it. Come up with the first-year costs. Of course we realized that if it were approved, we'd have to do it, so we were pretty careful to put things in that we thought we could do, which was good. This sort of thing didn't happen very often, I'll tell you, to be called up to put together--well I guess it cost 400 million dollars by the time we got through. It was a big program and a very important program for the United States.
MAUER: When you were first called up, were you just to work on a general budget, or did you have a sense that you were being called up to work on a budget for a program that, if approved, you would head?
GILRUTH: I knew exactly. It was not the whole space program. It was a program for putting man in space. I had a pretty good idea that I might have something to do with that. Since Dryden asked me to head up the group... You know, you never know. Dryden did all the good work of getting NASA all lined up, and instead of being the director of NASA, why, they put in Glennan, bam, like that, and made him the deputy, which was a blow to Dryden. I know he felt very, very badly about that. But I guess he didn't have the political clout or something.
DEVORKIN: How did you feel about it?
GILRUTH: I thought it was cruel. It was too bad. But there wasn't anything I could do about it, of course.
MAUER: Before Glennan was brought in, before NASA was created, and as NACA was working to develop a program for a civilian manned space program, Dryden saw himself as a person that would probably lead this effort.
MAUER: When you were brought in, you didn't know but it was a reasonable likelihood that you would be the person to actually head up this manned space program.
MAUER: Who did you work with, not in the most immediate terms, but---am I correct in assuming that you had contact with Bureau of the Budget people who were working with NACA?
GILRUTH: No. I didn't work with the Bureau of Budget people.
MAUER: The Presidential Science Advisor Committee, PSAC?
GILRUTH: We talked to the PSAC. I made a presentation to, I think PSAC or one of their subcommittees. I remember that. This is when I ran into Kistiakowsky, who was the one that said, "That will only be the most expensive funeral man has ever had." Of course, he was not on the same wavelength at all, couldn't understand why anybody would want to do that.
DEVORKIN: Why were you briefing PSAC?
GILRUTH: Because Dryden thought that it was one of the committees there in Washington that was influential, and they ought to know what we were thinking about. That's all. He put all his cards on the table.
MAUER: The NACA had a longstanding relationship with the military. You were working on the budget for manned space, the military has internal --
GILRUTH: They were interested in the manned space program.
MAUER: Did you have contact with them when you were working on the budget?
GILRUTH: We did talk with them, but I don't think they had a plan. They were all mixed up. They'd start something and they'd stop it. They were not sure what they wanted to do.
DEVORKIN: Who did you have contact with, in which agency, was it within ARPA [Advance Research Project Agency]?
GILRUTH: Yes, I talked some with ARPA. But you know, originally there were people in the Air Force that were very interested in something like man in space.
DEVORKIN: Do you recall their names?
GILRUTH: No, I can find them I guess but I can't remember them now.
DEVORKIN: It would be very interesting, I think, for us to have those names, at least the officers. If we were able to trace down records of contact, because they would always have records of consultative services, paper trails of people they could talked to.
GILRUTH: Yes. They never had a concise program of what they thought they wanted to do. Their thrust didn't last long enough in one direction to get that far. They really didn't have a very strong group of people in their organization.
DEVORKIN: Is that because they didn't have a mission, or they had conflicting--
GILRUTH: They didn't have a mission, no. They didn't have a mission.
TAPE 2, SIDE 1
DEVORKIN: We were talking about the lack of mission in the Air Force.
MAUER: Yes, and in ARPA. Was there a sense of competition in this period, early 1958, between the Air Force, ARPA, and NACA, or was it just a continuation of the tradition of cooperation? What was the situation?
GILRUTH: I don't think that they had any feeling of competition between us. Of course I was sent back to Langley Field and told to get on with the project. I had to create, gather a staff. We had to go out to industry and get them going on building the hardware, which meant that we had to write specs and we had to select contractors. I know that the Air Force and the Defense services were just sitting back grinning, to watch how this fledgling group was going to do once they got in the big time. We'd never had anything like this, like they did with their airplanes and so on. They'd have these big contracts. But we didn't do badly. I would say we did very well.
GILRUTH: Because we copied the things that the Defense services did where we could, and where we didn't think they were good, why, we didn't copy them.
MAUER: How would you know what they did was good and what other things were not good?
GILRUTH: Because we could see how they worked out.
MAUER: Was this because you had contacts with the military and with the contractors, and you could see the relationships that they--
GILRUTH: We got some of those people with us. We had people from the Navy, from the Air Force, from the Army, and we had access to all the different things that were around there. We had lots of good help. There were lots of people that weren't all that helpful, but we soon got our ducks lined up.
MAUER: How did you go about lining up your ducks? Can you remember some of the people?
GILRUTH: Sure, I remember the people. I gathered together people. Some were much more helpful than others. It was great because there were a lot of people that would come to work at a civil service salary, as long as they were working on this space program. They would take a big cut from what they were making with industry.
DEVORKIN: Can you remember any names as examples of this?
GILRUTH: One of them was Jim Elms. I don't know whether you know Jim Elms or not. He was a great help to me, and stayed with me for a year or so, and I still see him about ten times a year. We're old buddies.
DEVORKIN: Where did he come from and what did he do?
GILRUTH: He was a Caltech person. He was working with industry, worked for Ford for a while and with General Dynamics.
DEVORKIN: What sort of expertise did he bring that was helpful to you?
GILRUTH: I guess the thing that helped me the most--he was good at many things but he was a genius at organization. He helped me organize. And that was extremely helpful to me. There were other people too. I can't recall these. A lot of good people. George Trimble is another one. He came from Martin, and was my deputy for a while.
DEVORKIN: Did these people show up on your doorstep, or did you seek them out? Did you have connections and you knew who was good?
GILRUTH: A little bit of both. A little bit of both. When Elms left me, I had to find somebody else. I found Trimble. Trimble put in a year or something like that.
DEVORKIN: I know you had plenty of good people you brought with you from--
GILRUTH: Had lots of good people.
DEVORKIN: I'd like to back up again and use your memoir, if I could, then bring you right back to where we are. You said that you made a very interesting deal with Thompson. You went back and you had to get people.
DEVORKIN: The only place you could get people in the beginning was from Langley. Thompson was worried that you had been drawing off the best people, so you and he made a deal that for every person you wanted, you had to take someone else they didn't want.
DEVORKIN: Is this exactly how it went? Is that really what happened? What did you do with those people that they didn't want?
GILRUTH: Sometimes they turned out pretty well. They weren't allbad. Somehow or other, if they were real bad, they just somehow went away. They got lost. I suppose they ended up with rather menial jobs somewhere, if they didn't go away.
DEVORKIN: But in the beginning, as a real expedient, you had to look inside what you already had. How long was it before people started knocking on your door, or you had the pick of the crop out there, that people from the outside with greater salaries would come in and volunteer their services -- not volunteer -- but the best people, as you say, the Jim Elms, the George Trimbles. Not that they would be better than what you had, but it was a much bigger field. Can you recall the rate at which this happened? Was this a very quick process?
GILRUTH: No, it wasn't quick. But as you integrated it over a year, it was quite a bit. And of course, we had a very dynamic program. The Mercury suddenly became Apollo, and Gemini was thrown in. We had to have Gemini with it. We had a very, very big program by the time we got to the end of that decade, when we were getting close to the end of the sixties. We had a big program.
DEVORKIN: Oh, absolutely. You mentioned that Gemini had to go with it. What do you mean by that?
GILRUTH: When we were told to fly to the moon, we had only Project Mercury. That was a very bright but not a very learningful program for all the things you had to do in flying to the moon. We didn't have the ability to fly men for two weeks. We didn't have controlled re-entry. We hadn't rendezvoused. We had to learn how to rendezvous in order to go to the moon. We had all kinds of things to learn to do. We didn't know and hadn't trained our people to do.
DEVORKIN: Of course, there were a lot of things going on in parallel here. They hadn't decided upon earth orbit rendezvous or lunar orbit rendezvous. If I recall, from some of the writings, direct descent was still very strong.
GILRUTH: Yes, but we'd be still trying to do it if we had gone that way. Because it was immensely difficult to go direct descent.
DEVORKIN: Yes, but that seemed to be the choice in the beginning.
GILRUTH: It was, because Wernher wanted to build a big rocket.
DEVORKIN: Oh, no question there. But was there ever any talk of sending Mercury to the moon?
GILRUTH: Oh no. Not a chance.
DEVORKIN: Gemini came in, would you say purely as a progressive step toward Apollo?
GILRUTH: Yes, as a training device.
DEVORKIN: Was there a military interest as well?
GILRUTH: No. Well, they had an interest, but it didn't live though. I don't think they had a very bona fide military interest.
MAUER: Can you talk about that, or is that something that's still classified?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I'm sure it isn't still classified, because it never had any real status.
MAUER: What was that military interest then?
GILRUTH: They just wanted to have their men get flight experience. We took a lot of their men and flew them in our programs, very good men.
MAUER: That was still when the Air Force thought they were doing Dynasoar.
MAUER: Getting men into space put them in a much better position for what they were projecting for the future.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: Can I come back once again, we keep doing this. When you were brought up to work on the budget, were you fulltime here in Washington for a while?
MAUER: Or you were shuttling back and forth between Washington and Langley?
GILRUTH: Well, I'll tell you. We called that the Hot Summer of 19, whatever it was.
GILRUTH: '58. NACA had an old office building, I forget where it was now, but it was over near the White House.
DEVORKIN: That wasn't the Dolly Madison Building?
GILRUTH: No, Dolly Madison came a year later. This was a big tall --I think we were on the seventh floor. It was not air-conditioned, and it was summer. We had a big room there with about ten telephones in it. The people that were working on the space program would sit in this room and call up all the people they needed to talk with and make appointments. We would then go back home for the weekends. We lived at Langley. It wasn't that far. Come back the next Monday. That's the way we worked most of the summer until we got these things put together, and of course we then also had our hearings. It was not very good working conditions. But we were young and we were excited about what we were doing.
MAUER: Do you remember briefing Herb York, the chief scientist of ARPA, in the beginning of April, 1958?
MAUER: What was that briefing about?
GILRUTH: Well, at one time he was working with ARPA, I think, and they were interested in this. It turned out that he wasn't that interested in what we were talking about.
MAUER: Why was that?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I've forgotten. I remember going over there with Gus Crowley and talking with him, but I don't remember just why. I don't think he could see why anybody would want to do that.
DEVORKIN: Here you have York, you have Kistiakowsky, you have of course PSAC people, all--
GILRUTH: Yes, PSAC people were very antagonistic.
DEVORKIN: That's quite right. You first met this antagonism, as you recall, back in the X-15 program. Why manned? Why manned?
GILRUTH: Right. That's right. Why not send an instrument?
MAUER: Isn't that the continuing theme of the scientists?
GILRUTH: I've heard that all my life.
DEVORKIN: Did you ever, when you were preparing for the hearings in the Hot Summer -- and I'm not taking you back or forward, we're at the right time, right?
DEVORKIN: Did you have strategy meetings? Did you have hallway conversations?
GILRUTH: Of course. Because here were all these people. We'd go out and eat dinner together and work all evening talking about what we were doing and thrashing things out.
DEVORKIN: I meant strategy sessions specifically to deal with-- you knew that issue was coming, it was already there, manned versus unmanned. That you were going to meet it somewhere. Did you have any memorable strategy sessions or general impressions of how you tried to deal with that or anticipate that?
GILRUTH: We never met that issue. We assumed that it was going to be manned. There were going to be some things, some programs, that were just going to fly a man.
DEVORKIN: So you expended no energy off-duty or on--
GILRUTH: No, we didn't take the pros and cons of manned versus unmanned. There are some things you have to have a man on, just like an airplane.
DEVORKIN: In the world I live in here, I know that if I'm going to try to push a program, I'm going to try to anticipate--even if a program was going to go, I knew it--that I still had to justify it. I'm in that position now. So we sit around trying to figure out what are the criteria for success, that can demonstrate the need. What are the criteria that we have to admit are expensive and could maybe just as well be done in another mode. I know that I'm going through this sort of soul searching procedure, knowing that I'm spending a lot of money doing something that other people don't fully understand. Just knowing they're out there makes me think about it. Now, are you saying that you didn't waste any time worrying about that sort of thing?
GILRUTH: I didn't waste any time on why we had to have a man in that spacecraft, because, by definition, we were competing with the Soviets who, we felt, were going to fly men. We already had seen enough of the reaction of the public to them just flying a dog, that we felt that they were going to ride that horse, and we'd better get going. That's the way Dryden felt, and that's pretty much what the Congress felt. We didn't argue why. We did it. In my testimony, no one said, "Well, why do you want to have a man in it?" Nobody said that. Now, they had said it before, many times, but when I got before the Congress, that Select committee knew perfectly well why the man was in it.
DEVORKIN: Did you go into that committee knowing that they weren't going to ask you?
GILRUTH: No. I didn't have any idea what they were going to say.
MAUER: But were you worried that they--
GILRUTH: I wasn't worried.
MAUER: For the reasons you've just stated.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: So, here were the scientists on the PSAC committee and other places--
GILRUTH: They always lived in a world of their own.
MAUER: But they also didn't represent any real threat to you, is what you're saying?
GILRUTH: Yes, that's right.
MAUER: You could just ignore this because you knew what was happening.
GILRUTH: When Kistiakowsky did that, and we left there, I said, "Boy, that was really rough." And Dryden said, "Don't worry about it, you did fine. Don't worry about it. That was a good meeting." He knew Kistiakowsky.
DEVORKIN: So he knew it was going to happen.
GILRUTH: Sure. Oh yes, he knew it was going to happen.
MAUER: When you first went up to Washington, was it clear to you that he knew what was going to happen? Did his attitude change in those early weeks and months, or was it clear from the beginning?
GILRUTH: No, I think it was clear from the beginning. And looking through some of his papers, he saw the way things were going to go. That the new agency was going to have to pioneer in things like that.
DEVORKIN: You say looking through his papers, his published papers?
GILRUTH: I don't know if they're published or not. I have some memorandums and things from Dryden.
MAUER: From Dryden?
DEVORKIN: These are in your home?
DEVORKIN: I'm glad this is on the record, because we would like very much to know about those memoranda.
GILRUTH: Sure, all right. They're quite interesting.
MAUER: How much credit would you give to Dryden, as a person, for directing NACA to doing the things necessary to it becoming the core for NASA?
GILRUTH: I give him the highest marks. He was terrific. He was very bright. He believed that what he was doing was important, and he thought these programs were important.
MAUER: Let me ask the question a little tougher way. I don't mean to be disrespectful, indeed I don't agree with this point of view, but let me come back to the man who made the rude remarks, Stack. The polite way is that he called Dryden an old fogey. What is your view? Clearly you're indicating you think that Dryden wasn't an old fogey. Explain to us why you held the opinion. I'm not saying it well because you've already answered that question, excuse me--not only did Stack at the Young Turks' dinner call Dryden an old fogey, but the McDougall book implies that that is what Dryden was.4
GILRUTH: The McDougall book?
MAUER: There's a new book out. So this view of Dryden has been perpetuated. I think it's very important that we get very clearly down your sense of Dryden, because I think you're giving a very different one than this. Indeed, as I read through various sources, I feel very comfortable with what you're saying. But Dryden called you up, and others to start working on this, very early on, because -- what were the reasons for his calling you up to start working on the budget?
GILRUTH: He was in Washington. He was really the man that Jimmy Doolittle had tapped to try to lead NACA into the Promised Land, so to speak, with the space program.
MAUER: Jimmy Doolittle tapped him?
GILRUTH: I think Jimmy Doolittle--he was the head of NACA, the committee, and he was a good friend, a close friend of Hugh Dryden. And Hugh Dryden was in a position -- he was an employee of -- I can't think of the name of the outfit. Anyway, he lived in Washington. He was a man who understood the technical side, and he also understood the political side. He was a very highly "thought" of man. He was a perfect man to engineer and carry out this transition from NACA into NASA. And he did a masterful job.
MAUER: Speak directly to that, he was the right man to make this transition. Why was Dryden the right man?
GILRUTH: He was the right man because he absolutely had the credentials of a scientist. He was a great scientist. He was a very well-thought-of scientist. He also understood engineering. He had built some guided missiles during the war that were successful. So he also had the talent of an engineer. He was well understood and known by Jimmy Doolittle, who trusted him. So that when the time came, Jimmy Doolittle apparently just said,"Hugh, will you try to make this thing happen? I'll help you any way I can." Dryden took the reins, and I think, wasn't he made the director of NACA for a while? I think he was director.
MAUER: Yes, he was director at this time.
GILRUTH: I knew George Lewis, I knew him well, but I can't remember just how the transition was made from Lewis to Dryden. I don't think there was an interim director of NACA. I think it went from George Lewis to Dryden. That should be possible to find out by looking at the NACA reports.
MAUER: So from the very beginning of your work, Dryden was committed to making NACA the core institution for a new civilian space agency which became NASA?
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: This was his goal and his intention.
GILRUTH: That was his goal and his intention. It certainly was. I don't know just when he reached this point, but I know that he did. When he talked to me, he'd already reached that.
MAUER: Let me ask you about something you may well not remember but just on the chance that you might, Dryden gave a speech January 27, 1958, to the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences in New York City.
MAUER: He stated that the goal of the program should be the development of manned satellites and the travel of man to the moon and nearby planets.
GILRUTH: He said that in '58?
MAUER: January '58, he said this. So that this is an indication, I would think, of how strongly he felt. But your reaction is that this is surprising even you a little bit.
GILRUTH: Yes. Well, I thought it was harder than that. I was right, too.
DEVORKIN: Was it something he had to say, do you think?
GILRUTH: I don't know. Well, I think he had to say things like that.
DEVORKIN: Was he good at saying things like that?
DEVORKIN: The kind of thing that I'd like to be able to appreciate about Dryden a little more.
GILRUTH: He was extremely bright. You see, he was right. We could do it. He was right. I was not that smart. I thought it was harder.
DEVORKIN: You were concentrating upon the present project, instead of looking to the future.
DEVORKIN: Did he ever come to you, at that time, January '58 or even slightly before, to your knowledge, and ask anyone--that statements like that, that he might make in public, are ludicrous, ridiculous? Did he ever ask your opinion before he made a public statement?
GILRUTH: He made up his own mind. I think so. We were always telling him what we thought, though. He knew what we thought.
DEVORKIN: So he would have been aware of how you felt.
GILRUTH: Yes. I certainly didn't say that I didn't think we could go to the moon. But if he had asked me, I might have said I think it would be terribly hard to do. I told President Kennedy when he said, "I want to go to the moon," I said, "Well, that's very hard to do." "But," I said, "I don't know that you can't." So that was fair and square. I didn't know that you couldn't. And it turned out, it was pretty straightforward. But how we ever did it, and all those things worked, with all those single point failures, in the sequence--there were some people who wanted to keep on flying those things, you know. A lot more of them -- I said "Not me, you get another boy. You'll have to get another guy to handle it. You'll have to get another boy because I'm not going to stay around for it if you're going to keep doing it."
DEVORKIN: Did you have a real strong feeling that with that number of single point failures, no matter how good the system, you were going to have an accident?
GILRUTH: Sooner or later you would. And we had, how many landings? Lots of them. We had all we needed. There wasn't that much difference between the sites we explored. The moon's surface is fairly uniform.
MAUER: So you weren't really upset when budgetary pressures ultimately forced NASA to cut back on the number of scheduled the flights, in order to make sure there was enough money to get the Shuttle started up?
GILRUTH: Oh, I think it was time to quit the flights to the moon. Regardless of money, if we had all the money in the world, I wouldn't have wanted to keep doing that.
DEVORKIN: Wasn't the homogeneity of the landing sites also a function of finding safe sites?
GILRUTH: No. We just picked out sites and went there.
MAUER: To ask another question dealing with Dryden -- and it may be something you don't know about. If so, that's fine. The end of January, January 31st, to be exact, 1958, Lieutenant General Donald Putt wrote to Dryden inviting NACA's participation in the man-in-space program. Putt envisioned that NACA would continue in the same role that it had been playing in aeronautics with NACA being be the supplier of needed research data. This was to cover both the orbit program and also Dynasoar. Are you familiar with that letter that he wrote?
GILRUTH: I wouldn't have thought of it if you hadn't brought it up, but I do know, there was a period of time there when the Air Force was very much interested in picking up the man-in-space program. Don Putt was the head of that kind of work, the research in new programs. I don't know exactly what his official title was, but I knew him quite well. It was a friendly gesture to Dryden, and we had worked very well with the Air Force as well as the Navy in the past, so we were quite comfortable working with them where they had the lead role and set the program, but then we did the research that was necessary. That had been our role all through the past years up to that point. But when the time came for us to take the lead role, we found it was not all that hard to do either.
MAUER: You knew General Putt well, you indicated.
MAUER: Is this because of this long standing relationship between NACA and the Air Force?
GILRUTH: Yes. I'd been on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board for many years, and Putt was active with the Air Force in connection with the Scientific Advisory Board. He was the director of that for a while, and he was also on the NACA committee, I believe, so that we were well acquainted.
MAUER: Dryden's response to Putt's letter was that NACA would cooperate with the Air Force and Putt, but when it came to actually making a formal agreement, he didn't do that. In fact, Dryden informed Putt that NACA was working on its own designs. He said he would coordinate with the Air Force, but he didn't make a formal agreement. Indeed, it wasn't until May 1959 that in a formal agreement--well after NASA had been created, and your space task group was going. What was happening in January of 1958?
GILRUTH: I think that Dryden had a very good ear to the ground. I'm not sure of this, but I would think that he could see the hand writing on the wall, that probably the manned space program was going to be run by a civilian agency. Of course he was in line at that time to be the head of it, and certainly at least would have a lot of say in it. He didn't want to sign any papers with the Air Force at that time.
MAUER: But that's precisely what I wanted you to say. I appreciate your making that observation, because what I see in it is one thing, because I wasn't involved, and getting you to say what you see in it is, I think, the critical item here. In that hot summer in 1958, you were working on the budget, but also, you realized that once NASA gets going, you're likely to be the person to head up what was going to become the Mercury program. When did you start thinking about what you were going to be doing? What you were going to need to do for putting a man into space?
GILRUTH: I think we were thinking about that all along, but not in detail. Of course, we had to face that detail when Glennan was made the head of NASA, and he called me up to his office, along with other people there, and told me to get back to Langley Field and to get on with the program. Then I found out I had the job of recruiting.
I would like to mention one other thing. When Glennan called me up there and brought me into his office to tell me to get on with the program, there was a young man there in his office named Wes Hjornevik. He was an assistant to Glennan, a very young man, but obviously very bright. After my meeting with Glennan, Hjornevik came to me and said, "Bob, I would like very much to go to Langley Field with you and be your head of administration." I didn't say yes or no, because I didn't know him, but I told Floyd Thompson, who had been my boss at Langley for many years. He said, "I know him, and you'd do well to get him. He's good." So I called him up and said, "That's fine, come on down when you can." He was our administrative man and kept us out of trouble, with all those contracts that we had to let, all our arrangements with the Defense services. He was a big factor in the success of our program.
DEVORKIN: I'd just like to say that in my experience, administrative officers sometimes can be the bane of existence of the engineers and the scientists trying to get a job done, because they're--
GILRUTH: That's right. But this fellow said, "Just tell me what it is you want, and I'll get it for you."
DEVORKIN: That's procurement. So he was more procurement than in managing internal expenses.
GILRUTH: We didn't have any internal expenses. We just had a few civil service people, and we--I don't know who paid for the building. We didn't build any buildings at that time.
MAUER: What was his background, that gave him the experience to be of such help to you?
GILRUTH: I don't remember.
DEVORKIN: Another tack to take. From the last interview, one of the things we discussed that is of great interest I think to a number of people is the change in your style of activity that was evidently going to happen now. You were not going to be an in-house oriented group.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: And you brought up this man, Wes Hjornevik -- was he unique? Was there no one at Langley who was familiar with external contracts, being able to administer to a program that was fundamentally a driver of huge contracts with industry? Was it just simply something -- was he pirated in a friendly sort of way?
GILRUTH: No, he wasn't. There was a man at Langley who handled all the contracts, a fellow named Sherwood Butler. We had used him for a while. He took over the procurement of some of the things we wanted, fairly small things. But he didn't want to risk his career on a brand new outfit that was pioneering something that might last only a few months. No, you had to have a lot of faith and a lot of vision in order to want that job that Hjornevik wanted.
DEVORKIN: He certainly was not--and you can correct me, of course, because this will give us a sense of the scale of the operation --was he a one-man operation or did he build a staff? GILRUTH: He built a staff.
DEVORKIN: What grew quicker, if I can ask a question like that, the procurement staff or your in-house technical staff?
GILRUTH: The technical staff. We didn't have that much of a procurement staff. Hjornevik was not an empire builder.
DEVORKIN: Now the technical staff was growing to plan, to design, or to help write technical RFPs.
GILRUTH: We had to monitor all those contractors. We had to bring on board astronauts. We had to select them. We had to train them. We had to set up a world tracking network. We had to figure out how we were going to pick these things up in the ocean. We had to have liaison with the Navy. We had millions of things to do, when we started out with just me, and Max and Hjornevik. We had a tremendous job of recruiting, but it was made easy by the fact that there were a lot of people who wanted to do it. But it was still tough, and it was still hard to keep this organization efficient. But we managed to do it, and we didn't have any real bad things. We didn't goof on our contracting and spend a lot of money, send a lot of money to somebody who was crooked, or anything like that. When you have to spend a lot of money, and you're in a big jam, and you're trying to get a whole lot of things done, it's hard to be precise, and not do something wrong.
MAUER: It seems to me that, going through the history of it, it's not only just hard, period, but you and your groups faced some special problems. You'd been basically researchers, and with the Space Task Group, you were going from research into R and D in which you were going to let contracts and then you were going to supervise the actual building of the spacecraft.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: All of a sudden you were taking on a lot of responsibilities that you hadn't faced that much before.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: Yet, in listening to you talk about it, you had a sense of confidence that you could get the job done.
GILRUTH: Yes. That's right.
MAUER: What was it about your experiences that let you have that confidence, getting into this whole new area of dealing with contracts?
TAPE 2, SIDE 2
GILRUTH: I didn't have time to think about that problem, really. All we did was, it seemed to be very straight forward. The people at McDonnell, I'd known before. I knew Mr. McDonnell. Yardley, who is now the president, was a stress analysis man.
MAUER: So you already knew many of the key contractors?
GILRUTH: I knew them. But I'd never had a relationship where they were the contractor, you know, and that sort of thing, but it didn't make a diffrence. I was "Bob" and we could talk about what the problems were. We really didn't have any very bad problems. We had some arguments about how the capsule should be built. And we resolved those on a rational basis, and I think we were satisfied. It wasn't hard to do that, and of course, the Atlas was a little different, because we were buying the Atlas from General Dynamics through the Air Force, and of course the Air Force was really quite concerned that we might give their rocket a bad name, because they weren't sure that we knew we were doing. And especially when we -- the second Atlas we flew blew up at Mach 1 just 60 seconds after it was started, and --
DEVORKIN: But that was prepared by the Air Force for you, wasn't it?
GILRUTH: Yes. But see, it was a case of, we had our spacecraft on the front, and they said, "Well, that came apart and went back and hit the Atlas and caused it to blow." Which it might have.
MAUER: They also had motivation to blame your spacecraft, because if they blamed your spacecraft, then their rocket wasn't to blame.
GILRUTH: Sure. And obviously, there was a case for an argument, and well, we wanted to fly again. And I said, "I believe that the skin of your rocket is too thin," I think it was 20/1000th. The Atlas was a stainless steel balloon I said, "The turbulence from our spacecraft is probably enough to cause that to oscillate and wrinkle and it probably ruptures." So I wanted to put a collar around it of heavier stainless steel with some bands that would tighten it up, and I made the mistake of calling it a "belly band." This was very, very unpopular with the Air Force. But I said, "We paid for this rocket, and we need to fly." They said, "Well, we'll put heavier gauge material on the rocket, but that will take five months to do." I'd already looked into that, and I said, "We can't wait five months. We need to put the belly band on." Nobody in the Air Force would approve it. We finally carried it all the way to the Secretary of the Air Force, who I'd known. I said, "I will agree to take all blame if it breaks," which meant I would be out of a job. I said I was the guy that insisted on doing this -- I said,"okay, I'll take the blame if it blows." Well, we put the belly band on, and I remember very well when we launched that thing. I went outside all by myself, behind a bush there, and watched that thing go. I kept timing it, and when 60 seconds has elapsed, that was the time it went through Mach 1. It kept staying together--and I said I'll go to it was one minute and ten seconds. Then I went back into the blockhouse and I said, "Well, we can relax a little bit. We didn't have that problem again." That saved us four or five months in our program.
DEVORKIN: Did you come up with the idea, or someone on your staff, and you took the responsibility for it, the belly band?
GILRUTH: The belly band? Oh, I don't know. I think maybe it was somebody like Yardley who said, "Well, what we need to do is to strengthen that up," and so we got the idea of the belly band. But it was my idea to carry the thing through the hard knocks.
DEVORKIN: You never asked somebody at headquarters to vouch for you?
GILRUTH: Well, Jimmy Webb was head of it and he knew all about it. I told him. He knew our problem.
DEVORKIN: But you were the one who was ready to take the heat.
GILRUTH: Yes, somebody had to take the heat. I was the logical one to take the heat. And maybe he would have saved my neck, if it had blown up, but I don't think he could have. In any case, that's a true story, that was really an important thing, because we couldn't have stood that four or five month delay.
DEVORKIN: Let me ask, why did you leave the bunker? Why did you go outside to watch it?
GILRUTH: Because I wanted to get the best possible view of what was happening. Inside there, you couldn't see very much. You could see all the instruments and everything.
MAUER: But it sounds like, having put your job on the line, you were also willing to put your life on the line.
GILRUTH: Oh, no, no. It wasn't dangerous.
MAUER: It wasn't, even at launch?
GILRUTH: I wasn't that close to it.
MAUER: A question, in listening to your account now, what comes to my mind is, it strikes me differently, maybe it's in the record and I just didn't pick up on it before--but the failure that prompted you to come to the belly band decision was directly associated with the dynamic forces of going through the sound barrier at Mach 1, as best you could tell?
GILRUTH: I think so.
MAUER: And that's why you went outside, because you wanted to see the rocket's actual performance when it went through the sound barrier.
GILRUTH: Well, you could see the failure better from outside than you could on a television screen inside. It wasn't that good a rendition. You could see better outside.
MAUER: If that problem was going to be repeated, it was going to be repeated at Mach 1.
GILRUTH: Yes. That's where it happened before, and that's where the buffeting was the worst. If you got through that, I thought we were perfectly all right. It turned out that it was. From then on, we had three good Atlases in a row. No, four. I think every one. Glenn and all the other astronauts except Grissom, Grissom and Shepard, flew on that Atlas--Deke Slayton of course, didn't fly.
MAUER: Did they fly Atlases with belly bands,?
GILRUTH: No, from then on, they had the thick skin.
MAUER: So the belly band was a temporary thing to bridge between the very thin one to the new one.
GILRUTH: That's all it was, so you could make your flight without losing five months.
MAUER: In that situation, five months was at a premium because of the intensity of the race with the Soviets.
GILRUTH: At that time, you see, Gagarin hadn't flown yet. We were still hoping that we could somehow or other luck out and orbit a man first, but Gagarin flew right before we flew Al Shepard. The Wiesner Committee held us up for enough time -- otherwise, at least, we could have--
MAUER: The Wiesner Committee held you up?
MAUER: In what respect? I don't remember that part of the story.
GILRUTH: When the Republicans lost and Kennedy took over, the Science Advisor became Jerry Wiesner of MIT, and he was very much against the man-in-space program, and Kennedy had no polarity at all. He didn't know much about it and was not interested. So Wiesner decided to hold hearings on the man-in-space program, with the idea in his mind that it should be stopped. But Jim Webb had been also picked by the Republicans. Jim Webb and I had fortunately gotten to know each other, and he thought that we had a good thing going. He wasn't supposed to administrate a program that lost all of its guts, so he was my friend. When Wiesner had these hearings to see whether or not Mercury should be cancelled--
DEVORKIN: This was in January of '61, along in there, early '61, right after Kennedy became President?
DEVORKIN: And Glennan was--
GILRUTH: Glennan was no longer.
MAUER: That's right.
GILRUTH: Webb was the new man running it. Glennan was the old man. So the Wiesner Committee especially had some doctors on board who would not believe that man could stand weightlessness even for a few seconds. I said, "Well, we can take you up in an airplane and fly weightless, and it doesn't do anything bad to you. It hasn't hurt the monkeys that we orbited. We've already done that." Of course, we were going to make ballistic flights, up and down, like Al Shepard's flight. We hadn't made that yet. And we were trying to get permission to make the Al Shepard flight, and we coudln't get permission from Wiesner that it was safe, not from the point of view of the rocket blowing up, but from a point of view of, was it worth it and could you stand weightlessness? Well, it went on for quite a while, and finally Webb got frustrated, and said that we're going to go ahead and fly, we believe that we've done everything we can do, we have this program and we're going to fly, and if you don't think that that's right, you will have to make your case in the newspapers.
DEVORKIN: This is Webb talking to Wiesner.
GILRUTH: I don't think he talked directly to Wiesner, but he gave him that message. And so that's the way it ended. We went ahead and flew Al Shepard, and when Kennedy saw how the American people loved that flight, it was all over as far as Wiesner was concerned.
DEVORKIN: Did Webb say that indirectly to Wiesner before Gagarin or after?
GILRUTH: Oh, I don't know what he said--
MRS. GILRUTH: They want to know the time sequence, whether he said that before or after Gagarin flew.
GILRUTH: Oh, it was before.
DEVORKIN: This takes me back to that question of, who in the agency could have or did anticipate this kind of interference from Wiesner? Wiesner didn't exist in the Eisenhower Administration.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: To the degree that, there was Kistiakowsky, there was maybe a little bit of jabbing back and forth, but not anything--
GILRUTH: No, Kistiakowsky had only his own say. He didn't have any power. Now, Wiesner had a lot of power when he headed that commission.
DEVORKIN: That's right, so no one foresaw this? Is this what you're saying?
GILRUTH: That's right. All of a sudden, there he was. And he put that committee--he was Kennedy's Science Advisor, and this was one of the things he was going to advise him on, and he was a great threat.
DEVORKIN: No one warned let's say obvious advocates like Lyndon Johnson or others, to your knowledge at least, there were no boding thunderclouds, once we knew that Kennedy was going to be the President or whatever, after November '60, after the election, what might be in store.
GILRUTH: That's right. And LBJ didn't become a factor until much later. He became a great friend of space.
DEVORKIN: I thought he had been even in the Senate?
GILRUTH: He was. He was a friend of space even there, but he didn't help out any with the Wiesner kind of stuff. I don't know why. We didn't try to get his help.
MAUER: Let me once again go back in time. I feel comfortable the way we're doing things. I assume that you feel comfortable with our following something through and then coming back and picking up something earlier.
GILRUTH: Sure, whatever you want to do.
DEVORKIN: I think he's used to it.
MAUER: There's one detail that we've talked about quite a bit already in earlier interviews, but there's an aspect of it I'd like to understand a bit better. July 2, 1958, you were part of the group (you, Dryden, I don't know who else who went and briefed the Killian Committee, and this was the meeting in which you felt during the meeting that it was going terribly, and Dryden afterwards said it went well. And the part of it I would like to understand better is, what was there about the meeting that made you feel it wasn't going well?
GILRUTH: I really can't tell you that. I don't have much of any recollection of what I said or what I did. What I do know is, I had to have said something about flying men in space, because of Kistiakowsky's remark that it would be the most expensive funeral man had ever had. So that tells a whole lot.
MAUER: Oh yes. And what stuck in your mind was, how different your perception of the meeting was from Dryden's.
GILRUTH: He didn't want me to become downhearted, and he didn't think that Kistiakowsky had any big following, and he didn't think that those remarks were going to permeate all the thinking.
MAUER: So it wasn't so much that he felt the meeting had gone well, he just didn't think it was very important what Kistiakowsky said?
GILRUTH: That's right. I think that's exactly right. He felt that whatever we did at that meeting was going to have very little effect. That's all I would say.
MAUER: And in your experience, that's the way it proved out? It didn't have much effect?
GILRUTH: As far as I know, it didn't.
MAUER: Sometimes it's just important to have the obvious stated directly, and that's why I asked you that question.
MAUER: Now, in August of 1958, Eisenhower made the decision to give NASA the manned space job. You'd been expecting that all along.
MAUER: But when it became clear that that's exactly what the President was going to decide, did that intensify your thinking and your planning for when you'd actually start up the job? At what point did you really start getting oriented, and really begin to think in practical terms about what you were going to need to do?
GILRUTH: I think that we'd been thinking about what we were going to need to do all along. But when Glennan called us in, and told me to go back to Langley Field and get on with the program, then we had to face up, just what we were going to do, in what order. So we just went back there and got to work. We grew out of several buildings. We started out in one office, and then pretty soon we had a floor, and then we had a building, and then we had to go from the west area back to the east area where there was a whole group of buildings that we could use. They were more or less our own, because they weren't being used by the government. We took it in steps. I think we were quite orderly, considering the bad schedule we had to work with. I think it was fairly well controlled. Thanks to a lot of help from the Langley Center, to make people available to us, and with the benevolence that lots of people wouldn't have had. Floyd Thompson was the head of that. He realized that it was very important for the new agency that this program called Project Mercury had to be a success, and he was going to do all in his power to make it a success. So that's why he was so willing to let some of his best people go, and so many of them, and although he did have to say, "You can't go on forever, but if you'll just take some of the bad guys, you can figure out what to do with them."
DEVORKIN: Was he able to keep the slots, or did he actually lose the slots?
GILRUTH: No, I think he kept the slots. But we got some valuable, highly trained people.
DEVORKIN: So he was able to hire to fill those slots.
MAUER: This was at a time when budgets were expanding because they were gearing up. I assume that made it easier for him to facilitate things for you, because even if he lost some of his best people, he still knew that he could get good people in.
GILRUTH: Yes, that's right. He wanted to help us. He wanted us to succeed.
MAUER: Now, it was on November 5, 1958, in which the Space Task Group, originally called the Task Group, was actually officially formed, I believe.
GILRUTH: Yes. I saw that date somewhere. We called ourselves the Space Task Group before anybody knew why we did it.
MAUER: What was the situation before you became official? How much work had you been doing before you had an official place in the -- ?
GILRUTH: We were official from the moment Glennan told us to go back to Langley Field, because we started doing things right away, and nobody saw fit to challenge our authority.
MAUER: That raises a question I--
GILRUTH: We weren't spending a whole lot of money right away.
MAUER: Then when did Donlan become your assistant director?
GILRUTH: I think almost right away.
DEVORKIN: Was it November? When did you make the move back to Langley?
GILRUTH: It was the day that Glennan took over. We had a meeting with him, and we went back to Langley. It might not have been the first day of the agency, but it was one of the very first days.
MAUER: So it was very early October.
GILRUTH: Yes, it was.
MAUER: That's an interesting detail in itself. Now, Donlan had not been working with you. He was, as I remember, originally out of wind tunnels?
GILRUTH: Yes. He was a wind tunnel man. He was an aeronautical engineer. But he helped me with the astronaut selection. That's the first thing he did for me. I don't know whether he had a title or not for a while. He probably didn't. I had a number of good people there with me that were not given a title right away.
DEVORKIN: Something like a premature birth and you don't have a name for the kid for a while, because you have other things to do.
GILRUTH: Nobody was too conscious of what kind of a title they had. They were trying to do things.
MAUER: You say that Donlan didn't have a title, but ultimately he became the assistant director, is that correct? But he was not immediately assistant director of the Space Task Group?
GILRUTH: I'm not really sure when this came to pass now.
DEVORKIN: Do you remember where the term Space Task Group came from, what's the origin of that?
GILRUTH: I think it was the best thing I could think of. A lot of people wanted to call it the Task Force. I didn't think that was a good thing, Task Force. It was a group.
DEVORKIN: Not a Tiger Team?
GILRUTH: Not a Tiger Team, not a Skunk Works. It wasn't any of those things, it was a Task Group.
DEVORKIN: I'd like to get at just that question, following that up. Why is group better than force for you?
GILRUTH: Because force is an adjective that implies you have a lot of strength. I didn't know whether we had a lot of strength or not.
DEVORKIN: Some people, when they build, try to appear as if they have the strength, hoping that then will make a lot of people assume they have it. They basically assume the position, and what they expect. Others build from the inside.
GILRUTH: We had the strength. We had the money. What we needed was a good name, and we didn't want to sound like we thought we were too big for our britches. We were a Task Group. We had a big task and we were a group. It was a very good name. I wouldn't have changed it for Task Force. A Task Force is something you use in the military.
DEVORKIN: Did someone else suggest Task Force?
GILRUTH: I'm sure that that was mentioned, but --
DEVORKIN: Do you have any idea who?
MAUER: Here's something I realize I meant to ask much earlier, and I did not, and it kind of fits into this. Dryden wanted you to come to Headquarters permanently when he brought you up for the budget work, and for the job that ultimately Abe Silverstein got. You resisted coming to Headquarters permanently.
MAUER: What were the factors of why you resisted coming to Headquarters permanently ?
GILRUTH: I didn't want to live in Washington, DC. I had a sailboat. I was building a sailboat. I lived on the water, and I'd always wanted to live on the water, and I felt that Langley Field was close enough to Washington. I could go there and get there when I was needed. But I wanted to live down in Virginia on the water. I just told Mr. Dryden that. There was nothing really bad about what I wanted to do. I just did not want to live in Washington, DC.
DEVORKIN: That is a reason in itself. It's good enough, and I think we all appreciate it. But was there something else about getting caught up in the Washington, DC, life, I mean professional life, that you did not want? You had seen it in the summer of'58.
GILRUTH: I don't know. Really it was my love for being in a rural atmosphere, particularly one on the water, with my own boat. That was all it was.
MAUER: So this was before you had a sense that you might become the head of manned space. That didn't play a role?
GILRUTH: Dryden had been talking about building a center in Washington, and he did. He built the Beltsville Center, and Harry Goett got to be the director of it. I was held as one who might have gotten it, but I didn't want it. I made it quite clear that if I were being considered for it, that I wished they would not do it. But I did much better. I ended up in Houston with the Manned Spacecraft Center. I was on the water and I had everything else, too.
DEVORKIN: I'm just wondering how strong that is. I mean, Houston is fortuitously on the water. If Lyndon Johnson had lived in Utah--
GILRUTH: I'd have been in Utah. I'd gotten hooked on that program, and I was going to see it through, if it was done out at Timbuctu.
MAUER: I have to pick up on a comment that was made, in an interview you did with E. Emme and Grimwood, 1973.5 They were teasing you in talk about the center going to Kansas City.
GILRUTH: Is that right? I'd forgotten that.
MAUER: Would it have been one aspect of not wanting to go to some place like Kansas City that you wouldn't have had the good sailing? Was that where part of the tease was coming in?
GILRUTH: I imagine so. There's a lot of people that knew it.
MAUER: The information I have is that officially, when you really got going, you started out with 33 people at Langley. That was your initial group. Does that sound about right to you?
GILRUTH: It depends on when you say we "officially" started.
DEVORKIN: That's a good point. Let's go back to the beginning. You have this meeting with Glennan right when NASA gets started, the very first few days, and you go back up to Langley. Who's with you and who are the first people you talk to ?
GILRUTH: Max Faget and Paul Purser were with me. I'm not sure who the others were. There might have been some others. I know Hjornevik was there, but he was not part of my group at that time. There weren't but Dryden and Glennan. I don't think we had a room full. I think we just had a few people there.
MAUER: So you started out initially with people who had been with you at Langley, and come up to work on the budget.
GILRUTH: Who had been working with me in putting this plan together. Those people. I assumed they would continue to be with me, unless they wanted to be, let go. But they wanted to stay with me. Then I talked with Floyd Thompson and told him what I'd been told, that I was to go back to Langley and get on with the project. I had no other alternative but to take some of his people that wanted to come with us. At the same time, we would try to recruit people from outside. We finally built up a personnel group that we used. But right at this time, we didn't have any organization at all except just a few people who had been working with me. We had it all put together. I don't remember the sequence we went through. I just wish I could. It would be fun to know, but I don't know.
MAUER: What I hear you describing is, you just did what you had to do as the situation developed, and you brought in people as you needed them.
GILRUTH: We were aggressive. We knew we had to have a lot of people. And we wanted good people. Believe me, if you look at the time table of the things that we got done, we started right in getting things done. We got the McDonnell Aircraft Company under contract within three months from the time we were told to get on with the job. Now that meant drawing up the complex specifications, advertising them to industry, going over all of the proposals, having the meetings to figure out who ought to win it, and then making them an offer, of how much we'd pay them for it. We didn't necessarily know how much they were going to charge us, and we wanted to have a meeting of the minds. There was a lot of work had to be done just on that one thing. That's three months. We did that in three months, and we started with a handful of people. Now many agencies can't do that in three years. They've got so many people that they can't do it.
DEVORKIN: You made a strong point about the flexibility that you had in the very beginning. You said you did what you did when the group was very young, and you implied in your memoir that you couldn't have done that if your superstructure had already been in place and you were an older organization.
GILRUTH: I think that's probably right.
MAUER: Compare this three months experience for Mercury with the experience you went through with Apollo, because by the time of Apollo you have a large organization. You have a lot of experience but you also have many more rules and --
GILRUTH: Yes, of course, Apollo was much more complicated. You had a lot more. You had the three spacecraft instead of one little one. You had a LEM. You had a Command Module. You had a Service Module. You had, so much equipment in those things, you know. It was a hundred times as big as Mercury.
MAUER: There's a mixture here, if I hear you correctly. On the one hand, you had much more freedom with Mercury because you didn't have as many people and you didn't have a lot of rules in place. You could do it because it was a much smaller project, whereas if you'd tried to take on Apollo that quickly, it was just too complex to allow for it. It had to be worked through more systematically.
GILRUTH: It needed a lot more. It was a much bigger thing to do, than just getting Mercury started. Getting Mercury started was not all that hard. But it took a lot of doing to make it work, beause you had to train the astronauts, what we had to do with the Atlas, and the tracking networks, and the recovery systems. There was a lot of work that had to be done, and we had to have a pretty good sized staff in a hurry. Which we did.
MAUER: Some people are nostalgic for that Mercury period, because of it being so much freer, people making a lot of decisions quickly. How do you feel? How does it compare to the time before, and how does it compare to after you were already at Manned Spacecraft Center? Does it seem to be a better time, or is it just another stage in your career? How do you view it?
GILRUTH: I don't think you could live through many of these Mercury programs. It was something you do when you're young. You couldn't keep on doing that kind of thing. It was a case of working all the time, for the first year or so. But it was rewarding. It was great when Al Shepard flew, and when Glenn, and all the others flew--we were extremely fortunate to have all those things work.
It was the fact that it was so very successful, I believe, that we went on to the lunar program. Although it is true that Kennedy really got that going before we ever orbited John Glenn. I think the momentum of those Mercury flights had a lot to do with the success of the Apollo Program over those years, because it made it a lot easier to get the money that it took. It took a lot more money to build Apollo than it did Mercury. Apollo was 20 to 30 billion, and Mercury was, I think, closed out finally at about 400 million. We didn't think it would cost that much, but it did.
DEVORKIN: Did you ever have a feeling, during the Mercury Program, that without rules in the beginning, without an adequate infrastructure to monitor the contracts and all of the different phases of Mercury, especially at the point where you were also beginning to worry about building a new center, that things might get out of hand? Did you have contingencies, fallback positions?
GILRUTH: I don't think that we felt particularly bad off in our monitoring of the Mercury spacecraft, for example. Or the Atlas rockets, because we were just buying those Atlas rockets, and we had one or two men there to investigate--when we were worried about the pumps. We routinely took the pumps apart to check the clearances in them, which was not a regular procedure. We thought was worthwhile.
DEVORKIN: But you did do that.
GILRUTH: We did that. We had three or four good Atlases in a row, which is more than they usually got. And we didn't have to have very many people for some of those contracts. The price was already set by the Air Force. We just bought it through the Air Force.
MAUER: So in a way, Mercury is different because you're just focussing upon specific parts of the program. Other parts, you're just buying in to what already was being developed.
GILRUTH: That's right. There were some changes that were made. We wanted a different skin gauge on the front end of the Atlas, and things like that. Then we had another rocket that we used, the Redstone, for suborbital flights. We were able to get them from von Braun and his people, and they were glad to be with us. They were a big help to us. We also had one of our own rockets. We had a solid rocket launcher that we used at Wallops Island to test some of the spacecraft. It was just a great big solid--
DEVORKIN: Little Joe.
GILRUTH: Little Joe. And we used that for some of the escape system tests to save money.
DEVORKIN: How many of those with the block capsules were flown? Quite a few? I'm not asking for an exact number.
GILRUTH: I don't know, but we did fly quite a few. Right. That's right. We knew quite a lot about that by the time we flew a man. So I don't know. It wasn't all that tough. We did have to work long hours because there were so few of us to get it done.
MAUER: In a way it's an advantage to be buying a technology that's coming onto line because you don't have to worry about shepherding it through. On the other hand you're buying a technology that's blowing up on the pad a lot. And you're wanting to put a man on top of that--
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: And as we talked about earlier, that's where your thoughts about escape systems came from. Did it make you nervous when you thought, we don't have control over the Atlas. We're buying what already exists. To some degree it did, but you give the example about checking the tolerances on the pumps.
GILRUTH: There were some things we could do, and that was one of them. The tolerances on the pumps. We did increase the skin gauge. But the Atlas was an Atlas, and we knew that we were going to have to live with what existed.
MAUER: Why did you feel that you could live with it? What was it about the Atlas that made you feel, this can work, even though there are some problems?
GILRUTH: We had no alternative. We had to. And we did. We only had one Atlas blow. That was the first. We used an Atlas on Big Joe, and that was in the first year of our program. We sent a Mercury, made in our own shop, a Mercury capsule shape that we used to measure the heat transfer and stability. We sent that up and drove it back down into the atmosphere. It was a marvelous test. It showed that the spacecraft was stable, that the heat transfer was what we thought it would be, and that a man would have survived that flight. Since we couldn't find the capsule right away, the papers all went to press and said it was another bust in the space program. The Navy found the capsule in a couple of hours and found it in good condition. The newspapers' wouldn't publish the fact that it was found. That's the way they were.
TAPE 3, SIDE 1
DEVORKIN: I know you've discussed that very disappointing press reaction with us before. It must have been a very poignant time. How serious was, to you personally, press attention, and how adequate was it in general in these first years?
GILRUTH: Our first year it was a strange situation. The Air Force ran the missile range down there at Banana River. The headman was kind of like a little Napoleon or something. He was the boss and right after every launch he'd call all the press in. He'd get the people who had made the flight to stand up and say how it worked. In our case we didn't know how it worked because we were recovering something that was way down range. It wasn't just whether it blew up or not within your view. We couldn't have a good meeting because we didn't know how it worked. We hadn't yet recovered it. So the press all went to press with the fact that it was lost. We found it within an hour or two, but they --
DEVORKIN: Just an hour or two?
GILRUTH: I think it was.
MAUER: How did your relationship with the press change over time? Did the press actually become more interested in the space program, and therefore more willing to--
GILRUTH: They were, I think, later on, as the press matured a little bit. We had our own press people and when't acting under an Air Force man who was not our friend, really. I think that was just an aberration of us and of the Air Force and of the press, and it all went away. From then on I think we had pretty good relations with the press and with the people there at the range.
MAUER: This was just a difficulty for a relatively short time.
GILRUTH: I think it was a very short time.
MAUER: Once again, let me take us back into time. Initially you were getting people for the Space Task Group from Langley, but in July 1959 you got a small group from Lewis.
MAUER: I should have written down and apparently I did not, who was heading up that group?
GILRUTH: At Lewis?
MAUER: Yes, the group that came to Space Task Group from Lewis. Or do you remember? It's not that important. How was it that you ended up getting people from other centers?
GILRUTH: We did that fairly quickly, but we didn't get very many. We didn't get any from Ames, as far as I know.
MAUER: How come?
GILRUTH: Those people like California. They had a good life there and they were doing interesting work. They never have liked to do things like we were doing. They had big wind tunnels and analytical people, and that was pretty much what they did. Now in Lewis it was a little different. They were interested in ramjets, and while we were running Wallops Island they used to fly a launch plane over Wallops and launch ramjet models that we would then measure the data with our radars. They'd have telemeters, and we'd use the radars to give the heights and speeds. There were some people like George Low who was one of the people we got from Lewis. He was our representative in the Washington office for the Space Task Group, and a great help to us. Later on when we moved to Houston, he came to the Houston Center with us, and he went from there into Headquarters where he was a deputy administrator.
MAUER: These early days, when he was at Headquarters, what were the skills that Low had that made him so helpful?
GILRUTH: He was good at everything. He was a top notch engineer and scientist. He could handle people well. He was good at money matters. And he was very easy to get along with. Yet he wouldn't stand for any monkey business. He was just a sort of an ideal administrator and friend, and he was a big help to us, especially in the days when we didn't have many people. He was our man in Washington that was worth about ten men. We really appreciated his help.
DEVORKIN: Did you place him here, or did he want to be here?
GILRUTH: I think Silverstein, who was one of the leaders at Headquarters, wanted to get Low at Headquarters to help run the place. It was a very good idea, and Low lived in Washington. He liked living in Washington all right, because he came back later and went to Headquarters.
DEVORKIN: That's right. Was Silverstein the one who wanted you here, too?
GILRUTH: That was Dryden. I think I made my case with Silverstein, and he never tried to get me to come to Washington.
DEVORKIN: What was then your relationship? Eventually, in the Webb years, you reported directly to Seamans. Before that time, center people--and you weren't a center director yet--reported to project offices here in Washington. Who did you report to?
GILRUTH: I reported to Silverstein.
DEVORKIN: To Silverstein. How was that relationship?
GILRUTH: It was fine. I knew Abe pretty well. He was older than I. He had a lot of drive and a lot of energy and was bright.
DEVORKIN: Very canny chess player, as far as administrative work--
GILRUTH: Oh yes.
DEVORKIN: And strategist. Did that work to your advantage? Did he help you understand or did he help you through the maze in Washington, so to speak, when you had to get something done?
GILRUTH: I don't think I can give you a good answer on that. I thought he was a good administrator, and we had to have somebody up here who liked to do that. He liked to do that. We used to have some arguments, believe me. We had arguments, and I guess sometimes I did win one or two of them, but usually I couldn't win an argument from Abe.
MAUER: Why is that?
GILRUTH: I don't know. Maybe I did win more than I thought. I don't know. I never kept count.
MAUER: But your sense that you didn't win as many as he did --
GILRUTH: He had the power. He had the power.
DEVORKIN: Generally, what were the arguments over, what kinds of issues?
GILRUTH: Gosh, I can't remember. We didn't have any real bad ones.
DEVORKIN: You mentioned that people from Ames didn't want to move to Langley, but if you really needed somebody or a facility or something that was at another center, did he go to bat?
GILRUTH: Oh, sure. Sure. He was a good guy to work with. Yes. I have no complaints about Abe. Abe did a good job, and he was all for space. Some times we wouldn't agree on things, but mostly we agreed. No two people always agree.
DEVORKIN: What about when you--are we getting too far ahead of the game, to talk about--
MAUER: Have you the question in mind? Go ahead.
DEVORKIN: On future programs. Did he play a role in asking you to develop this group to look into future programs, was it '59?
MAUER: No, he was brought in afterwards.
DEVORKIN: That was later.
MAUER: Hugh came in '58 but Dr. Gilruth, you were in Washington before Abe was brought up to Washington, am I remembering correctly?
GILRUTH: Yes, when we--
DEVORKIN: I didn't mean Special Task Group, I meant future programs. When you came up with the idea of the three-man--
MAUER: I see what you're saying. I misunderstood your question, sorry.
DEVORKIN: Things like that. What is the official name of that group? There was a special name for it.
GILRUTH: I don't know.
DEVORKIN: New Projects Panel, August '59. It was called the New Projects Panel, and you created it to identify new areas for research. I'm interested in how it was set up. You made [Kurt] Strauss the head.
GILRUTH: Yes, Kurt Strauss. Bob Piland worked was on that, too.
DEVORKIN: I'm wondering, you're building Mercury, and then you're asked --
GILRUTH: Yes, we came up with this. We thought we ought to be looking ahead at what kind of a spacecraft were we looking at next? We came up with a place where you could do work, where you could do tests of weightlessness. We came up with a bigger capsule than Mercury, along with a kind of a tank-like object in which you had room to do experiments, that was really the forerunner of the lunar module. Because we worked hard on this thing, then when we came along with the lunar program, we were able to modify some of this and add parts to it. We actually saved a little time by having been looking ahead at some of these things.
DEVORKIN: Silverstein or someone like that did not ask you to form the New Projects Panel? That's something you did internally?
GILRUTH: That may well be. I don't remember. I know Bob Piland was one of the people working on it.
MAUER: Before Sputnik, did you have something like a New Projects Panel? Was this the sort of thing that you did in the old NACA?
GILRUTH: In my time in the old NACA, I went to the flight research section. I was sat down and told to do some menial work for a while. Then I got a pretty good project. I got put on the flying quality project, and that turned out to be my career while I was at the flight research center until I became head of it. We got into all kinds of programs. But the old NACA was back in the days when you weren't thinking about space and spacecraft. An airplane was an airplane. There were mods to airplanes and better ways of making the wings but you weren't thinking of things like space and spacecraft. You pretty much were wedded to the airplane. It had a landing gear. It had tail surfaces. It had a fuselage and wings and engines. All of those had many many facets, many problems, many ways of making them better, and that's what we worked on. That was pretty much our horizon. We did have panels to look ahead in future programs on airplane research.
MAUER: Let me come at this in a different direction. Let me relate to you a story that a man who worked under you, Guy Thibedeau, told me. He came to you when he was at Wallops. You were assistant director, and he said he wanted to be able to make solid rockets there at Wallops. He wanted to build a small facility for this. As he relates the story, you told him that you had authority to use up to $999.99 in any one whack on your signature without going to higher authority. Anything that he could get for up to that amount, you'd be glad to sign for and get it for him. So he proceeded to build this facility by getting help from here and there, making sure anything he had to buy was less than a thousand dollars. This story struck me at the time as having quite a bit of basic philosophy behind it, maybe never articulated. Here was a man with an idea, he comes and presents it to you, you like the idea, and you're going to give him your support as much as you can. Also in there, it seems to me, you didn't feel like you were going to get approval from higher up, so you were going to do it the way that would work. Do you remember that?
GILRUTH: Tell me how it came out. That's what I want to know.
MAUER: He built it.
GILRUTH: I think he did. He was good man. Lovely guy.
MAUER: He was a tremendous help to my project, writing on the Shuttle history. He'd come by and talk with us. We went over to his house a couple of times. But you, as a person managing in the old NACA days, weren't just completely satisfied with doing what had been done. You were willing to look out and, if a guy had an idea that could advance things, you were willing to take some responsibility for getting it done.
GILRUTH: The day that I picked up Guy Thibedeau was also the day I picked up Max Faget. They both came out of LSU.
MAUER: I didn't know that.
GILRUTH: They had both been in the war. I never had a luckier day in my life than when I picked up those two guys. They both wanted to work at PARD where we were working with rockets and radars and all those things. They'd heard about it, and that's where they wanted to come.
MAUER: So they kind of selected you.
GILRUTH: I was the one who was selected, not them. But it was a lucky day for everybody. They were very good people.
MAUER: Why would you go out on a bit of a limb like this?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I really don't. I must have been crazy.
MAUER: I wonder, what you describe about the old NACA is true, but it seems to me--maybe I'm stretching things too much and maybe your memory just isn't clear--that the impulse that led you to say, "okay, Guy, if you can do it at less than a thousand dollars a whack, go ahead and do it" ties into the New Projects Panel in the summer of 1959.
GILRUTH: But it wasn't such a bad deal. That's not a whole lot of money even then, if you're going to get some pretty good new ideas from it.
DEVORKIN: That was your discretionary limit.
MAUER: That was his discretionary limit, but he was willing to play that discretionary limit quite a few different times.
GILRUTH: I'm sure that the paperwork looked a little different.
MAUER: This was for something new.
DEVORKIN: You're trying to make a point, I know.
GILRUTH: He was really interested in in solid rockets. It was his business. He was a rocket man there at PARD and that was part of our life's blood.
MAUER: Those little rockets made by Monsanto that you started out with, right after World War II, are very different than having four and five-stage rockets. A lot of the more advanced rockets were ones that you were getting that the military developed. Nike was very important to you, Honest John was very important, but there was also the Cajun.
GILRUTH: Yes. Thibedeau was a very big help in us getting the kind of rockets that we needed there at PARD. He was an expert. He became an expert in those rockets.
MAUER: I understand that, but what I want to do is focus on you. Do you think just any manager in the old NACA would have been as open to ideas like Thibedeau was coming to you with ?
GILRUTH: Here's the way I felt about it. Thibedeau, I knew, was very bright, and he was anxious to try to do something that was going to make something better. If I could help him do it, something that wasn't going to break the bank or anything, I was going to back him up. Apparently this was a way I could back him up. I would naturally want to help him do what he wanted to do, since what he wanted was in our favor.
MRS. GILRUTH: Would someone else there in a managerial position do the same thing?
GILRUTH: It all depends on who they were.
DEVORKIN: What about your judgment of other people? Would you have done that for anyone on your team?
GILRUTH: No, I certainly wouldn't. I've forgotten all about this, but here it is, this bright young man had been thinking about ways of making something better in a solid rocket, and he wants to do something. I can help him with just a couple of thousand dollars that I can almost--I can see where I would go on with that. I don't think they would fire me if I did once or twice, something that didn't work, and might have been bending the rules a little bit by doing it twice. I don't know.
DEVORKIN: How do you feel, as a manager--you can respond to this any period you want with an example--about the need to give your engineers and scientists the freedom they need to explore, but also to protect them? In the way that--he probably could have gotten these same appropriations but he would have had to have gone through a whole lot of paperwork, justifications, red tape.
DEVORKIN: You were protecting him by putting yourself a little bit on the line, not much, but it was worth it. Did you ever consciously think about this style of engineering management? What was appropriate for you, what was comfortable for you? And if you did, or if there are instances that can help us better understand it--maybe this Thibedeau instance is a good instance, probably one of the best. We'd like to know if there were others. When you had to make a decision about somebody and something.
GILRUTH: I'm sure I had to make decisions about somebody and some thing many, many times.
DEVORKIN: That was your life.
GILRUTH: I think that I always tried to be fair to the people and be fair to the agency. There was also no other way but weigh the things and do what you think is best. I don't know any other way to do it.
MAUER: Do you want to go ahead and wrap up?
DEVORKIN: Yes. I'll wrap up with the next question. Did you have any memorable times when something backfired?
GILRUTH: Yes. I fired a man once. He was a civil servant, and I was not authorized to fire anybody.
MAUER: When was this, Dr. Gilruth?
GILRUTH: I'm not going to tell you the name.
MAUER: No, I want the date, an approximate date, I'm not asking for the name.
DEVORKIN: What brought you to this?
GILRUTH: It was back in the early days of Wallops Island. I had a man who was in charge of something over there at the Island, and he just, in my opinion, had done a lousy job. I didn't feel that there was any hope--he really was not good--but I was so dumb at that time, I didn't realize I didn't have the power to fire people. It wasn't a case that the man wouldn't have been able to find something else to do. Anyway, I did fire somebody when I was not authorized to do that. Of course, it was tough on my supervisor, who had to tell me that I had no power to do that and from now on I'd have to be more careful.
MAUER: But the firing stayed?
MAUER: You had to bring him back?
MAUER: What did you do with him then?
GILRUTH: He didn't work for me, I'll tell you that. I got rid of him. He didn't want to work for me, either.
MAUER: Let me come back and relate another story that Thibedeau told me from much later. This is after he is a manager for you at manned spacecraft. He said that once things really had gotten established, and you'd gotten the physical plant built at MSC, your time was so valuable that you had a secretary and people making appointments. People just couldn't walk in and chat with you the way they'd been used to in previous years. He said that his solution to that problem--and it wasn't just his, other people were in the same situation--getting close to closing time when your secretary would be getting off work, he'd come into the office, wait. After she left, he'd look around your door, see if you were very busy, and if you were free, he'd come in and talk with you about problems. Is this just something that happened, or did you have an awareness that this was the way that some of your people were using to communicate directly, to kind of work things over?
GILRUTH: No, I never noticed that, but I would be happy--I would feel badly if they felt they didn't have access. Sometimes you get officious secretaries that do more than they should do to protect you. I always felt it was very important for people to have access, so they could talk about their ideas or their problems or whatever it was. That's what you're for. It's possible that there are some people who would take advantage of that and do a lot more than they should, but I never had any problem with that.
DEVORKIN: But it simply goes with the territory, that in a position like that you are very busy.
MAUER: And there are an awful lot of people who want to talk with you.
GILRUTH: I think it's true. When I was running the Apollo program or those programs, I was very, very busy. I didn't have time to chat very much, but--if somebody had something important to talk to me about, I sure hoped he'd get on my calendar and talk to me.
DEVORKIN: Did you find, as far as you knew, they did?
GILRUTH: Yes, I think they did. Or else they talked to somebody who could come in and say, "Look, you ought to talk to so and so, he's got something very important."
MAUER: That brings up another aspect. In talking with people who worked at JSC [Johnson Space Center] and NASA for many years, you have a formal organization.
MAUER: You have the differing levels of managers, going all the way up to the center director. That's the formal hierarchy, but some people move up high into the managing levels and some people don't, for a variety of reasons. My understanding is that communication was such that somebody who hadn't necessarily moved up high in the organization, may have stayed as a working engineer and not become a manager, that person's work was well- known and his abilities were widely respected, that person talking about an engineering problem would be really listened to. It wasn't just where you stood on the hierarchy, but how well you, your abilities, were known.
GILRUTH: There are all kinds of people. You have people who are individual experts, not in the management chain. They're very highly respected and listened to, and are different from the managers. They are just as important and many times more so than the manager.
MAUER: How do you select out? How do people get to become managers? How do they move up in the organization?
GILRUTH: You can promote people on the basis of their technical ability, their knowledge, or their ability to manage, or the combination. At different times you need the combination. Everybody's different, and you can nearly always make the case, if you have a good case.
MAUER: In modern times, in MBA programs, there's the argument that what a person manages isn't so very important; it's knowing how to manage. That managing is separate from the technical ability. As a director of a center in NASA, in appointing people to manage in the technical areas, various engineering specialties. How important was the ability to manage, and how important was their abilities as engineers?
GILRUTH: I think they're both important. I don't see--no matter how good a manager you were, if you didn't know what the problems were that your people had to solve--how you could possibly select the right people for the job.
MAUER: On the managing side, what type of skills did a person need to show, to indicate this person could be an effective manager, even though that individual had good engineering skills?
GILRUTH: The only way I know is to try him, see how he does and use good sense. You have to like people. You have to know your own field, and know something about the other fields that you have to deal with.
MAUER: What you're describing, if I hear you correctly, is a practical approach. What you do is just as you did with the people when they first became engineers, you gave them a project to see how good an engineers they were. When you thought about moving them up into management ranks, you'd give them an opportunity to show their ability to manage. If they did well, then you would promote them on that basis.
GILRUTH: Yes. I think that's right. People show how well they get along with people.
MAUER: But there are times when you get people from outside.
GILRUTH: Well, every once in a while you may pull a cropper and do something wrong.
MAUER: That's not my question. I understand what you're saying there. My question is, what you're describing is an approach in which you basically promote people who are already within your organization, or people you're working with outside the organization. You know them. You've seen them at work. But sometimes in your experience, you've brought in people that you might not have known as well. How did you go about doing that?
GILRUTH: You've got to take a chance. You generally can't bring a man in without telling him what he's going to do, especially if you bring him in from outside. You have to know something about him. You talk with people who know him, and they'll tell you, "Oh yes, he's good at this, he's good at that, he's good at the other thing." You bring him in, put him in charge of what you have, and he might or might not be good. Usually, if you know the people and know them well enough that they'll recommend him, some people are very good at that. Sometimes you just, especially if you're new and you don't know, take a chance. Then if it doesn't work, you've got to do something about it. You've got to find another place for him. You just can't leave him there.
MAUER: Yes. Sometimes a person who's been working on one level, you promote him, and he doesnt always work out at the new level. I suspect that's a problem.
GILRUTH: That's right. You always have those problems. When you're the head of an organization, everybody else's problem becomes your problem too, so you've got to have a happy bunch of people around. It's a job.
MAUER: I think we've taken that as far as we can. Let's come back to working on Mercury. On May 1, 1959, you were named as assistant director of what was then the Beltsville Center. That was before it had been built. You were reporting through--
GILRUTH: Harry Goett.
MAUER: Yes. Why were you named assistant director of that center in 1959?
GILRUTH: Because at that time, they thought that that was going to be the big center that space would be operated out of. Dryden was head of the agency then I think. I did not want to be head of the Beltsville place.
DEVORKIN: Dryden was head of the agency?
GILRUTH: Yes, I think he was. What did we say?
MAUER: May, 1959.
GILRUTH: No, Glennan was. I had been in line. Dryden had wanted me to be head of the Beltsville Center. It was his pride and joy to build a center there in Washington. He wanted a center in Washington. I told him I didn't want to be considered for that. Dryden was a pretty hard-nosed guy and he wasn't going to let me off the hook. If I didn't want to be the head, I was going to be the assistant. And I was already hooked on the program. Apparently he was planning to have the space program managed out of that center. But anyway, it wasn't built, and I had to go to Langley Field. All I had to look forward to was, if I made a success of my job, I'd get to go back to Beltsville and be the assistant director. But, I said, lots of things can happen between now and then, and of course they did. Instead of going up to Beltsville, we built a new center down at Houston and went to the moon, which was a little different. So that is true Dryden was an authoritarian person and--lovely man, though, I have always admired him.
MAUER: So that's why you became assistant director. Beltsville wasn't built so you stayed at Langley. But that kind of makes for some confused chain of command.
GILRUTH: Yes. I was supposed to report through Harry Goett, who had been named the head of Beltsville. He was going to be the center director. I don't know where his office was. I think somewhere in Washington.
DEVORKIN: Was it still at NRL [Naval Research Laboratory], even at that time, or had they moved out?
GILRUTH: The way I solved that problem was, I never sent anything through my boss. I sent it directly to George Low, who was the man in charge of manned space flight at headquarters.
MAUER: How is it that you weren't ordered to send it through your titular boss?
GILRUTH: I just wasn't. They never had the guts to do it. That's the way I handled that one.
DEVORKIN: Did anybody try to call you on it?
GILRUTH: Including Harry Goett.
DEVORKIN: Did Harry Goett even care?
GILRUTH: I don't think he did. I don't know.
DEVORKIN: Obviously what we're in here is the establishment of the mission of the Beltsville Center as opposed to other centers, as they were a gleam in someone's eye. At what point, if it occurred at this time, did you feel--because it was inevitable that it was going to have to be a very large infrastructure built up for a manned program that required some kind of institutional identification--that there was going to have to be a center. That you were going to be it.
GILRUTH: I didn't carry it that far. My title was--
DEVORKIN: That there had to be a center.
GILRUTH: I think that's right.
MAUER: When did you start thinking that there was going to have to be a center for manned space?
GILRUTH: It became obvious. Mercury was a dead-end program. You were going to fly man in space, orbit him -- that was it. I was ready to go back and sail my boat after that. Anyway, it didn't work out that way. We ended up with Kennedy and going to the moon. That was a big program, there was no question about that It couldn't be handled out of Langley, and it couldn't have been handled out of Washington. It had to be handled out of Texas, because that's where the head of the Appropriations Committee lived. Right smack there in Houston.
DEVORKIN: So the Mercury program itself didn't warrant thinking really big?
GILRUTH: That's right. It was a dead-end program.
MAUER: You were aware of that right along?
GILRUTH: It seemed to me that it was because you never stop with the one thing you're doing. But it wasn't obvious what the next step was.
DEVORKIN: The New Projects Panel that suggested the three-man capsule--that suggestion didn't go anywhere, for a while, obviously?
GILRUTH: That's right. But we did do some studying on it, that made it easier to design the lunar program.
MAUER: The Future Projects Panel, that reflected an awareness that Mercury was a limited project?
GILRUTH: I don't think we ever up and said that, but it seemed me that was a dead-end program, and we had to look for the next steps. Of course we were so darned busy trying to do Mercury that I was sort of aghast when the President got up in front of Congress and said, "We're going to go to the moon, not because it's easy but because it's hard. "
DEVORKIN: Yes, but he didn't do that in ignorance.
GILRUTH: I know it.
TAPE 3, SIDE 2
DEVORKIN: You were aghast when the President made that statement. I have to admit to you, I can't quite believe that you didn't know he was going to make that statement.
GILRUTH: Yes. I knew it. But I still was aghast that he was saying it, and that we were going to try to do it. I was on an airplane flying with Mr. Webb. We were the only two people in the airplane when we turned on the radio, and there was the President talking to Congress. Now, I don't know whether we got the thing live or whether we got a replay, but that's what was on the radio at that time. That's the first time I heard it.
MAUER: Why were you on the airplane with Webb?
GILRUTH: We used to fly places together. We had an old DC-3 that NACA had, and we could command the use of that sometimes. We were just flying somewhere, I don't remember.
DEVORKIN: Which one of you spoke first?
GILRUTH: Jim Webb always had the fastest timing.
DEVORKIN: Do you remember the conversation? If you were aghast, he was in it.
GILRUTH: He was in it up to here.
DEVORKIN: Up to his neck, with the planning of that. He wasn't aghast.
GILRUTH: No, he wasn't aghast. He knew exactly what was going to happen.
DEVORKIN: What was the rest of the plane flight like?
GILRUTH: What could I say? Nothing.
MAUER: You said you weren't one hundred percent surprised. At what point did you start having a sense--and who gave you that sense, was it Jim Webb?
GILRUTH: How do you mean, what sense?
DEVORKIN: Were you brought in at any point to advise?
GILRUTH: Oh, sure.
MAUER: When you were in the plane with Jim Webb, did you have an idea what the President was going to be talking about?
GILRUTH: Oh, sure. I knew he was going to say we were going to the moon.
MAUER: How did you know?
GILRUTH: Because I had talked with the President. I'd talked a lot with Webb. We'd worked like hell on how we'd do it. We'd been in it up to our necks, and when the President--I just couldn't believe that he was going to go through with it.
MAUER: There had been a lot of work about going to the moon, but there is another aspect of what he said. He said, it wasn't justa matter of committing the nation to go to the moon, it was also committing the nation to go to the moon before the decade was out.
GILRUTH: That's right.
MAUER: Did you expect that?
GILRUTH: That was good. I was glad he said that, because if you didn't say that--if you say it's going to be in the decade, then you're saying how much money you're going to get every year. If you just say you're going to go there, then they say, well, let's study it for the first five years and then we'll start to think about what we can do.
DEVORKIN: Isn't it the case that Kennedy wanted an actual date like '67? Webb got him to say, "before the decade is out."
GILRUTH: I'm not sure. But '67 would have been terribly hard to do.
DEVORKIN: That's right. It's something I've read recently, that he wanted it quicker, Kennedy, not knowing what the technical requirements were. Of course he couldn't know. So you and the group involved, probably von Braun's people because it was the launch vehicle that was involved here, must have had some timetable.
DEVORKIN: What was your timetable?
GILRUTH: I don't think we were far off from what we did.
MAUER: Even before the President's announcement, that was in the ball park of what you were thinking about.
GILRUTH: Yes. We thought that's fantastic, that we were able to do it that fast.
DEVORKIN: Is it still hard for you to comprehend, that you did it all?
GILRUTH: No. I realize we did it all. But I think we'd have a hard time to do it again.
GILRUTH: Because it's just hard to do.
MAUER: It's hard to do for lots of reasons.
GILRUTH: All those engines had to start, they all had to work, all the electronics had to work. You count up all the things that had to work on one of those flights.
MAUER: What about the budgetary questions? Is that another reason it would be hard to do again?
GILRUTH: I don't know. If you had enough power behind you, you could certainly get the money to do it.
MAUER: For you it's more the technical aspect.
GILRUTH: I think that, see, if we tried to do it now, we wouldn't do it the same way. We'd call in a whole lot of new concepts. We'd have to break all the ice again. I don't know. In a way it was, it was a very good program, because it had everything. It had a lot of development of new techniques and of technology, and it also certainly buried the Russians. For a while.
DEVORKIN: Did you know that would be the case when he made the announcement?
GILRUTH: If we were able to do it.
DEVORKIN: Did you have the same confidence at that time that you did after Sputnik, or after the second one, the dog, when you were faced with the manned program?
GILRUTH: I think, I thought going to the moon was much harder than I thought it would be to put a man in orbit.
DEVORKIN: So is it safe to say you did not have the same confidence?
GILRUTH: I had a certain amount of confidence, but I was always a guy that looked at all the things that could go wrong. That made me unhappy, when I thought of all the things that had to work. It probably was a good way to be, for a man in my position, because I worried about everything and made doubly sure, as much as I could, that it would work.
DEVORKIN: I have to admit to not knowing exactly what your position was when the President made that announcement. Was MSC already rolling?
GILRUTH: No. We had just flown Al Shepard. We had not yet flown John Glenn. That was 25 years ago.
DEVORKIN: So the idea of an MSC had not even developed, even in the planning that you were going through with Webb, before Kennedy made his announcement. There was this whole period of time, not a very long period, before Kennedy had to be briefed.
GILRUTH: I don't know what was going on between Webb and Lyndon Johnson. They might have had the plan already to go, to move us down to Houston. I don't remember the timing of that.
DEVORKIN: I'm not even interested in whether it was Houston or Kansas or Utah. I'm just saying, the idea that a center was going to be needed, and it couldn't be Beltsville.
GILRUTH: Yes. I think that was right. A center was needed and it couldn't be Beltsville.
MAUER: But that was a perception you had pretty early on. After you got going with Space Task Group.
GILRUTH: I was never sure that there was going to be a manned space program beyond Mercury.
MAUER: Then when did you start perceiving that there would be a manned space program?
GILRUTH: When people started talking about going to the moon and things like that.
MAUER: One of the people who talked about the possibility of going to the moon was John Kennedy himself. How many times did you meet with Kennedy?
GILRUTH: I don't know. Three or four times, I guess. He came to the center a couple of times down at Houston. I met him one time up at McDonnell Aircraft, and then I was with him at the White House.
GILRUTH: More than once.
MAUER: Was it very early on? Did you meet him before the announcement of the decision to go to the moon?
GILRUTH: Yes, because we talked about it.
MAUER: That's what I thought. I just wanted to make sure about that. Do you remember how much before the decision to go to the moon?
GILRUTH: I don't know, but it wasn't very much before. It was right in that era. He wasn't in there very long before --
MAUER: No, he'd just come in January, and this was April.
GILRUTH: When he first came on, he was not for space. He gave birth to the Wiesner Committee. That was when Kennedy came in. It was Al Shepard's flight that opened his eyes. He said, "Boy, if people react like that to space, then let's make a big effort and be first."
MAUER: So you talked to him after Al Shepard's flight.
MAUER: What was it like? You hadn't met Eisenhower.
MAUER: You went to the White House and you met Kennedy. Did you talk alone with him? Were there other people there?
GILRUTH: There were other people there.
MAUER: Do you remember who?
GILRUTH: Probably Jim Webb.
MAUER: What was it like meeting the President and talking with him?
GILRUTH: He was very nice, very good to talk with, easy to talk to, and very quickly understood. I thought he was great. That's what a lot of people thought. I saw him quite often. After we got into our temporary buildings down at Houston, he came down there a couple of times, and we showed him some of the things we were doing. This was early in the program.
MAUER: He took a real interest.
GILRUTH: This was very, very early. He came into Houston, and then he went up to Dallas the day he was shot. That was a bad day, I'll tell you. We cried. A lot of us stood in front of the television there and cried.
MAUER: I think most people can remember where they were the exact moment they heard the news.
GILRUTH: Yes. That was a blow, I'll tell you. What a shame.
DEVORKIN: Things were happening so bewilderingly fast. Can you recall, it must have been after Kennedy was inaugurated that you saw him, but before he made the speech.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: When you met with Wiesner's committee, was that also after the Presidential inauguration?
DEVORKIN: I can well see how it's very hard to make such an incredible adjustment in such a short time.
GILRUTH: That's right. We were fighting for our lives in one case, and then all of a sudden he wants us to do something that we're not sure we can do.
DEVORKIN: Right. Let me ask about where the weakness may have been or the misunderstandings at least, first in the Wiesner situation, or whether that became a non-issue because obviously Kennedy was politically driven. In the case of the meeting with Wiesner, was it Lovelace who you had testifying about the effects of Zero G, or did you have others as well?
GILRUTH: This is before Lovelace got into harness.
DEVORKIN: So he wasn't even involved yet.
GILRUTH: He was not involved yet, as far as I can remember. We had worried about it, of course, in connection with Mercury. All the astronauts had put in lots of time at Zero G flying parabolas in airplanes, where you can get up to 30 seconds of weightlessness. Then we'd flown these little animals, and they thrived on it. They were no problem. We had no reason to think--and the doctors like Lovelace said there doesn't appear to be any problem.
DEVORKIN: This was before you had Lovelace, when you met Wiesner. I'm trying to straighten out that against let's say what Ed Welsh was saying on your behalf at that time.
GILRUTH: That's right. Ed Welsh was a friend of ours. He was a big help.
DEVORKIN: In the chronologies, if we go back and look at them, one should be able to piece together when this meeting took place, when the approval to go through with Mercury, as you were continuing on, even though there was a delay in launch. You did say that an hour or two ago. You could have launched Shepard earlier, without the Wiesner intervention, is that correct?
GILRUTH: Yes. We could have.
MAUER: We could have had the first man in space.
GILRUTH: We could have. It was while we were arguing with Wiesner that they put their first man up.
DEVORKIN: That's what made the difference there.
GILRUTH: That's right, although we would not have had a man in orbit. We would have had a man up and down. But it was close, and it didn't matter, in the way things came out.
MAUER: It seemed to matter at the time, though, didn't it.
GILRUTH: Yes, it did matter at the time. It did. But it all came out right. So I guess, to a first approximation, nothing matters too much as long as you end up doing something. It was tough there, for a while. In a way, it had more effect on the President, because we were backed into a corner, and then all of a sudden we made something work. The public reaction was so positive that it really impressed the President, to a point where he became a space cadet. "If this is what we're going to be judged by, then let's put some real energy in it and do a great job."
DEVORKIN: We've talked to different people who had engineering responsibilities in different parts of both manned and unmanned programs, and the one thing I've always been impressed with is that they had contingencies for everything. I wouldn't even begin to think about how many steps ahead some of these people were planning on paper for something that might go wrong during the flight. There'd be a contingency for that, or a contingency for combinations of things going wrong. To what degree did you have contingencies for a bad outcome for Shepard's flight?
GILRUTH: We tried to have a contingency against anything that could go wrong in the flight. We had to have backups for everything. If something went wrong, you had to have another way you could do it.
DEVORKIN: I should have made myself clear. I'm talking about a different type of contingency, a contingency for the Project Mercury. Did you have any understanding, from Mr. Webb, Hugh Dryden-- who you had to convince to go ahead with Project Mercury during this time, as you say in your article, "I Believe We Should Go to the Moon,"6 that if the worst were to happen, and you were not to successfully retrieve Shepard, what the heck were you going to do?
GILRUTH: You'd find out what it was. Depending on what it was, you'd either fly another man and correct what was wrong, or you'd give up the program.
MAUER: Either you'd prove the program out, or that would just kind of be it.
GILRUTH: If it was worth doing--you know, we always said that this was not going to be a perfectly safe business. And everybody knew that. You expected to lose some people. The question is, how did you lose them and how can you say that you can fix that so it won't happen again? I always faced each flight with the idea that we had a chance of losing the pilot. Of course they all knew it. They certainly knew it.
DEVORKIN: I guess I'm asking these questions in the context of the explosion of Challenger. There's no question that I'm affected by that and most people would be nowadays. I've talked to a few people in NASA, or who had been in NASA since that time, informally, and almost to a person, none could have predicted, the degree to which the whole space program, was stalled by this. Was there any kind of sense at the time, when you were launching Alan Shepard and John Glenn that the entire space program depended upon their success?
GILRUTH: I'm not sure what would have happened. I would have expected that after all the investigation, the board meetings, the business, we were going ahead with another flight. If that hadn't worked, then you'd have lots of trouble making a third one. But you would hope that you would be able either to fix it, or to decide that it wasn't worth it.
MAUER: Let me pick up on what David's saying, and ask it in perhaps even a tougher way. I think one of the things about what happened with Challenger that surprised everybody, surprised the Rogers Commission--the technology is always dangerous, so the danger of losing people is always there in the space program--but what came out of the Rogers Commission was that there wasn't just a failure in the technology. There had been a failure in the management, managers had fallen down on their business. What I think I hear you saying, about Mercury and putting astronauts up, there would have been a board but the focus would have been on technology. If there'd been a failure it would have been technology. Do you see a difference between a situation in which the technology fails, and the situation that occurred with Challenger, where apparently the management failed?
GILRUTH: Yes, I think that there's a great big difference. For one thing, I was never comfortable with not having an escape system on the Shuttle. That's got a lot of big solid boosters. They aren't bad but once you light them off, they keep burning until they burn out, and you can't stop it. What happens if you're doing that and something goes wrong with your control system or something in the Shuttle? How do you escape? There's nothing you can do. It seems to me that with the Shuttle, we kind of walked away from some of the rules that we had built our prior flights on. We always tried to have a way out, in case something went wrong. There is no way to escape from that Shuttle.
DEVORKIN: What is amazing is that you were under such pressure early on, I mean all through that time but especially from January to March of '61, to get Alan Shepard off the ground, but even from the very beginning, you had built in that escape system. You had built in those fail-safe systems. You did not compromise.
GILRUTH: I sure didn't.
DEVORKIN: Here now is a system now, twenty years later, designed maybe fifteen years later, that was supposed to be an operational system, yet they didn't have that escape system.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: What happened? When did NASA change, that allowed that to happen?
GILRUTH: I don't know. That's too bad. I'm not sure how easy it would have been to put that on. I'm afraid of it. They got a pretty nice design all done, and then somebody said, "Escape system?" And they said, "How in the heck can you do it now?" I don't know.
DEVORKIN: Escape system is what?
GILRUTH: I was just saying, for instance. I don't know what did happen, or whether anybody ever raised that question, where is the escape system.
DEVORKIN: They did.
GILRUTH: Did they?
MAUER: Oh, yes.
GILRUTH: Was that after the accident or was that before the accident?
DEVORKIN: It was before. There were designs for escape systems, but they were considered too expensive.
MAUER: That's oversimplification. It was the dynamic of cost and also design problems. I don't know the full story myself, but as the contract was originally let, there was a variety of systems for getting the orbiter separate and for getting the astronauts out. Over time those were reduced down to virtually nothing, and what it was tied into was the differences in technology. If you have a capsule on top of a stacked booster system, then you can put escape rockets on top and blast them off. You have an incredibly heavy winged vehicle that is parallel burn, not series burn. You've got major technological problems in how do you do. Also if you have a system that's being starved, as Shuttle was--the original contract was let at a very bottom cost, and then they were choked further--things disappear and don't re-appear. It would require very careful attention to detail to discover exactly what happened. The Shuttle was born out of the dynamic of funding problems and technological considerations.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: Still there were the engineering, the administrators, the technical manager people, the people who were your successors, many of your colleagues who were there, who must have known this.
GILRUTH: Yes, they must have.
DEVORKIN: They all went along with it.
MAUER: Not all of them. I'm aware of some people who raised questions. But those questions didn't get too far. But that takes us away from what we're talking about.
DEVORKIN: True, but I would like to--it's that open door policy that you were talking about. You always wanted somebody who had a problem to somehow be able to get to you. During your tenure, were you ever stopped or was anyone after the fact ever stopped, to your knowledge, not by you but by someone who might have been over-zealous in trying to protect you, in raising problems? How did you insure that there was a maximum flow in two directions, of information, of problems, and of solutions?
GILRUTH: We tried to do it by having a meeting every week with all of the leaders, so they could talk about what they were doing and what their problems were. They could raise anything they wanted to then. But they were the leaders. They weren't everybody. They were the leaders of the divisions.
DEVORKIN: But there were many times that problems were stopped for political reasons or external reasons. You're talking--these are purely technical problems, internal, that could flow back and forth--
GILRUTH: If they were political problems, they could come up there too. This was a meeting of the people who ran the center.
MAUER: Let me ask a bit different question in the same vein. One obvious difference, among several probably, between Apollo and Shuttle is the funding situation. This was America's grand commitment, and a lot of money was committed.
MAUER: You didn't have a blank check. You did have a great deal of money, but that money was really in a relatively short time span, 1966 when the budget starts coming back down. Was there ever a time in which--and not just Apollo but any of the programs--people came to you and said, "We can't do things the very best way we think they ought to be done because there's a question of money." In Mercury, Gemini or Apollo, was there ever any question like that brought up to you?
GILRUTH: I'm sure there were but I don't think that we had any real problem. I don't think we ever had any real problem.
MAUER: The one time you obviously had a real problem was with the 204 fire.
GILRUTH: We had a real problem with that.
MAUER: So there were questions particularly about the contractor on that. Was there any indication that there had been a breakdown? Our questions have been focussed about within NASA and the people who worked directly for you, but an awful lot of decisions were being made over on the contractor's side. Information not only had to flow to the people who were directly your employees, but between the people who were your employees and the contractors.
GILRUTH: That's true. That fire occurred as a result of extremely bad luck. But it also showed that there was some very poor work going on at the Cape, by the contractor and NASA, on preparation of that first spacecraft. A lot of things were wrong.
MAUER: What was the situation that allowed things to go so wrong, in your opinion?
GILRUTH: We had all kinds of backups, but it turned out that some of our people in our center who were assigned to overview this checkout and so on, and some of the people from the contractor, were just not doing a good job. That spacecraft was really not fit to be flown. Even so it was incredibly bad luck, to have it catch on fire.
MAUER: Yes, I understand that.
GILRUTH: And to have it happen when you had a crew on board all locked in there. You couldn't have had worse luck. On the other hand, you can't say that it was a bright and shining piece of work that we were doing either.
MAUER: Was there any breakdown in communication that contributed to the poor work?
GILRUTH: Sure. That's always the way. It breaks down in a way that the people that are involved are not the best people. Somehow you have a situation where the knowledge of how bad something is doesn't get back to the people who need to know it. I don't understand how things like that happen, but it takes a whole lot to make something that bad happen. We almost lost the whole program. But it certainly did galvanize everybody into doing a first-class job from then on. It probably had a lot to do with the success we had in the lunar program.
We'd finished Gemini. We'd made ten flights with two men each. We had 2000 man hours in flight, and we'd had no problems. We'd done all these things, and we were feeling like we knew something about space. I was up here in Washington having dinner with some people from one of the contractors. I get a phone call from North American saying, "We just lost our crew on the Cape." I said, "We lost them? Nobody's flying." They said, "But this happened on the ground." You couldn't believe it. By the time I got back to my hotel, there were reporters all around the place. I didn't know any more than just that we'd lost the prime crew, and I was going to get an airplane. Kurt Debus fortunately had his airplane here, and we flew right back down to the Cape. Everybody was in shock. Deke Slayton was there, and he was in shock. Poor guy. We had some good people down there. They weren't dummies. And yet this happened.
DEVORKIN: North American contacted you. They had the contract?
GILRUTH: They built the spacecraft. They had the crew there that was to fly the first mission.
MAUER: Do you remember who told you? Who it was that called you?
GILRUTH: Harrison Storms. He was the head engineer of the program. We called him Stormy. A very nice fellow. I'm not sure whether he's still alive or not.
DEVORKIN: What kind of contingency planning, in a very rapid order, if you can recall the first few days after the 204 fire, did you engage in? How did you bring your people together to fix this?
GILRUTH: First thing I did was put our best man on it, George Low. We were going to take out every speck of flammable material in that spacecraft that didn't absolutely have to be in there.
DEVORKIN: I'm trying to figure out what first went through your mind and then through your organization. That was after you determined what had happened. But how did you go about determining what had happened? What role did you play ?
GILRUTH: We had a review board, and they went over all the facts, wrote a report on everything that happened.
DEVORKIN: Did you choose the review board? Was this a contingency that was already set in place, as to who would be the review board? You certainly testified?
GILRUTH: I know that we had a lot of people on it. I think that in a case like this, the review board has to be selected by headquarters. I think that's a good rule. Anyway, we had a good review board. We had one other thing. We had to gear up to have people at the hearings, because Congress immediately decided that they would have hearings about this. We spent a lot of our time in Washington at the review board.
DEVORKIN: Do you feel that all the inevitable hearings that Congress mounted, in addition to what NASA mounted, were redundant? Did it inhibit the program more than it should have? Or did you learn from from the Congressional as opposed to your own?
GILRUTH: I think that for our purpose, the Congressional was not necessary, but on the other hand, the country had to have something like that done by Congress. So it was necessary. They did their best to be helpful, and to try to find out what they needed to know and write their report. They were, I think, very friendly and helpful to the people that were trying to put this all back together.
DEVORKIN: So you saw their role as constructive.
MAUER: Having been through the 204 fire and what followed, what was your reaction when the Rogers Commission was created for the Challenger disaster aftermath?
GILRUTH: I really wasn't close enough to know exactly what was needed. I think it was a little different situation.
MAUER: Yes, I understand that, but I was just wondering, since you saw the Congressional effort after 204 as being positive, whether you thought that this was in the same vein, or whether you had any clear perception.
GILRUTH: I'm sure of this, that when you have something like that that happens, you've got to have these review boards. There's no way that you can avoid it. It has to be.
DEVORKIN: We've gone a good four and a half hours. Your stamina is quite remarkable, but I would suggest that we break it at this point.
GILRUTH: I would second the motion.
DEVORKIN: We might talk a little bit about what we'll do on Monday. Is that correct, that we'll be working on Monday as well?
DEVORKIN: What is in your mind, John, for Monday?
MAUER: I think the way we've been doing things has worked out very well. My suggestion is, there are still questions to be asked about Mercury and Gemini, and then move into Apollo. Go ahead with this approach that we have been using, looking at various questions and then following them up. I feel very comfortable with the way this interview has gone.
GILRUTH: Do you think we could finish up next Monday?
DEVORKIN: We should give it a try. I think one of the most important things, if it's all right with John, is that we start with Brainard Holmes and the building of the Manned Space Center, in Texas, make sure that we just get that story down. Is that all right if we do that first and then Gemini? And finish up Mercury?
MAUER: That sounds good to me.
GILRUTH: All right. Very good.
DEVORKIN: Thanks very much.
MRS. GILRUTH: It's not essential that we finish up. It would be good if we could do it.
DEVORKIN: We can get pretty close. Thank you.
1 Gilruth, "From Wallops Island to Mercury".
2 Gilruth, "From Wallops Island to Mercury".
3 Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985).
4 McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth.
5 Robert Gilruth Oral History Interview conducted by Eugene Emme and James Grimwood, 1973. National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
6 Gilruth, "I Believe We Should Go To The Moon".