Interviewee: Dr. Robert Gilruth

Interviewers: Martin Collins and Dr. David DeVorkin

Location: National Air & Space Museum
Washington, D.C.

Date: October 2, 1986


DR. DEVORKIN: Dr. Gilruth, in the first three interviews we followed your training and development into a technical manager. We'd like to start this session by asking you how you feel we should examine your history at the end of NACA years - at the NACA/NASA interface when one became the other, approximately '57, '58 - and then through your NASA years. Do you want to review management or do you want to continue as we did before, emphasizing the technical problems that faced you, or a combination?

DR. GILRUTH: I think before we get into the decision, I would like to point out that there are two or three quite good papers that I've written about those years with the transition from NACA into man in space and then going to the moon. One is a Wright Brothers lecture1 that I gave on time in Europe. Another one is a chapter in "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon",2 which I think is quite complete, about the problems and how they were solved. Those two were the more particular ones that - I'm sure you have them; they have all the dates and all the things in pretty good shape - better than I can rattle them off. So I think it might be better to - rather than have me just try to go through all of that - answer questions on things that you think might be worth asking. We'll just kind of go on from there. Oh, there's another one I didn't mention, and that's a memoir I wrote called "From Wallops Island To Mercury"3. That really is quite complete about and how the transition because I was an aerodynamics engineer with airplanes, wind tunnels, and things like that. Wallops Island was radar, electronics, rockets, and all kinds of new gadgets that had to do with the techniques of space. Also, the people that had to do with the techniques of on with me to form the Space Task Group and then later on the key people in Apollo and Gemini. So it was very fortuitous that all of these things happened at the time they happened and the way they happened. I guess when you start going through all these things you realize it was just a very unusual and fortuitous set of events that made the whole thing click together.

DEVORKIN: Of those three documents, the third one is familiar.

GILRUTH: "From Wallops Island to Mercury", yes?

DEVORKIN: That's right. I want to be sure we do have a copy of that.


DEVORKIN: Now you mentioned the Space Task Group. This is a example. You were asked to head a Space Task Group that was to define the first year of operations in your area of expertise in space flight or in the re-entry problems in this first year when Killian directed Purcell. I think it's Ed Purcell, isn't it?


DEVORKIN: To come down and look you over and then after that, Silverstein and others brought you here with a group.

    Now we have to do our homework. We want to read what is available about the Task Group and how it worked. But I think, for purposes of the interview, even prior to that, we'd like to know what you felt was and important element in what your own contribution was; why you were chosen, that sort of thing. I don't want you to answer that would help us better understand these documents, these histories. Your own impressions and your own recollections. They very well may be in some of these documents now. We should do our homework on them.

GILRUTH: Yes. I think you'd get quite a bit of insight from the documents. The question of how actually I was selected. Hugh Dryden, whom you no doubt know was a very, very well-respected scientist, aeronautical scientist as the years of transition when Sputnik went up and there was a hue and cry for somebody to do something about it, Hugh Dryden was the one that was picked by Killian and others as a man that knew enough about all the science and was also a good organizer and recognized the good people. So Killian was the one that really tapped Dryden on the shoulder. He (Dryden) was the key man in getting the thing started until, when the Space Act was Passed, he did not have the political clout. Apparently, he was made a deputy director and Glennan was made the director.

DEVORKIN: What I wanted to ask, though - and I'm not sure from what I've read so far was, --Dryden was made the NACA head before Sputnik, was he not? He put you into the manned program, the reentry problem well before there was a Sputnik.

GILRUTH: No, I was not put into the manned program before Sputnik. The NACA fathers thought that they should have a missile range. They looked around and found a place on the Eastern Shore [of Virginia] and bought the land. Dr. Lewis was very lukewarm to that idea because all of the defense services had their own missile ranges. Of course, I knew that the Air Force would want to fly their own missiles in their range, and the Army would want to fly theirs in theirs,, and the Navy...and so and so forth. Yet there was a crying need for data on things that flew through the speed of sound, because there was almost no knowledge about it and the existing wind tunnels would not work through that region. I had invented the only scheme that would work It was called "the wing flow technique" from which we obtained lots of good data. However, it was limited by its very low Reynolds Number. Therefore, when I got the job at Wallops Island, I bent the initial effort towards finding out what happened through the speed of sound because of the great need for reliable data in free flight and at high Reynolds Number. Most of the test models we flew in those early days didn't even have an auto pilot. They were designed to find out what happened to drag or what happened to control characteristics using very simple techniques that could be kept on the ground, like spin sondes and radars, and so on. For a very small amount of money, we did get an enormous amount of data. Actually, it didn't cost as much as the wind tunnels, the great big supersonic wind tunnels that they built in those times.

COLLINS: Was it up to you to design the research program for the missile range after it had been decided that NACA would have one? Was that your responsibility?

GILRUTH: Yes. It was a missile range to test complete missiles It was not a research range to find what happened in the transonic and supersonic aerodynamics.

COLLINS: The question is, was that your conception of aerodynamics?

GILRUTH: That was my conception. I tried that out on Dr. Lewis and he said, "Thank God, Bob. I'll feel good about Wallops Island now." Because he was worried about building a white elephant that nobody would want to use.

DEVORKIN: Who in the NACA then, if Lewis was against it, was for it?

GILRUTH: Oh, I don't know. I really didn't follow that. They sent people around to find the site. I was not privy to that. All of a sudden I was called in and told I was going to head this I was going to do. I had in the back of my mind things that you could do that were badly needed. It turned out that this was very well received by the NACA and by the other people in the organization.

COLLINS: Well, did the military think this was a good idea, as well Did you go to them and say, "This is what I would like to do with the missile range, it might cost..."

GILRUTH: I didn't have to go to them. they were glad to get any data for their contractors that they could get that said what happened to wings and things like that, through the speed of sound.

COLLINS: But I mean as you worked through this idea, did you go to them and test it against their expectations of what NACA might do?

GILRUTH: Well, they were not a bit interested in us having a missile range to test their missiles, their so-called ICBMs. We couldn't possibly do the kinds of things that they started doing with those massive things.

DEVORKIN: Was there any resistance from the military?

GILRUTH: No resistance at all. In fact, the military was very, very generous in giving us all kinds of jeeps and tractors and all the stuff they had left over from the war. We could get whatever we needed.

DEVORKIN: Did you have military oversight in the program that you did develop?

GILRUTH: No, but we always had military people on the committees of NACA. They were always kept briefed about what our plans were and what we were planning to do. And they could make their inputs in those committees.

DEVORKIN: I'd be interested to know in this period when you were building Wallops - I know we didn't talk about this - what contact you had as an individual manager with the committees. Did you get to know any of them personally? Did they seek out your advice in their deliberations in their committees?

GILRUTH: I was on several of their committees.

Devorkin: But there was a tremendous hierarchy of committees. I know there were subcommittees and panels and ...

GILRUTH: Well, there was a committee on missiles, a committee on aerodynamics. I was on both of those. Then there was the main committee which was the NACA itself. Of course, I wasn't on that, but I was called several times to appear before it and give them a briefing. And that committee went to Wallops Island. This was the last time that Dr. Lewis was really well enough to do anything. He went over there with them. That's when he was so pleased with the briefing thing I put up about how we were going to do this systematic work on drag - find the effect of aspect ratio an wing thickness and air foil sections and so on - in a systematic way, so people could design things. He was very pleased with that.

DEVORKIN: He effectively found a use for Wallops that he liked, that he felt was reasonable, given the fact that Wallops had to exist.

GILRUTH: Well, but Wallops was a life saver to this country because there were no wind tunnels that could give you this data.

DEVORKIN: Well, if there hadn't been this directive for a missile range by the central committee, the central NACA committee, would you have asked for one? Would you have wanted there to be one?

GILRUTH: I don't know if I would have been that brave. We were already dropping free fall bodies from high altitude airplanes that did the same thing that you did with shooting it with a rocket, only it costs a lot more to do it that way. It was much cheaper to do it with a solid rocket which we could get for nothing from the Navy. They had solid rocket that they used for just training all the time. All we had to do was just ask for them and we'd get as many as we wanted. So it turned out to be a very inexpensive way of getting data that you couldn't get any other way.

COLLINS: So you had these research problems in mind and the opportunity...

GILRUTH: We had an opportunity. I doubt if I would have tried to make that opportunity. I would have spent my life trying to sell something to people that didn't want to listen. But here it was, right in my hands. I was lucky enough to have a boss like Dr. Lewis. Of course, the people at Langley - Floyd Thompson, he thought it was great; Gus Crowley thought it was great. My immediate bosses thought it was fine.

DEVORKIN: Who was that?

GILRUTH: Floyd Thompson was my immediate boss and Gus Crowley was the acting head of the laboratory when Henry Reid was the real head, but he was ill quite a lot at that time. of course, Dr. Lewis was in Washington.

DEVORKIN: This building of Wallops, as I recall, this was just prior to the Korean War?

GILRUTH: Yes. Well, it started in '45. May '45 was the day I was told I was going to head that thing.

DEVORKIN: It sounds like, when you were told to head it, you were given a free hand to do with it as you pleased.

GILRUTH: Well, I had a free hand to do what I could convince my

Superiors was the thing to do.

DEVORKIN: Did they call it a missile range from the beginning?

GILRUTH: That is what it got called, but it was changed, because it wasn't a missile range. It was a research. an aerodynamic research range, called it PARD. Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, and the letters said PARD. Everybody liked the PARD, so that was a pretty good name.

DEVORKIN: Once you then had the big briefing where you said this was the last time that Lewis' health allowed him to come out, how did you establish a budget and a program?

GILRUTH: Well, we had the budget, and we made the program fit the budget. This original budget was determined mainly on the cost of building facilities. Of course, we had to have a dock and we had to have a place for people to eat and sleep when they were working over there. We had to have a building to assemble models, whatever they were. We had to put some groins in because there was beach erosion. There wasn't a heck of a lot of money.

DEVORKIN: You had no intention of establishing an independent research facility. Most of your work then was still based at Langley?

GILRUTH: That's right. This was a division of Langley. I had an office at Wallops, but I spent almost all of my time at Langley because that's where the action really was. It took comparatively few men launch those models. Most of the real scheming on how to do it, and the kind of equipment you had, and the kind of radars you had, and so on, was done at Langley.

DEVORKIN: Were there any members of your staff or your colleagues, who when you got this assignment, expressed to you the feeling, "Oh, now you're going to go off and build your own empire, and there's going to be a fifth or a fourth NACA center."

Did you ever have that feeling yourself?

GILRUTH: No, I never did.

DEVORKIN: Could this have been a chance to do that sort of thing?

GILRUTH: I had no desire to do it. I thought we were far better off to be a part of Langley because we had so many colleagues there from other divisions, such as the theoretical aerodynamicists - you know, you could always talk to them and they'd do anything for you. We had a whole bunch of computers and in those days computers were "girls". We had all kinds of facilities there. We had a first class model shop which we expanded to make our models. We couldn't have duplicated that thing in time to do any good because there was such a crying need for this kind of data and we had to get moving. We had to do it to fulfill the needs of the country.

DEVORKIN: I know you felt that way, but I know in a place as large Langley there are many different interests.

GILRUTH: Of course, there were people that were jealous. You always have things like that. We had a lot if things working for us, though. One thing that happened is that after our first year, the committee on aerodynamics passed a resolution asking that our budget be tripled.

DEVORKIN: Did you do any lobbying for that?

GILRUTH: Absolutely none. What they did ask me is if I would be against it, and I said, "Hell, no." That was Gene Root who was a chief engineer and vice president of Douglas, the head of that committee, and he was one of the guys that really led that effort, and the subcommittee was unanimous in their recommendations for that. So we had help. We had help from the outside.

DEVORKIN: Evidently. It sounds like it was help from the corporations who had a voice on the NACA.

GILRUTH: They were so glad to get some data. They weren't able to get it, you know. They had to design airplanes.

DEVORKIN: Do you think you were getting more advocacy from the corporations like Douglas and North American let's say...

GILRUTH: North American was very supportive.

DEVORKIN: But do you think you were getting more support from them that you were from the actual military? Or was there anyway to know that?

GILRUTH: Well, we got a lot of help from the military. The liaison officers at Langley - Colonel Green and Major Eastman - they were very helpful. They were close friends of mine.

DEVORKIN: But they didn't lobby for more money for you?

GILRUTH: No, they couldn't, they really couldn't. They had their own military bosses and I don't know how they would. Maybe there's some way they could but...

DEVORKIN: They could have acted as patriots, if they wanted.

GILRUTH: Well, it's so hard to - you see, they were under Wright Field. Wright Field had their own things that they liked to do. That was not a channel, really. They were not against us in anyway. They were always glad to hear that we were going to do something, but they couldn't really have helped us, I don't think.

DEVORKIN: What about the relationship with Wright Field? As you began working the transonic region, did you begin to have inquiries from Wright Field? Was there an exchange of information?

GILRUTH: My relations with Wright Field at one time were very, very close, back in the days of stability control of airplanes; that was something that Wright Field was very interested in, in flying and handling qualities. There was a man there named Perkins, Cortland Perkins, who was president of the Academy of Engineering for many, many years here. He just retired a year or so ago. He was a young aerodynamicist at Wrighty Field. He and I became fast friends. He was always trying to get NACA to do things, programs that the Air Force wanted. It was quite helpful because we thought the same way and he would help us get the airplanes that we needed to do the research with. We got work done that they wanted done and they helped us do it an that was our job. I think he went back to Princeton an became a professor in the years of the transonic. While I still had contact with him, he was on longer at Wright Field. Wright Field wasn't in a position to help very much.

DEVORKIN: So it needed someone at Wright Field like Cortland Perkins, who was sympathetic and interested, in order for you to have this liaison?

GILRUTH: That was a personal liaison. We had a liaison officer at Langley and there was a liaison officer at Wright Field. They were the ones, if you wanted a so-and-so, or a so-and-so, you'd go to your liaison officer and he would contact the liaison officer at Wright Field. Those kinds of offices are not the way to have technical liaison people and those big organizations.

DEVORKIN: Why is that?

GILRUTH: Because you can't talk about a subject through somebody else, you've got to be head to head. You go visit the guy that you want to talk to or he comes to visit you, you exchange what you know and so on and so forth. It's just the way it would be of engineering or the dean of something else.

DEVORKIN: When Cortland Perkins was there you had somebody you could talk to?

GILRUTH: That's right.

DEVORKIN: But after he left, you couldn't do that? There was no one to talk to?

GILRUTH: Well, I didn't have the need. I talk to Perkins because he was there, because he knew something about this stuff and I enjoyed talking with him. There were other people there in stability and control, but I didn't talk to them because they were not of the some caliber. Perkins was a high caliber person the with a lot of good ideas and the other boys there would carry out the things that he wanted done. But they were not capable of generating those kinds of thoughts themselves. Especially the military services have trouble bringing to gather under their own kinds of organizations high quality people. It's harder for them to acquire them.

DEVORKIN: What you're saying then is that without people like Perkins, it was no use or no value?

GILRUTH: That's right. It just happened to be that way. It could have been different, but that's the way it was.

DEVORKIN: At this time, what were your contacts with people who were doing rocketry experiments at the Naval Research Laboratory in the late '40s? They were developing the Viking. The Glenn Martin Company, Reaction Motors were developing the Viking. The Glenn Martin Company, Reaction Motors were developing the Biking which was a...

GILRUTH: Yes, I remember.

DEVORKIN: Of course, also close by was the Applied Physics Lab that had been developing the proximity fuse. And all of these were ultrasonic, I don't know. Is that a technical term?

GILRUTH: Yes. Well, it wasn't ultrasonic. It was supersonic...

DEVORKIN: Supersonic. And they were in areas that you must have had some affinity for.

GILRUTH: Well, they had a thing called the Bumblebee and that was a fiasco.

DEVORKIN: Oh, interesting. I know about Bumblebee; that's why I'm asking how you...

GILRUTH: Yes. It was supposed to be a ground-to-air missile. They spent all kinds of money. It was hard to do. It probably did some good because a lot of people learned about rockets and learned about electronics and so on. They spent a lot of money. But I don't think they could ever accomplish any kind of a weapon system.

DEVORKIN: And this was a rail-launched...a series of rail-launched systems...

GILRUTH: I can't think of the man. What was the name of the...


GILRUTH: Tuve! Merle Tuve. He could launch a thing off of the conference table like no one I ever saw! He tried hard and was a good man, but the project was not a humming success. The things that did happen came from another place. But there were a lot of people that got educated to a degree in the program. No question about it.

DEVORKIN: This is very important to us, seeing people who get educated through contact with projects and what you say is of interest, Merle Tuve especially, as an entrepreneur in developing these programs he started during the War and continued for a number of years after the War. What was you actual contact? Were you on the review boards?

GILRUTH: No. I had no contact with the Bumblebee, but I do remember reading the reports every month or so when they came out; I was interested in it. My own job was not to find out what the weapons systems like that; my own job was to find out what the aerodynamics were of weapons systems like that. They were working a lot on the guidance and all that, and that was the hard part. That was really hard to do in those times.

DEVORKIN: It was guidance and telemetry they were working on. I know their telemetry systems were quite successful in the sounding rocket. Would you see that as a spinoff, a successful spinoff? At least if Bumblebee itself wasn't overly successful, they were able to use some of the components.

GILRUTH: Sure. Certainly we probably learned a lot about telemetry from them, too. We had our own group there at Langley that - under Buckley who built up a telemetry group - that did all of our Wallops Island telemetry.

DEVORKIN: I know that there have been different feelings and theories in telemetry systems and how they should go together. NRL was different than APL in their theory - the pulse modulation/amplitude modulation theories. Which did your people use?

GILRUTH: Pulse modulation. We had to get highly accurate results. That was, by far, the more accurate system.

DEVORKIN: Now this is - not that we want to concentrate on this - but this is the kind of question overall, since we're still exploring the kinds of questions to ask you. You came out very clearly saying the pulse modulation system was better. As a manager of other technical people who are expert in their field when you're in the position of having to make a decision, one system over another, or knowing when a system works - that can range from this to your Juno experiments and with the Big Joe where you really put your career on the line; making technical decisions. Who did you trust?

GILRUTH: Well, that's like amplitude or pulse modulation. I didn't make that decision. I went and talked with Buckley about it, and I said, "It seems to me that this pulse modulation would be a lot more accurate." "Is that so?" he said. "Yeah, that's what we want to use." That was fine. If he had said no , he would have probably convinced me that the other one was better. But I had that much knowledge to know that it sounded like it would be more accurate. That was not the kind of thing that I would try to have any particular stand on unless it was very unusual, because that wasn't my business. I was not an electroniker.

DEVORKIN: Understood. You can't be an expert on everything. But how do you know who do you know who to trust, and that they know what they're doing? This is the sort of thing I'd like to know about you.

GILRUTH: Well, I trusted Buckley because he had a long period of successes. He was modest and he didn't spend a lot of money, but the things he did worked. He was motivated. He had a bunch of good fellas working with him. Naturally I just wanted to support him, because I knew him and he would always done good things. I sized him up as a guy who knew what he was doing.

DEVORKIN: In his case or any of the cases in your early years - and you can spread this out over all of your work, even into NASA - when you bring a person on staff, what kind of evaluation do you make in determining if they're competent? How much room do you give a new engineer or a new manager underneath you who is managing a technical project? How do you keep enough watch over someone who is new, before they have proven themselves, to make sure that they're given enough rope to be creative and develop the best possible way, but not too much so that they could go off in the wrong direction?

GILRUTH: Well, I had a lot of experience doing that. I remember my boss, Floyd Thompson - usually we came to the same conclusion about people. Every once in a while we wouldn't and he would think I was too hard on somebody, and I would say, "Well, I don't think that fella is very good." He would say, "Oh, yes he is Bob. Darn it, why don't you give him a little more rope?" I said, "Okay. Let's give him a little more rope." That only happened once or twice. I remember at least once he told me before to long that I was right. But I was closer to them than he was.

DEVORKIN: As I recall, you tried to emulate that initiation structure with the people you hired later on. you learned a lot.

GILRUTH: I gave them things to do and see how they did them. I tried to tell them what they were and what they were for and how to do it. You can tell pretty fast about people. I really didn't have any real problems breaking people in. Quite soon it was obvious if you had a real star or if you had just a good worker or somebody that was going to not be very helpful. It didn't take long.

COLLINS: In this case, you're talking mostly about people who had technical capabilities.

GILRUTH: This was the kind of people I dealt with. They were engineers.

COLLINS: Whereas, as you moved up in the organization and had larger management responsibilities, you also essentially had to work with managers and evaluate their...

GILRUTH: That's right. But he wasn't a good manager if he wasn't good technically. Because all of our managers had to make technical decisions, too.


GILRUTH: I was lucky that the people I picked...I hardly...I don't know of a louse I got. Didn't have a one. That's a fact.

DEVORKIN: So then actually to better understand your career, we have to find out a little more about how to pick people.

GILRUTH: I don't know how I picked them. But I was very, very fortunate that people I had helping me were doggone good people.

DEVORKIN: But let me ask this. Let's talk about some real nuts and bolts here. My wife works in a private contraction company. If they want to hire somebody they have very little overhead to worry about, very few regulations. They hire the best person they can find and that they can afford, and there are no restrictions. Comparing that to hiring in the government where there are extremely complex and sometimes conflicting requirements and where there are pay scale caps that are very serious, we have trouble many times hiring the best person we know who is out there, or even affording them, and then giving them working conditions that are commensurate with their abilities. How would you characterize in your early years, as you began being in a position of hiring people in the NACA, the conditions for hiring and the working conditions for keeping the good people you found that were stars. Let's talk about the hiring first.

GILRUTH: We were sheltered in a lot of ways because the Civil Service Commission in the years that I'm talking about the young engineers had to take an exam, and they had to pass that exam.

So there was a pretty good screening right there.

DEVORKIN: You felt the exam was a fair test?

GILRUTH: Certainly I thought it was because I was quickly picked up! It was very difficult. I'm sure I didn't get a 100 in it or anything like that. It was a difficult exam. I was one of the first ones that was hired during the Depression.

DEVORKIN: Certainly we know about those exams. That does set things apart from the types of people and positions we have because we do not have exams.

GILRUTH: That's right. That was a big help to us, of course. Then the war came and anybody that had a degree they'd hire, because they didn't expect that you were going to have 100 percent good people. But then, these earlier days when the Depression was still on, I'll tell you, it was hard to get a job.

DEVORKIN: The exams were reinstituted after the war, weren't they?

GILRUTH: Yeah, I think so.

DEVORKIN: Because my father took...recertified as an engineer after the war and certainly had to take an exam in chemical engineering. But, did you find that people who were hired during the war and who stayed on, constituted a group that maybe was not as qualified?

GILRUTH: No, I don't think so. I think that the good ones were just as good, there were just more people that didn't make the grade.

DEVORKIN: Were they filtered out?

GILRUTH: Filtered out, yes.

DEVORKIN: How were you able to do that in Civil Service? Or were they never made Civil Service?

GILRUTH: They had to go for six months before they were found out. You had six months to decide whether they were going to make it or not.

DEVORKIN: Well, given that an engineer passed the exam, you still had a screening process beyond that, I would imagine, to get the best person for the job. Isn't that right? Or were you...or was it a complete book system and you simply chose the person with the highest points?

GILRUTH: I don't recall ever choosing anybody as I was in that business. I received them. I talked to them to find out where they went to school and what they did, but no significant paper work. I had some kind of piece of paper but it didn't have much on it.

DEVORKIN: But you had the six month period?

GILRUTH: I had a six month period to make up my mind.

DEVORKIN: I see, I see. So that was the trial period, and you kept the people you wanted.

GILRUTH: It was very, very seldom that we didn't keep them. Oh, once or twice. One fella didn't know how to find the center of gravity on an airplane. I didn't want to. He was a nice kid. But I just couldn't.

DEVORKIN: So it sounds like the formal screening process that was in place was a very adequate process.

GILRUTH: Yes, it was.

COLLINS: This same procedure operated over the course up to 1958 when NASA was formed. This was throughout the period of NACA.

GILRUTH: I guess so. I got further and further away from dealing with the recruits.

DEVORKIN: That brings up the next question. As you got further and further away, you go into the position of promoting people, or having to choose who to promote to become a manager under you. Many times, often times, even though all the technical prowess is there, some people are managers and some are not managers. Would you care to explore with us how you made those choices?

GILRUTH: I'll go back to a case that we've already talked about: W.J. O'Sullivan. Now there's a guy that's really bright, or was really bright. He's dead now, God bless him. But he could not handle people at all. He could not have anybody working for him because the first thing he'd do was come and tell me how lousy they were, and the things that they couldn't do. That was just Bill O'Sullivan. But by himself, he was a good man. He would work hard and he was bright and knew a lot. He was a walking encyclopedia. He knew all kinds of things that you didn't believe anybody knew. But that's a pretty good example. He could not be put in charge of a group.

DEVORKIN: Knowing who could not is, I think, one thing. But many times you find upward mobility means a higher salary and more power, that there are people who shouldn't be managers who wish to be and who desire to be. Were you faced with that sort of problem during your years at the NACA?

GILRUTH: Well, you always do have some people, but that wasn't a whole lot of trouble because the guys that were outstanding managers sort of stood out. It's surprising how people will accept the good guys, they know that they're good.

DEVORKIN: It's almost a mystique, I think, and I'm trying to demystify it. We're trying to find the mechanisms by which they stand out, because we certainly see in government many people in institutions here in Washington who have no technical competence and yet are in technical management positions. There are even programs at the universities for training technical managers who do not have technical competence. The whole world seems to be moving away from just that philosophy that you said, that you must have technical prowess, technical experience to be a manager of technical organizations. Yet, the theorists in the universities seem to think otherwise. What's going on here?

GILRUTH: I don't know, I don't believe it. I don't believe it would work.

DEVORKIN: You don't believe it would work?


DEVORKIN: You know that it's happened. But what you're saying is there was none of this in the NACA when you were there?

GILRUTH: No. I don't know. Certainly not in any kinds of things I was associated with or the people that I worked with. The other labs were similar; Ames and Lewis in that time period were just like we were.

DEVORKIN: Yet the central committee of the NACA could say, "we want a missile range", and there would be a missile range. Somebody, every so often, was clearly making policy statements which were done without a heck of a lot of thought. But it was only...

GILRUTH: Well, I think it was done without a heck of a lot of thought, because they had no idea of what was really needed. Every once in a while somebody will pull the hat out of the fire. That's exactly what happened in the case of that so-called missile range.

DEVORKIN: Well, in that case, I think we know who did it.

GILRUTH: Well, it not only saved a bad thing but it was a very good thing to have happened. If we hadn't had that decision, we wouldn't have had the fruit! The whole island was not necessary, but we did need a place where we wouldn't hit anything, and the ocean was a lot better than the bay would have been. So we needed some kind of a place on the ocean. It was a good thing to do; it didn't cost that much to buy that barrier island. It was not an expensive thing and it didn't cost that much to put the few buildings and facilities that were put there.

DEVORKIN: To finish off on this one discussion of the way that Walllops was initiated - I may have already asked you this question so mark me and you can stop me. Were there interests in the NACA for an actual bona fide missile range? Was there pressure to develop it at Wallops?

GILRUTH: No, there was only one other user of the Wallops Island range and that was the Cleveland Lab and they wanted to fly some ramjets, but they were research models just like the ones we had. Wallops was fine. They actually launched them from an airplane which they flew from Lewis, flew from Cleveland, and then let it go over Wallops Island where we had our radars and the range. So that worked out just fine.

COLLINS: Another way of approaching this question, perhaps. You mentioned previously that Gene Root was the one who suggested tripling a budget for Wallops Island, yet he was on the Aerodynamics Committee; is it kind of unusual that request would come from the aerodynamics committee and not the guided missiles committee?

GILRUTH: No. By that time, it was aerodynamic data that they wanted. The fact we were using an unguided missile to get it was just a positive...

COLLINS: What was the working relationship between the guided missile committee and the aerodynamics committee? Was there a connection there?

GILRUTH: We had a whole bunch of committees. We had a guided missile committee and the aerodynamics committee? Was there a connection there?

DEVORKIN: You know this tree structure. There was a committee on the upper atmosphere, and there was a committee on solar/terrestrial relations; it was a tremendous range of committees and subcommittees.

GILRUTH: Yes. But there were committees, like there was a committee on engines that worked with the Cleveland Lab and there was a Flutter committee. But the aerodynamics committee was a main committee because the main job of NACA was to turn out the aerodynamic research that would lead to better airplanes and guided missiles.

DEVORKIN: What input did the guided missiles committee make to the work at Wallops Island?

GILRUTH: Well, very little. I think very little. I can't remember that the guided missile committee lasted very long. I think it sort of disappeared because it didn't have a job to do. We were not trying to build better guided missiles. The guided missiles from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. That was all electronics and some aerodynamics and so on. But we did not have a guided missile subcommittee that was worth its salt and I think it faded out quite quickly.

DEVORKIN: They missed the boat early on, in exploiting the captured V-2s and others. NRL, APL and many others have said that...

GILRUTH: Besides, we didn't have the facilities. The V-2's you had were launched out of a place in New Mexico. In fact, I went down there to watch some of them.

DEVORKIN: Were you there officially?

GILRUTH: Yes. I went down there officially.

DEVORKIN: Did you ever put sensors on V-2s to study the laminar flow and drag?

GILRUTH: No, we didn't have the opportunity

DEVORKIN: Would that have been something you would have liked to do?

GILRUTH: I don't think so. It was too esoteric for me. I wasn't that much of a pure aerodynamicist.

DEVORKIN: People were doing a lot of studies of the aerodynamic shapes of what was called the o-drive. I guess that's the correct term.

GILRUTH: We studied a lot of those at Wallops Island.

DEVORKIN: Exactly. Here was the V-2s which was an operational ballistic missile and higher velocity sounding rockets that were used - higher acceleration, I should say - rockets that were developed such as the WAC and Aerobee. Many missiles were fired there in the late '40s. Other groups did put all sorts of sensors all over these rockets and studied them. I know that the NACA was very interested in their activities, the NACA through William J. O'Sullivan, who was the man you mentioned, who was the observer, the NACA observer. And I also know that in early '46, the NACA was interested in taking part.

GILRUTH: Homer Newell. Homer Newell was on that committee. And O'Sullivan was not on the committee, but he used to go to those meetings.

DEVORKIN: Exactly. Now, were there not people who were in the NACA, and who were very interested in this whole realm? You have indicated that you were collection aerodynamic data on different models, different shapes in the transonic region. Wouldn't it have been a useful thing to work with the V-2s? Why did you feel they were too esoteric?

GILRUTH: It was much easier for us to make a model and fly it at Wallops Island because it was very easy for us to measure the drag. We just put a doppler radar on it and a radio sounder to measure the atmosphere. We didn't even need to put a telemeter in it where you could just measure the rate as it slowed down. It was a measure of the drag. It was quite simple to do it and we could probably measure ten of them before we could do one with a V-2. So it would have been interesting in those earlier days to have had a pressure distribution, or something like that, where you could take advantage of the size of it. But we didn't have that opportunity. Mostly those V-2s, you couldn't do a whole lot to them.

DEVORKIN: The first ones. The Army wouldn't let anyone change the aerodynamic characteristics, but on the later ones they did. O'Sullivan said particularly in about '48 or '49, as he continued to go to these panel meetings, that the information that the were bringing back about the temperature distribution, density, and pressure of the upper atmosphere was different that one could extrapolate from the standard NACA atmospheric tables. I'm wondering at that point, if there was...if you recall any pressure upon you or your people to get more involved in the rocketry, to do your own experiments in the upper atmosphere, to confirm the NACA upper atmosphere tables. Were you aware of that?

GILRUTH: I remember Bill O'Sullivan was concerned about the differences. But I don't remember how that was resolved. I think we ended up saying that the standard atmosphere was pretty good.

DEVORKIN: I know that there was a reconciliation about it in nineteen-fifty-...

DEVORKIN: But I don't remember how it was resolved.

DEVORKIN: But the important thing I'm asking is if there was any pressure from the NACA on you or anyone you know of to get involved in the experiments.

GILRUTH: I can remember O'sullivan talking about that problem, but I can't remember any further thing about it.

DEVORKIN: Would it be useful for us at this point to begin talking about your entry into the hypersonic re-entry problems that you eventually got involved in? What is a good way to make a transition from your early work at Wallops to later work when you started looking at re-entry shapes?

GILRUTH: Well, it just turned out that Wallops Island techniques lent themselves very well to heat transfer studies. The only thing you had to have was a honest Mach number.

DEVORKIN: You needed sensors on board.

GILRUTH: You needed a very high Mach number to study the re-entry problem. However, if you got up to Mach numbers of 10 or 15, that was getting close enough so that you had the same kind of flow and you could then extrapolate to the re-entry situation. A lot of the re-entry situation was studied at Mach numbers between 15 and 10 or less.

DEVORKIN: What I'm trying to determine right now, though in a more exploratory way is, is that an appropriate direction now to take in your oral history? Are we leaving something out by going directly to the problem?

GILRUTH: Well, to me the problems of putting a man in space, the physical problems of the vehicle, were pretty well solved before we ever really started the Mercury program. We felt that we had the solution to putting a man in space and bringing him back safely. We felt that we could do it without exceeding the gravity forces, the acceleration on a man that he could stand. We had experiments with couches where a man could safely stand 20 g's. The Supine couch. We tested that at Johnsonville up to 22 g's without hurting the man, and that's a lot more than you need for re-entry.

DEVORKIN: In your memoir from Wallops Island, do you discuss to your satisfaction the particulars in how you got involved in this particular problem while still in the NACA, well before Sputnik?

GILRUTH: Yes, I think I do. It was Dryden. I was kind of a guide at Langley Field, and Langley Field was the only place - neither Ames or Lewis had people who were interested in flying; maybe they were, but they didn't have any backgrounds. Ames was mostly a big wind tunnel place, and Lewis was a place that worked on engines, and Langley was the mother division and still had a lot of people that were interested in everything.

DEVORKIN: Interested in everything. Does that mean that they were capable of responding to new requested from the Air Force or from other interests to explore new realms in a broader sense?

GILRUTH: Well, we generated these things ourselves. We didn't wait to be asked to do these things - that was the difference between us and the other labs of the Air Force and Navy and so on. They were research labs that were waiting for somebody to ask them to do something.

DEVORKIN: Yes. So what Faget said in your interview with him a number of years ago - you had a "plan without a program" were his words - would you agree with that, as being the character of how Langley got involved?

GILRUTH: No. I would say that when I saw what dog go up ...

DEVORKIN: Oh, that was much later. Laika. Yes.

GILRUTH: Well, that wasn't later. That was the time when we were putting this plan together. When I saw the dog go up, I said, "My God, we better get going because it's going to be a legitimate program to put man in space." I didn't need somebody to hit me on the head and tell me that. I knew that.

DEVORKIN: So hadn't Hugh Dryden put you in charge of the Air Force contract in the manned space program well before Laika?

GILRUTH: Air Force contract?

DEVORKIN: I thought you were involved in an Air Force program in manned space flight well before NASA.

GILRUTH: There wasn't a manned space flight program before NASA.

DEVORKIN: I thought Mercury predated NASA, elements of Mercury predated...

GILRUTH: Well, yes, but it wasn't Air Force. There were all kinds of schemes around, you know. There are all kinds of schemes, but the Air Force didn't have, to my knowledge, a program. They had some officers that were interested, and I can't think of their names right now.

Devorkin: Harvey Hall and people like that interested in early orbiting spaceships and things like that - they were people who were very close to the NACA.

GILRUTH: We had the X-1 airplane. We had the Air Force put up the money for it and NACA designed it.

DEVORKIN: You were working on hypersonic re-entry gliders before NASA?

GILRUTH: Well, there was a person there at Ames that worked on hypersonic glider, but I wasn't working on them. I didn't think they were the way to go, I thought this blunt body was the way to go. Harvey Allen was another Ames guy and he said, "The way to do it is you just throw it," meaning here's a guy who has done the blunt body work. So you really don't gain anything by gliding in. I suppose it's a little more dignified to glide in than it is to come in with a blunt body, but after all, the thing that counts is what's the most efficient way of doing it.

DEVORKIN: I think, to clarify in our minds right now - unless you feel by our going away and reading these documents more carefully we better prepare ourselves - I think we need a chronology of what types of projects you were engaged in through the pre-NASA years, through the '50s.

GILRUTH: In almost all of those years, I was an assistant director of the lab. As soon as I graduated from PARD, the pilotless stuff at Wallops, I was moved off of there and put in a job of assistant director. I had under me, the PARD.

DEVORKIN: When was that actually, when you were made assistant director?

GILRUTH: "52. I had two other divisions under me and although I was not directly over the flight research division, I was involved in it through my boss. My old boss, Mel Gough, was still head of that division, and it wouldn't have been at all nice to put me over. I really had worried about four other divisions here at Langley during those years. When the dog went up - it was when the dog went up - I went up to Washington and spent a lot of time there working with people - some from Langley, some from Lewis, and some from Ames - for Dr. Dryden, that is, in studying what kind of a thing we should be trying to do in order to put a man in space.

DEVORKIN: Was this part of the task force or was this after the task force?

GILRUTH: This was not even called a task force. We were just up there working away in a big old room trying to draw this thing together to see what we could make out of it.

    The launch of Sputnik in 1957 had changed the thinking of all of us at the NACA. I said I could recall watching sunlight reflect off of that Sputnik over the Chesapeake Bay, and it put a new sense of value and urgency on things that we had been doing. And when, two months later, the dog Laika was placed in space, I was sure that the Russians were planning for man in space. At that time, many of us started thinking intensively about manned satellites of one kind of another. It seemed to me the United States would surely enter in the space competition with the Soviet Union. Prior to this, many of our research people had been studying manned hypersonic gliders; in fact, there was a high priority research project sponsored by the Air Force which studied just such a vehicle. This work later became the basis for Dynasoar, the project that was to continue until the end of 1963 before it was cancelled. Another hypersonic glider, the X-15 research airplane, was already under development. It was designed for a maximum speed of a Mach number of about seven. According to histories of this time period, references were made to our work being done on manned satellites before Sputnik. I do not recall having contact with that work except for that of Harvey Allen of the Ames Research Center. He was first, to my recollection, to propose a blunt body for a manned satellite. He suggested a sphere to enclose a man and said that he would just throw it.

DEVORKIN: He first suggested a sphere?

GILRUTH: Yes. He suggested a sphere. He said you'd just throw it, and, of course, he meant launch it with a rocket. Then we had in the fall of '57, a meeting to discuss Round Three which was held in Ames. Round Three was a term for the next step in proposals for research aircraft beyond X-15. As it happened, the Russians launched Sputnik during the week before this meting. The impact of the Russian achievement on the meeting was the realization that orbital flight was a legitimate national goal. I could not attend the meeting but Purser and Faget, representing the Langley was Wallops Groups - they came away from that meeting disenchanted with hypersonic gliders and were convinced that a blunt body-type of manned capsule should be the next step in manned flight. Dr. Eggers of Ames had proposed a compact-type glider now termed "lifting body" shaped like a half-baked potato. This was a clever design and one which would have inherent advantages in lower re-entry g-forces.

    In March of '58, Max Faget presented a paper called "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites, Wingless Configuration, Nom-lifting", at another conference held at the Ames Research Center, and so on. And he had all the things pretty well tied down in this paper. It showed how you would do it and so on and so forth. Of course, we had worked with Max a lot in doing all of this.

DEVORKIN: Were you completely - and people working with you - completely in agreement with this? Because the question I'm trying to get at is the difference between what Faget has called an evolutionary process of research, a constantly evolving capability, and a revolutionary process that is discontinuous and is directed toward one specific goal with no particular planning for what you do once you achieve that goal. I know that there were criticisms of the blunt re-entry body because of that.

GILRUTH: Well, they thought, of course, it was the same thing we used to go to the moon, and that certainly wasn't a dead end. It was the only way we could go to the moon.

DEVORKIN: With blunt re-entry?


DEVORKIN: That was within a specific time period?

GILRUTH: That's right. And that's still true; if you had to go to the moon, you would want to go that way because it was so much easier. Now that doesn't say you couldn't do it some other way. You could probably do it with the shuttle. Anyway, it turned out to be a pretty good way. Gosh, how many men did we send to the moon?

DEVORKIN: Absolutely. That's not the point. What I'm trying to get at is that Newell and others had said that in the construction of NASA - that Silverstein had said this is quoted by Newell - there was to be no disruption of the missions at the centers that were drawn into the building of NASA. Yet the hypersonic re-entry program was dropped, Dynasoar was dropped, and the hypersonic program was dropped in favor of the blunt re-entry vehicle that was something that would work over a shorter period of time. And I'm trying to get at - was that done with the complete approval of people such as you and Faget and other, knowing that it was the best design, or did you feel as if you were giving up an evolutionary development program for something that was ...

DEVORKIN: Well, that's the point I;m trying to get at. I'm interested to know who still felt, even though we knew we were in a race, and I take it you really felt that we were in a race.

GILRUTH: Sure, we were in a race. Every time we tried to do something, the Russians would do it first. It was getting pretty tough - poor President Kennedy was fit to be tied.


DEVORKIN: I'm just trying to get at the degree to which national need drove everyone to a design of the blunt shape; whereas you and Max Faget indicated there were many other competing possibilities, but this one was the most probable of working within that time frame. That was the choice that you were faced with.

GILRUTH: That's the choice that we made, really. I was fortunate to have a boss in Hugh Dryden who was convinced of the same thing. He let me go before the U.S. Congress to deliver a report asking for money to create a manned space program based on the ballistic shape. But there were opponents. In fact, even Hugh Dryden at one time called the blunt body the same as "shooting a lady out of a cannon."

DEVORKIN: What did that mean? Did that mean that this was thought to be a stunt? Did that mean that this was thought to be a stunt?

GILRUTH: That's what he thought it was, a stunt. That was when, at the time that Wernher (von Braun) and the people down at Huntsville had proposed just a rocket up and down; it was before it was a manned satellite. But they had proposed shooting a rocket, a man on a rocket in a blunt body.

DEVORKIN: This is the one where the man would be inserted in a cylinder...

GILRUTH: In a conical thing, yeah. That would have been useful, but you don't really need to do it. We shot a Big Joe that proved we didn't have to have a man in it. We certainly knew what the g-loads were. Hugh Dryden called it shooting a lady out of a cannon, but when the time came to approve this concept for Project Mercury, he bless it right along. Wright Field had a competition. They never did let any contracts, but they got a lot of proposals and there were all kinds of things. In fact, Arthur Kantrowitz had a great big steel parachute that you re-entered with and it was supposed to turn white hot in the heat of kinds of blunt bodies. There were, I guess, fifteen different companies that competed on that proposal. There was even one company, it was, of course, North American, that tried to do something with the X-15 which they had built and make that into a atmosphere without burning up which, of course, would be very difficult to do. So there were all kinds of ideas, but we were fortunate that we were able to do it the way that was easiest.

DEVORKIN: Now Harvey Allen came up with the basic blunt shape. As you mentioned, it was spherical, initially. That's how, of course, the Russians went with some of their manned...

GILRUTH: They had a sphere, yes.

DEVORKIN: But how did the cone shape develop after the basic shield idea was proposed by Allen? Let me back up. How quickly was Allen's basic idea accepted by you and by the people who were making the technical choices when you were assistant director at NACA?

GILRUTH: Well, I accepted it almost right away because it was clearly the simplest and safest way going. That was hard enough to do it without making it harder that it should be.

DEVORKIN: Did you have a feeling that you wanted to check his calculations?

GILRUTH: Well, we did it. We flew things at Wallops Island, measured the heat transfer, and we got the shapes that we used in Mercury that way.

DEVORKIN: His basic idea, though, of dissipating the heat through the shock front produced by the blunt body was a very new idea. I'm just wondering if people who knew a lot about laminar flow, about conduction problems worked so - because this was basically a convective property, and it required a whole different type of equation. Did you have people who could quickly understand that?

GILRUTH: Well. we did better than that. We flew rockets up to Mach number fifteen. We knew that we could measure the heat transfer; we made them out of metal and duped it as a calorimeter.

DEVORKIN: You tested these things and knew that they worked?

GILRUTH: Yes, and that's a very satisfying way of testing a new theory.

DEVORKIN: Were these done with their five-stage war surplus Navy rockets?

GILRUTH: No, we used solid rockets. I don't know, some of them were three or four stages in order to get those Mach numbers. According to all of the theory, our test points agreed right with theory. And we flew Big Joe off an Atlas, and that was full size. Then we flew a little monkey; well, first we flew an unmanned satellite and brought it back in, then we flew a monkey - we always had to have a monkey with the doctors. And then, what was it that the people in New England used to say, "after the chimp, the chump".

DEVORKIN: You refer to people in New England saying that?

GILRUTH: That was some of the people up at MIT.

DEVORKIN: Jerome Wiesner and people like that?

GILRUTH: Yes, Wiesner was one of those guys. I don't know if he said it or not. But he was not for it, you know. He didn't think man is space made any sense at all. He was science advisor to Mr. Kennedy when we came up to bat to get permission to man our first satellite.

DEVORKIN: Were you ever asked by Dryden or others to help in the briefings and in the discussion between Dryden and Newell and the others who were counseling the President? The President's Science Advisory Committee?

GILRUTH: I went over there with them and I talked to those people with them, yes I did.

DEVORKIN: Did you find that you were speaking the same language only from a different side of the fence?

GILRUTH: Oh, I found some of those people were just awful. One of them said that it will be only the most costly funeral this country has ever had for man.

DEVORKIN: Was this a scientist saying that?

GILRUTH: A scientist said that.

DEVORKIN: Do you remember who it was?


DEVORKIN: Who was it?

GILRUTH: Kistiakowsky was his name. Yes, I remember. It was a remark, "It would be only the most expensive funeral man has ever had."

DEVORKIN: There's a big point then about the Big Joe experiment that you made in your tape recorded interview with Max Faget. This was a launch done by the military at Cape Canaveral, and that the rocket went up and the military had the habit of holding a press conference immediately after launch before you could determine whether the couch and the entire capsule re-entered, splashed down, and was in a condition that would let you know whether the person would survive or not. You didn't get any press coverage.

GILRUTH: We did get some coverage before we got the capsule back. They all said it was a flop in the Washington papers anyway. I know they said it was a flop and when we did get the capsule it was too late to catch any of the news. By the next day it was too late. Nobody ran the story.

DEVORKIN: Why was that? Was the press that disinterested?

GILRUTH: The press doesn't like anything that's over a few hours old. We didn't have it when they wanted it. By the time we had it, they didn't want to publish it - especially since it was a success. But we knew it was a success. Those were really hard days to work in this kind of business.

DEVORKIN: Did that kind of test help to convince Kistiakowsky?

GILRUTH: We didn't have to convince him. I'd never go back to him again. He didn't have the say. Dryden told me after, he said, "Don't worry about Kistiakowsky. You did fine. I think you're going to have no trouble with that group of scientists." And we didn't.

DEVORKIN: Then Wiesner was still the President's science advisor. Did Dryden have that kind of power that they could ignore those people who were counseling the President?

GILRUTH: No, he couldn't ignore them. There were a lot of people there, and I think that maybe he had to worry about the leaders.

DEVORKIN: There must have been people then pulling for this whole design. Other than the obvious ones like Vice President Johnson, who were they at the lower levels advising Johnson or at the technical advisory levels?

GILRUTH: Well, I've got the list here of those people. Killian was a well thought of man.

DEVORKIN: James R. Killian, advisor for Eisenhower?

GILRUTH: That's right. This was to Eisenhower.

DEVORKIN: Oh, so you're still talking about the Eisenhower period?

GILRUTH: That's right.

DEVORKIN: Wiesner had not gained his political power, even though he was a critic.

GILRUTH: That is true, but he was there at MIT which was a very influential place. But Kilian, York, you remember York ...

DEVORKIN: Herb York, yes ...

GILRUTH: ...Kistiaknowky, I already mentioned - those are the

ones that I remember particularly. There were lots of scientists that I talked to. Roy Johnson was not a scientist but he was very influential at that time.

DEVORKIN: In the case of James Killian or Ed Purcell, who came down to Langley to examine your programs and see what you had done? This is late '57 , early '58. What kinds of scientists did you find appreciated the technical work you did? How were they different that those who were not sympathetic? Is there a way that you can characterize those who appreciated the technical abilities of the NACA and those that were critical of it? What made these two different groups exist?

GILRUTH: Well, mostly there were ones that were hostile, they were not acquainted with the facts and didn't want to be acquainted with the facts. Just because they're scientists and have high degrees, doesn't mean they're fair. You've had professors that weren't fair; they take a dislike to one of the people because of one thing or another, and they might as well get out of the class. These people were like that. They wouldn't give you a chance. They didn't want to be shown whether it was any good or not.

DEVORKIN: People like Wiesner changed quite a bit once they got into the political process and were literally told by their political bosses that there is going to be an advanced space program.

GILRUTH: That's right. And he [Wiesner] was not a problem to us after the initial period, you know, when he was so much against it. It didn't help, but it did not last. He did not last in that role. Now if we had failed, then he might have been tough.

DEVORKIN: Let's go back to the Big Joe event again. It wasn't to your advantage for the military to hold these press conferences quickly after launch; but apparently this was their style. Now since you had a big role in this and you knew what the payoff was going to be when you retrieve the capsule, was there no way to convince the military to hold off on their press conference?

GILRUTH: Well, General Yates was pretty much of a despot; he ran that place. The Air Force had a practice of having a press conference right after the shot and they went ahead and did it. Nobody ever heard of me before. I was just a young engineer, although younger that I am now. Well, we had our representative there and he wasn't able to do anything about it, so we did the best we could.

DEVORKIN: Your representative was who?

GILRUTH: Mel Gough, who was our chief test pilot a few years before. He was not particularly effective, either.

DEVORKIN: This was not a matter, let's say, that Hugh Dryden himself would not have wanted to make sure it happened right. That's sort of what I am implying.

GILRUTH: I know, but he couldn't be everywhere, you see. He wasn't even there and...

DEVORKIN: He could have called somebody over at the Pentagon and asked...

GILRUTH: But he would never have thought of it, the fact that we're going to talk about something before we knew all about it. It was dumb. It was a dumb thing to do, but we couldn't stop it. That's the way Yates ran his place. He was a little despot, just like Napoleon - about the same size, too.

DEVORKIN: Is this one reason why - the people like Yates - that places like Kennedy were taken from the military and put undercivilian control?

GILRUTH: I think so. It might have had something to do with it.

DEVORKIN: Who was the basic architect of that?

GILRUTH: I don't know. I've forgotten. I thought they ran their place pretty efficiently in the later years.

DEVORKIN: I'm interested in the military/civilian interface, and in reading through the interview with you and Max Faget, there were a lot of "chicken or the egg" questions that came up. In the development of the blunt entry design, and its evolution from there into a conical shape, it ended up looking very much like a re-entry nose cone in a ballistic missile system, save for the actual nature of the ablative material and that sort of thing. To what degree did you work with military people who were working in ballistics?

GILRUTH: Actually, the only part that needs that shape is the very front of it. The back of it is cool. The front has got to be an ablative or else some very heavy metal--well, actually ablative is so much better, that's all anybody uses now. The back of it was all sheet-anconeal...

DEVORKIN: Anconeal is the metal, you mean?

GILRUTH: Anconeal, they makes turbine blades out of it. It was just a bunch of shingles that are overlapped and they can get hot and can swell. Then behind it you have insulators, and then you have the pressure shell inside of that. Of course, the brunt of the heating is on the front end. And it doesn't make a whole lot of difference just how that is shaped because the shock wave is way in front of it, and it shocks down and it;s subsonic flow on the other side of it, and it just flows around there. Of course, it's hotter that hell and it protects itself by giving off a gas so the heat doesn't get into the heat shield as fast.

DEVORKIN: But were there not things that you had learned from the military in their studies of re-entry nosecones in your design of the capsule?

GILRUTH: Well, we used everything we could get. I'm sure we studied everything they had. They weren't much ahead of us; see they were just starting. They were having tremendous problems with the Atlas. I don't think they really had a successful flight at the time we were getting started.

DEVORKIN: Even by the time of the Big Joe experiment, it was one in progress.

GILRUTH: It wasn't very encouraging, I'm telling you. The thought of putting men on that thing, that was the real tough part of it.

DEVORKIN: Well, that leads me to the elements that you identified in you interview with Max Faget, and I have listed seven elements of design for the manned environment that you had to have under control before you felt safe in putting a man in space. And that, of course, was the need of the blunt body with the ablative or heat sink shield, the pressurized cabin, the supine couch for g-loads, the need for a correct atmosphere in the cabin, retrieval by parachute, launch system had to be available, and your feeling the Atlas was the best available system at that time?

GILRUTH: Yes. It as the only one we had. There's one other you haven't got.

DEVORKIN: Well, there's two: the guidance system and then I added one because you talked about it later in this context and that's the fail-safe ejection mechanism.

GILRUTH: That's the one. That was very important.

DEVORKIN: Did that come after all these other elements, or did that come first?

GILRUTH: I think it came kind of along the line of ... I told Max that we had to have a way out, we had to have an escape system. Now, I didn't know how to do it and i didn't have time to study it, but I said, "Max, we aren't going to do this unless somebody can come up with an escape system that will work every time." He and his guys came up with this tower, so-called tower with a rocket up there. It was the only way you could. I suppose you could have done it some other way , but that was a darned good way because you didn't need it anymore.

DEVORKIN: I know that von Braun had this other idea of a sideways ejections into a swimming pool, a huge swimming pool. You never thought much of that.

GILRUTH: No, because you got to go for miles before you're out of danger of that Atlas. They were only thinking of it blowing up on the pad. Now this also saved you from the pad blow up, because you went up a mile or more and then you came down by parachute, you wouldn't come right down on the holocaust; if there's any wind at all you'd be off to the side.

DEVORKIN: You had, of course, your design for this ejection system, von Braun had his. Did there have to be a mediator to determine which was chosen?

GILRUTH: No. No, we didn't even think of it. We just went ahead with it.

DEVORKIN: So you were independent of what became Huntsville?


GILRUTH: That's right. But on the other hand, if they came and said, "We think this is bad," we would take great care to go over it and try to satisfy them.

DEVORKIN: But any of these other elements - did they come to you and say that their design was better than yours?

GILRUTH: They certainly didn't on the escape system. No, it wasn't better. It was based only on a blowup on the pad because the swimming pool wouldn't be there if you lifted off.

DEVORKIN: Now you've already talked about the competitors to the blunt re-entry vehicle concept. Kantrowitz' ideas, the fellow from AVCO, that was the Navy hypersonic airplane, as I understand it, the re-entry by large parachute.

GILRUTH: No. No, that was just a parachute, a huge metal parachute.

DEVORKIN: North American was the beefed up X-15, that was the hypersonic plane. What was the ingredient, what was the one ingredient or two ingredients that made your design accepted over all of the others?

GILRUTH: Well actually, McDonnell Douglas - or McDonnell at this time - did this, but they followed pretty much what we wanted. The firm that built it, of course, was, I think, a very excellent firm and did excellent work and they certainly wouldn't have backed or built anything that he didn't think was good as you could do. I don't remember having any arguments with Yardley and those people about it. You see, all we were was a contracting agency. We wrote a set of what we wanted and we had it pretty well outlined. But I'm sure that McDonnell Douglass, if they thought it wasn't good, would have said, "Here's a better way to do it." I don't know if they may have made some small changes but not any large ones.

DEVORKIN: That's something that I would like to know. In future interviews, we need to get into detail and that is, you went from a NACA center that was not a contracting agency to NAA which became a contracting agency...

GILRUTH: That's right, and we were right in it up to our necks.

DEVORKIN: How comfortable were you with that transition? You were already in a mode of operation where you managed work that you did internally and you were changing to becoming a manager of a contracting element, a very large-scale and very important contracting elements.

GILRUTH: Well, it was tough.

DEVORKIN: Were you comfortable doing that?

GILRUTH: You see, I wasn't a bit comfortable for years. I was up to my neck in trying to do all stuff, but I was confident that we were doing a good job. But I tell you, we worked awfully hard. We had t do what we do - I said, "What does the Air Force do when they have or get something like this?" Well, it was quite clear what they did. They went out and wrote a thing they wanted and sent it out to industry. Well, we did exactly the same thing, and we weren't able to make the design studies and to do all the things. We had to pick a company that we thought would be best and then they would make the study in depth that would say, "What's the exact way you're going to do this?"

DEVORKIN: But to make a very simple naive observation, you didn't have the escape mechanism like you had when you were hiring a new person who was untested in this realm, and you had that six-month probationary period when you were hiring a young engineer to determine whether they could do something or not. Here you were asking companies. Silverstein had more experience than others in doing some of these things to do something they'd never done before.

GILRUTH: Well, nobody had done it.

DEVORKIN: Nobody had done it before. How ...

GILRUTH: We'd thought that McDonnell Douglas, or McDonnell - we knew those people there. We knew them really well over the years ...

DEVORKIN: All the way back to the time of Mr. Root, possibly?

GILRUTH: No. You see, NACA was a consultant to industry. And I got to spend a lot of time with all those companies and I knew that chief engineer and the chief of aerodynamics and I knew their key people. So I wasn't in left field. I knew quite a lot about the company. I know Mr. McDonnell very well. And I knew that he would never do anything that...he was always out to make some money, but he would not build anything that wasn't any good. If I was ever in trouble, I thought I could always go to Mr. Mac and say, "Look, I really don't think that you're doing right on this." But I never had to do that of course. So I didn't feel like I was way out. I felt quite comfortable with this company and they had a lot of resources, they had a lot of people to put on the thing. And they were glad to do it, of course. They charged us for it. But that wasn't the problem. The country was glad - actually it didn't cost us any more than it would have cost anybody else.

DEVORKIN: You knew that there was no way in the amount of time you had available to build up this kind of capability.

GILRUTH: We couldn't possibly build that up in the time, no. But we did build up some. As time went along we got better able to monitor what they were doing. We started out without anybody. You know, we were just thrown in there. We said, "Come on, we want you to get going." We didn't have the people then.

DEVORKIN: Let's talk a little bit about the first few months, the first year of the transition. I'd like to know - as you were asked to be on these task forces - were you given any kind of a choice and did you consider any different moves? I mean, all of Langley apparently was being absorbed, and I guess you knew that. Is that correct?

GILRUTH: No. No, Langley wasn't. See, I was pried out of Langley and I started the Space Task Group. And I was sent back to Langley. I wrote to my friend, Tommy Thompson, and said " I've been authorized by the Administrator to draw out certain people from your staff and these are the ones I'd like." I listed a page and a half of key people that I wanted, and he let me have everyone except one. That was one that one of his division chiefs said, " Bob doesn't really need that one, we'll give somebody else, but that one I really need because he's doing a special job for me."

DEVORKIN: But did you have the feeling that you were being pulled out of something that you would prefer doing? Was this something that you had to think twice about?

GILRUTH: I didn't think I wanted to do this space business all my life, but I was fascinated by it. I thought it was terribly dangerous and probably I'd end up in jail or something, but I really thought it was important to do and I was having a lot of fun.

DEVORKIN: So you didn't resist it and you didn't see this as a dangerous move in your career?

GILRUTH: I thought it was probably a high risk move. If I failed, I knew that would be very bad. On the other hand, if it worked maybe that would be good.

DEVORKIN: Did you know what was expected of you?

GILRUTH: Yes, I was expected to put man in space and bring him in good shape - and do it before the Soviets, which we didn't do. On the other hand, we buried the Soviets before we were through by going to the Moon.

DEVORKIN: Was there a sense of failure because the Soviets constantly - in the initial few years - were ahead?

GILRUTH: No, because we had no chance of overcoming them that fast. They didn't even say they had a program to put man in space. They never admitted they had a program to put man in space until they put the gear in space.

DEVORKIN: But you knew once Laika went up?

GILRUTH: Once Laika...I said they've got to be doing it, sure.

DEVORKIN: One of my questions was, in reading the interview with you and Mr. Faget on page 15 where you talk a lot about the popular media's conception of the effect of Sputnik, that it was a terrible surprise, that we were behind, that this was a threat to national security. You seem to think that it wasn't so much a threat until you realized what they could really do with some of the later Sputniks; Sputnik I didn't impress you that much. But I'm wondering, did you see it as a threat or as a real opportunity to go from having, in the early mode of activity, a plan without a program, to a real program?

GILRUTH: I think that as this thing unfolded, it wasn't going to be just one flight of man as the whole program. And that's why when Kennedy came along and said, "Look, I want to be first. How do something. I said, "Well, you've got to pick a job that's so difficult, that it's new, that they'll have to start from scratch. They just can't take their old rocket and put another gimmick on it and do something we can't do. It's got to be something that requires a great big rocket, like going to the moon. Going to the moon will take new rocket, technology, and if you want to do that, I think our country could probably win because we'd both have to start from scratch.

DEVORKIN: I usually heard this kind of logic attributed to von Braun. Is that correct? Or were there many people who had that logic?

GILRUTH: Well, I think Wernher had that, too, but I was the one who was talking to Kennedy.

DEVORKIN: You were talking to him personally?


DEVORKIN: Now that's very important for us to know.

GILRUTH: I was talking to him. And I told him that very thing. If you really want to be first, you've got to take something that is so difficult we'll both have to start from scratch.

DEVORKIN: And you knew that?


DEVORKIN: You knew that the Russians did not have that LEM capability.

GILRUTH: I didn't know, but I didn't think they did. They hadn't shown it yet. We didn't know anything about them, you know that. They wouldn't even tell us anything. So, anyway, Kennedy bought that. He was a young man...he didn't have all the wisdom he would have had. If he'd been older, he probably never would have doneit.

DEVORKIN: You're speaking of Kennedy. Let's still stay in the Eisenhower Administration. Did you feel that you had a real program, or was it still a career risk for you during the Glennan years.

GILRUTH: Well, I was not really happy with Glennan and I wasn't very happy with Eisenhower, because Eisenhower obviously didn't believe in the program. He'd been talked into it and he was reluctant. You know, he took money away from the program in the last few months of his term. I've seen Eisenhower, but I never met him or talked to him about it.

DEVORKIN: But you did meet Kennedy?

GILRUTH: I saw Kennedy many times.

DEVORKIN: This is again, going back to some of the things Newell has said, and also in your interview with Max Faget, you state very clearly that the strength of the NACA was in this centers. And now you're moving into an area where there was going to be contracting, NASA was going to be a contracting organization, but it was going to bring in the NACA centers, it was going to be built on the NACA. Were you worried?

GILRUTH: What do you mean, "built on the NACA"?

DEVORKIN: Can we turn the tape over?


DEVORKIN: NASA in its early design was to be based upon the NACA centers. Is that a fair statement? Langley was going to be brought in, Ames, Lewis...

GILRUTH: Yes, they were all going to be part of NASA.

DEVORKIN: Previously, they had been research centers either responding or dreaming up new research. Dryden had said or had hoped the NASA would retain these centers, these old NACA centers, still as research centers. Were you in fear that they would be changed from being pure research centers to becoming simply centers for contracting work out? A few minutes ago we said that you couldn't produce a new center that could put a man on the moon. You had the contract with industry and you became literally a contracting agency. Were you worried that the vitality, the research vitality of the centers would be affected?

GILRUTH: The way it worked...Langley, which was a research center, was very proud of the fact that it was a research center, and they did not want to become a contraction center. We who had a job of putting a man in space knew damn well that we had to luxury of having a few good men in a few laboratories that we could do some work in support of our programs, so we would not be entirely dependent on the other research centers. And because we always like to have people who liked to do that kind of work, just to talk to...

DEVORKIN: You had to remain technically vital.

GILRUTH: Yes. And so when we built our center we - thanks to Mr. Kennedy and the moon program - we were sent down to Houston where we built a center. Believe me, we built it from scratch. There was nothing there but a field with some cows on it. Well, anyway, we did get to put in some good things.

DEVORKIN: But you didn't know this until Kennedy came in.

GILRUTH: That's right. Well, we were responding to a challenge of the country. We were responding to that challenge. We weren't sure what was going to happen. We thought we could do that job and if it turned out to be a dead-end job, the fact that we'd been able to do it we felt might fit us for some other job somewhere. I don't think we had a very big risk except of not being able to pull it off. That was a big risk.

DEVORKIN: Oh, sure. I'm trying to get their appreciation of you own personal risk in your own career. Let me just quote this from Newell. This is page 103 of Newell's Beyond the Atmosphere.4 "Dryden hoped that NASA would retain the vitality of these centers - Langley, Ames, Lewis - while developing operational demands of new space program." Now you personally were put in charge of developing operational demands of the new space program. You were taken out of what you were so good at doing, and that was nagging Langley's research. You must have felt, especially in the Glennan years before when you knew you didn't have that kind of support n the Eisenhower Administration, you had to put a lot of faith in Dryden that you would be successful in doing this. Now, I'd love to know, because I'm interested in you personally, what was running through your mind during these two or three years while Glennan was in there? Not whether you'd be technically successful, but whether the system, the political system was going to support you because you didn't know Kennedy was going to come in there, you didn't know, it could have been Stevenson, and you didn't even know prior to the Bay of Pigs whether Kennedy was going to make these options. I'd love to know if you could reconstruct how you felt about life.

GILRUTH: I felt pretty good about it. I knew I was taking this risk and I watched very carefully the things that were happening. But I knew my whole outfit was risky. We had a lot of things that bothered us more than the fact that it was risky. One of them was that we were about to be moved to Washington, and it would be made part of this new place up here; it isn't new anymore. But I had a boat on the water and I certainly didn't want to go up there, especially to be under some other guys as the head of the...Harry Goett was the guy who was going to be the head of Beltsville. I liked Harry all right, but I certainly didn't want to go out there to be one of his lieutenants...especially after taking all this risk. So, I was very unhappy about that. Most of my guys did not want to go to Beltsville. So when Abe Silverstein wasn't able to swing it, because he hadn't built it yet, we were glad that we were going to stay at Langley. We realized that something was going to have to happen. When it did happen, it broke in a different way and we went to Houston; we didn't want to go to Houston, but when we got there everybody loved it.

DEVORKIN: I know there was a tremendous question about choosing Houston as a site, and that Johnson, of course, had a tremendous influence in all of that. Is this something that you would like to pursue with us in the future, the whole choice of Houston as a site?

GILRUTH: It's a question that I've been asked by many, many reporters, and I'm not a bit sensitive to it. It was quite clearly a political move, but it was a good move. It was a place that really wanted a center - the people embraced us. We liked it there almost immediately, even though it was hotter than hell in the summer and not the greatest city in the world. But it was a good solution. The people liked it and we built a great center there. So, I guess I felt that I did well by my people and I didn't feel I had done badly by myself, really.

DEVORKIN: How did your family feel about all of this?

GILRUTH: She was fascinated by it.

DEVORKIN: Another statement I would like your comment on, again from Newell, this is page 104.5 Beyond the Atmosphere After Hugh Dryden Brought in Abe Silverstein for the planning of NASA in its very beginnings, they developed a conviction - and I'm quoting again from Newell - "a conviction that all research" - and Newell does not define what research is at this point - but he says " all research had to have a firm justification in practical applications to which it would ultimately contribute." Now this kind of quotation in some areas, when we interview space scientists, is really loaded.

GILRUTH: It sure is! That's been asked before many times.

DEVORKIN: Right. But I should think this wouldn't give you much trouble at all because there search, as you would define it, was completely in support of the development of the capability of putting a man in space and bringing him back again. Do you feel in your case it was a very sincere and proper statement for Newell to make interpreting Silverstein's and Dryden's goals?

GILRUTH: It would not be hard to interpret those goals in what we were asked to do. It was alright. I don't think I'd agree to that as an overall thing. I don't agree with Silverstein about it.

DEVORKIN: Could you explain that a little more?

GILRUTH: Sometimes you do something because it's very interesting and you're not quite sure what it is. I'd hate to rule those out. Now you don't have them very often, but once in a while you do. I can't think of any examples right now but...

DEVORKIN: Let me try to think of one right now for you. When Explorer 1, Explorer 2, and Explorer 3 went up, and when Van Allen analyzed all of his data, from what you might decide everybody would decide was pure research, he found the belts, and this was quite a surprise - all of this trapped radiation at much higher radiation levels than anybody had ever realized.

    Now in the criteria that we had already looked at and mentioned, the seven or eight criteria in the development of your capsule, it did not include in the beginning, radiation safety.

GILRUTH: Yes, it did.

DEVORKIN: Did it? I didn't have it on the list. So you were concerned about radiation safety well before Van Allen discovered the belts?

GILRUTH: No, he'd already discovered the belts. But we had enough stuff in those shingles to stop the level of radiation, unless you had a real bad one. If you were going to the Moon, that would be tough. Fortunately, they don't happen very often.

DEVORKIN: But would you see this as a point where pure research had alerted people to a problem, or you already were aware of the problem?

GILRUTH: Well, I was aware of the problem and I don't think that Van Allen's work was pure research. It was very useful. It might have been done without any idea what it would be good for. It might have been done without any idea what it would be good for. But any time you measure what goes on around the Earth with so many people living on it, I would have thought you'd have to find something important.

DEVORKIN: I've got other questions, but I think they are of the type that I'd like to read your memoir first.


DEVORKIN: And we've gone well over two hours and I think that if this is a good place to stop I'd want to...will this be alright?


DEVORKIN: Good. Okay. I think we've had a very interesting session. I've tried to take you out of your thinking of the whole program. I want to think about you a little more and how you felt about it. Is that something you're willing to explore as we go on?

GILRUTH: If it's useful.

DEVORKIN: It is, and very much so, because in your dealing with large groups of people of very different interests...the people - like you say, some scientists simply weren't willing to learn or examine what you had done and others were. I want to know how you persevered in all of this, and succeeded because some people do and some people don't. And I'd like to know what it is in you that does. Thank you very much for this interview.

GILRUTH: Thank you.

1 Robert Gilruth, Wright Brothers Lecture, GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.

2 Robert Gilruth, "I Believe We Should Go To The Moon" Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, Edgar Cortright, ed. Washington, DC. NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office 1975 GWS Oral History Project working files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.

3 Robert Gilruth, Memoirs, "From Wallops, Island to Mercury." GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.

4 Homer Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information Branch, 1980).

5 Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere.

Gilruth 3 || Gilruth 5

Rev. 09/06/96

© 1996 National Air and Space Musuem