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Space Craft

David H. DeVorkin

Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004. Peter J. Westwick. xviii + 392 pp. Yale University Press, 2007. $40.

The Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California In-stitute of Technology (GALCIT), founded in 1928, began developing and testing rockets in the 1930s. That activity attracted military interest, and in 1940 GALCIT contracted with the Army Air Corps to produce rocket-assisted takeoff systems for aircraft. During World War II, as news of the enormous advances Germany had made in ballistic-missile development reached Army intelligence, the leaders of GALCIT proposed a long-term rocket-research program, to be called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Army funded it, and some, though not all, of the staff were drawn from Caltech administration, faculty and graduates. So JPL started out as a contract laboratory for Army Ordnance, building a series of missiles increasing in size and capability from the lowest-ranking Private, to the Corporal and its diminutive "WAC," and then the Sergeant series. By the mid-1950s, more than 1,000 people were working at the lab's site at the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, just north of the Rose Bowl and some five miles from Caltech's Pasadena campus.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory in October 1967Click to Enlarge ImageJPL gained a new patron in 1956 with the creation of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). Sputnik was launched late the next year, and in the wake of that event, given the U.S. Navy's failure to counter successfully with Vanguard, ABMA was allowed to prepare its own spacecraft. It drew on its established relationship with JPL to create Explorer I, which was sent aloft carrying a Geiger counter built by James Van Allen's Iowa team to measure the intensity of cosmic rays. This achievement made ABMA one of the contenders to manage the space program that the nation was developing in response to Sputnik. But JPL's spectacular success with the early Explorers propelled it to the forefront of the program, which was being coordinated by a new civilian agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In January 1959, NASA acquired JPL, shifting it from building rockets for the Army to building spacecraft for the nation. But JPL also retained its status as a university laboratory managed by Caltech and has thus had a complex and fascinating history as America's leading producer of spacecraft and planetary probes. Unlike the other NASA centers, JPL has moved back and forth between military and civilian patronage as the vagaries of the space program have compelled deep changes in the laboratory's priorities, programs and planning strategies.

JPL's history has been the subject, directly or indirectly, of much scholarship. Clayton Koppes's classic work JPL and the American Space Program: A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Yale University Press, 1982) ably carries the story to 1976, and its sequel,Into the Black, by the historian Peter Westwick, brings the account forward to the end of 2004. The two books taken together offer the most comprehensive, rich and revealing account yet of a major NASA center, depicting JPL's creation at the outset of the Cold War, prosperity during its course and struggle to survive in its wake.

Westwick's impressively well-crafted history is especially welcome in that he explores in considerable detail the episodic story of how JPL managed to survive while support for deep-space robotic exploration waxed and waned within NASA, in the American scientific community and in the mind of the public at large. Westwick clearly delineates JPL's varied responses to NASA's continuing penchant for human exploration, and he describes in a most satisfactory manner how successive JPL directors managed those responses. Part I of the book focuses on the administration of the forceful and combative risk-taker Bruce Murray (1976-1982), Part II on that of the more methodical, politically cautious but very effective Lew Allen (1982-1991), and Part III on that of Ed Stone (1991-2001), who blended the best characteristics of his predecessors into a solid, methodical approach to problem solving while accepting sufficient risk to allow for revolutionary change.

Throughout this probing institutional study, Westwick examines some very different management styles. The laboratory's leaders constantly had to decide whether to contract out or keep in-house the design, assembly and testing of hardware, a question that was known as the "make or buy" issue. Later, mission size and cost were the concerns, and the "flagship" or "facility-class" approach was contrasted with the philosophy of "faster-better-cheaper" (which advocates using lots of spacecraft, making frequent launches and accepting that some will fail). Westwick also devotes detailed attention to how JPL was encouraged to adapt "Total Quality Management" and "reengineering" techniques intended for mass production to its own special needs for a way to manage high-technology, high-performance research-and-development projects. Under Stone's leadership, JPL tried at first to accommodate these methods but eventually found them to be antithetical to the practices that achieved the best returns in terms of successful performance, reliability and scientific worth.

For me, the most intriguing portions of Westwick's study deal with the diversification JPL underwent to maintain itself during periods when NASA looked elsewhere for its expertise or was unable to provide enough support to maintain the lab's workforce. JPL's Army roots persisted, and military work was undertaken in the 1980s as a way to maintain staff levels and satisfy the interests of the lab's older engineers. Among other defense projects, JPL helped to develop simulation software and systems capable of creating the "electronic battlefield." Later the lab created a national center for microelectronics and massive parallel processing.

Sensitive to the perception that "defense work was a career dead-end," JPL managers also made significant efforts to build civilian programs that focused on alternative energy sources and on advanced image processing. The latter included planetary simulations created by James Blinn; improvements in the technology of charge-coupled devices and the application of that technology to the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field/Planetary Camera; the establishment of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center; and the Infrared Astronomy Satellite, which was launched in 1983 and carried out an all-sky survey. This work helped to bring JPL squarely into the fold of mainstream astronomy research.

Because of the lab's complex but binding links with Caltech, whose faculty constantly criticized the inroads the military was making, JPL never immersed itself wholly in classified research. Again, Westwick deftly tracks the action, identifying the motivations and the constraints, all the while reminding the reader that JPL was the only NASA center able to court multiple patrons. Westwick also never lets the reader lose sight of the overarching NASA propensity for human-piloted missions, and how that bias often hobbled its ability to respond quickly and positively to innovative technologies emerging from military programs. Here Westwick does a real service by demonstrating that JPL's continuing devotion to robotics and acceptance of a certain level of risk led to its many successes in space research at times when NASA's program of putting people in space was languishing and NASA itself was in dire need of good press.

JPL's many successes in missions from Voyager to Pathfinder and then on to Spirit and Opportunity helped to sustain public enthusiasm for space research, if not for NASA itself. Westwick celebrates these well-earned achievements, showing that they were directly responsible for JPL's survival. But he does not hide the many failures, from the early Rangers through the hapless Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. The book offers a lucid overview of the investigations that were conducted and discusses what those high-profile malfunctions can teach us about which combinations of talent, experience, risk taking and management technique work best. In consequence, I can unreservedly recommend Into the Black to historians and to students and practitioners of aerospace studies.

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