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Into the Black

Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004

Peter J. Westwick
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Into the Black
    Book Description:

    In the decades since the mid-1970s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has led the quest to explore the farthest reaches of the solar system. JPL spacecraft-Voyager, Magellan, Galileo, the Mars rovers, and others-have brought the planets into close view. JPL satellites and instruments also shed new light on the structure and dynamics of earth itself, while their orbiting observatories opened new vistas on the cosmos. This comprehensive book recounts the extraordinary story of the lab's accomplishments, failures, and evolution from 1976 to the present day.This history of JPL encompasses far more than the story of the events and individuals that have shaped the institution. It also engages wider questions about relations between civilian and military space programs, the place of science and technology in American politics, and the impact of the work at JPL on the way we imagine the place of humankind in the universe.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13458-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. ONE The Inheritance
    (pp. 1-14)

    THE JET PROPULSION LABORATORY (JPL) STARTED AS A GRADUATE-STUDENT rocket project at Caltech in the 1930s. At the time Caltech was already a center for science and engineering in the United States, a position it would occupy for the rest of the century. In 1930 Caltech lured Theodore von Kármán, a leading authority on aerodynamics, to become director of its Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, or GALCIT. Von Kármán’s lab at first studied airplane flight until a graduate student, Frank Malina, proposed thesis work on rockets. Malina banded together with two other rocket enthusiasts, John Parsons and Ed Forman; they fired their...

  7. Part I. Acclaim and Agitation:: The Murray Years, 1976–1982

    • TWO Planetary Exploration Triumphant
      (pp. 17-41)

      AS IT HAD DONE WHEN NAMING PICKERING AND HIS PREDECESSORS, CALTECH looked to its own ranks to fill the JPL director’s chair in 1976. The search settled on Bruce Murray, a forty-three-year-old geology professor—a relatively young man, as Pickering had been when selected, but unlike Pickering, a scientist and not an engineer. JPL at Pickering’s retirement numbered more than 4,000 people, with budgets of $250 million. The man chosen to lead it had managed a six-person team of geologists with a $200,000 budget.¹ Murray seems to have been selected not for his managerial skills, but rather for his imagination...

    • THREE Planetary Exploration in Extremis
      (pp. 42-58)

      THE MEDIA INTEREST GENERATED BY VOYAGER AND THE SUPERLATIVES BESTOWED upon it did not translate into political support. Even as the Voyager spacecraft completed their triumphant encounter with Saturn, Murray and JPL were waging a fierce campaign to save Voyager, the rest of the lab’s flight projects, and perhaps even the lab itself from extinction. The crisis in planetary exploration reached its peak in 1981, but it was germinating when Murray arrived in 1976 and first blossomed the following summer, impelling lab managers and Caltech trustees into the political arena.

      In December 1980 NASA administrators and lab directors identified a...

    • FOUR External Relations and the Internal Environment
      (pp. 59-77)

      MURRAY’S POLITICAL ACTIVITY IN THE EARLY 1980S HIGHLIGHTED A CENTRAL characteristic of JPL: the triangular relationship among the lab, Caltech, and NASA. As the only NASA center operated by a contractor, JPL maintained a delicate balance between the independence offered by the Caltech association and the accountability demanded of government programs. The maturation of the aerospace industry added a fourth leg to the triangle and introduced basic questions about JPL’s identity. All the while JPL itself was evolving in its internal organization and culture in response to changing contexts.

      Like the previous directors of JPL, Murray came to the job...

    • FIVE Diversification
      (pp. 78-92)

      HOW DID JPL CONTINUE TO GROW DESPITE THE BUDGET CUTS IN THE PLANEtary program? Instead of defending its main mission, JPL had a second option for institutional survival: find a new mission. If planetary spacecraft could not keep JPL in business, perhaps it was time to try different products and customers. After all, the lab had changed missions and sponsors before, with great success.

      The lab found particular opportunities for diversifi cation in three fields: astronomy, earth sciences, and energy. The first two appeared as competitors to planetary exploration within NASA’s space science program. As astronomy and earth science acquired...

    • SIX Return to the Military
      (pp. 93-107)

      IN THE EARLY 1980S CONTEMPORARY COMMENTATORS PERCEIVED A “MILITARIzation of space,” a trend that began in the 1970s but reached its zenith during the Reagan administration.¹ Or, rather, remilitarization: a military presence in space was nothing new, and national security had been a primary driver of the American space program from the outset, from intercontinental missiles to satellite reconnaissance. But this period did witness a pronounced reorientation of the U.S. space program, evident in the relative funding from NASA and the military. In 1959 NASA supported one-third of the U.S. space program, with the Department of Defense (DOD) supporting almost...

    • SEVEN Space Technology
      (pp. 108-122)

      JPL RESUMED DEFENSE WORK IN ORDER TO RETAIN ITS STAFF, WHICH DECLINing NASA budgets could no longer support. These people had produced a series of remarkable achievements in high-reliability spacecraft, which entailed not only systems engineering but also the development of new technologies. Examples of these technologies include hardware, such as charge-coupled devices in place of vidicons, and software, such as the computer programs that provided autonomy for Voyager. Two technologies in this period exemplify the ingenuity and effort of JPL engineers: synthetic aperture radar and image processing. Both relied on and helped drive advances in data processing and thus...

  8. Part II. Restoration:: The Allen Years, 1982–1991

    • EIGHT The Rise and Decline of Defense Programs
      (pp. 125-141)

      MURRAY’S SUCCESSOR AS DIRECTOR OF JPL WOULD NOT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT ignorance of classified work. In July 1982 Caltech named Lew Allen as director, effective October 15 (deputy director Charles Terhune served as acting director from July to October). A native small-town Texan, Allen had graduated from West Point in 1946 and served in the Strategic Air Command. He then obtained a PhD in nuclear physics at Illinois in 1954, under a new air force program aiming to produce technically trained officers. Allen’s career rewarded the investment. After stints working on nuclear weapons design and effects for the air...

    • NINE The Dividends of Defense Programs
      (pp. 142-154)

      THE DEFENSE WORK UNDERTAKEN AT JPL, IN ADDITION TO KEEPING PEOPLE on tap, had an important legacy in space technology. NASA’s neglect of technology development continued into the 1980s; what little technology NASA did support emphasized the shuttle and the space station, with a focus on the short term instead of the long term. In spite of arguments by Lew Allen and other JPL staff that new technology could help cut costs, plans for low-budget planetary exploration stressed off-the-shelf components, and as a result such programs as electronics and sensors struggled for support.¹

      Allen made technology development a prime goal...

    • TEN Space and Earth Science
      (pp. 155-164)

      MICROELECTRONICS PLAYED A ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE WIDE FIELD/Planetary Camera (WF/PC) for the Hubble telescope, a major JPL effort in the 1980s. Along with several other large science instruments, and the primary work of the Microdevices Lab in experimental sensors, the camera highlighted the increasing diffusion of JPL beyond its focus on the systems engineering of spacecraft. Instead of just building the spacecraft to carry instruments for science teams, JPL increasingly sought to build the instruments themselves. The trend continued the diversification of the lab into space-based astronomy and earth and ocean science and was strengthened by its...

    • ELEVEN JPL under Allen
      (pp. 165-174)

      BRUCE MURRAY HAD RESIGNED AS DIRECTOR OF JPL BECAUSE HE PERCEIVED A turning point in the history of the lab, from the Mariner–Voyager era of planetary exploration to a combination NASA and military lab no longer sustained by planetary projects.¹ This transition would entail changes in JPL’s internal management, starting at the top, and also in the lab’s relations with Caltech and NASA and with an increasingly mature aerospace industry. Murray, however, underestimated the prospects for the planetary program, and the subsequent revival of the primary mission on top of new programs made growth a key issue in the...

    • TWELVE Recovery of Flight Projects
      (pp. 175-185)

      THE LAB’S GROWTH IN THE 1980S STEMMED FROM THE RECOVERY OF ITS MAIN mission in planetary exploration. The recovery, however, rested on plans for a new low-cost approach that did not translate easily into practice, and then the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger threw the entire space program into turmoil. The deep-space program did benefit from the examination of U.S. space policy that followed Challenger, as well as from increasing international competition—and collaboration. But cost overruns in spacecraft development and also technical problems after launches revived questions about JPL’s approach at the end of the decade.

      The immediate...

    • THIRTEEN Voyager Redux, Galileo, and Magellan
      (pp. 186-204)

      IN SPITE OF THE FAILURE OF THE SSEC PLAN—THE BLOATED MARS OBSERVER, the deferral of Mariner Mark II—the decade of the 1980s closed on a generally upbeat note. The optimism of 1985, dashed by Challenger, returned. Mars Observer and CRAF/Cassini, although expanding beyond austerity, were still under way. Voyager meanwhile continued to sustain the lab with encounters with Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989, and together with Galileo and Magellan it combined to restore confidence at JPL.

      Amid the drought in planetary launches, the main sustenance for planetary scientists in this period came from Voyager 2’s encounters...

  9. Part III. Beyond the Cold War:: The Stone Years, 1991–2001

    • FOURTEEN Faster, Better, Cheaper
      (pp. 207-227)

      LEW ALLEN STEPPED DOWN AS JPL DIRECTOR AT THE END OF 1990, AFTER reaching age sixty-five. To replace him, Caltech turned to Ed Stone, like Pickering and Murray a Caltech professor already familiar with the lab. While project scientist on Voyager, Stone had remained on the campus faculty, honing his administrative skills as chair of the physics, math, and astronomy division and then as head of the California Association for Research in Astronomy, the partnership, including Caltech, to build the ground-based Keck telescopes. Stone continued his research in space science, including his service on Voyager, through his tenure as JPL...

    • FIFTEEN Reengineering JPL
      (pp. 228-241)

      THE NEW MODE OF FASTER-BETTER-CHEAPER IN THE 1990 S REQUIRED JPL TO increase productivity. Amid layoffs and problems with cost control, lab managers turned to industrial management philosophies for solutions. In particular, they embraced in succession two management theories then sweeping corporate America: Total Quality Management, which stressed customer satisfaction and employee empowerment, and reengineering, which extended the approach by organizing not around particular tasks but around general processes. These management philosophies reflected a general shift in corporate organization in the last quarter of the twentieth century, away from the classic hierarchical structure of the vertically integrated firm to a...

    • SIXTEEN The Tilting Triangle and Commercialization
      (pp. 242-255)

      AS TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT AND REENGINEERING RESPONDED TO FASTER-better-cheaper, so were they linked to two other features of the 1990s: downsizing and regulatory pressure. These four threads—faster-better-cheaper, reengineering, downsizing, and accountability—intertwined and reinforced each other throughout the 1990s.¹ Post–cold war fiscal constraints, for example, drove faster-better-cheaper and downsizing, both of which in turn tied into the new management initiatives. Reengineering responded to NASA’s interest in how JPL conducted its business, but at the same time its attempts to trim bureaucracy ran up against increasing demands for accountability. And downsizing produced an environment of fear and mistrust at...

    • SEVENTEEN A Break in the Storm
      (pp. 256-275)

      THE DEEP-SPACE PROGRAM IN THE 1990S AT FIRST DID NOT DO MUCH TO EASE THE uncertain climate at JPL. The failure of the main antenna on Galileo in 1991, the complete loss of Mars Observer in 1993, and resistance to faster-better-cheaper produced a climate of doubt. The tide began turning mid-decade with the ultimate success of Galileo at Jupiter; then in July 1997 the Mars Pathfinder beamed back pictures of the Martian surface. As the lab’s first faster-better-cheaper mission, Path finder seemed to confirm that JPL had adapted to the new mode and that technical creativity could thrive even when...

    • EIGHTEEN Annus Miserabilis
      (pp. 276-286)

      JPL’S HIGH HOPES CAME CRASHING BACK DOWN IN 1999 WITH A SERIES OF embarrassing failures, most notably of two spacecraft at Mars. The debacles and ensuing public scrutiny produced much soul-searching at all levels over the future of JPL, called into question the concept of faster-better-cheaper, and plunged the lab into its deepest crisis since the Ranger failures of the early 1960s.

      In his state of the lab address in March 1999, Ed Stone celebrated the launches of six space missions in the previous six months: Deep Space 1, testing an ion-drive propulsion system; Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander,...

    • NINETEEN Epilogue, 2001–2004
      (pp. 287-297)

      CALTECH PRESIDENT DAVID BALTIMORE TAPPED CHARLES ELACHI TO SUCceed Stone in 2001. It was far from a slam-dunk choice. Members of the search committee thought JPL needed someone from outside the lab to respond to the Mars failures—“a breath of fresh air,” as Baltimore put it—and Elachi was about as much of an insider as one could be, having spent his entire career at JPL after graduate school at Caltech.¹ But he also had several attributes that recommended him. He had demonstrated his technical skills in the 1970s on synthetic aperture radar and proved himself an energetic entrepreneur...

    • TWENTY Conclusion
      (pp. 298-314)

      FROM 1976 TO 2001 JPL CONSUMED ABOUT $30 BILLION (IN CONSTANT 1999 dollars) and consistently employed several thousand people, a fair fraction of them science and engineering PhDs. What did the government and the American people get for this investment? To people at JPL, the images from their spacecraft provided sufficient, if not spectacular, returns. When asked the question “why spend all that money?” Jurrie van der Woude borrowed a riff from Louis Armstrong: If you have to ask, I couldn’t tell you.¹ But to elicit taxpayer money from the federal government, JPL would have to be more specific.


  10. Notes
    (pp. 315-382)
  11. Index
    (pp. 383-392)