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to him that there were certain family things I wanted to consider. I told Keith I would be in touch in a matter of days. I went home and talked with Gene. We had already been over this business of moving recently. Three months earlier, my good friend Courtland ("Court") Perkins, then the assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development, had asked me if I would consider running the NATO (North American Treaty Organization) systems laboratory in The Hague. But on May 1, a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over central Russia, and Powers was taken captive as an American spy. This heightened international tensions and may have influenced the NATO countries to select a non-American for the laboratory. At least, that's what Court told me in the aftermath.
It was Court who had recommended me to Keith Glennan, who then checked me out with Hugh Dryden. Gene could see right away that I wanted to take the job, and she assured me that the move would work out well for everyone in our family. Less than a week after my first meeting with Keith, I accepted his offer.
First Weeks at NASA
Once you take on a fairly key government job, there's tremendous pressure to start immediately. Because your name has been mentioned, the organization expects you. I insisted that I could not begin work until the first of September. Keith agreed but said, "There's a three-day industry meeting in Washington at midsummer, and it would be wonderful to have you there. You'll learn a lot, and you can say a few words, so people get to know who you are."
Gene suggested that she come with me and find a house while I was at the conference. This worked out wonderfully. She went househunting the first full day we were in Washington. That night she was down to three choices. We finally settled on a new townhouse at 1503 Dumbarton Rock Court, just off P Street in Georgetown. I took a look in the garage and found a brand-new Rolls-Royce inside. The man who lived across the street had two of them and needed the garage space. Otherwise, it was a reasonably modest vertical house costing about $85,000. Gene's mother called it "the Rocket." We had a tiny backyard, which eventually became a garden. We found our
neighbors and friends most cordial, as people in Washington are used to families coming and going.
Our September arrival in Washington was far from perfect, however. I went ahead on the last day in August and spent the night in a hotel. The next morning I was sworn in promptly at 8:30. Keith Glennan had suggested that I spend my first month at NASA getting to know the outfit. From NASA headquarters on Lafayette Square facing the White House,2 I visited the various field offices or "centers," where NASA's research and testing work was done. My second day on the job I visited the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Gene drove to Washington with Kathy and May. Our three boys were still in New England. Toby was at Lenox, while Joe's academic future had been uncertain until the very last minute. He had applied to St. Albans School in Washington, but his acceptance didn't arrive until the day the movers were filling their van in Beverly Farms. If Joe hadn't been accepted, he would have lived with the Lorings in Prides Crossing and continued his studies at Shore Country Day School. He and Daniel were scheduled to fly into Washington the day after Gene's arrival, accompanied by our long-time nurse, Hazel Whitney.
It was terribly hot, and the drive south was quite unpleasant for Gene and the girls, with the three of them crowded into the front seat of our little Fiat station wagon. In one of the more famous Seamans family pronouncements, Kathy, who was at Dobbs and feeling pretty sophisticated, said to May, who was seven and chubby, "Get your sweaty body away from me!" When they finally got to Washington, they discovered that the movers had lost their way, and there was no furniture in the house on Dumbarton Rock Court. So Gene and the girls spent the night at the Marriott. I arrived back from Langley in time to spend the night with them. The next morning I accompanied them to the house and found nothing in it. Daniel and Joe arrived from the airport with Miss Whitney. She was very concerned to find dusty paper on the floor, two dirty spoons and a tumbler in the cupboard, and dust everywhere. How could she feed Daniel, age eighteen months, his cereal? Fortunately, we had some friends in Washington,
2 NASA's offices moved about a year after my arrival to FOB 6 (Federal Office Building No. 6) near Capitol Hill.
Gene's second cousin, Connie Wood, and his wife, Nancy, and they were most supportive. Through them we were able to get what we needed, including mattresses to put on our gritty floor. That first night in our new townhouse, Gene and I slept on mattresses with nothing to cover us but our raincoats.
The next morning I said, "See you all!" Then I walked out the door and jumped into a waiting chauffeur-driven limousine. I was off to visit more of NASA. As the driver and I pulled away from the curb, the movers were pulling in. Gene was left alone to sort out the household.
Tour of the NASA Centers
NASA's centers were a mixed bag. Langley, the first stop on my September tour, was the first aeronautical research laboratory run by our federal government, established in 1917. It was NASA's "mother lode." Several other NASA centers grew out of Langley-among them the Lewis and Ames Research Centers and the Johnson Space Center (originally known as the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston. Langley had a number of wind tunnels, some of them large. One was big enough to contain a fighter plane. Some were vertical-wind tunnels, used to test helicopters. With such extensive facilities, Langley attracted exceptionally fine aerodynamicists. The caliber of the work there was always high.
Floyd C. “Tommy” Thompson was the director of Langley. Meet him for five minutes and you would have said he was a waterman or a farmer. When you knew better, you realized he was remarkably effective. One of the top research people at Langley was Robert C. Gilruth, who headed up what was then known as the Space Task Group. This later split off from Langley, moved to Houston, and became the Johnson Space Center. Working for Bob Gilruth was a talented engineer named Max Faget. Together with their team of engineers, Bob and Max came up with the familiar gumdrop shape for the Mercury capsule-a foreshortened cone with a heat shield mounted on its rounded bottom. By the time of my first visit to Langley, the Mercury capsule had been fully designed, and I inspected a dummy version. John Glenn, one of the seven Mercury astronauts, took me in
hand, opened up the cockpit for me, put me inside, and closed the hatch, while explaining its workings.
The idea of sending a man to the Moon was still futuristic to most people in 1960, but a few Langley engineers were giving it prolonged thought. During my September visit, a Langley engineer named John C. Houbolt went over his ideas for lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) with four or five of us in a small conference room. LOR was one of three considered "modes" for landing an astronaut on the Moon. Direct ascent-in which a rocket taking off from Earth flew directly to the Moon, landed there, took off, and landed again on Earth—was the simplest to imagine, though ultimately it might have proved hardest to pull off. Earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR) was the most popular mode in those days of speculative thought. With EOR, a robot-guided rocket would be launched into orbit, to be followed later by the astronauts in another capsule. Once rendezvous had taken place in Earth orbit, the mission would proceed as in direct ascent.
In the LOR scenario the main capsule achieved lunar orbit before the lunar lander disengaged itself. It landed and then rejoined the main capsule for a return to Earth. One of the critical concerns with LOR was docking. If docking in lunar orbit was not successful, not only would the mission fail but crew members making the lunar landing would be cut off from transportation back to earth. It was thought that a similar problem in Earth orbit would be surmounted easily, since the capsule had the ability to reenter the atmosphere and to land. For me, the LOR docking had a remarkable similarity to the approach RCA had been developing for satellite interception (the SAINT program). But at the time of John Houbolt's informal briefing, few were giving it any real consideration. This mode question would be one of the last major decisions we made on the road to achieving the lunar landing.
Part of the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, was transferred to NASA on July 1, 1960. This center was as fascinating as any I visited that first month. (Within a month of my visit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Keith Glennan would travel to Huntsville and rededicate this part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency the "George C. Marshall Space Flight Center," after which it was known within NASA as "Marshall or MSFC.") The senior engineers at Redstone, most of them Germans, were working on NASA rocketry under the legendary
father of the German V-2 missile, Wernher von Braun. When I got to Huntsville, von Braun was nowhere to be seen, so I began discussing the space program with some of his lieutenants, or "cardinals" as they were known. Then Wernher came in, immediately dominating the scene. He spent time that day and the next showing me around.
Wernher had an amazing presence and made a most favorable impression on me. One seemingly insignificant incident sticks in my memory. When we got out to one of the gantry elevators to go up and take look at a rocket, there were some workmen waiting to get on. When they saw Wernher, they all backed off. Wernher put his arm around one of the men-a large hard-hatted construction workerand said, "You're the guys doing the work. Come on. You get in the elevator first." And together we went up in the gantry. I had expected to see a completely autocratic system in the German mold at Redstone. Though it was clear that Wernher thought of himself as the boss if not the Pope, he listened to what his cardinals were saying. Then, and only then, he would say, “Okay, this is what we're going to do," and they did it. He was much more humane than I had imagined.
At an October 1960 NASA management meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, I got another insight into von Braun's team. I began a little talk by telling everyone that at RCA we had made almost a fetish of calling each other by first names and nicknames. One of the senior vice presidents of RCA was nicknamed Pinky. Though I had trouble calling him that, I finally got used to it. Then I added that I was impressed, while touring NASA facilities, that things there were much more formal, with people addressing one another, especially superiors, as Doctor This and Mister That.
At the cocktail hour afterwards people made a point of calling me Bob. Eberhard Rees, one of von Braun's cardinals, did so with his thick German accent. “Bob, you might be interested to know," he said, “that just the other day, Wernher said for the first time that I could call him Wernher."
“Do you mean,” I asked, “that you've been working together for, whatever it is, twenty years, and you've been calling him Dr. von Braun all this time?"
"Oh, no!," Rees answered. "I always called him Herr Doktor von Braun.”