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Scientists in the Astronaut Corps

During 1965 and 1966 the Manned Spacecraft Center was busier than it had ever been. Gemini flights were being launched from Cape Canaveral every other month, on average. The Apollo command and service module was progressing, not without difficulty, toward its first earth-orbital flight test. Mission planners were hard at work on lunar-mission trajectories and contingency planning. Others were studying photographs of the lunar surface from Ranger and Surveyor, looking for suitable landing sites and scrutinizing the barren surface for possible unwelcome surprises. Still to come were the extensive and detailed photographs from Lunar Orbiter.

The Astronaut Office was as busy as the rest of the Center. All of the remaining "Original Seven," plus the "Next Nine" and 10 of "The Fourteen" (third group) were training for and flying the Gemini missions. By the end of 1966 crews for the first four Apollo earth-orbital missions had been assigned and were spending much of their time in design reviews and flight simulations. Russell Schweickart, one of the two scientists picked as a pilot, was serving as a kind of ombudsman, mediating between the astronaut office and the experimenters who had projects on Gemini.53 His compatriot Waiter Cunningham was sent to the Falmouth conference in mid-1965 to explain to scientists some of the operational factors that so strongly constrained a lunar landing mission.54 Two of the first five scientist-astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Curt Michel, did not start basic astronaut training during their first year, and so were assigned to represent the Astronaut Office in matters concerning space suits and Apollo Applications experiments, respectively.55 The other three, Owen Garriott, Ed Gibson, and Jack Schmitt, drew assignments to Apollo in-flight experiments when they returned from flight training in mid-year, as did Don Lind, the scientist who came in as a pilot with the fourth group? Before long, however, Schmitt was working with academic and Geological Survey scientists to improve MSC's training course in field geology.56

Schmitt was fortunate in having a scientific specialty that was widely accepted as being important to Apollo. The other scientist-astronauts - except for Kerwin, whose medical training could be applied to a number of space-related questions - found themselves in an environment oriented almost exclusively to operational and engineering concerns. Independent research was all but impossible; only Curt Michel - whose academic home base was Rice University, less than an hour's drive from MSC - made an attempt to sustain his previous research program. Owen Garriott and Ed Gibson had to redirect their scientific interests into fields more closely related to NASA's needs and plans.57

Apart from the time they had to devote to mastering astronautic skills, the scientists had to spend long hours on chores that sometimes seemed distinctly subsidiary to the main objectives. Among the duties of the Astronaut Office were making public relations appearances, participating in design reviews, and contributing the astronaut viewpoint to engineering decisions; the scientist-astronauts were expected to shoulder their share of these burdens just as the test pilots did. Precious little time was left for keeping abreast of scientific developments, but in Slayton's view this was a problem each astronaut had to solve for himself.58 Nobody was told what he could not do, but it was understood that the astronauts' primary role was to become competent spacecraft operators, and whatever else they wanted to do had to be compatible with that; as long as it was, the Astronaut Office raised no objection to anyone's supplemental activities.59 Those who made the adjustment gained the respect of their pilot colleagues; those who expressed annoyance at these ancillary duties and felt cheated out of scientific opportunities provoked some resentment.60 After all, the door was always open.

When the first scientist-astronauts joined the program in 1965, it was not to be expected that science could simply force its way into Apollo, which had yet to fly its first test mission. Nonetheless, the scientific community wanted to make it clear that scientist-astronauts were entitled to consideration of their professional scientific requirements. In the fall of 1965 Headquarters's Manned Space Science Division commissioned a study group to look into the matter of astronaut training. After some weeks of discussion with MSC officials, the group concluded that the astronaut training program was much too short on science. More scientist-astronauts should be brought in as early as possible, to provide more scientific resources for the manned space flight program. The scientist-astronauts should be used as in-house tutors for other astronauts who wanted to improve their scientific background. The Astronaut Office should actively encourage the astronauts to develop their scientific skills by issuing a policy statement that "after engineering evaluation flights are completed and a spacecraft is considered operational, scientific proficiency shall be a prime requisite for at least one member of each flight crew." Anything that seemed to increase their chances of flight assignment was of vital interest to every person in the corps, the group had learned. (If Slayton wanted someone on a crew who could speak Mandarin Chinese, one of the astronauts told the study group, they would all be studying Mandarin Chinese.) Therefore, if MSC made it clear that scientific proficiency was desirable for crew selection, even the pilot-astronauts could develop a passion for science.61

Perhaps the most difficult recommendation to implement was that the scientist-astronauts be encouraged to keep up their research activity by affiliating with an established research group. "The minimum amount of time required to maintain scientific proficiency," the group concluded, "is believed to be one day per week for discussions, seminars, etc.," plus "one full week each month in which the scientist-astronaut can become completely immersed in his research." The group could not suggest how this could be squeezed into an already tight training schedule, but they noted that astronauts spent considerable time at seemingly trivial tasks in engineering design that might be relegated to others. Paradoxically, however, these time-consuming chores seemed an indispensable part of the program, since the astronauts were the only competent group having an overview of the whole operation, and were "the only single group that another astronaut will trust."62

Stressing as it did the importance of research to a scientist, the study group's report could have been read as calling for a division of the corps into a test-pilot group and a scientist group. The scientist-astronauts' need to spend more than one-third of their time in research was received with some skepticism by the pilots, whose reaction was later summarized by one of them:

. . . . [Some] of those guys came in figuring, "I'll write my textbooks and my thesis and teach [university courses] and I'll come by twice a week and be an astronaut." Well, that didn't work. . . . We were devoting our lives to this whole thing, and you couldn't devote anything less, I don't care what your discipline was.63
The issue did not become divisive because the scientist-astronauts themselves accurately perceived the situation they were in and most of them did not try to make the system fit their unique needs. They saw the utility of the maxim, "if you want to get along, go along."

The study group's report was received politely but coolly at MSC.64 If Mercury and Gemini had shown anything, it was that the unexpected may turn out to be the norm, and no one knew how well a scientist, however skilled and intelligent, would react to sudden operational emergencies. On the other hand, appropriate reaction to such situations was believed to be almost instinctive to a good test pilot. Slayton and Gilruth, pondering the problem of landing an exotic spacecraft on a strange and possibly dangerous surface, naturally adopted the view that piloting skills were essential to mission success. Slayton repeatedly expressed this view in plain language: nobody would benefit from a mission that left a dead geologist (and his colleague in the lunar module) on the moon65 - implying that just such a thing might happen if the pilot of the lunar landing module could not cope quickly enough with a sudden emergency. So it was up to the scientists to prove that they could become competent astronauts, which most of them did. None would ever command an Apollo mission; none would ever pilot a lunar module to a moon landing or a command module through reentry; but they showed themselves able to tackle the training program and willing to share the less pleasant but essential duties of an astronaut. Of the first six scientists picked as astronauts, four eventually flew in space. Many of the others filled essential roles in science planning and mission operations during the later Apollo missions.

53. Russell L. Schweickart, interview with Peter Vorzimmer, May 1, 1967, transcript in JSC History Office files.

54. NASA 1965 Summer Conference on Lunar Exploration and Science, NASA SP-88 (Washington, 1965), pp. 407-17.

55. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., to multiple addressees, "Astronaut Technical Assignments," Jan. 6, 1967.

56. Harrison H. Schmitt interview, May 30, 1984.

57. Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984.

58. Ibid.; Bean interview.

59. Joseph P. Kerwin, Jr., interview, Mar. 29, 1985.

60. Bean interview; Cernan interview.

61. "Space Science Training for Astronauts Involved in NASA Manned Space Flight Missions," report under contract NSR 44-006-031, Nov. 1965, p. 4.

62. Ibid., pp. 2-4.

63. Cernan interview.

64. Gilruth to Dr. A. J. Dessler, Dec. 22, 1965.

65. Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984. When the debate over sending a scientist to the moon intensified in 1969, several wire-service stories quoted Slayton to this effect; see Paul Recer (Associated Press), "They Feud Over Moon Flights," Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 1969. Gilruth's position was expressed in a letter to George Mueller, Sept. 2, 1969, responding to Mueller's concern that the science community was growing restive because no scientist-astronauts were assigned to Apollo missions.

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