High Altitude Research

While still on terminal leave from the navy, I was rehired as a physicist at APL and encouraged to organize a research group to engage in high altitude research based on the prospectively available opportunity to conduct experiments with captured and refurbished German V-2 rockets. I had earned my spurs by my wartime work, and Tuve gave me a free hand and ample financing to develop this field as I saw fit. My interest in geophysics stemmed from Tom Poulter's work and from my association with the "old-line" geophysicists at DTM. This line of scientific interest and my laboratory experience in nuclear physics and with rugged electronic devices and high performance ordnance combined to lay the groundwork for my future research career. I was eager to attack problems of the primary cosmic radiation, the ionosphere, and geomagnetism by rocket techniques which promised direct observation of many phenomena that had been previously a matter of conjecture, albeit sophisticated conjecture.

I gathered together a spirited group of like-minded individuals -- Robert Peterson, Lawrence Fraser, Howard Tatel, Clyde Holliday, John Hopfield, and several others and got to work. Parallel efforts were underway at several other military or quasi-military laboratories. Of these, the group at the Naval Research Laboratory, inspired by their long-time leader in atmospheric and ionospheric physics, Ed Hulburt, was the most noteworthy. We adopted NRL as our principal competitor and sometime collaborator.

The opportunity to use V-2's for scientific work was provided by the Army Ordnance Department by virtue of the foresight and broad vision of Colonel Holger N. Toftoy.

Under the leadership of Ernst Krause of NRL a small and highly informal group of prospective participants in this effort was assembled to maximize the scientific work and to allocate flight opportunities in an equitable manner. I was a member of this group, which called itself the V-2 Rocket Panel. We had no formal organization, no official authority, and no budget. Nonetheless, we oversaw, in effect, the entire national effort in this field for over a decade. Krause was the original chairman but he left the NRL in 1946, and I was chosen to succeed him, continuing thereafter as chairman until the effective termination of our functions in 1958.

In 1946, with the support of Merle Tuve, I initiated and supervised the development of a high performance American sounding rocket, the Aerobee, exclusively for scientific purposes. This rocket soon joined the V-2 as a basic vehicle for high altitude research. During the period 1946-1951, payloads of scientific instruments were carried by forty-eight V-2's and thirty Aerobees.

The emphasis of our APL work was in the fields of cosmic rays, solar ultraviolet, high altitude photography, atmospheric ozone, and ionospheric current systems. The site for most of the launchings was the White Sands Proving Ground near Las Cruces, New Mexico. But in 1949 and 1950, I organized successful Aerobee- firing expeditions on the U.S.S. Norton Sound to the equatorial Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, respectively. [As of 17 January 1985, a total of 1037 Aerobees had been fired for a wide variety of investigations in atmospheric physics, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, astronomy, and other fields.]

The national effort in high altitude research during those early free-wheeling and spirited days was characterized by many failures and many noteworthy successes. Substantial advances in knowledge were achieved in atmospheric structure, ionospheric physics, cosmic rays, high altitude photography of large areas of the cloud cover and surface of the earth, geomagnetism, and the ultraviolet and x-ray spectra of the sun.

The V-2 Rocket Panel (later renamed the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel and still later the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel) presided over the entire effort. Beginning in the mid-1950's, the Panel spawned one of the important components of our national participation in the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. Its members became influential in the IGY, actively promoted the adoption of scientific satellites of the earth as an element of the IGY program, and laid the foundations for the scientific program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a major agency of the federal government created in 1958.