How to Win Enemies and Influence Policy
From the halls of power to field laboratories, the Air Force Chief Scientist helps shape the future of U.S. flight.
- By Mark Wolverton
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 2 of 4)
But when Arnold retired in 1946, von Kármán lost his strongest advocate. The following year, the Air Force became an independent service under General Carl Spaatz, who didn’t share Arnold’s enthusiasm for science. Historian Dwayne Day notes in his book Lightning Rod: A History of the Air Force Chief Scientist’s Office: “Although the Air Force enthusiastically endorsed the idea of accepting scientific advice and guidance, top Air Force officers were often unwilling to accept much of the advice, particularly if it conflicted with the service’s current modes of operation and its cultural identity.” In particular, the Air Force was advised to look into ballistic missiles, but the old-school bomber pilots running the show considered missiles and rockets the stuff of Buck Rogers—and missiles and rockets didn’t need pilots.
Von Kármán approached General Hoyt Vandenberg, who in 1948 had succeeded Spaatz as Chief of Staff, and pointed out what World War II had amply demonstrated: Wars could be won with science. In Toward New Horizons, von Kármán had recommended a Scientific Advisory Board to advise the Air Force hierarchy, and the service had agreed. Vandenberg assigned the board to form a committee to evaluate how best to integrate scientific research and development into the Air Force. The committee, chaired by physicist Louis Ridenour of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois, produced a report that criticized the majority of the Air Force for a lack of interest in science and technology, among other things, and recommended the establishment of a Deputy Chief of Staff for Development and the Air Research and Development Command.
One suggestion of the Ridenour report was that the Air Force hire leading scientists to serve as advisors for one or two years. In May 1950, the new Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, Major General Gordon Saville, asked Ridenour himself if he would be interested in such a position. In September, Ridenour was appointed Chief Scientist.
The cold war had just warmed up in Korea, the Soviet Union had built an atomic bomb, and America was struggling with the question of building an H-bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The defense of North America from air attack was one of Ridenour’s first concerns. Along with colleague Ivan Getting (who had earlier turned down Saville’s request to advise him on science issues), Ridenour pushed for establishing the Lincoln Laboratory, a research center for air defense, at MIT. He was also instrumental in instituting a series of seminars at MIT that brought together top scientists and strategists and in which projects such as the Distant Early Warning Line and the Semiautomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense computing and relay system were conceived.
Dan Hastings, an MIT physicist, served as Chief Scientist in the late 1990s. One of his first big projects was “Doable Space,” which recommended a greater reliance on commercial launches. As Chief Scientist, “you have authority over nothing,” he says, “but you have a great deal of influence, which stems from the fact that it’s a direct reporting relationship to the Chief and the Secretary. In a hierarchical organization like the military, the fact that you talk directly to the Chief and the Secretary means a great deal. You realize the average colonel and even the average one-star or two-star [general], they never talk to the chief and the secretary. They only talk to the level above them.”
Chief Scientists have ranged from aerodynamicists and aeronautical engineers to physicists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and even a physiologist. “You have to find people who are polymaths, who have a tremendous sense of scientific and technical curiosity,” says Hallion.
An aeronautical engineer with an intense interest in spaceflight, Mike Yarymovych had worked for NASA on the Apollo program and had served as NASA’s representative to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory. He was asked to become Chief Scientist in 1973. “In the second year I ran a study using the old von Kármán name; I called it New Horizons II.” The study predicted that space would increase in importance as an arena for both civilian and military activities, and that computers would keep getting smaller and more ubiquitous. “At that time we were still dealing with IBM 650s—huge machines—and we’re saying, ‘We’re going to have several computers on each wing of an airplane,’ ” Yarymovych says. “The thought of miniaturizing processors and sticking them all over the place was kind of radical.”
Yarymovych’s prediction that the Air Force was entering “the age of computational plenty” wasn’t exactly welcomed. “At that time [it was] so revolutionary that it got [semi-] classified and put away because it was going to shake up a lot of things,” he says. “It finally got declassified 20 years later.” But there was still an indirect effect. A debate was flaring in the Pentagon over new fighter aircraft, specifically their designs and missions. “The discussion was the so-called high-low mix of fighters,” says Yarymovych. “The [air superiority] F-15 was already being built, so the thought was ‘How do you justify the [fighter-bomber] F-16?’ Going back to my New Horizons study—when I said computers everywhere and small is beautiful, never mind the big things—they used that as one of the reasons to justify a smaller airplane.”