Our History – In Their Own Words

Dr. Ivan Getting

Dr. Ivan A. Getting (1912–2003) was founding president of The Aerospace Corporation, a position he held from 1960 until his retirement in 1977. Getting established Aerospace as the country’s foremost technical resource to properly support the Air Force as an independent partner and advisor. Among his many accomplishments during his tenure, Getting contributed to the Mercury and Gemini space programs, the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, and the development of high-power chemical lasers. Perhaps his most important contribution was his advocacy of a satellite-based navigation system that ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS). In 2003, only a few months before his death, Getting shared the Charles Stark Draper Prize with Bradford Parkinson, chair of the Aerospace board of trustees, for their conceptualization and implementation of GPS.

Getting attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oxford University, from which he received his D. Phil. in astrophysics in 1935. During World War II, he served as the director of the Division of Fire Control and Army Radar at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, where he oversaw the development of the SCR-584, the world’s first automatic microwave-tracking gunfire-control radar. The SCR-584 is credited with saving thousands of lives because of its high success rate in tracking V-1 flying bombs, which the Germans launched against England during 1944–1945.

In the postwar years, Getting served as a professor at MIT from 1945 until 1950, when he left academia to become the vice president in charge of research and engineering at the Raytheon Company. At Raytheon, he oversaw the first commercial, large-scale production of transistors and helped to modernize the company’s operations. Getting resigned from Raytheon in 1960 to head the newly created Aerospace Corporation.

On March 7, 2001, Steven R. Strom interviewed Dr. Getting at his home in Coronado, California, where they discussed the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program and the origins of GPS.

Strom: Dr. Getting, how did the government reconcile Air Force programs like the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) with the civilian directives for the space program?

Getting: Well, the answer is very straightforward. President Eisenhower, as you know, was caught spying using an airplane; [Francis Gary] Powers was shot down. Subsequently, President Eisenhower asked the president of Polaroid to set up a special committee to analyze and make recommendations to him about what the country should do to replace the capability that was lost as a result of aircraft being no longer permitted to fly on reconnaissance missions over Soviet Union. I was not involved in the work of that committee and certainly was not aware of it at the time Aerospace was started. I did recognize from looking over the work statements that had been given to Aerospace back in 1960 that there were no reconnaissance satellites included, and it struck me that this was a major shortcoming of our program. I came to the conclusion that before we did any other planning that we should set up a group to study the use of satellites in reconnaissance, and I had in mind that the committee be chaired by a very bright fellow named Gene Fubini.

Julian Hartt and Ivan Getting inspect a model of the Mercury-Atlas launch vehicle in 1961.

I called Gene Fubini and asked him if he would be willing to serve as chairman of a committee at Aerospace to look into the use of space satellites as instruments for space reconnaissance anywhere in the world. That committee, I believe it was called the Intelligence Committee, included other people like Carl Overhage and Jim Baker, both of whom I knew extremely well. Jim Baker was probably the world’s best optical designer, and Carl Overhage had been involved in intelligence work while still, I believe, at the Radiation Lab.

Now to come back to the MOL, we were heavily engaged in a variety of programs in support of the MOL program. Aerospace used data from an observatory, which we had built originally to study the impact of radiation on man in low-Earth orbit, because the radiation from the sun produced so many energetic charged particles, which would be dangerous to any man in space if not properly protected. The MOL program had capabilities necessary to do various unmanned functions, but by having men in the lab it could be more easily maintained and could perform certain functions that do not lend themselves easily to an unmanned system, such as targets of opportunity. Now during the development of this program we got further instructions, which emanated from high levels of Washington, that we should modify the MOL program from being not only a manned orbiting laboratory, but also to be able to carry on all the functions without the presence of man in the laboratory. We pursued that approach and indeed found that we could design and build into the system everything that was needed with the exception of targets of opportunity.

Let me explain. On an unmanned system it was normal to plan your target system perhaps on a daily basis and inject that by a command link from ground to the particular satellite in question, and the satellite would then perform that function. But since you didn’t necessarily know what was happening on a contemporary basis, you would miss targets of opportunity, such as the operation of a Soviet fleet in the oceans.

In our program we modified the MOL design to meet all these requirements, and in fact there were advantages of not having men in the satellite. Man is a nuisance from the standpoint of all the equipment needed to supply him with. What the body requires then tends to vibrate and shake the satellite as he moves inside the satellite, and this can impact the quality of pictures that might be taken by the unit. If I could step aside just a moment, the MOL had advantages over the NASA program [Skylab], which involved the Saturn second stage. I believe that the NASA program still was using pure oxygen, whereas the Aerospace program had a mixture of oxygen and helium, which was much safer from the standpoint of ignition and fire. As you know, NASA did have a fire in one of their manned capsules [Apollo 1], which resulted in the death of its occupants.

The MOL program was well on its way, and as far as I can remember it met all its intended capabilities when suddenly it was cancelled. It was actually cancelled in June 1969 while I was attending a meeting of the Vietnam Panel of PSAC (the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee), of which I was a member. The impact of this cancellation was very great on Aerospace. It was the largest program that Aerospace ever had. It involved some four hundred of our best scientists and engineers, and it obviously didn’t make any sense to fire all of these pick-of-the-crop individuals when we didn’t have any warning. And since the cancellation happened in June, it was too late to enter a substitute program in the next year’s budget. So, in short, we restructured all our programs as rapidly as possible to readjust and prevent a cataclysmic affect on Aerospace, which an arbitrary firing of the people involved in MOL would have caused. President Nixon, who had cancelled the program, did establish on 13th February 1969 a “blue ribbon” committee to lay out the goals of the space program after the successful conquest of going to the moon and back [the Space Task Group]. Vice President [Spiro] Agnew was the chairman.

In the meantime, I should point out that Don Dooley of Aerospace, encouraged by Al Donovan, Aerospace Senior Vice-President, Technical, had started a study to have a launch vehicle which would be manned and which would operate more like an airplane. That is, it would take off from a designated point on the surface of the Earth and after launching a satellite would land on another or the same designated point and be recoverable. This program was presented to a variety of people including Vice President Agnew’s committee. The committee was very much impressed by the ideas, but did not give it a very high priority. There were other programs that were suggested by Aerospace to the committee, and one of these was what became the GPS (Global Positioning System).

Strom: May I ask you about NASA and its relationship to MOL? I remember reading at one point that Robert Gilruth (director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center) was somewhat perturbed over the fact that the Air Force was having this program funded simultaneously while NASA was working on its own [Apollo] program. Do you yourself have any recollections that there was a rivalry of some sort between NASA and the Air Force over the MOL project?

Getting: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some rivalry, but I’m not aware that there was anything nefarious about it. The objectives of the two programs, while overlapping in certain technical areas, did not overlap in purpose or eventual use.

Now if I can come back, I’m trying to recover my wits because you ask very critical questions. The question of reusable launch vehicles was immediately introduced at this time in what became the space station. Donovan and Dooley of Aerospace called their launch vehicle a space shuttle. Because the way it was designed it could take off, deliver its load and rendezvous to another satellite, and then return back safely to the ground. As Donovan used to say, “You don’t take a 747 and fly it from Los Angeles to New York and crash it. You land it and then you can use it again so you can fly it back.” NASA agreed to this concept as a part of the Agnew study. It was the recommendation of the Agnew Committee as I remember it that the shuttle as described by the Aerospace Corporation would be assigned to the Air Force and that NASA would take on the space station perhaps using some of the elements of the Saturn unit that they had worked on. When this hit the Secretary of Defense, and I believe at that time Bob Seamans was the Secretary of the Air Force, he objected. I can’t remember now who was then Secretary of Defense. Do you remember?

Strom: Melvin Laird.

Getting: Well, the secretary of defense took the position that the Air Force could not absorb the high costs that were estimated for the development of the space shuttle and still maintain all their other programs that were essential to the operation of the SAC (Strategic Air Command) of the Air Force, including TAC (Tactical Air Command) and the military air-transport. The decision then had to be made by NASA. If the Department of Defense would not support the shuttle as laid out in that study, they came to the conclusion that it made no sense to have a manned space station that could not be supported. So they would first agree to develop a space shuttle and when that was demonstrated they would then develop a space station, in that order.

Unfortunately, while this was accepted by the administration, relieving the Air Force of any responsibility for the space shuttle, the Bureau of the Budget objected to the original budget for the shuttle as prepared by The Aerospace Corporation. Now at this point I must remind you The Aerospace Corporation had developed a very excellent capability in estimating costs of space systems and launch systems. And that while their estimate may have seemed high to some people it was realistic. But even so, when NASA took over the shuttle and presented it as a part of their budget the Bureau of the Budget objected to the president, and the president accepted their recommendations. This forced NASA to redesign the shuttle from the original Aerospace design to what eventually was a modified mixture of Titan II or III and the space vehicle. And that’s where we are today.

Strom: It’s my understanding from talking to various Aerospace personnel that when the MOL project was cancelled there was a great deal of sadness really over the fact that so much expertise had been used on MOL without actually obtaining a finished product. Do you remember the feeling of the company at that time? Was it a depressive atmosphere after the cancellation of the project?

Getting: Well yes, that is a good question to answer. Of course there was a terrible letdown. The people were enthusiastic on the MOL because they had succeeded in designing a vehicle which would do everything that was being required and which would be price-wise reasonable. However, everything they needed could be done with more orderly development of unmanned satellites, each serving their specific purpose.

Strom: Was engineering the MOL to be able to perform both manned and unmanned tasks a serious obstacle to overcome? Was this because of possible problems with the overflight of Soviet territory?

Getting: Well I think you stated the answer in your question. This is a complicated situation. Now let me explain. When General Eisenhower was active as president he was very careful as a part of his policy to preserve the freedom of space for use by all countries. And as long as the satellites were unmanned the issue would never come up as to overflight of satellites over the Soviet Union regardless of what was in the satellite as long as there was no man in it. Somehow this marriage of having a man in the satellite on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union was too much like the airplane that was shot down, and if you shot down the airplane why shouldn’t you shoot down a satellite? So in support of the policy which Eisenhower had established and which apparently had been accepted in international law by all the nations of the world the MOL did present a problem. So as I mentioned earlier, that led to the conclusion that the MOL should be redesigned from its first iteration to being capable of operating whether it had a man in it or not.

Strom: So this is all basically stemming from the Powers incident?

Getting: Oh yes. The Powers thing definitely had raised critical issues. Now I should point out that later on when NASA was having trouble financing the manned space station together with keeping up the space shuttle, a congressional committee asked the National Research Council to set up a committee and study what should be done. This was particularly necessary in as much as the models which NASA had been using in costing the program involved the use of the manned space station and shuttle for military applications as well as for civilian applications and for science. The committee was set up by the National Research Council, and I was asked to chair it. This was after I had retired from Aerospace. The result of the deliberations by my committee in reviewing possible requirements that the military might have for use of the manned space station essentially stated that if NASA and the country had a manned space station, the Department of Defense should make every possible constructive use of that facility in experimentation and testing of components and whatever. But that we could find no specific military requirement which would justify the DOD on absorbing any major fraction of the cost of the system either in development or in operation, et cetera. Now I’m not sure whether it was a part of this committee or a separate committee but I think it was a separate request. When Hans Mark, previously the number two man at NASA, was the Secretary of the Air Force he put out a directive that all military launching would be done using the NASA-developed space shuttle. This was applied immediately, but the space shuttle’s cargo space was larger than necessary for most military satellites. Also because the shuttle had men in it, every satellite that had explosives, which were often used for a variety of purposes, had to be man-rated if it was to be launched by a shuttle.

Ivan Getting (left) at the inauguration of the Getting Laboratories at The Aerospace Corporation in September 1976.

The net result was that many military satellites had to be redesigned so they could be launched by the shuttle and this caused a major increase in costs to the Air Force. Also, certain satellites had to be launched on a north-south orbit and hence had to be launched from Vandenberg. And since there were no facilities for launching a space shuttle at Vandenberg, a special facility had to be built. The cost of this extra effort ran into several billion dollars, thus increasing shuttle operating costs by a substantial amount. When Pete Aldridge was Secretary of the Air Force, he found this increase in budget unacceptable, and he proposed that the military be allowed to purchase a so-called Titan III. And since the money was not in the DOD budget for development or for procurement as such that it be bought on a commercial basis. Namely that a company would develop the needed changes and build a launch vehicle and over a period of years the DOD or the government would pay the company as a commercial product on a time purchase basis.

Strom: I am interested in hearing your own remembrances of the historical origins of GPS. What was the background of it, going back to World War II?

Getting: Well let me be quite personal. During World War II, I was head of Division 8 of the Radiation Laboratory. We were not required to do any development work in the field of navigation or position location per se. However, we did develop the SCR-584, which was an automatic tracking, a very accurate radar system. The SCR-584 had the biggest production in World War II of any radar. The equipment found uses other than antiaircraft. For example, an SCR-584 could be positioned on the ground and track enemy vehicles across the countryside. Or they could be directed in open fields to fire on supplies being brought up to trenches. In other words, position in the military sense is very essential. Knowing exactly where you are is extremely important. Knowing exactly where the enemy is important.

Another application in World War II was in locating enemy mortars. Now a mortar is a very small artillery device, and it fires a very high-altitude launch so that you can’t see where it is fired from. But the SCR-584 could pick up a mortar shell and track it in its path, and by recording that on a chart the accuracy was sufficient that you could go retrace that path where it intersected the ground level behind a hill or behind a house and locate that mortar’s position accurately. Now it wasn’t commonly known, but the facts were that 85% of all the casualties in WW II were due to mortar fire. And so the SCR-584 was a godsend both in Northern Italy and in some of the Battle of the Bulge type situations and as a means of finding the location and position of enemy mortars. Also it was used in directing tactical aircraft which were sent out to bomb certain targets like in France. There was a characteristic that almost every French village was on a river, because they had to be on a place where they get supplies. And there was always a towpath on a river, and women always used a part of the river to do their clothes washing. So the American tactical fighter in his open cockpit would have to fly around and fly around till he could identify that particular village, which looked like every other village, and drop the bomb. In the meantime, he was exposed to antiaircraft fire and wasted a lot of time besides risking his life and then possibly hitting the wrong target. But if that aircraft was tracked by a SCR-584, and especially if it had a beacon in it, it could be directed by the SCR-584 to fly into a bombing position.

Now that was very important towards the end of World War II, and it also led to the development of ground controlled V-1 type, unmanned vehicles. But it was also always limited by the capabilities of the SCR-584. There were limitations. Now in the meantime, Division 11 of NDRC (National Defense Research Committee) had developed the Loran A as it became called, and that system used ground transmitters to transmit a definite signal, which could be picked up by the airplane or by the ship. By measuring the time difference of arrival between that signal and another time-coordinated signal from another ground station, the time difference of arrival at the airplane would determine the hyperbola. Two such sets of data from two different ground transmitters, to use the simplest example, would have two hyperbolas intercepting and that would be the position of the aircraft. Now the advantage of that system was that you couldn’t saturate that system. Any number of airplanes or ships could use that Loran A system without interfering with any other ship or airplane. So that after the war it was adopted by the Coast Guard, and we finally ended up with two commercial systems. Loran C, which is used by aircraft even today, was a high-frequency system. And a low-frequency system which was able to send signals all around the world, but which was not very accurate because of the long and sometimes indefinite path.

But the time difference of arrival was nevertheless a very attractive thing if it was used from satellites, such as with the Omega system. The Omega suffered from the fact that it was very dependent on ionosphere propagation properties all around world, and the accuracies were on the order of a mile or two limited both by the equipment itself but more than that by the propagation problem. The Loran C was limited because it couldn’t see around the curvature of the Earth, and because the velocity was affected by the ground conditions. Dry ground would be a different propagation rate than wet ground or over salt water. So they each had their advantages and each had limitations. Now when space came along it essentially opened up the problem to a fresh look, because if you had satellites up in space, at say synchronous altitude or half-synchronous altitude, one transmitter could cover practically half of the Earth. You were not affected by propagation problems per se, if the frequency was high enough and you were not obstructed by the curvature of the Earth, so to speak, within these large areas. Finally, as it turned out when detail designs were studied at Aerospace, starting back in about 1961, ’62, you could also get accurate time synchronization if the satellites were synchronized with ground transmitters. The net result was that the system had great appeal, and it was presented in a variety of studies, but there was always a question of budget and how long would it take and how much would it cost.

Strom: When I was reading your autobiography and some other background materials, I was really struck by the strong advocacy position that you had to take to promote GPS.

Getting: That comes next. Now, when it came to Vice President Agnew’s study to come up with a post-Apollo space program, one of the proposals put forth by The Aerospace Corporation and presented by Don Dooley was essentially what is now the GPS. Everywhere on the Earth you could observe four satellites up in space that had synchronized, although with appropriate time delays, messages and signals that would be received by an infinite number of non-interfering receivers. And they would be accurate as accurately as you could provide for the synchronization of the satellites and by the bandwidth of the equipment that you designed. This system on paper appeared to satisfy all the requirements that one could imagine. The military requirements included all navigation for all control of airborne or space-borne guided missiles. It could be used for military applications with adequate coding and it could be used for civilian applications. The only problem that you could have was the so-called canyon-effect, since the frequencies were very high. If you were in a city like New York and you had skyscrapers on each side of you, those skyscrapers would interfere with the reception. But even that problem could be mitigated if you integrated the GPS with an inexpensive inertial system.

The committee reported out on their recommendations and they reported in a favorable way but below value to the manned space systems which had the glamour of having a man involved for whatever purpose that man happened to be in the space capsule. So it was not funded as a result of the Agnew study. Subsequently, at Aerospace, a number of measurements were done using mockup systems. For example, ground transmitters or transmitters on the hills in New Mexico. There were perhaps some transmitters on balloons but enough transmitters so you had at least four sets of independent signals and flying airplanes, which had homemade receivers with appropriate code, and it was found that the system would work. But to get it funded was almost impossible. Fortunately, in my case, I happened to be a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Board, which was started by [Theodore] Von Karman and General [Henry] Arnold before the end of World War II and which had intimate interactions with the top command of the Air Force.

It is another unfortunate aspect of our government that budgets tend to be based on the previous year’s budgets, and the allocation of budgets amongst services generally do not depart very much from the historical perspective. And to set up a system like the GPS was going to cost billions of dollars, and no one was willing to take it out from his budget. Fortunately a number of civilians appeared as head of Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDRE). The Department of Defense by this time had major control over the budgets of each of the services and they could control the allocation of moneys. Around 1969, a committee had been set up to coordinate the navigation concepts and plans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, and the DDRE director came to the conclusion that there should be only one navigation system developed for the military.

I should point out in passing, that in the meantime the Navy had developed a very good space navigation system called Transit. Though the Transit was based on measuring the Doppler frequency of low-altitude satellites with an accurately stabilized transmitter and by measuring the Doppler of a satellite whose ephemeris was known over a period of say 15–20 seconds or more you could calculate your position. It was very good for stationary targets, but it was not good for aircraft that have a high mobility and need to get their positions at time constants corresponding to the aerodynamic time constants of the airplane. So while Transit became very popular as an interim navigation system, it did not meet all the military requirements. But the conclusion of DDRE was that a single system was required and that it should be based on the Air Force/Aerospace concept called GPS and developed by the Air Force with cooperation from all three services. To make a long story short, even though we tried with the cooperation of the Air Force to convince … what was the name of the general in Vietnam?

Strom: Westmoreland.

Getting: We did send a group to see General Westmoreland while he was commander during the Vietnam War to get his support for the development of an operational GPS. We found that it is contrary to normal expectations that a general who is immersed in a war which may last another year or two to defend a budget going up into the billions of dollars at a time when he’s short of money to supply his current equipment with operational receivers for his tactical airplanes. And so in effect what Westmoreland said was, “Don’t bother me with what I can get ten years from now. Tell me how I’m going to get right now the equipment that I need and I’m short on.” I don’t mean this as a derogatory expression of General Westmoreland, that is the normal problem that confronts long-term R&D developments.

Strom: And that’s of interest in any long-term program that Aerospace is involved in even up to the present. Dr. Getting I would like to thank you for your time today. Thank you very much.

Interviewed in Coronado, California, March 7, 2001