Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

The Webb-Gilpatric Agreement

On the same day that NASA announced its intention of obtaining land on Merritt Island, it signed an agreement with the Department of Defense that set guidelines for managing and funding the Manned Lunar Landing Program. This agreement, which took its name from James E. Webb, whom President Kennedy had just appointed to head NASA, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, set down three preliminary considerations: the Department of Defense and NASA recognized the great impact of the Manned Lunar Landing Program on the Atlantic Missile Range; in the national interest, the two should pool their resources to make the most effective use of the facilities and services; and the traditional relationship between range-user and range-operator would continue.29

The agreement contained 11 provisions that gave NASA ultimate responsibility for acquiring the new land, improving it, constructing necessary buildings, and operating the Manned Lunar Landing Program facilities on the new site and elsewhere. The seventh provision read:

(7) As agent for NASA, the Department of the Air Force will: a) prepare and maintain a master plan of all facilities on the new site, to include the selection of sites for mission and range support facilities (NASA will be represented on the Master Planning Board); b) prepare design criteria for all land improvements and range support facilities subject to NASA approval, and arrange for the construction thereof; c) design, develop, and procure all communications, range instrumentation, and range support equipment required in support of NASA at or near the launch area.30

Unfortunately, this hastily drafted document neither defined some critical terms nor included interpretative guidelines. The two parties resolved some simple disputes easily; others they found harder to overcome.31

Disagreement centered on the definition of the word agent in paragraph (7). According to NASA, an agent was one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from the principal. In the NASA view, the intent of the Webb-Gilpatric Agreement was not to give authority to the Air Force for master planning on Merritt Island; rather, the Air Force was to exercise the master planning functions by authority of NASA and subject to its approval. The Air Force, in contrast, stated that since range users never had the right to locate their launch facilities at the Atlantic Missile Range, it was the range commander's responsibility to site all facilities in accordance with needs of all users. The Air Force, however, had no intention of assuming responsibility for design planning of any NASA mission facilities, such as launch pads.32

The Air Force quite simply viewed the new area as an extension of the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. To avoid unnecessary duplication of facilities and personnel, it seemed best that a single manager should control the operation. Responsible for development of the Eastern Test Range since October 1949, the Air Force had supported other agencies, including NASA, with manifold facilities in the areas of range safety, logistics, and tracking. From November 1958 to August 1961, first as the Atlantic Missile Range Operations Office, then after 1 July 1960 as the Launch Operations Directorate, NASA had funded the construction of blockhouses, launch pads, and assembly buildings for its specific programs on the Cape. The Air Force Missile Test Center had purchased and improved land and incorporated the new facilities into its real property accountability system. "Only certain specified services and functions," the History of the Air Force Missile Test Center pointed out, "were provided NASA on a reimbursable basis."33

Now there was to be an important departure from the Air Force policy of retaining control of all real property at Canaveral. The Department of Defense could not provide money for an immediate purchase of Merritt Island. NASA would have to buy the land. During deliberations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, preliminary to the Webb-Gilpatric Agreement, the Department of Defense Research and Engineering representatives had inserted a clause in the draft agreement to the effect that all land acquired in behalf of NASA should be transferred to the Department of Defense and incorporated into the Atlantic Missile Range. Gilpatric had questioned the need for such a clause and transfer, saying that the land belonged to the government. Gilpatric's attitude would prove an unfavorable harbinger to Air Force enthusiasts who viewed Merritt Island as an extension of their Cape.34 NASA eventually took the position that the Air Force, as the agent for NASA in relation to the new land, had assumed a completely new management position, and that NASA had the authority to control the management actions of its agent in these new and separate areas.35

For the time, a reading of the Webb-Gilpatric Agreement, especially the controversial seventh provision, along with an understanding of the traditional Air Force viewpoint, might lead one to wonder how the Director of the Launch Operations Directorate had presumed he would have sufficient freedom of movement. Sometime later Debus recalled his reasons for agreeing to these arrangements. He stated,

Although it may appear that this agreement was to the advantage of the Air Force, you must remember that the Air Force did everything - everyone else was a customer. All their efforts were space oriented and anyone encroaching on this area was considered a challenge by the Air Force. During this period we had to continually make an effort to understand the Air Force's position.36

At the time, Debus discussed the tenancy aspects of the Webb-Gilpatric Agreement with Samuel Snyder, Associate Director of Launch Operations at NASA Headquarters, and General Ostrander. While he had suggestions for improving several points, Snyder had urged that "if we could live with it," NASA should sign.37 Debus and the Commander of the Missile Test Center hoped that they could avoid referring most issues to Washington, preferring to settle them locally.

The Launch Operations Director came to feel during the ensuing months that he needed a stronger hand in site selection and approval of facilities and could not live with the Air Force assumption that Merritt Island was simply an extension of Cape Canaveral. Even a casual observer could see that the two groups would not always be working in harmony and that their areas of operation overlapped at certain points. A new arrangement would eventually have to succeed the Webb-Gilpatric Agreement of August 1961.