Social and Technical Issues of Spaceflight

Europe’s lag seems to concern methods of organization above all. The Americans know how to work in our countries better than we do ourselves. This is not a matter of ‘‘brain power’’ in the traditional sense of the term, but of organization, education, and training.

-Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, 1967

July 1969 marked two events in humanity’s exploration of space. One became an international symbol of technological prowess; the other, a mere historical footnote, another dismal failure of a hapless organization.

‘‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’’ These words of American astronaut Neil Armstrong, spoken as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon in July 1969, represented the views not only of the National Aero­nautics and Space Administration (NASA) but also of numerous Americans and space enthusiasts around the world. Many journalists, government heads, and industrial leaders believed that the Apollo program responsible for Arm­strong’s exotic walk had been a tremendous success. They marveled at NASA’s ability to organize and direct hundreds of organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals toward a single end. Even Congress was impressed, holding hearings to uncover the managerial secrets of NASA’s success.1

Apollo was the centerpiece of NASA’s efforts in the 1960s-the United States’ most prestigious entry in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union. Purportedly, the massive program cost more than $19 billion through the first Moon landing and used 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries.2 It was a visual, technological, and pub­licity tour-de-force, capturing the world’s attention with television broadcasts

of the Apollo 8 voyage to the Moon during Christmas 1968, the Apollo 11 land­ing, and the dramatic near-disaster of Apollo 13 in April 1970. Whatever else might be said about the program, it was an impressive technological feat.

This American achievement looked all the more impressive to European observers, who on July 3, 1969, witnessed the fourth consecutive failure of their own rocket, the grandiosely named Europa I. Whereas Apollo’s mandate included a presidential directive, national pride, and an all-out competition with the Soviet Union, Europa I began as a cast-off ballistic missile searching for a mission. When British leaders decided to use American missile tech­nology in the late 1950s, their own obsolete rocket, Blue Streak, became ex­pendable. The British decided to market it as the first stage of a European rocket, simultaneously salvaging their investment and signaling British will­ingness to cooperate with France, a gesture they hoped would lead to British acceptance into the Common Market. Complex negotiations ensued, as first Britain and France — and then West Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Nether- lands—warily decided to build a European rocket. All the countries hoped to gain access to their neighbors’ technologies and markets, while protecting their own as much as possible.

The European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) reflected these national ambitions. Without the ability to let contracts or to direct the technical efforts, ELDO’s Secretariat tried with growing dismay to integrate the vehicle, while its member states minimized access to the data necessary for such integration. Not surprisingly, costs rose precipitously and schedules slipped. After successful tests of the relatively mature British stage, every flight that tried to integrate stages failed miserably. The contrast be­tween European failure and American success in July 1969 could not have been more stark, with American astronauts returning to Earth to lead a round – the-world publicity tour, while European managers and engineers defended themselves from criticism as they analyzed yet another explosion. ELDO’s record of failure continued for more than four years before frustrated Euro­pean leaders dissolved the organization and started over.

Apollo was a grand symbol, arguably the largest development program ever undertaken. Many observers noted the massive size and ‘‘sheer compe­tence’’ of the program and concluded that one of the major factors in Apollo’s success was its management.3 Learning the organizational secrets of Apollo and the American space program was a primary motivation for European government and industry involvement in space programs.4

French journalist Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber gave European fears of American domination a voice and a focus in his best-selling 1967 book, The American Challenge. Servan-Schreiber argued that the European problems were due to inadequacies in European educational methods and institutions as well as the inflexibility of European management and government. The availability of university education to the average American led to better man­agement of technology development in commercial aircraft, space, and com­puters. Europeans needed to learn the dominant American model for man­aging and organizing aerospace projects: systems management.

European space organizations needed to create or learn new methods to successfully develop space technology. Wernher von Braun’s rocket team in Nazi Germany confronted major technical problems in the 1930s and 1940s, requiring new kinds of organizational processes. In the 1950s, the army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the air force-through its industrial con­tractors — developed progressively larger, more complex, and more power­ful ballistic missiles. Both groups encountered obstacles that the application of more gadgetry could not overcome. Like von Braun’s group, these groups found that changes in organization and management were crucial. NASA’s manned program confronted similar issues in the 1960s, resulting in major organizational innovations borrowed from the air force. In each case, the unique technical problems of spaceflight posed difficulties requiring social solutions — changes in how people within organizations in design and manu­facturing processes related to one another.

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