Applying the Systems Approach
By mid-1953, JPL’s continuing research in solid-propellant rocketry led to the conclusion that solid propellants could equal or exceed liquid propellants in performance as well as eliminate the cumbersome logistics of liquid-propelled missiles. Following up on this conclusion, Army Ordnance funded several studies, from which it selected JPL’s Sergeant. JPL managers and engineers stressed their recent recognition that missiles had to be viewed ‘‘as true system problems’’ that considered ground-handling equipment, operations, and training as well as technical improvements such as an improved guidance system and solid-propellant propulsion. Warning Army Ordnance about the dire consequences of making Sergeant a crash program, JPL Director Louis Dunn stated that ‘‘a properly planned development program’’ would ‘‘pay for itself many times over’’ by avoiding changes to production and operations.
Shortly after the army accepted JPL’s proposal, Dunn left to head Ramo – Wooldridge’s Atlas project. Corporal project manager William Pickering became JPL’s new director in August 1954. Pickering reorganized the laboratory to mirror academic disciplines on the Caltech campus.25
Even though he structured JPL on an academic model, Pickering recognized some of its limitations. Noting, ‘‘R&D engineers may not necessarily fully appreciate military field conditions,’’ Pickering assigned ‘‘certain personnel a particular system responsibility as a sole task.’’ They performed studies of training, logistics, organization, and other factors to determine the ‘‘instrumentation, training and schooling requirements, the caliber ofpersonnel requirements, and a typical Table of Organization for the missile battalion.’’26 Pickering assigned Robert Parks as project manager and Jack James as Parks’s deputy. James soon developed processes that would significantly change JPL’s management practices.
Jack James graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1942 and began his career at General Electric (GE) in Schenectady, New York. Starting by working on turbine engines, he soon transferred into the Test Engineering program, where he rotated through a number of laboratories and projects to gain experience. During World War II, he served as a navy radar officer on the battleship South Dakota. After the war, he returned to GE.
At GE, James worked for Richard Porter on the Hermes project to test-fire modified V-2 rockets. At the end of World War II, Porter had worked on the Paperclip project, which brought German rocket engineers and technicians to the United States, and Porter brought a number of the Germans with him to GE. GE developed the radar guidance system, and James worked with SCR – 584 radar systems, on which he ‘‘had the chance to make many mistakes.’’ In 1949, after the Research and Development Board picked JPL to manage the Corporal project, James moved to Pasadena. He had a ‘‘nightmare job’’ getting GE to deliver the guidance system, because GE had hoped to manage the project and had ‘‘lost heart in the job.’’ After Dunn left JPL, James helped complete Corporal.27
One of Corporal’s irritants was its lack of instrumentation for telemetry data. James, who was the project manager for the first two Sergeant flights, designed instrumentation into the new missile for testing and troop training, even though this added extra weight. Engineers could reconfigure telemetry equipment and measurements, depending upon the missile’s use for engineering development, testing, or training — or for its final military purpose.28
Another of Corporal’s faults was horrendous reliability and maintenance. Sergeant incorporated the vibration testing established on Corporal for components. James also investigated the maintenance problem theoretically, to determine the best design, procedures, and supply inventories. He noted that some branches of the army recommended that suppliers create test equipment to isolate faulty components down to the piece-part level. In contrast, his analysis showed that small numbers of larger replaceable packages were more cost-effective. Because the army levied stringent reliability requirements, Sergeant engineers developed a strict failure reporting system that required documentation about how engineers would permanently repair each failure.29
To Pickering, Parks, and James, the systems approach meant including reliability, testing, and maintenance early in the design process. Sperry Rand Corporation, which the army selected to manufacture Sergeant, created a systems engineering program for test equipment. It consisted of formal and informal meetings and conferences, coordination of engineering changes, and the development of consistent testing, reliability, and maintenance methods at JPL and Sperry and in the army. Sergeant managers and engineers standardized environmental testing standards, safety procedures, component mounting practices, and maintenance procedures. They also separated testing into five major phases: feasibility flights, guidance system development, system development and integration, engineering model flights, and system proof tests.30
JPL used old and developed new organizational structures and procedures in its relationship with Sperry. Army Ordnance defined institutional arrangements, using JPL as the contractor responsible for technical research, development, and cognizance. Sperry was to manufacture the missile as the prime contractor, but not until it learned how to build the system as co-contractor with JPL. JPL engineers issued Technical Guidance Directions, and Sperry next provided cost estimates. With JPL’s approval, Army Ordnance officers then funded Sperry on a cost-plus-fixed-fee basis. The army required two reviews, a Design Release Inspection and a Design Release Review, both held early in 1959.31
Because of the planned transition from JPL to Sperry, James required that JPL engineers describe their designs in a series of documents that James sent to Sperry. This forced JPL engineers to synchronize design work to a fixed schedule and to produce consistent documentation. If an engineer was unsure about how a design interacted or connected to a neighboring subsystem, that engineer would simply check the design document’s latest release. James also instituted a system of document change control so that engineers could not arbitrarily change their designs. Modifications would pass through James, who would ensure design and documentation consistency through a Research Change Order.32 This progressive design freeze, augmented with change control, turned out to be one of the most significant organizational elements in the success of Sergeant.
Engineering changes were a prominent source of conflict between JPL and Sperry. Coordination between the two started in 1956, with Sperry assigning a number of engineers to work with JPL in Pasadena. In 1957, monthly coordination meetings that alternated between Pasadena and Sperry’s new Utah facility began. After negotiations with Sperry, JPL managers extended their Research Change Order system so that it governed engineering and production changes at JPL and Sperry. That same year, the two organizations created a biweekly Operational Scheduling Committee that initially governed the scheduling and preparations of test rounds but soon included broader coordination and contractual issues. Continuing problems led to a project-based reorganization at Sperry, and both organizations established Resident Offices at each other’s facilities. The Sergeant Action Review Committee, formed in December 1959, reviewed all design changes, allowing only those that were mandatory.33
On Sergeant, JPL proved its capability as an army arsenal, with full capability to design, develop, and oversee a missile from inception to operational deployment. JPL engineers developed the procedural expertise necessary to convert research technology into operational weapons, including reliability and maintenance, systems analysis, project scheduling and coordination, and phased planning. JPL Director William Pickering supported these systems methods, although he clung to an academic-style organization. Contractual relationships between the army, JPL, and Sperry led to the development of formal systems to report and respond to failures, and to progressively freeze and document the engineering design as it progressed. Jack James recognized their utility to coordinate diverse design activities and would apply them again on spacecraft projects, as JPL underwent its second major transformation from an army arsenal to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) field center.