Organizing the Manned. Space Program

The really significant fallout from the strains, traumas, and endless experimentation of Project Apollo has been of a socio­logical rather than a technological nature; techniques for directing the massed scores of thousands of minds in a close – knit, mutually enhancive combination of government, uni­versity, and private industry.

— T. Alexander, in Fortune

By far the largest programs within the National Aeronautics and Space Ad­ministration (NASA) during the 1960s were the manned space projects Mer­cury, Gemini, and Apollo. These differed from other NASA programs because of their massive scale and because several field centers, not just one, contrib­uted significantly to them. The NASA headquarters role was bigger for these huge projects than it was for smaller ones: headquarters coordinated the work of the different field centers. The manned space program contributed dispro­portionately to the management philosophy and style of NASA as a whole, defined by agency-wide procedures.1

While astronauts grabbed public attention, NASA managers and engineers quietly created the machines and procedures necessary for astronauts and ground controllers to operate them. With their personnel descended from German rocket pioneers and National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) researchers, NASA’s informal groups brought years of aircraft and rocket design expertise to spacecraft design. These new technologies de­manded strict attention, and there were the usual number of failures. NASA personnel had to learn how to design manned spacecraft and man-rated rockets as well as how to direct thousands of new employees and scores of contractors.

Difficulties in making the transition from engineers to managers led NASA executives to look elsewhere for people with strong organizational skills. Ex­ecutives turned primarily to the air force, an organization that developed technologies similar to NASA’s. From its inception, NASA had used military personnel, but the importation of experienced air force officers reached its peak in 1964 and 1965, as the newly installed Apollo program director, Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips of the air force, arranged the transfer of scores of air force officers to bring order to NASA’s chaotic committees. Phillips im­ported air force methods such as configuration control, the Program Evalua­tion and Review Technique (PERT), project management, and Resident Pro­gram Offices at contractor locations. By the end of Apollo, Phillips had grafted significant elements of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) onto NASA’s original culture.