Management by Committee, 1958-1962

At its inception in October 1958, NASA consisted of field centers trans­ferred from other organizations. Three centers from NACA formed NASA’s core: the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia; Lewis Re­search Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio; and Ames Research Laboratory near Sunnyvale, California. NACA researchers concentrated on empirical and mathematical investigations of aircraft design, including the ‘‘X series’’ of high-performance aircraft, high-speed aerodynamics, jet engines, and rocket propulsion.2

An ad hoc group of NACA researchers known as the Space Task Group (STG) promoted the development of space flight. By 1958, they had developed a blunt body capsule design to put a man into space. One other organization, transferred to NASA in January 1960, was key to NASA’s manned space efforts: Wernher von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in Huntsville, Alabama, and its launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA renamed the ABMA the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), and the Cape Canaveral facilities eventually became the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).3 These two cen­ters created the massive rockets and launch facilities necessary to place men on the Moon.

The STG’s manned capsule, now christened Mercury, topped NASA’s

agenda. Engineers in the Mercury project were to create not only a space cap­sule but also a worldwide communications network. They were to marry the capsule and the network to the launchers under development by the army and air force. Langley Assistant Director Robert Gilruth headed the STG, which grew quickly and in 1962 moved to Houston, Texas, becoming the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC).4

Gilruth was typical of NASA’s experienced engineering researchers. He graduated in 1936 with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesota, where he designed high-speed aircraft. From Min­neapolis he moved to Langley Research Laboratory, developing quantitative measures for aircraft flying qualities, a job that later served him well in devel­oping manned spacecraft. His Requirements for Satisfactory Flying Qualities of an Aircraft became the standard for the field for some years. Gilruth’s next assignment brought him back to high-speed aircraft: developing wind tunnel techniques to measure hypersonic flow. Hypersonic flow problems led him to perform full-scale experiments dropping objects from high altitudes at Wal­lops Island off the Virginia coast. These experiments brought him into con­tact with rocketry, as he and his NACA colleagues developed and launched rockets to test their theories and technologies.5

In the early manned programs, Gilruth treated his engineering colleagues as technical equals. As his assistant, Paul Purser, described it, “Individuals around the conference table are not aware of being division chiefs or sec­tion heads—they are all people working on a problem.’’ Gilruth’s ability and experience made him more than just a manager. Future NASA Administra­tor George Low said in the early 1960s, ‘‘Gilruth works personally with many people in the Space Task Group. His method of operation is one of very close technical involvement in the project. He could tell you… every nut and bolt in the Mercury capsule, how it works, and why it works. I’ve been in many meetings over the last two or three years, where the whole picture would look very complex. After perhaps a half-hour’s discussion, Gilruth would come up with the right solution, and the rest of us present would wonder why we hadn’t thought of it.’’6 The STG’s hands-on approach to engineering would continue for years to come.7

In the fall of 1958, the STG established Mercury’s basic configurations and missions. Engineers planned to use existing rockets to launch the new space­craft-first von Braun’s proven Redstone and Jupiter boosters, then the air force’s more powerful but less mature Atlas. Congress gave NASA the same procurement regulations as the Department of Defense (DOD). Thus the new organization held a bidder’s conference in November 1958 to describe the pro­posed system to contractors, mailed out bid specifications, and required re­sponses in 30 days. In January 1959 NASA awarded the Mercury spacecraft contract to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for $18,300,000 and an award fee of $1,150,000. STG engineers also started negotiations with the army and the air force for launchers.8

Two traditions distinguished Mercury’s management: the informal struc­ture and procedures of the STG, and the more formal approaches of McDon­nell Aircraft and the air force. STG engineers and scientists used commit­tees characteristic of research, simply creating more of them as Mercury grew. McDonnell Aircraft brought structured methods developed from years of interaction with the air force. Engineers from the STG and McDonnell Air­craft worked closely to resolve the numerous novel problems they encoun­tered. For Atlas, the air force used its own procedures and supplied represen­tatives to STG committees to define interfaces between Atlas and the Mercury capsule.9

Mercury’s driving force was a ‘‘bond of mutual purpose’’: determination to regain national prestige, fear of Soviet technical accomplishments, and pride in American capabilities. Managers gave tasks and the authority to perform them to young engineers. As one STG veteran put it, ‘‘NASA responsibili­ties were delegated to the people and they, who didn’t know how to do these things, were expected to go find out how to do it and do it.’’10 Working teams phased in and out as they completed their tasks; frequently they determined ‘‘a course of action and proceeded without further delay, with verification documentation following through regular channels.’’ In other words, engi­neers took immediate action without management review and left others to clean up the paperwork.11

This worked because of the extraordinary ‘‘flatness’’ and open communi­cation prevalent throughout the organization. STG leaders insisted that prob­lems be brought into the open. According to Chris Kraft, later the director of Johnson Space Center, all the people in the organization felt as if they could say ‘‘what they wanted to say any time they wanted to say it’’; Kraft called

The Mercury-Atlas organization was extraordinarily flat, with only three levels from NASA and air force headquarters to the working groups who built the spacecraft and launchers. Adapted from Mercury Project Summary, Including Results of the Fourth Manned Orbital Flight, SP-45 (Washington, D. C.: NASA, 1963), 19, figure 1-8.

this STG’s “heritage.”12 Managers tracked events through informal commu­nications and frequent technical reviews. They directed resources to problem areas, but they seldom intervened.13

On Mercury, and later on Gemini and Apollo, this sense of common pur­pose also prevented the development of bureaucratic sclerosis. As stated by one of the engineers on Gemini and Apollo, ‘‘You would see people who would try to build empires, who would try to be obstructionist, and they would be just absolutely steamrolled by this team. I saw it time and time again where there was this intense feeling of teamwork. It wasn’t always smooth, but it was like, ‘We’ve got a common goal.’’’14

The STG’s multiple committees became unwieldy as Mercury grew from a nucleus of 35 people in October 1958 to 350 in July 1959. To deal with the proliferation of committees, STG created another committee, the Capsule- Coordination Panel, subsequently upgraded to an office in Washington, D. C.15

NASA headquarters executives soon realized that the STG and McDon­nell had drastically underestimated the scope, cost, and schedule of the pro­gram. Within two months of its beginning, the estimated cost of the McDon­nell contract was $41 million, more than twice the initial estimate, while the air force’s estimated costs for the Atlas boosters increased from $2.5 million to $3.3 million. These increases led to a round of cost-cutting measures, yet costs continued to rise. The estimated cost of the McDonnell contract reached $70 million by January 1960. NASA Administrator Keith Glennan’s initial re­sponse was to visit the STG in May 1959. He came away impressed by the esprit de corps in the STG and the size and complexity of the project. With Congress and the administration willing to foot the bill and the STG rapidly tackling technical issues, Glennan elected not to intervene.16

In the summer of 1959, Gilruth organized the New Projects Panel to iden­tify manned projects beyond Mercury. The panel identified circumlunar flight (not landing) as the most promising goal.17 The most important technical de­velopments for a manned Moon mission were in the military’s rocket and en­gine programs. In January 1959, NASA acquired the air force contract with North American Aviation (NAA) to develop the huge liquid-fueled F-1 en­gine. NASA acquired the Saturn I launcher in January 1960 along with von Braun’s rocket team. Saturn was the only launch vehicle then under devel­opment that promised sufficient size for a manned lunar landing program. However, for the moment, it was a launch vehicle without a mission.18

In early 1960, NASA’s advanced planning groups concluded that a lunar mission was the best next step. NASA named the proposed new program Apollo, and in August managers announced they would award three contracts to industry for feasibility studies. The STG selected the Martin Company, General Electric (GE), and the General Dynamics Convair Division to per­form the studies. Study guidelines were so vague that when the Martin Com­pany engineers reported back in December 1960, STG engineers told them to include astronauts and to consider lunar landing and recovery. MSFC also sponsored its own feasibility studies, while the STG started an internal study.19

After the Bay of Pigs disaster and Yuri Gagarin’s flight in April 1961, the Kennedy administration proved receptive to NASA’s lunar mission planning. On May 25, President John F. Kennedy proposed that NASA land a man on the Moon ‘‘before the decade is out.’’ Congress enthusiastically agreed and immediately increased NASA’s funding.20

STG managers quickly moved Apollo from feasibility studies to devel­opment. Gilruth had prepared the groundwork, creating the Apollo Project Office in September 1960. Although the hardware configuration remained un­certain, the STG forged ahead, dividing the system into six contracts: launch vehicles, spacecraft command module and return vehicle, propulsion mod­ule, lunar landing stage, communications and tracking network, and launch facilities. Just before selecting NAA for the spacecraft command module in November 1961, MSC engineers changed the Statement of Work, meaning that they awarded NAA a contract to build a command module based on specifi­cations that NAA’s managers and engineers had never seen.21

With four Saturn stages under development, von Braun’s MSFC engineers did not have the resources to design, manufacture, and test all of the ve­hicles. They had to rely upon industry instead of their traditional in-house de­sign. MSFC managers transferred S-I stage development and manufacturing to Chrysler and awarded the new J-2 cryogenic engine to NAA Rocketdyne in June I960.22

MSFC inherited strong technical divisions from its army heritage, each based on specific disciplines such as rocket propulsion, structures, or avion­ics. The technical divisions coordinated project work through committees, contributing to MSFC’s typically large, interminable meetings. Contractors complained that MSFC managed by technical takeover. However, under the pressure of having many large, complex projects, project and matrix man­agement made inroads into MSFC’s discipline-based, functional organization. The divisions fought the change, forcing MSFC Director Wernher von Braun to clarify the power of project managers vis-a-vis the technical divisions.23

Von Braun was one of the world’s leading rocket engineers and a charis­matic leader. Even when immersed in administrative duties, he closely fol­lowed the technical details of MSFC’s rockets. Von Braun secured inputs from all participating engineers and technicians and arrived at a consensus through group meetings. He used an informal but disciplined system of weekly notes, requiring subordinates two levels below him to send him one page of notes summarizing the week’s events and issues. Von Braun then wrote comments in the margins of these notes, copied the entire week’s set, and distributed the notes for everyone in MSFC to read. They became popular reading because they contained the boss’s detailed comments on MSFC events and people.

This system of ‘‘Monday Notes’’ had a number of important ramifications. First, because von Braun required the notes to come from two levels below, the managers directly under him could not edit the news he received. Second, because of having to send weekly notes to von Braun, all managers formed their own information-gathering mechanisms. Third, the redistributed notes with von Braun’s marginalia provided a mechanism for cross-division infor­mation flow, because everyone saw comments on not only their own activi­ties but the activities of all other divisions. The notes moved information ver – tically—from the managers and engineers up to von Braun, and from von Braun down to the managers and engineers—as well as horizontally—from division to division.

This very open communication system provided MSFC engineers and managers with advanced notice of potential problems, often spurring criti­cal problem-solving efforts across the divisions. Some MSFC engineers com­plained about the extraordinary communication technique because it created an ‘‘almost iron-like discipline of organizational communication’’ in which ‘‘nobody at the bottom really felt free to do anything unless he got it approved from the next level up, the next level up, the next level up.’’ However, it did ensure that information flowed quickly and effectively throughout the orga – nization.24

Von Braun required all MSFC personnel to take ‘‘automatic responsibility’’ for problems. If MSFC employees found a problem, they were to solve it, find someone who could solve it, or bring it to management’s attention, whether or not the problem was in their normal area of responsibility. This intentional blurring of organizational lines helped create an organization more interested in solving problems than in fighting for bureaucratic turf.25

Apollo planners soon recognized a gap between Mercury’s short flights and the long flights and complex operations of Apollo. To bridge this gap, STG chief Gilruth authorized the Gemini program, which was to modify Mercury to accommodate two astronauts, perform orbital maneuvers, and rendezvous with other spacecraft. NASA awarded the Gemini capsule contract to McDon­nell without competition because it was a modification of Mercury. Gilruth split the engineering staff between Mercury and Gemini, and in January 1962 he established the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Project Offices.26

Like Mercury and Apollo, Gemini used coordination panels for day-to-day management. The Project Office established six panels: three for the spacecraft —mechanical systems, electrical systems, and flight operations — and one each for the paraglider,27 Atlas-Agena, and Titan II. They typically held weekly meetings, while the air force used its standard procedures to manage its por­tions of the program. Because the air force provided the Titan II and the Agena target boosted on an Atlas missile, air force and NASA managers established an additional panel to coordinate between them. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development Brockway McMillan and NASA’s Robert Seamans were the co-chairmen, with D. Brainerd Holmes of the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) and Gen. Bernard Schriever of AFSC the highest-ranking members.28

Committees coordinated between engineers and managers at headquar­ters, MSFC, and MSC, particularly for interface designs and characteristics. By July 1963, there were so many committees that Holmes created another one, the Panel Review Board, to coordinate them.29

In the white heat of the early post-Sputnik era, technical achievement was the primary gauge of space program success, and political leaders left con­trol in the hands of the engineers who promised technical success. Engineers and scientists from the STG and MSFC used committees to coordinate their work, a habit inherited from research traditions of NACA laboratories and von Braun’s ‘‘Rocket Team.’’ Engineers rapidly developed rockets and space­craft, with little heed for cost. NASA and its contractors rushed into con­tracts and designs without firm requirements or a clearly defined mission, making schedule or cost predictions virtually impossible. For example, MSC and MSFC engineers wrote definitive specifications for their Apollo elements well after contract awards—and in the case of MSFC’s Saturn stage I, long after completion of the initial design, manufacturing, and testing.30 For the moment, this was not a problem, because Congress gave NASA more money than NASA asked for, allowing a continuation of conservative design tradi­tions on a much larger scale.