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Review: Doing the Impossible

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Doing the Impossible: George E. Mueller and the Management of NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Program
by Arthur L. Slotkin
Springer/Praxis, 2012
softcover, 306 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4614-3700-0 US $39.95

In the early years of America’s manned spaceflight program, there were numerous key individuals brought into the NASA hierarchy who were instrumental in the success of the Apollo program. Apollo was a challenge not just technically but also in terms of management. In the years since Apollo, there have been many books about and by these individuals. There was one large void, however, and that was a much-needed book on Dr. George Mueller (pronounced Miller) and his management of NASA’s manned spaceflight programs. A new book seeks to fill that void.

Doing the Impossible by Arthur L. Slotkin is not so much a biography of Mueller as a history of his skilled handling of all the complex issues of getting American astronauts to the Moon and back, and how the program schedule could be accelerated safely to accomplish President Kennedy’s mandate of accomplishing that by the end of the 1960s.

The book is not so much a biography of Mueller as a history of his skilled handling of all the complex issues of getting American astronauts to the Moon and back.

Slotkin was in a unique position to write this book because of his longtime association with Mueller, going back to 1970. This association began as a mere acquaintance and grew to a professional association in the early 1970s at System Development Corporation. This book took form initialy as a dissertation as part of Slotkin’s pursuit of a degree in the history of technology at Georgia Tech in 2002. Slotkin realized his window of opportunity to write a book like this might soon pass. Mueller agreed to be interviewed regarding aspects of his career and work at NASA, and Slotkin began work on this book about the management of the manned space program during the 1960s.

In this book, Slotkin sets out to answer the question regarding Mueller’s contributions to managing the varied aspects of the Gemini and Apollo programs from the human standpoint. The book covers primarily the period from 1963 to 1969 when Mueller was at NASA. An epilogue covers the remainder of his career after he left NASA and worked in private industry.

The author relates Mueller’s years prior to joining NASA, which proved instrumental in his selection as manager of the Office of Manned Spaceflight at NASA. Mueller earned his doctorate from Ohio State University while also working at Bell Labs. After receiving his degree, Mueller worked fulltime at Bell Labs on an airborne radar system. He also taught systems engineering at Ohio State. He moved onto Ramo-Wooldridge Inc. in 1956 and contributed to the Atlas Able Pioneer space probe program.

Mueller was also closely involved in the Air Force ballistic missile program and he honed his system management there. Although mechanical in nature, this involved the direction and scheduling of people in the most effective way Mueller could devise. Many aspects of project planning would form the core of Mueller’s guidance of NASA’s manned spaceflight program during Gemini and Apollo.

The chain of command, controlling cost, and maintaining schedule

When Hugh L. Dryden swore in Mueller as director of NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight on September 3, 1963, he had numerous daunting organizational tasks ahead of him. He first had to gain the respect and cooperation of the NASA Center Directors. This took time, which the author relates.

Cost and scheduling of Apollo was also a concern to Mueller. Although the critical Gemini program milestones were crucial to the future success of Apollo, the budget for Apollo dwarfed that of Gemini. Both programs would have their launch vehicle and spacecraft development problems and setbacks. One means of reducing projected cost was streamlining the testing of man-rated hardware, or even eliminating it altogether. The German rocket engineers working under Wernher von Braun had a very methodical, almost plodding testing process where, for example, a launch would test just the first stage with dummy upper stages. Another launch would follow with an operational second stage, and so on.

While many engineers and managers looked forward to time off on the weekends, they soon learned Mueller did not share the same enthusiasm.

As early as his first year on the job, Mueller was advocating all-up testing in order to compress the schedule of tests and reduce the program cost. This was a dramatic cultural shift for the German engineers. Mueller was also responsible for cancelling the manned Saturn I program, arguing that the manned Saturn I did not buy the Apollo program any advantages. In fact, it put the goal of landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth by the end of the decade in jeopardy. Shifting manned flights to the Saturn IB, instead, advanced the schedule considerably. While his decisions were based relative to the manned space flight programs, they had a direct bearing on the design and building of flight hardware.

Mueller spent half his time traveling to the various NASA centers to see their operations, discover institutional bottlenecks, and establish effective lines of communication especially with respect to Apollo. Project management meetings were essential but difficult to schedule with everyone present, so Mueller established perhaps the earliest teleconferences that made attendance a practical reality.

Mueller also had a very different perspective on the length of the workweek. While many engineers and managers looked forward to time off on the weekends, they soon learned Mueller did not share the same enthusiasm. Mueller typically worked seven days a week during Apollo leading up to the first lunar landing, and he expected others to be at their desks on Saturday and often on Sunday if it was required.

Crucial to the success of the Apollo program was Mueller’s selection of key people from industry and the Air Force. For example, Slotkin recounts the difficulty Mueller encountered recruiting Col. Samuel Phillips from the Minuteman program to be the Apollo Program Director. Mueller was a tough negotiator and most persuasive, and Gen. Bernard Schriever, director of the Air Force Systems Command, agreed to let Phillips move to NASA.

Tragedy and success

The Apollo 1 capsule fire that resulted in the death of astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee taxed Mueller’s ability in coping with a human tragedy and program credibility with respect to his duties. Mueller’s involvement with the accident investigation of AS-204 was, in fact, minimal. Slotkin devotes sufficient space to the other managers, center directors, and NASA Administrator James Webb’s involvement in determining the cause of the fire during the accident investigation and the political fallout that resulted. Slotkin also briefly described the activities in the redesign of the Apollo capsule to improve crew safety.

As early as his first year on the job, Mueller was advocating all-up testing in order to compress the schedule of tests and reduce the program cost.

The successes of the Soviet Union in achieving ever-greater accomplishments with its cosmonauts in space put pressure on the Apollo Saturn program in the late 1960s, and with this and President Kennedy’s mandate uppermost in his mind, Mueller made the decision for which he is, perhaps, best known. Getting assurances on the flight capability of the entire Saturn V launch vehicle and spacecraft, he proposed the first all-up manned Saturn V launch to actually send an Apollo crew around the Moon, circle it for several orbits, and return the crew to Earth.

That decision was vindicated by the perfect success of Apollo 8 in December 1968, sending its crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders around the Moon and safely back to Earth. The mission was a technical as well as a geopolitical triumph. The successful Apollo 9 and 10 missions followed. On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the Sea of Tranquility, marking the greatest mission of exploration in the history of humanity.

Mueller left NASA at the end of 1969 and joined General Dynamics that December. Slotkin recorded Mueller post-Apollo career up to the creation and later dissolution of Kistler Aerospace. This book is a meticulously detailed examination of Mueller, his method of management, and his record of success as well as those efforts that were less than successful. It is a worthy addition to those titles on managers who contributed to the success of the Apollo program.