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Review: The Secret of Apollo

The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs
By Stephen B. Johnson
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 (new edition)
softcover, 290 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-8018-8542-6

If there is one lesson to be learned from Stephen B. Johnson’s exhaustive study of space program systems management, it is that the devil is in the interface. Unique among complex endeavors, space exploration has demanded full integration of the disparate traits of the military, scientific, engineering, and business mindsets. Unless and until those often-conflicting organizations were successfully conjoined, the space program in general and the manned space program in particular would never get off the ground.

Johnson makes a candid confession in his book, The Secret of Apollo: “Believing that humans are irrational, I find the creation of huge, orderly, rational technologies almost miraculous.” It is genuinely comforting to know that this academic author undertakes the task of rationalizing Apollo with such a sense of awe.

Johnson makes a candid confession in his book, The Secret of Apollo: “Believing that humans are irrational, I find the creation of huge, orderly, rational technologies almost miraculous.”

The forces at work—and at odds with one another—in this tale are biblical in proportion. Each worships a different religion of operational style. “All the groups promoted aspects of systems management that were congenial to their objectives and fought those that were not,” Johnson writes. “For example, the military’s conception of ‘concurrency’ ran counter in a number of ways to the managerial idea of ‘phased planning,’ while the scientific conception of ‘systems analysis’ differed from the engineering notion of ‘systems engineering.’ The winners of these bureaucratic fights imposed new structures and processes that promoted their conceptions and power within and across organizations.”

Leaders emerge as prophets of various systems management gospel. In the feverish Sputnik era of intercontinental ballistic missile development, Brigadier General Bernard Schriever of the Air Force promoted a research and development quick-step known as Concurrency. This called for the parallel simultaneity of activities that would typically be sequential. Concurrency was the military and scientific equivalent of a football team’s hurry-up offense. However, numerous rocket failures shredded not only some expensive hardware, but also the concept of Concurrency. Performance failures culminated in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s disappointing Ranger series, leaving JPL Director William Pickering lamenting, “I never want to go through an experience like this again—never!”

Wernher von Braun was one of the luminaries in rocketry who resisted Concurrency. Von Braun’s style was coordinated and sequential, with all technicians arriving at a consensus and each launch providing data for its successor. At the Marshall Space Flight Center he utilized a disciplined system of weekly reporting which required workers two levels below him to supply a page of notes summarizing the week’s issues and events. Johnson explains von Braun’s skill. By having notes generated two levels below, the managers directly under him could not edit the news he received, and by making the notes a weekly requirement, staff had to form their own information-gathering mechanisms. Von Braun would write comments in the margins of these notes, copy the entire set and distribute them for everyone to read, creating what today would be called transparency. This open flow moved information vertically through the chain of command as well as horizontally from department to department. If an employee found a problem, Johnson writes, “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.”

As the 1960s progressed, emphasis graduated from missiles to missions. NASA’s budget appetite was voracious, while cost overruns and schedule slippages were rampant. George Mueller burst upon the scene as chief of the Office of Manned Space Flight brandishing a new playbook. Mueller plucked dozens of managerial-level personnel from the Air Force and placed them in NASA under Apollo program director Brigadier General Samuel C. Phillips. Mueller and Phillips knocked heads together with a system called Configuration Management. The Secret of Apollo contains several complex flowcharts illustrating the system implementation. According to Johnson, “The two years following the hiring of George Mueller in September 1963 marked Apollo’s transition from a loosely organized research team to a tightly run development organization.” It was apparently so tightly run that even von Braun asked for “a little more flexibility.” It is a testament to the strength of the system that the epitome of rigid German efficiency sought more flexibility.

The disastrous fire and deaths of the Apollo 1 crew did not derail Mueller and Phillips’ combination of Air Force methods and Configuration Management system. The accident investigation committee found no flaws with this fundamental organization of management. In fact, Johnson writes, “Configuration management formed the heart of Apollo’s system and has remained at the core of NASA’s organization ever since.”

It is a testament to the strength of Mueller’s system that the epitome of rigid German efficiency sought more flexibility.

During the early 1970s, the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organization attempted to enter the market but produced dismal results. Europe’s largest cooperative space project had a half-dozen rocket interface failures due to botched communications between the member countries and their contractors. The Europeans “combined many of the worst management ideas into a single, pitiful organization,” says Johnson. “Its engineers, managers, and directors struggled against a fatally flawed management structure that was almost the exact antithesis of systems management in the United States.” The Apollo program, just entering its twilight at that time, was a hard act to follow.

Johnson’s in-depth, nuts-and-bolts manual sheds much light on a seldom studied secret of our recent space history.