NASA - The Quest for the Moon
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - NASA - The Quest for the Moon
NASA: The Quest for the Moon
By Oleg Nekrassovski
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to start space voyages by
successfully launching Sputnik I into earth orbit. Less than a month later, this achievement was
followed by the launch of Sputnik II, which put a living creature (a dog) into space for the first
time (Kay, 2005). Aside from being first in space, these two satellites weighed 184 and 1120
pounds respectively, and hence were far heavier than the 4 pound payload the US Navy was
struggling to get into orbit, around the same time. Thus, to many contemporary Americans,
USSR was not only the first to put satellites into space, but had superior rocket technology in
the first place (Kay, 2005).
Following the success of Sputniks, the Soviet Union continued to stun the world with a
new, even more ambitious, series of satellites. In January 1958, Luna I became the first human-
made object to orbit the sun, and used that advantage to get within 3000 miles of the moon
(Kay, 2005). On September 14, 1959, Luna II, which was carrying the Soviet flag, hit the surface
of the moon; and during the following month, Luna III orbited the moon, making the first
photographs of the lunar farside (Kay, 2005).
The parallel American space program looked like a joke by comparison. On December 6,
1957, the 4 pound Vanguard exploded on live television during a test launch (Kay, 2005). And
the first successful US satellite, Explorer I, was not launched until January 31, 1958, and
weighed only 23 pounds. Thus, even the first American success underlined Soviet leadership in
space travel (Kay, 2005).
All of these anxieties and setbacks compelled the US Government to create a new
federal agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which
officially started operating on October 1, 1958. And according to Kay (2005), NASA’s paramount
mission, upon its foundation, was to make sure that the United States will remain the world’s
leader in education, science and technology, and, most importantly, space. However, Kay
(2005) argues that the main goal of this leadership was US national security, or even ‘national
Be as it may, the present paper will focus on what it assumes was NASA’s main strategic
issue in the first decade, or so, of its existence: Take the internationally perceived position of
leadership in space travel, away from the USSR.
Table 1: Stakeholder Analysis - Adapted from Joyce (2012)
Stakeholder group Attitude (after Sputnik)
towards ‘beating’ the USSR in
the space race (scale: -10 to
Power of the stakeholder
group with regards to
funding of America’s space
program (scale: 1 to 10)
1) Executive Branch 0 (before 1961)a
; +10 (late
2) Congress +8d
3) American Public +10f
4) US Department of Defense +10h
5) Aerospace Industry +10j
6) Scientific Community +8l
The executive can ‘lobby’ the Congress and advertise its views to the public, but has no direct
power over funding of federal government programs (Kay, 2005; Gordon, 2008; Fisher, 2008).
Congress has nearly absolute power over the funding of all federal government programs
The public can pressure its Congressional representatives, but has no direct power.
Beginning in early 1958, the air force, army, navy , and NACA (NASA’s small predecessor)
prepared their own proposals for putting a man into space; all of which were designed to do so
(at least in theory) in a fairly short amount of time. The air force even went so far as to call its
proposal “Man in Space Soonest” (Kay, 2005).
The Pentagon always had a much larger budget than NASA, which it could (and often did) use
to fund space programs (Kay, 2005; Gordon, 2008).
The Aerospace industry stood to gain a lot from an increased pace of the space race, since the
likes of Pentagon and NASA always heavily relied on the aerospace industry for everything from
missiles/rockets to pressure suits (de Monchaux, 2011; Thomas and McMann, 2012).
The Aerospace industry has always formed a politically powerful interest group.
While forming an inherently, relatively weak lobby group, post-Sputnik U.S. scientists
generally obtained powerful political support for their requests by pointing to greater or equal
Soviet efforts in the same fields of research (Kay, 2005).
NASA’s Governance Structure
NASA’s administrator, between 1961 and 1968, was James Edwin Webb. The Apollo
Project (aimed at landing a man on the moon) was launched soon after his appointment,
making the job of managing NASA even more challenging. After all, the agency was already
working on a “variety of other pioneering projects such as communications satellites and
unmanned probes to the vicinity of Mars and Venus” (Wilford, 1969). So, to handle the added
heavy challenge of Apollo, Webb almost immediately turned NASA’s single leadership into a
triumvirate. In this triumvirate Webb became NASA’s contact with the White House and
Congress; Hugh L. Dryden (NASA’s deputy administrator) became the link with the scientific
community, and Robert C. Seamans, Jr. (NASA’s associate administrator) – “the general
manager and the main contact with industry” (Wilford, 1969).
During its first few years, the Apollo Project was directed by Brainerd Holmes who
became the director of the Office of Manned Space Flight in September 1961. Holmes’ deputy
director was Joseph F. Shea whose “main task was to analyze mission choices and the systems
and equipment considered for use in the Apollo program” (Wilford, 1969).
External Environment (1958-1961)
The Soviet government has long been working on portraying the USSR as an ‘advanced,’
‘revolutionary’ society. So, beginning with Sputnik I, Soviet media, scientists, and leaders,
argued that the fact that their country was ahead of the United States, in its space
achievements, proved the superiority of the socialist economic and political system (Kay, 2005).
Hence, USA’s leaders and commentators were worried that the fact that USSR managed to
transform itself, in just 40 years, from a relatively backward country into the world’s first space
power, and was actively advertising itself as a progressive, future-oriented society, would make
communism especially alluring to the developing counties (Kay, 2005).
Soviet leadership in space exploration and relevant technology also led to a number of
serious strategic concerns. The main one among these was the clear proof that the USSR
already had a rocket which could serve as an intercontinental ballistic missile (Kay, 2005). This
meant that for the first time in history, the United States could be subjected to a direct military
attack, despite being separated from the potential aggressor with vast oceans. Many Americans
were deeply shaken by a sense of vulnerability that this realization brought on (Kay, 2005).
Almost immediately after its creation NASA set about working on its first major
program: Project Mercury. Perhaps not surprisingly, the aim of Project Mercury was to put a
man into space before the USSR, and thus take the image of space travel leaders away from the
Soviets (Kay, 2005). The value of this project was publicly justified by various US government
officials, all of whom stated that the international political situation demands that the United
States demonstrates its technological capabilities, and thus maintains its position of ‘leadership’
by being the first to put a man into space. And that this achievement will have a much greater
psychological effect on the peoples of the world than any unmanned space flight; and hence
will represent the true conquest of outer space (Kay, 2005).
Unfortunately for the United States, on April 12, 1961, a Soviet air force pilot became
the first man to fly into space. He made one orbit around the earth in a spacecraft, called
Vostok I, before safely landing back onto the Soviet territory (Kay, 2005). The negative effect of
Vostok on the United States’ self-image, and its positive contribution to USSR’s efforts of
communist propaganda around the world, were similar to that of Sputnik, but were far
stronger. Moreover, the American ‘response’ to Vostok, in the form of an attempted manned
space flight, again made the US space program appear backward, compared to that of USSR;
and again led to numerous calls for the US to ‘catch up’ (Kay, 2005).
Following Sputnik, there was a marked increase in federal spending on research and
development. Between 1955 and 1960, there was a rise from $2.6 to $7.4 billion in total federal
spending on R&D for civilian agencies, and from $9.6 to $23.0 billion for the Department of
Defense (Kay, 2005).
NASA was created through the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, on
July 8, 1958, by both houses of Congress. However, before being passed, a lot of discussion,
debate, and amendment of the Space Act, took place in Congress (Kay, 2005). And while the
proponents of NASA’s creation mostly focused on the contributions such an agency would
make towards American Cold War efforts; they did not forget to mention various possible
economic benefits that can result from NASA’s work (Kay, 2005). Thus, Chairman and House
Majority Leader John W. McCormack mentioned in his speech, in favour of NASA’s creation,
various economic benefits that, he argued, will flow from the expanded space program. Some
of the benefits that he mentioned were the creation of new industries and employment
opportunities, as well as the creation of new technologies in weather forecasting,
transportation, and communications (Kay, 2005). Similarly, Gordon Mcdonough of California
stated that the costs of the expanded space program “are fully justified in any event, for
reasons of national survival. But, in addition, there will unquestionably flow from this effort
inestimable economic benefits” (Kay, 2005).
By 1961, the political forces driving the expansion of the U.S. space program have
subsided somewhat, leading President Eisenhower (who was always among the few opponents
of the space race with the USSR) to recommend, in his last budget submission in January 1961,
that NASA be given $190 million less than it requested for FY 1962. Moreover, most of this
decrease was to happen at the expense of the budget for manned space flight, including Project
Mercury (Kay, 2005). But in March 1961, the new Kennedy administration restored much of this
reduction in funds; though the new budget was still 40% below NASA’s request (Kay, 2005).
However, after the humiliation brought about by Vostok, all objections, to NASA’s large
budget requests, temporarily disappeared. Consequently, following Kennedy’s “Urgent National
Needs” speech (in which he proposed a trip to the moon) on May 25, 1961, Congress voted an
immediate 50% increase in NASA’s budget (Kay, 2005). In his Urgent National Needs speech,
Kennedy also asked Congress to approve $125 million increase in funding for continued
development of communication and weather satellites. Moreover, he didn’t forget to add that
the accelerated space program, that he was proposing, will yield a wealth of benefits for
America’s “freedoms, economy, professions, and standard of living” (Kay, 2005).
However, criticisms of the programs’ high cost began in late 1961, and continued for
the rest of the decade. To answer, or even ignore, such criticisms, and avoid the possibility of
dramatic cuts to NASA’s budget, Apollo’s supporters continued to define the contemporary
course of the U.S. space policy as being essential to national survival. Kennedy, for example,
when asked about the high costs of Apollo, would sometimes raise the threat of a new,
dramatic Soviet breakthrough in space, which would undermine U.S. national security (Kay,
The American public of the 1950s took it for granted that they were the richest, freest,
most powerful, best educated, and most technologically advanced people on Earth. While
Sputnik’s and Vostok’s successes suddenly made them question all these assumptions (Kay,
2005). Moreover, the success of Soviet space program meant, to many contemporary
Americans, that the Space Age was officially opened by the USSR, not their own country. And
what’s worse, these successes were viewed all over the world as acts of enormous historical
significance. So, all in all, for many contemporary Americans, USSR’s success in space was a
source of humiliation, shame, and alarm (Kay, 2005).
In the early 1950s, the US Army built the Redstone rocket, which was designed to be a
ballistic missile capable of sending a small warhead to any distance up to 500 miles. Like many
of its successors, the Redstone rocket was built by the Army’s rocket team of German
engineers, headed by Wernher von Braun (Launius, 1994). The Redstone went through 36 test
launches, over several years, including the one on August 8, 1957, which tested blunt body
shapes and the use of ablative materials to negate the effects of superheating during reentry
into the atmosphere (Launius, 1994). A slightly modified Redstone was used to launch first two
Mercury capsules (Wilford, 1969).
The Redstone rocket led to the development of the Jupiter C rocket. Jupiter C was
designed to be a ballistic missile of an intermediate range, which was capable of delivering a
nuclear warhead while completing a non-orbital space flight. It was first successfully tested on
May 16, 1958 (Launius, 1994). A slightly modified version of Jupiter C was used to successfully
launch America’s first orbital satellite (Wilford, 1969).
In 1960, NASA acquired that part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which was led by
Wernher von Braun. By that time von Braun’s team was hard at work on Saturn I. Saturn I was a
new rocket specifically aimed at facilitating space travel. It consisted of two stages (Launius,
1994). The first stage was a cluster of eight Redstone boosters and a Jupiter fuel tank. It used a
combination of liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 (a type of kerosene) as a fuel, and could generate
205,000 pounds of thrust. The second stage of Saturn I used a revolutionary mixture of LOX and
liquid hydrogen as a fuel, which allowed for the generation of greater thrust to weight ratio.
However, this mixture was highly volatile and was difficult to handle, making the development
of the second stage, difficult. Either way, the second stage could generate an additional thrust
of 90,000 pounds (Launius, 1994).
The most sophisticated spacecraft developed to date, was, of course, the Mercury
capsule. On the outside, Mercury capsule’s end, which was oriented forward during
atmospheric reentry, was covered by a heat shield, as well as having a retropack attached to it
(Bond, 1961). The retropack contained three retrograde or braking motors, which were used to
initiate reentry from orbit, as well as three posigrade motors that were used to achieve
separation from the launch vehicle (Bond, 1961).
The Mercury capsule was of double-wall construction, with bulk insulation material
separating the two walls (Bond, 1961). The capsule’s crew compartment housed a single
astronaut, as well as cabin equipment, communications, attitude control, and environmental
control systems. While the equipment compartments contained explosive devices, electrical
power, and landing and recovery systems (Bond, 1961).
Although all of Mercury’s systems have been designed for completely automatic
operation (Bond, 1961), capsule decompression would cause many of the electronics to
overheat and fail (Thomas and McMann, 2012). And since there was a desire to prevent such an
accident from ending the mission, “the Mercury capsule was equipped with a pilot viewing
window and manual controls designed to function in space vacuum.” The astronaut, who would
take over manual controls, was, of course, to be protected and sustained by a spacesuit
(Thomas and McMann, 2012).
In 1959, the existing pressure suit technology was evaluated for the Mercury Project, at
Wright–Patterson Air Force Base. The objective was to select a suit that would best enable the
astronaut to survive and comfortably operate the Mercury spacecraft, if the latter suddenly lost
all pressure (Thomas and McMann, 2012). The B. F. Goodrich, David Clark Company, and
International Latex Corporation took part in this informal competition for the best pressure suit
contractor. The prototypes presented by David Clark and the International Latex were serious
contenders. But in July 1959 the Goodrich design was selected to be the Mercury suit (Thomas
and McMann, 2012).
The Goodrich Mercury suits “utilized a rubberized bladder with an integral bias ply
construction (similar to the lay-up used in automotive brake lines) without convoluted mobility
joints” (Thomas and McMann, 2012). To avoid creating uncomfortable contact points, the suits
lacked any hard details or unfriendly shapes. The outer layer provided structural restraint and
bladder protection, and was aluminized. To fit better in the cramped cabin of the Mercury
capsule, and to minimize pressurized volume to be overcome for movement, the suits were
tight fitting and custom made (Thomas and McMann, 2012). To improve visibility, the helmet
allowed down/up mobility by moving with the head via restraints. However, no side-to-side
movement of the head was possible, when the suit was pressurized, due to the absence of
pressure-sealed neckring bearing. However, “the helmet pressure visor was movable and used
a tiny oxygen bottle to provide a pressurized seal when lowered.” The inlet and outlet
ventilation umbilicals provided the life support for these suits by being connected to the
capsule’s environmental control system (Thomas and McMann, 2012).
In the late 1950s, the newly established NASA hired MIT Instrumentation Laboratory to
study guidance, control, and navigation for various planetary missions. Part of this study
consisted of a design of a special-purpose control computer for a photographic, unmanned
mission to Mars, and other aerospace applications (Hall, 1996). The proposed computer’s
design called for the storage of data and programs in a small read/write (RAM) and read-only
(ROM) core memory. Logic circuits (for instruction processing) were core-transistor. Core
memories and core-transistor logic allowed operation at very low power (Hall, 1996).
The proposed computer was supposed to provide the spacecraft with autonomous
navigation and control for the proposed mission to Mars. It was assumed that a general-
purpose, programmable type of computer would be required for such a task. It was proposed
that this computer support a novel application of program interrupts, which would adapt real-
time inputs and outputs to digital computations (Hall, 1996). The design also called for a large
library of subroutines (interpretive instructions) to be stored in ROM. These instructions
augmented the severely limited machine instructions of the computer, and performed a variety
of high-level arithmetical and logical operations, reducing the number of computer logic circuits
required for instruction processing (Hall, 1996).
The result was a computer with 128 words of RAM and 4000 words of ROM. It was
estimated to weigh about 20 lb, and occupy about 0.5 ft3
, and to consume about 25 W during
maximum load (Hall, 1996). By 1961, a satisfactory proto-type, meeting all of the above
specifications, was constructed, and was undergoing various tests. However, this computer’s
functions for a probe to Mars, mainly the navigation of the spacecraft, were only a subset of
those that a manned landing on the moon, for example, would require (Hall, 1996).
Internal Environment (1958-1961)
NASA was a union of different organizations, which had one thing in common – many
years of experience in rocketry, spacecraft design, tracking, communications, and other
fundamentals of spaceflight (Wilford, 1969).
The first group absorbed by NASA was the old National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics (NACA), which was established in 1915 (Wilford, 1969). Initially NACA was small,
but over the decades it expanded, made major contributions to aircraft wing design, conducted
research of upper atmosphere with the rockets that it built, “and helped design the X-15 rocket
plane, a precursor of manned space vehicles.” By the time of its incorporation into NASA, NACA
employed 8,000 people and had five operations and research centers (Wilford, 1969).
Next, in December 1958, California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech’s) Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL) was also absorbed by NASA. JPL was to be owned by NASA, but operated by
Caltech on a contract basis. JPL was founded in 1936 and was the first organization to give
American engineers an organized opportunity to conduct experiments in rocketry (Wilford,
1969). During and after World War II, JPL conducted “pioneering experiments in radio-guided
missiles, techniques for transmitting instrument data via a radio link (telemetry), and the
development of prototype earth-orbiting satellites,” including America’s first successful
satellite, Explorer 1 (Wilford, 1969).
The third major group to be absorbed into NASA, was also the most highly prized,
because it was Wernher von Braun’s team of German rocket specialists. During WWII they
made the first workable ballistic rocket, Hitler’s V-2. After the war, they (von Braun and 120
aides) were ‘bought’ by the U.S. Army and moved to the United States (Wilford, 1969). And in
the 1950s they were responsible for the development of Redstone and Jupiter missiles. In July
1960, in spite of Army’s protests, President Eisenhower transferred von Braun’s team, which by
now consisted of 4,600 engineers and workers, to NASA, where it was given the primary
responsibility for developing rockets for spaceflight (Wilford, 1969).
Finally, the fourth major group to be absorbed by NASA, was the Naval Research
Laboratory’s Vanguard scientific satellite project team. The Vanguard team formed the core of
the, soon created, Goddard Space Flight Center, which later became “the communications
center for Apollo’s worldwide tracking network” (Wilford, 1969).
On April 20, 1961, less than a week after Vostok’s flight, President Kennedy sent a
memo to Vice President Johnson, asking him to do a survey of USA’s overall position with
regards to space travel (Kay, 2005). The first item in that memo read as follows: “Do we have a
chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or a trip around the moon, or by
a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there
any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” (Kay, 2005).
Even though Johnson soon prepared a detailed report assessing the state of USA’s
position in space travel; in his initial reply to Kennedy, Johnson identified lunar landing as an
“achievement with great propaganda value” and a goal in which the US may be able to be first
Hence, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy delivered an “Urgent National Needs” speech before
a joint session of Congress, in which he stated: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to
achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him
safely to the earth” (Kay, 2005). And the nation, led by NASA, did decide to commit itself to
achieving Kennedy’s vision. NASA called its project, dedicated to achieving this vision, the
Apollo Project; and its first, immediate problem was about the exact means that should be used
to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. Five basic schemes were soon
The first proposed method, called direct ascent, involved a three-stage ‘monster’ rocket
carrying a 150,000 pound spaceship from the earth’s surface straight to the lunar surface. The
same ship would then use its rocket engines to lift off the moon and head directly back to earth
Strengths: This method appeared to be the simplest, and many top NASA engineers
liked it (Wilford, 1969).
Weaknesses: However they soon realized that it would be impossible to develop the
required hardware in time for landing on the moon before the end of the decade
Opportunities: After all, a direct ascent would require building a rocket nearly twice as
powerful as anything in sight, which would have to have an initial thrust of 13 million
pounds (Wilford, 1969).
Threats: Nor could the moon scientists, of the time, guarantee that a 150,000 pound
spaceship would not break through the lunar crust or sink in the thick dust, which many
of them assumed covered the lunar surface. Also, there was a risk that such a tall
spaceship (80-100 feet) would fall over upon landing (Wilford, 1969).
The second proposed method, named the earth-orbit rendezvous, involved launching,
into earth orbit, as many as five parts of the spaceship, with smaller rockets, and assembling
the whole spaceship in earth orbit, once all the parts rendezvous (Wilford, 1969).
Strengths: This method could be executed with small rockets that were already in
existence. Moreover, it was favoured by von Braun, and appeared to be the most likely
choice, for months (Wilford, 1969).
Weaknesses: Successful rendezvous of various pay-loads, delivered into orbit, by
multiple launches, would require split-second timing for these launches (Wilford, 1969).
Opportunities: If the powerful rockets that NASA was already working on, were made
ready in time, only two, instead of five, launches would be required (Wilford, 1969).
Threats: In either case, the weight of the assembled spaceship would be similar to the
one proposed for the direct ascent approach. So, the likely success of the lunar landing
would be just as questionable (Wilford, 1969).
The third method, called the tanker concept, was a variation of the earth-orbit
rendezvous. It proposed sending an unmanned tanker into earth orbit. Next, a manned
spaceship, apparently similar in size to that for the direct ascent approach, would be sent into
earth orbit using a powerful rocket that was being developed at that time. The spaceship would
then rendezvous with a tanker, fuel up, separate, and fly straight to the moon (Wilford, 1969).
Strengths: The large spaceship would be delivered in one piece, from the earth to the
moon, without the ‘monster’ rocket proposed in the direct ascent approach.
Weaknesses: Transferring rocket fuels, such as super cold liquid oxygen, in orbit, was a
problem of undetermined complexity (Wilford, 1969).
Opportunities: All resources allowed for rocket development would be devoted to
building the powerful rockets that were already under development; enabling them to
be built earlier than otherwise.
Threats: The manned spaceship apparently would be identical, or at least similar, in size
and weight to the one proposed for the direct ascent approach; making the likely
success of the lunar landing just as questionable.
The fourth approach was called lunar-surface rendezvous, and involved sending extra
fuel and supplies to the lunar surface, aboard unmanned spacecrafts. As in direct ascent, the
manned spaceship would still fly directly from the earth’s surface to the lunar surface. But the
astronauts would refuel for a trip back to earth, on the surface of the moon, using the
separately delivered supplies of fuel.
Strengths: Presumably, this approach would allow the manned spaceship to be much
smaller and lighter than otherwise, since it wouldn’t have to carry the fuel for the trip
back to earth.
Weaknesses: There may be no way of knowing whether the supplies have landed
undamaged (Wilford, 1969).
Opportunities: This would be the first approach, so far, where the manned spaceship
would be much smaller; reducing the risk of it breaking through the lunar crust, sinking
in lunar dust, or falling over.
Threats: There is a risk that the manned spaceship would land too far from the sent
supplies, and would be unable to refuel; resulting in the ship and the astronauts being
stranded on the moon (Wilford, 1969).
The fifth approach, which was the one to be adopted and followed, and which came to
be called lunar-orbit rendezvous, involved a single, powerful rocket, which was already in
development, taking a small spaceship with a detachable lunar landing craft, from the earth’s
surface to the lunar orbit (Wilford, 1969). The command ship would stay in the lunar orbit,
while some of the astronauts would descend to the lunar surface in the detachable lunar
lander. And after a brief stay on the lunar surface they would use the lunar lander to travel back
to the lunar orbit, and rendezvous with the command ship. Next, the lunar lander would be left
in the lunar orbit, while all the astronauts will use the command ship to travel back to earth
Strengths: This approach would save a great amount of fuel. After all, the lunar lander
would not need to carry supplies for the full mission and would not require a heavy heat
shield needed for the return through earth’s atmosphere. Consequently, the lunar
lander could be tens of thousands of pound lighter than the landing vehicles in other
proposed approaches (Wilford, 1969).
Weaknesses: Some scientists were worried that all the instruments required for a
significant study of the moon, would not fit into the small lunar lander (Wilford, 1969).
Opportunities: Lunar-orbit rendezvous, when compared to other proposed methods,
clearly offered schedule advantages, cost advantages, and development simplicity, all of
which led to it being chosen as the best approach (Wilford, 1969).
Threats: Many Apollo planners argued that performing rendezvous maneuvers, at
230,000 miles away from the earth, was far riskier than doing anything similar in earth
orbit; where the astronauts could be brought back to earth, with much less difficulty, in
the event of anything going wrong (Wilford, 1969).
Implementation of Recommendations
Resolving Organizational and Operational Difficulties
Contractors bidding for a share of work for Apollo had to submit their proposals to a
system of evaluation boards, which Webb created in the summer of 1961 in order to advise the
triumvirate. The technical competence, feasibility, cost, and management capability of each
contractor’s proposal was to be rated by these boards, which were composed of NASA
engineers. Their recommendations would then be reviewed by Webb, Dryden, and Seamans,
who took final action (Wilford, 1969).
Accomplishing a manned lunar landing by the end of the 1960s required combining
different organizational cultures and approaches into a single, inclusive organization, working
towards a single goal. So, NASA decided that the program management concept (PERT),
developed by the military-industrial complex to coordinate the building of nuclear missiles,
would be most appropriate for bringing order to their program. Consequently, military
managers were brought in to oversee it (Launius, 1994).
The most important military manager hired by NASA, for this purpose, was U.S. Air
Force Major General Samuel C. Phillips. Phillips reported directly to NASA’s Office of Manned
Space Flight, and “created an omnipotent program office with centralized authority over
design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics,
training, and operations” (Launius, 1994). In this way, Phillips’ program office coordinated
20,000 contractors, 300,000 individuals, and countless physical systems (de Monchaux, 2011).
Among the various groups working on Project Apollo, engineers and scientists formed
two most identifiable groups (Launius, 1994). Engineers usually worked in teams and built
hardware that could help land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Hence, their main
goal was to build reliable space vehicles, while limiting themselves to the fiscal resources
allocated for the project. On the other hand, space scientists engaged in pure research and
were more interested in designing experiments that would increase our knowledge of the
Moon (Launius, 1994).
All the engineers and scientists working on Apollo had little experience in managing
broad, complex projects. And none of them, of course, ever worked on a project as
comprehensive as Apollo. But there was a new breed of engineers who were trained to judge
the engineering and scientific validity of concepts generated by others (Wilford, 1969). These
engineers were also proficient in making all work systems mesh into one, on time, by expertly
coordinating the work of thousands of contractors. This new breed of engineers came to be
known as ‘systems engineers’ or ‘systems managers.’ These men kept track of everything using
a system they called PERT, for Program Evaluation and Review Technique (Wilford, 1969).
PERT was developed into a valuable management tool by the U.S. Navy during its
struggles to develop the Polaris submarine missile. PERT is a statistical technique for measuring
and forecasting progress in R&D programs. It is a decision-making tool designed to save time in
achieving end-objectives. PERT takes into account three factors: time, resources, and technical
performance specifications (Fazar, 1959). Under PERT, performance specifications and planned
resource-applications are reflected in the time variable. Some developmental programs require
effort for which there is little or no previous experience. PERT quantifies knowledge about the
uncertainties involved in such developmental programs, using units of time as a common
denominator (Fazar, 1959). Under PERT, “the major, finite accomplishments (events) essential
to achieve end-objectives; the inter-dependence of those events; and estimates of time and
range of time necessary to complete each activity between two successive events” are
represented by data which is processed by an electronic computer (Fazar, 1959). Thus, PERT is a
management control tool that assesses the chances of meeting objectives on time; “highlights
danger signals requiring management decisions; reveals and defines both methodicalness and
slack in the flow plan or the network of sequential activities that must be performed to meet
objectives; compares current expectations with scheduled completion dates ... and simulates
the effects of options for decision – before decision” (Fazar, 1959).
PERT was adopted by NASA for all its activities, especially Apollo, in September 1961. An
organizational chaos may have ensued if NASA attempted to tackle its projects without PERT or
anything similar (Wilford, 1969).
As already mentioned, according to the program management concept (PERT), cost,
schedule, and reliability are three critical factors, which are interrelated and have to be
managed as a group. Hence, if program managers hold cost at a fixed level, then either
schedule or reliability, or both (but to a lesser degree) would be adversely affected (Launius,
1994). And this was true for the Apollo program. The schedule was firm; and since humans
were to be involved in flights, a heavy emphasis was placed on reliability. As a result, redundant
systems were extensively used in the project. All of this, of course, drove the cost much higher
than would have been the case if the schedule was more relaxed, for example (Launius, 1994).
Each installation, contractor, university, and research facility employed by NASA had
different views on how to work towards the task of accomplishing a manned lunar landing
(Launius, 1994). And with so much personnel involved, getting them to work together was a
constant challenge for the program managers. In fact, various groups working for NASA
competed for resources with each other, and had different views on what should be the
program’s priorities. Moreover, the scientific and engineering communities working for NASA
also had many internal differences and disagreements. And since there were many other allied
groups, competition on all levels was a constant aspect of the program (Launius, 1994).
This diversity, of course, ensured that all sides expressed their views while being forced
to prove the merits of their positions. However, sometimes the conflicts, between and within
various groups, became too great, and had the potential to jeopardize the conduct of the
program. Consequently, Phillips, as the head of the program, worked hard to keep these factors
balanced, so as to promote order and to allow the program to accomplish its goal on time
Due to the magnitude of the project, and its time constraints, most of the detailed
technical work was done not by NASA’s engineers and scientists, but by the hired contractors.
As a result, NASA’s technical personnel seldom engaged in the building of hardware, or even
the operation of missions. Instead, they planned the program, prepared work guidelines,
judged the competitions between contractors, and oversaw their work (Launius, 1994). The
expertise and reliability of various contractors soon turned out to be insufficient, requiring
intensive inspection and oversight by NASA’s personnel. Consequently, it was soon decided that
10% of all of NASA’s funding was to be spent on ensuring the expertise and reliability of
contractors’ work (Launius, 1994).
In the early stages of the Apollo program, when Project Mercury was nearly complete,
NASA’s program managers noticed a huge gap between what was learned about human
spaceflight during Project Mercury, and what would be required to successfully land a man on
the moon. They quickly proceeded to try and close this gap with experiments and training on
the ground, but certain things required experience in space (Launius, 1994).
Three major areas of focus essential for the success of Project Apollo required
experience in space. The first of these involved locating, maneuvering towards, rendezvousing,
and docking with another spacecraft in space. The second was about astronauts’ ability to work
outside the spacecraft. And the third – more sophisticated physiological data on the response
of the human body to extended spaceflight had to be collected (Launius, 1994).
To gain experience in these three areas before attempting a manned lunar landing,
NASA devised Project Gemini. Gemini involved building a capsule that could accommodate two
astronauts for flights of more than two weeks (Launius, 1994). For powering this spacecraft,
Project Gemini pioneered the use of fuel cells instead of batteries, while also making some
modifications to hardware. The whole system was to be put into space by a ballistic missile,
called Titan II, which was recently developed for the Air Force. And from March 1965 to
November 1966, Gemini capsule made a total of ten manned flights and managed to achieve all
its goals (Launius, 1994).
Despite managing to achieve all its goals Gemini encountered multiple problems during
each of its flights. However, perhaps this should not be surprising because Project Gemini
suffered from various problems from the start. Titan II, for example, suffered from longitudinal
oscillations, while the fuel cells leaked and had to be redesigned. However, through hard work
of the engineers working on this project, most of the problems with Gemini were resolved by
the end of 1963, making the Gemini capsule ready for flight (Launius, 1994).
Learning about the Moon
NASA’s scientists did not feel they knew enough about the Moon, in order to say with
certainty whether, or at least how, NASA’s astronauts would be able to land and survive on the
lunar surface (Launius, 1994).
So, NASA’s scientists had to learn more, than was known at the time, about the Moon.
They needed to learn the geography and composition of the Moon; whether the lunar surface
was solid enough to support a lander; whether communications systems, then in use, would
work on the Moon; and whether any other factors (e.g. geology, geography, radiation, etc.)
could affect the astronauts (Launius, 1994).
Consequently, three distinct satellite research programs were set up to answer these
questions. The first of these was Project Ranger, which, in the mid 1960s, had three probes
photograph a lunar surface (Launius, 1994). The second was the Lunar Orbiter, which was
tasked with mapping the lunar surface. It involved the launch of five satellites between August
10, 1966 and August 1, 1967 that were placed in orbit around the Moon. Each of these satellites
carried a powerful camera for photographing the lunar surface, as well as three scientific
instruments –selnodesy, meteoroid detector, and radiation measurement – the measurements
done by which were critical to Apollo. All of the five satellites successfully achieved their
objectives (Launius, 1994).
The third project was Project Surveyor, which involved landing small unmanned
spacecrafts, with tripod landing legs, on the Moon; in order to see how the lunar surface will
handle spacecraft landings; to take up-close photographs of the lunar surface; and to perform
various scientific measurements (Launius, 1994). This project involved the launch and lunar
landing attempts of seven spacecrafts, between 1966 and 1968. Surveyor 1 successfully landed
on the Moon on June 2, 1966, and transmitted over 10,000 high quality photographs of the
lunar surface; while Surveyor 3, “provided photographs, measurements of the composition and
surface-bearing strength of the lunar crust, and readings on the thermal and radar reflectivity
of the soil” (Launius, 1994).
While together, the seven flights of Project Surveyor managed to supply sufficient
scientific data for Apollo, two of them failed in their mission altogether (Launius, 1994). Thus,
during a midcourse maneuver of Surveyor 2 one of the engines failed to ignite, resulting in an
unbalanced thrust which caused the spacecraft to tumble. All subsequent attempts to salvage
the mission failed, and Surveyor 2 crashed into the Moon. In addition, Surveyor 4 made a
flawless flight to the Moon; but about 2.5 minutes before its touchdown, radio signals from the
spacecraft abruptly stopped. All subsequent attempts, to reestablish contact with the
spacecraft, failed (Lunar and Planetary Institute, 2014).
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