SP-4102 Managing NASA in the Apollo Era
 
 

Chapter 10

Summary Conclusions

 

[267] The leading premise of this book is that NASA was (and is) an organization, not a specific mission. The space agency was created two-and-a-half years before President Kennedy made the decision to commit the United States to a lunar landing, and it was still in business the day after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquillity. Once one concedes that Apollo marked a rare convergence of technology and political support, one is still as far as ever from knowing the institutional elements that were characteristic of the space program and that would persist beyond Apollo. NASA's remarkable success in managing its programs depended on the ability of the agency's top officials to enunciate goals, to maintain good relations with the White House and Congress, to shape the agency from within, and to delegate to the program offices and centers the authority they needed to get the job done.

In 1961 NASA was a new organization in a state of flux. When Webb and Seamans appeared on the scene, NASA was a loosely structured agency whose field centers worked in relative isolation from each other and from headquarters. The lunar landing mission demanded much greater coordination-and for the time being, greater centralization-than had been the case. One of the most important aspects of the Apollo program was the speed with which the crucial administrative and program decisions were made and the major prime contracts awarded. Except for the decision to go to all-up testing, the major Apollo program decisions were made between August 1961 and July 1962. Had they been stretched over a longer period, it seems unlikely that they would have received the support that they did. A comparison between the establishment of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) and the Electronics Research Center (ERC) brings this out. NASA announced the selection of Houston as the MSC site after a brief survey. Yet the creation of the center generated powerful political support; the site itself was well located in relation to Michoud, Marshall, and the Cape; and the reasons given for establishing a new center were justified in relation to the Apollo [268] mission. In contrast, almost two years elapsed between the decision to establish the ERC and its formal establishment. There was no such consensus as existed in the case of MSC; NASA could not convince Congress or the public that a capability in electronics research was as vital to the agency as one to develop the Apollo spacecraft. The point is that the agency's top officials made the important decisions while there was time to do so. The 1961 reorganization had to be reversed two years later, but it gave NASA management the opportunity to bring the centers under tighter control than before.

Another element in the success of the NASA organization was flexibility: flexibility for the Administrator to appoint to excepted positions, to award major R&D contracts without competitive bidding, to reprogram within appropriation accounts and to transfer between them, to devise and administer a custom-tailored entrance examination, and the like. Examples such as these represent flexibility within the system, not a departure from it; variances from the norm were allowed by Congress, the Bureau of the Budget, and the Civil Service Commission. This flexibility allowed for that "free play of the joints" without which institutional rigor mortis sets in. The use of excepted positions, for example, served not only to retain employees within the organization but also to bring in new blood and to expose NASA to outside influences. Similarly, without the authority to negotiate major contracts noncompetitively, it is unlikely that the lunar landing would have occurred on schedule. Indeed, this authority was probably more important for NASA than the introduction of incentive provisions in 1962. As shown, incentives were difficult to administer: they required a great deal of manpower and paperwork, the criteria for incentive payments were hard to pin down, and a contradiction was inherent in fixing targets for changing programs. NASA management might well have awarded development contracts without adding incentive provisions. But it is hard to imagine Gemini, Apollo, or Nimbus becoming operational had the agency been bound by competitive bidding or other rules that would have constrained its ability to choose its sources. The Apollo engineering support contracts were good examples of the agency's freedom in this respect. The TIE contract began as a letter contract and so remained for over a year, until NASA and Boeing negotiated the definitive terms. In this and other cases, the flexibility available to NASA depended on congressional willingness to tolerate practices that the legislature might have disallowed elsewhere.

Similar flexibility extended to other sectors. In the period under investigation, NASA had no formal, agency-wide, long-range plan; no general advisory committee, such as the one established for the Atomic Energy Commission; no inspector-general, chief scientist, or chief engineer; no directorate for managing launch support and tracking and data acquisition together; no central planning staff attached to the Office of the Administrator. Webb explicitly rejected a proposal to create a general advisory committee of outside scientists. He and other NASA officials also opposed a congressional bill to create an "Inspector of Programs and Operations" for NASA because the legislation would have involved assigning an already limited number of personnel to another overhead function [269] and would have created a suspicion among NASA engineers that their independence was being restricted. Also, senior officials were understandably reluctant to have people looking over their shoulders and questioning their programs. These functions were handled in other ways. Moreover, the absence of a plan or general advisory committee rescued the agency from becoming captive to policies that might cease to be relevant.

To maintain flexibility and to adapt the agency to change, reorganizations were frequent: in 1961, 1963, 1965, and 1967. This policy of calculated change had two purposes. Top management was unwilling to be rigidly bound by its own past policies. More important, each reorganization went beyond simple corrections-to improve communications between decision making and supporting staff or to free the centers from unneeded supervision-but was designed to turn the agency around from one set of programs to those of a quite different sort. NASA was vulnerable: first, because it had to stake its claim to territory of its own, rather than becoming (as its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, had become) a supporting arm of the military services or a supervisory agency with a small in-house staff and contractor-operated facilities, like the Atomic Energy Commission; second, because, as Raymond Bauer and others have noted, the civilian space program is discretionary. "We do not need to do it, in the same imperative sense that we believe we need to be militarily armed." 1 NASA's vulnerability was accentuated by the special oversight exercised by Congress. NASA had to obtain authorizing legislation before appropriations could be voted, keep the congressional committees "fully and completely informed" of pending action, and "come into agreement" with the legislative committees for certain kinds of reprogramming. 2 During the 1960s top NASA officials had to be ready to change when change was imperative and to refuse to accept organizational forms as important beyond the goals they might serve.

NASA managers saw their responsibilities in political terms and took it upon themselves to justify NASA where it mattered most: to the President, to the Bureau of the Budget, whose fiscal authorities set the terms of the annual budget request, and to Congress, which had the power to modify that request. What Sapolsky has said about Polaris surely applies here:

 

Competitors had to be eliminated; reviewing agencies had to be outmaneuvered; congressmen . . . newspapermen and academicians had to be co-opted. Politics is a systemic requirement. What distinguishes programs in government is not that some play politics and others do not, but, rather, that some are better at it than others. 3

 

NASA would describe a goal within the broader mission: put a communications satellite in synchronous orbit, or develop a manned spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon and a vehicle with liquid-hydrogen upper stages to launch it. But actual development involved far more than the finding that the job could be done. The technical problems-say, of negotiating the prime contracts or fitting schedules to costs-had political dimensions, owing to the requirement that NASA submit its programs to Congress for annual authorization. Also, important development [270] concepts would receive very little support either from Congress or the user community unless they could be shown to work. Thus NASA had to choose between pursuing its own programs or "seeking development funding without having the backing of other agencies who [might] well utilize the emerging capability in time." 4

Previous chapters have enumerated case after case in which NASA asserted its organizational independence, in no case more so than its relations with the military. The history of NASA from its establishment to 1963 can be charted in terms of NASA's ability to design its programs, procure its hardware, and support its spacecraft without overt interference from the military. The transfer of JPL and the von Braun team to NASA, the Webb-Gilpatric memorandum of understanding, President Kennedy's decision to assign the lunar mission to a civilian agency, and the Gemini agreement represent stages by which NASA asserted its determination to run the agency as its officials considered necessary. Not that relations between NASA and DOD can be easily categorized. Although chapter 8 classifies them as support, coordination, and rivalry, some programs did not fit neatly into any category; others, like Gemini, tended to become joint programs over time; while a program like MOL was in some ways competitive with Apollo, although the former relied heavily on NASA technology and ground support. Nevertheless, without a strong assertion of independence, NASA would have become what the services anticipated on the eve of the Space Act-a research agency supporting military projects.

The political strategies of NASA management were fourfold: to maintain NASA's independent status as an R&D agency; to curb outside interference by advisory and coordinating groups; to seek the approval of Congress for measures that the agency was about to take; and to limit NASA's support for other agencies, the better to concentrate its resources on Gemini and Apollo. NASA's relations with DOD are an example of the first type of strategy; its conflicts with PSAC, the Ramsey committee, and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board are examples of the second; chapter 7 lists cases where NASA responded to the mood of Congress; while NASA's position on the supersonic transport reflects Webb and Dryden's desire not to strain NASA's resources to the limit. In addition, Webb dismantled the headquarters office that prepared the NASA Long-Range Plan, precisely to avoid premature commitment to projects beyond Apollo.

The account of NASA's relation with its advisory committees illustrates Webb's reasons for denying outside scientists the role they demanded. In rejecting the Ramsey committee's proposal for a general advisory committee, he did so specifically because such a committee would have fettered his power to run the agency and to defend the President's budget. In NASA, the advisory process worked effectively in designing experimental payloads or selecting principal investigators. Within rather narrow limits, advisory groups could do even more; thus the Astronomy Missions Board, established in November 1967, proposed what became the High Energy Astronomy Observatory and may have saved the Apollo Telescope Mount when NASA officials were seriously considering its cancelation [271].5 But the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board and the Astronomy Missions Board, the principal attempts to create parallel advisory bodies for "strategic" scientific planning, were short lived. There were other flaws in the advisory process: the overlapping of jurisdictions, the lack of standard operating procedure, and the infrequent meetings of such groups as the Space Science Board. Yet it seems clear that the comparatively ineffective role of the missions boards owed something to management's reluctance to give their members the responsibilities they had come to expect. In general, then, NASA management was exceedingly wary of delegating authority to outside advisory groups.

As has been noted, NASA was remarkably decentralized for so large an agency. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that programs such as Apollo or the Orbiting Observatories could not have been managed without the delegation of authority to the centers and JPL: authority to negotiate contracts up to a specified amount, to transfer funds between programs, to start new research tasks without seeking specific authorization, to shift manpower from one division to another, and so on. The strategy of senior management was to give the centers what they needed to get the job done but not so much that their work would lose its relevance to the agency's mission. During the 1960s the "research" and the "development" centers tended to become more like each other; centers reporting to one program office began to work for others; while those centers with a mixture of projects weathered the budget cuts at the end of the decade better than those with one or two large development programs that were phasing down. One of the most important byproducts of Apollo was the pressure it placed on the older centers to enter into development work, as with Langley's management of Lunar Orbiter, Lewis' of Centaur, and Ames' of Pioneer and Biosatellite. It was not so much a matter of pressure from headquarters as pressure from within the centers themselves that brought about this change. It should be added that many NACA engineers adjusted rapidly to the style of the new agency and rose to high positions within it: younger men like Edgar Cortright, Harold Finger, and George Low, as well as veterans like Abe Silverstein. One wonders if centers like Langley and Lewis really had much choice in taking on these programs. Had they remained research centers and nothing else, they would very likely have dwindled to insignificance. The centers had, so to speak, to latch onto the coattails of Apollo.

Several lessons may be derived from the history of NASA's efforts to delegate authority to the field installations. The first is the extent to which successful decentralization hinged on the development of new management devices for monitoring and control. The second is that reorganization in the field had to be matched by changes at headquarters. The third lesson is the most important of all.

 

Decentralization is relative. In a large agency . . . there can be no such thing as complete centralization or decentralization . . . top management that has pursued a policy of centralization over the years may feel that minor relaxations of such a policy constitute a conversion to decentralization. Conversely, an organization accustomed to liberal delegations of authority and responsibility might view one or two decisions to withhold some further delegations as a return to centralization....
[272] As more and more authority for a wide range of responsibilities is decentralized to the regions, the need for strong, centralized planning increases. This is particularly true in the management of the Agency's resources.6

 

Did NASA have this kind of centralized planning? George Mueller once summarized the relations between headquarters and at least some of the centers.

 

One reason that the Manned Space Flight Centers are enthusiastic about the MSF organization is that MSF has delegated authority to the centers to the greatest extent possible. The centers have few "documented type" constraints placed upon them, but the constraints have been carefully chosen so that MSF has good control.7

 

This may have been adequate for Apollo, whose scope was such that headquarters, while it could coordinate, inspect, and develop standards, could hardly manage it directly. By 1968- 1969 the same centers-Marshall especially-were in the early phases of a withdrawal process brought on by cuts in manpower and funds. The problem of new roles and missions could be alleviated by the centers, but only in part. Most of them were adaptable, and nearly all had gone through at least one reorganization in the late 1950s or early 1960s, moving from aeronautics research to launch vehicle development, as at Lewis, or from development work on guided missiles to lunar and planetary probes, as at JPL. By 1969 another cycle of reorganization was under way, as facilities that were no longer needed were closed, others were modified to accommodate new programs, while new facilities like the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at MSC were accomplished facts. Yet the more subtle changes in a center's mission could only occur gradually. And here, it seems, the failure of headquarters to draft a coherent long-range plan left the centers at a serious disadvantage. The advanced studies and task-force reports of 1964-1969 were no substitute for a NASA-wide plan. The difficulties in planning were real enough, as PCSG and the members of its working groups found out. There were too many planning groups, with little coordination among them; a lack of common interests among the centers; and the artificial forcing of the planning process by the creation of the President's Space Task Group. Still, top management might have done more to bring the process to some visible result inside the agency. In particular, not enough was done to relate substantive programs to an institutional framework.

NASA throve during the prosperous early 1960s and survived the cutbacks of the late 1960s because of four elements within, or conferred upon, the organization: administrative flexibility; the ability of senior management to play the political game on the Hill, at the White House, and before the public at large; the decentralization of program management to the field; and the timeliness with which the important decisions were made. Whether the success of NASA in managing large-scale endeavors affords a precedent for future Manhattan Projects or Apollos is another matter. Apollo will always stand as a monument to the ability of hundreds of thousands of men and women in widely dispersed locations to accomplish a program of staggering magnitude. But to the extent that [273] Apollo serves as a model for future "wars on poverty" or "wars on cancer," the lessons of the program will have been learnt badly. Whatever can be said about the NASA organization, there were no miraculous shortcuts to success, neither PERT nor incentive contracts nor project management as such. The problems of education, of transportation, of revitalizing the inner cities are-as has been said more than once-problems of kind rather than degree.8 They are also problems of value. In all three cases, technology may contribute to a solution, but it cannot of itself define the problem. The space program enjoyed a favorable political environment, few direct competitors, and no vested interests. In organizational terms, the success of NASA depended on turning all three to advantage.

 

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