Head and Hands of NASA

During March and April, Administrator Glennan called on the Space Task Group, as well as all of NASA, to conduct a self-appraisal of NASA's contracting policy and industrial relations. A firm of management consultants, McKinsey and Company, had entered into a contract with NASA on February 26, 1960, for a comprehensive study of how NASA should utilize industry and private institutions, how it could improve its utilization of its own research capability, and what the extent and manner of sharing responsibility and authority between Government and industry actually was.86

The Space Task Group responded with a self-analysis which listed the major [261] elements of Project Mercury, gave an explanation of the major tasks involved, and discussed the reasons for performing each task within NASA or on contract. The preliminary draft of this information divided the tasks of the Task Group into three subsystems - the capsule, boosters, and tracking and communications - each of which was further subdivided into elements and tasks. When the representative of McKinsey and Company visited STG on April 19 to discuss the working methods used in the conduct of Project Mercury, he was briefed by Purser, Zavasky, Mathews, and Bond, and provided with documents tabulating the distribution of STG personnel man-years, associated costs, and "R and D" fundings. Although McKinsey's final report did not appear until October, the Task Group finished its part of the self-examination in May. STG learned from this exercise that it had shifted from research and development into almost exclusively development activities.87

At the highest level within NASA Glennan and associates recognized, as Robert Rosholt has described it, that the "opportunity to make comprehensive changes in NASA's organization and procedures would not exist too much longer, i.e., bureaucratic hardening of the arteries would make change more and more difficult as the agency became older and larger." The final McKinsey report appeared to endorse the "integrated project management team" approach used by STG. The Space Task Group, however, was still only a semi-independent subdivision of NASA's Goddard center and still closely related to the Langley center. The General Accounting Office and NASA had clashed recently over executive privilege in withholding certain documents relating to the selection of McDonnell as the prime contractor for Mercury. This furnished ammunition for some critics of NASA's industrial relations. But the decentralization policy of NASA was approved by McKinsey, with certain reservations taken in part from STG's experience.88

Through the winter and spring of 1960 the managers of Mercury both in Washington and in Virginia were learning to adjust to the limits imposed by a new technology and by the necessity to coordinate diverse, far-flung, and sometimes perverse human organizations of technicians and craftsmen. While they chafed at the slipping schedules, worried over technical details, swatted at gadfly reporters, and tried to anticipate every contingency in their planning for the missions ahead, Gilruth and his associates in management and systems engineering were just as surely learning to take their tumbles as were the astronauts in their centrifuge rides and in other exotic simulators.

McDonnell's capsule No. 1 finally arrived at Wallops Island on April 1, 1960, cleaned up but stripped of most of its subsystems, to be groomed for a test of its escape rocket, parachute recovery, and landing system. Petynia and Dennis F. Hasson had written a thick catalog of expectations, prescribed procedures, schematics, and checkoff lists for this "off-the-pad abort" test. While Alan Kehlet and Herbert G. Patterson worried over alignment and the abort sequence system, Wallops personnel prepared the canted pad and supplied logistical support [262] to the McDonnell and Task Group engineers for a month of preparation. Shake tests and sled tests were run first to ensure readiness before firing.89

Finally on May 9 the carefully weighed and balanced capsule pointed its pylon toward the sea. The ignition switch was closed and the escape rocket jerked the capsule away from the ground on its short flight, lasting one minute and 16 seconds but covering half a mile in an arc 2465 feet high. Recovery by a Marine Corps helicopter took only 17 minutes. The only significant defect noted from this test was a relatively poor separation distance when the tower jettisoned.90

The "beach abort" was a successful flight and a sterling qualification test, but it was hardly spectacular to the public. Certainly it was not all that STG had hoped to accomplish this long after the last of the development flights late in January. However, MA-1 was coming along nicely. It should be far more impressive in proving the "booster-capsule combination for exit flight and capsule for entry flight."91 And spacecraft No. 2 was to be delivered to Huntsville at the end of June for static tests and compatibility adjustments with the first Redstone booster. Should it prove trouble-free, then presumably by the end of summer, if everyone worked hard enough and there were no interfering defense launch commitments, two more qualification flights on each of the big boosters should bring the day of the first manned space flight much closer.

On May 15, 1960, however, an event occurred that rekindled premonitions that the first manned space flight might be made by a Russian. In their only announced space launching during the first half of 1960, the Soviets orbited the first capsule large enough (10,011 pounds) to contain a human passenger. Called merely Sputnik IV by the Western press but more accurately named Korabl Sputnik, or Cosmic Ship No. 1, this vehicle failed four days later when its reaction control or attitude control system shot the ship containing its dummy astronaut the wrong way for recovery.92 Perhaps, just perhaps, the United States might have better reaction and attitude controls than the Soviet Union.

86 See Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), 154-160; memo, T. Keith Glennan to Dir., "Appraisal of NASA's Contractor Policy and Industrial Relations," Feb. 29, 1960. For an excellent overview of NASA policies in general at this time, see the typescript, "Questions and Answers proposed for Congressional Testimony," by Hugh L. Dryden's staff, ca. May 1960.

87 "Information Requested by McKinsey and Co., Inc.," STG, April 9, 1960; letter, Gilruth to Harry J. Goett, Dir., Goddard Space Flight Center, May 3, 1960.

88 Rosholt, Administrative History of NASA, 154, 101, 124; Rosholt has paraphrased the McKinsey report as follows (pp. 157-158):

"The report revealed that NASA's record in supervising its out-of-house efforts was spotty. Difficulties had arisen because NASA neglected certain basic prerequisites to effective contractor supervision, such as adequate statements of work, sufficient and flexible funding, and properly focused technical responsibility. (A basic problem in connection with the last named prerequisite was NASA's tendency to establish two channels of supervision - one from headquarters, the other from the field center.)

"NASA's supervisory job was difficult in that it could neither use the 'trust the contractor' approach (high reliability was too crucial to be left to the contractor alone) nor the 'tight control' approach (which would 'discourage contractor creativity and initiative') . . . . Therefore NASA had to follow a middle course, which combined contractor operating freedom with close NASA guidance. To achieve this balance it would be essential that there be a constant flow of information back and forth between NASA and the contractor. This flow could be promoted by periodic progress review meetings between NASA and the contractor, the placement of a NASA representative in the contractor's plant (to permit continuous face to face communication), and the use of a progress reporting system."

89 "Pretest Report for Off-the-Pad Escape System Qualification Test," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 112, March I, 1 960.

90 See "Determination of Net Thrust of Project Mercury Tower Jettison Rocket and Escape Tower Assembly," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 202, July 3, 1961; "Review of Mercury Launch Abort System Experience . . .," NASA general working paper No. 10,007, July 15, 1963.

91 Memo, Bland for Flight System Division files, "Program Objectives," Sept. 30, 1959, 2.

92 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), A Chronology of Missile and Astronautic Events, March 8, 1961, 114, 115. See also Charles S. Sheldon II, "The Challenge of International Competition," paper, third American Inst. of Aeronautics and Astronautics/NASA Manned Space Flight Meeting, Houston, Nov. 6, 1964, 10-11, reprinted and revised as Appendix A in Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 89 Cong., 1 sess. (1965), International Cooperation and Organization for Outer Space, 427-477.

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