How three men in suits made Apollo 11 a success

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October 5, 1957 was mild for October in New York City. I usually don’t remember the details of weather on a specific date, but that night was special. My family and several other people went to the roof of our apartment building and scanned the skies for Russia’s Sputnik, which had been launched the day before. The newspapers and radio stations told us when we could expect to see Sputnik. They replayed the radio pulses the Russian satellite was sending. Everyone seemed worried.

Hardly anyone knew that the United States had planned to launch a satellite the month before, and that it was delayed for further testing. But pretty much everyone knew that we were suddenly behind in the Space Race and that was not a good thing.

The government responded as governments do, with programs and promises. President Eisenhower announced the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), our space agency. The government increased funding for space efforts. Young people were urged to study science and engineering.

On October 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed an executive order transferring Wernher von Braun from the US Army’s rocket research group to the newly-formed NASA. Von Braun didn’t have to go anywhere. The new George C. Marshall Flight Center was simply built at the site of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where von Braun was already working.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun

Wernher von Braun had huge impact on the American space program including the Apollo program. In 1959, he was already well-known to the American public.

Von Braun had headed Nazi Germany’s rocket program during World War II. That provided fodder for all kinds of comedians. When Hollywood released a laudatory movie about von Braun titled “I Aim for The Stars,” comedian Mort Sahl suggested that it should have a subtitle “But Sometimes I Hit London.”

Von Braun surrendered himself and his team of scientists and engineers to the American forces at the end of World War II. He began working on the Army’s rocket program, became an American citizen, and the premier advocate of space travel.

He wrote articles and gave interviews and appeared on television, especially the popular Disneyland program. He used illustrations and models to talk about how space travel could and should happen.

For von Braun, Sputnik and the increased emphasis on the Space Race was something of a godsend. He had been advocating for a moon mission, which would require larger rockets than the ones he was building and testing for the Army. The Army didn’t need bigger rockets. The smaller rockets did just fine with the payloads they had to deliver. But, once the space program became ascendant, von Braun got the funding and encouragement to build those bigger rockets.

Von Braun was good at explaining difficult concepts in terms most people could understand. In a March 1963 article in Popular Science magazine, he answered questions from readers. He described the task of hitting the moon as like “shooting a running rabbit from a revolving merry-go-round.” He thought it was a challenge that could be met with enough funding and time.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

President Kennedy made the challenge more acute. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy went before a joint session of Congress and asked for additional funding for the space program so that the United States could “put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.”

That’s often called Kennedy’s “moon shot” speech, but in fact, there were really two of those speeches. Many of the popular descriptions of the speech take pieces from his joint session to Congress and a speech that Kennedy made at Rice University in September 1962. Whichever date you choose or however you choose to mix them, the challenge went from an interesting technical problem to an issue of national significance and urgency.

What President Kennedy did was turn a vague challenge “Beat the Russians in the Space Race,” into a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG). Like most of those goals, the target was clear, but it was not clear how we could hit it.

Looking back, it’s amazing how much we didn’t know and how big the challenge was. How, for example, did you get liquid out of a tank in zero gravity? How did you calculate how to hit that running rabbit (the moon) from that merry-go-round (the Earth)? The computer programming work was the largest single programming project ever attempted up to that time. No wonder some people at NASA thought that President Kennedy was “daft.”

George Edwin Mueller

The technological challenges of putting a man on the moon and bringing him back by 1970 were daunting, but it turned out that the managerial challenges might be greater. Even by 1963, it was obvious that unless something happened to change the course of events, there would be no Americans standing on the moon before the decade was out.

James E. Webb, the head of NASA, brought in an engineer from Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, George Mueller, as an Assistant Administrator. The first thing Mueller did was tap a couple of NASA employees who were not involved with project planning or leadership to assess the state of the program. Their report essentially said: “Everything’s screwed up – we’ll never make the end of the decade deadline with the program as it’s currently configured.”

Mueller made two significant changes. One was technical. The standard practice at NASA had been to test the individual stages of a multi-stage rocket separately. The engineers who worked for von Braun thought that was the best way to isolate any problems. Mueller advocated and convinced von Braun to support a program of “all-up testing.” That was simply testing the entire rocket all at once. Mueller reasoned that without changing the way they tested the rocket components, they would never keep the schedule for putting a man on the moon in the decade. That was a change in, essentially, a single procedure. If Mueller was going to fix “everything’s screwed up” he would have to change the way NASA worked.

Originally, NASA was managed the way most other organizations at the time were managed. There were separate working groups, each with their separate methods. Von Braun’s team worked one way, other project managers worked differently. Everybody had their own way of doing things and communicating.

Mueller realized that a system like that created conflicts and errors that you would only find when separate pieces of a project came together. He developed a system of management that called for intense communication between everyone working on a particular sub-project. He diagramed each of the project boxes in which unlimited communication was expected, realizing that an individual engineer or manager might be part of more than one box.

Peter Drucker and Andy Grove both wrote about this system later and called it “matrix management.” That’s accurate, but incomplete. Matrix management is about authority. The little boxes, which NASA staff called “GEM boxes,” for Mueller’s initials, were about communication. Wernher von Braun might have described it best when he called it a managerial “nervous system.”

Unlike von Braun, who was a great popularizer and explainer and reveled in the limelight, Mueller preferred to stay in the background. He reasoned this way. “In Washington, if you stick your head above the water line, you get it shot off. So, when I took this job, I made up my mind that to get it done, I’d remain submerged.”

Footprints on The Moon

On July 20, 1969, the first human beings put their footprints on the moon. The world was watching.

Several friends came over for a “Moon Landing Party” at my apartment. I had a black and white TV, and every minute or so, I snapped a picture of the screen with my camera. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder to record the commentary and the comments of the people in my apartment. The pictures and the tapes are long gone, and what remains are memories of the excitement of that night and a flickering television screen and Neil Armstrong’s words.

Thousands of people worked to make that moment possible. Millions more shared in the excitement. But three men did more than their share to create the success of Apollo 11. Take away the German-turned-American rocket scientist and visionary, or the assassinated president, or the Mr. Fix-It administrator, and we might not have celebrated that day.

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A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

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