MAJOR PROGRAMMES: APOLLO PROGRAM

The period from the 1940s to the 1970s was an important period for the development of major programme management with programmes such as the Manhattan Project, the Polaris Missile programme (first to employ PERT), the United States Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, the Apollo program etc. These projects all represent major advances in program and project management methodologies and techniques and for their emergence as professional disciplines. I will discuss one of them, the Apollo Program as an example of interest because this was a Programme that is of relevance to humankind as a whole.

This Programme consisted of several programs and projects, each of which was a major effort in of itself, to realize complex systems that had to perform unique tasks in environments that were outside the purview of mankind’s experience. It is a program that was unprecedented in scope and probably unsurpassed to this day. Each leg of the tri-lemma of project management, namely scope, resources and time are all unprecedented in scale and ambition. The programme is assumed to have consumed about 1% per year of the GDP of the world’s largest economy at its peak (the US at that time accounted for about 40% of the world’s GDP).

It was ambitious not only in its scope but also in terms of the means to achieve the scope; for the means were still to be developed and far from what was feasible when the programme was conceived. The United States went from not having launched a man into orbit to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” (in the words of the programme sponsor) within a decade. The Programme Sponsor, President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, declared that the US was going to the Moon within a decade, a time when the total US spaceflight experience was a single 15-minute suborbital flight. The US went on to land men on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and to six successful Moon landings with Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Program (Programme) Management was essential to this success.

A NASA monograph[1]reminiscing on the success of the program pins the success on the “program management” concept that centralized authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics, training, and operations.

Here quoted: “…in terms of complexity, rate of growth, and technological sophistication it has been unique….It may turn out that the most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings.”

The strong and empowered program management office was led by the Program Director, General Samuel C. Phillips. Dr. Wernher von Braun, legendary rocket scientist and then director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, singled out General Phillips as the man to whom the greatest credit belonged for pulling the many pieces of the program together and making them work. General Phillip’s had a hands-on administrative style and direct communication with the numerous contractors through telephone and direct visits. In the opinion of Dr. George E. Mueller who was NASA’s associate administrator for manned space flight from 1963 to 1969, the deep and strict interface control system for the program was critical to its success.

The Apollo programme also illustrates how programme management is both an art and a science informed by experience. A completely determinate solution to the planning and execution of large complex programmes is far from achievable even today with the enormous growth in computing power, and the growth of ever more sophisticated Artificial Neural Networks with Deep Learning algorithms for vast amounts of data. The human mind retains an impressive ability to synthesize a coherent picture from the numerous complicated inputs to a given situation.

Given the complexity and the lack of precedent for this programme where the “whats” and the “hows” were largely unknown at the beginning, and known and unknown unknowns could be expected to be abundant, iterative project management and risk management were critical to success. To manage risk NASA tried to “know” and manage them by actively identifying and planning for contingencies. For risks from “unknown unknowns” extensive training was used to empower team members to quickly react and contain them. Other important factors were well defined and agreed on milestones to govern the project from early on.

The complexity was realized in stages through what we would recognize today as Iterative project management. The initial phases developed the minimal viable operational plan which was refined subsequently as the tools, methodology and hardware to enable realization were built simultaneously.   The diverse range of challenges was tackled by interpreting complexity and distilling it into specific activities to be solved individually by identified teams.

The complex systems were not only engineered hardware, but also the thousands of detailed overlapping and interconnected schedules, complex interconnected webs of activities and interactions etc. Systems Engineering came into its own as the project scope was decomposing into groups of related project activities with interfaces to other activity groups. Attempts were made to use more mathematical techniques enabled by new found computing power as the systematic characterization of the elements of a complex system with rigorous logic was attempted.

The development of program management tools in the defence industry just prior to the Apollo program proved crucial when many of the personnel were able to transition these new tools to the Apollo program. These tools and methods include systems engineering, matrix organizations that weave the temporary program management structure through disparate functional entities whose inputs contribute to the program progress through various interfaces, and the decomposition of program management into a box management structure where distinct functionalities to be realized by the program are managed separately with interfaces to the other boxes. A key innovation in organizational structures that was consciously adopted was what we know today as a matrix structure. A parallel program management structure was created to integrate the work of the vast number of diverse functional structures in the different and powerful centres in the program.

In the words of Dr. Mueller: “they needed to have something that we called systems engineering, or an understanding of the total system and the interfaces between the launch vehicle and the spacecraft and the launch complex, and what needed to be done in order to make sure that those interfaces, when they came together, met the needs of the overall mission.” And regarding the matrix organization: “One of the things that I remember very distinctly is the idea of inserting a program management structure in parallel with the functional structure of the centers.” He further states that “this structure was necessary in order to provide the kinds of communications that were required in a program of that much complexity in order to be sure that all those interfaces worked.”

It would be a programme managers dream to one day be able to contribute to a programme of such breadth, scope, complexity and importance. [2]

[1] Managing the Moon Program – Lessons from Project Apollo, NASA, 1989

[2] I spent my formative years around a community of engineers and project/program managers, one of whom was my father, in the very successful Indian space program. So interest in and access to material on the Apollo program was a natural outcome. While my father’s library always had excellent source material, much of the specific information for this essay comes from historical monographs published by NASA about Apollo.

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