How Apollo Was Saved & Lessons For Today’s NASA


New York Times July 13, 1963 article about Apollo program crisis

It’s interesting to look back at the history of Project Apollo, without the rose colored glasses through which that program is commonly viewed, and see just how off-the-rails the it was 2 years into its development. Even more interesting is to discover that it was the leaders inside of NASA, not the President or members of Congress, who took the initiatives that addressed NASA’s problems and got Apollo back on track. That history should serve both as a guide for, as well as a ruler to measure against, NASA’s current management in dealing with the problems revealed in NASA’s recent Sec. 309 report that indicated NASA cannot build a heavy-lift space launch system (SLS) and multi-purpose crewed vehicle (MPCV) for $11.5 billion as directed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

In the fall of 1963, Fortune wrote, “It is probably too much to say, as some of NASA’s more panicky partisans have, that the whole U.S. space program now stands in moral peril. Nevertheless, NASA and the space program have reached a critical stage.

In 1963 when George Mueller took over from Brainard Holmes as head of Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF), he had the status of Apollo reviewed. What he found out on Sept. 28, 1963 sounded very bad. [Murray Cox 153]

  • The odds of getting to the Moon by 1970 were 1-in-10.
  • The first lunar landing would not occur before late 1971.

So much for Kennedy’s “…before this decade is out…

After Mueller had his boss, Associate Administrator Seamans, briefed on the results, Seamans ordered Mueller to destroy the review. In today’s space activists blogs, such a move would be indignantly called censorship and a conspiratorial cover-up. Nonetheless, Mueller was able to use the review’s dire conclusions to force through a short-cut Apollo development, the biggest being the “all-up” tests of the Saturn V, so that we could reach the Moon in late December 1968, not 1970, and land in mid-1969, not late 1971. Mueller had what could be called a “Mueller Moment”.

Mueller’s “short-cuts” were not reckless but were made based on his background in I.C.B.M. development as a systems engineer. It was that background that stood in contrast to the conservatism of the Germans from Peenemuende and the old hands from the N.A.C.A.. The Germans liked to compartmentalize, testing to the smallest degree possible so that mistakes didn’t accidentally propagate into the whole rocket. The N.A.C.A. engineers, having largely come from the flight test world, and not wanting to put pilots at unnecessary risk, tested methodically and incrementally. Systems engineers in the I.C.B.M. programs had a different viewpoint, one that focused on getting the most bang for the buck. As systems engineer Jim Elms said, “…if we have a billion dollars and five years, what’s the best way to get the most pounds of atomic bombs over some place like Moscow? So their goal was to figure out where they wanted to be on the reliability scale.

Roll-forward 46 years to the summer of 2009 and NASA, which began working on Project Constellation in January 2004, had after 4 years and $9 billion little to show other than a launch mobility tower, some boilerplate test articles for the Orion spacecraft and 1 live-fire test of a 5-segment SRM. At the rate NASA was burning through money, Constellation wouldn’t reach the Moon until 2020, and even that figure was optimistic, nor for under $100 billion. Meanwhile, for under $1/2 billion, SpaceX built and flight tested its Falcon 9 and Dragon crewed spacecraft. And while the Falcon 9 is no heavy-lift vehicle nor Dragon an Orion, the differences are not an order of magnitude. SpaceX clearly understands the “Mueller Method”.

After the disastrous Sec. 309 review turned-in by NASA a couple of weeks ago, NASA is at risk of becoming insane if one takes as the definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” So it is time for NASA to channel its inner-Mueller and start taking some well thought-out…there’s no other word for it, “short-cuts” that will enable it to build the new rocket and crewed spacecraft for $11 billion and begin flight testing them by 2016, as directed by law. Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) Doug Cooke stands where Mueller once did; if any “Mueller Moment” is going to happen within NASA to save the Agency and the two new programs given to it by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, it will have to come from Cooke’s group, likely (hopefully) from Cooke himself. However, when Jeff Hanley tried to have a “Mueller moment”, he was fired. Not an encouraging sign. In all fairness to Associate Administrator Cooke, Mueller enjoyed something that today Cooke does not, a NASA Administrator and leadership that would stand with him in his efforts to change the way the Agency does business in order to get the human space flight program back on track.

NASA stands at a critical juncture with a President, Administration officials and the Agency’s own leaders hostile to the idea that NASA remain our national means for sending astronauts into space. With such opposition both within and outside the Agency, it will be difficult for any leader within the Agency to take an initiative, much as George Mueller did, that challenges the way the Agency does business. If NASA successfully completes the SLS and MPCV, it not only repairs its credibility but enables our nation to explore beyond low-earth orbit. The question is whether there are those within the Agency willing to push the envelope, even at the risk of loosing their jobs, so that NASA is successful? Or is failure indeed an option?

In late 1963 there were individuals within NASA willing to think outside the box and then push their management to embrace change so that America could succeed in landing on the Moon before the decade was out. We can only hope that such people exist within NASA today who are willing to push their management to embrace the changes needed for the heavy-lift launcher and Orion to succeed. And if NASA management is, whether passively or actively, trying to violate the law, hurt the Agency and the U.S. national human space flight program in pursuit of an agenda resoundingly rejected by the people and their elected representatives, we hope that some within NASA will have the courage to stand-up, talk to their Congressional Representatives, and have their own “Mueller Moment”.

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