Regents’ lecturer shares management secrets from NASA’s manned spaceflight program

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

21 February 2001 | When former President John F. Kennedy in 1961 boldly proclaimed a plan to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, the largest non-military technological endeavor in U.S. history was conceived.

At its helm was George Mueller, then head of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight (now the Johnson Space Center in Houston), who shared recollections of his experiences in a recent campus Regents’ Lecture, “The Dream and the Reality.”

The Regents’ Lecture program brings leaders in many fields to UC campuses to give public lectures and spend a short time in residence to meet with faculty and students.

Only the building of the Panama Canal rivaled the Apollo program’s size, Mueller said, in his talk sponsored by the departments of electrical engineering and computer sciences, physics, and mechanical engineering. Only the Manhattan Project was comparable in a wartime setting.

“Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were designed to execute the historic Apollo flights,” he said. But in the years leading up to Apollo 11’s touchdown on the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969, Mueller made spaceflight history himself as the only NASA manger to run a program under budget.

The Saturn V launch vehicle, a three-stage rocket standing 363 feet tall, would carry astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon, but first its construction would test Mueller’s management skills. After creation of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight, later renamed the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Mueller took a calculated gamble to test all three stages of the rocket simultaneously rather than individually.

“The third stage of the Saturn V rocket, which was needed to jettison the Apollo payload onto its lunar trajectory, was outfitted like a space station, but hadn’t been tested yet,” he said. “Conservative engineering practices called for testing of each stage before assembling of the whole, three-stage system for a long series of ground tests.”

Going against the grain, Mueller introduced an “all up” concept for testing the entire Apollo-Saturn system together in flight to save time and money.

The first test launch took place on Nov. 9, 1967, with the entire Apollo-Saturn combination soaring into space, he said. A second test followed on April 4,1968. Even though the second stage shut off prematurely and the third stage failed, Mueller declared the test program over after the launch.

The next launch carried astronauts, and Mueller’s gamble paid off. In 17 piloted test launches and 15 manned flights, he said, the Saturn booster family scored a perfect reliability rate. Consolidation of the test and verification phases had trimmed NASA’s budget by $1 billion.

Mueller later decided to put Skylab, NASA’s first orbiting space laboratory, on a Saturn V third-stage booster in the 1970s. “The third stage had proved itself reliable,” he told the audience. “There wasn’t much risk involved.”

Exorbitant costs and timely development delays continue to plague NASA’s spaceflight program today, despite the agency’s downsizing and emphasis on “smaller, faster, better” spacecraft.

“The biggest problem we have today is keeping space transportation affordable,” Mueller said. “The space shuttle costs about $1.7 billion per launch. That’s too expensive if we want to make frequent trips to the International Space Station.”

A better use of the nation’s resources and technological prowess in space would be to build a lunar observatory on the far side of the moon, he said.

“It would only take 1 percent of the gross national product to put an atmosphere around the moon, like our biospheres on Earth, and build an outpost for science and travel to Mars,” he said. “A program of spaceflight to Mars would cost about $50 billion, which is a reasonable cost when you put it in the proper perspective.”


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