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Local Engineering and Systems Engineering: Cultural Conflict at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1966
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Technology and Culture 46.3 (2005) 561-583

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Local Engineering and Systems Engineering

Cultural Conflict at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960–1966

Wernher von Braun, who pursued the art of rocket building for forty years, also practiced the art of organization building throughout his career. In 1932, when the German army began sponsoring his work, he had just a single mechanic as his assistant.1 Thirty years later he was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with a staff of seven thousand and tens of thousands more employed by its contracting firms. The Marshall Center was then the largest field center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), still expanding to meet its responsibility for developing the Saturn launch vehicles for the Apollo program. At that moment of organizational prosperity, however, von Braun expressed concern about the center's rapid growth: "We have a phobia against getting too large at Marshall. We have had, I think, some rather noteworthy successes on several assigned rush projects because we are a moderately sized and well-integrated organization."2

When von Braun wrote this in 1962, the Marshall Center did in fact possess a mature, well-integrated capability for rocket building. In von Braun's view, however, further expansion of the center and its tasks, accompanied [End Page 561] by a tighter, more systematic form of supervision exercised by NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., threatened its effectiveness. Von Braun believed that the sound operation of his organization depended on giving it the proper size, structure, ethos, and context.

This article examines the engineering style and social structure of the Marshall Center as a local engineering community, focusing on the period in which it developed the Saturn launch vehicles.3 While official histories of the center and the Saturn project exist, this article concentrates on how engineers at the center thought and operated, drawing on their published and unpublished papers, interview transcripts, and congressional records.4 Marshall engineers' peculiar managerial and engineering methods fit their culture of work. While they did gradually and reluctantly change their practices in response to external pressures, they held to their engineering style where it was inseparable from the social foundations of their community.

The culture and practices of NASA have attracted scholarly attention. Howard E. McCurdy has argued that over several decades NASA lost its "technical culture," which was supported by extensive testing and in-house engineering capability.5 This article discusses concrete components of that technical culture within the limited scope of a single NASA installation. Stephen B. Johnson has described the introduction of systems engineering as a crucial change in NASA's engineering practices in the 1960s.6 Johnson argues that von Braun and his engineers at the Marshall Center did not make systems engineering the core of their engineering style because it was "redundant"; they had their own informal methods. I shall argue that from their point of view systems engineering was not just redundant but fundamentally irreconcilable with the engineering assumptions and social values of their community.

As Johnson demonstrates, systems engineering was at the heart of the conflict between NASA headquarters and the Marshall Center. In the last several years, historians of technology have produced a number of case studies on the role of systems engineering—or, more generally, the systems approach—in large-scale engineering projects.7 Systems engineering enabled [End Page 562] steady execution of those projects through standardized, formalized, document-intensive techniques. Its practitioners, systems engineers, integrated large, highly complex technological systems by coordinating the functions of constituent components and subsystems and by overseeing the engineering efforts of those who developed them. The approach of systems engineers was analytical, in the sense that they sought to insure proper large-system function by dividing it into component elements of manageable scale. Systems engineers set and monitored specifications and requirements for those elements, defined and maintained interfaces between them, and coordinated the schedule and resources to develop them. They sought to optimize the overall system...