Samuel Phillips and the Taming of Apollo
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Technology and Culture 42.4 (2001) 685-709



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Samuel Phillips and the Taming of Apollo

Stephen B. Johnson


In July 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed the first men on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth. This amazing technological feat impressed even normally skeptical members of Congress, who in the same year held hearings as a forum in which NASA could trumpet the virtues of its management methods. To many observers, the real significance of Project Apollo lay in its successful direction of "massed scores of thousands of minds in a close-knit, mutually enhancive combination of government, university, and private industry." 1 Congress and many others believed that the experience of coordinating hundreds of thousands of workers and thousands of organizations to achieve a seemingly impossible goal might provide clues to potential solutions for intractable social problems.

Only two years before Congress had held another set of hearings about Project Apollo management, but in less happy circumstances. In contrast to the softballs lobbed NASA's way in 1969, the 1967 hearings featured tough questions, as congressional representatives investigated the cause of a tragic fire that killed three astronauts during a launch test in January of that year. That investigation yielded one important "non-finding." Congress found no fault with the management methods recently implemented by Samuel C. Phillips, the director of Project Apollo. Phillips, at that time a brigadier general [End Page 685] in the United States Air Force, had brought these methods from ballistic missile programs he had managed prior to his assignment to NASA. Why these military methods succeeded there but failed when applied to social problems is a story of critical importance not just for the 1960s but also in our own time, as governments continue to search for solutions to social and technical ills.

Project Apollo was the largest and most famous of a series of large-scale aerospace projects undertaken during the cold war. In the 1950s and 1960s, government, industry, and academia collaborated and competed in the development of systems such as Atlas, Minuteman, Mercury, Mariner, and SAGE. 2 For many reasons, among them their massive scale and complexity, these projects became--indeed, continue to be--models for many other large-scale and high-tech projects. The style of management developed in them propagated cold-war ideals just as surely as a Titan nuclear warhead or John F. Kennedy's ideological challenge to put a man on the Moon. Systems analysis, systems engineering, project management, and configuration control developed in the military-industrial-academic complex on large aerospace projects, and they continue to thrive. In them the values and institutions of the cold war persist despite that conflict's end.

Prominent historians of technical management, such as Thomas Hughes, David Hounshell, and Philip Scranton, have produced studies that feature managerial entrepreneurs in large-scale development, research, and manufacturing, respectively. 3 Other works in business history, following the path broken by Alfred Chandler, tend to follow the development of such organizational structures as the multiunit business enterprise. 4 Scientific management has drawn scholarly interest, 5 and aerospace historians have [End Page 686] investigated management's relationship to projects and relations between the government and industry. 6

The approach I will take in this article most closely resembles those of JoAnne Yates, in her pioneering research on systematic management, and James Beniger, in his work on managerial control in modern society. 7 Yates and Beniger emphasize the communication processes and technical innovations that undergird organizations, which propagate successful methods by codifying them. 8 Max Weber made this point decades ago, in a somewhat different manner, by observing that bureaucracy develops as a response to social and technical imperatives. 9 In this case the bureaucratic techniques of systems management evolved to control large-scale technologies and the scientists and engineers that develop them. 10

Project Apollo stands out as a prominent icon of the possibilities of technical management. In its early years, NASA was not well equipped to manage Apollo and its hundreds of contractors, as its leaders came from traditions that...