The secret of Apollo

Just finished reading “The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs”, a recommendation of Jakob Carlen. The historical review of pre-Apollo, Apollo and European Space endeavors shines a light over the evolution of systems engineering and systems management that brought those programmes to success… or the failure in their absence. It is the inherent complexity of new missile and space systems, coupled with their novelty and within a framework of cost or low tolerance for failure (or lack of effectivness), that brought these new engineering and management practices into being. The move from less formal approaches to management, either employed by the military pre-missile era or arising from organisations with strong scientific or research backbones, towards more formal processes is told. Interestingly, these process represent a way to give voice and manaed empowerment to the different groups of “cooks” of this complex “broth”: scientists/researchers, engineers, managers…

Phased (staged) development, tight requirements, interface definition, change and configuration management are just a few of the “technologies” that are progressively brought into place in order to bring effectiviness and efficiency to the joint entreprise. Very interestingly is configuration management that comes accross as the main locus of achieving the mediation of trade-offs when facing the inevitable requests for change arising from developing complex systems with immature technologies. Configuration management thus fullfills both a technical, managerial and social role.

Also, the book criss-crosses the new (at the time) organisational tools as matrix organisation, proper allocation of authority, etc. The augmented level of formalism provides assurance for a type of vehicle quite expensive – and visible – to loose, from a fail-learn-re-trial perspective (to this, it is interesting to justapose the current approach from Space X, for instance).

All of this reminded me of a quotation from a work colleague “let’s go slowly that I am in a hurry”.

Superior organisational management is thus brought into context, both in the USA and then Europe. ELDO, an initial programme for European launchers miserably failed due to poor governance, poor allocation of authority, mistrust among partners, lack of proper interface management, etc. ESRO, an initiative for space research succeded by employing stronger systems management process… and thus gave us the stellar ESA (european space agency) today. Which makes me wonder if there is more material on this, how these managerial pratices, permeated through the build-up of what today are the European R&D Framework programmes, for instance? Is there – and what is – the connection? Some are more clear (I think SESAR), others less so…

The book also tempers the need and usefullness of formalism and explicit systems management approaches. It is quite interesting to read, for instance, that Von Braun team, used to the rocketering since the 30s built a huge tacit implicit knowleged among its members that precluded the need for such processes. Everyone was intimate with the interactions among the different disciplines by the 50s. It was only when new avenues needed to be opened that Von Braun clearly felt the need to adopt systems engineering. Other interesting tid-bit on Von Braun management was his monday notes: he wanted reports directly from two levels bellow him, that he then commented and distritubute to everyone. A very horizontal diffusion of information and cult of joint responsability (if you see something wrong fix it or get someone to fix it) promoted a true one team approach.

Great book for anyone interest in the history of the craft of systems engineering.

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Ricardo Reis

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