Blog  •  31 Jul 2019  •  5 min read

The Apollo Project. Hard Problems Need Systems Engineering

By Lloyd Pryce.

If you google “Systems Engineering” and find your way to the Wikipedia page that describes it you will see references to the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook. The complexity of the engineering challenge that the Apollo project had to overcome from 1961 to 1972 spurred on the development of systems engineering at a pace never seen before. It had wider impacts too of course. Not least the boost to science and education across the US, the build-up of a skilled aerospace supply chain and national pride in such a captivating mission. After the Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, there was a clear need for the US to demonstrate it could win the technological race as part of the cold war.

It’s hard to imagine a UK politician today making such a bold statement and naming a timescale as well. Just look at the debate over High Speed 2, Heathrow and Nuclear Power. The ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by the democrats is today’s closest equivalent moon-shot type ambition – but with tackling climate change as the objective. Regardless of the mission in question, it’s worth looking back to the analysis of the Apollo Project to learn lessons for the future.

The legacy of Apollo

In the NASA website history section there is an article called Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis’Part of the discussion of the legacy of Apollo highlights some interesting findings from those closest to the project. It states that, “Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting enormously difficult systems engineering, technological, and organizational integration requirements.” It notes that the NASA Administrator at the height of the Project, James E. Webb, always contended that, “Apollo was much more a management exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was largely within grasp at the time of the 1961 decision. More difficult was ensuring that those technological skills were properly managed and used”. From then and since, utilising this experience, NASA has led the way in the development of Systems Engineering and complex Engineering Management techniques.

Fifty years of non progress?

On 13 July 2019, Buzz Aldrin was speaking at the Apollo 11 50thAnniversary Gala at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Reflecting on the last 50 years since the moon landings he said, “Fifty years ago the Saturn V took the command module, the lunar module to the moon, three of us, to the moon. We landed, explored, got back up again rendezvoused, came back. That’s fifty years of non-progress. I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can’t do better than that”. It’s understandable that he sees it like that – although viewing progress based on what Apollo did for technology and the understanding of how to manage complex engineering programmes would look more positive.

On the subject of Systems Engineering, if there is one key lesson we can learn from the Apollo programme it is that the management of complexity, both organisational and technical, is the route to success. It is not uncommon to find major engineering projects where systems engineering is detached from project management functions or under resourced. The Apollo project team had their immovable schedule set by Kennedy, they couldn’t tolerate multiple failures and loss of life and therefore they had to manage risk effectively. Of course, the $25bn, equivalent to $175bn (£140bn) today also helped. It’s no surprise then that NASA became leaders in Systems Engineering and continue advocate the application of Systems Thinking and management theory. Hard problems need systems engineering. As President Kennedy put it, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

Looking forward, it will be exciting to see how the new NASA Artemis moon missions – named after Apollo’s twin sister and aiming  to return to the Moon by 2024 – will continue the development of how humanity can tackle complex challenges on an inter-planetary scale!

#moonlandings #space #systemsengineering #NASA

July 2019


Further reading:

Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis

NASA Systems Engineering Handbook

EU Commission Report on the Apollo Project

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