On July 20th we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of humans on the surface of the Moon. The achievements of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins during the Apollo 11 mission are rightly regarded as some of the most significant in history; however, they would not have been possible without the contributions of many thousands of others.

A major contributing factor to the successful launch from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, to the recovery of the astronauts by the USS Hornet on July 24th was NASAs pivotal role in the development of systems engineering. While the exact origins of systems engineering and its first practitioners are difficult to determine, the Apollo program is the best example of the practices of early systems engineering successfully achieving a historic goal.

NASA Strengthened Systems Engineering

The NASA Office of Manned Spaceflight was reorganized in 1963 under George E. Mueller specifically to strengthen its systems engineering role in the management of the Apollo program. Mueller is widely credited with applying systems engineering and improving management of the Apollo program, bringing it back on track. Mueller’s view that “all-up” testing, where the system performance and testing are considered as a whole, was critical to the successful testing of the Saturn V rocket, which would eventually launch Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins toward the Moon.

Systems of Systems

The Apollo program is a classic example of a “system of systems”: multiple technologies developed and seamlessly integrated to ensure accomplishment of the mission and safe return of the astronauts. This mission was on a scale unlike anything seen before, and had the most complex architecture in history with massive integration challenges::

  • The complex system of systems encompassed the Saturn V rocket, the command, service, and lunar modules, and the launch escape system.
  • Subsystems spanned propulsion, communication, guidance and navigation, and life-support systems.
  • Support systems included the ground control system, maintenance, space suits, and many others.

NASA also faced two major schedule constraints and major cost overruns. The first constraint was President Kennedy’s goal of completing the mission by the end of the decade. The second was launch windows and geographic timing. The initial $7 billion cost ballooned to over $25 billion. NASA had to implement new methods to control costs under the demands of the schedule.

From the development of large launch vehicles, to the design of space vehicles, orbit determination systems, and communication systems, modern systems engineering principles were applied. Key among these principles was the shift to considering the system as a whole and focusing on the customer’s needs. These key systems engineering principles are just as true today as they were in the 1960’s.

Evolutionary Development of Systems

It should also be noted that the Apollo 11 mission was a result of evolutionary technology development. The Apollo spacecraft was developed as an evolution from the previous Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. Mercury and Gemini performed important steps in the understanding of the design and operation of the system and the requirements and risks associated with a mission to land people on the Moon. Valuable lessons were learned during the Gemini 8 mission where Armstrong and David R. Scott performed the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit. This was the first step toward the eventual Apollo 11 mission system of lunar orbit rendezvous, where the Apollo 11 command module remained in lunar orbit, piloted by Collins, while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface using the lunar module. The Gemini 8 mission also marked the first critical in-space system failure for a U.S. spacecraft when the thruster system failed. Important takeaways from this failure included the realization that engineers with an understanding of the systems always need to be available to mission control.

A Compelling Vision

The technologies were just one aspect of the Apollo system. Of equal importance were the economic and social concerns. NASA made considerable progress in the mid-1960s to improve management systems and control schedules and cost, but none of this would have been possible without political and social support.

Fortunately, the Apollo program had a clear and compelling vision, which is the first step on the path to program success. This vision was laid out by John F. Kennedy in his speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, where he stated that the US “… should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” This speech was a major factor in establishing political and public support for the program. Public support was further strengthened by Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice Stadium in Houston on September 12, 1962. The program also relied on integrated teams of individuals from government, industry, and academia applying the principles of systems engineering under the guidance of high-level management.

Systems Engineering Lessons still Applicable Today

In 2008, NASA published “Seven Key Principles of Program and Project Success: A Best Practices Survey.” I have already briefly touched on Principle 1: Establish and a clear and compelling vision. The remaining principles are as follows:

  • Secure sustained support from the top
  • Exercise strong leadership and management
  • Facilitate wide open communication
  • Develop a strong organization
  • Manage risk
  • Implement effective systems engineering and integration

It is interesting to note that of the 19 program organizations reviewed against the seven principles, only two showed strong implementation of six of the seven principles; one of these was the Apollo program. Some more recent programs showed much weaker implementation of the principles and many have suffered from problems such as cost overruns as a result. It is clear from this survey that lessons can still be learned from the Apollo program and its application of systems engineering in particular. Maybe those systems engineering pioneers who helped win the space race were on to something.