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National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Unmanned Space Project Management

Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter


Chapter 5 - Synthesis

WHAT is the essence of the management learning experience gained in the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter undertakings? Can this experience be synthesized into meaningful and significant concepts relevant to the management of future undertakings? How important is the "management" of the project relative to other factors such as environ-ment and the state of the technology? Are there apparent means sug-gested by Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter for transfer of learning experience? Is the experience applicable exclusively to similar advanced-technology research and development projects, or can there be lateral transference to the broader field of management in general?

What emerges perhaps most forcefully from a broad retrospective view is the importance of the human aspects of organization and management. Both projects demonstrated the critical nature of human skills, interpersonal relations, compatibility between individual managers, and teamwork. The Surveyor experience brought out these lessons, for the most part, by demonstrating the effects of gaps or barriers in the total web of managerial relationships. Many of the difficulties of the Surveyor project can be traced to individual and institutional discords that stood in the way of communication and agreement based on mutual interest in resolving project problems. Despite all the formal reporting systems, communications in the early stages of Surveyor were generally inadequate, both within and between the participating organizations. Individual managers in the various customer and contractor organizations were often surprised by a failure of their counterparts to follow what seemed to be the obvious course to get the job done.

Lunar Orbiter demonstrated the importance of leadership commitment to a project. When all levels of management fully support an endeavor, the odds for its successful completion obviously improve. In an environment marked by mutual respect and confidence of all participating organizations, Lunar Orbiter maintained its schedules and avoided many of the kinds of trouble that beset advanced research and development projects.

Surveyor demonstrated the depth of trouble a project can encounter when the full column of management support is incomplete. The general management structure of the Surveyor project at both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Hughes Aircraft Co. tended to be too removed from the project and too little committed to its necessary priorities. As one of the consequences, a multiple tier of suspicion and mistrust developed among the participants. Midway in the project, massive corrective measures, sometimes to the point of overcompensation, had to be instituted to assure the success of the Surveyor missions. Surveyor managers applied elaborate, detailed, and costly formal reporting systems in their attempts to keep the project on track. Lunar Orbiter managers, by contrast, had learned to reduce the amount of formal reporting and maximize the value of the informal links between project counterparts.

People make organizations; different kinds of people make different kinds of organizations. The field center personnel assigned to Surveyor were, by dint of circumstances of the time, very different from the kinds assigned to Lunar Orbiter. There was considerable reluctance at JPL to jeopardize professional careers in a project assignment. The professional staff charged with responsibility for Surveyor tended to be highly specialized in various research fields of science or engineering. The professional staff from which the Lunar Orbiter team was selected was eager to accept the challenge of the first spaceflight project assigned to them. Whereas the best talents were not applied to Surveyor until relatively late in the project's development, some of the best talents were assigned to Lunar Orbiter at the outset.

As between the prime contractors, the differences in makeup of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter personnel were mainly in the degree of prior project experience. Personnel assigned to Surveyor were, for the most part, not trained in that type of project activity and few had the systems management capability needed. For Lunar Orbiter, large numbers of qualified technicians and managerial personnel who had worked with each other on prior projects were available. They began, moreover, with three years' more learning experience.

The different attitudes of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter personnel upon the completion of their respective projects is significant. Some personnel at JPL still tended to regard their Surveyor experience as a sidetrack in their career advancement. Some felt that not enough effort had been made to apply their experience effectively in new assignments. Among Lunar Orbiter personnel, on the contrary, there was almost universal feeling that this project involvement had been a net plus in their careers.

Association with a successful undertaking breeds pride and confidence. Lunar Orbiter teams acquired a positive outlook almost from the beginning. For years Surveyor teams were harassed by serious technical problems, doubts about the technical feasibility of the entire undertaking, and second-class citizenship within their immediate environment.

The lesson here is obviously not that technical organizations should limit new undertakings to the least risky or demanding enterprises. Tough technical challenges must continue to be accepted by organizations aspiring to lead in technical endeavor. Perhaps the lesson centers on how the requirer and the producer reach agreement on their contract. General management of customer and contractor organizations must agree beforehand on the method of dealing with questions posed by sometimes con-flicting priorities in allocating manpower and resources. Although it is far easier to make such a general observation in hindsight than to deal with such issues in practice, the assignment of priorities and allocation of resources by general management undoubtedly may be a determining factor in a project's outcome.

Many of the organizations and individuals engaged in spaceflight projects such as Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter have now moved on to work in non-space-related fields. Despite the differences in technologies or differing environments surrounding their new enterprises, what they have learned about managing projects is still broadly applicable to their new ventures. The management skills represented in organizing and directing a space exploration project are not sui generics. Rather, they are a combination of common sense, managerial sensitivity, and technical competence adaptable to rapidly changing situations.

Although each manager setting out on a new task may view his assignment as a completely new departure, he is actually part of a continuum. Just as he brings to his task his own past knowledge and experience, so his colleagues bring theirs. The successful project manager is one who is able to provide the kind of leadership that effectively taps this experience, focusing a common effort upon common goals through a progression of commonly accepted intermediary steps.