NASA logo

National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Unmanned Space Project Management

Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter


Chapter 1 - Introduction

The venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with a certain interior expansion, an ever growing universe within, to correspond with the far flight of the galaxies our telescopes follow from without.

Loren Eiseley

Unexpected Universe, 1969

ONE of the valuable byproducts of the U S. space program is the body of knowledge concerning management of large complex development project activities. The brief span of years since the formation of NASA has witnessed the rapid evolution of a variety of systems and techniques for directing the combined efforts of thousands of individuals cooperating in closeknit programs in which Government, university, and private industry play mutually reinforcing roles. Many of the major learning experiences, such as those in the Apollo management system, have been applied to other activities within NASA. There has been only limited effort, however, to distill the generalized management experience gained in other NASA projects for application outside the space agency itself.

In recognition of the need for continuous improvement and refinement of management techniques, NASA commissioned the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct a study of the management of the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter projects, two of the major NASA precursors of the Apollo program. The study was designed to provide an analytical record supplementing the relatively limited case literature on the practical aspects of such management activity. An objective record of the significant milestones in the management of these two endeavors, it was felt, would help to inform both managers currently engaged in such activity and those who will assume such responsibilities in the future.

Much of what follows will appear as a statement of the rather obvious virtues of common sense. The history of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, like most such studies, serves primarily as a confirmation of old truths about the so-called basic principles of management rather than a revelation of new ones. But the history brings out rather sharply that the application of basic principles may not always be a straightforward matter. It illustrates that what may be one man's basic principle may be another's shibboleth. Old truths are not always easily recognized or acknowledged. The aim of this study was, as Harold Orlans has written concerning the function of applied social research, "not to discover the truth (which historians will continue to debate for centuries), but rather to change the distribution of knowledge and opinion, informing a wider circle of what a few people already know and believe."1

In recapitulating the events of these two lunar exploration endeavors and trying to extrapolate from them the main object lessons, we should not make the mistake of dismissing the obvious as irrelevant. Even among the skilled and highly motivated professionals working toward common goals, as in the case of both Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, the evidence suggests that no manager can definitely rely on his counterparts or colleagues to do the obvious. What seems obvious to one person may seem anything but obvious to others.

This survey reveals that the solutions to management problems which now seem so clear cut were not so apparent when, for example, the managers responsible for Surveyor were seeking to bring that program out of serious trouble. Indeed, many of Surveyor's early troubles stemmed from the difficulties in pinpointing some basic management problems, identifying their nature and causes, and facing up to the magnitude of necessary corrective measures.

Early NASA experience with advanced technological development confirmed what was already a well-known phenomenon: the more complex and ambitious an undertaking, the more liable it is to encounter delays and overruns. To make complex high technology undertakings more manageable, they can be broken down into smaller elements. NASA, like the Department of Defense and other mission agencies, has recognized the value of setting discrete limits on projects as a means of making them more "doable" and thus improving the record of success.

One of the fundamental distinctions between Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, from a management viewpoint, is that the former was instituted as a NASA program whereas the latter was always a project. A "program," in NASA terminology, is a related series of undertakings normally continuing for years to accomplish broad scientific or technical goals. Within a program there may be one or more "projects," which are undertakings with a scheduled beginning and end involving the design, development, and demonstration of major advanced hardware items such as launch vehicles or space vehicles. NASA program managers located in the major Headquarters program offices exercise a staff coordinating and control function over programs. In the field, project offices are located in NASA field centers under the direction of field managers.

As the time chart indicates, Surveyor origins trace back to 1959. At that time it was conceived as a large, ambitious, and almost open-ended undertaking devoted to the pursuit of lunar science and exploration. In the fourth year after its initiation and after a great deal of deliberation among opposing elements within NASA, Surveyor was curtailed to an Apollo-supporting project. Lunar Orbiter, on the other hand, was designated from the beginning as a single project to obtain data for Apollo.

In this kind of an anyalsis one is confronted immediately with the question of what constitutes success in a program or project. There is no universally accepted set of criteria for measuring the success of research and development undertakings or the performance of those who manage them. Obviously a great deal hinges on such nonquantifiable factors as the degree of technical difficulty, the relative point in technological development at which a project is undertaken, the management philosophy guiding the sponsoring agency, and the overall environment in which a project operates. Comparisons based on the ratio of final costs to initial estimates are hazardous. There are many reasons both for and against overoptimism at the various levels where estimates are made, by the contractor, the field center, the NASA program office, or senior levels of NASA management. All such factors have a bearing on the reliability of cost estimates and should be taken into consideration when using costs as a measure of performance.

In these two projects, the United States acquired means of operating in space with both machines and men. The unmanned vehicles preceded the manned vehicles. Surveyor was the first long-lived NASA vehicle to land on and reduce uncertainties about the surface of a large body of matter other than the Earth. Within a few years of the first Surveyor landing, Dr. Frank Press, one of our country's most noted geologists, was willing to assert, "We have already learned more about the Earth by going to the Moon than we have by any other experiment performed on Earth."2

On the basis of the technological challenge involved, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter rank as two of the outstanding accomplishments of NASA and the U.S. aerospace industry in preparing the way for Apollo. Surveyor's task was far more difficult and complex than that of Lunar Orbiter. One of the major technological hurdles that had to be overcome in accomplishing the Surveyor objectives was the development of a new launch vehicle capability. The Centaur, based on a liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen concept which had yet to be proven, was to be the second stage of the Surveyor launch vehicle. The eventual success of the Atlas/Centaur combination, although its many development problems adversely affected Surveyor, marked the achievement of a significant new propulsion capability serving the needs of a variety of space programs.

When this study was begun, the Apollo space spectaculars had already established new records and achievement in the organization and management of both programs and projects. But Apollo's success was dependent on technical data acquired through Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, among other NASA precursors, and in no way diminishes their significance. Most of the technologies developed in the two projects have yet to be superseded in their respective fields. Moreover, in the area of systems management, the experience gained in these two endeavors promises to be prologue to the future management of similar endeavors.

Research for this study placed a premium on the personal opinions of individual participants. We took a cue from the view advanced by Prof. Jay Forrester, of the Sloan School of Management that "snooping around can get you 100 times as much useful information as looking through official records.3 Most of the management personnel who directed the two projects considered in this study were readily accessible and entirely sympathetic to the objectives of this study. More than 100 of these managers participated in interviews that probed their views on the significant lessons learned. In their individual careers, these two projects represented high-water marks of challenge and accomplishment.

Reporting the learning experience gained in these projects was complicated, nevertheless, by the fact that nearly all of the participating organizations and individuals continue to be actively engaged in similar activities. Analysis of current history always confronts the analyst with the difficulty of full, candid reporting of interpretations and opinions that may still be distorted by proximity and at the same time safeguarding the subject's right to privacy. In trying to strike the correct balance, the author's aim was a constructive brand of criticism which would not impair future relationships between individuals or institutions.

Sharp contrasts marked the environments in which Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter operated. Surveyor was begun at an early stage in the national space program before the commitment to a manned lunar landing. Lunar Orbiter, on the other hand, had the benefit of three critical years of experience after the initiation of Surveyor, and was designed to support Apollo from the beginning. The management styles exhibited under such dissimilar circumstances had to differ. But the contrast provides an opportunity to test certain management lessons in two differing environments.

The two projects were paired together for this analysis largely because of the many sharp contrasts in their two histories. Surveyor's success depended upon overcoming many unforeseen technical problems of serious proportions. The endeavor eventually required a time-consuming and costly upgrading of organization and management to assure mission ful-fillment. Lunar Orbiter, although it was by no means without its problems, progressed for the most part according to plan. Its objectives were achieved almost by "playing it by the book."

The differences in the two endeavors make a comparison in terms of any standard of success very difficult. For example, although the Lunar Orbiter project had a better record of vehicle successes and was operated with a substantially smaller cost escalation than the Surveyor program, it is true that Surveyor met all of its reduced level goals and was technically much more complex and ambitious. Thus, a conventional comparative approach was not useful for this study. Instead of comparing organizational behavior as determinants of program effectiveness, this study examined the range of interrelationships between organizational behavior and factors emanating from outside the project. Perhaps one of the most important lessons emerging from this investigation is, in fact, that management is only one of the ingredients that determine final results. Comparisons that fail to consider other factors can be misleading.

The 12 points discussed in the following pages represent a summation of the broad learning experiences gained. Each of the many individuals engaged in the two projects carried away his own personal collection of precepts. No two individuals would be likely to agree completely on a retrospective analysis of what was most important or significant.

When an outside observer looks at the two projects together, however, he is struck by the remarkable convergence in the lessons to be learned from two distinct sets of events. The implications of what emerges from looking at two quite dissimilar types of experience tend to be mutually reinforcing and corroborative. Whereas the Surveyor lessons include many illustrations of how "not to" set out on a project or how to correct for early misdirections, Lunar Orbiter shows how sound precepts and directions from the beginning can keep a project on track. One of the keys to the success of Lunar Orbiter was the learning experience gained from Surveyor.

Considerable attention has been given in recent years to the question of how NASA's collective management experience could be most effectively applied to tackling Earth problems. Many of the institutions and people engaged in Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter and other lunar and space exploration projects have moved into nonspace activities. So far, it has generally appeared easier to transfer technology than management. NASA, as an organization, has made extensive use of the project approach to getting jobs done. But many of today's big social problems are not and cannot be wrapped up in a single project package. When a problem is selected as appropriate for a project-type effort, the success of the endeavor will hinge a great deal on the sponsoring agency's maturity and sophistication in project organization and management. NASA and the aerospace industry have developed understanding and competence in project endeavors that are not necessarily duplicated in domestic agencies.

Furthermore, there is a limit to the potential of technical and technological competence in dealing with Earth problems. A demonstration model of an urban mass transit system, for example, can be designed and built to reduce substantially the transportation problems in a given community or type of community; but the determination of what system to build and how to go about developing it must take into account a wide range of social, political, and economic issues. Hardware oriented technicians cannot resolve these issues on their own. There must be an educational process in which the "hard" scientists and the social scientists learn to communicate in each other's languages, before the former's competence can be brought to bear on nonspace domestic problems.

The following pages demonstrate the importance of human aspects of management: relationships between individuals, compatibility, teamwork, and informal communications. When aerospace managers move into nonspace or civil activities, they must establish new sets of relationships with new people. Aerospace managers are accustomed to an environment in which decisions must be forced into go or no-go channels largely on the basis of measurable physical, financial, and time considerations. It is far more difficult to come by such hard quantitative measurements in social problem-solving activities. The aerospace manager may find it difficult to adjust to terrain that does not lend itself to precise measurement. Although the kinds of basic lessons to be learned from such projects as Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter are certainly not confined to the domain of the advanced-technology enterprise, it is essentially limited to project-type endeavors. What is most needed now is a means of expanding the area of common ground between the physical and the social sciences in which the project approach can be utilized to optimum effect.




1 Harold Orlans, "Social Science Research Policies in the United States," Mineral IX, (I) (Jan.1971), 30.

2 Oran W.Nicks, ea., v. This Island Earth, NASA SP-250, 1970, p. 64.

3 George A. W. Boehm. "Inventor. Engineer. Heretic. Jay Forrester," Think, 36 (2)(Mar.-Apr. v. 1970), 18.