The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs

By Stephen B Johnson (2002)

Both Servan-Schreiber and McNamara believed that their societies needed more and better management. According to McNamara, “Some critics today worry that our democratic, free societies are becoming overmanaged. I would argue that the opposite is true. As paradoxical as it may sound, the real threat to democracy comes not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement. To undermanage reality is not to keep it free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality.”

My Notes

Management History

Scientific Management

Taylor, early twentieth century.

Knowledge Workers

Drucker, 1940s.

Management by objectives:

Managers and professionals jointly negotiated the objectives for the agency or firm on the one hand and for the individuals on the other, each worker agreeing to the terms.


Research and development in parallel to manufacturing, testing and production. Cold War, 1940s and 1950s.

Systems Management

Manhattan Project, NASA, etc. 1950s.

Very large and very complex projects, e.g., Apollo:

💡 Know the context in which you’re operating.

For most technologies, building a few prototypes and performing detailed tests with them before manufacturing is feasible and sensible. Lack of coordination and planning (each of which costs a great deal) can be overcome through prototype testing and redesign of the prototype. This option is not available for most space systems, because they never return.

Features of Systems Management

Origins at Caltech, MIT, Bell Labs.

Slower development but increased reliability and cost predictability.

1x component = 90% reliability 2x components = 90% x 90% = 81%

In this way, engineers estimated the decrease in reliability as they added electrical components. With calculations such as these, engineers determined that adding a second parallel “string” of components significantly improved missile reliability.

💡 Can this kind of simple maths be extrapolated to e.g., number of features?

Finding the Right Balance

Continual back and forth:

As stated by one of the engineers on Gemini and Apollo, “You would see people who would try to build empires, who would try to be obstructionist, and they would be just absolutely steamrolled by this team. I saw it time and time again where there was this intense feeling of teamwork. It wasn’t always smooth, but it was like, ‘We’ve got a common goal.’”


A “fatally flawed management structure that was almost the exact antithesis of systems management in the United States.”

The Germans formed four committees: a government committee to investigate the failure, a committee to investigate the rest of the design, an internal committee of the contractor ASAT, and a committee to oversee and coordinate the other three committees. 😂

Control Systems and Project Management

Hoernke’s analogy of an engineering control system and project management:


Lean serves a different purpose:

Whereas Japanese managers and engineers focused on the reliability of mass production processes, their American counterparts concentrated on the reliability of R&D.