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Home > Saturn/Apollo > Creating a Rocket Building Institution at the Marshall Space Flight Center

Creating a Rocket Building Institution at the Marshall Space Flight Center

Mike Wright
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian

Note: This paper was presented by the author at the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Programs and Technologies Conference in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1990.

This paper will examine the early history of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to identify major changes in the Center during the period that it was responsible for developing the Saturn family of launch vehicles. The principal conclusion of the author is that the unique change that Marshall experienced during the Saturn era was its shift from an in-house, self-sustaining organization to an institution responsible for managing the Saturn-related performance of a nationwide network of aerospace contractors.

The Marshall Space Flight Center was formed July 1, 1960, by the transfer to NASA of personnel and facilities comprising part of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Named for the famous soldier and statesman, General of the Army George C. Marshall, the Center was officially dedicated by President Dwight David Eisenhower on September 8, 1960.

The Center's major mission from its inception to 1969 was the development of the Saturn family of heavy space rockets. The largest of these, the Saturn V, was used in landing the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969. The Center's first director was Dr. Wernher von Braun, leader of a group of German-born rocket specialists who were transferred to America after World War II. During the war, the Von Braun team had developed the famous V-2 rocket. After the war, the team worked on U.S. Army missile and rocket research at White Sands, New Mexico. They were later transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where the rocket specialists developed the Redstone, the Army's first heavy ballistic missile; the Jupiter, a 1,500-mile intermediate range ballistic missile; and a modified Jupiter-C that launched America's first satellite, Explorer I. During the 1950s, the Von Braun team expanded and eventually included hundreds of American-born rocket specialists as well as the German-born members who joined the Marshall Center after its inception in 1960. <1>

Shortly before activating its new field Center in 1960, NASA described the Marshall Center as "the only self-contained organization in the nation which was capable of conducting the development of a space vehicle from the conception of the idea, through production of hardware, testing and launching operations." The Center's earliest projects included the Redstone, Juno II, Agena B, and Centaur vehicles. <2> During the early 1960s, the Center also initiated studies involving the huge Nova launch vehicle as well as vehicles that depended on electrical or nuclear propulsion. Saturn, however, became the Center's most important assignment.

Early Saturn Developments
In August 1958, ABMA received authorization to begin research and development on a booster of 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Initial studies by the Von Braun team indicated that an engine clustering technique using existing hardware could furnish large amounts of thrust. <3>

During the following month, Rocketdyne, a division of North American Rockwell Corporation, was awarded a contract to uprate the Thor-Jupiter engine. This ultimately resulted in the powerful H-1 engine, eight of which would be employed as the power plant for the first stage of the Saturn I. <4> Initial versions of the Saturn I vehicle, called Block I, had eight H-1 engines each producing a thrust of 165,000 pounds. The H-1s used in the Block II designs had a thrust of 188,000 pounds each. <5>

In October 1958, the Army team in Huntsville called for development of a high performance booster for advanced space missions. Tentatively called Juno V and finally designated Saturn, the booster was turned over to NASA in late 1959.

The initial firing of two Saturn first-stage engines came on March 28, 1960, only a few days after President Eisenhower officially directed that the NASA facilities in Huntsville would be known as the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. After the Center's activation on July 1, overall management responsibility for the Saturn program was assigned to the Marshall Center. <6>

Three vehicles were developed in the program. The Saturn I was primarily used as a research and development vehicle. The Saturn IB was used for orbital missions with Apollo spacecraft. Its first stage was powered by eight H-1 engines generating a total thrust of 1.6 million pounds. The Saturn V, used for the Apollo manned lunar landing missions, depended on a first stage powered by five F-1 engines, each generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

Marshall carried out development, testing, and production of the Saturn I first stage in-house until Chrysler Corporation became the prime contractor in late 1961. Eight of the 10 first stages boosters were built by Marshall, the others by Chrysler Space Division. Five second stages (two for testing and three for flight, all unpowered "dummies") were built at Marshall before Douglas Aircraft Company began to supply them under contract. In addition, five Saturn V first stages (three for ground tests and two for flight) were fabricated in house at Marshall. After this initial production, all stages of all three Saturn vehicles were produced by contractors (Douglas, North American, IBM, Rocketdyne, Pratt and Whitney, and Boeing) under Marshall Management. <7>

At the height of the Saturn program, as many as 20,000 contractor companies were involved in aspects of the Saturn program. Their involvement ranged from manufacturing the smallest components to static testing complete vehicle stages. For the Marshall Center, vested with overall responsibility for the Saturn, the management challenge was enormous. <8> The Saturn program, like other elements of the Apollo Program, was a project that required resources unparalleled in the history of any prior government science and engineering project. Its pace was set by President Kennedy's challenge to the nation to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. As a result of this timetable, the Marshall Space Flight Center emerged at the end of the 1960s as a vastly different organization than it had been at the beginning of the decade. These changes involved: acquiring new facilities for Saturn development and testing; transferring other space-related projects to other NASA locations; discontinuing work on the Nova launch vehicle; adopting a new approach to vehicle testing; reorganizing the Center's management structure as it shifted more work to the contractors; contending with a decline in manpower and funding; and defining its direction for the future.

Construction Expands at MSFC
The Saturn program required new and more powerful facilities than those already in place at the Center in 1960. As a result, engineers built a stand to test the powerful F-1 engines that generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Another facility was built to test the powerful first stage of the Saturn V that included five F-1 engines. A third stand was built to conduct dynamic testing on the entire Saturn V vehicle. This buildup involving new construction was accompanied by major modifications to the facilities that the Center had acquired from the Army.

Facilities Acquired in Louisiana and Mississippi
In the early 1960s, Marshall also acquired responsibilities for major Saturn-related facilities beyond the borders of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. On September 7, 1961, NASA announced the selection of the government-owned Michoud Plant near New Orleans as the future site for the production of the Saturn S-I stage. The plant would be operated by industry under the technical direction of MSFC. <9> In a related move on October 25, 1961, NASA selected a Pearl River site in southwestern Mississippi, 35 miles from the Michoud Plant in New Orleans, for a static test facility for Saturn and Nova class vehicles. MSFC would operate this facility. <10>

Launch Operations Directorate Dissolved
Although NASA assigned the Marshall Center a new set of responsibilities at Michoud and at the Mississippi Test Facility, the agency dissolved Marshall's Launch Operations Directorate at Cape Canaveral. The Directorate had been formally established in parallel with the inception of the Marshall Center. However, many of its employees were from the Army rocket team in Huntsville. This group was headed by Dr. Kurt Debus and handled launch operations for the Redstone, Jupiter and Juno rockets. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Debus' group also drew up the general criteria for construction of the Cape's Launch Complex 34, and studied possible off-shore launch facilities for heavy space vehicle. <11> In 1962, NASA dissolved Marshall's Florida Launch Operations Directorate and created, instead, a new NASA installation, the Launch Operations Center. Approximately 300 employees who had been been assigned to the Marshall directorate at the Cape became employees of the new Florida launch installation which eventually become the Kennedy Space Center. <12>

Agena B and Centaur Shifted to Lewis
Only a few years after the Marshall Center was formed, NASA decided to shift a portion of the new field center's initial responsibilities to other centers. In January 1962, NASA approved plans for the Saturn V development program and assigned responsibility to MSFC. <13>

In April 1962, the Saturn program received the highest national priority (DX). <14> In 1962 the agency also announced that it would build the Saturn IB, a new, two-stage Saturn-class vehicle for manned earth orbital missions with a full-scale Apollo spacecraft. <15> This would provide Marshall with responsibility for a family of three Saturn vehicles. It also meant that the new Center had to focus all of its attention on the Saturn program. As early as November 1961, NASA had shifted work on nuclear electric propulsion at Marshall to the Lewis Research Center. <16> On September 30, 1962, responsibility for the liquid fueled hydrogen Centaur also went to Lewis along with the M-1 hydrogen engine project. <17> Three months later, responsibility for Agena B also shifted from Marshall to Lewis. <18>

LOR Selected, Nova Proposals Fade
Another Apollo-related decision eventually ended further studies at Marshall regarding the huge Nova launch vehicle. The decision involved selecting the mission concept for the manned voyage to the moon. Three concepts were considered: lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR), earth orbit rendezvous (EOR), and direct ascent. LOR involved descent to the lunar surface from lunar orbit by using a small spacecraft that separated from the parent lunar satellite and then rejoined the orbiting spacecraft on the way home. EOR involved two rockets that would rendezvous in earth orbit where their payloads would be combined. Direct ascent involved building a powerful enough launch vehicle, possibly the Nova, to land a spacecraft directly on the surface of the moon. MSFC made proposals regarding both EOR and direct ascent. Von Braun, however, eventually agreed to LOR at a six-hour meeting with other top NASA officials on June 7, 1962. Before presenting his reasons for accepting LOR, Von Braun told those present that it was "absolutely mandatory that we arrive at a definite mode decision within the next few weeks, preferably by the first of July, 1962. We are already losing time in our over-all program as a result of a lacking mode decision." <19> As a result of the LOR decision, NASA selected the Saturn V as the vehicle for the manned lunar landing, thereby eliminating the immediate need for the more powerful Nova. Saturn historian Roger Bilstein said later that Nova "seemed to evaporate as other issues were settled that placed a premium on the development of its nearest competitor." <20>

All-Up Testing Implemented
Ever conscious of meeting President Kennedy's lunar landing challenge, NASA moved the Saturn program into high gear in 1963. On October 30, 1963, the agency announced a rephasing of Saturn manned flight missions. Saturn I manned missions were dropped, thereby deleting six Saturn I vehicles and saving an estimated $50 million. The Saturn I program would terminate with completion of the research and development program for the 10 unmanned flights. <21> The agency would accelerate development of the more powerful Saturn IB, and use it for the first Project Apollo manned flights. At the same time, development and testing would continue on the even more powerful Saturn V vehicle for the manned lunar landing mission. The decision to accelerate the Saturn program brought other significant changes to the Marshall Center. The impetus for one of the changes came in a meeting of the Manned Space Flight Council on October 29, 1963. At that meeting NASA Associate Administrator George Mueller called for an "all-up" approach to systems flight testing. <22> Instead of beginning with ballasted or dummy first-stage flights, the very first flight of the Saturn V would be conducted with all three live stages, an idea that Von Braun initially believed was "reckless." His more conservative approach to vehicle testing meant never introducing more than one major change between flights. Despite such reservations, Von Braun accepted Mueller's mandate and later came to believe that "without all-up testing the first manned lunar landing could not have taken place as early as 1969." <23>

Project Offices Created
As the Apollo program progressed, the Marshall Center changed the way it managed Saturn. Von Braun believed in a "dirty hands" approach to management, meaning that his laboratory directors and division chiefs should maintain the technical competence they needed to directly manage the Saturn programs. <24> This philosophy was fostered among the Germans by working first for the German Army and later for the U.S. Army in Huntsville. As Army employees, the team was able to focus most of its attention on technical matters while relying on the military for administration and support. As a result, Von Braun initially established a management system at Marshall that allowed the Center Director and his laboratory chiefs to directly manage many of the technical aspects of the program. Recognizing, however, that Saturn was expanding fast, Von Braun sent "MSFC Management Policy Statement #1 " to his division directors and office chiefs in 1962. He acknowledged that the growth the Center had experienced in the last 2 years made it impossible for projects to be managed "at the very top of the organization."

Instead, it was necessary to create project offices and then to clarify the division of responsibilities between the project offices and the Center's technical divisions. Von Braun wanted the project offices to direct, budget, and coordinate the projects. But he wanted to make sure the laboratories retained technical control. "The task of the project offices is not to do any part of the technical job in the various disciplines," Von Braun wrote. <25>

Management Structure Reorganized
Von Braun was concerned about the possibility of any decline in Marshall's in-house technical capabilities and he was cautious about how the continuing increase in contractor participation in Saturn might challenge the Center's ability to manage the program. "Of course, we expect American industry to do most of the work on Saturn. Of course, we want to keep our in-house operation down to the minimum," Von Braun said in 1961. "But of any $10 spent it is a good idea to keep $1 in the coordinating government agency in order to determine how to spend the $9 wisely." <26> Two years later, when approximately 90 percent of Marshall's budget was being spent for contractor support, Von Braun reorganized the majority of the Center's workforce into two major elements. One organization was called Research and Development Operations. Its subelements were the Center's nine technical laboratories. The second major organization was Industrial Operations created to direct that portion of the Center's work performed by prime contractors. Among its major subelements were the project offices that housed the managers responsible for the work that the contractors performed on the individual Saturn stages. <27> Other strategies were also used to try and strengthen Marshall's links with its contractors. Among these were the establishment of MSFC resident manager organizations at various contractor plants; the use of special teams of experts called "Tiger Teams," to solve technical problems and incentive fee and award fee contracts. <28>

Resources Decline
As indicated from the discussions presented here, many of the major changes that would influence Marshall's capabilities to develop the Saturn launch vehicles were implemented within the first few years of the Center's existence. Ironically, the cycle of funding and manpower for Saturn work rose and fell almost as swiftly at Marshall. By mid-1965, the Saturn I completed the last in a series of 10 flights. The first of four Saturn IB flights in the Apollo program began in 1966, and by November 9, 1967, NASA launched the first Saturn V.

Ironically, only a few days later Von Braun called Marshall employees together to tell them that although Marshall's role in Saturn was not officially complete, "the flightworthiness of the Saturn hardware has been established" and "the talent and skills of Marshall must be applied to the future goals in the Space Program." The Center Director pointed out that in late October, the Congress had passed, and the President had signed, a $4.59 billion appropriations bill, $511 million below the budget request. <29> "The Congress was aware that this funding level would force reductions in effort in NASA/Industry space capability, but the Congress was even more aware that there was simply not enough funds to satisfy all of the requirements of Viet Nam and the many urgent demands for domestic programs," Von Braun said. <30> Even before Von Braun's remarks in November 1967, NASA had decided to suspend production of the Saturn V beyond the 15th vehicle. The Marshall Center's total budget had risen from $377 million in FY61 to a peak of $1.69 billion in FY65. BY FY69 it fell to $811 million. <31> Total civil service and MSFC's contractor employment at MSFC grew from 5,843 in July 1960 to a peak of 20,418 in FY66. It declined to 10,964 in FY70. <32>

The impact that these reductions had on individual employees at the Marshall Space Flight Center cannot be underestimated. Following a series of interviews with members of the Von Braun team, Peter Coburn, a staff writer for the Huntsville Times, wrote in 1976, "America's self-imposed goal of landing a man on the moon was achieved; the politicians who hold the taxpayers' purse found public sentiment had dwindled; the overwhelming interest was in solving the social ills on earth." <33>

A decreasing level of funding and employment were two changes that the Marshall Center experienced at the end of the 1960s. A contrasting positive note, however, was the realization that the Center needed to change from a single-project to a multi-project organization. This decision culminated in the establishment of a Program Development Directorate to handle long-range planning and conceive new programs. <34>

After managing the development of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, as well as major components for Skylab in the early 1970s, the Center began providing NASA with the major propulsion elements for the Space Shuttle. Other projects in the 1970s and 1980s, included the High Energy Astronomy Observatories, Spacelab, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

In his 1967 address to employees Von Braun addressed what he called "the changing role" of the Marshall since 1960. "As you all know, Marshall has, over the years, changed from a do-it-yourself, self-contained in-house organization to a partner of industry. Our principal role in this partnership has been not only to manage the industrial effort, but to provide technical leadership in the best sense of the word." <35> The changing role that Von Braun referred to has continued to influence the Marshall Center and is likely to do so well into the 21st Century.

Source Notes
1. Alabama Space and Rocket Center, A Chronology, 1927-1980. The German Rocket Team (Huntsville, 1983), p. 1.

2. MSFC Fact Sheet, 5 April 1960.

3. Eugene M. Emme, ed., Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), p. 100

4. Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206 (Washington, 1980), p. 97

5. MSFC Brochure, "Saturn I Summary." Publication date is not listed.

6. Emme, p. 121,134.

7. NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1985 Anniversary Report (Washington, 1985), p. 9.

8. Anniversary Report, p. 15.

9. An Illustrated Chronology of the NASA Marshall Center and MSFC Programs, 1960-1973 (Huntsville, Alabama, 1974), p. 25.

10. David S. Aikens, History of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, July 1, 1961-December 31, 1961, MSFC, MHM-4, March 1962, p. 3.

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11. Marshall Star, 11 April 1961.

12. Arnold S. Levine, Managing NASA in the Apollo Era, NASA SP-4102, (Washington, 1982) p. 320; Marshall Star, 4 July 1962

13. David S. Aikens, History of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, January 1, 1962-June 30, 1962, MSFC, MHM-5, p. 1.

14. Illustrated Chronology, p.45

15. Linda Neuman Ezell,NASA Historical Data Book, Volume II, Programs and Projects 1958-1968, NASA SP-4012 (Wahington, 1988, p. 59.

16. Marshall Star, 21 November 1961.

17. NASA News Release, 30 September 1962

18. NASA News Release, 12 December 1962

19. Wernher von Braun,"Concluding Remarks By Dr. Wernher von Braun About Mode Selection for the Lunar Landing Program to Dr. Joseph Shea," 7 June 1962

20. Bilstein, Page 60

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21. Illustrated Chronology, pp. 59-60; MSFC Press Release, 1 January 1964

22. Levine, p. 322

23. Wernher von Braun, "Saturn the Giant," in Edgar M. Cortwright, ed., Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, NASA SP- 350 (Washington, 1975), p. 50.

24. Wernher von Braun to Division Directors and Office Chiefs, "MSFC Management Policy Statement No. 1," 16 August 1962

25. Ibid.

26. John P. Kushnerick, "Saturn Boosters for the Sixties," Aircraft & Missiles, January 1961, p. 18

27. Marshall Space Flight Center, "Summary of Organization & Management of Marshall Space Flight Center," 1963-1968, p. 5.

28. MSFC Anniversary Report, p. 16.

29. Wernher von Braun, "Presentation to Employees," 29 November 1967.

30. Ibid.

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31. D.L. Lackey, "MSFC Planning/Budget Process, A Presentation to University of Alabama -- Huntsville Team for MSFC History," April 18, 1990.

32. Bilstein, p. 450.

33. Huntsville Times, 8 August 1976.

34. MSFC Anniversary Report, p. 16.

35. Von Braun, "Presentation to Employees."