Creating a Rocket Building
Institution at the Marshall Space Flight Center
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Back to Top
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
17. NASA News Release, 30 September
18. NASA News Release, 12 December
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
Back to Top
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
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.
29. Wernher von Braun, "Presentation
to Employees," 29 November 1967.
Back to Top
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
34. MSFC Anniversary Report, p.
35. Von Braun, "Presentation