Product Development Lessons from NASA

The Saturn V Rocket On It’s Way to The Moon on Apollo 11 (NASA)

Product Development Lessons from the Space Race: How “All Up Testing” Got The USA To The Moon

In a production setting a company often faces a critical decision: Do you push to get a product out, or do you play the conservative route and make sure it’s absolutely ready prior to release. While each approach has its respective advantages, in this post I am going to present an example of how the decision to speed up development of the Saturn V rocket was the deciding factor in winning the Space Race.

Origins of “All Up Testing”

In 1963, the Space Race was well underway. While the US and USSR were battling to launch astronauts into Earth orbit, the attention of both powers were focusing on the Moon. In the US, President Kennedy had declared the United States’ intention to land on the moon before the decade was out. It was a formidable challenge, as the US had yet to master the art of building rockets and spacecraft that could even get astronauts to the moon, let alone land on it and return them back safely.

At the center of the US effort was Wernher Von Braun. He was the chief rocket scientist who had gotten the manned space program off the ground. Hailing from Germany, he was a conservative engineer, and believed in thoroughly vetting each primary component separately before testing a rocket as a whole. He was the creator of the Saturn V rocket.
Standing at 363 feet tall, the Saturn V was the largest rocket ever built (and still is to this day!). The rocket was compromised of three stages that would have to work perfectly to get a manned Apollo ship to the moon. It was a great design, but Von Braun had a problem: The USSR had a rocket of their own and was rushing to beat the US to the moon.

Crunch Time and a Bold Gamble

By 1963, a new administrator, George Mueller, had taken over the reigns of NASA. He took stock of his situation and came to a chilling conclusion: The sequential testing of each stage of the Saturn V was going to push the program past President Kennedy’s deadline of the end of 1969. Desperate situations often call for bold gambles and Mueller decided to go all in. Instead of going the sequential route they would test the Saturn V in an “All Up” test. That is, fly the entire rocket on a test flight with a real spacecraft. Von Braun was aghast:

“George’s ideas had an unrealistic ring. Instead of beginning with a ballasted first-stage flight as in the Saturn I program, adding a live second stage only after the first stage had proven its flight worthiness, his ‘all-up’ concept was startling. It meant nothing less than that the very first flight would be conducted with all three live stages of the giant Saturn V. Moreover, in order to maximize the payoff of that first flight, George said it should carry a live Apollo command and service module as payload. The entire flight should be carried through a sophisticated trajectory that would permit the command module to reenter the atmosphere under conditions simulating a return from the Moon.”

As the program manager, Mueller hadn’t lost sight of the ultimate goal: Beating the Russians to the moon and ensuring NASA met President Kennedy’s stated goal. While NASA had almost unlimited funding at the time, they did answer to Congress and ultimately the American people. A failure to meet the President’s challenge would be devastating to their funding and existence. Ultimately, it was the product development team’s obligation to deliver their rocket on time and meet the stated goals of the program.

While Von Braun was a legend in his own right, Mueller was his boss. And he pulled the ‘Boss Card’ to ensure things went along faster. On November 9th, 1967, Mueller saw his efforts pay off. The first “All Up” test of the Saturn V rocket went off smoothly during Apollo 4. (You can see Walter Cronkite marvel at the rocket’s sheer power here. 1:49 is where the fun starts) One more “All Up” test would follow on Apollo 6. By late 1968, NASA sent the first crew around the moon on Apollo 8. And then on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.
The story of George Mueller’s bold gamble is often lost in the retelling of the enormous engineering feats that allowed humans to walk on the moon. But his decision was just as crucial to ensuring Neil Armstrong got there first.

Corporate Strategy, Sales Operations
You might also like ...
Predictable Pitfalls of Founders and How to Avoid Them
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in People + Strategy magazine here. We have romanticized founders having their “eureka” moments, writing their...
by Alisa Cohn
Startup Strategy
The Simple Secret to Getting Ahead in Tech
A couple of weeks ago, I read a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about Leyla Seka’s rise through...
by George Roberts
Startup Strategy
Using Empathy to Improve the Customer Journey
Empathy is key to improving the customer journey, but to develop it we need to get as close as we...
by OpenView