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January 9, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 1


As work begins on the Lunar Lander Project at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), its project office has undertaken an unorthodox approach to engineering management. Nicknamed Star Works, it is loosely based on the Lockheed Skunk Works concept pioneered by Kelly Johnson during World War II.

According to Lee Graham of the new Lunar Lander Project Office, the goal of Star Works is to create an innovative, lean, and nimble engineering design team that brings together talent from all of NASA’s centers. “No one center has all of the skills,” says Graham. “Star Works draws on the brainpower and expertise in needed areas from across the agency.”

Unlike a typical NASA design team with many members located at a single NASA field center, the Lunar Lander Project Office selected a small number of individuals with critical expertise from across the entire agency and then brought them together initially under one roof. This was done deliberately to avoid the problems inherent in large, decentralized teams. “We wanted to bond as a team first—especially in the conceptual phase — before everyone returns to their home centers. We wanted a small, fast-moving team,” Graham says.

The inspiration for Star Works came about as a result of a lunar lander study requested by the Constellation Program, and done in late 2006 and early 2007. The study team, led by Constellation Program office representatives John Connolly and Lee Graham, included key membership from JSC and MSFC. Connolly and Graham worked with the JSC participants Jose Caram and Bill Hoffman and their MSFC counterparts Reggie Alexander and Dave Jacobson to determine the schedule and cost of a “fully loaded” lunar lander project — one that followed all NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) documents and other agency-wide design requirements for a top-priority human space flight project. The result was “a huge number — one well beyond the available Constellation Program resources.”

As a result, the team developed a number of different options for the program to use in pursuit of the lunar lander project. A key consideration was to get as far in the project development effort as possible with only the currently available program resources. The team sketched out a concept for a Skunk Works management approach for Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley, who agreed that it should be presented to Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin. Hanley also emphasized that this could be used for all future Constellation projects as well.

The Administrator gave Star Works the go-ahead. Hanley brought together roughly a half-dozen people, whose experience ran the gamut from concept development work to flight hardware production, to form the core management team.

The Star Works team works in a large room with few dividers between the workspaces, with desks almost touching. There is a daily 8 AM meeting, and “invariably meetings follow that meeting because people need to talk to understand the latest developments,” Graham says. With key expertise so close at hand, Star Works design engineers can collaborate face-to-face and get answers to technical questions and initiate design changes within minutes or hours rather than days or weeks.

To keep the design process moving, there is a concerted effort by the management group to insulate the Star Works designers from cumbersome paperwork and bureaucracy. “We are absolutely following the NPR 7123.1 systems engineering process and NPR 7120.5D project management process,” says Graham. “We’re just doing it in a tailored, expedited and focused fashion.” The management team itself, however, is trying to manage the majority of the paperwork coming down from the program, freeing up the technical experts to focus on the design itself.

Based on the historical example of Lockheed Skunk Works manager Kelly Johnson’s original 14 Skunk Works practices and rules for building and managing creative teams, the Star Works team has come up with its own list, which it calls the Lander Rules. “We wanted to make sure (our rules) set the right tone for folks and that they understood what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.”

The Lander Rules:

  1. Leverage the strengths from across NASA. This is not a JSC, MSFC or JPL team, or any other center. We’re the Lander Team.
  2. We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them — Einstein
  3. We’re trying to find new ways of doing business — if you’re not at least a little outside your comfort zone, you’re not stretching far enough.
  4. Simple and elegant beats out sophisticated and complex.
  5. Start with the minimum required and add as necessary. Applies to size of team, technical design, and absolutely to documentation.
  6. Buy down risk consciously; know how much you’re buying, and how much it costs you to do so.
  7. If something seems bureaucratic and unnecessary, push back.
  8. When there are common goals, find a way to leverage other sources of money.
  9. You are personally responsible for the safety of this vehicle.
  10. We must hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately — Ben Franklin

Read a February 2007 overview briefing from the Lunar Lander Project Office (PDF).

Read management expert Warren Bennis’s analysis of Skunk Works and other “great groups.”

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