ASK OCE — April 4, 2006 — Vol. 1, 1 Issue 7
Great goals require great transformations. After President Kennedy challenged the nation in 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it became apparent that NASA would have to quicken its pace to meet this goal.
In 1963, when George Mueller assumed overall responsibility for the Apollo program as Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight, he realized that NASA would not make it to the moon by 1970 without a more aggressive approach to its Saturn V rocket development. Based on his experience with the Air Force ballistic missile program, he called for NASA to adopt an “all-up” testing approach, rather than testing components separately, as had been standard practice since the earliest days of the Agency.
Mueller’s plan faced strong opposition from Marshall Space Flight Center Director Dr. Wernher von Braun, the father of the U.S. rocket program, who advocated a more conservative approach. In an essay written later entitled “Saturn the Giant,” von Braun recounted his skepticism:
“In 1964 George Mueller visited Marshall and casually introduced us to his philosophy of ‘all-up’ testing. To the conservative breed of old rocketeers who had learned the hard way that it never seemed to pay to introduce more than one major change between flight tests, 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.”
Von Braun and his team argued that by consolidating testing, it would be impossible to pinpoint where failures occurred. The Saturn rockets were not being mass-produced like Air Force missiles. From von Braun’s point of view, the two programs were unalike and could not be managed the same way.
Mueller and the Apollo team countered that sequential testing on a stage-by-stage level just spread the risks among many tests rather than minimizing them. Mueller also knew that the Apollo program would not reach the goal set by President Kennedy using von Braun’s approach.
In the end, after both sides had clearly and forcefully stated their differences, Mueller outranked von Braun. The Apollo program implemented “all-up” testing. By 1968, the third Saturn V ever launched sent Frank Borman and the Apollo 8 crew into a lunar orbit. The rest became history.
“In retrospect it is clear that without all-up testing the first manned lunar landing could not have taken place as early as 1969,” von Braun wrote. “It sounded reckless, but George Mueller’s reasoning was impeccable.”