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ASK OCE — January 12, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 1

A tireless spirit of problem solving in the name of a common goal. A seasoned team of engineers and managers. The vital importance of learning from mistakes. Those were the keys to Apollo’s success, according to retired NASA engineer Dr. Henry Pohl.

In a February 1999 interview with the Johnson Space Center’s Oral History Project, Pohl recalled the spirit of determination that fueled the Apollo generation of NASA engineers. “The kind of attitude back then was that when you had a problem, you know, you did what you needed to do to find a solution to it,” Pohl said. “You didn’t throw up your hands and say ‘I can’t’ or ‘It’s not—'”

A centerpiece of the Apollo problem solving culture, according to Pohl, involved a relentless focus on a clear goal. “The attitude of the people that worked there was that we wanted to beat the Russians to the Moon. So, we had this competitive spirit of trying to do things quick, trying to do tings safely, and figure out what we had to do to beat the Russians,” he said. “So everybody tended to work together with each other for a common cause rather than worrying about their little niche in the world.”

Pohl highlighted the fact that the people managing the Apollo program emphasized hands-on engineering experience. “Every one of these people grew up in a laboratory doing things themselves, running out the calculations, developing the formulae. So, when it came time to manage 200,000 people all over the United States and contractors of every persuasion, they could do it from the standpoint of having been there, of knowing what it took to do the job…They weren’t easily snowed by something.”

He pointed out the facile notion that “failure is not an option” was not altogether true on Apollo. “There are times when failure is not an option but if you’re not allowed to fail, then by definition, you cannot succeed. We were able to get things in test early, prototypes, even things we knew sometimes wouldn’t work, but at least it gave us an idea of how to change something, modify it, how to do something different.”

Pohl also cited the importance of engineering intuition to the success of Apollo. “You know, most of the things you do in the engineering world is somewhat intuition. You have to have a feel for it. You really don’t have the time, most of the time, to do the analysis, to run the equations, before you make a decision. So to make a decision, if you’ve been down that road before, you’ve got a feel for what you need to do.”

Read the February 1999 interview with Henry Pohl from the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. (PDF)

In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

View from the Outside: Blue Origin Takes First (Low Altitude) Step toward Space

This Week in NASA History: Lunar Prospector

Public Support for the Vision

JPL Director Named One of ‘America’s Best Leaders’

A History of Heavy Lifting: MSFC Veteran to Head Ares V Development

Dr. Henry Pohl on the Keys to Apollo’s Success

Classics of Aerospace Literature: Inside NASA

Government Brief: GAO Calls for Better DoD Strategy for Space Acquisitions

Archimedes Archive: Kollsman’s Barometric Altimeter

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