TAPE 1, SIDE 1
MR. MARTIN COLLINS: I want to discuss the event of the Apollo fire and what its significance was for NASA, as a way of getting into the subject of where you were and what you were doing when the fire happened, and what some of your immediate responses were.
DR. GEORGE MUELLER: We were at a dinner party--my memory fails me, it was either in New York or Washington. We had gathered together the heads of the companies, our so-called business advisory group, something.
COLLINS: The Apollo Executive Group?
MUELLER: The Apollo Executive Group, right. We were discussing the future, because at that point in time we were moving rather rapidly towards our first flights, and I wanted to begin to prepare for the follow-on space program, and so we had begun to explore what we could do, the next step being the Apollo Applications Program, and then beyond that, the Shuttle and Space Stations. We were just in the midst of dinner when the call came in saying that there had been a disaster down at the Cape, and we did a quick review, told the group what we knew at that time, and then Sam went directly down to the Cape to see what was going on down there and take charge down there.
COLLINS: This is Sam Phillips.
MUELLER: Right. And Jim Webb was at that dinner, and we then immediately moved to set up a review committee, an internal one, and began the process of damage control in the press, because the people at the Cape were reluctant to begin disseminating knowledge that they didn't have, but of course the press was clamoring for attention, and you can never give the press enough information. There's no way that you can keep them satisfied. Of course, the first thing that they want to do is go and take pictures of the disaster area, and we wanted to get as much information as we could gather together before we allowed everybody to wander through, because we really didn't understand what had happened at that time. And that began a series of meetings with key Congressional figures, and great numbers of questionings as to how could this possibly happen and so on, on the part of the Congress.
COLLINS: This was before the review committee had really gotten into a study of the problem.
MUELLER: Right. Everybody wants to get on the front pages, when something like that happens. And then in a day or two, we began to get the various cranks coming in, saying they knew what had happened and so on and so forth. It was treated very much like a major aircraft accident, so that all of the pieces were carefully catalogued, a tremendous amount of effort went into being sure that whatever could have caused it could be reconstructed. We never did figure out what started the fire as such. The guess is that either somebody threw a switch that arc'd or pulled a wire out by mistake and it arc'd, and once an arc occurs in a pure oxygen environment, it's just amazing how fast those things burn.
COLLINS: Right. This would have been something that the astronauts did either inadvertently or advertently.
MUELLER: Yes. And then you have only a few seconds in which to do anything and really there isn't anything you can do.
COLLINS: What was your role or relationship with the 204 Review Board?
MUELLER: Well, that was quite independent, and except for receiving reports from them, really had very little direct--I was trying hard to keep the rest of the program in equilibrium, and so I was working the external forces and trying to reorganize ourselves, because it was a traumatic experience for the organization, and each individual had to be helped over the guilt feelings and so on. Everybody felt we should have been able to prevent this. And so there was a period of time when we lost a tremendous amount of momentum.
COLLINS: Was there ever any sense that this accident was so crippling, either psychologically, managerially or technically, that it was doubtful that the moon goal would be achieved?
MUELLER: I don't think internally we had that sense. Externally of course it was rampant. The question was, shall we cancel this program? After all, we can't afford to kill these marvelous people. In some sense, the reaction of the Congress and the White House to an accident in the space program is so different than it is to an accident in any other experimental program, aircraft program for example. Probably because of the high visibility of the astronauts in the press. So you get a completely different set of public relations that you have to work through. Then, after the 204 Board had begun to report, then Congress decided it had to have an investigating committee, and so the Senate got its own investigating committee, the House got its own, and of course, one of the complicating factors was the Phillips Report, that was written several months before the accident, but which was quite critical of the work going on at Rockwell, and that turned out to be perhaps the largest single problem we had, was that report had been created and then destroyed but once you create a report like that, you can never really destroy it. Everybody has a secret copy.
COLLINS: It was either the standard procedure or part of the plan specifically with this report that it would be prepared and then discarded?
MUELLER: Well, not normally, but it was so comprehensive that it would have been very difficult not to explain why we were continuing to go on with Rockwell, when they were doing such a terrible job. The value of a report like that is to have the management of the company understand what the problems are, and that was what we had accomplished, and then having a written report didn't add to that, but created the possibility of a whole series of reviews and recriminations and divisiveness at a time when we didn't need it. Now, this was all well before the fire. Well before, maybe three or four months before the fire. And it wouldn't have been a problem if we'd never had the fire, because things were being fixed and put under control. We had task forces all over the place. And we were working the various problems that had been identified.
COLLINS: What initial set of circumstances inspired the preparation of the so-called Phillips Report?
MUELLER: Oh, problems in production and delivery of all of the pieces that Rockwell was associated with. They simply didn't have adequate control of their production process, and they were meeting schedules by not completing work, and delivering it to the Cape to be done down at the Cape, which is a poor way of doing things. And so we had to go back and say, "Look, we're going to do this right, and if it takes a little longer, we'll take a little longer, but let's make sure everything is as good as it can possibly be before we ship it."
COLLINS: Did the Phillips Report cover all of the major NASA contracts with North American, or just the command?
MUELLER: Oh no, it was all of them. We were having problems with the 5-II stage, and we were having problems with the engines, as well as with the command module. Quality in the command module was a problem.
COLLINS: How did this compare with the problems with other contractors? Was this analogous to what was happening with Grumman or Boeing or was their problem somehow more severe than those experienced by other contractors?
MUELLER: Well, for one thing, of course, they had such a large part of the program that they had--in that sense, there were bottlenecks all along, in all of those contracts that they had. No, Grumman was also having difficulties. Boeing was not. It was well on top of the situation. And [McDonnell] Douglas was also in good shape. Those two contractors were not having difficulties meeting production schedules, but to some extent they had simpler problems, too.
COLLINS: One of the things that's occurring in the period `63 to `65 is this process of changing over from cost plus fee contracts to incentive type contracts, which meant that NASA had to devote more attention to defining more precisely these specifications of the items that they wanted. Did this in any way relate to the problems that North American--was it strictly a question of North American management or was it a combination of North American management and the difficulty of defining in detail what it was they were to produce?
MUELLER: Well, one of the great advantages of the incentive contracts was it forced both sides to understand what it was they were going to produce, and what it was that was important, but the real problem was management. And for some reason, the management wasn't getting across to the people in the work force the importance of doing things right, and on time, and so they were working more or less in an airplane mode instead of a space mode, and our requirements were more rigorous than those that would be associated with an experimental flight program.
COLLINS: You mean in terms of quality control and testing?
COLLINS: How do you go about conducting a study like this? How do you go in and assess precisely what the problems are?
MUELLER: First of all, you explain to the management that you're going to do it, and that you'd like to get some of their key people involved in it, from outside the program itself, and then you set up, you identify a team of experts. Eberhardt Rees, for example, was doing a study on the 5-II stage, and Joe Shea--Joe was deeply involved in the command module. And my good friend down at Huntsville--
COLLINS: Wernher von Braun?
MUELLER: No. Well, of course Wernher was, all of us were involved, but the actual guys doing the detailed work--you know, it takes several months to go through and really understand where every part of a program is, and so we had a major task force, probably 150 NASA people working on the various subsystems, and identifying problems and what needed to be done.
COLLINS: And Sam Phillips had overarching responsibility for directing this effort.
MUELLER: Right. So it was a major undertaking, and it paid off very well.
COLLINS: What was the degree of participation or receptivity of North American to this in-depth review of their work?
MUELLER: Oh, they were deeply involved. Lee Atwood was always cooperative, and the chief person there was Stormy [Harrison Storms] who was in charge of the program, and he was probably the largest part of the problem they were having, since he was highly success-oriented, and unwilling to admit that there was any possibility that something more could be done to do the program properly. In a sense, any of these programs could be run perfectly if management did exactly the right things at the right time, but human beings being what they are, why, you have to have some external forces occasionally to cause the internal management review to take place. You have to tilt the mechanism enough so that it gets the proper amount of attention. Fascinating, that the same problems recur time after time, in almost every program, and that the management of the program, whether it happened to be government or industry, continues to avoid reality, if you will. For example, if you're running a program, a major program, the person who does the original design is hardly ever the person that also ought to carry it through the development phase, and the guy that does the development and works out the nitty gritty details is probably not the guy to go into production and produce it. See, you need to pass the baton, but nowhere do people willingly pass the baton at the right times. It takes an external force usually to cause it to happen.
COLLINS: What other types of problems are typical? Passing the baton might be listed as one of them. What are some of the others?
MUELLER: Well, you get to a point where you're behind schedule, and then you begin to take short cuts, and then the short cuts cause you to miss schedules still further, so you try to take more short cuts, and then you begin to work overtime, and then the overtime rate shoots up, and then as your quality program swings into gear, you begin to find problem reports growing, and so about that time you have to stop and say: Now look, we've got to fall back and regroup, what is our real problem and how are we going to solve it? And usually that fall back and regrouping takes some external force to cause it to happen, because otherwise you're doing the very best you can and you know you're trying to meet those schedules and you're trying to get the quality that's needed, and you're so close to the problem you can't really see what it is that could be changed or should be changed.
COLLINS: Is that a rough characterization of what was operative in the North American case?
MUELLER: Yes. Yes, they thought they had chosen THE way to do something, and they were charging down that road and wouldn't stop to fall back and think about, well, are there other things we can do? Or how can we maybe take a little more time right now and fix it for the future?
COLLINS: North American did have experience with, I think, limited type high quality production items like the X-l5.
MUELLER: Oh yes. More particularly, the X-l5 is a good example, but their work on guidance systems for the ballistic missile program was a good example of high quality, which they did quite well.
COLLINS: So what prevented that kind of experience or tradition within the company to be applied to the NASA situation, to which they seem to be very analogous?
MUELLER: Well, to some extent it was applied, but to another extent, it's a different field, and the managers on the NASA contracts were different than the managers on the ballistic missile contracts, naturally, and the transfer of managerial knowledge is very difficult, when all of a sudden--we eventually transferred, or North American did, a whole set of people in from other parts of the company to help in this area, but that again was the result of external pressure rather than internal.
COLLINS: Is the manner in which NASA was able to bring external pressure to bear on North American at all similar to what a large commercial purchaser could place on a company? For example, if an airline was buying a large lot of commercial transports and somehow the project wasn't going well enough, could they be applying a similar strength of pressure on the corporation, to meet production deadlines and that kind of thing? Is there an analogy there at all, or is the government situation more unique in being able to push for those kinds of changes?
MUELLER: Normally in aircraft production, there are, not so much from the customer but from the prime contractor. You know, a modern airplane is built by almost everybody in the industry, pieces of it, and so the prime is the guy that produces the pressure on the subs to produce what's needed when, and quality-wise. I remember going through that when we were building the center section for the McDonnell Douglas thing at General Dynamics with--GD down at San Diego built the center fuselage section, and for the DC-l0, and McDonnell Douglas was all over us down there to get our quality up and our production up and so on. And eventually we did.
COLLINS: You're speaking of after you left NASA and you were senior vice president of General Dynamics.
MUELLER: Right. But it's the same thing. Now customers in the airlines don't have that kind of need to control, because what they're getting is a turnkey system. It's delivered and they don't pay for it till they get it, and so assuming that they finally deliver a plane, it will be tested and certified by the FAA before they get delivery, so they just wait. Now, that doesn't say that they don't call up and say, "Look, unless you get this thing out here when we need it, why, we'll go find another producer," but it's not that easy to shift producers. And that's true of NASA as well. It's not that easy to shift contractors.
COLLINS: I guess what I'm trying to get at here is, does the government hold a stronger hand in suggesting changes in management?
MUELLER: Oh yes, much more so, because in these advanced development type things, the government is really not buying a finished product, it's buying the services of this company to produce a product that's being defined as they go along. A lot of the government people don't realize that, but it's a joint effort, and unless it is a joint effort, it's not going to succeed very well. In the case of the Apollo program, it was essential for the NASA people to be at least as cognizant of the design, design criteria, the limitations, as it was for Rockwell or North American, because NASA was the integrating contractor, and it had to put all those pieces together and make them fly. And so the interface specs were the key to a successful mission. Which incidentally is one thing that we introduced when we went back there, is a rigorous set of interface specifications, because that's the control that NASA had or the integrating contractor has over the pieces that go together to make up a system. And of course there are a thousand subsystems that all have to interface properly in order to operate effectively. And that interface specification took two years to develop, in enough detail so that you could actually build the thing. Now, when I got there, we were building things, but we still didn't have the interface specifications under enough control to be able to be sure it was going to work. So we did a number of things to improve the definition of the vehicles, and the mechanisms for assuring ourselves that in fact they were coming out the way they were supposed to.
COLLINS: These efforts were initiated before the Phillips Report?
MUELLER: Oh yes.
COLLINS: Was this a period of dramatic growth for North American as a corporation?
MUELLER: Yes. After all, they had almost half the work on the Apollo program, and that was a major program of the time. They were growing rapidly, and having all of the pains of rapid growth, without having the long-term team experience to draw on.
COLLINS: So in part one could attribute their problems to problems that any organization has as it expands.
MUELLER: Oh yes. Now, of course, McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing did not have--well, Boeing had to grow because it took over that Michaud facility, and it built a whole team down there, so it had the same kind of problems. But they had a tremendously competent guy running it, George Stoner, who got it organized and working exceedingly well.
COLLINS: Yes, around Boeing, Stoner is something of a legend. I'm kind of curious about what you thought some of his capabilities were.
MUELLER: Oh, he was an excellent administrator, and an inspirational manager of people, and a very good judge of people's capabilities, and capable of putting them in the right place and getting the motivated to do the right thing. One of the most competent people in the industry. It's too bad he had to get cancer.
COLLINS: Was there any sense that within the North American contract, that--I don't now whether this is quite an accurate way to describe it--simply that the money designated for the contract wasn't sufficient to tackle all the problems associated with the work? That they were in some sense underfunded?
MUELLER: At this point in time, no, I don't think so. I don't recall that there was any complaint on that score. Now, there's no contractor that doesn't want more money, but I don't think in any sense they were underfunded.
COLLINS: Well, as the nature of the cause of the accident became a little more clear, what was your sense about whether or not NASA should have been able to identify that particular problem? Did it indicate a failure in the testing and quality control mechanisms that were in place? Or was it just one of those things that might have been pursued but there simply wasn't time, money, or personnel enough?
MUELLER: You know, it's interesting. We had been aware of a fire possibility, and we had General Electric do a study of the system to see what kinds of dangers we were going to have, and what should we do about it, so that had been in place and carried out some months, maybe a year before the fire. So it wasn't that we weren't aware of the possibility of fire. What we never did was actually test the capsule with a full ground level pressure oxygen in it to see what happened when we set it on fire. And once we did that once, why, we were shocked, amazed and went back to the drawing board. But in a sense, if there was a failure, it was a failure to test all of the equipment under the conditions it was going to be used, under all the conditions it would be used. Now, I suspect that under space conditions, where the partial pressure of oxygen is much lower, that it would not have been a problem. But when you get atmospheric pressure pure oxygen, then you've got a different set of physical circumstances. And we just hadn't done it. Once we did it, why, we quit using pure oxygen.
COLLINS: There are hundreds of things that might go wrong with any of these complicated systems. How do you go about identifying the things that you feel need to be tested, for questions of reliability or safety?
MUELLER: Well, ideally you test every part under the conditions it's going to be used, and at extremes on either side of that condition. So we always had a three sigma test range, on our tests as we defined them, and the one thing that we did not test was the fire resistance of a capsule. The idea of burning up a capsule to see how fast--the other thing, of course, is that the Mercury program initiated this idea of a ground simulation using pure oxygen, and then Gemini carried it on, and it was just a natural continuation for Apollo. And it's one of those things where you don't really question it till you've got a problem or you've got an accident, because it was part of the lore, if you will, or the background, and, you know, when you ask the question, how do you know what to test? Well, you depend upon your past experience and what problems you've had. And then you make sure that you test for those problems, and any other problems you can imagine. But if you don't imagine you're going to have a fire, well, then you don't test for it. And that turns out to be a problem, in defining any test program, is being sure that you have stood back far enough and objectively said, well, what possible problems could we be testing for? And you have to do that, though, with a great deal of reasoning, of wisdom, because you can very easily use much more money testing for things that aren't really important, and delay the program almost indefinitely.
COLLINS: Well, I guess one kind of dramatic illustration of the number of possibilities is this whole notion of fault trees which, you know, if carried to an extreme can be an endless logical ramification of everything that might go wrong. Was there some kind of formal system like that for at least the laying out or identifying of potential problems during this period?
MUELLER: Yes. I think we'd probably started the fault tree system; what we call the Failure Effects Modes Analysis is just that--is to identify the faults if possible and then analyze what could result from a fault in a particular part of the system. And that was quite a powerful tool. But again, it's like any other, it's like the Sherlock Holmes story where you put the letter out in the middle of the room where everybody can see it and nobody looks at it ("The Purloined Letter") and that's the kind of problem you get into that can be difficult to anticipate. But I've been recently involved in a thing called Probability Risk Analysis for the program, and this is a technique that was developed for the nuclear industry by physicists, and it's a probablistic approach to what could be problems and trying to assign a number to them. And of course that's an offshoot of the Reliability Analysis Programs that were started in the ballistic missile program.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
COLLINS: We were talking about Probability Risk Assessment. In terms of assigning probabilities, is this one way of saying how you allocate limited resources to establish priorities in a testing program?
MUELLER: That's one outcome of it. But really--what you're really trying to do is identify those things that have the highest probability of causing a problem, and working on those, rather than working on all the problems simultaneously, and one of the difficulties one can get into in doing this is then concatenating all of the probabilities, and asking yourself, what's the probability of success? And it turns out to be a small number, not very close to one at all, and so, it is almost impossible to explain to the media or to Congress--well, that's not true--it's almost impossible to explain to the media in a way that they will accept that you only have one chance in ten of actually completing a lunar landing and getting home, but that you have nine chances out of ten of at least getting home. Nine chances out of ten? Well, you mean every tenth flight you're going to kill somebody? You can't possible mean that, can you? And so forth. And yet that's what probability leads you to, because no matter what kind of number you want to assign to a piece part, when you've got several million, why, it gets to be an reasonable probability that something's going to fail, one of them's going to fail sometime. And that could be catastrophic.
The difficulty one gets into in risk analysis is that--and you know, it's true throughout our society--that if we can identify a risk, we don't want to take it. That is, collectively. If you identify radon as a risk, then you want to eradicate all radon. Well, you aren't going to be able to do that. But you then have the problem of, well, how do you explain to the public at large that there's a certain risk, and you've got to accept that risk. We haven't been able to do that in our society. People are quite willing to accept risk for race drivers, for example, and clearly that's a risky operation. But when one of them gets killed, you don't have a Congressional investigation or a Presidential commission looking at it. But in something like our nuclear power plants, you are unwilling to accept any risk, and the moment you say, well, there's a risk that something will happen, then the public says: cancel it, shut it down. Shutting these things down also implies a risk, but nobody ever mentions that.
COLLINS: The race track driver and the nuclear power plant are certainly different orders of risk.
MUELLER: I don't know.
COLLINS: I mean the social costs are dramatically different.
MUELLER: Well, it's interesting, Martin, probably the social costs of race drivers as they spin through the crowds and so on are greater than we've ever experienced with a nuclear power plant in this country. So the perception is different, because everybody thinks of one of these power plants as becoming another Hiroshima or something, and that won't happen. The worst disaster in this country was Three Mile Island, of course. Chernobyl was a different thing. It was a real disaster. They never did do a probability risk analysis on that. They are now. But that was just poor design, poor operation. Human failures. Of course, it was human failure at Three Mile Island, too.
COLLINS: Getting back to the Apollo 204 fire, what did you come away with? You have on the one hand the managerial and production problems at North American, and on the NASA side, an oversight in examining this particular failure mode. What's the relative importance of those two things? What was their significance for seeing what needed to be corrected?
MUELLER: Well, going back and thinking through what the real sort of priority of problems was, first of all it was essential to do a thorough study and understand what caused the problem, the fire. And that, the review committee under [Floyd] Thompson did very well indeed, in excruciating detail. But as I said, we were unable to determine the proximate cause, but the real problem, they identified.
Now, then, there was the problem of the interface with the White House, and that had to be worked properly, so that the President didn't become so overtly alarmed that he wanted to do something about it, and that Jim Webb did very well, because he was close to President Johnson. Then, there was the problem with the Congress, and here we had really staunch friends, but after the first week or so, rumors about the Phillips Report began to circulate.
Somebody at North American sent in a letter, anonymous letter saying, "There's this report that proves that this was sheerly the fault of the contractor, and it's a cover-up by NASA to keep this thing from escalating." And there we ran into a credibility problem rather promptly, because officially there was no Phillips Report, and that was one that we really didn't handle well. But in any event, we eventually brought the Phillips Report out, but not as a public document but to the Congress, the Congressmen, to let them look at it and see what was involved. And truthfully it had almost nothing to do with the fire itself. But it did have a lot to do with the competence of the management of the company. And that perhaps was the largest single difficulty, because I guess I was surprised and Jim Webb was surprised when this Phillips Report began to surface, because we had thought, I had thought it was carefully buried and destroyed, not the knowledge but the report itself.
COLLINS: Again, just to be clear, this is because it was intended as a working document between the contractor and NASA.
MUELLER: Yes, and not something that was designed at all for public use. But that caused a credibility gap particularly between Jim Webb and Congress, because Jim was backing me up in this whole thing, and I couldn't see where surfacing the Phillips document would help anything, and would probably create more problems than it would solve. So we were trying to find a way of answering the questions objectively but not creating one of these disasters that could come from a misinterpretation of our--from a literal interpretation of the report. So you've seen the Phillips Report, I take it?
MUELLER: It's not exactly a very complimentary thing, as far as North American was concerned. And it could have been a very real problem at that time. But eventually we got through that thing, so that was the third thing we had to do. The fourth thing we had to do was restore the morale of the people in the program, because everybody felt guilty about the astronauts' death and so we had to make sure that people began to feel like, for one thing, we did care, we wanted to do everything we possibly could to fix it, but that we still were going to go forward with the program, and that was a very stressful time there, for all of the management team at NASA. Bob Gilruth, of course, was particularly hard hit, and Joe Shea was psychologically badly under stress.
COLLINS: How did you perceive Jim Webb's reaction to the fire?
MUELLER: Well, initially it was just perfect, but then as the stress continued over time, and as we began the series of hearings with the Congress, it was more difficult to maintain his objectivity, because Jim is a person who wants quick answers and straightforward and simple answers to questions, and problems. It was just a stressful time, at least as stressful, although of shorter duration, as the Challenger fire. Every morning the media would call up with a new set of rumors, and Jim would be faced with saying, "Well, that's not really true" or something. And he got into a contretemps with the guy that eventually ran for President.
COLLINS: Walter Mondale?
MUELLER: Mondale. And Walter didn't really trust Jim, and so Walter thought that Jim was covering something up, maybe there was collusion between Jim Webb and Rockwell or North American rather, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And so there were a lot of meetings. So that became a problem for Jim, and there were a whole set of them. Tiger Teague was a tower of strength for him, that time, but even he began to worry.
COLLINS: Given all the stress that was placed on top management, did it affect the ability of this group to work together and move forward with the program?
MUELLER: There was a period of time when it was questionable whether we ought to replace some of the management. We had the problem with Joe Shea, and we were forced to replace him. There was a discussion at one time of whether Bob Gilruth should be replaced, because he was taking it so hard and finding it very difficult to move forward well, still worried about the past. So everybody in the chain was reviewed with respect to how well could they perform once we began to go forward again. And that, of course, eventually became common knowledge, that this was going on, particularly after we moved Joe Shea into Headquarters to get him out of the thing. Why, then everybody began to look at one another and ask well, what's next? Who's next? Or whatever.
COLLINS: Was this an explicit review effort by Webb or Seamans or yourself?
MUELLER: Well, Webb and Seamans didn't get involved. It was myself and Sam [Phillips] and Chuck Matthews and a few other guys at Headquarters.
COLLINS: You've been enumerating some of the things that needed to be overcome in this morale question. The last one you pointed out, there were other elements as well.
MUELLER: Well, then there was the whole thing of restructuring the program and redefining the testing program and redesigning the capsule, to avoid any problems. That whole capsule had to be rewired. Not had to be, but it was, with totally new wiring, and of course that took time and energy and effort. Just simply getting everybody going in the same direction at the same time was a major challenge.
COLLINS: Was there any sense that some of your basic precepts about project management or the way it was applied and executed needed review of revision in some sense?
MUELLER: Well, in the external world there certainly was. And we in fact went to a great deal of difficulty in really defining how we managed out projects, and what we did and how we tried to prevent such things as accidents, so that was one part of the review process in Congress, where they wondered about were we in fact managing properly. Wasn't this a failure on the part of the program management to get this right? Now, early on I made a decision that I was going to be the point man in external world relations, as far as the program was concerned, and that it was my fault that this occurred and I was going to do whatever I could to make sure it didn't happen again. I wanted to take the pressure off of Gilruth and Debus and von Braun, and let them go do their things while I took the heat in Washington, and to some reasonable extent, that worked well that way. Generally, all of the testifying was done by me or by Sam Phillips when it came to details of the program, and we didn't involve the centers, or we involved them as little as possible in the various hearings and so on that were going on. We also established a fairly good press control, as far as allowing things to leak into the press was concerned. We managed to convince most of the people in the program that it was better to have official releases rather than unofficial discussions with the press. So we began to keep the number of rumors down.
COLLINS: It's shortly after the fire that Jim Webb moved ahead with some of his ideas for improving the staff capability at Headquarters, and established Harry Fingers' Office for Organization and Management. What impact did that group have on your activities? I understand that one of their responsibilities was to play a greater role in the budgetary process and generally involve themselves more in these kinds of important staff functional details that the agency is responsible for.
MUELLER: It didn't really have very much effect on us, because it was essentially an overlay which didn't add any particular new or improved operation. I think it was more nearly Jim trying to get a better understanding. He eventually felt that he should have been able to know that this was going to happen, I think subconsciously at least, and that if he only had a better reporting system, he would have known about it and been able to prevent it. And I guess every manager thinks that some time or other in his career. But other than requiring a new set of reports, it didn't really change anything. We had probably the best controller in the business in Bill Lilly.
COLLINS: Wasn't that one of the changes? Didn't he move into Harry Finger's operation?
MUELLER: Eventually. But that didn't affect anything very much. He still thought he was working for me.
COLLINS: I think, you know, in my discussions with Bob Seamans, I think that Dr. Seamans felt that to some degree, the establishment of Finger's operation was in some sense perhaps a vote of no confidence in his work, and that essentially some of his responsibilities were being shifted over to another individual. Was there any sense of that kind of feeling on your part, in the establishment of this organization?
MUELLER: Well, I do know that Jim Webb had decided that Bob wasn't keeping him fully informed and really wasn't running things in a way Jim thought they ought to be run, although I don't know that Jim really understood how they ought to be run anyhow, but--so, yes. That's one of the byproducts of the tensions in that time period, that Jim began to lose confidence in Bob, and of course he lost confidence in me, and he lost confidence in all of the management team. But it's very difficult to change management teams in a time like that, so he tried some overlays. Boeing TIE [Technical Integration and Evaluation] was such an overlay. But I must say they did an excellent job, particularly in the restructuring of the program, where we had a whole myriad of new schedules to mesh and new interfaces to build and so on. So we really did need some additional support in that area. And the Boeing folks were excellent at that.
COLLINS: What was your involvement in the letting of this particular contract?
MUELLER: Well, I guess that was an agreed-to thing with Sam and Jim Webb and myself and Bob Seamans. We thought it was something that would be good for the program, and also had good external relations, good PR if you will.
COLLINS: How was that a consequence, from the contract? What was its public relations value?
MUELLER: That we were bringing in some real experts to help manage the program. "TIE" it all together.
COLLINS: Wasn't there a kind of a danger in presenting that point of view, that it would appear that NASA didn't have the capabilities to properly do the work?
MUELLER: Yes, so that's why we described it the way it was, supporting contractor. And sure, it's a tradeoff. But at least it said that we were doing something different, whereas otherwise we would have left all the same old pairs in place or almost all, so it was a matter of an appearance of moving in a different direction than we had before.
COLLINS: This was kind of an unusual role I think for a corporation to assume, both in its relationship with NASA and its relationship to other contractors. As I understand it, you could be looking over the shoulders of the NASA employees and to a degree of the other contractors.
MUELLER: Oh, it was very much the role that Ramo-Wooldridge played with the Air Force and ballistic missile program. Because we were the integrating contractor there. Now, Boeing never really was the integrating contractor. It provided liaison and expertise where it was needed around the system. But it didn't in that sense take over any of the responsibilities of the centers or anything else.
COLLINS: I guess I'm still unclear on the responsibility for integration in the program. The TIE contract, I believe, states that Boeing had integrating responsibility for the complete vehicle. What integration responsibility then did the centers still retain? Was it a direction of this integration?
MUELLER: Well, they may have said that, but they didn't. When you talk about integration, like system engineering, there are a lot of gradations of it. In particular, they were responsible for the interface specifications. Now, those had been prepared by BellComm, and so they were responsible really for the revision of the interface specs, and the specifications for the individual elements, but the work was done by the centers. All they were doing was making sure it was getting done. Because here, you know, you've got a new group coming in, but they aren't going to be able to distill the work of the previous five years in one month. So primarily they were a communications device, in my view, to be sure that everybody was communicating, that the same facts were present throughout the system.
COLLINS: I don't know, it was just a phrase of speech, but in practical terms, what does it mean to have the Boeing people make sure that the changes and revisions were getting done? How did that work operationally?
MUELLER: Oh, operationally, they sat in on the various project reviews, and served as secretary in many instances for those reviews, so that they were then aware of what was going on in the project, and could pinpoint any discrepancies from what was goingon else where.
COLLINS: There was some Congressional concern about the Boeing TIE contract which I guess was part of a general examination of NASA support service and contracts.
COLLINS: Did you see this as an issue to be considered, in terms of whether it should have been done in-house or out of house, and how you made that decision about whether some kind of activity ought to be done internally or externally?
MUELLER: My recollection, Martin, of the Congressional concern was more that they wanted to be sure we'd thought through what we were doing. They weren't concerned as to whether or not Boeing was the right company or whether we'd done something wrong in that regard. Probably we could not have done what we did with Boeing today, in today's environment.
COLLINS: Let's pursue that for a minute, because maybe that's going to help us get at the special character of this contract. Why do you feel it probably wouldn't be able to be done today?
MUELLER: Well, for one thing, it was sole source on a major contract and we'd have to go compete it. First we'd have to be able to describe in some considerable detail just exactly what we wanted them to do. By the time we got finished with that, the program is over. You know. It takes months to get a guy on contract now. Often years.
COLLINS: So the sense in which Boeing was brought in was that there was a rough perception, a rough understanding of where NASA needed additional help, but there wasn't a fine detailed understanding of what Boeing would do?
MUELLER: Quite right. They were brought in to help, and did. Now, again, George Stoner was the guy that organized that, or Sam, and Sam and George had worked together back in the Minuteman days, so they had a long working relationship, and they knew how the other one worked, and George of course had the background of the first stage and all of its interfaces, and so that was a good match.
COLLINS: Was there a perception, before the fire, before there was a need to satisfy public concern about the quality of the NASA management effort, that such an additional contractor capability needed to be brought in, or an additional in-house capability needed to be built up, to tackle some of these questions about integration and evaluation?
MUELLER: Probably, because after all, we had brought in Bell Command General Electric to serve in those roles, and we made BellComm the systems engineers, and that worked well, but they were not in the same position as Boeing was, with respect to being able to go off and evaluate test results and so on. So I think that there was a need. General Electric was supposed to provide that, solve that, but never really did, both because of resistance of the centers and because of their internal capabilities. Boeing had a much greater depth of strength in the aerospace industry than GE did.
COLLINS: What were the GE and BellComm roles in recovery after the fire, if any?
MUELLER: Everybody was involved. BellComm was deeply involved in the analysis of what needed to be done, and GE had less of a role, as far as I can tell. They were primarily providing supporting services to the various centers.
COLLINS: Do you have any other comments on the BellComm and GE roles in the recovery?
MUELLER: No, I don't, although they, along with everyone else, were key players. We did use that recovery period to introduce a number of changes that were, in the long run, useful, not the least of which was a rather careful analysis of the failure modes, re-analysis.
COLLINS: Now GE was responsible for the test and checkout systems. How does that figure into this picture?
MUELLER: Well, they did build a lot of the test equipment and designed it and from time to time had problems in delivering, just normal manufacturing problems.
COLLINS: I guess this returns back to the question of deciding what to test, and you mentioned earlier, they were asked to do a study relating to the fighter question.
COLLINS: But what was their role in working with NASA to determine what needed to be tested and how you did it and what equipment was required, that sort of thing?
MUELLER: You know, in that time frame we had a much closer working relationship between the NASA folks and the contractor folks, on identification of needs, so that really it was a joint review and agreement as to what needed to be done. GE played a role in trying to identify places where one needed to make tests, and NASA had the role of trying to say, well, yes, that's a good idea, or no, we should do this instead of that, and so on. But it was not an arms-length thing. Sure, there were checks and balances. Contractual changes had to go through a contracting officer and things of that sort, but the working relationship was not a strained one.
COLLINS: The Boeing TIE contract and I guess the GE contract are examples of, as I understand it, contracts primarily inspired by Headquarters concerns or perceptions of problems, not centers.
COLLINS: How well was either Boeing or GE welcome at the centers, to do their jobs? How was that transition made?
MUELLER: Well, in the case of Boeing it was fairly easy because they'd already been a member of the team for some period of time, in building the first stage. People around the centers knew them. And there was enough stress at that time so any help that people could provide was welcome. Now, when GE came in, that was much earlier in the program, and any help was not welcome. The centers were sure that they were quite capable of doing anything that needed to be done, and they weren't anxious to have any help from Headquarters or a Headquarters contract. Then it took some period of time before the proper working relationships were established between the centers and GE. And in fact at that time, the decision was made to have the actual contracts done on a center by center basis with GE, so the centers were actually paying GE directly, and that gave them some feeling they were controlling it and not being controlled by Headquarters. Of course, it was a Headquarters contract as well.
COLLINS: I think it was the fall of `67 when the first all-up test on the Saturn V was done, if I recall correctly.
MUELLER: Fall of `67? The first one was out there on the--I thought it was later than that. Maybe not. Did you notice the headline in the New York Times?
COLLINS: No, I didn't.
MUELLER: It's out there. Then we can get the time exactly.
TAPE 2, SIDE 1
COLLINS: The point of my earlier question was, to what degree were these steps that followed on, that were obviously going to lead to the moon landing, how successful were they in providing morale and helping to speed along the process of recovery?
MUELLER: Of course, there's nothing better than having a successful flight of one sort or another. And, of course, the key decision in restoring morale was the decision to fly around the moon with Borman and company. That was really the turning point in the recovery from the fire itself.
COLLINS: Which was the fall of `68.
MUELLER: Right. But that gave us the impetus to go forward in a way that was difficult to do before.
COLLINS: So even the impressive accomplishment of conducting the Saturn V launches, to prove its capability, were not as dramatic as this manned adventure.
MUELLER: Well, it was as dramatic, but it still didn't get everyone imbued with the idea that boy, we're sure going to be able to do this. It was dramatic enough. That first flight really did a lot to lay the foundation where people began to get enough confidence so that they could even think about an Apollo 8 mission.
COLLINS: Are there any other elements about the fire and the recovery process that we ought to set down on the record, that we haven't covered today?
MUELLER: Gee, there are so many myriad ramifications that went through the organization during that time, that one could do a whole book on just the psychological reactions to the fire, and what each individual did in response to that. If you thought about, well, what did Tiger [Teague] think about all this? And what did Margaret Chase Smith think about it? And so on. We don't do an adequate job of really recording the emotional turmoil that goes on. You know that spate of books coming out on Challenger, all spent their time pointing out how terrible some part of the program was, but no sympathetic review of, what is this doing to the people in the program? And what is the real impact on the program? Not the digging up of what might have been if somebody had been prescient or different.
COLLINS: Well, our discussion has gone somewhat along that line today, so I guess an appropriate question is, what impact did this fire have on you as an individual?
MUELLER: You know, I was thinking about that myself. It seems to me that the enormity of the problem was such that I didn't have time to think about it, from my own individual standpoint. I was too busy trying to hold the psyches of the various people involved together, for me to become introspective. At times like that I tend to really work on the problem and not spend time worrying about myself or what effect it would have on me. As far as I can tell, I have a different reaction to stress than many people do. Now, Sam [Phillips] has almost the same kind of reaction. It's one of taking a look at the problems and saying, now, this is what needs to be done, and then working with the people to get their thinking process going again.
COLLINS: This is obviously partly a function of individual personality, but I also wonder, since you bring up Sam Phillips, whether it's the result of your experience in the ballistic missile program.
MUELLER: Well, we surely had enough problems in the ballistic missile program, disasters that fortunately didn't get the public attention that--but there were sure a whole set of them. And I guess both Sam and I had been through enough of them so that we knew what could be done and what should be done.
COLLINS: Perhaps that's an appropriate note to end our discussion today. Thank you.
MUELLER: Thank you.