“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” – President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961.
The Apollo-I space program was a ground-breaking mission that took the whole world by storm. From its inception in 1967 to the final Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, it led to several technological advancements in the aerospace realm.
It was also the first time a manned spacecraft surpassed the Earth’s orbit and launched into space. As a result, this opened areas of space exploration for scientists and space enthusiasts around the world.
However, the execution of the Apollo program was not an easy feat. It required meticulous planning and exemplary leadership skills. In other words, it can be said that the infamous Apollo program marked the emergence of effective project management.
This blog discusses those project management lessons every professional can leverage to ensure successful delivery. So, let’s begin!
1. An overview of the Apollo space mission
The Apollo space project was an ambitious mission spurred by President John F. Kennedy to advance America in space exploration. The source, however, stemmed from a political agenda to win a space war against the communist Soviet Union but eventually became one of the most outstanding achievements of humankind.
Even though the first launch of Apollo was unsuccessful, it did not deter the series of seven successful launches that followed. To further the advancement, the 9th and 10th Apollo were human spaceflights, with the former spending ten days in Earth’s orbit and the latter going around the Moon. Finally, Apollo 11 was the first mission with three capable astronauts, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins, that successfully landed on the surface of the Moon and returned safely.
Apollo 13, however, could not achieve its target of landing on the Moon, but NASA did not stop there and continued with five more missions. These space programs will always be remembered for their inspirational legacy and innovation on technological fronts. Naturally, accomplishing these nearly impossible feats brought forward myriad roadblocks.
Let’s take a look at all these obstacles that NASA’s administration team and the project managers had to combat.
2. Challenges for project Apollo
Conducting back-to-back launches to land on the Moon was a Herculean task, and the ground reality was far from trouble-free. Enlisted below are the challenges that the NASA team battled to make the Apollo project a reality.
A. Unrealistic deadlines and expectations
The overall objective of Project Apollo was estimated to be achieved within ten years, which put tremendous pressure on the space team at NASA. This stemmed from unrealistic expectations from stakeholders and President Kennedy, who had already announced America’s triumphant space expedition to the world.
In addition, the program was very complex and lacked a blueprint as it was the first of its kind. Hence, executing such a complex project with no history or lessons learned to refer to was a major challenge.
B. Securing funding from organizations
The Apollo program went on from the 1960s to the 1970s, costing 25.8 billion U.S dollars. However, it was a great challenge for NASA to secure government funding due to the surrounding controversy.
The United States Congress also initiated funding and took care of the momentary financial crisis. However, they did not commit to long-term financial support. Thus, an executive buy-in became a major obstacle for the Apollo project team.
C. Silos in departments due to lack of communication
The Program Apollo required team leaders to manage a massive crew of 4,00,000, including pilots, system engineers, space scientists, and analysts. Given the large workforce, it was very difficult to maintain real-time communication across different levels of the team, which resulted in silos.
One of the repercussions was that the team used an incorrect length of extension cord which led to a series of electrical sequencing system failures. Having said that, they were able to overcome this problem in the succeeding projects.
D. Mobilization of resources within the organization
The NASA team needed to gather many human and non-human resources as it was a technologically intensive project. Non-human resources entailed vehicles, heavy equipment, machinery, and high-tech parts.
Mobilizing these resources from different corners of the country posed serious challenges for the space team.
Having learned about the various challenges faced by the space team at NASA, let’s look at what project managers can learn from the Apollo space mission.
3. 10 lessons learned from the Apollo space program
As discussed in the earlier sections, program Apollo was undeniably a difficult undertaking with numerous limitations and roadblocks. While managing these hurdles and a project of this scale, the Apollo program has given some imperative project management lessons.
They are enlisted below:
A. Formulate a detailed project plan
Given the complexity of the mission, it was necessary to divide it into achievable project milestones and tasks in order to streamline the execution process. These milestones ranged from launching an unmanned spacecraft to testing the strength and quality, sending it to the orbit of the Moon, and safely landing a crewed spacecraft back on Earth. These were the major milestones which were divided into phases, tasks and,, subtasks.
If the team didn’t plan this well, certainly the project wouldn’t have been a tremendous success. Keeping the importance of planning in mind, managers can create a WBS (Work breakdown structure) and form a well-defined plan keeping the scope, deliverables, budget, resources, and risks in view. Breaking down a challenging project into bite-sized chunks and phases makes it easier to set priorities and determine the time frame of the tasks.
B. Set clear objectives and realistic expectations
The NASA team was caught off guard when the President made an announcement about America’s space venture, as they only had fifteen minutes of flying experience until now. This put extra pressure and stress on the NASA team as the expectations were unrealistic and were given without any assessment of the skills and competencies of the team members. So, the then aerospace engineer had to take charge and communicate his team’s limitations and thereby amend the expectations accordingly.
Often, the expectations set by the stakeholders are high, and it can become a challenge for project managers and their teams to fulfill them. Thus, managers must evaluate the feasibility of the goals and set clear objectives for the team to minimize the chances of failure. They can set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals which will help team members plan their work properly.
C. Implement the right tools and technology
Since the Apollo space mission was technologically and technically intensive, the engineers required the most advanced technology to ensure its seamless operation. In most cases, the kind of tech inventory they needed was not at their disposal. So, the engineers had to build their in-house systems and solutions to support the mission.
Thus, project managers must understand the need for tools and technology required for their particular project in advance and keep them ready before its onset. For instance, a marketing project will require premium SEO tools, analytics software, etc., for successful completion. Thus, to ensure successful project delivery, businesses must ensure that they deploy the appropriate tools at the earliest.
D. Centralize the project execution process
The Apollo space mission did not have any project managers per se, but it was still successful. That’s because Chief Robert R. Gilruth, the central body who acted as the unofficial project manager, standardized the communication, collaboration, execution, and operational processes and ensured zero disruption to the ongoing workflow.
Today, organizations have a central body known as the project management office or PMO, which centralizes the project execution process. Thus, project-led businesses should build a centralized entity to ensure everyone is on the same page, minimize the departmental silos, streamline resource allocation, and carry out other operational tasks. This will ascertain successful project delivery and minimize discrepancies.
E. Conduct planned hiring to onboard the right resources
At the onset, the Apollo space mission was short-staffed as NASA’s in-house team consisted of only 36,000 personnel. To tackle the skills shortage, they conducted planned hiring for engineers, pilots, and scientists across the globe beforehand and kept the project going.
In a similar manner, project managers must focus on planned hiring by gauging the demand and sending resource requests well ahead of time. It provides enough leeway to resource managers to allocate competent resources and eliminate any last-minute hassle. Moreover, it will also reduce any last-minute fire-fighting and unnecessary cost escalations.
F. Foster transparency and communication between teams
Project managers of the Apollo space mission identified priorities and communicated with workers at every level to stay focused. Furthermore, they conducted weekly meetings to discuss the progress and revise goals if needed. During Apollo 13, the managers ensured that the communication plan was proactive and targeted. Messages were delivered to the right stakeholders at the right time to ensure transparency among the parties.
A project is successful when every team member is connected and works in synergy, which can only happen through a consistent mode of communication. The team leaders of Apollo taught that regardless of the organization’s size, they can implement an effective communication plan and improve the efficiency of the process. Similarly, with the right communication tools at disposal, project managers must ensure constant communication between the team, stakeholders, and other parties involved.
G. Prepare risk management and mitigation plan
NASA reviewed equipment modifications, qualifications, and status of any system component whose failure could prove fatal or jeopardize the space shuttle. In Apollo 13, the team of astronauts was able to survive a hazard due to their intense training and contingent plan for the unexpected.
Similarly, project managers should conduct a thorough risk analysis and prepare a mitigation plan in advance to face any unforeseen circumstances during the course of the project. This helps to quickly adapt to a backup plan and deliver the project without any hiccups.
H. Implement change management strategies
The Apollo program went on for a decade and as a result underwent several reinventions with respect to technology, work processes, working style, and more. The teams were able to adapt to these changes without affecting the mission because of adequate training.
In the project management realm, this process of gradually exposing the team to change is known as change management. Thus, before imposing any changes at the eleventh hour, managers must implement a definite strategy, train the team to ensure its successful implementation, and minimize any hiccups. It will lead to a smooth transition while maintaining the workflow and productivity.
I. Empower and upskill your employees
The astronauts in the Apollo space mission underwent rigorous training before the spacecraft launch. In addition, NASA sent them on field training in a lunar module to test their ability to name locations by pinpointing them on the satellite images. Moreover, as the project started advancing, the team was upskilled and retrained to stay relevant and bring advancements to the space shuttle as needed.
Similarly, managers must provide constant training and upskilling opportunities to their employees, which will empower them to tackle challenges and work on new endeavors. Moreover, managers must also foster autonomy to provide safe space to employees to voice their ideas and opinions, and bring forth innovation.
J. Document lessons and create a knowledge base for future
The Apollo space program was conducted by professionals who were best in their field, but it also encountered a plethora of challenges and roadblocks. The senior members recorded these situations and the ways they used to tackle them. Thus, the lessons learned report which started from Apollo 1, helped every succeeding program with references, problems, and their possible solutions. It was extremely helpful for the new crew and project managers to have data they could fall back on while navigating similar challenges.
Project managers should also capture these mistakes, solutions, information, and knowledge acquired into a lesson learned report. It will act as a future reference when employees work on a related project and improve the execution process to eliminate similar challenges.
Project Apollo was indeed a marvelous and unprecedented undertaking by NASA. With the high level of complexity and expense incurred, it was an unthinkable feat that was made possible thrice by the dedicated team at the space center. Project managers can utilize the lessons from this article and implement them to deliver projects successfully on time, and within budget.
In addition to the above-mentioned lessons, what’s interesting is that the astronauts of Apollo 11, after landing back safely, publicly applauded their teammates on the ground. This shows managers that when they deliver a successful project, they should appreciate and pass on the positive feedback to acknowledge the hard work of their entire team and celebrate the success together.
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