Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1990

Article excerpt

Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1990 by Andrew J. Dunar and Stephen P. Waring. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Office (http://history.nasa.gov), 300 E Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20546, 1999, 713 pages, $49.00.

Power to Explore, officially sanctioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), relates the history of the Marshall Space Flight Center, located in Huntsville, Alabama, from 1960 to 1990 and includes the creation of the center as part of the creation of NASA. This complex book was written by the center and, to some extent, for the center itself. Reading chapter 14, the conclusion, first is recommended for readers with limited time since it may serve as a useful executive summary.

The book begins by describing the origins of NASA and the creation of the Marshall Space Flight Center as a part of NASA from the Huntsville point of view. A team of German V-2 rocket scientists, captured at the end of World War II, was brought to the United States and eventually to Huntsville to continue developing rockets for the United States. In a true-life "reversal of fortunes" story, these defeated Germans became a part of NASA's beginnings, and many rose to high positions at the center as the space race with the Soviets began in earnest. Many young American rocket scientists joined them; together they accomplished things never done before, including multiple trips to the Moon.

Following the Apollo program and the retirement of the original German team, NASA and its dependent field centers began experiencing a political and budgetary roller-coaster ride punctuated by dramatic, continuing achievements that included Spacelab, Skylab, the space shuttle, and the Hubble space telescope. As discussed in the book, this turbulent organizational environment led to increased diversification of the center's roles and missions and inevitably increased competition with other NASA centers. The accomplishments of NASA people in spite of the recurring prospect of reductions in force, the threatened closure of field centers, and other obstacles are a testimony to their dedication and commitment to the dream of spaceflight.

The authors focus on the center's role in several of NASA's major programs from the center's management perspective. These programs include the aforementioned Spacelab, Skylab, space shuttle, and Hubble space telescope, as well as the international space station. In every case, the primary obstacles facing center managers as they attempted to successfully complete these projects were the inseparable parameters of cost and technology. Generally, initial cost estimates were optimistic. As both Air Force and NASA veterans know, though, difficulties normally arise in the myriad of both large and small technical accomplishments needed to bring a major project to reality. Oftentimes, technical breakthroughs were programmed optimistically into overall cost estimates and schedules. Since there is tremendous risk associated with achieving a technical breakthrough at a given time for a given funding level, it is not surprising that, as the authors describe in some detail, center project managers continually battled cost and schedule overruns and the associated political reverberations for all of these projects. …