JPL and the Aerospace Industry

Another persistent issue in the NASA-JPL-Caltech relationship concerned the part played by industry. As the aerospace industry matured and acquired capabilities previously monopolized by JPL, it added a fourth leg to the triangle. The issue was not new to NASA, whose predecessor agency NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) had wrangled with aircraft companies over the performance of aeronautics R&D, or to government support of industrial research in general, which required defining a boundary between public and private sectors.38

Aviation, automobile, and chemical firms entered the space business in the 1950s but struggled at first to acquire the expertise in electronics, materials, and chemistry required by guided missiles and spacecraft, as well as an appreciation for state-of-the-art R&D instead of standardized mass production. Hence JPL engineer Clifford Cummings characterized the aircraft industry in 1958 as "hopelessly inefficient," with "little understanding of research and advanced development."39 This "cockeyed image of ourselves" persisted through the 1960s, according to JPL engineer Brooks Morris, even as such firms as TRW and Hughes developed extensive satellite expertise, most of it through spacecraft for military reconnaissance and commercial commu-nications.40 For groups like the Hughes Space Division, which might have sales of several hundred million dollars a year, a NASA contract for $50 or $100 million spread out over several years provided a very small fraction of business. That did not keep them from competing for NASA contracts, or from complaining that NASA kept work in-house instead of contracting it to industry. And a decline in military space spending in the early 1970s, alongside NASA's cutbacks, left these companies scraping for business.41

The aerospace industry's attitude counted in Congress and the executive branch. With hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake, the aerospace industry was the most powerful interest group for the space program.42 Constant questioning of in-house development at JPL and other NASA labs sensitized the agency's managers. Thus, for example, NASA administrator Fletcher in 1976 sought to shift more work to industry to preempt congressional criti-cism.43 The policy extended to JPL flight projects, which followed two main modes of industrial contracting. In the first, known as subsystem mode, JPL contracted only for industrial production of selected components and otherwise kept in-house the design, assembly, and testing of hardware and its integration into the final spacecraft. In the second, system mode, JPL delegated the design, assembly, and testing of the entire spacecraft system to industry; the lab only planned the overall mission, oversaw the industrial program, and ran flight operations.44

JPL traditionally favored the subsystem mode, owing to its presumed technical superiority and perhaps to its legacy as an army lab; the army's arsenal model kept much design and development in-house even to the prototype stage.45 But it did have experience, both good and bad, with both modes. The in-house Ranger series endured failures before meeting success, and the system-mode Surveyor similarly experienced both failure and success. Most of the successful Mariners were in subsystem mode, but the equally successful Mariner 10 was an industrial job.46 The performance of two of the main flight projects in the late 1970s could have tilted the balance, although here too it was not clear-cut. JPL built Voyager in subsystem mode, within cost estimates, but succeeded only after early mishaps. Seasat, an earth-orbiting oceanographic satellite built by industry in system mode, came in over budget and failed three months after launch in 1978, but it still fulfilled much of its mission.

The question of subsystem versus system mode became known as the "make-or-buy" issue, which Bruce Murray early identified as "probably the most difficult single question JPL must resolve." In July 1977 he called a special retreat for senior staff to consider it. The assembled managers perceived several problems with the current subsystem mode. The ebb and flow of project assignments forced them to cope with peaks and valleys in staff levels, which in turn put pressure on facilities. Lab staff were then kept busy building hardware instead of spending their time on innovative design. And subsystem mode opened JPL to complaints from industry about competition. Against these, however, were the advantages of subsystem mode, in keeping technical experience and responsibility for budgets and schedules within JPL. Above all was the question of whether the lab could give up the old way and learn to do all its projects in system mode.47

Another factor favoring system mode was the political support industry could provide for planetary projects. NASA managers certainly recognized this benefit, and thus for instance had planned first Grand Tour and then Voyager for system mode and had used possible aerospace contractors, such as Boeing, to help sell the mission; Pickering had undercut this support by fighting for and winning Voyager as an in-house project in July 1972.48 Five years later NASA and even some JPL staff suggested that the lab contract the Galileo spacecraft to industry, but the status quo prevailed and it would be built in-house.49

The political context highlighted the dilemma of the make-or-buy decision. Involving industry would shore up dwindling political support for deep-space missions, but at the same time it would decrease the amount of work performed at JPL at a time of institutional stress. In addition to cutting the amount of work, system mode would also change its character. Contracting to industry would turn engineers into managers, by requiring them to supervise industrial work instead of building things themselves. It thus revived the fundamental question about the identity of the lab: was it a technological or managerial organization? If JPL staff were engineers, they should be designing and building new technologies in-house; but if they were really managers, they could be overseeing technical projects at industrial contractors. If the lab was indeed a managerial institution, that would cancel the benefits of the Caltech connection because campus expertise was strictly technical.50

The lab would struggle with this identity crisis for the next twenty-five years. At the time Murray and his staff resolved that JPL remained a technological organization, but that it was in the lab's interest to contract as much work as possible, thus allowing its engineers to focus on advanced development. Contracted work should include those functions for which industry had the ability and which required "no special degree of innovation or advancement in state of the art," as well as those requiring a large workforce over short time frames. JPL would continue to do advanced concepts, and also those activities necessary to keep the expertise necessary to supervise work under contracts. This last justification became known as the "smart buyer" argument—lab staff had to know what they were getting from industry to avoid being fleeced—and resulted in a determination to have one major flight project under way in-house at all times.51 The memorandum of understanding of 1978 codified the policy, which underpinned the battle to defend Galileo and win a new mission to succeed it.52

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