Putting the first man on the moon

I like reading the obituaries in the NYTs. It’s interesting to see what people who achieve have done with their lives.

This week I found the write up about Joseph Gavin fascinating. He managed about 7,500 people at Grumman Aircraft building the Apollo lunar landers. Most of us take it for granted that these space craft landed men safely on the Moon and returned them to their command modules orbiting the Moon. What they did was incredibly impressive. Imagine never being able to test what you build in real conditions. In every project I’ve ever led, there were ton’s of bugs that emerged only after starting serious testing (web browsers, web servers, devices like the iPhone). Of course, I never had human life relying on my software projects to launch bug free. Even harder! I can’t even image having to manage a project like this.

It was a tricky task. The module had to be light, to reduce energy consumption and battery size. Because there is no air resistance on the moon, reverse acceleration was needed to stop forward progress. Everything had to be tested and tested again: some 14,000 imperfections were corrected over almost a decade. And because there could no testing in actual lunar conditions, an extensive array of backup systems had to be installed while still minimizing weight.

Preparations for the moon landing were inherently uncertain. Imagined possibilities included a layer of dust more than 30 feet thick, a slippery surface like ice, and potholes.

“So we developed a computer program, based on tests of a quarter-scale model of the lunar module, and we ran the program through some 400 different landing conditions,” Mr. Gavin said in an interview with Technology Review, published by M.I.T., in 1994.

The margins for error were so tiny that Commander Armstrong had only 20 seconds of fuel left after changing landing sites because of rocks. Mr. Gavin was “literally” holding his breath, he recalled.

An even more tense moment followed. If the blastoff from the moon’s surface failed — a critical step that could not be simulated in terrestrial tests — Commander Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., the lunar module pilot, would be stranded forever.

Amazing stuff. The article ends with an interesting quote from him on innovation. Working for a big corporation, I see lots of talk about predictability in building technology products. It’s super hard even for the most experienced program managers. Cool to see how some of the best think about these things. Can’t say I disagree with him…

“If a project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and exact schedule at the beginning,” Mr. Gavin told Technology Review. “And if you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete.”