I became a project manager at age twenty-two at
Eglin Air Force Base. I managed the droning of the B47
to fly unmanned, and I had zero experience to take on
that task. What I learned is the real way you acquire risk
aversion: I was scared to death that I’d fail.
This developed a characteristic that I carried with
me throughout my career. The strongest thing a project
leader can feel, in terms of risk, is the risk of failing.
So I took it upon myself to learn everything about the
airplane and the guidance control system by searching
out the best in the aerospace community. At that time,
Lockheed was doing a modification of the aircraft.
Boeing designed and built the aircraft, and Sperry was
doing the guidance control system. I made sure that I
spent hours and hours with each of them to understand
exactly what I was responsible for.
SETTING THE PATTERN
The pattern that I established for my career was one of
research and faith in the skills of other team members.
Through the years as I worked on other projects,
the philosophy I developed is that you can be very
successful if you spend the time to organize yourself,
find qualified people, and understand the objectives.
Once you decide what you need to do, you can organize
people around it. You can get the skills. That’s the
strongest way you can become risk averse—to be dependent on the strengths of others and bring them
into the program as best you can.
When we worked on Viking, the first landing
mission to Mars, it was done at Langley Research
Center, which is really a technology center. Langley
was selected because of its strong technology base, and
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was busy with the
Mariner and Voyager projects.
We ended up using this to our advantage. Not only
did we concentrate on finding qualified people, but
we found that by doing the project at a technological
center, we were able to get people who were strong in
the technical skills it took to do the re-entry, to solve
aerodynamic problems, and to develop the parachute.
So Langley turned out to be a technological advantage.
THE EARLY BIRD OPENS THE CHUTE
But the parachute reminds me of the different ways
in which the first and second Mars Missions dealt
with risk. They were both successful, but the roads
getting there were different. In 1969 we did a fulllanded
simulated test at White Sands. We simulated
the spacecraft in the necessary ways and developed the
parachute very early. The reason we did that was to
make sure that the parachute got sized properly, since
the whole integration of the spacecraft was going to be
built around the size of it.
The recent Rover Missions on Mars waited too
long to do that test. They did it about nine months
before they were supposed to launch and the parachute
didn’t fully deploy. So they had to go back and do a
redesign of the parachute, but the whole spacecraft
was designed and fixed. At that point there were many
variables to look at and problems to solve, and the risks
went up tremendously because of the limitations they
had in changing the design.
So not only should you organize yourself and get
qualified people, but you have to do things early. You’ve
got to build enough reserve in your thinking so that you
can minimize problems. The other thing is: If you have
a threat of cancellation over your head, or your project
might be moved to another center, or parts of it are
being deleted—you allow for that, and you adjust. If you
stop working because you’re worried about changes to
your program, you start adding risks to it.
THE GROUP EFFORT
Also, you have to be disciplined in carrying out
very critical analysis. Don’t move on without it. On
Viking, we brought the science community in early
for the 1975 launch. They attended every design
review and participated very strongly. We wanted their
fingerprint on everything that was done from an
My mentor Jim Martin insisted that if this was
going to be their opportunity for a scientific achievement,
then they needed to participate in the program
all along the way. Would you believe that 72 scientists
moved to JPL from their various universities for one
year during the Viking Mission just because he said
that was where the action was? He said, “If you want to
play on my program, that’s the way it’s going to be.” You
can’t avoid risk over the telephone.
PLANNING FOR THE WORST-CASE SCENARIOS
During Viking, we also developed about 500 scenarios
of all the things that could possibly go wrong
during the development and flight. We adopted a
very pessimistic view and used these scenarios to
establish various plans for cost offsets, budget shifts,
and solutions to technical problems.
We did have a problem that I’m not proud of, but it
also taught me something about risk. We had money
problems, and we were told that we weren’t getting any
more money. The cost was fixed, and the schedule was
also fixed since it was a planetary launch.
Well, we had a risk problem related to a test. One of
the problems with the fixed budget was that we weren’t
going to be able to perform the terminal-landing
test. This was a very sophisticated full-systems test
where we would drop the spacecraft through a Mars
landing simulation. We had pitched the cost problem
to headquarters, saying we needed $1.2 million dollars,
and we were denied the money. So we were going to
have to launch without the critical terminal-landing
test—a very high-risk decision.
Jim Martin accepted it at the time. He said, “Ok,
as long as you hold my hand, I’ll jump into the pool
with you.” So we made the decision to go ahead with
it. We ended up being successful, but there was a large
amount of risk attached. If we had failed we would
have lost $1 billion dollars (and this was in 1970)
because we couldn’t secure the $1.2 million for the
necessary preliminary test. That just doesn’t make
sense. It wasn’t a schedule problem; it was strictly a
GIVE IT TO THEM STRAIGHT
This is where I really learned a big lesson. As a
project leader, you’ve got to take the problem before
management and tell them the risks that they are taking
by withholding funds. You’ve got to be tough and hang
in there. At this point, we were seven years into the
project. Jim decided to swallow hard, pray a lot, and
cross his fingers that the test worked. We had a happy
ending, but under other circumstances, it could have
been a disaster.
This is an example where management made the
decision to take the risk against the security. I think
that’s the thing that has to change. We’re in a high-risk
business, and we have to approach it in a conservative
way. But the Agency needs to realize that sometimes the
failures make you learn and progress.
I’m not saying that you set out expecting to fail,
but there is such a thing as so much risk-aversion
that you don’t do anything. You’ve got to maintain a
healthy amount of it and move ahead. And these are
just some of the strategies I learned over my fifty years
that have helped me to do that.
There have been times when I’ve taken over
a project in the middle, and also times when
the project has been in the formative stages.
In every case, I’ve gone off-site and started
to look at—and fix—duplication. Everybody
has to be in first grade again. I say, “Stand
up and tell me what you think your job is.”
They do that. Then you start listening.
Sometimes I’d find out that two or
three people were doing the same thing. So
I started to fix it. I’d find out where the holes
were, where there is somebody who is not
doing anything. So you work it out so that
everyone is clear about exactly what they
are doing and what the goals are.
Then you have to empower people to
build a high-performance team. This team
has to be willing to communicate and tell
you exactly where you are. You do this by
dealing with the complete human circle: the
social aspects, the commitments, the truthfulness,
the relationships, the passion—all
the things that we measure in people. Then
you can take their technical skills and apply
them in a way that really drives the system
A process doesn’t get the spacecraft
built. A logo or a motto doesn’t make it
happen. It’s people.
- Sometimes pessimism can help to reduce risk.
Planning for possible problemsóand developing a cost
and schedule-efficient way of dealing with themócan
provide an important project "safety net."
- A small amount of funding is never worth the failure
of a large-scale project. Project managers have to fight to
get the resources they need to do things right—not cross
their fingers and hope for the best.
In a situation where mistakes and misjudgments can cost
millions of dollars, how do you strike the right balance between
healthy risk-aversion and playing it too safe?
ANGELO “GUS” G UASTAFERRO has had a lengthy career
in Program and Project Management,
both at NASA and with private industry.
His previous story, “Bringing Up Baby,”
was printed in ASK 17.