27 December 2014

Rockwell Builds the Shuttle by Farming Out the Work

The Grumman Shuttle Orbiter design
On 26 July 1972, NASA announced that Rockwell International had been selected as the prime contractor for the Space Shuttle (specifically the Shuttle Orbiter) after an intense competition with Lockheed, Grumman, and McDonnell Douglas. Each contractor proposal also had to detail management of the complex program as well as its technical aspects and the lengthy proposals then went to a specially convened selection board at NASA which evaluated each submission. The top two proposals belonged to Rockwell and Grumman and showcased the effect that a good management proposal could have in winning the competition. From a technical standpoint, NASA scored the Grumman proposal the best, with Rockwell's orbiter design coming in second. Rockwell's submission, however, impressed the NASA selection board with its management system. With the cost overruns on several military programs like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy on everyone's mind, Rockwell's management proposal stressed cost controls for what was to be the biggest aviation contract in years. With a technical design not much more inferior that the Grumman design, Rockwell was awarded the contract. 

In the industry slump as Vietnam was winding down, the Orbiter contract was a very big prize for any firm that could clinch the award. At the time of the selection, Rockwell had 6,200 employees in their Space Division and with the award, plans were in place to hire as many as 16,000 by 1975. Priority would given to anyone who had worked on the Apollo program. Despite the buoyant mood at Rockwell, things were considerably more glum at the losing contenders, Grumman, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas. Grumman had been a mainstay of the US space program from its early days, best known for its work on the Apollo Lunar Module. Company officials made plans for Grumman to be out of the space business by December 1972 along with the attendant layoffs. 

McDonnell Douglas (via McDonnell) had built the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and was in the midst of winding down its work as the prime contractor for Skylab. The company was also suffering from a downturn in the world commercial aviation market that was affecting most greatly its Douglas DC-9 program. 11,000 layoffs were planned at McDonnell Douglas by 1973.

While Lockheed didn't have as prominent a role in the US manned spaceflight program in the 1960s as McDonnell Douglas or Grumman, their expertise in high speed flight as well as thermal protection systems was unparalleled in the industry at the time. 

Rockwell, however, recognized two realities that came with winning the Shuttle Orbiter contract. The first one was the limitations of its in-house expertise. Quite simply, Rockwell would need other aerospace companies for their skills and expertise to bring the Orbiter to fruition. The second reality was a bit more prosaic but nonetheless vital. Keep in mind that in the early 1970s there was an atmosphere of budget austerity and NASA was no less exempt from financial realities than any other government agency at the time. Subcontracting work on the Orbiter to other companies in effect would spread the footprint of the endeavor across the districts of multiple Congressional representatives who would be routinely voting on NASA's budgetary allocations for the Space Shuttle program. Subcontracts were a common way as well in the industry of building goodwill- by farming out work to competitors and keeping them active and in business, today's winner might one day become tomorrow's loser on a another program and could hope for subcontract work from a rival. 

Rockwell planned to subcontract at least 53% of the work on the Shuttle Orbiter and this had NASA's blessing as a means of preserving the American industrial base for spaceflight. Just weeks after winning the contract as the prime, Rockwell was already conducting seminars across the nation for potential subcontractors. By March 1973 Rockwell began selecting subcontractors for the program with NASA's approval. Grumman would work on the delta wing, McDonnell Douglas got the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System), Fairchild Republic got the vertical fin, and the Convair Division of General Dynamics got the mid-fuselage/payload bay. Rockwell would be responsible for the nose and crew compartment as well as the aft fuselage that would house the three Rocketdyne SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) packages. Lockheed would get the External Tank while Thiokol got the contract for the SRB (Solid Rocket Booster). 

By the summer of 1975, 34,000 workers across 47 states and a broad host of companies across the American aerospace industry were working on the Space Shuttle program. The peak would be in 1977 with 47,000 workers. The post-Vietnam slump, the Space Shuttle program was very much the crown jewel of the US aviation industry. 

Source: Development of the Space Shuttle 1972-1981: History of the Space Shuttle, Volume Two by T.A. Heppenheimer. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. Illustration: Aerospace Projects Review


  1. Where these fabled cost controls effective? Didn't the Orbiter program suffer from cost overruns?

    1. Indeed it did, and significantly, too. Rockwell's management plan was based on the original budget estimates at the time of the program awards. The cost overrun was one of the main reasons NASA sought out the support of the Defense Department. The payload bay of the Orbiter was resized to accommodate planned DoD payloads.