by Jim Vaughan

Do I Want To Be the Project Manager for a Space Shuttle Flight?

Aug 02, 20093 mins
IT Leadership

Sending seven courageous men and women into space requires project management practices that emphasize risk management.

While we were driving home today, my wife asked me if I would want to be the project manager for a space shuttle flight. I chuckled and said, “I think there are a lot of project managers on that project.”

Then my mind wandered. “How many components does it take to build the shuttle? How many projects are there to design, develop and deliver those components? Surely each of these projects has a project manager. After all, NASA is one of the largest innovators in the area of project management. And for good reason.”

NASA is dealing with the most valued thing that we have on this planet: human life. And they do this in an environment of extreme risk. Imagine launching seven people in space using 2.2 million pounds of solid fuel and 1.2 million pounds of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The seven people end up where there is no oxygen, and when their mission is complete, their craft descends through the atmosphere like a flaming meteor. To be successful the 86 ton space shuttle must glide safely on to a runway that is 300 feet wide.

Facing this type of challenge requires the utmost precision to reduce risks. Risk management is one of the nine knowledge areas of project management. For NASA, risk management is among the most important. NASA uses sound project management practices not only for risk management, but for all other aspects of all projects. Without these practices they would not be nearly as successful as they have been.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) was founded in 1969; the same year that NASA landed the first men on the moon. NASA certainly was doing project management long before the Project Management Institute came into existence. But I know that there is a mutual admiration between NASA and the PMI. Today NASA and the PMI both learn from one another. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of project management case studies about various different aspects of the projects at NASA. These studies have helped NASA to improve their project management techniques and are used as a basis by thousands of others to improve their techniques as well.

One of the most glaring examples of this learning came from the Challenger disaster. The Presidential Committee determined that NASAs intensive safety program became ineffective some time before 1986. The result was that a groupthink mentality led to a high risk item being ignored in the interest of getting the bird in the air.

Since that information was released, NASA has taken steps to reevaluate their safety program. Project managers around the world are now aware of this potential danger on their projects. This sharing of information between NASA and the PMI has been ongoing since the PMI was established. A breakdown of most project management practices does not lead to such disastrous results. But we do know that sound project management practices will improve the results of any project.

With the risk involved at NASA would you be willing to be a project manager for the space shuttle project?