Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004

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The laboratory's leaders constantly had to decide whether to contract out or keep in-house the design, assembly and testing of hardware, a question that was known as the "make or buy" issue. Later, mission size and cost were the concerns, and the "flagship" or "facility-class" approach was contrasted with the philosophy of "faster-better-cheaper" which advocates using lots of spacecraft, making frequent launches and accepting that some will fail.

Westwick also devotes detailed attention to how JPL was encouraged to adapt "Total Quality Management" and "reengineering" techniques intended for mass production to its own special needs for a way to manage high-technology, high-performance research-and-development projects.

Under Stone's leadership, JPL tried at first to accommodate these methods but eventually found them to be antithetical to the practices that achieved the best returns in terms of successful performance, reliability and scientific worth. For me, the most intriguing portions of Westwick's study deal with the diversification JPL underwent to maintain itself during periods when NASA looked elsewhere for its expertise or was unable to provide enough support to maintain the lab's workforce.

JPL's Army roots persisted, and military work was undertaken in the s as a way to maintain staff levels and satisfy the interests of the lab's older engineers. Among other defense projects, JPL helped to develop simulation software and systems capable of creating the "electronic battlefield.


Sensitive to the perception that "defense work was a career dead-end," JPL managers also made significant efforts to build civilian programs that focused on alternative energy sources and on advanced image processing. This work helped to bring JPL squarely into the fold of mainstream astronomy research. Because of the lab's complex but binding links with Caltech, whose faculty constantly criticized the inroads the military was making, JPL never immersed itself wholly in classified research. Again, Westwick deftly tracks the action, identifying the motivations and the constraints, all the while reminding the reader that JPL was the only NASA center able to court multiple patrons.

Westwick also never lets the reader lose sight of the overarching NASA propensity for human-piloted missions, and how that bias often hobbled its ability to respond quickly and positively to innovative technologies emerging from military programs. Here Westwick does a real service by demonstrating that JPL's continuing devotion to robotics and acceptance of a certain level of risk led to its many successes in space research at times when NASA's program of putting people in space was languishing and NASA itself was in dire need of good press.

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Westwick celebrates these well-earned achievements, showing that they were directly responsible for JPL's survival. The book offers a lucid overview of the investigations that were conducted and discusses what those high-profile malfunctions can teach us about which combinations of talent, experience, risk taking and management technique work best. In consequence, I can unreservedly recommend Into the Black to historians and to students and practitioners of aerospace studies.

View the discussion thread. Skip to main content. Login Register. Page DOI: From Into the Black. Requirements for Space Propulsion Systems. Launch as Paytoad - - In Peter Koestenbaum ed. Concepts of Space. Max Jammer - - Cambridge: Mass. Nuke Your Way to the Stars.

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