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NASA & the bra makers; quality management in the space race

Quality ManagementIn 1969 quality management was truly the final frontier in the space race.

As NASA engineers developed unique equipment that would be used in ways and conditions they couldn’t reliably predict or replicate - questions about how to manage the quality of that equipment and the risk of its failure loomed large.

In some cases there was literally no precedent around the end use scenarios for which these engineers were being asked to design and build. What unknown or unexpected forces and conditions might an astronaut encounter as they stepped onto the moon’s surface for the first time in human history?

Many of the processes that were being used to build the required one-off pieces of equipment had to be made up ‘on the fly’ - with unusually specialist skills being deployed to answer unique and unpredictable challenges.

Enter the bra makers

That’s how and why the specialist seamstresses at ILC Dover (a division of the bra and girdle makers, Playtex) came to be responsible for the creation of the spacesuits that the astronauts would wear on those first iconic moonwalks.

The process of creating the suits was complex and expensive. The suit had 21 layers of material, next to the astronaut’s skin was water-filled piping, designed to keep them cool. The outer layers were made of materials that reflected the heat of the sun, deflected radiation and would be resistant to the microscopic meteor activity that might puncture the suit.

Measuring for quality

They were also, of course, entirely bespoke. Sixty five body measurements were taken to , account for individual body shape - and the astronauts themselves were instructed not to lose or gain weight following their final fittings.

Three suits were made for each astronaut – one for practice, one for the mission itself and a third as a spare. They cost $200,000 each or $1.5 million in today’s money. They were designed and built to keep a human being safe and mobile in conditions never experienced by any living person before.

‘The most valued seamstresses were those like Roberta Pilkenton, who could sew together the outer Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment’s 17 concentric layers, with hundreds of yards of seams, without a single tool except her own guiding fingers.’

from "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo", Nicholas de Monchaux

The suits that failed

But the process of approving these suits for final use was fraught with bureaucratic difficulty.

Iterations of the final design were twice rejected on the basis that accompanying documentation was incomplete. But there was a compelling reason for this.

The quality requirements demanded by NASA, did not reflect (or allow for) the novelty of the materials and techniques that had to be used, or the unprecedented deployment scenarios for which they were being prepared.

Spacesuits that were more than ready for the task they had to perform were being rejected (at huge cost to the project) because the new development or assembly techniques they necessitated did not conform to some prescribed way of working that could not achieve the ends of the new project, anyway.

'The process of sewing the final suit was so dependent on the individual craftsmanship of [International Latex’s] employees that attempts to enumerate precisely the procedures used were inherently impossible. As a seamstress later reflected, “No two people sew alike.”'

From "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo" Nicholas de Monchaux

In the end, the quality requirements themselves had to change to move the project forward.

Innovation and quality management

In some sectors, in the modern world of quality management, similar conditions seem to apply. In medical device and high tech development, regulation is playing catch up with the innovative materials and techniques that are increasingly being used to deliver the solutions the market demands.

In response to this, regulation in these sectors has become more and more focused on ensuring processes can deliver quality outcomes (commensurate with the level of risk its failure poses) rather than defining or prescribing exact actions that must be taken to perform a task.

The spirit of ISO 13485: 2016 and ISO 9001:2015 is, therefore, about measuring the quality of a product against properly defined user requirements and needs. In the same way, their emphasis on companies taking a proactive, ‘risk based’ approach to everything they do, is intended to promote a cultural, end-to-end focus on continuous improvement.

We would argue that the kind of quality management tools that are needed to achieve this sort of culture are very different from QMS software that functions as a checklist or otherwise prescribes the way functions are to be carried out. Instead, modern businesses need quality software that can sit at the centre of an organisation’s business and help embed those values into the whole of your operational structure.

Towards a new quality management

All this is not to say that precision in delivery against design is not crucial. Rocket science is famously a discipline where this is little tolerance for deviation, and NASA scientists have to work to strict and prescriptive calculations when engineering their products. In this respect, the moon landings were no exception. As Neil Armstrong describes:

“Each of the components of our hardware was designed to certain reliability specifications, and by far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, substantially better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have.” 

From: "Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race" Roger D. Launius

But the reason for their success in exceeding standards, he ascribed to something else - an obsessive and cultural focus on continual improvement:

“...every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman: ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.’ And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.”

From: "Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race" , Roger D. Launius

In the end, perhaps the lessons from the achievements of the moon landings, is that the way to be truly innovative, to maximise the chances of your ‘moon shot’ paying off, is through embedding quality thinking into your organisational DNA.

The challenge of quality management in today’s fast moving development environments, where everything is dependent on everything else, may be to the find the tools and the approach to make it your company’s central and abiding concern.

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