Five Management Techniques from the Space Race

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Space Race not only pushed the boundaries of human exploration, but also revolutionised the way we manage complex projects.

The intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve spaceflight supremacy led to the development of innovative management techniques.

These methodologies were designed to handle the immense challenges of space exploration and have since permeated various aspects of the business world. In this blog, we will explore five such management techniques that were born out of the Space Race and are now ubiquitous in the realm of business.

Five Management Techniques from the Space Race

Systems Engineering

Emerged as a way to handle the complexity of aerospace projects. It integrates different disciplines to ensure all parts work harmoniously, leading to efficient and reliable outcomes. The Apollo program’s success, for instance, was largely due to this approach, with Wernher von Braun utilising it for the Saturn V rocket.

Today, systems engineering is used in various industries to manage complex projects. For example, in software development, it integrates different disciplines like coding, user experience, and testing to ensure a cohesive product.

Project Management

Became more structured with tools like PERT and CPM developed during the Space Race. The Polaris missile project, managed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, used these tools to manage its development, influencing modern project management practices.

Project Management has evolved with trends like digitisation, creating efficiencies and allowing for rapid evolution in business practices. Modern Project Managers are viewed as influencers, leveraging technology to streamline processes and focus on strategic goals.

Five Management Techniques from the Space Race

Quality Assurance

This was vital for ensuring the reliability of space technology. The HACCP system, developed to ensure astronaut food safety, is now a standard in food manufacturing. Dr. Howard Bauman of Pillsbury was instrumental in developing this system for NASA, which later became widely adopted in the food industry.

Quality Assurance in businesses today involves assessing and analysing the quality of a product throughout its design, development, and production processes. It’s used to improve the overall consistency of operations at every stage.

Innovation Management

Crucial for the rapid technological development during the Space Race. The development of GPS technology, initially for space applications, has transformed numerous industries on Earth. James Webb, NASA’s second administrator, played a crucial role in managing the innovation necessary for the Apollo missions.

Innovation Management is the process of managing ideas from inception to implementation. Businesses use it to create structures and processes that inspire innovation amongst employees, leading to modernisation and enhancement culturally, structurally, or strategically.

Collaborative R&D

Involved partnerships between government, academia, and industry, which were crucial for the Space Race. The collaboration between NASA and companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing led to significant advancements in space technology. Thomas J. Watson Jr., CEO of IBM, collaborated with NASA to provide the computing power needed for the Apollo missions.

Today, collaborative R&D involves partnering with different institutions like universities, research institutes, and other companies. It’s used to pool resources, knowledge, and expertise, driving down research expenses and fostering innovation.

Five Management Techniques from the Space Race


The Space Race was a period of intense innovation that extended far beyond the technological feats of rockets and satellites. It gave birth to management techniques that have become staples in the business sector. From systems engineering to collaborative R&D, these methodologies have shaped modern business practices, emphasising the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration, rigorous quality assurance, and strategic innovation management.

As we reflect on these contributions, it becomes clear that the legacy of the Space Race continues to influence our approach to business management today. These five techniques are a testament to the enduring impact of one of humanity’s most ambitious endeavours.

Further Reading

What is Project Management?

Key Skills and Tools in Project Management

Introduction to Management

Essentials of Project Management – In 3 Minutes

Any project at work can bring about exciting challenges and changes. Read on to learn more about how to identify them, and what the phases of projects look like to help you to run them efficiently and accurately. Rest assured all the content covered here has been tried and tested on our very own project management training courses.


When is a Project a Project?

Too often great projects we are hoping to work on turn out differently to what we expected. Lots of managers wrap a large task up and call it a project. This is because they think that ‘I have a project for you’ sounds more interesting and motivating than ‘I need you to do that big task again.’

So what is the difference between a project and business as usual?

Projects are;

If you are looking at a task which you, or anyone else, have completed in the past, even if only once every few years, it is not a Project. This is Business as Usual. However we can still apply project management principals to large business as usual tasks.

Because they are brand new, have planned objectives and are uncertain and ambiguous, ALL projects bring about CHANGE.


Waterfall and Agile Projects

The Waterfall Project Management method has a traditional linear approach where phases cannot advance until the previous phase is complete. Once a phase is complete, it is difficult and costly to revisit it. Therefore the Waterfall method requires that work cannot begin until we have all of the information required, and that we cannot make changes once work has started.

This method works particularly well in construction.

While this approach is effective for straightforward projects that follow a set path, it may not be suitable for more complex projects that demand a more flexible and dynamic approach.


The Agile Project Management method was adopted first by software teams, who moved from the traditional, sequential waterfall approach to a method that allowed consistent feedback and adjustment throughout the development lifecycle. It is a flexible and iterative approach which focuses on continuous releases or sprints, with the ability to adjust each sprint according to changing requirements.


The PM needs to decide which method will work best for their project.

The Project Lifecycle

All projects have a lifecycle, and all 4 phases of the Project Lifecycle are equally important.

Project Phase 1 – Initiation

This phase can commence once we’ve tabled an idea. At this stage, the idea is just an idea, as there are considerations to think through before management or investors approve it. These considerations include;

  • Is it a nice to do or a need to do?
  • The benefits if we do it and the impact if we don’t
  • Does this align with our organisational goals?
  • When do we need to do it?
  • Ball Park figures for costs, timings, and resources
  • Do we have the skills and time to do it, or should we outsource it?
  • Who is going to authorise it?
  • Who is going to manage it?
  • Who else will be involved?
  • What is included in the project, and what isn’t?
  • Potential risks


A business case or Project Initiation Document (PID) including all of these considerations needs to be prepared to support the project.

At the end of the Initiation stage we will have agreed the Deliverables. Deliverables are what we will provide at the end of the project. For example, a system that is going to provide specific data.

There is always the temptation to jump right in and get going on a new project. However, if the initiation stage isn’t thoroughly complete, the project is highly likely to fail or be cancelled, wasting both time and money.


Project Phase 2 – Planning

Now that we have the go ahead, it is time to do some serious planning.

We have to decide how to create the agreed deliverables and exactly what work is involved. This is called Scope. When somebody requests a task or deliverable which had not been agreed at the outset, we describe it as Out of Scope.

To understand exactly what work is involved we create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Every step is broken down into individual tasks with the expected amount of time each task should take. The Project Manager needs to involve people with specific skills and knowledge at this stage to ensure that nothing is missed, and time estimates are as accurate as possible.

The WBS is used to create the project schedule and milestones as well as calculating critical path and costs.

The final things to decide at the planning stage, are what reporting  is required, and how risks and communication will be managed.


Project Phase 3 – Execution

It is now time to put our detailed plan into action and ensure we keep the team on track.

Putting the plan into action involves tracking and measuring progress, managing quality, mitigating risk, managing the budget, and using data to inform decisions.

Keeping the team on track involves setting and monitoring KPIs, supporting, enabling, and motivating the team, and resolving any issues that may arise.

Tasks for the Project Manager during the execution phase include;

  • Project Introduction and Kick Off meeting
  • Assigning resources
  • Setting SMART goals and KPIs
  • Monitoring progress
  • Monitoring time, budget, quality, and scope of work
  • Directing, managing, and developing the team
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Setting up tracking systems
  • Holding status meetings
  • Updating the project schedule
  • Reporting
  • Risk Management
  • Change Management
  • Modifying plans as needed
  • Communicating with all stakeholders



And Phase 4 – Closing

How do we know when we can complete? The project is declared finished when the agreed scope of work is complete, and the agreed deliverables have been signed off and handed over to the new owners.

During the execution phase it is common for out-of-scope requests to creep in. These need to be negotiated at the time as any changes have an impact on time, cost, and quality. We can usually absorb minor changes, but more significant changes may require a completely new project, generally known as Phase 2.

For example, in the case of our system to provide specific data. Phase 1 has been achieved, but now you are being asked to adapt the system to provide additional data. We can’t just bolt this onto the end, or we will never complete. We roll the first system out. Meanwhile a new project, Phase 2, starts to create the adaptations.

Even in Agile projects with all the various iterations or sprints, there has to be a time where we can reach an agreement that the work is complete, and the deliverables can be handed over.

The team will hold a meeting to evaluate successes and failures and present their findings in a final report. The final budget also needs to be counted. We need to store the documentation in a single place.

The Documentation is important for 2 reasons;

  1. If the project repeats as Business as Usual for example, organising a trade fair, the documentation can be used as an instruction manual.
  2. If the project is cancelled for any reason, the documentation will need to be provided to auditors to prove where the money was spent.


Finally it is time to celebrate with your team – well done!