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I remember having read some time ago that for the Apollo program (and probably the related Mercury/Gemini ones), NASA deliberately hired younger and less-experienced engineers and staff.

The supposed reason was that these people are still dreamy and naive enough to believe that getting someone to the moon would actually work; whereas the older and experienced generation of engineers would be more skeptic and expect failure which would then turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Was this true, and can someone point me to a reference on this please?

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    $\begingroup$ Everything I've read about NASA's programs during the 1960s indicated they wanted the best people they could get for all mission roles. Inexperienced people perform badly during critical periods such as emergencies & when unexpected malfunctions occur. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Aug 17, 2023 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ For mission control (not actual vehicle design) there may be some truth here in wanting to break from the mould of military lead project principles and assumptions the baggage that brought. Part of it of course was Apollo needed vast numbers of engineers and it was easier to go to collages and hire out of graduating classes then hunt up older people piecemeal. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ How would you go about hiring experienced staff instead? Where would NASA have found mission controllers with 30 years experience landing crewed missions on the moon? $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ whereas the older and experienced generation of engineers would be more skeptic and expect failure which would then turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is very funny. $\endgroup$
    – Dong Li
    Aug 17, 2023 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ Average age of an Apollo flight controller was 28 - young, but not exactly right out of college. Apollo management was made up of elite managers with experience in aerospace, military, industry, etc. Your question is based on a misunderstanding. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 13:31

1 Answer 1

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This question rests on two premises that are both questionable. First, that the early space program's engineers and functionaries were mostly young, and second that this was due to a deliberate exclusion of older engineers, controllers, etc. from the Apollo program.

To address the second point first, I would submit that in large part, no such pool of older experienced personnel existed, so any bias towards younger personnel was merely because hiring processes tend to skew younger when relevant experience is not available. That is to say, if nobody has experience in the field, you might as well hire younger people rather than people with unrelated (or only marginally related) experience. Sure, the United States had Paperclipped a bunch of previous-generation German rocket guys, but from that point forward the space program was pretty much breaking new ground with every project. There was no existing standard for how to run a launch or how to build a good rocket. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were pushing into unknown territory and writing the rules as they went along (and largely shared the same group of people, for whatever that's worth). Yes, the space program included a lot of younger people, but that's not because older experts were intentionally excluded, there simply were no existing experts that they could have drawn on in many of the relevant fields. (In fields where experience was available, such as project management, they did indeed hire older, more experienced people.)

But that said, addressing the first premise, I think the question potentially ignores a lot of older engineers who were working with NASA simply because they weren't technically working for NASA. For example, John D. Clark (author of the excellent book Ignition!) was in his mid-50s by the time the Apollo Program was even starting, but his work on fuel chemistry was done under the auspices of the US Army's Liquid Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, not NASA. The Saturn V's massive F-1 engines were developed at Rocketdyne, a division of North American Aviation, and the metallurgy research involved was even further removed from NASA itself. Saying "NASA hired young engineers" may be entirely factual while also being completely deceptive, because much of the work on the space program was done by contractor companies, and thus NASA didn't hire any of those engineers, regardless of their ages.

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    $\begingroup$ "no existing experts that they could have possibly drawn on." Not true of Apollo management. They picked experienced program managers from the military, industry, etc. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, that's true. As far as management goes, there were plenty. But since the question was asking about things like engineers and mission controllers I'm referring to those groups. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Some sources would be great too, so it's not "some guy on the internet says so". $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2023 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ I expanded my answer to be more clear and address some of the ambiguity of the question. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2023 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ looks great, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Aug 18, 2023 at 22:19

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