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Gen. Samuel C. Phillips: A retrospective on the director of the Apollo program and former commander of the Space and Missile Systems Organization

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips

Gen. Samuel C. Phillips (Feb 19, 1921 - Jan 31, 1990) (Courtesy photo: TRW now Northrup Grumman)

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips

Lt. Samuel C. Phillips in his P-51 Mustang during World War II (Photo: US Army Air Forces)

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips

Colorado Governor John Arthur Love, takes a Minuteman Project tour from then-Brig. Gen. Sam C. Phillips, the Program Director. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips

: Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Director of the Apollo Program, looks out over the controllers in Firing Room 1 of the Apollo Launch Control Center at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida prior to the launch of Apollo 8 on Dec. 21, 1968 (Photo: NASA)

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips

Apollo 11 mission officials relax in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969. From left to right are: Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight; Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center; Dr. George Mueller, Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight; Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Director of the Apollo Program. (Photo: NASA)


The week of July 16-24 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to land the first humans on the moon.

Anyone who grew up during the 1960’s witnessed the famous accomplishment of the United States and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. A global audience of more than 600 million television viewers tuned in for what was considered the greatest adventure in human history during a time of political and social upheaval amid deep divisiveness over a war in Southeast Asia.

Lesser-known today are many of the 400,000 workers nationwide who made the effort possible. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips is one of them.

His name resides along Phillips Parkway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is also inscribed in black granite, after his posthumous induction to the Gen. Bernard A. Schriever Memorial and Wall of Honor in 2017 at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California.

Described by many as a superlative leader with a laconic and unflappable style, and by his peers as an unequaled and eminent engineering manager, Samuel Cochran Phillips was the Air Force officer who led the team to put men on the moon, and restore the prestige of a nation in the eyes of the world.

Born in Springerville, Arizona, Phillips graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming in 1942 before commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant and taking flight training in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He served as a combat pilot with the 364th Fighter Group, flying the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang with the Eighth Air Force in Europe during World War II. After the war, he moved to European headquarters in Frankfurt and in 1947 became director of operations at the armament laboratory working on the B-52 Stratofortress bomber project.

Upon finding his role as a manager within an Air Force system complicated by the division between the program manager and the contracting office, Phillips took the necessary steps to qualify as a contracting officer as well as a program manager after obtaining an M.S. degree in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1950.

After several assignments within Strategic Air Command, he was assigned by General Schriever to negotiate and manage the deployment and operation of the Thor nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missile in England. Returning to the U.S. as a colonel in 1959, Phillips was then assigned to the Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Division of the Air Research and Development Command, at Los Angeles Air Force Station in El Segundo, California. Advancing to the rank of brigadier general, he served as director of the Minuteman ICBM program, from its design stage through testing and into operation.

Not widely recognized, then or now, Phillip's work on the Minuteman electronic systems were the driving force that speeded development of the reliable, ubiquitous integrated circuits, which are the foundation of electronics technology today.

By 1963, Phillips' skill in managing the Minuteman and other Air Force projects, both on-time and within budget, brought him to the attention of Dr. George E. Mueller, NASA’s associate administrator for manned space flight. Mueller proposed bringing him to NASA on detached military duty as program controller of manned space flight. Gen. Schriever agreed, on the condition that the now Maj. Gen. Phillips be hired instead as director of the Apollo manned lunar landing program.

Coincidentally, another young Air Force officer was also stationed at the same time as Phillips at the Air Force’s renamed Space Systems Division at Los Angeles AFS: A former combat pilot with two MiG “kills” to his credit during the Korean Conflict, and a doctorate of science degree in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Capt. Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.,  assigned to SSD’s Gemini Target Office, was selected by NASA in October 1963 as one of the third group of astronaut trainees for the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Starting with NASA in January 1964, Phillips wrote back to Gen. Schriever, asking for more Air Force personnel to staff the Office of Manned Space Flight’s program control and configuration management positions. Known as Project 55, Phillips placed 55 Air Force officers from SSD into key managerial positions throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Wearing civilian clothes and working in his shirt sleeves, the six-foot-tall general always kept a firm jaw and sat with military erectness. He was a hands-on administrator of the Apollo program, holding daily meetings, making countless telephone calls and visiting contractors' plants and installations to keep abreast of any problem that might develop, and many did. Such was the case in November 1965, when Phillips took a team to North American Aviation in Downey, California to investigate problems of delays, quality shortfalls and cost overruns. NAA (later Rockwell International and eventually Boeing) was the prime contractor for the Apollo Command and Service Modules and also the Saturn V launch vehicle's S-II second stage.

Phillips wrote a memo to NAA president Lee Atwood in December, with a copy of a report of his findings and some recommended fixes, which he also sent to Mueller. Mueller also sent Atwood a follow-on letter strongly expressing his disappointment with the Apollo CSM and Saturn S-II problems, requiring a response by the end of January 1966 and a follow-on visit of Phillips' team in March.

Following the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee during a ground test on Jan. 27, 1967 -- three weeks before what was to have been the first manned Apollo mission -- a Congressional investigation uncovered the existence of what came to be known as "the Phillips Report." NASA administrator James E. Webb testified before Congress he was unaware of the existence of this report, which ignited some Congressmen and Senators' criticism of NASA and the selection of North American as the contractor.

However, with the political support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, this controversy blew over and during the next eighteen months, under Phillip’s leadership, the Apollo program got back on track toward the goal of a first lunar landing before the end of the decade. Part of this was Phillips’ highly-developed program management disciplines, which included a centralized change control with associated cost estimating, associated contractor relationships built on mutual trust and frank communications, and a systems engineering approach that produced a full visibility set of baseline criteria. Known as configuration control, the reporting procedure would track design changes and connect them to hardware changes, and eventually to process changes.

All of these capabilities as a program manager contributed to Phillips' calculated risk in advocating Dr. Mueller’s “all-up” testing of the first Saturn V launch vehicle in November 1967. When delays in the development of the lunar module threatened the program, coupled with satellite imagery and Central Intelligence Agency reports indicating the Soviet Union was preparing their N-1 moon rocket for flight, Phillips supported George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, on the bold decision to have Apollo 8 retargeted from an Earth orbiting flight to become the first mission to orbit the moon in December 1968. This game changing move essentially achieved 90 percent of Apollo's mission objectives, short of the actual landing on the lunar surface, which the program now had a year in which to accomplish.

Phillip’s contribution to this, one of the most outstanding achievements of the 20th century, was never fully recognized by the public or the media, although fully appreciated by his many friends in government and industry. At a small dinner party before the Apollo 10 dress rehearsal mission in May 1969, Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, singled out Phillips as the man to whom the greatest credit belonged for pulling the many pieces of the Apollo program together and making them work, on time and within budget.

During his time at NASA, Phillips was promoted to Lt. General. Once the Apollo 11 mission achieved the program's manned landing goal on July 20, 1969, Phillips announced his intention to leave the space agency and return to active Air Force duty. Two months later in September 1969, Phillips returned to Los Angeles AFS to command the Space and Missile Systems Organization where he led the studies that defined the follow on to the Minuteman ICBM and began the implementation of the space shuttle program.

In August 1972, Phillips was appointed director of the National Security Agency and also as the chief of the Central Security Service, where he was instrumental in invigorating the research program and in improving management of their development programs. His final Air Force assignment was as commander of Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, with responsibility for all the development projects in the U.S. Air Force until his retirement in 1975.

Phillips did not rest on his laurels. He began a new career in a field where his management skills were put to the test when he became vice-president and general manager of TRW's Energy Products Group. After successfully guiding that group to profitability, he returned to his original field of interest, where he ended his industrial career as vice-president of TRW's Defense Systems Group.

Over the years, Phillips continued to serve the nation, including a stint as chairman of the "Phillips Committee," advising NASA on management improvements following the space shuttle “Challenger” accident.

In recognition of his many achievements, Phillips was widely honored by his peers. In addition to his election to the National Academy of Engineering, he was selected as a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Astronautical Association. He was given an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Wyoming. He received the Simon Ramo Medal of the IEEE, the White Space Trophy from the National Geographic Society, the Langley Gold Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, and the Astronautics Engineer Award from the National Space Club. Phillips was also recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, the French Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Merit, the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, and the Distinguished Service Medal twice from NASA.

General Phillips was a quiet fighter who never lost a battle until his death from cancer at his Palos Verdes Estates home on Jan. 31, 1990 on the 19th anniversary of the Apollo 14 launch that put American astronauts on the moon for the third time. At the time of his death at age 68, he was on the Committee for the Human Exploration of Space, set up by the National Research Council.

General Samuel Cochran Phillips served his nation well and long. As the present-day Space and Missile Systems Center remembers the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing during the “Summer of Launch 2019” campaign, may his memory serve as an example for those who follow.