The thought leader’s thought leader
By Jonathan Coopersmith|October 2022
Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin chief executive
Whether leading the U.S. Army in the 1970s, creating the Lockheed Martin conglomerate in the 1990s or charting future paths for U.S. human space exploration in 2009, Norman Augustine has played no small part in shaping the aerospace industry into what it is today. And he’s not done yet. After retiring in the 1990s from a 40-year engineering career he began at Douglas Aircraft in 1958, Augustine has remained active, largely through chairing various studies for the U.S. government on topics including attracting and retaining a highly skilled and diverse aerospace workforce. I reached Augustine, fresh off his 65th Princeton University class reunion, via Zoom to reflect on his career, the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program and what revisions he’d make to his famous “Augustine’s Laws” book of business observations. Here’s our condensed and edited conversation.
Q: You have a motto, “motivation will beat mere talent almost every time,” and write about the importance of a strong sense of ethics. How much of that came from your family during your childhood in Colorado?
A: I really do feel that whether you’re talking about a corporation or a person or an organization, a strong ethical base is crucial. Nobody wants to be associated with somebody you can’t trust, and you’re not going to accomplish a lot in life on your own, unless you’re an Einstein. It’s going to be through working with others, and that requires a fundamentally sound moral set of principles. I’ve made some huge engineering failures, but you could recover from them. But you don’t recover from an ethical failure. My parents were wise not to lecture about the topic, but they set the example, and they set an expectation for me of what I was supposed to do and what I wasn’t supposed to do. I was an Eagle Scout, and the Scouts, of course, emphasized this kind of thing. Another reason is Mother Nature is a very fair but unforgiving judge. If you’re going to build rockets, you can’t cheat on the testing. Engineering is a great discipline for building character.
Q: When you walked into Douglas Aircraft in 1958 fresh out of graduating from Princeton, what did you think you were getting into?
A: I frankly didn’t have a life plan and never have. I was very excited about engineering and aeronautical engineering and aerospace engineering. I was very lucky that jet aircraft, commercial aircraft, were just coming into being and that the Space Age had just begun, literally. I was working on the Nike Zeus [antiballistic missile], which was probably the best job I ever had. After a year or two, I was put in charge of a group of six or seven engineers. We had flight failures ranging from previously unexperienced phenomena to engineering errors. We were supposed to figure out if it was an aerodynamic failure, what caused it and how to fix it before the next flight. Unfortunately, we had a lot of failures. Fortunately, it made for very exciting work. There was a lot of detective work to do, and your results were tangible. I mean, you found a problem and you flew a month later. It wasn’t like today where you wait for six months or something.
Q: You started in engineering and ended in management.
A: In my career, I, to this day, consider myself principally an engineer and take great pride in that. There was never a point where I suddenly moved into management or where I suddenly got into other fields far away from engineering. One of the great things about engineering is it’s a great foundation for almost anything you want to do. It teaches hard work. It teaches discipline, it teaches analysis, it teaches making decisions between options.
Q: A good engineer compromises, balancing conflicting, legitimate objectives. How do you make those trade-offs?
A: It’s a very good point. I can remember very early in my career when I was working on a preliminary design for a proposal, going around to the various people at their desks, talking to them about what they were doing, and one person was focusing on minimizing weight because weight was really important. Another person wanted to minimize radar cross section, even though it was affecting weight. And another person was trying to maximize the range. And they’re all maximizing individual elements of the system, which is rarely the way to maximize the performance of the system. That got me thinking: You need systems engineers, you need people who are very good at weight design and radar cross section design and so on, but you also need systems engineers that do exactly what you said, which is to make the trade-offs, to make the optimized system — not a collection of optimized parts.
Q: And that’s a big challenge: The larger the project, the larger the system.
A: Absolutely. And particularly as I’ve encountered later in my career, one of the most important unpredictable parts of most systems are human beings. And so you soon get out of the laws of nature. You get into the laws of humanity, which are much more difficult to predict and control and so on. You just can’t isolate engineering eventually from other things that maybe have an even greater impact than your technological limitations. The same thing follows true with education. I happened as a youth to study engineering in what was primarily a liberal arts college. The focus was heavily on the physics and chemistry and math and so on. I think that fundamental focus is so valuable because those are the things that don’t change over time. I think that having those courses in the liberal arts schools gives you engineers who can figure out what to do; a liberal arts background helps you figure out what you should do. And I found that extremely valuable as my career got broader. The engineers I’ve known most, all of them were good engineers, a few were great engineers, but so many engineers never learned to write well, and that is such a handicap in their career and on the firms or organizations they worked for. [Laugh] The amount of time that is wasted by senior management putting a verb in every sentence is horrifying.
Q: Were some of these experiences what prompted you to write “Augustine’s Laws”?
A: Over the years having served in government, industry and academia, I would see things taking place that were patterns — not just one-offs of one company or one decision, but the patterns. And so I got interested, being in engineering of course, in quantifying those things and making charts and graphs. And I wrote articles because I enjoy writing. I didn’t think much more about it. My daughter was in high school at the time, was always after me, “Why don’t you take yours and make a book?” I said, “I would love to, but I just don’t have the time to do that.” I was on a trip in San Diego and suddenly came down with appendicitis, so I had my appendix taken out. It was going to be a little while recovering. My daughter grabbed a bunch of my articles and said, “Well, here’s your chance. You’re not going anywhere.” And I had great fun writing it. A side story: I was at a meeting in the early 1980s at which the U.S. Army chief of staff was speaking to a fairly large crowd. And one of our big customers at Martin Marietta obviously was the Army. My book had just come out. He pulled a copy out from under the podium and held it up. It was fantastic. And he said, “I was just reading Augustine’s book, and I see him out there in the audience.” I thought, “Oh, great.” Then he said, “And I don’t think much of it.” I thought, “Holy cow, what have I done?” And he said, “There’s that thing in there that says that rank times IQ is a constant. I don’t think much of that.” Of course, he laughed and everybody laughed. I really learned from that: If you use humor, you could make points that people will remember, and they won’t be offended. If you say the same things in a very serious vein, if you say, “Bureaucracy just messes up, business prevents you from accomplishing anything,” people get annoyed. But if you say, “It’s the epoxy that greases the wheels of progress,” they’ll laugh with you. Then when they get home at night, they’ll start thinking, “What did you mean by that?” And so humor in a sense is the secret to conveying unwelcome messages.
Q: If you were writing the laws today, what would you change?
A: The frightening thing is that I don’t really have any corrections to offer. It’s been basically true. That’s very disconcerting. The law that’s probably had the biggest impact is the one that projects the U.S. Defense Department eventually won’t be able to afford a single airplane. The Economist magazine a couple of years ago actually printed that law, and they put new data points on the chart. The new data points fall right on the line as I projected.
Q: Going back to before your Martin Marietta days, what was it like serving as assistant secretary of the U.S. Army, undersecretary and acting secretary during the Vietnam War?
A: Almost every new job I took, I walked into a troubled situation — not all, but most. And those first years in the Pentagon when I worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense were some of the most difficult of my life. My office overlooked Arlington National Cemetery, and I would look out there, and they were digging graves. Every time later when I was undersecretary of the Army, when you came in and out of Andrews Air Force Base on a government trip, there were always medevacs bringing broken up service members from Vietnam.
Q: What was it like being AIAA president in 1983?
A: It was that long ago? Gosh. I was very active in the AIAA and encouraged people to do that in the association of their profession. It is your duty to your profession to contribute, and you gain a perspective that you don’t get just out of one company. I very much enjoyed my time with the organization, and it’s a great organization that performs important functions. One of my failures was I couldn’t find anybody who liked the name “AIAA,” so I set out to fix that. Many said it sounds like Old McDonald’s “e-i-e-i-o” or something. But when membership voted on proposed new names, no two-thirds — as would be required — could agree on any other name. In fact, no 10% could agree. So it’s still “e-i-e-i-o.”
Q: Maybe we have a new challenge for the 21st century.
A: [laugh] Oh, it’s going to take most of it.
Q: You’ve chaired two national commissions on space, the 1990 advisory committee on the future of the American space program and the 2009 review of human spaceflight plans. What’s changed, and what’s remained similar?
A: When you talk about things that have changed, certainly the technology has changed immensely over that period. The date of the first commission was exactly when the Soviet Union was coming unglued. The Russian issue would change vastly, and the Chinese picture was just beginning to emerge. Then there are other important things where we had discovered water ice on some of the most important places that we’d like to have humans go. And that of course is a big deal in terms of providing oxygen and energy and water. What stayed the same? Certainly, one thing that jumps out at me is that in my life working with NASA, for which I have great respect, NASA has always had about $3 billion a year more programs or goals than it’s had money. It’s very important that NASA get its appetite and its pocketbook somewhat attached to each other.
Q: What issues should a hypothetical 2022 commission consider?
A: One is certainly the balance between robotic and human exploration. One is the $3 billion budget shortfall. One is going to the moon but not bogging down there. I still think Mars is a very important goal for NASA and the nation. Another is that NASA is going to have to start planning for the enormous budget crunch that you can see coming and could see coming for the last decade. That is going to put pressure on the Defense Department and NASA unlike any they’ve ever seen before. That leads to another one of my yet to be — it’ll be the next book of laws, but I’m often quoted as saying this: The James Webb Space Telescope has received many accolades, and deservedly so, since it started returning pictures. Prior to that, the only thing you read about the telescope was how far behind it was, how high its cost overrun was. It points to the importance of keeping your focus on mission success. People aren’t now talking about the overrun; they’re talking about the great imagery. My law is that no medals are given for cheap failures, meaning overruns in cost and schedule can often be forgiven through great accomplishments, and the Webb telescope is exhibit one. It’s a very expensive success.
Q: It’s ironic that former NASA Administrator Jim Webb, when asked to estimate the cost for Project Apollo, asked his managers and engineers, “What do you think it’s really going to cost?” He doubled that sum, then said to the politicians, “Look, this is what’s going to cost. If you’re not prepared to pay it, don’t do it.” And that’s really NASA’s only major human spaceflight program that was on budget.
A: He was wonderful. He pulled it off. When I first became assistant secretary of the Army for R&D, I saw a bunch of programs that had no reserves, none, zero — and these were high tech programs, and you just never do those without surprises. So I went through the history of prior programs and put in a surprise factor and raised the budget that we requested of Congress. There’s one program I remember in particular, the Boeing Vertol XCH-62 heavy-lift helicopter. When I was testifying to explain why the budget increased, I explained that it was a reserve for things that were not foreseen. And I was asked, “Well, what are you going to spend the money on?” And I’d say, “Well, that’s the point. I don’t know that today.” And they’d say, “Secretary Augustine, don’t you understand? We have people in here all the time who know what they want to spend the money on that they’re asking for, and you’re in here wanting millions of dollars, and you don’t even know what you want to spend it for.” They canceled the program. Lesson learned.
Q: You were present at the 1993 “Last Supper,” when the Defense Department essentially told the defense industry it would have to drastically downsize. Did you all expect that?
A: In my experience, the heads of the aerospace industry had never been invited to dinner at the Pentagon. The initial reaction when we got there was “Why are we here?” I happened to have been seated next to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and I asked him, “It’s really nice of you to buy us dinner, but why are we here?” He said, “You’ll find out.” After dinner in the secretary’s dining room, he led us into his briefing room. They had a chart, a list of various fields of defense hardware that had everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. Next to it was a column that said how many companies were now in that business. The column next to it said how many the Defense Department can afford. And the thing that astounded me was in some cases, it was one. I was thinking this is like the first day in engineering school when the dean comes in and says, “Look to your left and look to your right, because four years from now only one of you’ll be here or two of you.” I look to my left, and there was McDonnell Douglas CEO John McDonnell, my good friend from Princeton. I had taken an aisle seat, so there was nobody on my right, so I turned to him and whispered, “Too bad for you.” And he laughed; he knew exactly what I was referring to. The fact that DoD was saying it could only afford one company in these industries or two or three — that was profound. The next morning a reporter asked me what had happened at the dinner, and I just blurted it out, “Well, it was the last supper.” And that stuck.
Q: Looking back, did the department make the right choice, or did it have other feasible options?
A: As I said publicly many times, that at the time it was not the best choice for the United States, but it was the only choice from the options available. The problem that the DoD had was you had a whole bunch of companies with one-third full factories, heavy overhead, not enough money to invest in research. The industry was just overburdened with facilities and people. There was just not a way to justify their presence, and to continue on would’ve just driven the industry into bankruptcy, which would’ve been the worst thing. I’d rather have 15 strong aerospace companies than what the Defense Department was proposing, but if 15 isn’t an option, then I’d rather have three strong companies than 15 weak companies. And I say that whether I’m competing as one of those three companies or whether I’m an American citizen or what have you.
Q: Your service after retiring has been quite impressive. How did that happen?
A: When I left the government, they started asking me to take on a pro bono task here and there, some of them far removed from anything I was involved in. And they were always to set up a committee to do something. The topics varied over the entire spectrum of things you can think of. There have been some successes, like the establishment of ARPA-E [the U.S. Department of Energy’s DARPA-like Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy]. Also, many of the reports were used as an excuse for inaction and were put on the shelf until the noise quieted down. The people who worked on these reports were highly qualified in the area we were dealing with. I was to put it together, get a report out and ask dumb questions, which I’m very good at. I hadn’t planned to do this. I was just asked to do one, and that led to another, led to another and so on. And I’ve enjoyed doing it. Kept me off the streets, since I’ve been retired.
Q: Competence has its price.
A: Well, I don’t know that that’s true, but I came cheap. The bottom line is my life has been an accident. I started out wanting to be a forest ranger, and that got changed. And had I been a forest ranger? The problem is you don’t know what the other path would have turned out. And I might be sitting before Congress being questioned, or I might have been sitting up on a mountaintop, looking at the deer. Dan Tellep, who ran Lockheed when we put the merger with Marietta Martin together, had a saying that is so good: “When opportunity knocks, try to answer the door.” And because opportunity does knock and it’s usually inconvenient to answer the door, if I get credit for anything — and my family gets credit because it’s often been hard on them — it’s that I answered the door.