5,4,3,2,1, everyone likes a good countdown! For those of us old enough to have experienced the grainy television images associated with the Apollo program, few countdowns surpassed the excitement and anticipation associated with three men strapped at the apex of a massive rocket, set, we hoped, to launch them on new adventures in outer space. Few, however, felt the excitement and tension as often as Air Force Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Program Manager for the Minuteman Missile Program, and later Program Director for NASA's Apollo Program through the Moon landing. Preparing for countdowns dominated his career for over a decade.
Like the thirteen men preceding him as recipients of the Smithsonian's Langley Gold Medal for aeronautics and its application to aviation (including the Wright Brothers, Robert H. Goddard, Charles A. Lindbergh, and Wernher von Braun), Phillips deserves to be remembered for his singular achievements in leading more critical national-level research and development programs than perhaps any other American. Quiet, and always the "calm hand at the wheel," Phillips never achieved, nor sought, the "rock star" status associated with luminaries such as Lindbergh or von Braun. However, as he said himself, "Results are what count," and few can compare with Sam Phillips. (1)
Samuel C. Phillips was born on February 19, 1921, in Springerville, Arizona. His father, an electrician, worked on power systems, which caused the family to move frequently. Raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Phillips developed an early interest in electronics, especially in radio systems.
He studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Wyoming, while participating in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Upon graduation, he received a commission as a regular officer in the U.S. Army (a rare distinction reserved for top ROTC graduates) and he was subsequently assigned to the Infantry. Already a licensed pilot, Phillips had hoped for an assignment to the Army Air Forces, but duly reported as ordered to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for infantry training. While waiting for his operational infantry assignment, Phillips boldly sent a telegram directly to the Chief of the Army Air Corps, suggesting that they "better get him quick" if they wanted him. They did, and the Army reassigned Phillips to the Air Corps. (2)
Phillips flew distinguished combat tours in P-38s and P-51s for the Eighth Air Force, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Air Medals. Following a tour with the occupation forces in Germany, Phillips returned to Langley AFB, Virginia, followed by graduate school at the University of Michigan in Electrical Engineering. Phillips then began a series of research and development jobs, culminating in his assignment as program manager for the B-52 bomber. He returned to the operational Air Force as Director of Logistics for the Strategic Air Command's (SAC) 7th Air Division in the United Kingdom (UK), where one of his major duties was to negotiate the installation and support of the Thor missile system. Phillips impressed Gen. Bernard Schriever's deputy, Brig. Gen. Charles H. Terhune Jr., with his work on Thor, and Schriever brought him into their organization as the program manager of the Minuteman program in 1959, where
he served until "borrowed" by NASA in early 1964 to take over as the Apollo Program Director. Phillips, then forty-three years old, guided Apollo through the lunar landing in 1969. General Phillips commanded the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) from 1969-1972, the National Security Agency, 1972-1973, and finally, Air Force Systems Command from 1973 to 1975. Post-retirement, General Phillips worked at senior positions with the TRW Corporation, and twice headed efforts to help NASA assess its management practices in the wake of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. General Phillips died on January 31, 1990. He is interned at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (3)
A classic "workaholic," Phillips had a work ethic second-to-none. During his Minuteman and Apollo years, 70-80 hour workweeks were common, with frequent weekend travel, often including coast-to-coast "red eye" flights. A sample of his diary from January 1968, right at the heart of the Apollo program, is instructive. Phillips made fourteen phone calls; sent out three taskings; agreed to speak at a luncheon; responded to an invitation to a congressional dinner; agreed to a media interview and flew to Cape Canaveral that evening--all on a day he was home sick! According to Col. Gilbert D. Rye (USAF, Ret.), Phillips's Executive Officer at the Space and Missile Systems Organization, Phillips did not slow down one bit once he left Apollo, filling up every minute during his long days, then taking briefcases home at night, working through papers "like a machine." Colonel Rye tells a great story about Phillips calling him one Saturday morning to play tennis, perhaps an out-of-character nod to his wife Betty Ann's insistence he exercise. Rye was astounded when Phillips called him, surprised by his normally all-work boss. The general did not play well, and Rye never played tennis with him again. (4)
When in Charge, Take Charge!
Sam Phillips was not a particularly dynamic speaker, nor a "rah-rah" cheerleader-type personality. Nonetheless, there was no doubt who was in charge of a program when Phillips had the stick. During his B-52 years, he shared program management with his Air Material Command counterpart, Col. Edmund O'Connor. Phillips, assigned to Air Research and Development Command, was responsible for aircraft development, and at some ill-defined point where the program moved from development to production, O'Connor, as the procurement officer, would theoretically take over. While he did not like the arrangement, Phillips worked well with O'Connor. However, he became extremely frustrated when he discovered that lower-level contracting officers could override certain of his decisions as program manager. Phillips told his boss, then-Maj. Gen. Thomas Patrick Gerrity, that he had to have the power to issue contracting direction as part of his authority as program manager. Phillips believed this so strongly he got himself certified as a procurement officer and hung the warrant over his desk. This determination to seize the authority he needed to get the job done became a technique he would repeat. (5)
Phillips's belief in assuming the authority necessary to accomplish his responsibilities clearly manifested itself in the Minuteman program. He froze the Minuteman design in June 1960, in favor of production (and above all meeting the initial operating capability schedule) despite the fact that the missile was over 1,000 miles short of its specified range at that point in development. He knew it would take six to twelve months to reach the designated range, and he was running out of time. Phillips traded off range for schedule by placing the first Minuteman missiles at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, in 1962, calculating that the northern latitude and higher elevation would compensate for the range limitation given the relatively shorter distance the missiles would have to travel to target the Soviet Union. His team calculated they could achieve the required range by the time Wing 2 (Malmstrom was Wing 1) went into production. A huge decision, but one that Phillips believed was within his authority. (6)