Timely Lessons from “13 Minutes to the Moon”

Like many of you, I’ve discovered some cool stuff while under quarantine. I’ve cooked dishes I had never tried before. I’ve walked on streets in my neighborhood that I can’t remember ever being on in 30 plus years. I’ve discovered new corners in my house where I can work away from my quarantine roommates – my wife and son who are also WFH. 

My favorite discovery so far during quarantine is the podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon. For some of you, you’ll remember we used to send brave astronauts into space on a regular basis. We did this because fifty-nine years ago this month, John Kennedy the 35th President of the United States said this. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Kennedy’s call to arms grew from a competitive threat from the Soviets exposed by Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin’s 89-minute Earth orbit in April 1961. Kennedy saw the space race as a way to bring together the best minds in the country to solve perhaps the most challenging problem of all time. Landing a man on the moon. And doing it is less than a decade. 

There are two seasons to the podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon. While season one is about Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in July 1969, it takes the listener through the many failures and successes the U.S. space program encountered on the way to the ultimate landing. Season two is all about the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 and the challenges the program faced in bringing home three astronauts safely. 

Lessons About Life and Business

So here are some of the things I learned that seem quite relevant to the times we are living through today. Massive goals can galvanize people and unite them in a common purpose. The moonshot remains the gold standard for massive goals. 

When Kennedy spoke in May 1961, he was putting a stake in the ground. And when he did that he pushed the public and private sectors together for a common purpose.

Over the next eight years, those sectors worked together hand in hand, arm in arm to accomplish the goal. What if we could do something similar today? How about forging a private/public partnership to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market in record time? That would be amazing. 

A Monumental Shift in Thinking

In one episode, we learn about a monumental shift in thinking. Before the Apollo mission, computers were judged on how big they were, how much space they took up, and how much power they used. The bigger the better.

In building computer hardware for Apollo, the goal was just the opposite. The new goal was to make computers as small as possible. The implications of this pivot have been profound.

We also learn that a software contract between NASA and a lab at MIT was just ten pages long. Imagine that? A 10-page contract for building software that would guide human beings to the moon and back. What would that contract look like today? It would be a hundred pages long. Perhaps a thousand pages. It would be great if we could return to a time when 10 pages were enough to communicate, “Here’s what we need you to do, and here’s how much we will pay you”?

Pushing Down Decisionmaking

We also learn on the podcast that one of the core values of the Apollo program was pushing decision-making down the organizational chain. The average age of the technicians, analysts, and engineers of the Apollo program was 27. Yet they were routinely tasked with making life or death decisions.

Today, while many young entrepreneurs make decisions at startups, large organizations all too often reserve decision-making authority for those at the top. The ramifications of this hierarchical approach are serious. It means those lower on the food chain never feel the pressure of decision-making. Or of the accountability that goes with it. This invariably catches up with organizations. 

Many Moments of Truth

Throughout some 15 podcast episodes over two seasons, we learn how individuals came together time after time to vault over hurdles. There are life and business lessons shared on nearly every episode of the show.

But there is one lesson that stands out the most to me. 

During Apollo, there were many moments of truth. And today, in businesses large and small there are similarly many moments of truth. The greatest moment of truth during the Apollo program came on January 27, 1967. On that day the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee perished in a fire during a preflight test on the Apollo Command Module.

They were training to be the first crewed Apollo flight and were scheduled for liftoff just three weeks later on February 21, 1967. Three days after the tragedy, Director of Flight Operations Gene Kranz addressed the team this way:

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.

“Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

“When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

There Is No “I” in “We”

I deliberately highlight the word “we.” Kranz used the word 20 times in his remarks. Many observers believe this speech changed the arc of the entire Apollo program. And it was largely responsible for America and the world witnessing Neil Armstrong achieve President Kennedy’s vision just two years later. 

Circumstances define leaders. And leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. But it is certainly healthy to turn back the page in time and understand what leadership looked like more than fifty years ago and imagine how we can redefine leadership today.

Women and men running small businesses are doing this every hour of every day during this pandemic. Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is the necessity for business leaders to make tough, thoughtful, and disciplined decisions. Time will tell.

 

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