3 Lessons from the Apollo Program

John_F._Kennedy_speaks_at_Rice_University

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 we intend to win …“.

This iconic speech from John F. Kennedy set the US a clear and ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon.

The date was September 12, 1962.

Many Americans thought the US was losing the space race. The USSR has launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and four years later had beaten the US Program Mercury to put a man in space.

The Apollo program achieved its goal, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon in 1969 in Apollo 11. This was followed by another five successful landings on the moon, with the last one being in 1972.

The Apollo program wasn’t the start of the space program of course. The US had previously had the Mercury and Gemini programs. What the Apollo program did was raise the profile and the budget of NASA – and critically set a very clear goal.

Whilst the costs appeared huge, with Apollo reported in 1973 as costing $25.4bn (around $150bn in 2017), when we look at these in more detail, particularly in relation to total US spending, the numbers are very small. From 1959 to 1972, NASA represented roughly 2.2% of US federal outlays, with Apollo accounting for about 50% of this, or 1.1% of US total federal outlays. Since 1972, NASA has operated with an average of 0.5% of the total US budget. If NASA funding had been maintained at pre-1972 levels, the US would be investing around $67bn in 2017 rather than the $19.5bn it will actually receive .

If we look at the Apollo program, I think there are some clear lessons that can be learned from this, that apply equally to companies today.

1) Set big bold goals.

If you want to achieve something, set a big bold goal. It needs to be ambitious but achievable. The US was perceived to be behind the USSR, but this is perhaps with confidence rather than technical competence. The US successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958 and successfully launched Alan Shepherd into orbit only a little over a month after Yuri Gagarin. Unlike Gagarin’s fully automatic flight, Shepherd had some control of his spacecraft. Amongst modern businesses, Elon Musk’s strategy probably best typifies the modern interpretation of setting big bold goals and exciting visions – across not one industry, but several including software, space transport, solar & battery power, and not least vehicles with Tesla.

2) Hire the best

NASA had a great start with Space Exploration. After World War 2, the US moved about 1600  of the top scientists, engineers and technicians from the Nazi rocket development program to the US. One of the most famous of these, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, later become the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Von Braun was noted as taking a cautious approach to engineering, designing in ample safety factors and redundant structure. It was ironically this caution that caused the US to ‘lose’ the space race to put a man in space as Von Braun insisted on additional tests for rocket that would eventually put Alan Shepherd in space, taking up the slot that would have launched Shepherd into space three weeks before Gagarin.

The mantra of hiring the best is now accepted as a core principle at every leading technology company. Although Alphabet (Google) stands out in its positive public promotion of engineering as a discipline, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon all compete vigorously for the best engineering talent. Amongst startup companies, the demonstration of industry leading innovation will accelerate offers to buy companies that have never even made a sales as companies seek to acquire talent that will help them advance past their competition.

3) Invest!

The JFK “We choose to go to the moon” speech was very clear that this ambition was going to require additional investment. Extraordinary outcomes and big bold goals require investment.  The level of funding for NASA during the Apollo period was approximately 4x what was given to NASA after that program finished. Whether this was value for money is a subjective issue, but it was clear that big outcomes require big money. For the US, and most companies, the issue is not funding – it is prioritisation. The US can afford to innovate and invest in NASA. Most companies can afford to invest in initiatives which will allow them to achieve big bold goals, but they are not willing to prioritise these. Instead investments are either spread across a number of projects to reduce risk (often to reduce the risk to individual managers, rather than the company) or potential investment is returned to shareholders as dividends or buybacks to keep the stock price high. This is of course a subjective decision – because doing this prevents the company from investing in programs which could positively transform the value of the company – as a Apollo program did for the US.

Again, this lesson is absolutely understood by today’s technology leaders. Whilst the older established players such as Microsoft and Apple (and IBM, GE, Siemens etc) balance investment with meeting market expectations (and paying dividends), Amazon and Facebook aggressively invest in growth. Amazon in particular is veracious in its investment in new businesses – whether launching new Amazon products such as the Kindle Fire or Alexa, building whole new categories of business such as Amazon Web Services or its continual expansion of its core logistics business – across warehouse expansion, automation through AI and robotics or its vertical expansion into shipping, air freight and local delivery.

As I wrote this post, it became clear that there is another element that is critical – both for the Space Program and for successful companies. A real x-factor. An unquantifiable element that is essential but hard to qualify.

x) An inspiring Leader

I don’t see it as a coincidence that the Apollo program and successful innovative companies all have inspirational leaders. It is almost a truism to state this, but if we examine this a deeper, it is perhaps the most critical element.

Why is this?

Because without the charismatic leader ‘to make the case, to define the vision, to convince the stakeholders, to secure the investment, to rally the troops’, none of this happens.

If no one stands up in Congress, takes on the cause of NASA, makes the case to the American public – then nothing happens.

It is the same in companies too. Unless someone tells the story, shares the vision, paints the dream, then nothing happens. In a company where there is always an opportunity cost, there is always alternative use for the money – whether another project or a dividend.

It is up to the leader to make the case and inspire the vision. If they don’t, the investment doesn’t happen and you allow your competitor to win. The graveyard of failed companies is full of great ideas that were not supported.

JFK’s speech offers some good advice here about how to maximise your success. He made the goal big, bold and clear. It wasn’t to build a better rocket, to drive efficiency in engineering – it was an easily understandable goal – to put a man on the moon. He laid out the scale in easily understandable measures, “as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field“. He demonstrated capability to achieve the goal, “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were “made in the United States of America” and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” and he made is relevant to everyone in the audience and did’t shy away from the cost, “I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid”. Perhaps most importantly – in fact, absolutely critically – he inspired, “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

This speech has endured as one of the most famous, and important of the 20th Century. Learn from it. Think big. Inspire and define your own moonshot.

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