A “Giant Leap” To Live Up To
Fifty years ago, over four hundred thousand visionaries, administrators, technicians, medical personnel, engineers, mathematicians, clerical workers, and scientists helped Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins fly to, land and walk on the surface of the moon. Neil and Buzz imprinted the lunar dust with their feet, sending images back. The seeds of the mission were political, but the result was much deeper for humanity than imagined. The Apollo mission to the moon was a model, a perfect example of how to play the game of life by playing the down side as much as the up side.
The National Air and Space Administration (NASA) was created by President Eisenhower as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s lead in space that started with the launch of the orbiting Sputnik satellite in October of 1957. The Soviets had the high ground and that was profoundly unsettling from a military perspective. In May of 1961, after falling further behind with the orbit by Yuri Gagarin, JFK pledged that the United States would, within the span of ten years, “deliver man to the surface of the moon and return them safely back to Earth”. With his first step on the moon’s surface Armstrong claimed that the success was “a giant leap for mankind.” I believe that it has been a giant leap for mankind to live up to the standard that the Apollo program set. Everything the Apollo program did was a model for humanity to follow. The greatest of these was courageous leadership.
Adventure is a powerful thing. As an adventurer for over thirty-five years I understand that it has the potential to be an evolutionary force in one’s life and for mankind. Potential, because it is not a passive process as so many believe. The process of evolution is as simple as paying attention to what happens and taking effective action based on what is observed. Learning. This simple act of focusing our attention expands human potential and ultimately, reduces suffering. The Apollo missions and the hundreds of thousands of people involved lived this version of leadership (Leading to learning), and it showed. However, as simple as this process seems, humanity in general usually fails.
Apollo had a rough start. On a pre-flight test of the Command Module of Apollo 1, while still on the launch pad, engineers made a grave error which cost the lives of three crew. The capsule was pressurized to 16 lbs per square foot of pure oxygen, which resulted in a devastating fire that consumed the lives of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.
After the tragedy, NASA leadership did something profoundly rare in our society, They took responsibility for the deaths. They made no excuses. They accepted their failure, learned, and with deeper precision, moved forward with the open honest culture they allowed the tragedy to create.
“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!" Gene Krantz
Apollo was what I would call an “adult” adventure. The response to the Apollo 1 tragedy cements this notion because like adults, the leadership took responsibility. This maturity underpinned the culture. They knew they were playing for keeps and that if they were going to be successful they needed to capture their failures as a means of getting better. They did this by training. Hard. Every single action imaginable was simulated and failed at, so that they got better as a team. The model for risk management that Apollo used is still cutting edge. Risk means BOTH the possibility for gain, and the possibility for loss. Risk is not something to be avoided as much as something to be managed so that success is supported. This training worked. They captured small errors before they became big ones. If big errors happened, they owned and solved them. The near tragic Apollo 13, is to some, Apollo’s greatest accomplishment. 13 had an explosion in an oxygen tank that crippled the command module. The crew used the lunar lander as a lifeboat to get home. And there was a raft of problems, but the support, creativity, and effort kicked in to bring the crew home alive. NASA leadership was accountable to the people they asked to go on the mission and supported them through the tough stuff.
On July 20, 1969 the entire world watched as Armstrong stepped out on the surface of the moon. His words, “A giant leap for mankind” were true. At no time in history had mankind ever achieved such a feat. But his words were also an invitation. The single most important factor, in getting to the moon, was the courage to accept responsibility for failure. When we accept responsibility for failure we can then make the needed correction (s). When we correct our errors we can achieve the seemingly impossible because it is the process for learning that will get us there. This single act is a the “giant leap” for human beings to make. We expect our leaders not to fail. We expect them to have led perfect lives and to never have made a mistake. Mostly, leaders hide their failures. In doing so they hide the lesson. We need to understand the “giant leap” is to harvest the learning. This is how we travel to the heavens.