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Lessons we’re still learning from the original moonshot

This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – NASA’s ground-breaking mission to land astronauts on the moon.

Apollo 11 took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins within touching distance of the moon. Then on July 20th, 1969, the final step involved landing the lunar module ‘Eagle’ on its surface, before Armstrong took those mesmerizing first steps.

The event was broadcast live across the world to an estimated TV audience of 600 million people[i]. Armstrong’s iconic words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, are one of the seminal moments of the 20th Century. These words, and the mission they described, epitomise the essence of the ‘Moonshot’ – the drive to an audacious, ambitious, ground-breaking goal.

Today we find ourselves at the start of what feels like another pivotal period in human history, where advances in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the creative arts are once again pushing the boundaries of human endeavour. We see artificial intelligence opening up new opportunities to drive improvements across industries, electric vehicles as a real alternative to the internal combustion engine and advanced digital products and services becoming part of the fabric of society.

As we enter another period where technology has the ability to enable paradigm shifting opportunities, what insights might we take from the original Moonshot, the Apollo programme, as we head into the next 50 years?

Three come to mind:

1. Be bold and have purpose

The first is that extraordinary results come from extraordinary visions.

In 1961 U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “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”[ii].

Whilst incremental improvements do deliver change, radical progress depends on what some might describe as unreasonable or farfetched thinking. In the 1950s the prospect of travelling to the moon and back was viewed as science fiction. By the end of the next decade it had become a reality.

More recently some of our most successful businesses have been those with bold visions and a strong sense of purpose, who have had to weather extreme criticism in their journey to the top.

Amazon, whose vision is to be earth's most customer-centric company, was famously written off as ‘Amazon.toast’ in the late 1990s by Forrester researcher George Colony. No-one thought Apple, a company that CEO Tim Cook has described as being ‘on the face of the earth to make great products’, had a future in the early 2000s. One commentator famously remarked, shortly before Apple began to change the consumer product design forever, that “every year more Macintosh users convert to Windows, and this trend will continue unless Apple comes out with another 'insanely great' product"[iii]. Elon Musk, perhaps one of the most radical protagonists in modern science and technology, has been labelled as crazy for his vision to colonise Mars[iv].

However, despite criticism, these businesses didn’t shy away from audacious visions and bold thinking. We shouldn’t either. We should raise the big questions that prompt difficult debates. We should embrace Moonshot thinking as a way to push boundaries if we truly want to improve society.

2. Accept risk-taking as a key ingredient of progress

The second is to accept there is risk in all endeavours that push the envelope beyond what feels comfortable.

Whilst Apollo 11 was a success, the mission was fraught with risk. At one point a NASA commissioned risk assessment had put the odds of successfully landing on the moon at 1 in 20. Only two years earlier three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, died on the Apollo 1 launch pad during a pre-flight test[v].

As the Apollo 11 team blasted into space heading over 380,000km away from earth, they were truly heading into the unknown. As they approached their destination the astronauts were faced with split second decisions evaluating a myriad of complex data to determine if they should abort the mission or not[vi].

Once on the surface, they faced searing levels of solar radiation, zero atmosphere and unwieldly gravity. So little was known about the make-up of the moon that there was concern lunar dust could ignite if it came into contact with oxygen inside the re-pressurised cabin.

Then there was the non-trivial journey back to earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean, at a location 250 miles from the planned splash down due to bad weather[vii].

The Apollo programme pushed the boundaries of experimentation to extraordinary levels

However, understanding and acceptance of risk on the Apollo 11 flight was part of the mission. The three astronauts had a wealth of experience in their careers at dealing with unexpected events. Mitigations were made with fallback positions in the event that things did not go to plan. Armstrong famously touched down the ‘Eagle’ on the surface of the moon with less than 60 seconds of fuel left before the landing would have been aborted[viii].

There will always be an element of risk associated with a Moonshot. Many you can plan for, and some you can’t, but by having a team that is experienced and agile enough to deal with a problem in the heat of the moment, many can be overcome.

Rather than killing uncomfortable ideas, risk should be explored, ideas discussed, and opportunities championed as part and parcel of driving progress.

3. Embrace team of teams thinking

The third is that whilst success is often framed around individuals, in reality real progress depends on the teams behind the stars.

Whilst we rightly celebrate Armstrong and Aldrin’s bravery and skill, they were at the apex of a mountain of effort, which had involved over 400,000 people by the end of the Apollo programme in 1972[ix].

This included the rooms full of mission controllers, hundreds of engineers, the thousands of people involved in building components and an abundance of support staff. Armstrong himself, famously interview shy, always referred to the thousands of people that made the Apollo 11 mission possible when asked about his achievement.

Stanley McCrystal, former Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan in the mid 2000s, wrote about the importance of “Team of Teams” thinking in his 2015 book[x]. His central idea was that high performing organizations are more successful when they disband traditional hierarchical structures, and instead operate as groups of teams organized around specific goals. Rather than chasing efficiency through command and control structures, a team of teams focuses on adapting to the challenges created by an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Trust and purpose are key ingredients in order to operate, as NASA did, across multiple geographic sites and disciplines. To move forward at pace without sacrificing quality, how we communicate, share information and become comfortable trusting others to do their jobs without micro-managing is increasingly important as the pace of change and complexity of the world accelerates.

Looking forward

The next mission to land on the moon is set to take place in 2024. NASA’s “Artemis” programme will involve NASA working with private sector established giants, such as Boeing, and new players such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin[xi].

Over half century after the original Moonshot, the three insights above feel like they will be just as relevant to the sequel.

Photo of Oli Freestone

Oli Freestone

Head of Institute, Capita

Oli heads up our Institute, which is part of Capita’s digital and consulting capability and is responsible for digital thought leadership, research and insights. He has worked across multiple industries as a management consultant, and has expertise in strategy, technology and innovation, and is a regular contributor to leading publications on these topics.

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