Leadership Reflections from Apollo at 50: Part 2 – Storytelling

Oh my God, look at that picture over there”, called out Bill Anders, crew member of Apollo 8. “What is is?” Asked Frank Borman, the mission Commander. “The earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.”[1]

Apollo was distinguished from earlier forms of exploration by the depth, synchronicity, and range, of it’s documentation: live TV streaming the key moments of the voyage, a full range of both colour, and black & white photography, shaky home movies shot from the surface of the moon. Apollo had it all. You can read the full mission radio transcripts, if you have the time, or listen to the audio to get close the original conversations (and tensions). There’s even a contemporary Twitter account ‘live’ recasting the Apollo 11 mission word for word for the 50th anniversary too.

As a storytelling activity, Apollo works on many levels: it’s a story of national struggle and pride, the story of communism versus capitalism, the story of Kennedy, the playboy prince, versus the evil empire (with the fear generated by Sputnik as it’s genesis). It’s a story of technology over nature, a story about conquest and exploration, a narrative about progress and the triumph of the 20th century.

At a different level, it’s a story about the ‘little guy’, the 400,000 men and women who worked on individual rivets, pipes, stitches, fluids, calculations, and gambles, that carried three men to the moon. That story is one of individual connection: the interconnectivity of the system, the way that everyone can see how their smallest of cogs drives the largest of machines: that story is also one of subservience and obedience, blind faith, and fervour.

At the most human level, it’s a blue eyed myth of three American boys, back from the war, off to space: their steely strength, and stoical bravery, their occasional sacrifice. It’s a story for everyone, as long as everyone is white, middle aged, and male [2].

There was a parallel narrative about racial inequality and the colour blindness of the whole programme, but at least at the start, there was very little conversation about an African American astronaut. The White House was aware that the story of a black astronaut would be a big political win, and did put some pressure on NASA, even ensuring that there was a black candidate in the Test Pilot programme [3] (the feedstock for astronaut training, in the early days), but when he washed out, little fuss was made. It would be 1983 before the first African American astronaut went up on the Shuttle, the same year as the first American female one [4].

When we examine the relics of Apollo, there is a clear divide between the epic, and the mundane: photos of the behemoth Saturn V boosters, steaming and venting as they snort and stamp their hooves on the launch pad, the sight of American aluminium and gold foil starlit against the earth, the titanic blank visored astronauts standing legs akimbo on the moon, but also photos of carefully documented chicken curry, condoms for taking a pee, and the graffiti that adorned the interior of the Columbia command module [5]. Some photos have value without context, and others seem desperate to provide context to the everyday banality of bodily functions.

One of the most famous photos is that of the first footprint on the moon, although the reality is a little more prosaic: often assumed to be that first step taken by Armstrong, the photo is actually one of Aldrin’s steps, taken not for the historical record, but rather as a series of photos to document the properties of the lunar soil: they were intended to assist the technicians in establishing future designs for moon boots, vehicles, and even buildings, as well as enabling them to estimate maximum walking and driving speeds [6]. Today, we assign the photo totemic value: it represents the first step, the claim, the planted flag.

To some, Apollo 11 represents the start of the Anthropocene, the ‘Age of Humans’, a description of a new epoch, characterised by the time that the dominant forces at play on the face of the earth are human in origin. In this instance the first step on the moon both polluted, claimed, and changed the eternal [7].

But Apollo 11 was not a story in isolation: the ten years of it’s conception and execution spanned the summer of love, the Vietnam war, and an evolving political context. Since Armstrong first set foot upon the moon, the human population of planet Earth has doubled. War, famine, and strife, seem eternal. And we have retreated from the moon.

The story of Apollo seems more a historical anachronism in some ways, possibly a morality play. Certainly it holds very little of the contemporary in it’s stride: most modern references are along the lines of how much faster/more powerful computing is today, or how wasteful those government programmes of old were.

Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled” said Borman, as Anders lined up to snap the Earth. As with everything on Apollo, the sequence of shots that would be taken, every frame, were planned and documented, and an idle aesthetic of the Earth was not part of the photo plan.

Hand me that roll of colour, quick, would you?”, said Anders, urgently. “You got it? Take several of them” urged Jim Lovell, the third Apollo 8 crew member.

Some stories need to be told, sometimes we have to deviate from a plan, and sometimes you have to go with your heart. Similarly, some stories only find value in hindsight: you cannot plan for future relevance, and you cannot control an evolving narrative.

Leadership Reflections

Stories are contextualised, and re-contextualised, in ways that move beyond our control: even our formal relics of discourse can be judged and reshaped in evolving contexts.

An authenticity of action is the best guarantee of longevity.

Even a seemingly indomitable narrative of power can be usurped by evolving social contexts: the role of women, and African Americans in the space programme provides a clear example.

A story, no matter it’s wealth and might, can be felled by authentic truths.

Stories operate on multiple levels: from the individual up to the Organisational, and national. Each level may hold a different truth, and some may be held in opposition to the others.

Leadership is not simply about telling our own story: it’s about enabling others to shape and share theirs.


[1] In Chaikin, 1994, p.112

[2] In private tests, women were show to be just as capable as the men, but that was not part of the dominant narrative of the time. Instead, their role was relegated to the now famous ‘calculators’, and seamstresses, who stitched the spacesuits. (Morton, 2019)

[3] In Morton, 2019, p 110

[4] Twenty year after the first Russian cosmonaut had flown.

[5] Apollo 13 is the famous failed mission, where an explosion crippled the Service Module, necessitating using the Lunar Lander as a lifeboat. Before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, it was necessary to jettison this lifeboat, but clearly not whilst anyone was still on board. One of my favourite Apollo 13 anecdotes concerned one of the astronauts, exhausted and concerned, taping over the ‘jettison’ button for the ‘lifeboat’ with a note along the lines of ‘do not press this button’, concerned that, despite all the technology, training, and knowhow, he would accidentally resort to routine and press it. I’m unable to locate the source of this anecdote at this time, but Lovell and Kluger’s definitive account is a great resource. Columbia’s graffiti discussed in Muir-Harmony (2018)

[6] In Mailer (2009)

[7] Extended debate in Morton, 2019.

Bibliography and further reading

Chaikin, Andrew (1994): A man on the moon: the voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Penguin, London.

Aldrin, Buzz (2009): ‘Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon. Bloomsbury, London.

Riles, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS506, Apollo 11, 1969 (including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5), Owners’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Woods, David (2016): ‘NASA Saturn V, 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab), Owner’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Morton, Oliver (2019): ‘The Moon’. Profile Books, London.

Lovell, James, and Kluger, Jeffrey (2015): ‘Apollo 13’. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Mailer, Norman, (2009): ‘Moonfire’. Taschen, Germany.

Muir-Harmony, Teasel and Collins, Michael (2018): ‘A history in 50 objects – Apollo to the moon’. National Geographic, Washington DC.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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