Fifty years ago, the Apollo programme put a man on the moon. Alongside the Manhattan Project, which had delivered the atomic bomb, it was probably the most complex and ambitious mobilisation of state and science the world has ever seen. It was a vast overreach of effort: to achieve the aspiration required the invention, and mastery, of new technologies, alongside the systems of scheduling and control to use them. From project management, to computer simulation, new disciplines emerged, and all of which in remarkably short order.
Apollo famously gave us velcro, as well as the pen that can write in zero gravity, but much more too: it provides insight into humility and failure, the limits of political power, and exactly what we mean by ‘the right stuff’. Apollo is a story told on many levels: on the one hand, the story of a nation, and an extension of the geopolitical struggle that nearly rained atomic fire on the world, on the other, a very human story of complexity, risk, bravery, and determination, tragedy, alcoholism, and loss.
It’s a timely moment to revisit Apollo, as, after a fifty year hiatus of real purpose, we are at the start of a new chapter, heralded by an evolved relationship between state actors, and the emergent Trans-Nationals, which is slashing the costs of launch, and delivering on what was the hollow promise of legacy and reusability. The Moon, Mars, and beyond, all feel slightly more within our reach.
The foundations of Apollo were in the literature: the dreamers, philosophers, and pioneering science fiction writers, who coalesced into the various rocketry societies, but it was the two World Wars that lit the fuse. Rocketry was not specifically outlawed in Germany as part of the armistice in 1918 (whilst general weapon development was), largely because nobody could see the link, the risk was an ‘unknown unknown’. The interwar years therefore created a space for curiosity, in a time of ambiguity, two factors that may provide the solution to much of the innovation crisis felt in established Organisations today: it is the control over curiosity, and almost pathological fear of curiosity that kills a learning culture, and leads directly to failure.
Of course, the Second World War provided a stimulus to deploy, and Von Braun’s rockets did just that, hefting high explosives onto London, but even as the first V2 rockets took off, Von Braun saw it as not the end of a war, but the first step on the journey to the stars.
The end of the war saw the wholesale pillaging of technology, and intact teams: with both Russia and the US racing for supremacy, and the Apollo programme included at heart the full intact German military cadre, and even some hardware.
If Apollo was anything, it was incremental: each successive launch mastering one new element, in a complex interplay of technology, and a complex power struggle against Russia, giving the whole thing a rather unusual dynamic, that it was perfectly possible to be technologically superior, but still to lose control of the narrative, by simply being a few weeks too late. Sputnik, the first satellite, that Russia lofted into orbit and that pinged it’s story of threat and fear into the heart of the US demonstrated that with dynamic effect. Suddenly, distance collapsed.
The Saturn V rockets that delivered Apollo remain to this day about the most complex machines built by humans. And staggeringly powerful: the first minutes of launch deposited the power of a nation through five thrusters.
It’s easy to become lost in the hyperbole, but at heart, Apollo was a human venture: the three astronauts who died consumed by fire on the launchpad in Apollo 1 died because of stupidity and arrogance, much like the Challenger astronauts did decades later. Technology cannot compete with the arrogance of control systems.
Every meta-narrative of Apollo can be broken down into micro ones: the ways that every component works together, the ways that problems were solved, the insights and revelations felt by the men who walked in space and on the surface of the Moon. I do believe that, in it’s soul, the story of Apollo is one of fragility and humanity, and hence one that we can learn from, if not directly, then through reflection.
I’ve wanted to write about Apollo for some time, and as i filled a whole shelf in my library with various biographies, technical publications, and pulp fictions, about the programme, i became simply more daunted by the idea. The driving idea for me is that we can use a reflection upon the Apollo programme as the foundation of a broad reflection on leadership today: it can form one of the ‘lenses’ that i have talked about before, different ways of looking at the world. But it comes with the risk of being rubbish: the last thing i wanted to do was to draw crass lessons of leadership and bravery from Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin, as they navigated the vacuum.
Instead, i have taken a rather selfish approach: at heart, the appeal for me is in the really rather fascinating details of the technology and programme: understanding the sequence and progression of development, learning something of the complexity and genius of the engineering, hearing some of the very human fallibilities and failings along the way, and just enjoying the sheer magnitude and majesty of what may be the greatest adventure story ever told.
I’m sharing this in the format of one of my Social Age ‘Guidebooks’, which all work to a common format: they share what i hope is some interesting research and content, but also include sections that are my own attempt to draw out the meaning. In this case, i’ve written my own ‘Leadership Reflections’ against each area. Mine may not be the same as yours, which is fine: they are shared simply as part of my own reflective journey.
If you enjoy, or find value in, my work, please consider sharing it, or introducing someone else: it’s the strength of my community that carries my work forward, and gives me the connection, and momentum, to build this movement around the Social Age. Thank you, Julian