#Apollo50: Learning from Missions and Moonshots

It’s fifty years this month since the Apollo 11 crew made their journey to the moon.

Today, “moonshot” is an organizational buzzword for efforts to achieve bold and impactful objectives. Everyone seems to want to find their own moon and shoot for it.

Early US design mock-up of a lunar landing module
Early US design mock-up of a lunar landing module

Meanwhile, thinkers like Mariana Mazzucato explore the possibility of taking on Europe-wide social challenges with a new form of “mission-oriented innovation” (PDF download). Mazzucato writes that:

Societal challenges are complex. More complex than going to the moon, which was mainly a technical feat. To solve them requires attention to the ways in which socio-economic issues interact with politics and technology, to the need for smart regulation, and to the critical feedback processes that take place across the entire innovation chain.

With the new vogue for missions and moonshots, what could we learn from the original Apollo programme? I went to Stephen B. Johnson’s excellent 2002 book The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs to find out. Here are a few of the things I picked up.

Problems shape the process

Rocket engines vibrate – a lot. Designers of US spacecraft, used to working on jet-engined aircraft, found that rocket engines created different, more difficult vibration challenges.

Rocket engines produced large vibrations across a wide range of almost random frequencies. Fuel sloshing through the rocket’s tanks and fuel lines caused additional vibration. As the fuel got used up, the resonant frequencies, at which the structure was most susceptible to bending or breaking, changed. Vibration not only threatened the success of a rocket flight, it also posed problems for the sophisticated telemetry equipment which sent performance data back to the Earth.

Vibration demanded a systemic response, bringing together propulsion experts, structural engineers, and the electrical engineers whose equipment was also being affected.

It required a total rethink of reliability and quality control methods, including not just technical but social methods. Manufacturing personnel were given special training; independent reporting channels were established to ensure that quality assurance wasn’t compromised by pressure from officials or contractors; total overviews of the production process were established to allow complete documentation of every part’s materials and processes.

In your endeavours, which problems shape the process?

How do you organize your efforts to meet challenges which spill across silos?

When is a total overview required and when is complete documentation excessive?

Are you applying a jet engine approach to a rocket engine problem?

Even in well-designed systems, individuals matter

No matter how thorough and meticulous the production process, human idiosyncrasy will always play a part in our activities. The Mercury and Gemini programmes, mindful that social methods could help ensure quality of production, had given their factory workers special certification, emblems, and even distinctive toolboxes painted Air Force Blue. Such measures impressed the importance and prestige of the space programme onto the people building the components.

Yet at one Apollo manufacturer, North American Aviation, wiring harnesses for the command module were disconnecting when the pins broke off in the connectors. The problem was traced to one woman working in the plant, who had a particularly strong grip. Enthused by the Apollo programme, she was crimping wires extra hard – the point where they were almost broken. Her efforts to do her job a little better than normal were creating a mystery defect in the components.

The issue was detected and put right: the factory put a special stop on the tool to limit how hard the wires could be crimped. The unusual circumstances – a strong woman moved to extra effort by the prestige of the programme – remind us that you can never fully anticipate human idiosyncrasy.

How does this play out in your organisation?

What part do individual personalities play in operations? How do people interpret, or misinterpret, internal directives and communications?

When this comes to light, how do you address it in a way which is productive but also respectful of people’s feelings?

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission
Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission

Not everything exports across sectors

Is there any aspect of human organisation these days which doesn’t think about becoming “agile”? The agile approach can be a really useful way of getting projects swiftly off the ground, and while it originates with the software industry, it has applications across many sectors.

New ways of achieving outcomes and managing processes are always moving in and out of fashion: Six Sigma, PRINCE2, and so on. But sometimes people throw these labels into the mix of management buzzwords as if merely invoking the name will solve all their problems: “Oh, we’ll be agile so if that comes up we’ll just pivot and adapt, we don’t need to over plan for that.”

There was a time when the astounding achievements of the US space programme provided an organizational model. There was much to be learned from the management processes which successfully met a presidential directive to put humans on the moon by the end of the 1960s, but it is also important to remember that some elements of the process might not transfer well across sectors.

The systems management approach, which allowed Apollo 11 to put human beings on the moon, came about in large part because of the great expense involved in the space programme.

The prior management method, “concurrency”, involved simultaneous planning of all components. This was faster than a “fly before you buy” approach, where the military were given a close-to-finished product. It was intended to let scientists innovate, while getting new weapons into the hands of the military faster.

Under concurrency, testing and development continued throughout a system’s life cycle. Activities previously carried out one after the other now happened in parallel. Research, design, testing, manufacturing, maintenance, and training all overlapped. This seemed necessary under the pressures of the Cold War, and gave great freedom to scientific innovators, but the cost and high failure rate of “wonder weapons” built this way led the US to rethink their management process.

By the time of the Apollo programme, systems management was in place. This more controlled approach allowed managers to measure schedules and costs for sophisticated technical projects, even when they weren’t technical experts themselves.

Given the huge cost and non-returnability of spacecraft, plus the difficulty of getting data from a catastrophically failed launch, it made sense to spend a lot of time and money on process management, reliability, and quality control. Anything up to the cost of an entire replacement spacecraft could be seen as providing value for money.

My well-thumbed copy of The Secret of Apollo, littered with Post-It notes for reference
My well-thumbed copy of The Secret of Apollo

Johnson’s book The Secret of Apollo points out that “On any given design, having systems management undoubtedly costs more than not having systems management, just as buying insurance costs more than not buying insurance.  The real question is whether systems management reduced the number of failures sufficiently, so that it counterbalanced the replacement cost.”

When you import a management approach to your organization, do you look at the sector in which it originated?

How do you decide which management approach will let you achieve your goals? How is it tailored to your sector?

Do you come across people guilty of using the latest management buzzword without fully thinking it through – and how do you manage that?

How do you decide the right amount of time and money to spend on your management approach?

How do you know when you’ve got the right mission?

I started to wonder about this question after I saw a social media discussion including University College London’s Head of Industrial Strategy George Dibb and the innovation expert Stian Westlake.

The discussion included an acknowledgement that it was difficult to say exactly what the 1969 moonshot was for.

It was, as Westlake pointed out, “a triumph of human civilisation” – but he also asked whether anyone can say if it gave value for money, or whether it addressed the deeper needs of 1960s America.

The discussion also raised the question of what the primary mission of the moon landing was. Was it, as one contributor suggested, a spinoff of the US missile programme? “Being able to land a half tonne payload anywhere on the earth’s surface meets the definition of a mission very well.” People on Twitter didn’t find it easy to agree.

Struggling to answer this, even fifty years after we got to the moon, challenges us to understand what exactly a mission is, how it is defined, and what it is supposed to achieve.

If you’re thinking about a missions-and-moonshots approach in your work, why?

Who will define the mission, and how?

How will you evaluate success or excellence?

Does the popularity of a mission, or its support at the highest levels, actually guarantee that it is a good one?

Be mindful of what’s beneath the surface

July also marks the fiftieth anniversary of a space-race failure: the explosion of Europa 1 over Woomera, Australia. Despite the best efforts of several leading European nations to get a spacecraft out of the atmosphere, the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) seemed, in Johnson’s words, to almost be “organized for failure”.

Unlike the US, where a coherent management process had been set up to meet a clearly defined Presidential directive, the European space programme struggled – in part because of a failure to integrate competing interests.

European partners sought to gain access to one another’s markets through space-industry collaboration, while protecting access to their own. The European launcher was a repurposed British Blue Streak ballistic missile, looking for a new use once the UK opted for American missile systems. The overseeing body ELDO lacked authority to coordinate between the member nations, and the relative failure of European space programmes versus the US seemed to be caused by managerial, not technical, superiority.

That’s not to say the US didn’t have its own organizational problems too. Johnson highlights the deaths of astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, whose craft caught fire while running tests in the command module in 1967. NASA’s investigation revealed that the craft’s all-oxygen atmosphere had played a part in the catastrophe. NASA leaders went on to find that contractors were reluctant to confront them over safety issues like the pure oxygen atmosphere; when industry was dependent on government funding, there was an incentive not to challenge the decisions of NASA personnel, even when lives were at stake.

CovertProcessesCover.jpgUnderstanding not just the explicit and stated relationships in an organization, but also those which are “under the table” – whether at an individual or institutional level – is vital to the success of any project. Johnson’s book gives a thought provoking account of what was going on both “on the surface” and deeper down in the relationships behind the scenes of the US and European space programmes.

What relationships are vital to the success of your project? How are those relationships defined?

What aspects of those relationships might be submerged or hidden? Are they helpful or detrimental?

How can you address these hidden aspects and do they need to be brought to light? If you’re keen to find new ways to think through these relationships, I recommend Robert J. Marshak’s Covert Processes at Work.


You might not be setting foot on the moon any time soon, but whatever you’re engaged in, it’s likely that you face some version of the challenges experienced in big projects like the Apollo programme. Sometimes reading widely, outside of our sector, beyond the scale of our own operation, can provide useful insight.

Fifty years after human beings first went to the moon, of course we want to celebrate and commemorate that fact. But we can also use this opportunity to think ahead – not just to the future of space travel, but our own endeavours however humble.

If you’ve found anything of use in today’s post, do check out Johnson’s excellent book, The Secret of Apollo.

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