The Apollo missions of the 1960s and the first moon landing over forty years ago are often referred to as mankind’s greatest achievement. It was indeed a moving, elegant and courageous feat that was reflective of the Kennedy inspired psyche of America at that time as well as the dramatic undertones of the Cold War that were driving the competitive ambition for an American to be the first man on the moon.
An estimated 400,000 people were involved throughout the network of contractors and NASA employees all designing and building to take mankind out of our own orbit and into another with no previous experience other than what they could apply from their own knowledge. Applying knowledge from an existing skill set relevant to another job is something that some recruiters struggle with even today. “So you’ve not built a moon rocket before, no?”
The Lunar Module, designed and built by the Grumman Corporation, was an example of the type of engineering challenge and commitment throughout. In the early stages it was generally considered the only way to land on the moon was sending a big rocket up there and getting off when it landed. But sending a rocket not far of 400 feet tall, 240,000 miles and getting back safely again suddenly didn’t seem the right way to go. Plus it would have been a big jump.
The suggestion that was mooted by a quiet, unknown engineer called John Houbolt of docking in lunar orbit at several hundred thousand miles an hour was initially dismissed out of hand until a change of heart by German scientist Wernher von Braun led to its approval and subsequent development for the Apollo program. Then all that needed to be done was to design it. The employees were often known to clock off through one door, walk round the building and return in another to work an extra shift such was the commitment to its development.
Tom Kelly, leader of the Grumman team was quoted in an interview in 1999 as saying, “Nobody at Grumman who worked on the lunar module will ever forget it. We all knew that we were part of a majestic endeavour, and that we were making history happen.”
And this is the point. ‘Majestic endeavour’ was every person whose only motivation was towards the ultimate goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
This achievement was also not without its failure. Every astronaut prepares and understands the risks of space travel, but the tragedy of Apollo One when Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a catastrophic fire not only tested the resolve and commitment of those funding the program, but also raised very serious issues for which everyone involved in every area had to be responsible. Learning from mistakes is what people get paid for and these stakes were high. Contingency after contingency after contingency. Every finite piece of detail needed to be covered and subsequently every Apollo mission had a story to tell that utilised so much of that knowledge.
When Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon in 1972, carved out his daughter’s initials in the lunar dust it was the end of a period of history that at the outset was thought to be marking the beginning of an era. But whilst space travel continues to develop at a lesser pace than had originally been planned, perhaps the bigger picture reminds us that what we see today is not necessarily what we will see tomorrow. When Neil Armstrong was a kid he dreamed of flying planes because that’s what he knew.
Kennedy’s vision would not have been fulfilled had those involved based everything they had done on what had been done in the past. Employers have a big responsibility in this respect in preparing the workforce of the future and bringing in people to the business who will have the ability to train for skills they don’t even know they yet need.
Consider this quote by the late Paul Arden, the former Saatchi and Saatchi Creative Director behind some of the world’s most famous advertising campaigns:
“Being right is based upon knowledge and experience and is often provable. Knowledge comes from the past, so it’s safe. It is also out of date. It’s the opposite of originality. Experience is built from solutions to old situations and problems. The old situations are probably different from the present ones, so that old solutions will have to be bent to fit new problems (and possibly fit badly).”
In Christmas 1968 when Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell travelled to lunar orbit on Apollo 8, Bill Anders took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph (above) that inspired the words which are the title of this article. In a way it is a quote I like more than any other because it typifies the human nature of the Apollo program. It is also a reminder that what we most remember might be what we least expect.