“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

As these words were spoken from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts had traveled over 240,000 miles and just landed on the moon’s surface with less than 17 seconds of reserve fuel left in the lunar module.

It had taken over a decade of work to get the astronauts to the moon.  In 1961, John F. Kennedy made the famous speech to congress that the nation should commit itself, before the decade was out, to landing a man on the moon and returning him safety back to earth.  It was a bold vision given that the only success the space program had until then was 15 minutes of flight launching an astronaut into earth’s sub-orbit.  Landing a man on the moon would be a huge undertaking and would eventually employ over 400,000 people and 20,000 companies.

Now, nearly 50 years later, we look back at how NASA achieved this success and recognize the lessons learned from the space program.

As we take on large transformation projects today, it behooves us to take the lessons from the moon landing to heart.

 

BREAK DOWN AND SOLVE EACH PROBLEM

NASA had some of the most talented engineers who could calmly break down and evaluate any problem.  At the start of the space program, NASA recognized that landing on the moon would require new forms of telemetry, communications, launch vehicles, life support systems, and guidance systems just to name a few. NASA had just launched Alan Shepard into sub-orbit on top of a Redstone modified shortrange ballistic missile. Now they needed to solve each subsequent challenge and get multiple astronauts to the moon and back.

Here are just a few of the moon problems NASA solved:

Program

NASA knew they could not reach the moon with a single big-bang approach. NASA solved this problem by organizing the overall moon landing mission into discrete programs with defined goals, each building on the other.

  • The Mercury program focused on taking a single astronaut into earth’s orbit with a spacecraft controlled from earth and safely landing the astronaut.
  • The Gemini program then focused on taking two astronauts into space, testing life support systems that could operate for multiple weeks and confirming the ability to control, maneuver and dock the spacecraft.
  • The Apollo program focused on taking three astronauts into space, performing a trans-lunar injection, landing on the moon, and performing a trans-earth injection.
  • While the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions are well known, the moon landing would not have been possible without the Ranger and Agena programs. The Ranger program focused on sending unmanned vehicles to the moon to photograph and obtain information on potential landing sites. The Agena program included unmanned vehicles sent into orbit to practice rendezvous and docking maneuvers in space.

Spacecraft

The fuel required to launch a single spacecraft to the moon, land it there, take off, and get back to earth was enormous and could not be solved.  So instead NASA designed a lightweight lunar module which would detach from the main spacecraft, land on the moon, and lift off the moon in the ascent module.  The main spacecraft included the command module, which had all the navigation information and would finally bring the astronauts back to earth, and the service module, which would provide propulsion and life support on the journey. This solved the fuel problem, but now required solving how to operate, detach and attach these modules in space.

Launch Vehicles

In 1961, the Redstone rocket was only capable of reaching earth’s sub-orbit.  The first two Mercury missions utilized the Redstone rockets.  This was later replaced by the Atlas rockets capable of reaching earth’s orbit allowing John Glenn to orbit the earth.  This was then replaced by the two-stage Titan II rockets in the Gemini missions which included new fuel propellants.  However, this would not be enough to reach the moon, and so NASA solved this problem by designing the multi-stage massive Saturn V rocket for the Apollo mission.

Flight Computation

Initial flight telemetry calculations were initially performed by humans using computational mathematics leveraging logarithmic tables and slide rules.  This worked for the early missions, but NASA knew it would not work for the moon landing.  NASA solved this problem by purchasing IBM 7090 computers, but they did not have anyone with the knowledge to operate them. This required initiating a recruiting effort to find the computer talent to operate these computers that would perform the required calculations to land a man on the moon.

Life Support

To survive the travel to the moon and back, NASA needed to figure out how to handle food, water and oxygen intake and collect and store waste, urine, and carbon dioxide output.  The astronauts also had to figure out how to handle extra-vehicular activity (EVA) outside the spacecraft.  NASA solved this problem by designing the astronaut suits and portable oxygen packs to handle EVAs.  They meticulously studied and improved a multitude of environment control and life support systems onboard the spacecraft.

Temperature

In space without the atmospheric protection, the temperatures are extreme.  The temperature difference between the warm and cold side of a spacecraft could exceed 350 degrees.  NASA solved this problem by learning how to activate thrusters and rotating the spacecraft along its axis like a skewer to allow for a consistent amount of heating to occur.

A transformation project is no different, needing to be broken down into component parts, each with a mission directive and objectives, and each solving individual problems along the journey.

 

DELIVER INCREMENTAL WINS

Incremental wins were required not only to prove out each item but also to sustain the public support for the moon program.  Without the incremental wins the public interest and support in the moon mission would have dissipated.

In fact, once the moon landing was accomplished the rest of the Apollo missions focused on scientific discovery each yielding a treasure of information for NASA scientists.  However, for the public, each mission to the moon seemed to be a repeat and public interest, support, and funding soon waned.

Each mission built on the previous mission by adding on a few more incremental items.  This way, the objectives for each mission were manageable and additive culminating with the moon landing.

Here are some statistics behind the moon missions.  The Mercury program had a total of 26 flights.  This included a total of 20 unmanned spaceflights and 6 manned space flights.  Most of those unmanned flights were conducted prior to launching the first man into space.  The Gemini program include 12 flights which included 2 unmanned flights and 10 manned flights.  Including the Apollo 11 mission, there were 12 Apollo flights culminating in the moon landing.  Of these, 6 were unmanned and one resulted in the death of the astronauts on the launch pad.

Each of these flights built on the other, allowing Apollo 11 to focus on successfully completing the final task in the sequence – landing on the moon.

Transformation projects need to be fueled by incremental wins, not only to showcase progress to the stakeholders to sustain the required support, but also to deliver additive wins that bring the program closer to success.

 

LEARN FROM FAILURES

Apollo 1 was the most visible and difficult failure of the moon program and resulted in the unfortunate deaths of three astronauts.  Following this, Gene Kranz, the mission control flight director laid down a directive.

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control, we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.”

This drove NASA to near perfection on everything they did. Every problem was scrutinized.  Every issue was reviewed.  Every learning was documented.  Even a shattered window during testing on the lunar module was reviewed and procedures were redesigned and improved.

Processes were developed to assess risk.  As the lunar module approached the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, a 1202 error beeped.  Mission control quickly determined that this was a computer overload error and moon landing could continue.

Countless hours of flight simulations and testing made the moon landing seem somewhat routine.

Unfortunately, failures are often viewed as that – failures.  Instead, failures need to be viewed as a pathway to success.  Never allowing an individual or a team to fail small and learn from that experience will invariably drive them to fail big. Transformation projects will have failures and the team needs to have the discipline and drive to learn from these failures.

CONDUCT A DRY RUN

NASA worked through all the problems, delivered incremental wins, learned from their failures, and they finally launched the Apollo 10 mission, the pre-cursor to the moon landing mission.  The astronauts aboard Apollo 10 knew this would be a full dry run, a dress rehearsal, so to speak. Every aspect of the moon landing was tested just short of flipping the switch and performing the actual moon landing.  A little-known fact is that Apollo 10 was short fused with limited fuel on the lunar module to ensure they would not land on the moon.

This flight also meant creating an environment that fully resembled the actual environment after the moon landing, including specific ascent fuel levels and weights simulating moon rocks.  Nothing was left to chance.  Nothing was assumed.

Through the entire moon program, NASA had perfected mission procedures and the go/no-go decision-making process.

Transformation projects need to conduct dry runs and fully test their go/no-go decision-making.  Understanding how to assess risk is critical.  Flipping the go-live switch is equivalent to the moon landing.  The goal is to drive to success and in the process avoid potential catastrophic failure.

 

BRINGING IT IN FOR A LANDING

At Sense Corp, we understand that transformation projects can be unwieldly and challenging.  Our consultants learn how to solve problems using the moon landing framework.  This allows them to drive projects to success.  We highlight this in our eBook, “10 Ways to Drive Successful Transformation,” where our final learning explains that “A big-bang implementation will unvaryingly result in an unfortunate big-bang flop.”

If you are at the start of your transformation journey and looking for guidance, or somewhere along the way and looking for a correction, we welcome you to reach out.  We can help guide you to success and safely land your program.

Sense Corp offers a variety of consulting services across data, digital, and business transformation. Our team of skilled consultants offer insights and solutions to the most important problems facing business and government. 

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