Why Apollo Was Sticky

Decades ago my father, always the jokester, would tell this "multipart" joke. The genius of his approach was in how it was told: as two separate jokes, delivered back-to-back, each totally dependent upon the other. No one ever saw the connection until after the big reveal, which is what always made it funny.

Today, when I speak about creativity, I frequently begin the presentation by telling a version of his joke to help illustrate a point. It goes something like this:

A little girl is skipping down the street when she comes upon three colored bricks lying on the road: one red, one yellow, and one blue. She pauses, reaches down for the red one, thinks for a moment, and heaves it into the air. The brick hits the ground hard and breaks into pieces. After laughing a bit, she reaches down for the yellow one and heaves it higher into the air. The brick hits the ground with even greater force and shatters. Laughing almost hysterically, she reaches down, grabs the blue one, and throws it even higher into the air. It never comes back down. [End joke part 1]

The result is always the same: no laughter, blank stares, and crickets.

Following the brief, awkward silence, I would tell the audience the joke was actually very funny–they just didn't get it and seemed to lack imagination (although it really wasn’t that funny at all). To lighten the mood, I would speak for a bit about imagination, and then move on to “Part 2” of the original joke.

We're at the state fair, and a young man is giving hot air balloon rides. An older woman holding a parrot walks up and climbs into the balloon's basket [I then ask the audience: What do parrots do? The typical response is "talk"]. A minute later, an older gentleman with a pocketful of cigars also climbs in the basket [I ask the audience: What do cigars do? The typical response is "stink"]. 

The balloon lifts off the ground. The older man lights up a cigar. The parrot begins to loudly talk and squawk. The older man complains about the noise. The woman complains about the smoke. Words are spoken, yelling and arguing ensue. It finally reaches a point where the balloon operator says, "Enough! Unless you both want to be thrown out of the balloon, toss that bird and those cigars out immediately." The passengers begrudgingly comply. After a few seconds, the woman says, "Look! There's my parrot. But what's in its mouth?" [To which I look at the audience with a two-handed gesture and they always say, "Cigar," and then I say "A Blue Brick"].

I believe creativity is the ability to imagine or visualize new connections between things that have yet to be connected. In other words, true discoveries seldom happen just by finding something new. Most often discoveries are the result of “sticky thinking,” which occurs when people put things together in new ways for different or improved outcomes. 

When I tell people this, they often think I mean connecting things that are very different, such as Sam Colt connecting the design of the ship’s wheel of a seafaring vessel to his design of the revolver. Or they might think of Fred Smith connecting the Federal Reserve check clearing system designed in the early 1900s to the modern need for expedited, efficient shipping logistics that would ultimately become FedEx. However, more often than not, it's simply connecting thoughts or ideas that occurred only moments apart (think Blue Brick).

While they may choose to call it something else or define it differently, the designers, engineers, astronauts, administrators, and other “thinkers” at NASA have relied on sticky thinking for their success throughout its existence, especially during the Apollo Program.

For example, the development of NASA’s Lunar Orbiter by Langley, Cliff Nelson, and Floyd Thompson connected the right people (including contractors) ensuring the best fit of technical and social skills to maximize creative output and productivity; the ability to visualize the right mix of team members was paramount to its success. According to James Hansen, author of First Man and Spaceflight Revolution, “The Lunar Orbiter defied all of the probability studies... its virtually perfect flight record was a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Langley had never managed any sort of flight program into deep space.” The Lunar Orbiter accomplished more than it was supposed to, and its camera took 1654 photographs, 840  of which were of proposed Apollo landing sites. A number of these photos would ultimately detail a smooth [r4] area in the Sea of Tranquility where Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong would make his historic landing. By visualizing a broader scope for the project, the team added the capability of turning the camera so it could take the first photo of Earth in its entirety. It wasn’t originally part of the plan and required not only courage but sticky thinking to accomplish.

In a recent conversation with the late Alan Bean, Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 12, Bean described his view of NASA’s greatest example of sticky thinking: the ability to imagine and connect things before they might occur. Through extensive contingency planning, the great minds working on Apollo were able to visualize a huge number of possible scenarios (connections) that a crew might encounter during a mission. Bean said, “I believe the people at NASA used their best connection thinking well before each flight. We created mission rules for every situation and possible failure we could imagine occurring on a flight. We then practiced how we would overcome each one both in and out of simulators. Just as we had for Apollo 12, the Apollo 13 crew had practiced using the Lunar Module as a lifeboat numerous times in their training. While we did have to deal with a number of unforeseen problems that actually did occur, the basic framework for dealing with them was well connected in advance.” 

One of the unforeseen problems that occurred during the Apollo 13 mission had to do with the different shapes of COscrubbers used by the Command and Lunar Modules. The sticky thinking solution of “putting a square peg into a round hole” was made famous in the movie Apollo 13 when NASA engineers had to quickly connect items available to the crew to create a usable solution that would allow them to continue breathing. One of the seldom discussed successes related to that sticky fix was NASA’s ability to effectively communicate and “connect” the solution to the crew via radio; no easy task. During my teaching years, I would frequently ask my college students to sit back-to-back in front of two matching sets of giant Legos. After one student built something, he or she had to effectively communicate how to replicate the design to the other. This was never effectively accomplished, even after students were allowed to observe the exercise and do it again.

During the Apollo 15 mission, Al Worden became the first Apollo astronaut to do a deep-space EVA (spacewalk) to recover film canisters from the rear of the Service Module. These canisters contained thousands of photos taken by Worden as he orbited the Moon while his crewmates were working on the surface. A process was developed that included a cable system that would transfer each 90-pound canister 30 feet back to the Command Module (CM) after Worden attached it. He began to visualize and “connect” the weight of the canister to how it would move around in the zero-g environment if it wasn’t properly restrained and allowed to float as it was pulled. He realized it wouldn’t work and convinced NASA administration to test the process using a specially fitted aircraft (often referred to as the Vomit Comet) that dips and climbs while in flight, providing weightlessness in 20-25 second intervals. According to Worden, “The motion of the canister actually knocked off the RCS quad (maneuvering thrusters) about halfway back to the hatch of the CM. I suggested I could simply grab each canister and move it back to the CM by hand. After negotiating a simple wrist tether in the event I had to let go of a canister, we pivoted to the new process and it worked perfectly.” 

There are countless examples of how the many people at NASA were able to effectively visualize scenarios and use sticky thinking to solve a myriad of problems. While NASA personnel were successful in most situations, in some cases they failed to imagine something that resulted in catastrophe. In the words of Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman in response to the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, it was a “failure of imagination.”

Whether it’s Steve Jobs connecting lessons learned from the fashion industry to the design of computing equipment, or Elon Musk envisioning the future by laying down “a massive bet on the inevitability of tomorrow rather than what we can develop today,” imagination and the ability to visualize new connections has always been a key attribute of effective leadership. 

However, imagination and sticky thinking seem to be on the decline. Just look at the recent results of a study at the College of William and Mary detailing the downward trend of creative ability,and an IBM Corporation study identifying creativity as the most sought after “leadership competency” for the future.Or look no further than the local bookstore to see the rash of books hitting shelves suggesting that creativity has become the new currency in business because of its short supply. I believe we need to look to the lessons of the past for guidance. A good place to start is studying the Apollo Program and the early years of spaceflight, where everything had to be imagined and solved through the process of sticky thinking.

Sticky thinking is like a sport in that it requires hard work to perform at a high level. Mastering the necessary skills requires a dedication to practice, practice, and more practice. Becoming a creative thinker requires the same level of dedication. 

I’d like to propose a challenge. When you have a free moment, select two completely random objects around you and attempt to force connections between them (like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole). Don’t judge the quality of the ideas; just have fun with it and bring out your inner “MacGyver.” Over time, you will rediscover the creative skills you once had as a child.

Are you ready to get sticky?

© 2018  Anthony D. Paustian. Dr. Anthony Paustian is the author of A Quarter Million Stepsthe Vice President of Marketing for the National Space Society, and a success coach for Bookpress PublishingHe can be reached at tonyp@BookpressPublishing.com.

National Space Society - Adapted from Ad Astra with Permission
Photos used with permission.


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