Achieving Greatness: Three Factors that Produced a "First Man"

Whether it’s the Illuminati controlling the world, the September 11th attacks being an “inside job,” or people believing the world is flat, conspiracy theories have always existed. One of the most popular conspiracy theories is that the Apollo Moon landings never happened and were faked on a sound stage.

The theorists point to a number of perceived issues with film oddities, radiation exposure, flag fluttering, preservation of footprints, lack of lunar module blast craters, no visible flame on the ascent stage, communications delays, and missing telemetry tapes and blueprints.

Despite those who have bought into this theory, these issues have been either debunked or logically explained by many people on numerous occasions. Among the issues related to this theory, I’m surprised I’ve never heard of anyone questioning the short length of time it took to go from an idea in May of 1961 to actually landing on the Moon in July of 1969. During that eight-year span, the degree of orchestrated creativity and innovation in engineering, product development, and the creation of viable procedures and systems is nothing short of incredible. 

It took 30 years to build the Washington Monument, 14 years to carve Mount Rushmore, five years to build the Hoover Dam, and a little over four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge. However, what made these projects different is that while creativity and innovation were front and center as with the Apollo Program, we already knew how to engineer, build, or carve using concrete, steel, and stone.

Almost everything had to be created from scratch for Apollo, since we had never sent people to another heavenly body. For example, the Saturn V rocket contained more than three million parts. That’s about one and a half parts for every minute of those eight years just for the rocket, and most of these parts had to be invented and developed. That doesn’t even scratch the surface when also considering astronaut and personnel training, ground resource and communications development, the creation of mission control and its procedures, the development of simulations and a simulator design, and a litany of other aspects related to Apollo.

So how did we do it so quickly? Having spoken with a number of the Apollo astronauts, mission control personnel, and contractors, I believe the answer lies in three key leadership attributes which made going to the Moon possible during that particular time in history.

John F. Kennedy set a HARD goal

In the March 2018 issue of adAstra, I wrote that anything awesome, game-changing awesome, seldom happens as a result of SMART thinking (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based) because of the words achievable and realistic. Going to the Moon was extraordinary and wasn’t going to happen by playing it safe. It required a HARD goal, one that was Honest, Actionable, Radical, and Detailed. On May 25, 1961, after only one 15-minute space flight by Al Sheppard, John F. Kennedy laid out the goal of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade. It was clear, compelling, and easy to grasp. It was also radical and took courage, especially in light of the social and economic issues of the time.

Gene Cernan, Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 and 17 astronaut, once told me that because we were in the midst of the Cold War and the Soviets controlled space at that time, Kennedy set this goal as a way to unite the country during a very difficult period. Gerry Griffin, Flight Director for Mission Control during the Apollo missions, agreed when he said, “With an unpopular war [Vietnam], the civil rights movement, and all of the social unrest going on, the country needed a positive during what was perceived to be a very negative time.” 

Also key to this goal was the continued support and buy-in from two additional presidential administrations, and this is huge. Typically, priorities and funding often shift every few years with changes in governmental leadership. This goal was supported by three different presidents: Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Organizational synergy existed between various players in the program

The Apollo Program was structured as a bureaucracy with clearly defined reporting structures and layers. But unlike most large bureaucracies, it was designed to be very flexible since everything was new. Bureaucracies often lead to predictability and conformity, and with over 400,000 people and more than 10,000 organizations involved with NASA—primarily from the private sector and academia—the program could have easily descended into a rabbit hole of red tape, wasted effort, and dramatically reduced development speed. 

Jack Garman (right) receives an award from Chris Kraft.
However, with only eight and a half years to get the job done, NASA leadership allowed people to do unexpected things, show initiative, and utilize creative thinking. Team members were allowed a voice and leadership listened, which increased commitment to the program. For example, during the Apollo 11 landing, mission control listened to Jack Garman, who said they were a “go” on the warning alarms during the descent to the Moon. Flight Director Gene Kranz could have easily chosen to do the safe thing by aborting the mission, but he listened. Grumman executive Tom Kelly listened to his designers when they said that seats weren’t needed on the Lunar Module and this ultimately saved weight and reduced cost. 

Not only did NASA leadership translate Kennedy’s vision into reality by holding people to high expectations, they were able to take what Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean said was “a group of young, average people and bring them together to do something extraordinary.” Bean also shared his belief that despite the enormous size of the Apollo Program, NASA’s greatest creative strength was its ability to think through many possible scenarios and provide detailed planning to overcome and deal with a wide range of contingencies.

Leaders had grit

While often used, the word “grit” is frequently misunderstood. People will often show grit in short-term situations, but true grit is the willingness to commit and follow through on long-term goals, and endure and persist in the face of challenges and difficulty. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the convenience of technology, many today frequently think in the short-term. Whether it’s the football coach who was fired after only two and a half seasons because the team hadn’t progressed fast enough, or politicians being voted out of office because the economy hasn’t improved in the last 16 months, our patience with leadership today is limited. 

However, achieving a long-term goal requires a long-term focus combined with continuous improvement, persistence, and realistic optimism. In the movie First Man, Neil Armstrong said, “We fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” While James Hansen, author of the book on which the movie is based, said he doesn’t believe Armstrong ever said that, he did confirm that through his research and conversations with him over the years this was the general feeling throughout NASA leadership. They were willing to learn from their mistakes. While research shows that people are normally wired to overanalyze and focus on the negatives, NASA leaders used failure to determine what needed to be fixed and didn’t become paralyzed by it.

Neil Armstrong during his test pilot days. Credit: USAF
I believe that positive is innovative. In other words, by remaining positive it’s easier to see innovative ideas and opportunities in any context. However, most people would agree the mood of our country today is fairly negative. Research shows it’s easier to think in negative terms, so remaining positive over the long-term requires a high degree of tenacity. It took James Dyson 15 years, 5,126 prototypes, and standing on the brink of financial ruin to finally perfect the design for his vacuum cleaner. Yet, he remained focused and positive throughout the entire process, which shows that remaining positive and believing in success often leads to success.

While there were a great many reasons for the success of the Apollo Program, I truly believe these three factors—setting a HARD goal, creating organizational synergy, and having leadership grit—were essential to NASA’s ability to achieve the goal in eight short years.

Ironically (and sadly), after the success of Apollo 11 the climate in NASA began to change. With funding cutbacks to future missions and the goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the decade effectively accomplished, the flexible, synergistic bureaucracy that helped make Apollo successful changed and became far more traditional. Predictability, conformity, and slower response times due to procedural requirements have become the new norm.

Al Worden during training for his Apollo 15 flight. Credit: NASA
During an interview, Al Worden, Apollo 15 astronaut, shared how NASA shifted from being goal-oriented and forward-thinking to reactionary following budget cuts. This created massive growth in paperwork requirements and established a new cover-your-backend mindset. He said, “As an example, during the developmental years of Apollo, I could just make a quick call, head out to the flight line, jump into a T-38, and fly to wherever I needed to go, whether it was from the Cape to Houston or Los Angeles, to work on the Command Module at North American. In the later days of the program, we had to fill out stacks of paperwork to take a flight anywhere, even though there was still work to do.”

A HARD goal means you are doing something radical, like going from an idea to walking on the Moon in little more than eight years. It also means that to achieve it, normal approaches to leadership typically won’t work. Big, in terms of organizational size and scale, is usually a killer in terms of innovation. This is why large organizations frequently obtain their new innovations by purchasing small companies which can quickly adapt to changing conditions. However, like those overseeing Apollo in the early years, good leaders are able to adapt their leadership style despite size to effectively meet the demands of the goal and get the job done.

© 2019  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

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


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