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JFK, 25th May, 1961: We go to the moon

May 25, 2012

It was 50 years ago today, May 25, 1961, that President John F. Kennedy appeared before the US Congress and called for the country to join him in a challenge: Send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, he said, and none will be so difficult to accomplish.

Just five weeks prior to this, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, putting the Russians ahead in the space race. In America, this reinforced fears about being left behind in the technology stakes and hurting a nation’s pride, but also a real fear in the Cold War era.

Kennedy’s inspirational speech contained a bolt statement of ambition and intent that is often cited as his most rousing call to arms, and still strikes a chord today:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? Why choose to go to the Moon? We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

Prior to this, when the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. Armstrong radios Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.  At 10.56 pm EDT Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

Kennedy’s vision for space exploration had been fulfilled, his ambition had been realised. His push toward putting a man on the moon in less than nine years was a fantastically challenging statement, and the fact that it was done is astounding in many ways. Even now it’s astonishing to think that he got the commitment and proceeded to achieve it. Of course, Kennedy did not live to see the dream realised, but he would have dead chuffed, as we say in Burnley, that it was achieved.

The story clearly shows that ambition has real virtue in showing people the great possibilities of the future, indeed the visibility of the moon in the sky is as powerful as any other single source of inspiration.

By the way, when I graduated back in 1984, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 Yearbook I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off a few applications for Accountancy roles and one, a bit speculatively, for ‘Astronauts wanted’ to NASA. Suffice to say my own attempts to become an astronaut didn’t go very well, I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, I think I’m a bit too hyperactive to sit still all the way to the moon and there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat.

But landing on the Moon is surely man’s greatest ever adventure. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel?  Imagine, imagine, imagine (for imagine is all that we can do) blasting out of the atmosphere, traveling many times faster than a bullet, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW. Boldness, courage, positivity, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure. See, I would have made a good astronaut.

There’s a great book – Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three have died) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moondust-Search-Men-Fell-Earth/dp/0747563691). Instead of asking the obvious question – What was it like to be on the moon? – he is more interested in how they coped with returning to their lives on earth, knowing that the highpoint of their lives was probably behind them.

The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, ranging from some humorous accounts of the difficulties in going to the loo in zero gravity to a description of how pilots often had to assume manual control to stop their craft from crashing into the lunar surface. But for me, the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid the astronauts a few dollars a day while they were in space and actually deducted bed and board from their pay cheque! They were paid $8 a day minus deductions for their free bed on Apollo. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, still has a framed receipt on his wall: From Houston to Cape Kennedy, Moon, Pacific Ocean. Amount claimed: $33.31.

There is poignancy to the interviews with the individual astronauts as NASA provided very little support for them when coming back down to Earth, and indeed Armstrong is extremely reticent to talk about the whole experience. Now aged 82, Armstrong once recalled standing on the Moon and noticing he could blot out the Earth with his thumb. Did that make him feel really big, he was asked? No, the great astronaut replied, It made me feel really, really small. Armstrong was undergoing an awareness of human insignificance – albeit with unprecedented vividness. Few others have shared such a vantage point, after all.

For me the story of this fantastic achievement has long been a huge motivation, so ask yourself:  Are you ready to fill the boot prints of Armstrong? Do you have a vision for yourself and your business akin to putting a man on the moon? In today’s business environment you can’t wait ten years for it to come to fruition, so as well as crafting your plans for infinity and beyond…sorry, that was Buzz Lightyear, another famous astronaut… I meant next year and beyond, you need to get everyone around you focused on the vision, and a plan of the key actions to getting things done.

Of the many stories that came out of the Apollo program, one of my favourites is the story about the caretaker at one of the NASA facilities, who upon being asked by Kennedy on a visit to NASA what his job was in the organisation, replied I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.

It captures the spirit and focus shared by everyone involved in that project, that regardless of how large or visible their contribution was, where they were in the organisation chart or whatever their job title was, they all felt a genuine and direct connection between the work they did and that moment when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the Moon. That’s how a great organisation can make the seemingly impossible happen, everyone thinks it’s down to me to make a difference, from joined up thinking to doing.

So 50 years on, what a bold statement of intent. Set your own goals as high, and see what you can achieve. And if you get there, look over you shoulder, enjoy the view and sense of achievement.

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