20 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Where are the Lunar Lessons?

Of course, today marks the 40th anniversary of the landing of the first manned spacecraft on the moon. Newspapers are filled with retrospectives, and commentators bemoan the subsequent loss of momentum for continued manned exploration of space. In the clutter of hyperbolic coverage of the accomplishment and my own recollections of the era, I’ve been struggling to find some deeper meaning to share here.

Although I was not yet thirteen years old on that July day in 1969, I was keenly attuned to the significance of the event (but not its political underpinnings). I grew up with the space program, so fascinated with the technology and the excitement of the spectacular televised launches, orbits, spacewalks, dockings, and splashdowns, that they are among my clearest memories of that time. Since then, movies (such as Apollo 13) and television (such as the outstanding docudrama miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) have catered to a continued appetite for recapturing the danger, glory, and tragedies of the time. But despite the persistence of our memories, mankind’s ambitions haven’t kept pace.

Tom Wolfe, acclaimed author of The Right Stuff (an account of the test pilots who became the USA’s first astronauts, and several other literary-journalistic accounts of cultural touchstones) wrote an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times to mark the anniversary. Wolfe ruefully notes that although “everyone at NASA has known that the next logical step (after the moon) is a manned Mars mission,” that NASA’s overtures toward that aim have “been entertained only briefly by presidents and Congress.” Wolfe’s trademark sarcasm is mostly in check when he asserts that our subsequent failure to match the ambition of the lunar missions can be traced to NASA’s unmet need for a “philosopher corps” with the rhetorical skills to inspire us (and the politicians) to greater accomplishments.

The triumph of engineering that put men on the moon is unquestioned, and the transfer of space-race technology to everyday living has been well-documented. But it seems to me that the monumental organization of that brilliant engineering was equally brilliant, but has been far less successfully transferred to modern management practice. The space age may have led to the commercialization of Teflon for use in cookware (although it was actually invented several years earlier), but what are the big ideas that came from that success in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to a common purpose?

The phrase “If we can put a man on the moon….” has  been all-too frequently used to express frustration at some petty bureaucratic or technological shortcoming (and is now the title of a forthcoming book challenging government to regain its lost competence to make big things happen). Maybe it’s my imagination, but I don’t think we hear that clichéd comparison quite as often anymore. We need not look beyond the aerospace industry to conclude that some capability we had, whether it was engineering or leadership or both is now missing. Boeing’s revolutionary fuselage design for its new 787 Dreamliner widebody is certainly ambitious, but is its ambition even on the same scale as the Apollo mission? Yet the Dreamliner has yet to fly, years after Boeing’s self-imposed target.

It is easy to say that the elegant clarity of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge, and the perceived urgency of the USA’s need to dominate space were the sufficient leadership ingredients for success. Only my gut says that there was something more.  

Comments are closed.