Startup lessons from the Apollo XI moon landing – 20 July 1969

Some 46 years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. When the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, Armstrong radioed Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. At 10.56 pm EDT Armstrong planted 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. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles and one, a bit speculatively, for ‘Astronauts wanted’ to NASA. I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat.

There’s a great book, Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three had died, and we lost Neil Armstrong in 2012) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moondust-Search-Men-Fell-Earth/dp/0747563691). The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, but for me the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid astronauts a few dollars a day while they were in space and 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, has a framed receipt: From Houston to Cape Kennedy, Moon, Pacific Ocean. Amount claimed: $33.31.

President Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University: 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 which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition shows how people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. His push toward putting a man on the moon in less than nine years was a fantastic statement of intent, and the fact that it was done is astounding. Of course, Kennedy did not live to see the dream realised.

Landing on the Moon is surely man’s greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI experience for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it came together, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases.  Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down into the major steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones: phase 1 was to fly to the moon, phase 2 was to orbit the moon, phase 3 was to land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of ‘the pivot’, from the Lean Startup. Had they immediately set their sights on a full-fledged lunar landing, history may have turned out very different.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

They probably normally expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And here we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and would likely smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If Armstrong and Aldrin hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We feel comfortable with all of the unknowns that we went into this program with. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo 11 mission was one of the most risky undertakings in human history. From technical failure to human error, any number of things could have gone wrong, and did. But without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made – Build-Measure-Learn is one of the Lean Startup key principles, and applied here.

As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding customers, the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risks, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges that we had was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a selected founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows with early hires, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone will assume the same priorities. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down. NASA responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do these things, and were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience with a certain task may seem counter intuitive, but it was something Apollo project managers actively encourage – the average age of the entire Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in yoru startup, give people the opportunity to shine.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your project are vital, not one-time events, they are crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you. Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work.

9. The pivot to MVP is painful

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation, and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

Once you’ve achieved Proof of Concept success, how do you take it forward? According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; complete commitment from leadership to make it happen; a first goal to keep everyone focused, which in Lean Startup philosophy, is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), based on validated learning.

Getting to the third point is hard. The pivot is all about changing direction but staying grounded in what we’ve learned. If we can reduce the time between pivots, we increase our odds of success.

10. Dare to dream

Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Life has its its twists and turns – Armstrong was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Armstrong lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

Armstrong captured the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, a colleague of Eric Reis in the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, 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 which we intend to win.

The Apollo 11 mission is to me, the ultimate startup and best example of launching a large-scale high-risk technology project to achieve something no one had done before. It resonates with Simon Sinek’s work on ‘Why?’ in terms of having a clear vision and purpose underpinning your startup ambition.

It was about turning an idea into reality, an example of what Steve Jobs termed the reality distortion field. Ignore the naysayers, it can be done. We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, capturing the spirit of adventure.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot. Eric Reis defines a startup as a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions if extreme uncertainty. Everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins makes them startup founders and entrepreneurs. What a leap for mankind they made.

 

A is for Armstrong, ambition, attitude, audacity and achievement

The Apollo space programme has always resonated with me, I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. Its a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year

I’ve been fascinated by the photography and science of the moon and the Apollo programme ever since. Check out this NASA web site, which recreates the Apollo XI moon landing http://wechoosethemoon.org/and also a couple of books: How NASA builds teams, an insight as to how NASA recruits and develops teams, by Charles Pellerin, and Moondust by Andrew Smith, a collection of intimate interviews and life studies with the 12 men who have walked on the moon. There’s some great video footage and narrative on this web sitehttp://history.nasa.gov/ap11ann/FirstLunarLanding/toc.htm

I’ve also been at a launch of a Space Shuttle, and if I get the cash together, I’m also on one of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flights. But back to Armstrong, my memories, 43 years on, are as vague as the flickering, black-and-white television images of the time. But I remember when Armstrong emerged from the Eagle, a ghostly figure wearing a large motorcycle helmet, moving in slow motion descending the ladder to step onto the moon.

President Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University: 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 which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition – that anything is possible if you want to achieve it, is truly memorable, and shows how a team of people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. I was brought up on Star Trek, Tomorrows World and Dr Who, and loved the focus on space, the final frontier, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and I always thought that in my lifetime we would all be travelling to the Moon

I saw the historic moment when a man first stepped on to the moon’s surface, like the first footfall of Christopher Columbus on American soil, a moment that changed the course of human history. In any case, in 1969, even live TV broadcasts from the other side of the Atlantic were impressive and rare. This was a broadcast from the Moon. The future had arrived in front of our eyes, promising a new era in which anything seemed possible. The human race had conquered space and there seemed no limits to what might be achieved in the next decade or so

I mourn Armstrong’s passing, he was a modest, intelligent, well-balanced man, not at all Moon-struck. Often when I’m outside on cold, crisp winter evenings walking the dog, I look up at the Moon and marvel at its contours, brightness and mystery. I suppose millions of people all over the world do the same thing. Armstrong was small step for man; a giant leap for Moon-kind.

These days Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows (I’m an astronaut, get me out of here), and he hasn’t signed an autograph since 1994, having become dismayed at being treated as a celebrity. The announcement of his death feels like a coda to a chapter of my life, I felt similar poignancy with the death of John Peel, Joe Strummer and Paul Samuleson. It’s ironic that Armstrong died just as the US is celebrating the spectacular success of a new space venture with the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

When he was 14, his family moved to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where Armstrong began taking the steps towards his dream career. At 16 he successfully completed his first solo flight and earned his pilot’s license – he learned to fly before he learned to drive. After graduating from high school in 1947, he joined Purdue University’s Aeronautical Engineering program through the US Navy – graduating in 1955 as a Naval aviator with a degree in engineering.

Armstrong became the first man on the moon because he had arrived at the head of the queue of 20 highly experienced and motivated astronauts. They had been taking it in turns to conduct the 22 manned spaceflights needed to learn the techniques for travelling to the Earth’s nearest neighbour. When NASA embarked on its second astronaut training programme in 1962, he was one of the nine test pilots chosen.

As the commander of the US Apollo 11 spacecraft, accompanied by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the pilot of the Eagle lunar landing module, and Michael Collins, pilot of the Columbia command module, while Armstrong would be in command, Aldrin would be the first to step on the moon. Armstrong would follow the naval tradition of being the last to leave the ship. So it came as a shock when the flight plan issued ahead of the launch showed that Armstrong would be first out.

NASA officials had suddenly realised that the first man on the moon would become immortal in the public’s eyes. The grave Armstrong, they realised, was much more suited to the role than Aldrin, a brilliant and outspoken mathematician, always liable to challenge and disagree with authority.

Apollo 11 took off 16 July, and four days later the Eagle descended near the south-western edge of the Sea of Tranquillity. Six and a half hours later, Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, the first human being to set foot on the moon. Armstrong did not like to be called a hero, his standard riposte to such accusations was to point out that it required the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. He was right, at the height of its efforts, NASA was spending 4.4% of the American government’s entire budget, employing 400,000 workers.

The achievement of his crew, relayed live on television, held the entire planet spellbound. On their return to Earth, the astronauts were mobbed. Schools, buildings and roads were named after them. Medals were showered upon them. A whirlwind post-flight tour took them to 25 countries in 35 days. Half a century after the event, with the deaths of many of its participants, the Apollo project is beginning to fade from living memory and pass into the history books. It was one of the mightiest achievements of the potent combination of big government and big science. Even now, all these years later, it’s still amazing what those people did when you think about the scale of achievement: First man on the moon.

Being first to achieve something makes you unique, a groundbreaker, it’s all about your passion and desire to leave your mark – quite literally a footprint, a legacy to inspire others. The edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent, but rather the winner’s edge is all in the ambition, attitude and audacity, and daring to dream.

In the end, being first and achieving all your goals doesn’t happen all the time. Still, I think you should dream big dreams, as long as you’re willing to work hard and with honesty toward those dreams. Never look back and say, if only I had done this or that, I could have reached my dreams. When you have a dream, your first and only goal should be to prepare yourself as best you can and try your best. That’s all anyone can ask. I think this captures the ethos of Armstrong, he had a vision of success and worked hard to achieve it.

Let’s face it, nobody owes you a living. What you achieve, or fail to achieve in your lifetime is directly related to what you do or fail to do. No one chooses his parent or childhood, but you can choose your own direction. Everyone has problems and obstacles to overcome, but what are your ambitions? Time plays no favourites and will pass whether you act or not.

Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Life has its twists and turns – Armstrong was nearly killed twice in his NASA training – but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to training and preparation before Apollo XI,  absorbing the set backs as gaining experience for handling the future challenges he knew he would have to overcome tomorrow – when the Eagle landed, it has just four seconds of fuel left.

Tomorrow…are you preparing yourself for tomorrow, or do you only want to follow in the footsteps of others, and never want to experience the greatness of personal victory? I’m minded by two quotes, which capture Armstrong’s spirit:

When I was a young man I observed that nine out of the ten things I did were failures. Not wanting to be a failure, I did ten times more work – Roosevelt

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. T.S. Eliot.

Armstrong flew in space twice, once in the Gemini program and then Apollo. In both cases, the flights stand out as noteworthy in NASA’s history. He made an indelible mark on our world. There are two things to aim for in life : The first is to get what you what, The second to enjoy it when you get it, and he did just that, but quietly with dignity, comfortable in himself that he had achieved his lifetime ambition.

Celebrating the passing of a man who captured the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur,  the technology entrepreneur Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, 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 which we intend to win.

Finally, some words from Armstrong’s family on how they would like us to remember the great man: For those who may ask what they can do to honour Neil, we have a simple request. Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

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

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.