Does your startup have a moonshot ambition?

The photo is Buzz Aldrin wearing a Burnley FC hat, taken some four years ago when Buzz was in Lancashire: Astronaut, entrepreneur and a Claret!

Some 51 years ago today – 20 July 1969 – Buzz became the second man on the moon, nineteen minutes after Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind. An estimated 600 million people – at that time, the world’s largest television audience in history – witnessed this unprecedented heroic endeavour. Only twelve men have shared this vantage point looking back to the Earth.

Much has been written about how the NASA Apollo lunar programme in the 1960s galvanised the US and inspired millions around the world. It was the first ‘moonshot’ – which became the term capturing a hugely ambitious endeavour – something that is novel, unexpected, difficult and risky, but is also worth it as a noble pursuit. It has a special magic that other bold initiatives do not have, as an act of human courage, imagination, and determination that challenge people to perform beyond what they think possible.

Selected by NASA in 1963 into the third cohort of Apollo astronauts, Aldrin became known as ‘Dr. Rendezvous’, in reference to his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics at MIT and his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous. From this Aldrin devised the docking and rendezvous techniques used on spacecraft in Earth and lunar orbit. These became critical to the success of the Apollo missions, and are still used today.

Aldrin had an entrepreneurial mindset driving many of NASA’s experiments and innovations. He pioneered underwater training techniques to simulate spacewalking, and in 1966 on the Gemini 12 orbital mission, Buzz performed the world’s first successful spacewalk. During that mission, he also took the first ‘selfie’ in space.

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. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles. There was nothing for ‘Astronauts’, so I didn’t apply to NASA. There probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat anyway.

For me, Apollo XI landing on the Moon is the 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!

President Kennedy launched the original moonshot challenge by urging his country to commit to putting humans on the moon. This combined the age-old human imagination about the moon along with a spirit of adventure, pioneering, and patriotism. Kennedy had the vision, first presenting a 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 vision was a fantastic statement of intent, and subsequently an astounding achievement. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI adventure for startup entrepreneurs, to give your venture a ‘moonshot’ ambition ? Here are ten thoughts, with quotes from some of the engineers involved in the venture.

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. 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 succeeded, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in ten 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 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, with a clear sense of direction.

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones and iterations: phase 1 fly to the moon; phase 2 orbit the moon; phase 3 land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of validated learning.

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

They expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And there 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 smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed with just seconds of fuel left.

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 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

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

Apollo XI was about turning an idea into reality: We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, reflecting the spirit of endeavour.

5. It’s about the team & communication

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

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a 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.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, ensure they are aligned, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude

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

Delegating to people without experience with a certain task may seem counterintuitive, but it was something NASA actively encourage – the average age of the key 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 your startup, give people the opportunity with responsibility.

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 made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was an opportunity to learn and improve. For a startup, getting out of the building, talking to prospective customers and using validated learning to inform retrospectives should be an ongoing part of your growth cycle, iterating towards product-market fit.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – 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 the team 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 startup leader creates conviction

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

According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; absolute leadership commitment to make it happen. A startup leader is a dealer in hope, creating the belief and passion in the team to be the first to do something remarkable. Simply, you have to lead the charge.

10. Dare to dream

Aldrin and Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Startup life has twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Aldrin lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to Apollo training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

One of the legacies of the Apollo initiative is the philosophy of a ‘moonshot’ endeavour. For a startup, this means operating with limited time and funding, tight deadlines, and with out-of-the-box approaches. Creating breakthroughs is the core of a startup, asking searching “what if?” questions, about when and how something innovative and bold can be accomplished.

Aldrin epitomised the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, from the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing this:

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.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, capturing the Apollo XI endeavour and spirit – and that of entrepreneurship. Celebrate their achievement today, what a leap for mankind they made. They risked going too far to find out how far they could go. Make the same leap for yourself with your own startup moonshot.

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