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 ( 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.


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