It’s hard these days to avoid watching some type of retrospective on the Apollo 11 mission. Like many of my generation, I was captivated by the space program in the 1960’s and 50 years later I still marvel at the audacity and bravery of the engineers, astronauts, and administrators to achieve such an ambitious goal given all of the obstacles in their way.
On May 25th, 1961 President Kennedy addressed a joint session of congress and uttered his famous challenge to send a man to the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade. At that precise moment, America had the sum total of 15 successful minutes of space flight and only 8 ½ years to achieve the greatest engineering feat in human history. The technology, infrastructure and hardware to get Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon and back in July 1969 didn’t even exist when Kennedy laid out the challenge. We were hopelessly behind the Soviet Union in space technology. We had to overcome high profile embarrassments of rockets blowing up on the launch pad. We lacked basic understandings of the effects of prolonged space travel. And, we faced serious funding issues because of Vietnam and domestic budget issues.
When I hear entrepreneurs and business owners complaining about how hard it is to start or scale a business, I think about what they could learn from NASA and the Apollo program. A few thoughts …
Have a Clearly Defined Goal
Often entrepreneurs have not defined what their goal is. If you can’t recite your goal in a 20 second elevator pitch then you probably need to rethink the goal.
Kennedy outlined the goal for the space program in one sentence. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
That goal was simple, straightforward and easy to remember. It provided the challenge and timeline that everyone involved could cite and support. And, was a big enough challenge whereby failures and setbacks along the way didn’t derail the process.
Never Quit, Give Up, or Thrown in the Towel
Starting a business is hard. And some fail. But many fail because the entrepreneur quit or was poorly prepared. Many successful entrepreneurs have failed spectacularly and learning from that failure often go on to major success.
The one thing all successful entrepreneurs have in common with NASA is the stubborn refusal to quit.
There were many opportunities for the over 400,000 people in NASA and 20,000 companies who worked on the space program to give up. Imagine after frustration of rockets that wouldn’t fly, the despair after the assignation of Kennedy and later the shock of the Apollo 1 tragedy.
There were so many times when it would have been easy to quit. But no one did. Instead NASA turned failure into opportunity.
Turn Failure into Opportunity
Great entrepreneurs and business leaders turn failures into opportunities. They understand that what they are trying to achieve is not easy and the failures and challenges along the way serve as opportunities to improve the business and the team.
NASA’s rallying cry;
“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 organize 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, and the others, too” – President John F Kennedy – 9/12/1962
Many of the early failures that NASA engineers encountered ended up becoming technical breakthroughs. Think circuitry, smaller computers, space suits, electric batteries etc. None existed at the beginning and all had to work flawlessly to get Apollo 11 to and from the moon.
NASA faced its greatest challenge in February 1967 when Astronauts Chaffee, Grissom and White died while testing Apollo 1. During the intervening 20 months until Apollo 7’s successful flight, NASA reinvented its culture to be one that did not accept failure and promoted the challenging of assumptions. The disaster of Apollo 1 meant Apollo 11 could be a success.
Learn from Apollo
In the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia is on display. This is just one of the many displays dedicated to man overcoming difficult obstacles to achieve significant goals. Guess what? There are no rooms for people who quit at the Smithsonian.
Darrell Pardy - July 2019