The Space Shuttle landed this morning, bringing an end (for now) to the USA’s manned space program. I’m old enough to remember John Glenn’s first manned flight and how we used to gather as a school to watch the liftoff of each manned flight thereafter. It was exciting and inspirational to a young boy and remains so to a man in late middle age.
One thing we don’t hear enough about is all of the things we have today which are a direct result of that space program. It turns out that there’s a business point in there too.
President Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon in fewer than 10 years from the day he spoke. It was a bold program and the “impossible” goal he set was met with a few months to spare. There have been many flights since then and a few tragedies and I think as a whole the program was incredibly valuable. I say that due to the fact that I’m writing this on a machine run by chips that are, in part, an outgrowth of the need to make computers (yes, they did exist in the early 1960’s) lighter and smaller for space travel. The list of technologies in computer hardware and software, medicine, communications, and safety that have come out of NASA is huge. You can read and research them here and I think you’ll be very surprised how extensive the list is beyond Tang (which, by the way, was NOT invented for the space program!). A lot of “pundits” get hung up on the need to land on another world or find alien life. They’re focused on one tree and missing the forest.
So what’s the business point? First, be bold – set audacious goals for your team that might just be doing the impossible and then go achieve them. Second, sometimes the unintended consequences of trying to achieve those goals might be extremely valuable on their own – in this case, many of the technologies are way more important than what we learned from the moon rocks. Finally, persevere. When the three astronauts died in a training accident on the Apollo launchpad, the program didn’t end – it corrected itself. The same after the near tragedy of Apollo 13 and the horrible Shuttle accidents. Things go wrong – sometimes without any way to prevent them from doing so in advance. Accept that stuff happens, learn from it, and keep going.
I hope we keep the manned flight program moving forward. Instead I’ll bet it gets privatized and the universe of companies working on the program will become smaller, as will the number of inventions created as a result. What won’t change are the things we’ve learned. Or the great movies that have come from the process!