President John F. Kennedy’s iconic 1962 speech, directing the United States to put boots on the moon within the decade, set in motion a leap in innovation. In just seven years, America went from lagging the Soviet Union in space technology to planting a flag on the lunar surface.
“Without [Apollo], I don’t think the computer revolution would have happened as quickly and on the same trajectory,” Hero told CNN Business. “It would have taken an extra 10 or 20 years.”
NASA’s Apollo program was the first-ever “moonshot.” And the ingredients that led to its success were a whatever-it-takes attitude, loose management structures, and deep funding.
Kennedy estimated early on that the first moon landing would cost about $7 billion to $9 billion. But the first thing James E. Webb did when he became NASA’s administrator in 1961 was tell Kennedy to double that amount. It was a move “any venture capitalist who has funded a high-tech startup would understand,” Hero writes in “The Mission of a Lifetime.”
The most common mistake entrepreneurs make is insisting they can launch their companies on the cheap, Hero said. They can end up low-balling their way out of business.
Congress was the Apollo program’s financial backer, writing big checks year after year. Lawmakers even authorized NASA in 1962 to offer “supergrade” salaries so that the space agency could afford to hire the best and brightest, Hero notes in his book.
But, NASA could not lumber along as a bureaucratic regime if it wanted to blast humans to the moon in less than 10 years.
Mueller created a “flat organization” structure: He cut out middle management and “made sure that the engineers on the front line were able to get their concerns straight up to the top people of NASA,” Hero said. If safety concerns were raised or an idea just wasn’t working out, decision makers listened and quickly shifted course.
“They really did trust people in the lower levels, and the engineers benefited from that,” Hero said.
Apollo managers also had no problem bringing in young visionaries to take on unprecedented tasks, a move emulated by Silicon Valley and its obsession with young minds thinking outside the box.
Mission Control in Houston, Texas, for example, was an operation that had no precursor, and no one knew how to run it. So its manager, Christopher Kraft, brought in a bunch of ambitious 20-somethings. The average age of Mission Control employees during the Apollo 11 moon landing was just 26, Hero notes.
Making more moonshots
Some of the tech titans that dominate today’s headlines credit NASA and Apollo as a source of inspiration, and a few have Apollo-like ambitions of their own.
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