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Our 50 year celebration

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The third-finest movie I’ve seen about the space program was First Man. Marvelous as it was, it was biography, telling the story of Neil Armstrong, a quintessentially American hero.

The second-finest was probably Hidden Figures, about the team of mathematicians who made the early missions possible, overcoming the dual prejudices they faced for being both African American and female. It is an incredible story, about the space program but even more to help us see that while we still have quite a long way to go in overcoming prejudice, we clearly have come quite a long way from where we were.

These two stories rate second and third because they’re about individuals. Remarkable individuals we should remember and honor, but individuals nonetheless.

For my money the truly outstanding work is Apollo 13 — not because it’s a better piece of film-making but because it tells the story of NASA as a profoundly capable organization — one that could not only achieve the remarkable, but one that could adapt to the most intense challenges, and overcome them because and only because it was a profoundly capable organization.

I’m admittedly biased — I once had the privilege of hearing Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz speak about the mission and the movie, for which they served as consultants to Ron Howard to make sure he got it right.

While we’re on the subject, take a few minutes to read Randy Cassingham’s homage to Chris Kraft, not because it honors a man who deserves to be remembered in the same breath as these others, but because it describes his achievement and contribution: he designed Mission Control — not just the facility, but the roles, operating procedures, and all the rest of what made putting human beings into space possible.

In 2015, when Scott Lee and I wrote The Cognitive Enterprise, I’m embarrassed to tell you neither of us thought to mention NASA as the archetypical example.

But it is. From everything I know and have read, NASA is a seriously cognitive enterprise. It’s an organization that acts with purpose, having clear goals and then sensing, interpreting, and responding to changing circumstances so as to achieve them. Which is how it is that NASA landed Mars rovers that exceeded their planned mission lives by 2,500%; launched a spacecraft (Cassini) for a planned four-year tour of Saturn that lasted 20; and that sent the New Horizons spacecraft to visit both Pluto and the Kuiper belt, thereby inspiring astrophysicist and Queen lead guitarist Brian May to record a song named after its destination — Ultima Thule.

What’s most remarkable about NASA — and what we should, as Americans, be particularly proud of — isn’t what it’s achieved but how easily it might have failed to achieve it.

Like all large organizations, government agencies easily slide into bureaucracy. This happened to NASA in the course of its history, resulting in a sad string of mission failures that ranged from embarrassing — the Mars Climate Orbiter missed the red planet because some calculations used the English measurement system while others used metric units — to the tragic Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters. Richard Feynman’s analysis of the latter demonstrates that the core failure was of the organization as a whole, not of incompetent engineers.

What’s extraordinary about NASA is that its leaders didn’t pretend, didn’t duck and cover, and didn’t make politically expedient decisions. They took serious steps to understand what it was about the organization that encouraged mistakes. They then accomplished the truly remarkable — they fixed the organization, restoring its cognitive essence.

KJR is, at its core, about managing and leading effective organizations. As one of its readers you might lead and manage an organization; you might either enjoy the results of good leadership or cope with the consequences of the other kind; or you might fall into both categories.

To the extent you’re responsible for running an effective organization, and even more so to the extent you’re responsible for fixing an organization that’s less effective than it needs to be, you could do worse than use NASA’s leaders as your role models.

Far worse.

Also to the extent you need to fix an ineffective organization, a caution: Effectiveness is the least-stable state of organization. Among the reasons: organizational effectiveness asks everyone involved to subordinate their personal ambitions to the larger aims of the organization as a whole.

Which, among other challenges, means defining the larger aims of the organization as a whole so they’re inspiring enough to make this choice worthwhile.

Comments (11)

  • Bob I think you would enjoy Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo https://missioncontrol.movie/ it was perhaps my favorite NASA documentary till I saw Apollo 11 in IMAX. Chris Kraft and the flight controllers who worked in the organization he built carried us to the moon as surely as the Astronauts who flew.

  • Bob,
    You might find the recent Apollo related book One Giant Leap, by Charles Fishman, interesting and informative. It covers the politics, the NASA management, and quite a bit of the flight software development process at MIT (problems and all) plus the Apollo Flight Computer development with some emphasis on the decision to use integrated circuits when they were barely working in the technical world.

    PS. I was a Lunar Module flight controller working in Kraft’s Directorate during the Apollo Program.

  • Mornin’, Bob — you state: “organizational effectiveness asks everyone involved to subordinate their personal ambitions to the larger aims of the organization as a whole.” Selling that concept to the employees of an organization requires what is a frequent theme of yours: leadership. I cannot think of a substitute.

  • I also liked The Right Stuff. NASA was inventing space travel one step at a time, doing things that nobody had ever done before and those men put their lives on the line in space. To me, Apollo 13 showed the triumph of the federal worker, finding another amp to get the crew home. My favorite scene is when the call goes out for solutions and this group of engineers all whip out slide rules to make their calculations! There were no portable calculators back then. NASA and federal workers get much grief and little credit from the public and their politicians. Have you noticed the stories coming out now about commercial space endeavors? They often fail to mention NASA’s contribution and sometimes they denigrate NASA. Today’s public wasn’t there or has forgotten what NASA did. And yet, there is no shortage of people who think the moon landing was a fake.

  • Thanks, Bob, for your nod to my homage to Chris Kraft. It’s actually the unexpected part three to a one-two punch about the 50th Anniversary in my blog: One Small Step for [a] Man and The Giant Leap for Mankind, the latter being a podcast (there is also a transcript on that page). You’ll likely find those interesting too.

  • The Mars Climate Orbiter didn’t miss the red planet. On the contrary, it probably burnt up in it’s atmosphere, instead of settling into orbit. But kudos to NASA for everything else!

  • Thanks for the tribute, Bob. Perhaps you, like I, recall the B&W TV rolled into our grade school class to watch a launch. We (or I, at least) didn’t know the significance of the event, but definitely thought it was super cool.

    I’ll have to watch Hidden Figures as I’ve not seen it yet. However, I’m surprised when looking at the casting, Margaret Hamilton doesn’t seem to be in the movie. I understand her code famously mitigated an abort of the first lunar landing.

    • Well, I was in high school at the time and we watched with another family on their set. I recall them grousing that we shouldn’t be spending money in space when there are so many problems to solve here on earth.

      They didn’t appreciate my pointing out that every cent was spent here on earth.

  • The sad thing is we have a current administration that is dismantling any hard science which does not conform to it’s world view. The reason NASA failed or succeeded was because the laws of physics do not bend to a person’s desire. NASA has been reporting on measurements of our world taken from space. Our president has been dismissing those reports as a hoax. We are losing those talented individuals who have worked so hard to provide accurate reports.

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