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.
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.
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.