8 Things Companies Can Learn
From Years of Space Exploration

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes



On October 1, 1957, the Strategic Air Command of the United States initiated 24/7 nuclear alert in anticipation of a Soviet surprise attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The cold war was dramatically heating up. Just three days later, a surprise yet not destructive attack happened: Sputnik 1 was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrom into low Earth orbit...

The 58 cm diameter polished metal sphere with four external radio antennae broadcasted radio pulses, detectable around the Earth. The impact of the signal created by two 1-watt radios could not have been bigger: It was a public demonstration that the Soviets possessed a rocket considerably more powerful than anything yet built in the U.S. This technological gap and the resulting public fear and anxiety prepared the ground for the space race between the two superpowers and the creation of both “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” (NASA) and “Advanced Research Projects Agency” (ARPA)...

ARPA was mandated to “prevent and create strategic surprise” and has since then done research and development on hypersonic flight, asymmetric warfare, packet switching networks (leading to the foundation of the Internet), passive radars, driverless cars, unmanned combat air vehicles, multiplexed information and computing services (leading to Unix), virtual street tours and airborne space access.

How is your organization creating and preventing strategic surprise?



Two years before the launch of Sputnik 1, Sergei Korolev, chief rocket and spacecraft engineer, essentially the Soviet counterpart to von Braun, urged the Academy of Sciences to start a program to beat the Americans in Earth orbit. It was the de fact start date of the space race...

Until spring 1961, the race was in full swing: Soviets’ first dog in orbit, U.S.’ first solar powered satellite, U.S.’ first communication satellite, Soviets’ first rocket engine restart in Earth orbit, Soviets’ first impact on the Moon, Soviet’s first photos of the far side of the Moon, U.S.’ first spy satellite, Soviets’ first animals, plants returned alive from space and so on...

It was Yuri Gagarin who changed everything on April 12: The first human to travel into space. Alan Shephard as first American just 23 days later was barely noticed. President Kennedy sensed the humiliation and also fear of the American public over the Soviet lead. So on May 25, President Kennedy addressed to the Congress and the nation that space exploration “may hold the key to our future here on Earth”, following an audacious challenge that seemed unthinkable after just 20 minutes manned spaceflight experience of the U.S.:

“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 Earth.”

NASA’s budget was consequently increased from 0.5% of total federal expenditures in 1960 to more than 4.41% in 1966, with a workforce at the peak of almost 400'000 employees.

What audacious long-term goal is your organization focused on?



President John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” unleashed forces at NASA and almost too quickly, two main mission strategies were carved out: Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous. For a direct ascent, a single large spacecraft would directly land tail-first on the moon and then launch off the Moon for the return to Earth. Given the big blast required, the Earth Orbit Rendevous suggested to have two launches and assembling the direct-landing and return spacecraft in orbit...

Both strategies had significant drawbacks: No factory was ready to build the big “Nova” rocket and assembly in orbit seemed very risky yet also expensive due to the two launches required. In November 1961, John Houbolt, an engineer working for NASA in Langley took a last bold attempt to convince the administration of a third approach: The Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. Skipping the official channels, he wrote a private letter, nine pages long, directly to Robert Seamans, the associate administrator...

“Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox, but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.”

Robert Seamans agreed and assigned the strategy to the teams for analysis and assessment. Within months, the the dark horse candidate become the front runner. Groups within NASA started to break camp in favor of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, including the Von Braun team. Ultimately, key officials at NASA were lined up behind the concept and Administrator James Webb, who had been holding out for direct ascent, approved the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous on July 11, 1962 — 8 months following the letter of John Houbolt.

How does your organization deal with dogmas and rebels?



The engineering needed for landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth was colossal. But talent, imagination and technology were not the only required ingredients: The willingness to accept risks became both touchstone and cornerstone of the program...

On January 27th, 1967 Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in fire during a training exercise. NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz addressed his team the following Monday...

"Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. (...) We were not ready! We did not do our job. (...) From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough” and “Competent.” Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. (...) Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee."

When delivering the speech, Gene Kranz was 34 years old. The average age of the men of Mission Control was much lower, as many older engineers did not have much faith in a successful moon landing and thus the security of this particular job. Their lack of experience was made up with dedication and rigor — they all knew that under his watch, failure was not an option....

Three years later, it was Kranz’s team that saved the crew of Apollo 13 when the Service Module exploded. He and his team received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, recognising exceptional meritorious service. As of 2016, there have been 18 astronaut and cosmonaut fatalities.

Is your organization balancing and managing risks and progress?



In preparation of the moon landing, Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth, reach the Earth’s Moon, orbit it and return safely to Earth. Their crew were the first humans to witness Earthrise, on December 24, 1968. In 1948, Fred Hoyle described the moment of an Earthrise as...

"Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension. Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose."

This overview effect has been reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts as cognitive shift in awareness: Seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space and understanding “this tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere”. Life magazine selected Earthrise as one of 100 photographs that changed the world and called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. Another author called its appearance the beginning of the environmental movement.

Does your organization encourage taking in new perspectives, to provoke, challenge and inspire?



The Mercury and Gemini projects the and Apollo program delivered on the audacious challenge postulated in the Moon Speech of 1961. Yet alone the costs of the Apollo program were enormous with US$100 billion (inflation-adjusted). To continue space exploration, NASA presented a much less-expensive way to access space: The Space Shuttle — a spacecraft with reusable components. In 1977, Space Shuttle “Enterprise” took off for the first free test flight...

29 successful launches later, in 1986, Space Shuttle “Challenger” broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the death of its crew and a 32-month break in the shuttle program. A special commission, appointed by President Reagon investigated the accident and concluded “a failure in the O-ring sealing on the right solid rocket booster (…) causing structural failure (…) by factors including the low temperature on the day of launch”. It however also criticized strongly the launch decision making process, communication and management structures of NASA and its contractors as well as an overall disconnect between engineering data and management judgment.

Yet another informal term, coined after the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 resurfaced: “Go fever” — the overly optimistic launch schedule combined with groupthink, “where a group may end up making a bad decision for the sake of cordiality and maintaining the group’s atmosphere”.

How does your organization avoid groupthink and go fever?



Just two years after the fatal Challenger accident, Soviet’s Buran spaceplane went on its first flight into orbit: Unmanned and landing in fully automatic mode. It was the the only orbital flight of the programme, developed in response to the U.S. Space Shuttle program, which was seen as a clandestine way to place massive laser weapons in orbit.

Does your organization know where to be a first mover or fast follower?



Budgets for space exploration fell since the late 1980s and besides the Russian Mir space station and the International Space Station, public interest deteriorated...

In 2001, Elon Musk conceptualised “Mars Oasis”, influenced by Isaac Asimov and considering space exploration as an important step in expanding, if not preserving, human life. It’s goal was to land an experimental greenhouse on Mars, “so this would be the furthest that life’s ever traveled”. Not finding an affordable rocket on the market, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in June 2002 with US$100 million of his early fortune....

The plan was to apply vertical integration and modularisation. Four years later, SpaceX was awarded a contract from NASA to continue development in order to transport cargo to the International Space Station. Another six years later, it was the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

How is your company reinventing its core? What ecosystems are created or nurtured to deliver the best solutions?

Thanks for your interest!

You might be interested in Overview (shortfilm) by Planetary Collective.

Image credits in order of appearance: Assembly of Sputnik 1 by Sovfoto, President Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” by NASA, John Houbolt on the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous by NASA, Gene Kranz in the Mission Operations Control Room by NASA, Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8 by NASA, Jay Greene in Mission Control by NASA, Landing of Falcon 9 on Droneship by SpaceX