The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing reignited my childhood fascination with the mission and all advances made to accomplish. For a kid growing up in the sixties, space exploration was a big deal: It interrupted school days, linked our imaginations with reality, and fueled the inspiration of a generation. All of this may seem a bit alien to the 70% of people today who were either too young to remember or not born yet.
It was a passionate time when we all pulled together in an all-encompassing mission to beat the Russians and tackle the impossible. It was a different time. Astronauts were rock stars. Nerds in narrow ties and hornrims were center stage…and cool! The entire world marveled at our accomplishments. The United States was the undisputed world leader in everything. It was a magical time.
We live in different times today – interesting times. Our world moves at unprecedented speed resulting in unmatched change. Increasing connectivity makes more possible, much faster than ever before. That connectivity brings us together as never before possible and allows us to move resources and attention to where it’s needed. We can do more than ever before with our science technology and people. Anything is possible.
All of that change also brings downside. People are connected, but never so alone as the connections fuel divisions. Some of the same tools making the greatest technological advances possible can also be used as weapons against us. The rapid advances create knowledge silos as it becomes more and more difficult to absorb the vast volumes of information generated in any particular discipline. That same tsunami of information makes finding the truth too hard for many of us to track down. It’s an era of tremendous opportunity, held back by our inability to gain momentum for new broad-based initiatives.
President Kennedy urged all of us to move forward on Apollo at “the Speed of Freedom.” In retrospect, the Speed of Freedom is a combination of American Spirit and American capability. American Spirit combined our inherent ability to dream of what’s out of reach and do what is necessary to make it real. American capability involves the combination of everyone’s efforts and resources to reach those impossible goals. We haven’t moved forward at the Speed of Freedom for a long time.
Apollo – and the space program leading up to Apollo – certainly moved at the Speed of Freedom. The nation went from not knowing how to successfully launch a rocket to landing on the moon in just eight years. The U.S. (and the entire free world?) aligned around a common, impossible goal and set to work. Free enterprise played a big role, freeing industry to make the things that the challenge needed. It was the same economic power that won World War II. Yet, it wasn’t enough by itself to reach the moon.
The Speed of Freedom required all our resources – Capitalism, but also education, government, and our people. Our educational institutions harnessed the theories of interstellar physics into practical pathways and actions that charted course to the moon. Their efforts also drove the advancement of integrated circuits’ capabilities and reliability. MIT bought massive quantities of these chips that no one else wanted to incorporate in their products.
Government set a clear direction for the moon effort. It started by establishing civilian – rather than military – leadership for our space efforts, enabling a much broader approach. Our government leaders created a clear motivating vision for us to embrace. We were all behind the efforts to go to the moon and beat those “Ruskies” to the surface. That vision aligned our energy and activity around a framework that could support new knowledge, learning, and the inevitable debate that occurs at the frontiers of the impossible. Finally, government bankrolled most of the process – not just the components, but also all the hard work of coordinating an unprecedented complicated undertaking.
Finally, the Speed of Freedom required the American people. People sewed the Apollo spacesuits by hand – along with the on-board computers. People provided the transformational ideas like the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous – the concept creating two specialized space vehicles that halved the necessary boost capability. People also handled the mundane tasks critical to the mission. For example, NASA almost forgot to pack an American flag for the journey. A small team handled the details making all the moving flag pictures possible. Only people with unmatched tenacity and attention to detail provided the talent required to move at the Speed of Freedom.
The Speed of Freedom is uniquely American. We have the natural and financial resources required to tackle the impossible. Our collective imagination and vision make it possible for us to set goals far beyond the possible for the future. That combination defines the American Spirit: An almost genetic feature of our population.
We should be thriving in this new world, but somewhere along the way we let the naysayers slow us down. The Apollo program had them. The folks who said, “We can’t afford it” or “It’s inefficient” or “We should be using this money on social programs.” Does this sound familiar? The difference in the sixties was that the power of the vision and challenge drove through these objections and put man on the moon.