Innovation Lessons from the First Man on the Moon

Seven Innovation Lessons from the First Man on the Moon“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of human beings to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul. We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream”. [Neil Armstrong].

So there I was, 9 years old. Woken up in the middle of the night at 04.00 by my parents. On a black and white TV I saw Neil Armstrong making his first little jumps on the moon. While he spoke his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the week that NASA’s Curiosity rover has successfully touched down Mars, I read the biography of Neil Armstrong ([i] James R. Hanssen, ‘First Man, the life of Neil A. Armstrong’).

Neil Armstrong is calm, quiet and self-confident man. It wasn’t his nature to push himself into any spotlight. He learned to fly in the summer of 1946 at the age of sixteen. This was the minimum age to fly a powered airplane. It was rather unusual that he earned his pilot’s license before he got an automobile driver’s license. Flying was his passion. He resented that all the record-setting flights over the oceans had already been accomplished.

The Soviet Union launched in 1957 into orbit the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. It created urgency in the United States. The Americans prioritised their Mercury program, aiming to place a man in space. On April 12, 1961 the Soviet Union stunned the world again when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human space traveller. President JFK had to restore America’s respect and wanted to prove American superiority. He declared “I believe that this entire nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. Armstrong’s application for astronaut selection in the Mercury program in 1962 missed the June 1 deadline by a week. But a former flight simulation expert slipped his application into the pile prior to the selection panel’s first meeting.

In 1965 Armstrong was named back-up commander on Gemini V. Each flight crew had a back-up crew. In some flights it did turn out that members of the back-up crew had to step in. Three and a half years into his career as an astronaut, Neil Armstrong made his first space shot on Gemini VIII. When former navy aviator colleagues heard Neil had been selected for the first Moon landing on Apollo 11 they described it as “luck, opportunity, preparation and skill converged”.

After a decade of preparation it almost went wrong at the last moment. In the descent to the Moon suddenly a yellow caution light came on: 1202 program alarm. Armstrong did not know which of the dozen of alarms it presented. Mission Control said it was not critical. And they continued.

Landing on the moon is one of the greatest explorations of mankind thus far. Reading Armstrong’s biography, seven innovation lessons popped into my mind.

1. Urgency. President JFK had to restore America’s respect and wanted to prove American superiority over the Soviets. The honour of a whole nation was at stake. Therefore time and money were dedicated and everyone involved was prepared to go outside the box. Be sure in your innovation project to seize the right moment: necessity is the mother of invention.

2. Challenge. Start your innovation journey with a clear and big challenge: an innovation assignment. Draft together with top management a concrete market/target group for which innovations must be developed and which criteria new concepts must meet. In this case it was a very clear assignment: the landing of a man on the Moon before the decade is out.

3. Focus. A concrete assignment serves during your innovation journey as a guide to make the right decisions. There were three theoretical options for landing on the moon: Direct Ascent, Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). To the surprise of many experts, NASA selected in July 1962 the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. If the Rendezvous failed the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Most important was that LOR was the only way by which the Moon landing could be achieved by Kennedy’s deadline of decade’s end.  So focus to maintain speed and shorten the time to market.

4. Prepare. On the morning of the launch, the first astronaut into the Apollo 11 was not Armstrong. Collins, or Aldrin, the regular crew. It was Fred Haise, Aldrin’s back up as lunar module pilot. He ran through a 417-step checklist designed to ensure that every switch was set in the proper position. You can only start your innovation project once for the first time. Be sure to have your own ‘417-step checklist’. Inspired by famous explorers, I developed an innovation method to prepare the lift-off of innovations projects. Have a look at the FORTH innovation map.

5. Test. The Apollo 10 was a full-dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. They flew almost precisely the same track over the lunar surface that Apollo 11 would be flying. They took pictures of the descent and landing areas. This was very helpful according to Neil Armstrong: “By the time we launched in July, we knew all the principal landmarks on our descent path by heart”. So test, test and test.

6. Teamwork. “Within the flight crews we divided the responsibilities such that each would go into their area in substantially more depth”. Innovate in a team and you get both better results and will create internal supporters for the outcomes. Invite people for whom the big challenge is personally relevant. And invite both people for content as for decision-making reasons. Invite also a couple of outside-the-box thinkers.

7. Passion. Neil Armstrong earned at 16 his pilot’s license before he got an automobile driver’s license. Flying was his really his passion. Follow your passion in you innovation projects. And do things only on your terms. This will give you trust and courage to land your innovation project safely, even when some non-vital alarm bells keep ringing.

The dark side of the moon for Neil Armstrong personally was becoming overnight the most famous man on Earth. He stayed very modest himself, stating to his biographer in 2004 “I think people should be recognized for their achievements and the value that adds to society’s progress. But it can be easily overdone. I think highly of many people and their accomplishments, but I don’t believe that should be paramount over the actual achievements themselves. Celebrity shouldn’t supersede the things they’ve accomplished.

[i] James R. Hanssen, ‘First Man, the life of Neil A. Amstrong’, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005.

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Gijs van Wulfen

Gijs van Wulfen leads ideation processes and is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. He is the author of Creating Innovative Products & Services, published by Gower.

Gijs van Wulfen




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  1. Gijs van Wulfen on August 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Check out and download the slideshare presentation: Seven Innovation Lessons from the Moon:

  2. Elsie on August 14, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Neil Armstrong was not a self confident man only a self confident pilot & astronaut. Outside of that area of extreme, astute talent he actually lacked confidence.

  3. Bill on August 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    I remember those days well, in 1966 I began my first real job, working at McDonnell Astronautics on the Skylab design. In all my working years since, I have never worked with a group of individuals who were more professional and dedicated than that group of engineers, many of whom had worked on the Gemini project.

    I agree with everything you’ve said, but let me add one more item to your list, ‘Managing risk’. I believe the items on your list were the product of identifying the largest risks involved and minimizing the probability of those events going wrong through better design and training.

    • Gijs van Wulfen on August 21, 2012 at 10:06 am

      Thank you Bill for your compliments. Glad you as “one of the guys” agree on the lessons learned. Thanks for adding ‘Managing Risk’

  4. Gijs van Wulfen on August 26, 2012 at 3:11 am

    One of my heroes, Neil Armstrong passed away. RIP NEil.

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