Yep, you are right. This is yet another blog on the Apollo moon landing. But hey – this was one of the great achievements of the 20th century and, frankly, I don’t expect to see it duplicated in my lifetime. We are likely to be stuck here on earth with 7 billion of our closest friends for the foreseeable future. Why? Well, consider what went right for us to get to the moon the first time… His name was Wernher von Braun.
Wernher von Braun was born March 23, 1912. He was a geek. He treasured the Star Trek and X-Files of his day – H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. He loved the concept of space exploration and wanted very much to build a moon ship. He mastered calculus and got an engineering/physics degree to further that cause. Von Braun, however, was a very unusual geek. He was born to an aristocratic family, received his early education in boarding schools, and was blessed with good looks and an outgoing personality. Von Braun’s natural organizational skills were augmented by this aristocratic upbringing. He was comfortable with important people and giving orders.
By 1929 Wernher was building rockets. In 1932 he went to work for the German army building missiles. He combined engineering skill and scientific knowledge with enthusiastic salesmanship, charisma, and charm. By 1934 he was leading the rocketry research at the Kummersdorf test site and had several million marks funding from the government and military. By 1936 he had over 1,000 people working for him at Peenemunde, the famous birthplace of the V2 rocket. In 1941 Wernher met with Adolf Hitler in the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) and persuaded Hitler of the value of rockets as a weapon. Hitler embraced the concept. Wernher von Braun was dancing with the devil but suddenly had unlimited funding. By the middle of 1942 von Braun had 12,000 people working for him. On Oct. 3, 1942 von Braun’s A-4 rocket was successfully tested. It became the first manmade object into space, reaching a height of 52 miles.
In the years before Power Point, von Braun was a natural marketer. His color movies of rocket launchings and explosive destruction of targets kept the unlimited money flowing. In March 1944 he learned an important lesson when the SS arrested him. While relaxing with coworkers he was overheard to say he wanted the conquest of space, not England. These were determined to be treasonous words. Fortunately for him Albert Speer, the munitions minister, convinced Hitler that von Braun was critical to the war effort.
Wernher had learned his lesson. His continued freedom and perhaps survival meant he had to turn a blind eye to the suffering and destruction wrought by his creations. On Sept. 7, 1944 the V2 rocket was deployed. By the war’s end, more than 2,400 missiles had killed over 5,000 people.
Seeing the war was not going well for the Germans, von Braun and his top staff created an insurance policy. Despite being closely watched they were able to hide several truckloads of key rocketry documentation in an abandon mine. In May 1945 von Braun negotiated terms for the defection of more than 300 rocketry experts to the United States.
His dream of going to the moon was put on hold for several years. It seemed the American government was not very interested in von Braun’s work or his views. They seemed to not appreciate the treasure trove of engineering knowhow they had acquired. However, another world power was about to change that. In Oct. 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik. In the middle of the cold war the United States government was suddenly faced with the prospect they would be perceived by the world as technologically inferior to the Russians. Wernher von Braun answered his adoptive country’s call. His team launched an American satellite into space less than 90 days after Sputnik.
With international tensions high, von Braun the master salesman sold the young American president John Kennedy on the value of clearly demonstrating to the world the dominance of American technology. On May 25, 1961 president Kennedy announced that we would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.
In my blog, They Say We Landed a Man on The Moon, I worried that the success of landing a man on the moon appeared to conflict with my personal experience involving engineering projects. This was because I failed to appreciate the level of skill possessed by von Braun and his team. My recent study indicates the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth was a no-brainer with von Braun directing the effort. Wernher von Braun had been working to get to the moon for more than 30 years and had already solved most of the problems in his head. He had the practical experience of managing thousands of people in this effort and had hundreds of the world’s foremost experts at hand. I believe his most difficult problem was keeping the politicians and corporate executives from messing things up. Fortunately he had the stature to command respect and keeping congress at bay was nothing compared to staying out of a Nazi SS prison. Von Braun and his talented and experienced staff were well position in all aspects critical to successfully scheduling the moon shot and delivering it on time.
· Knowledge of the project technology – check. Von Braun had more than 30 years of personal experience.
· Calibration of the staff – check. Von Braun had been working with a large number of the key staff for more than 20 years.
· Adequate funding – check
· Clear requirements/goals – check.
· Proper culture – check. Von Braun had blown up his share of rockets. He knew through his personal experience and expertise the necessity of resolving anomalies and getting the technology right. He established a culture of quality and enthusiasm. If you walked around NASA in the 1960s and asked engineers why they were there they would answer, “we are going to the moon”. They understood the mission and they understood unresolved quirks and mysterious problems conflicted with that goal.
On July 16, 1969 Apollo 11 was launched. It landed on the moon forty years ago today, July 20, 1969.
Do we really believe that president Kennedy simply chose the end of the decade as the proper schedule? No way. It would be a highly visible international embarrassment to miss the deadline. Von Braun and his team certainly did a detailed analysis and told Kennedy they were absolutely certain they could achieve the goal by that time. I wasn’t there but most likely they thought they could do it in half that time.
So, can we do this again? Can we go back to the moon – or to mars? I highly, highly doubt this is possible in the near future. Here’s why:
· The most critical of all issues, as always, are clear requirements. The NASA organization has been tasked with a number of unfunded directives and has had to deal with confusing priority shifts. This must be corrected before there is any chance of returning to the moon. Worse, correcting this problem requires a champion and no such person exists. Wernher von Braun was the champion of going to the moon and he had the unquestioned stature needed to be that champion. Today there is no Wernher von Braun.
· The 1960s culture of quality and of getting the science right has been misunderstood or perverted into a “can-do” culture. I’ve worked on a number of projects where the philosophy imposed from above was that of proving your mettle by making herculean efforts to meet schedules. I’ve seen over and over the project damaging effects of the attitude that real men ship products on time. Science and the development of new technology are not about testosterone, but about understanding what is wrong and fixing it. The “can-do” boys blew up not one, but two space shuttles. The warning signs were there but were ignored. I really don’t think this would have happened under von Braun. He was too much of a scientist and geek to ignore unresolved anomalies. Note – this seems to have gotten better the last few years. Perhaps losing the second shuttle was enough to get the message across.
· The entire space flight organization dangles from congressional whims, random funding, and an apparently uncaring public. When I was a kid in school, instruction was halted and a launch was broadcast over the school PA system. There was excitement. There was energy. There was commitment.
· In every development effort there are disagreements and conflicts. Today there seems to be no one held in high enough esteem to hold off unreasonable demands from congress or to resolve the bickering of major contractors. There is no Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Wernher von Braun to which everyone turns when a conflict must be resolved.
Return to the moon anytime soon? Ain’t gonna happen.
Go to mars? Don’t make me laugh.