What Apollo Really Taught Us

And it’s not just that we can do anything we put our minds to.

You’ve undoubtedly witnessed the plethora of books, articles, movies, interviews, and TV programming in the recent weeks, all attempting to acknowledge and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Most treatments of the Apollo program look back nostalgically: “We did something truly remarkable — and not just once, but six times!” Some of these treatments seek to apply a challenge and lesson to the problems we face today: “If we as a nation could do that, why can’t we solve _______?” You fill in the blank.

I don’t discount the value in that type of thinking, but I believe there is a more immediate benefit to be gleaned from Apollo. Apollo necessarily started as an exercise in constraint. Weight and size were on the minds of everyone who worked on the program. What was the least number of men and least amount of material needed to carry to the moon and back, and how could we make what we needed to carry as light and small as possible? We typically don’t like constraints in the work we do because they seem to make the work harder. We ask questions such as: “Why can’t I have more staff?” “Why can’t I have more development dollars, more marketing dollars?” “Why can’t I have more time?”

Innovation science, however, shows us that constraints are actually beneficial. Constraints force us to make more or better from what we have. Constraints force us to ask more and better questions.

Constraints force us to innovate inside the box. Apollo excelled at this type of innovation, and how it did that is a lesson from which today’s product developers, service providers, and process managers can benefit.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the Future

In July 1969, I was sweating over stacks of freshly planed lumber in Polson, Montana. My father, a buyer of wholesale lumber, had done his best impression of Lyndon Johnson and twisted the arm of a supplier to get me the summer job at a lumber mill. There I was, a newly minted high school graduate from the suburbs of Chicago, working next to salt-of-the-earth men stacking lumber and loading it on freight cars bound for every town U.S.A.

It was my “Summer of ’42” save for a Jennifer O’Neill.

It was also the summer of the first moon landing. And if the men I worked with were dubious about the whole Apollo program, as much of America was initially, their curiosity about the elimination of bodily waste in space was as infinite as space itself. I, on the other hand, was fascinated with the Apollo program, having been fed a steady diet of space exploits courtesy of the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs. At lunch, I would attempt to regale my ax- and saw-wielding mates with erudite descriptions of reduced gravity, rocket thrust, and orbital mechanics as I knew them.

But with little success.

Inevitably, one of them would look at me with a squinty, skeptical eye and ask, “Yeah, but how do they…?” How pedestrian, I thought. Little did I know that theirs was to be one of the more prescient questions NASA would have to wrestle to the ground. More on that later.


Most coverage of the Apollo program focuses on President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth, the astronauts who flew the missions, and the sheer technological challenge of it all.

And it’s right to focus there.

The Apollo program was the single largest enterprise ever undertaken by man, dwarfing the building of the pyramids, the Panama Canal, or our interstate highway system. It would involve some 420,000 scientists, engineers, technicians, electricians and just about any other type of “cians” you can imagine.

And it would require some 2,000 contractors and subcontractors to work together to put the complicated Apollo puzzle together piece by piece.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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