What Apollo Really Taught Us

They didn’t know what they didn’t know. In the early ’60s, a rocket that was powerful enough to get astronauts to the moon didn’t exist.

President Kennedy may have laid down the challenge of going to the moon, but as anyone on the project would explain, knowing how to go to the moon was an entirely different matter. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. In the early ’60s, a rocket that was powerful enough to get astronauts to the moon didn’t exist. Nor was there an agreed-upon system to get them on and off the moon. Computers, which were going to be the single most critical component of navigating in space, were at the time the size of a large refrigerator or walk-in closets. Imagine that inside what you know today as the tiny confines of the Command Module. No one knew how to undock, dock, and re-dock two spacecraft in space. Solving that problem became a key determinant of success. Mathematics certainly existed, but the extremely complicated math formulas required to determine flight paths, and orbits, and docking maneuvers didn’t.

Oh, those pesky details. But, then, we know how the story ends.

Neil Armstrong took “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” We beat the Russians to the moon, which was all Kennedy really cared about. Democracy triumphed over Communism. Freedom and American ingenuity triumphed over totalitarianism.

Welcome constraints. They are your friends.

There are endless statistics associated with Apollo, but the most foundational one, the one that guided everything else, is this:

Every pound of man and material that the engineers wanted to send to space required three pounds of fuel to put them there, keep them there, and bring them home.

Multiply all of those three pounds of fuel by what you wanted to put into space thus required a container and propulsion system of a certain size. The more weight you decided to carry, the bigger the container and the more powerful the propulsion system had to be.

What follows are three examples of critical Apollo components where constraints forced the entire team to think differently and to innovate differently. And the common innovation process in each example was to divide the conceptual component into sub-parts.

The Saturn V Rocket — The rocket was and remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. It stood some 360 feet tall — the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet from pedestal to torch — and weighed about 6.5 million pounds. At launch, it could deliver some 7.5 million pounds of thundering, ground-shaking thrust.

But as the illustration to the left shows, characterizing the “Saturn V” as something singular is a bit misleading, because it was really a series of compartments and engines tied together. Each of those compartments and engines had its own function: get everything off the ground and into space; get the men and what was going to the moon into orbit around the earth; get everything headed to the moon; get everything into the moon’s orbit; land on the moon; get off the moon. When the function was no longer required, the component was jettisoned or left behind. And the reason for doing that was weight. If the rocket had to drag all of those no-longer-needed components around, more fuel would have been required. Much more fuel.

The solution was brilliant. Divide and conquer. Break the single conceptual component into sub-parts.

The Lunar Module — One of the biggest and most heated debates among the planning team was how to get men on and off the moon. To make a long story very short, the engineers developed the Lunar Module (LM), which upon lift-off was safely stored in one of the rocket’s components. (You’ll find it in the Boeing diagram above.) Once in space, the Command Module — where all the astronauts were working — briefly separated from this component and pulled the LM out of its housing. Two of the astronauts would eventually enter the LM and head to the moon.

But like the Saturn V rocket, calling the LM a single “module” is a misnomer because it wasn’t one module; it was, as shown in the schematic at left, two modules. Joined together, the two components would allow the astronauts to descend and land on the moon’s surface. Once the astronauts were finished with their work, the top portion, which had its own engine, used the lower half as a launchpad. That half remained on the moon’s surface for eternity. (Yes, there are six of those lower platforms still on the moon.)

The solution was brilliant. Divide and conquer. Break the single conceptual component into sub-parts.

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.







"No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it."