What Apollo Really Taught Us

The Lunar Rover — Astronauts aboard the first three Apollo missions — 11, 12, and 14 — were limited in how far they could move away from the LM. They weren’t allowed to walk — hop and skip, really — too far away from the LM should they encounter any problems. This constraint limited their ability to study the moon and collect samples to bring back to Earth. There was talk early in the planning of Apollo of providing the astronauts with a “moon buggy,” a lunar car, which would increase their ability to work far from the LM, but the issue was always space. Where on the LM would you store a lunar car that measured 10 feet long by 7.5 feet wide by almost four feet tall? (See an actual Rover pictured just below.)

Two engineers eventually came up with a solution. Take the idea of a lunar car and build in structural flexibility. In short, make it so the Lunar Rover, as it was eventually named, could be folded up on Earth and then stowed in a relatively tiny compartment aboard the LM. Once on the moon, the astronauts would unfold the Rover’s frame and unfold its wheels and seats, which had also been tucked into the package. And that’s exactly what the astronauts did on Apollo 15, 16, and 17. And the results were what you might expect.

On the first three lunar landing missions — Apollo 11, 12, and 14 — astronauts covered a total combined distance of 4.4 miles. With a Lunar Rover, astronauts on the last three missions travelled a combined total of around 56 miles.

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

Apollo gave the United States a critical victory at an important time in the Cold War against Communism. American ingenuity won out, and yes, it showed we can do great things when we put our collective mind and resources behind a problem. But Apollo gave us more immediate and lasting benefits: a different way to think. Next time you stare at a product, service, or process concept, get your scissors out. Where can you cut the whole concept into parts to increase its flexibility and value? Where can you innovate within the box we call “constraints”?


Back to the question of what to do with the astronauts’ bodily waste, and I’m not making this up, OK? There was from the beginning no intention of storing it aboard the spacecraft.

What weight would it add?

Where would you store it?

How would you store it?

And most important, what would happen to the atmosphere inside the spacecraft should the storage container leak?

No, human waste was going to have to be ejected into space.

So, one of the lead engineers rightfully asked the “What would happen when we did that?” question. And here was the foundation for his concern: one of the principles of physics is that a thing being pushed has an impact on the thing pushing it. The force of ejecting human waste into space, the engineer reasoned, would act like the many small quad-stabilizing thrusters you see dotting the outside of the Command and Service Module pictured above. Those thrusters rotated the spacecraft and kept it pointed in the right direction. Forcefully ejecting human waste could impact the spacecraft’s direction, so much so that if not corrected, it could send the spacecraft off its course to the moon. The solution was to strictly regulate when the ejection of waste could take place and have its impact monitored precisely.

When I stare at the moon, I sometimes catch myself wishing I could find some of my fellow loggers and confess “You know, you guys were right all along.”

Pedestrian they were not.


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.