“But why, some say, the moon?”
While definitions of strategy vary, few question the value of a strategy to provide a ‘big idea’ and a sense of how an organisation can work towards an aspirational goal. As big ideas go, the President Kennedy’s 1961 proposal that the US commit ‘before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth’ is often held up as an example of leadership, and the importance of setting clear aspirational goals that allow an organisation to achieve far beyond what was expected.
This ‘moonshot approach’ is regularly promoted as a means by which an organisation can rally around an ambitious goal and fundamentally change both themselves and their environment. Indeed, the lack of an equivalently ambitious goal for subsequent US space exploration has often been suggested as a reason for the subsequent lack of focus (and funding) of NASA activities subsequent to Project Apollo.
As the 1960s recede further into the past it has become easier to accept a simple narrative that Kennedy’s speech provided a unifying goal that Congress, NASA and the broader US population worked towards without question. A closer examination of the events of the 1960s shows instead that the development and execution of the moon landings were undertaken within an environment of constant questioning as to the purpose of such an undertaking, and a tension between ends, ways, and means.
When Kennedy addressed Congress on the 25th of May 1961, the US had suffered several recent challenges to its national prestige. In April of that year the failed ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion appeared to show the limitations of US power in the Western Hemisphere. Russia had also successfully orbited their first astronaut, an apparent re-occurrence of the ‘Sputnik moment’ of 1957. While the first sub-orbital flight of the US Mercury series had occurred earlier in May, it had lasted a scant fifteen minutes. An complete orbit by a US astronaut was still almost a year away. Kennedy needed a way to present a pathway to the recovery of US prestige, through the issuing of a challenge that both captured the imagination of the public and provided a good chance of success.
The announcement of Project Apollo allayed these fears and provided a much-needed political boost to the Kennedy Administration. While from an engineering point of view, or those dreaming of exploring space, Neil Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface was an eventual ‘end’, for the US as a nation Apollo served as a ‘way’ to achieve broader outcomes of national prestige. In some ways Project Apollo had achieved the desired political ‘end’ or reasserting US prestige and leadership, simply by being announced.
The centrality of politics over engineering and dreaming to shaping Apollo are highlighted in the meeting held in November 1962, and the interaction between Kennedy and NASA Administrator, James Webb, over a NASA request for additional funding. A little over a year after his initial commitment, Kennedy was faced with rapidly increasing budget requests. During this meeting Kennedy grew increasing frustrated with the breadth of activities NASA wanted to fund, and potential delays to schedule beyond his term as President, voicing his concerns thus:
“…the Soviet Union has made this a test of the system. So that’s why we’re doing it…Now, this may not change anything about that schedule but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space.”
At one level these were the words of a politician solely looking to protect his legacy. At another, it was a commander-in-chief looking to achieve his nation’s ends at the least cost, using the most effective ways. If Project Apollo could not generate sufficient prestige and leadership for the resources it consumed, then another way should be employed.
Following this meeting, Administrator Webb was requested to write to Kennedy and summarise his argument for the broader goals of the US space program. Intentionally or not, Webb outlined a broad strategic plan that would not seem out of place in the military profession. This document identified the objective of the national space program ‘to become preeminent in all important aspects of this endeavour and to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident’. The paragraphs that follow outline broad lines of effort to achieve the desired pre-eminence:
- “To be preeminent in space, we must conduct scientific investigations on a broad front. We must concurrently investigate geophysical phenomena about the earth, analyze the sun’s radiation and its effect on earth, explore the moon and the planets, make measurements in interplanetary space, and conduct astronomical measurements.”
- “To be preeminent in space, we must also have an advancing technology that permits increasingly large payloads to orbit the earth and to travel to the moon and the planets.”
- “To be pre-eminent in operations in space, we must be able to launch our vehicles at prescribed times. We must develop the capability to place payloads in exact orbits…maneuver in space and rendezvous with cooperative spacecraft…develop techniques…for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at increasingly high velocities.”
- “In order to carry out this program, we must continually up-rate the competence of Government research and flight centers, industry, and universities, to implement their special assignments and to work together effectively toward common goals.”
Interestingly, the moon landing as an activity are acknowledged in the document only in passing until later in the document, as a means of demonstrating the desired pre-eminence. The senior leader within NASA recognised that while the engineering feat of Apollo may be an ‘end’ to his organisation, it existed to meet a higher political end. Once that political end had been satisfied, the need for Apollo was removed.
This debate over the best way to align ends, ways, and means conducted within the political establishment was matched in the broader US population. Throughout the 1960s Apollo was viewed as an admirable goal only when the resources required to achieve this goal were not considered. People liked the idea of Apollo more than paying to make it real. Public opinion, and those of political and scientific commentators, regularly questioned the cost and utility of the goal. For only one month, October 1965, did more than half of the public favour continued human lunar exploration. Instead, most Americans ranked manned spaceflight high on the list of areas to cut in the US federal budget. As Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, only 53% of the population believed that the expenditure was worthwhile.
Apollo 11’s moonwalk was the visible expression of 400,000 people working for years towards a singular goal. But the final price tag of the program once it concluded in 1973 was a staggering $28 billion – about $288 billion today.
President Nixon is often accused of undermining the achievements of Apollo, culling the program at the very time that it was delivering success. But under such circumstances it is not unreasonable that while President Nixon was happy to bask in the glow of the first lunar landing, funded by his predecessors, he was less happy to pay for continued exploration beyond the earth. In March of 1970 he issued a “Statement about the future of the United States Space Program” in which he stated:
“We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process…and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities…What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.”
So, what can we learn from a closer look at this piece of history?
Firstly, an ambitious ‘moonshot’ approach does have the potential to inspire and push the boundaries about what is considered achievable. It is undeniable that Kennedy’s vision enabled the US to achieve something unique in human history to this point.
Secondly, having an aspirational vision or strategy approved is rarely going to be an end, but the beginning of a constant debate between competing ends, ways and means. The owner of the ‘big idea’ must continue to argue their case for resources throughout the execution of a plan.
chances are the ‘big idea’ will exist to support a larger purpose or outcome,
and the idea must remain aligned with the larger purpose to maintain external
support. However visionary the idea, if it does not connect with and support
the needs of others, it will quickly lose support.
 Speech by President Kennedy to Rice University, September 12, 1962
 Reference to transcript of conversation https://history.nasa.gov/JFK-Webbconv/pages/backgnd.html
 Letter from James Webb to Kennedy https://history.nasa.gov/JFK-Webbconv/pages/james-letter2.pdf
 Project Apollo consumed 4.4% of US GDP at its 1966 peak https://www.history.com/news/moon-landing-presidents-jfk-lbj-nixon