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How to reach the Moon | 21 June 2017

21 June 2017

21 June 2017

The early days of computing look comically ancient. Take, for instance,the state-of-the-art machine on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969. It was about as powerful as the first personal computers that appeared about a decade later. The feeble computing capacity that ultimately brought us games like Space Invaders was meant to help guide Apollo 11 to the moon and back, including co-ordinating the landing of the Lunar Module and its subsequent ascent to the orbiting spacecraft.

And that's exactly what it did. On 20 July 1969, the Apollo Guidance Computer, together with a range of other antiquated-looking technology, succeeded in landing the first two humans on the moon.

How could such an extraordinary feat be achieved with such a primitive bunch of gadgets? An interview with the space pioneers of NASA, conducted decades after the moon landing, provides an answer: people. In a decade of intense exertion towards their historically unique goal, the leaders of the programme put constant thought and energy into fruitfully co-ordinating the efforts of literally tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and other workers. They came up with a set of highly productive practices.

Workers met monthly to discuss what was worrying them, where they had made mistakes, and how to solve their problems. Open and cordial relations were highly valued. Some people were hired for their specific experience; others, for their curiosity and initiative, even straight out of university. Managers were willing to give extremely challenging jobs to enterprising junior people. Leading scientists spoke monthly with their project champions and funders in government to discuss their progress. Contracts with external providers included incentives that communicated exactly what was valued.

Designs were iterative and collaborative; designers and flight operators worked together. Every component was built to allow for testing, and was tested to ensure that it fit into the whole system. Many authentic simulations were done before missions were actually carried out. All outcomes were considered, and everything viable was done to understand and mitigate failures and other risks. These and other decisions, made to suit an unprecedented project, were so effective that NASA's chief historian describes the Apollo project as a "triumph of management".

Many of the measures used in Project Apollo might well be appropriate for various other projects. But perhaps the deeper lesson is that project managers ought, like those 1960s scientists, to be thoughtful and flexible: we should think wisely about what procedures work well for our own tasks, and question the impulse to retrace the path that has always been taken.

If you tap into the enormous value that is added when you choose the best approach for dealing with your specific project, how much could you achieve with contemporary technology? After all, even a small business server has dizzyingly more computing power than the whole of NASA had in 1969. And they reached the moon.

Blog archive

National Teaching Award
16 April 2019
Co-founders Win Award
10 February 2018
The Purposeful Professional
10 August 2017
How to reach the Moon
21 June 2017
Choosing a Course
03 April 2017
Distinguished Teacher Award
19 March 2017
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