“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon [interrupted by applause]. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others too.” – President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962
I have recently been re-watching the excellent television mini-series “From the Earth To the Moon”. Executive produced by Tom Hanks and in much the same style as the film “Apollo 13”, it tells the story of the entire Apollo space programme, from its early beginnings and the tragedy of Apollo 1, through the enormous triumphs of Apollo 8 and 11, the lucky escape of Apollo 13 right the way through until the end of the endeavour. If you have not seen it, it is very well worth watching.
I have been a project and programme manager by trade for the past six or so years, and the exploits of NASA and particularly the Apollo programme have always held a particular fascination for me. In past job interviews I have joked that while most people look at the first moon landing and wish they were an astronaut, I was probably the only one who was moved to become a project manager! Of course, I would not have minded being an astronaut at all, and do very much hope to fly in space some day. But I suppose one of the things that has always excited the geeky part of my brain is how human beings can come together and organise such a complex programme to achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon – in the 1960s no less, when the technology and computer processing power in even my humble, malfunctioning BlackBerry vastly outstrips that which was available to NASA at the time. How do people organise themselves to run such a huge project, and plan and track all of the millions of individual actions and steps that must be successfully completed in order to achieve the desired outcome?
I post the above video for a couple of reasons. I am a (very) amateur scholar both of the history of the Apollo space programme and the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and rewatching my television series and flicking back through some of my books about the space programme made me think about more recent human achievements.
I was born in 1982. What great accomplishments of the human race have taken place in my lifetime? I might think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of communism, and the spread of liberty and prosperity that is still occuring as a result. I might also think of the cooperation of many nations to construct and inhabit the international space station – though no humans have left low earth orbit since that final Apollo flight, this is still a remarkable technological achievement. Or on a more micro scale I might think of the successful mapping of the human genome, with all of the promise that this holds for curing diseases in the future. There are probably many more that I have overlooked, and I would be interested if any readers would care to suggest some of them in the Comments section.
But all of this brings me back to President Kennedy’s speech on September 12th, 1962. How many people became scientists because of the unmatched human endeavour that followed this speech? How many people became engineers, or mathemeticians, or pilots, or astronauts, and how many people’s lives have been changed because of the new technologies and discoveries that resulted from it?
And in these hard economic times, when so many of the western powers seem to be retrenching and lowering their ambitions, what are we doing now that will inspire people, or challenge them, or make them proud of us in 40 years’ time?