On September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy announced in a very famous speech that the United States would reach the Moon before the end of the decade. The Cold War was at its peak, and the Western world needed a triumph.
Kennedy’s message caught the entire country by surprise, especially the leaders of NASA, who found achieving that goal within that timeframe to be challenging.
NASA’s problem wasn’t motivation but rather capability: even if they wanted to, the accepted hypothesis about how to take off from Earth, land on the Moon, take off from the Moon, and safely return the astronauts was far from foolproof.
A status quo that doesn’t work
That hypothesis — Direct Ascent — envisioned that all phases of the journey to the Moon would be done in a single rocket, but that posed a colossal problem: such a large rocket would require too much fuel, and then they would need an even larger rocket, which would require more fuel…
John C. Houbolt, an engineer who worked far down in the NASA hierarchy, heard Kennedy’s message and had a sort of revelation.
“What if we avoid the idea of a giant rocket that has to take off both from Earth and from the Moon?”
A new mental model
After pondering that idea, Houbolt found an alternative, which he called Lunar Orbital Rendezvous (LOR).
In essence, LOR circumvented, to some extent, the problem of fuel weight and a large rocket. LOR involved the development of a small module — the Eagle — separate from the rocket — the Saturn V — that would land on the moon, then rejoin the rocket outside the lunar surface.
The problem was that no one at NASA believed in LOR.
“It won’t work,” “It’s a crazy and foolish idea,” “John is lying, that’s not possible” were some of the comments Houbolt heard during the months he campaigned within NASA to promote LOR as a way to reach the Moon.
If you were John, what would you have done?
Some of us might have given up: “I’ve tried already, but they didn’t listen. Surely they know better.”
But John didn’t give up, and he did something that was seen as a serious breach at that time: he sent a direct letter to Robert Seamans, one of the leaders at NASA. In that letter, Houbolt explained the advantages of LOR, admitting that he saw himself as “a voice in the wilderness.”
After weeks of tension and study, NASA decided that the Apollo missions would adopt LOR.
On July 20, 1969, John C. Houbolt would witness from NASA’s main control room the successful landing of humanity on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission… using LOR. Wernher von Braun, the engineer in charge of building the rockets used in the mission, approached John to thank him for his work:
“Without your support, we wouldn’t have achieved this, John.”
Dare to be the voice in the wilderness
This story shows how sometimes you need to go against the status quo, even if it’s not your task. If the purpose, vision, or strategy of your organization resonates with you — and if you have a high tolerance for uncertainty and risk — you might have to dare to be like John Houbolt.
If your idea or tactic doesn’t work, you might lose something. However, if you succeed, your impact will never be forgotten.
Tip: if you’re going to be like John Houbolt, make sure to prepare and structure your message with the tips we provide in this blog and in my daily LinkedIn posts.