Smart Arse!



The greatest legacy of the first moon landing is the inspiration it gives to us all.

50 years ago this month, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquillity. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface.  I was five years old when I watched the grainy black and white pictures broadcast live from the moon. Even at that age, it felt like from that moment on, anything was possible.

It happened because of four things; motive, provocation, a clear goal with a deadline and resources. 

Let’s break them down:

The Americans had to beat the Russians. The consequences of coming second to an evil empire were unthinkable and very real. When the decision was made to shoot for the moon, the US was a long way behind Russia. In fact, they were barely even in the Space Race. 

The Russians were the first to put a satellite into orbit and the first to do the same with a human. When Yuri Gagarin returned to earth, he became a global celebrity as big as any Hollywood movie star. It was a body blow to American pride.

A clear goal with a deadline
On the 25th May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of Congress and said the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”.  – It was uncomplicated and the deadline was crystal clear. 

In the 1983 movie, The Right Stuff, astronaut Gordon Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid says, “You boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up”, to which fellow Mercury 7 astronaut Gus Grissom, played by Fred Ward, says, “That’s right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers”. – NASA had the resources of the US taxpayer behind them. 

Just because the goal was simple, it didn’t mean it was easy. When Kennedy set out his objective, the sum total of America’s experience in manned space flight was just over a quarter of an hour. Twenty days earlier, Alan Shepard had become the first American in space when he was launched on board Freedom 7. Unlike Gagarin, who orbited the earth, Shepard went up and came straight back down again. From launch to splashdown, it was all over in 15 minutes and 22 seconds.

Kennedy clarified that his challenge was not going to be easy to achieve. In a speech he gave to a large crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. He said, “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”.

And it was REALLY hard. It took hundreds of thousands of people, working together to achieve that goal. Lessons had to be learned from scratch, new materials had to be created, plans had to be constantly changed and adapted, personal sacrifices had to be made, relationships suffered and three astronauts died in a launchpad fire including Neil Armstrong’s best friend and next door neighbour, Ed White.

I wish I could find an acronym for motive, provocation, goal with a deadline and resources, MPGDR isn’t really snappy enough. Unfortunately, in today’s world if you can’t boil something down into a clever abbreviation that can be turned into a powerpoint slide presented by a creatively disabled middle-manager in a suit, it doesn’t catch on. 

I once worked for a large broadcasting company that insisted that all goals had to be SMART. That stood for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. If President Kennedy was forced to make his goal SMART, America would never have gone to the moon. 

Let’s break that down:

Specific – There was nothing specific in Kennedy’s challenge. The spacecraft, mathematics and planning involved in getting to the moon and back hadn’t even been thought up when he issued his challenge.

Measurable – It’s not possible, even now, to measure the effect the first mission to the moon has had on the population of earth. 

Achievable – At the time, the most powerful rocket America had launched with a man on board had flown to an altitude of only 117 miles. That’s nowhere near the 238,855 miles that separate the earth from the moon. One of the greatest things about the goal Kennedy set was that it seemed so unachievable.

Realistic – Landing a man on the moon is so unrealistic that even today there are people who still think it’s impossible and believe the “live” pictures from the moon were faked on a Hollywood backlot by Stanley Kubrick.

Timely – Going to the moon and back wasn’t timely, it was an achievement well ahead of its time. Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of the combined computing NASA had in 1969. They didn’t even have pocket calculators. The watches the astronauts wore on the moon had to be wound up because they were clockwork.

SMART is DUMB, Dimwits Underestimating Man’s Brilliance. SMART should stand for Small Minds Afraid, Restricting Targets.

We shouldn’t think small, we should always think big. As long as we have a strong enough motive, the right provocation, a clear goal with a deadline and the right resources, we’ll get to wherever it is we want to go. Along the way we’ll have to make sacrifices and there will be devastating setbacks. We’ll have to accept them, learn, adapt and move on. As long as we don’t give up, we’ll see that anything IS possible.

See you on the moon.

Craic on!

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