The Most Valuable Result from Apollo
Bob Seamans, NASA Deputy Administrator through much of Apollo, spoke for our Apollo class today. He's a pretty old guy now, but still with a sharp mind and some good insight. During the Q&A, I was surprised by his answer to my question.
"What is the most valuable thing to come from the Apollo program? Tang and Velcro aren't it. Apollo brought some advances in computers, NASA launched the first communications satellite, and it generated a lot of engineering ability that went to other industries. In your opinion, what was the most valuable result that Apollo brought to the nation?"
He motioned to this picture on the screen.
"This picture is the most valuable thing that Apollo brought to the world. At the time, a lot of people in this country were distraught about a lot of things happening in the world, and this redistilled a sense of pride and purpose that people had forgotten. In the following years, even today, it gives us a perspective on our existence that we could not gain any other way. This planet we live on, how alive we are, and the things we can do with out lives. We need to be careful with this planet we have, because it really is special."
Lesson: One person pushing an idea can be important and useful, but the real important result is that the whole team comes on board with the idea, at the right time.
In the mix of our readings for Apollo, we covered the decision to use Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) instead of Direct Ascent to and from the Lunar surface. Even before Kennedy's speech, John Houbolt and some of his colleagues were convinced LOR was the best way to and from the Moon, and had begun campaigning for this method. Houbolt felt like his efforts largely fell on deaf ears, and twice he skipped eight layers of authority to have his case heard by upper decision makers (particularly Bob Seamans, noted above).
Kennedy made his speech, the Space Task Group, Von Braun, and other players in the Moon race all began investigating and building the case for what they believed to be the most effective route to the Moon. Houston supporting LOR and Von Braun's team supporting Direct Ascent, eventually became the two competing alternatives.
It came to a head when Joe Shea, the systems engineer (highly skilled in concrete, detailed engineering), called yet another meeting between Houston and Hunstville (Von Braun) after having each side doing extensive studies of the other teams proposed alternative. At the end of a long meeting, Von Braun stood and evenly said (to the surprise of some on his rocket team) "While both alternatives are feasible, LOR has the highest chance of success within this decade." Both of these large and unyielding engineering teams had come to agree on the decision.
Two weeks later, when a meeting was held in Washington DC to officially detail the LOR decision, John Houbolt (the original apostle for LOR) happened to walk by and discover this meeting was taking place. He was invited in, and was pleased to find out they'd chosen LOR, but a bit perturbed he wasn't credited for any of it.
Shortly after that meeting, and hours before the official press release of the decision, the head of the science division raised a huge fuss over LOR. In spite of all the engineers who had gone through this and come to a decision, he thought Direct Ascent should be the decision. He caused a lot of headaches for people in Washington, and accomplishing nothing more than stalling the official press announcement for a few months. The engineering teams had agreed after thorough investigation, and one director in Washington, try as he may, could do nothing more than cause headaches.
Eighteen months after Kennedy's speech, NASA announced LOR as the method of reaching and returning from the Moon. At the beginning, one man tried to push the decision through from the top. At the end, one man tried to reverse the decision, again from the top. In my judgment, neither had significant impact. The decision was reached by the leaders of the teams who would actually be working on the projects. The organizational directors facilitated the discussion and approved the decision, but consensus came through the teams doing their own work.
In the end, the most effective persuasion is not to make a case on your own, but to facilitate the discussion of the stakeholders in the decision, and support them in coming together as a team. In most decisions affecting large numbers of people, the execution of the decision has more impact on its success than the initial decision itself (provided both alternatives are roughly equal in merit). Having a team on board with a sound alternative is far more effective than attempting to force the opinion of one authoritative individual.
The two polar camps in the US, Conservative and Liberal, recoil against each other, not because they have dramatically opposing principles, but because of the threat they perceive the other poses against them. Of course there are flag carrying members of each camp, but it seems the majority of people stand in the middle ground, with leanings against one camp or another.
I've spent the majority of my life surrounded with the views of the Conservative camp. Having grown up in Colorado, spent my previous three years in Los Angeles, approaching a year here in Boston, and making friends from all sorts of backgrounds, I've been generally exposed to the views of the Liberal camp.
The Conservative camp recoils against the perception that the Liberal camp is out to destroy any sense of moral correctness, of right and wrong, and make society a bunch of free wheeling, amoral hippies. The Liberal camp recoils against the perception that the Conservative camp is out to destroy our agency, making everybody conform to their defined set of rules that their God deems right.
In fiscal matters, the Conservative camp recoils against the perception that the Liberal camp wants to distribute everybody's wealth in a socialist fashion, taking what others have earned and giving it to those who refuse to earn a better life for themselves. The Liberal camp recoils against the perception that the Conservative camp carelessly wants to let any poor person lie in the street and die, no matter what potential that person may have, or what external circumstances may have caused their condition.
Neither camp genuinely carries such principles (except on the fringes), but those are the fears the other camps recoil against. The Conservative thinks: "Whatever problems we have in our own camp, they're not as dangerous as the ideals of the Liberal camp." And likewise, the Liberal thinks: "Whatever problems we have in our own camp, they're not as dangerous as the ideals of the Conservative camp."
There isn't an easy solution to this. There are fundamental differences in the ideologies of each camp, there will always be such differences, and that isn't an intrinsically bad phenomena. That is why this country's founding fathers architected a governing system that could leverage that opposition such that it created a stable and progressive government, adaptable to the progression of society. When considering how dramatically society, daily life, and all our interactions have changed over the past 200 years, it's amazing that any governing system could still be relevant.
Amazing as our political system is, we still have an unnecessary level of antagonism between the two camps. I feel the media operates such that it inflames these differences (yes, that belief is debatable), but we don't have to carry that antagonism on an individual level. When I get the opportunity to speak with intelligent people making policy for this country, both nationally and locally, I am usually impressed with their rounded understanding of issues, and their reasonable, non-fanatical approach to policy.
It's unfortunate that this comprehensive understanding is not portrayed to the public. It takes more than three sentences to express such views, and it certainly takes more than a slogan. A comprehensive understanding of an issue isn't as entertaining as a controversial argument, nor is it as easy to understand. The preference for instant gratification, coupled with the ease of Monday morning quarterbacking (in politics), shows us why news stations tend to pick up controversy instead of understanding. Anyone can instantly pick a side against an idiot and pat themselves on the
back for being smarter than some schmuck on TV, but it takes effort and patience to develop a functional understanding. If people don't instantly understand, they risk feeling not so smart. People feel better watching things that make them feel smart, and simple narrow minded arguments can make them feel smart... they're entertaining. News stations don't get ratings on education, they get ratings on entertainment.
Consequently, the portrayal of politics across America is a constant state of argument, disagreement, and narrow minded stubbornness. It seems that people who should be more rounded and understanding are provincial and obstinate. The news doesn't show anything complex enough or comprehensive enough to be anything that could legitimately approach understanding.
Unfortunately, the American public votes on this manner of communicating a candidate's policies. They vote on controversy, not on understanding. To tell the truth, I'm surprised at how many sharp and understanding people actually make it into office. I attribute that to the party system bringing capable candidates to the polls, where support is more likely to come from personal interaction. Then the media information system makes the candidates look like idiots against each other, and the public votes for the least offensive candidate.
I don't think that this trend will change on any large scale. The dynamics that have caused this system to develop are the same dynamics that will keep it in place. However, in spite of the trends that will continue to run through the common populace, we can deal with differing ideologies on an individual level with mutual respect for those of a differing mindset.
We don't need to recoil against a perceived threat by somebody's briefly stated opinion. We don't need to carry a bias against one party or another. We don't need to propagate a general disrespect for politicians.
We can estimate that people running for office have derived the support of their party due to some strength of character and sound judgment. We can address political issues in such a way that generates understanding, leaving behind the provincial display offered by a media intended for a less involved audience. Instead of propagating controversy, we can generate understanding.
My belief is that as we deal with US politicians as though they are the rational well intentioned individuals that they probably are, we will find that their ideals are not so dangerous, they may have some good ideas that we need not oppose, they may adopt some of our ideas instead of oppose, and we'll develop increasingly sensible legislative, legal, and regulatory systems within this country. Those who have gone before us have done a pretty good job, and there's every reason to believe that we can do the same.