This article was published in the Spring 2021 issue
by Garrett Clark, Managing Director , Silicon Slopes
It’s been over 50 years since man first stepped foot on the moon, and everything about it still leaves most of us gob smacked. You could say that the space race was the ultimate startup scenario- a collective dream, push, and success story fraught with what I’m sure were many setbacks and doubts along the way. Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on anything not called earth, Buzz Aldrin was the first to get his picture taken on the Moon, and Mike Collins was the first to orbit the Moon while worrying about his friend’s safe return — there was always a chance Neil and Buzz could experience technical issues and Mike would have to return to earth alone.
Their journey to the Moon started four days earlier atop the Saturn V Rocket, which was and is the most powerful machine ever created by man. The next time you are in downtown SLC look at the Key Bank Tower; the Saturn V was 12 feet taller. If you value speed, appreciate how the rocket went from 0-6,000 mph in 150 seconds and put three astronauts 40 miles into the sky. If you value fuel efficiency, you will not appreciate the rocket using 40,000 pounds of fuel per second. The Saturn V went from a design on a piece of paper to flight in six years — not a bad turnaround if you appreciate meeting unrealistic deadlines.
Speaking of unrealistic deadlines, it should be noted that President Kennedy gave the folks at NASA one of the most nonsensical deadlines of all time. In a speech to Congress in 1961, he stated that the United States “[S]hould commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Imagine what thousands of engineers and scientists felt the next day at work as they buckled down and blocked out their calendar for the next nine years. But they did it! It took 400,000 of the best and brightest minds America had to offer but they landed a ship and two men on the Moon, a mere 66 years after the Wright brothers achieved the first manned, powered flight, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Making this technical feat even more impressive is that the spacecraft was built by several different companies: Boeing, North American Aviation, McDonnell Douglas, and Grumman. Countless subcontractors helped in manufacturing the millions of parts needed for each mission, and the pressure they felt must have been immense. It is incredible to think that this whole process eventually funneled to one NASA administrator: George Mueller, whose cool-headed demeanor was critical in managing the technical aspects of space flight and dealing with opinionated humans. In order to meet Kennedy’s deadline, Mueller implemented the “all up” test strategy, which essentially meant all stages of the Saturn V rocket and spacecraft would be tested in unison. There are those who dip a toe into the lake before jumping in and those who dive headfirst — NASA took the dive, and the result was a successful mission to the Moon.
It is essential to recognize the technological advances resulting from the Apollo program. The landing was live-streamed from 240,000 miles away to 600 million folks back on earth using cutting-edge cameras of the time. The comfortable shoes we wear today benefited from the “Moon Boot” the astronauts wore on the Moon. Pacemakers used to help patients avoid heart attacks began with Apollo technology, and cordless drills and vacuums can be traced back to Apollo. The list goes on and on.
As with many startups, people asked why. Why would America want to go to the Moon? To me, this is an insane question. Doing it just for the story is reason enough. Yes, it was expensive and took a lot of resources. Yes, there was a lot of strife, war, and civil unrest in 1969. And of course, beating the Russians to the Moon was a big reason for the Apollo program. But the main reason for going to the Moon? Humanity’s inherent desire to explore and take on wild challenges — sailing to the new world, climbing Mt. Everest, exploring the South Pole, and landing on the Moon. It is incredible to see what we can accomplish when we put our collective minds together.
When I look at the Moon at night, I picture the three brave and amazingly smart Americans who — knowing the whole world was watching — landed and walked on the Moon. I imagine the pressure they felt toward each other, NASA, and the American taxpayer and marvel at the superhuman work ethic that enabled them to complete a successful mission. I try to imagine the immense joy they felt as they returned to our beautiful planet. In my mind I’ll replay the footage of mission control as they collectively realized Neil, Buzz, and Mike had safely splashed down in the South Pacific, and how they all became part of one mankind’s finest accomplishments. What will humanity’s next adventure be? I hope future generations of dreamers and entrepreneurs will never forget the awesomeness of the Apollo program. The grit and struggles and finally the triumph of the men who walked the Moon and the people who worked together to get them there.
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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Spring 2021