I was watching the terrific series “Moon Machines” on the Science Channel. It’s about the Apollo Program that put man on the Moon July 20, 1969. Much was human interest – vignettes showing who did it and how. They ranged from engineers at MIT designing inertial guidance systems, to the “LOL” system of computer programming. LOL stood for the “Little Old Ladies,” the operators, almost all mature women, who physically wove wires and doughnut-shaped magnets to program computer memory. The show eventually got to the Saturn V, the 6.2-million-pound, 363-foot high, 3 million part, behemoth multi-staged rocket system used to propel Apollo. As they ran the launch films, I found myself talking to the TV – feeling the same feelings and saying the same thing I said during launches more than 40 years ago. “Go baby, go!”
We won the space race, but more important, win or lose, we had a big goal – a critical incentive that seems to have disappeared from the national toolbox. Today, much of America plays it safe; we strive not to lose, rather than to win and that is a fundamental change in the national psyche. We have become the “can’t-do” nation, seeing, and even inventing, insurmountable roadblocks. We avoid confronting our mistakes and failures and we put the smiley face on almost everything. That attitude is about as far as one can get from setting big goals and using those goals as the incentive to do better.
One of the most interesting episodes was about the design and manufacture of the spacesuit. NASA awarded part of the contract to an unlikely source, the International Latex Corporation, later ILC, the parent company of Playtex – makers of the Living Bra, the only bidder who knew anything about manufacturing flexible human clothing. The ILC workers, supervisors and managers, formerly sewing baby pants, rose to the challenge. They had to produce the spacesuits to quality standards they had never previously faced; inspectors counted the stitches by the inch and not a single color-coded sewing pin could be unaccounted for. When one seamstress repeatedly denied it was her stray pin even though it was her assigned color, the supervisor – a former seamstress – said: “I’ll tell you what, here’s your pin,” and jabbed her in the behind with it.
None of it was easy. The fact that the 13 Saturn V launches never lost a crew or payload is a testament to big goals, great work and some factor of luck because the Apollo program as a whole had its share of serious mistakes, near misses, and one complete disaster. There were explosions on the test stand, suit connection failures during engineering tests, the miraculous save of Apollo 13, and no American adult then living can forget the cabin fire during a launch pad test that destroyed Apollo 1 and killed all three crewmembers.
That devastating fire was less than 30 months before the Apollo 11 mission that carried man to the moon. We made a terrible mistake; we investigated it and fixed it – a massive undertaking – and we were all caught up in less than 30 months. We were working on the big goal.
One advantage of big goals is that they make organizations less tolerant of excuses. While most people overstate their abilities to the outside world, they actually underestimate their abilities to do big things. The gaps between those benchmarks are the big goal challenges that are never set and embraced. If you want big results, you have to set big goals; people will rise to the challenge. Go baby, go!
Marty Richman is a Hollister resident.