Astronauts and Generational Directionality

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Apollo 1 spacecraft, killing astronauts Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.

After the fire NASA spent 2 years investigating, improving the program, and appearing before Congress to justify the program. A divided Congress, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and much more contributed to a hostile environment for a program that was consuming enormous amounts of funding and, many believed, would fail in achieving the ambitious goals former President Kennedy had set out in 1961.

NASA persevered and America did succeed in landing a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade, as Kennedy proclaimed in that address to a joint session of Congress in 1961. At that time Kennedy had been humiliated following the Bay of Pigs fiasco and was losing ground to the Soviet space program which was serious business in the 1950’s and 60’s when those with more powerful rockets could have more powerful nuclear weapons.

The insecurity that this bred was thick and Kennedy knew that landing a man on the moon was not only an opportunity to advance America but also was an important battle in a proxy war with the Soviets. Kennedy, like Ronald Reagan much later, understood that the strategy was simple, there would be no negotiated outcome and, in the words of Reagan, the Cold War had a simple strategy: “we win, they lose”.

It is often overlooked that history is also written in the present, and as I reflected on Apollo 1 I couldn’t help but think of how the country would be different today if those in Congress prevailed in shutting down NASA. Failure analysis should not simply be the study of failure for the sake of understanding what went wrong and then giving up, but rather improving flaws with the objective of persevering and succeeding. We live in a time where it is convenient to suggest that nuance and the many shades of grey permeate and reflect public policy, but quite often it really is as simple as “we win, they lose”.

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