Obstacles to Greatness

Last week I watched a really interesting documentary called Moon Machines about the development of the machines that took us to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. What was really remarkable about that program was the absurd amount of new engineering that had to occur in order to achieve the man on the moon goal set by President Kennedy nearly a decade earlier.

The engineers clearly had a grasp on the physics challenges, which presented the most significant challenge in the form of mass and energy required to get to the moon and back, but keep in mind that by 1963 the U.S. space program consisted of humans strapped onto intercontinental ballistic missiles where the nuclear warhead would normally sit and a grand total of around 2 hours and 45 minutes of suborbital flight.

Through watching the Moon Machines series I gained a fascinating perspective from the engineers themselves (no interviews with astronauts or the other pseudo celebs usually associated with the 1960s space program). What was as remarkable about the achievements aside from the engineering was the age of the people who did it… the program manager for the Saturn rocket first stage engines was 28 years old when tapped to lead that project.

On the engineering front the challenges were not only daunting but also with life and death consequences. Time and again the engineers spoke about the unknowns they faced and broad assumptions they had to make about conditions they would expect. We often here stories about the abstracts of this endeavor, like the limited compute power they had at their disposal, but other state of the art technology presented its own challenges.

The lunar module featured two engines, one that would power the descent and a second stage that would separate from the base of the machine to power the ascent which would return the astronauts to the command service module. The engine on the ascent stage relied on a fuel that was so corrosive that it had to be rebuilt after each use, meaning that when the astronauts were on the surface of the moon they were relying on an engine which had not been tested prior to flight. One could only imagine the thoughts that went through the engineers and the astronauts minds while waiting to press that ignite switch to free them from the Moon’s surface.

There were failures and disasters that resulted in the loss of life before that goal was accomplished but that doesn’t diminish from the success of the program, which accomplished a series of engineering accomplishments with few equals in the annals of mankind. Watching this made me question whether we are capable today of equally ambitious achievements or if we, as a society, are incapable of taking on endeavors with the risk of failure so pronounced. What would OSHA say?

While this question kept bouncing around in my head I happened to watch a History Channel program on the building of Hoover Dam, an engineering achievement of another flavor but with it’s own impressiveness when the stats are all lined up. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic is that Hoover Dam was completed ahead of schedule and under budget… could such an accomplishment happen today? I don’t think so.

If Hoover Dam was undertaken today it no doubt would drag on for decades under environmental reviews, lawsuits, and political machinations before a shovel ever hit dirt, and then it would be an endless stream of procurement scandals, faulty welds, union work rules, budget overruns and schedules misses. Think Boston’s Big Dig…

Don’t get me wrong, I would never suggest we are not capable of great things but I do question whether we have allowed ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to impair our ability to do great things.