2020-02-10 HR Examiner article michael kannisto phd moon landing still possible today photo img cc0 via pexels space research science astronaut 41162 544px.jpg

“The question is, could we do it all today starting from scratch? Assuming the technical solutions are all in place, why might a trip to the moon not be possible today?” It’s more than an interesting question from Michael R. Kannisto, P.h.D.

With the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing still in our rearview mirror from last July, and Elon Musk publicly declaring his intention to get back to the moon “as fast as possible,” we seem to have more opportunities than ever to reflect upon what is certainly the most significant technical achievement in the history of our species.

What an achievement it was. Starting from scratch, NASA engineers used hand-written software code, toggle switches, and a famously underpowered on-board navigation computer to perform complex calculations that led to the successful touchdown at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969.

From a technical point of view, we are clearly capable of doing it all again. No one questions that. Computers are smaller and more reliable. Not only can they do more things in less time, their very design means that key mission elements can be changed with just a few swipes of a finger rather than requiring that someone literally unravel a giant tangle of wires and magnetic rings, and begin a months-long process of “weaving” a new software update into place. The computers used today would also be equipped with AI to “learn” and get better with each test and simulation. Other advances in fields such as materials science, medicine, chemistry, and astronomy would make the trip much safer and less expensive.

But that’s not what this article is about. This is about engaging in a bit of speculative fiction, and imagining that the initial moon landing in 1969 never happened. It’s not that difficult to picture, frankly. The 1960s were a turbulent time, and people were looking for a reason to unite. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a world that was in turmoil. When President Kennedy challenged the United States to a seemingly impossible task, it united the country. When the landing took place, it united the world. But what if President Kennedy never issued that challenge? Other domestic priorities could have easily closed that brief window of opportunity. The anti-Vietnam war movement might have ignited earlier. Or the time for meaningful Civil Rights legislation may have come sooner. By the time the oil embargo of 1973 came along, it might have been too late to finally begin such an ambitious undertaking. Perhaps it would have taken until 2019 until we were ready.

The question is, could we do it all today starting from scratch? Assuming the technical solutions are all in place, why might a trip to the moon not be possible today?

Do we have the people?

It is difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like for a group of twenty-somethings to sit down for the first time together in front of a blank sheet of paper and begin thinking of all the things you need to know in order to get to the moon and back. A rocket ship consists of millions of functional parts and miles of wiring. There are asteroids and weather and construction. There is fuel weight and gravitational calculations to consider. There are food and water and oxygen requirements. There are literally millions of connections and interdependencies to work out. Do people still know how to think like this?


Michael R. Kannisto, P.h.D, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

In an era where “fake it ‘till you make it” is seriously regarded by many as a legitimate approach to managing one’s career, are there still enough people who are capable of focusing for years and years on the creation of one specific system to do one specific thing? The Apollo program is filled with stories of ordinary people who saved the day by knowing just the right thing at just the right time. One engineer famously noticed something funny on his monitor during one of the thousands of mission simulations conducted during the Apollo program. He thought about it for a while until he understood to his satisfaction why it had happened. During the initial seconds of the Apollo 12 launch all the lights on the command module instrument panel began flashing, and then they all went dead. The engineer casually mentioned to the flight director that they might want to switch one of the (100+) switches in the capsule from “SCE” to “AUX.” It fixed the problem, and Commander Pete Conrad giggled uncontrollably with relief as the rocket ship ascended safely into space. Do people like that engineer still exist?

Do we have the organizational culture to support a moon shot?

The vast majority of people who were around at the beginning of the Apollo project (over 80%) had actually come from a small group of organizations like the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. These organizations already had an established culture focused on engineering excellence and safety.

NASA is organized around spacecraft systems, both organizationally and physically. Not everyone who worked there came from a Tier 1 college, but they were scrappy and brilliant AND worked as a team. Listen to the audio of the final five minutes of Neil Armstrong’s approach to the surface of the moon. As the lunar module approached the surface, not only did they almost run out of fuel, but they also had two separate navigation computer errors. Listen to how the teams work together to prioritize key information in real time. These few minutes on the very edge of catastrophe are literally more organized than any corporate conference call I have been on in the last six months.

NASA famously aligned early on around just two competencies: tough and competent. The flight director has final say on what happens on a mission – not even the President can override their decision-making authority. It is an organization that always fought back hard against any hint of managerial meddling.

However, even that culture was short-lived. By the time the Challenger disaster occurred it was evident that the NASA organization was already rotted through and through with a bureaucracy that placed PR over safety.

Would we care enough?

Thirty miles south of Dallas sits a small Texas town called Waxahachie. And under the town of Waxahachie lies about 14 miles of abandoned tunnel dug in the early 1990s. As unlikely as it seems, this little town was once the center of the technology world, for it was the proposed home of the largest superconducting supercollider ever designed. The plan called for a larger and more powerful collider than even the Large Hadron collider currently operating in Geneva. Scientists agree that the Higgs boson particle would have been discovered in Texas had the collider been built.

Despite initial support from both congress and the scientific community, the project was abruptly canceled in 1993. Many were vocal in their criticism of the cancellation, and cited it as yet another casualty of the broad lack of interest in pure scientific endeavors.

The budgeted cost of this project was $4.4 Billion, with final projected costs estimated at $12 Billion (1993 dollars). By way of contrast, the Apollo program cost $45 Billion (in 1973 dollars), which is about $200 Billion today. With no cold war threat, no opportunity to “monetize” a national accomplishment, and a required sustained commitment of years and years, one wonders about the likelihood of success.


On July 20, 2019, the world paused to commemorate the greatest achievement in history. Instagram influencers took pictures of themselves, tech companies served commemorative craft beer to their coders, marketing departments created hashtags, and the network news ended their evening broadcast with a special segment.

But, if for some reason we all had to band together to do it again, I am not certain that we could.

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