Thoughts on Authentic Leadership
By John P. Schreitmueller
45 years ago last Wednesday, on July 16, 1969, America’s Apollo XI mission boosted skyward from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The ill fated mission of Apollo 1 in 1967 and, subsequently, the highly successful mission of Apollo VII in 1968 sat atop Saturn 1-B boosters capable of 1.6 million pounds of thrust for their earth orbital flights. With the exception of the Apollo/Soyuz mission in 1975, which also utilized the Saturn 1-B, every other Apollo mission utilized the massive Saturn V booster, its first stage F-1 engines alone providing a staggering 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
The Saturn V, brainchild of Dr. Werner Von Braun’s team of rocket engineers and an incredible union of military and private sector resources, was designed specifically to get Apollo spacecraft first into earth orbit and then propel Apollo equipment and crew to the moon. As Apollo XI cleared the pad that Wednesday morning, pressure created by the departing Saturn V was so intense that what one heard for miles near the Pad 39 launch complex was air cracking under the burden of sound waves instead of merely a roar.
On Sunday, July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Spacecraft Commander and Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot, became the first men to set foot on another celestial body after their Lunar Module, nicknamed “Eagle,” landed safely on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The mission Command Module Pilot, Michael Collins, orbited some 60 miles above in the Apollo XI Command Module, “Columbia,” while the landing took place. Collins was trained to depart lunar orbit and return to earth alone in the event his two crewmates either crashed or ended up stranded on the lunar surface. President Nixon had in his possession a prepared speech to give in the event of tragedy. Instead, Nixon greeted the 3 Apollo XI astronauts after their safe return several days later aboard the carrier USS Hornet following what was without a doubt one of man’s greatest achievements.
The miracle that was Apollo XI did not happen overnight, nor did it happen easily. Built upon America’s first small steps into space, initially accomplished in the shadow of a slew of space triumphs by the Soviet Union, Project Apollo was the result of a national journey that began with 6 manned Project Mercury missions between 1961 and 1963; and then Project Gemini, which flew 10 manned missions between 1965 and 1966. It took determined leadership from 4 administrations spanning Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to get the funding, put NASA together and get the spacecraft off the pads. It took soaring national vision, dedication and technology to achieve the impossible in an incredibly short period of time.
Keep in mind, 4 Apollo missions, Apollo VII, Apollo VIII, Apollo IX and Apollo X flew successfully prior to the Apollo XI mission, each in preparation for the first full lunar landing profile. Of those 4 missions, 2 of them, Apollo VIII and Apollo X, actually flew to the moon, orbited the moon, and returned safely, while Apollo VII and Apollo IX conducted vital tests of Apollo equipment in earth orbit. And, keep in mind, 3 American astronauts gave their lives as Apollo 1 prepared for the first manned Apollo mission in January 1967. After Apollo XI, 5 more Apollo missions flew to the moon and back. One of them, Apollo XIII, suffered a massive equipment malfunction en route to the moon in April, 1970, and still returned safely. In December, 1972, the crew of Apollo XVII was the last to land on the moon.
Finally, keep in mind, in July 1969 America was at war, mired in conflict with Communist insurgents in Southeast Asia. Faulty “flexible response” policy and no clear strategy to win ended up costing nearly 59,000 American lives and a legacy with which the nation continues to deal. American combat presence in Southeast Asia reached its pinnacle in 1969. As the Apollo XI mission flew, plans to begin troop reductions in Southeast Asia were being implemented. Sadly, so many of our combat involvements since, each of them entered nobly, as was our involvement in Southeast Asia, follow the same, faulty “flexible response” methodology, followed by the inevitable draw down of forces without clear victory. One wonders, what have we learned?
And, sadly, the state of our manned space program, once the source of incredible national pride, jobs, mind-boggling technology and countless positive by-products, is in shambles, the victim of terrible leadership.
In July 1969 I was working multiple jobs while in school and a couple of weeks away from completing my first solo flight as a student pilot. Service as Marine Corps officer was a few years into the future. Having watched the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts fly their incredible missions, and having witnessed first hand the lofty goals the space program achieved, I feel at a loss to explain what has happened since. Legions of kids listening, awe-struck, to Alan Shepard or John Glenn describe their flights into space seems so much richer than legions of kids, numbed by awful examples of leadership, listening to rap music, and wandering aimlessly into an economy that screams for what the space program once largely enabled.
It’s time to reflect on July 1969. Much was wrong in the world then. But America had a vision, and produced stunning results through its space program. It took leadership to make Apollo XI a reality. And it will take leadership, authentic leadership, to restore to this nation its sense of purpose and direction. That direction must include returning to the moon, exploring Mars, asteroids and so much more.
The plaque left behind on that desolate Sea of Tranquility by the Apollo XI crew states, “We came in peace for all mankind.” Let us send out that message to further places.
John P. Schreitmueller, PCC, ECP-BC is the CEO of Resolute Consulting Group LLC. His Atlanta-based practice specializes in guiding executives, professionals and business owners as they identify and strive to achieve their authentic professional and personal goals. A licensed commercial pilot, Mr. Schreitmueller’s first book, OF DREAMS AND ASTRONAUTS, a narrative on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, won the Aviation/Space Writers Award of Excellence for Nonfiction Journalism.