Realizing the Impossible: Part 1

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on August 02, 2016
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A Look at Space Exploration ‘Impossibles’

This week, I find it fitting to follow my NASA 58th Anniversary blog post with the first article in a series of “Realizing the Impossible.” This one covers space exploration and the distinct role NASA has played in realizing some of humanity’s ‘impossibles.’

Data shows that human progress in areas like science, exploration, and even social change is not linear, but exponential. This is illustrated by what is called a J Curve, defined as “a variety of non-linear mathematics in which a number sequence, when graphed, exhibits initial numbers that track or rise relatively horizontally along the x-axis of a graph, but whose values at some point begin to skyrocket explosively upward along the y-axis of the graph.”

What this fancy definition means is that initially, change looks linear: it rises little by little over a period of time, but it then reaches an inflection point and accelerates, becoming exponential. People commonly refer to this phenomenon as “revolutions.” For example, the J Curve characterizes the exponential growth of the industrial revolution, the space revolution, the internet revolution, and even that of the virtual reality revolution, whose inflection point seems to be fueled by the Pokemon Go craze of the past few weeks.

The Original Moonshot

“Moonshot” is now a common term we use to describe goals that look impossible to achieve. The original moonshot challenge was issued on September 12, 1962, by John F. Kennedy. Regarded as one of the best orators of all time, JFK inspired a nation to action in a speech at Rice University Stadium in Houston, Texas where he outlined the imperative for the United States to become the leader in space exploration and succinctly encapsulated the American attitude in one brilliant and now famous sentence:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

 

KennedyMoonshotNotes 

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Speech Files. Address at Rice University, Houston, Texas, 12 September 1962.

The impossible: within the decade, land men on the moon and bring them back safely. The challenge fell squarely on NASA, which had been created only four years earlier to respond to Russia’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. NASA delivered. Only seven years after this challenge, two Americans had walked on the moon and returned home safely. JFK’s challenge was the inflection point that accelerated the Space Program and put it into a J Curve. Without the ‘impossible’ challenge and the ‘impossible’ deadline, NASA would not have been able to focus, get inspired, and go from primitive rockets to the Apollo Program in only seven short years.

Was it easy? No, it was impossibly hard. It was technically difficult. It was dangerous. It was expensive. The Apollo program went anything but smoothly. Just two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,  a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test on January 27 at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee—and destroyed the Command Module (CM).

 

ApoloOneAstronauts

NASA/photographer unknown – NASA [1] Great Images in NASAAstronauts (left to right) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, pose in front of Launch Complex 34 which is housing their Saturn 1 launch vehicle. The astronauts died ten days later in a fire on the launch pad.

And yet, the effort went on and the impossible was achieved within the decade—just as JFK had challenged the men and women of NASA, and the rest of the nation, to do.

Aiming for the Moonshot: The Recipe for Progress

Aiming for the impossible challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” is the only recipe we know in order to take humanity forward. The history of exploration is full of these ‘impossibles.’ We’ve all heard of the ‘crazy guy’ with the counter-intuitive, expensive and dangerous idea. The one who believed that the Earth was round, and you could navigate west without falling off. The lone, sleep-deprived aviator who crossed the Atlantic and landed in Paris propelled by an engine with lower horsepower than a go-kart. Or the now familiar pictures recently taken by a tiny NASA probe of a world so far away (Pluto), which had taken us centuries to discover it was even there.

The ‘impossibles’ move the world forward. In the face of adversity, strong opposition is almost certain. For example, many in Congress and even at NASA opposed JFK’s moonshot challenge—not only at the beginning but all the way through the program. The tragic Apollo accident in 1967, for instance, was used by many to “evidence” the impossibility of the moonshot challenge. Despite opposition by many, the ‘impossibles’ in space exploration continue to move us forward. NASA not only delivered the moon to us. In just over four decades since the Apollo moon landings, NASA’s probes and robots (which not long ago were the stuff of science fiction) have visited every planet in our solar system and discovered the abundance of water on several moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

I can think of several moonshot challenges for our time. There is even a non-profit organization, XPRIZE, devoted to using innovative approaches like crowdsourcing to define and tackle ‘impossible’ problems. However, one moonshot challenge, in particular, comes to my mind: climate change. To me, it seems like we need to collectively call a moonshot so society—people, industry, and government—can focus our efforts on the challenge of fixing the seemingly impossible problem of sustainable growth and progress that is equitable for all, especially our planet.

Next week, we’ll explore Technology ‘Impossibles.’

 

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