The Last Man on the Moon, True Leadership and Bold Programs

“I went to the Moon. What can’t you do?” – Gene Cernan

I have had the privilege of being part of the production team for the forthcoming and extraordinary film Last Man on the Moon, which is about the remarkable life of Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan. The Executive Producer is Mark Stewart, the Director is Mark Craig, and the Producer is Gareth Dodds. You can find the film’s impressive trailer here.

The film has been previewed at SpaceFest in Pasadena, and at Sheffield Docfest. It received standing ovations, and good initial reviews from the Hollywood Reporter (see here) and the Guardian (see here). It combines modern footage, well-judged and well-executed special effect sequences, and excellent archive (including much footage that is rarely seen, and personal archive film of Cernan’s early years).

Like all great films. it works at many levels.

It looks beautiful. It is intensely human and at times funny or moving. It appeals to a wide audience, and people with little interest in spaceflight still become engrossed in its gripping story about a man, his family and his friends. The section about the Apollo 1 fire is deeply sad. The treatment of Apollo 17 is celebratory, and sometimes approaches the spiritual.

For me, as a student of how men and women become leaders and how teams of people, and teams of teams, can work together to achieve extraordinary things, the film has two inspirational stories to tell.

A Personal Journey of Real Achievement

The first is Captain Cernan’s remarkable personal journey. From humble beginnings, he became a skilled Navy aviator. He was next accepted as an astronaut, and the film allows you to share his raw joy at that moment. During his NASA career, he faced some difficult missions, dealt with genuine tragedy, and makes his own mistakes – including a poorly timed and avoidable helicopter trash. But he retained his passion, his ambition and an absolute focus on the program. He put in his 10,000 hours of learning, working and more. As a result, he was selected to be the commander of an Apollo mission to the moon – an achievement he shares with only eight other humans. He had become a remarkable leader, and to this day can still light a room and inspire people with his presence.

Insights into an Extraordinary Program

The second story is that – although the film is first and foremost a brilliant insight into a life- it is also simply the best summary I have seen of the golden age of the US space program as a program.

There is a scene early in the film where Captain Cernan watches a recording of Jack Kennedy’s famous speech that launched the moon program, delivered at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962.

Jack Kennedy making his Moon speech
Jack Kennedy making his Moon speech

The speech is redolent with history. It sets a simple, but gigantic purpose and even defines a schedule. It is a perfect example of initiating a program with scalpel-like precision.

“”We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon… (interrupted by applause) 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”.

The film then cuts to Gene Kranz, who reminds us that at this point the US had just minutes of manned spaceflight experience. A goal of enormous scale had been set.

A Difficult Beginning

The birth of the US space program was not easy. The film only touches on this with brief archive clips, but like any new complex program, and any new technology there were multiple failures.

One was the “four inch flight” where a thankfully unmanned Mercury-Redstone rose four inches before the engine shut down, and the rocket returned to its pad. The small escape rocket lifted off by itself, and the parachutes spilled out over the still-fueled main rocket, threatening to drag it over.

The first six flights of the Lunar Ranger program – America’s first unmanned missions to the moon – failed. There were more launch failures. The target (i.e. the moon) was missed, and cameras failed.

But all good programs are built to deal with issues, and to learn. The Mercury program did put the first US astronauts into orbit, safely. And the last three Lunar Ranger missions were completely successful, returning the first close-up images of the Lunar surface.

Gemini 9

Gemini 9 Crew - Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan
Gemini 9 Crew – Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan

Cernan’s first mission was Gemini 9. It wasn’t meant to be. He and Tom Stafford (the commander) were the back-up crew, but the main crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were killed in a plane crash in bad weather – captured in a melancholic use of archive and voice over in the film.

Gemini was a sequence of two-man craft, designed to test in Earth orbit basic techniques of spacecraft rendezvous, docking and space walking. From a program viewpoint, it was an essential period of developing, prototyping and testing elements needed for later missions. It was a stepping-stone to Apollo and the moon.

Gemini 9 proved to be hard.

Angry Alligator

One part of the mission was to simulate docking with an unmanned Augmented Target Docking Adapter or ATDA. When Cernan and Stafford arrived they found the other craft slowly rotating, with the two sections of the cone-shaped nose shroud still attached. Stafford famously said at this point: “It looks like an angry alligator out here rotating around”.

Cernan and Stafford saw that, although the shroud’s explosive bolts had fired, two lanyards were still keeping the shroud pieces together. It would turn out that boundaries between teams, and process problems, had led to an incorrect launch configuration.

Gemini 9's Angry Alligator -NASA Image
Gemini 9’s Angry Alligator -NASA Image

A Dangerous Spacewalk

Another part of the mission, and this is a major and dramatic segment of the film, involved a spacewalk, or EVA in NASA jargon.

The truth was that at this point in the space program, nobody understood space walks properly.

 The objective of the EVA was for Cernan to use a prototype Astronaut Maneuvering Unit or AMU, a science-fiction-like rocket pack. The first problem was that, after pumping up his suit it “became so stiff that it didn’t want to bend at all.” Then as he left the hatch, he began tumbling wildly, twisted around by his umbilical.

He eventually got to the rear of the spacecraft, where the AMU has been stowed.

His suit had “all the flexibility of a rusty suit of armor” and the work around the AMU proved to be much harder than expected. A lack of hand and footholds meant he could not get easy leverage to help him turn valves and enable other movements. His pulse reached 180 beats per minute. Eventually the EVA was abandoned, and the AMU left where it was.

Gene Cernan during the problematic Gemini 9 space walk
Gene Cernan during the problematic Gemini 9 space walk

NASA would learn a lot from this failed spacewalk, showing the power of a focus on improvement that is an necessary part of any large program. They would add hand and footholds for easy leverage – which Buzz Aldrin would demonstrate successfully on a later Gemini mission. They would redesign their space suits to avoid overheating, and they would balance workloads more effectively for future Gemini and Apollo EVAs.

Apollo 10

Cernan’s next mission was Apollo 10, again working with Tom Stafford as commander.

This was a full dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, the moon landing. Such rehearsals are essential parts of any large program but especially important in something as dangerous as a spaceflight.

The Apollo 10 lunar module would get within 8 miles of the lunar surface. The mission would provide data to calibrate the powered descent guidance system for future missions, test the mission control procedures and communications systems needed for landing, and provide many other insights.

The film elegantly captures the beauty of the flight, and its arrival above the alien landscape of the film.

But, as with many other types of dress rehearsals, there was a moment of real crisis. As the Lunar dropped its first, descent stage, it began to roll and twist very violently. This had been caused by a small error in setting the controls. As Cernan remembers in the film, he observed the horizon spinning through the window many times. It was a moment of high danger, eventually resolved.

But overall, Apollo 10 was a tremendous success. It would pave the way for Apollo 11, and Neil Armstrong’s great leap for mankind.

Apollo 17

Apollo 17 was Cernan’s last mission and for him an immense personal achievement. He had proved himself capable of leadership, and he was selected to be the Apollo 17commander. As a side effect of that, he would become the Last Man on the Moon, for at least a while.

Gene Cernan standing on the Moon
Gene Cernan standing on the Moon

Apollo 17 would be one of the great Apollo missions, the culmination of a decade of work from a team numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It has a strong science element, and carried the only Apollo scientist-astronaut, geologist Harrison Schmidtt. They would spend three days exploring a large area with their Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV.

In many important ways, the mission was built around the learning from Cernan’s previous flights – in the design of the spacesuits for the lunar surface, and the structuring of the EVAs, and in the data collected from the Apollo 10 rehearsal.

Apollo 17 was just not a single mission, involving a brave crew of three – it was part of a sequence, of a well-organized and well-managed series of missions that formed part of the boldest program ever undertaken, by a team of extraordinary scale. It shows what we are capable of.

Achievement, Aspiration and Opportunity

And the film ends with a voice-over from Commander Cernan that captures that sense of achievement, aspiration and opportunity.

“I went to the Moon. What can’t you do?”

The trailer of the film Last Man on the Moon is available here.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
 He is a former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

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