Sending your reputation to the moon – Lessons in reputation management you can learn from the Apollo programme

By Martyn Rosney

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first person to walk on the Moon. Fifty years later, the world is looking back on a time when anything was possible and America’s reputation on the global stage was one of hope and inspiration.

While the journey to landing a man on the moon grew from the US's Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, when Neil Armstrong said those famous words and made those famous steps America’s position as the world’s leader in science and technology was confirmed.

Apollo 11, the mission Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew with Michael Collins, represented the U.S. accomplishing a seemingly impossible goal on a seemingly impossible timeline and there are many lessons to be learned for anyone interested in the power of a good reputation.

The visionary leader

“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 we intend to win,” — JFK, speech at Rice University, September 12, 1962

In 1962, the public and indeed many scientists were sceptical that a moon landing could be accomplished by the end of the decade but Kennedy insisted to the audience that the United States was going to take the lead in spaceflight. Kennedy viewed winning the space race and the soft power that would go with it as vital to ensuring that the United States stayed ahead of Soviet Union. In his speech, Kennedy relied on the language of the collective in order to make this a common goal that everyone could get behind. His speech wasn’t about his ambition or vision for America, it was about the world, it was “our,” “us” and “we.” With this well written, well delivered speech Kennedy persuaded the wider American public to support NASA's fledgling Apollo programme. The federal government did indeed make the Apollo programme a national priority, pouring an estimated $25 billion into it and in the process capturing the hearts and minds of the world’s population.

Laying out a vision and ensuring the resources were made available to bring the vision to reality helped to cement JFK’s reputation as a visionary leader.

One team, one vision

The most respected and powerful organisation understand that employees should be, and can be, their most powerful ambassadors. In managing reputation, the key lesson is to start from the inside out. Kennedy’s ambition for NASA was simply that, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” He set a deadline and one objective. Everything else laddered up to this.

One story that helps illustrate this sense of purpose is what happened during a visit to NASA by JFK in 1962. The President shook hands with a janitor who was cleaning his mop. Kennedy said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?" The janitor replied: "Well, Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon." The subtext was that every job at NASA was vital to the effort, and that every employee at NASA was dedicated to the mission. Ensuring clarity of purpose in over 400,000 employees was no small feat. Although apocryphal, the fact that many believe the story is true is testament to the sense of unity in NASA at the time.

Recovering from disaster

Reputation is built over a long time but can be destroyed in a short time. On Jan. 27, 1967, the astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died in a flash fire during a test scenario aboard their Apollo I spacecraft. A NASA review board found a stray spark started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread. The lessons NASA learned from the Apollo 1 fire have often been credited with making the subsequent Apollo 1 missions safer.

In the wake of this tragedy, the future of the Apollo programme was brought into question. Allegations against NASA safety procedures, budgeting, costs controls, corporate partners were of the media commentary and congressional hearings after the incident. NASA published a 200-page report with the results of an official investigation of the Apollo fire which found that a number of small mistakes coupled with design flaws were the cause. NASA managed communications with the public, its employees and crucially with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who at the time wielded strong control over Congress.

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities... Competent means we will never take anything for granted... Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.” Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director in a speech given to Mission Control after the accident.

Instead of this incident ending the moon race, 18 months after the fire, NASA launched Apollo 7, completing the mission intended for Apollo 1. In 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 secretly carried a small statue of a fallen astronaut, and a plaque, to the lunar surface as a memorial to the brave astronauts who had sacrificed their lives to allow man walk on the moon.

Telling your story

Although the Apollo programme was filled with incredible technological advances it is still amazing to think that back in 1969, astronauts were communicating with earth in near real-time from almost 250,000 miles away. What’s more, it was broadcast around the world in real-time to more than 600 million people.

Knowing well, the impact a live broadcast would have, NASA spent over a decade working on stunning feats of engineering to ensure the full impact of this incredible moment could be felt by as many people as possible. NASA mounted a camera on the exterior of the module so Neil Armstrong’s descent onto the moon could be captured as it happened. NASA also included an erectable antenna so that Armstrong and Aldrin wouldn't have to wait for a tracking station to come within range before stepping outside. These steps were crucial to ensure that the story of the landing could be told in a way that didn’t interfere with the operations of the mission.

“We came in peace for all mankind,” said the plaque left in the Sea of Tranquility ny Armstong and Aldrin and this message summed up the moon landing. Going back to JFK’s speech in 1962, the landing was not just for the USA but for all the world’s population. Nine weeks after the momentous landing, “The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour” saw the astronauts tell their story around the world visiting 24 cities, being seen in the flesh by over 100 million people and shaking the hands of over 25,000 people including heads of state, royalty and locals who lined the streets to see the heroes of space.

Undoubtedly, the Apollo programme did much to enhance and consolidate America’s reputation on the world stage but on December 11, 1972, Apollo 17 marked the last time man set foot on the moon. Less than a year after Apollo 11 landed, NASA had begun to reprioritise and focus on research and scientific missions. Interest faded and the benefits were outweighed by the negatives. In 2019, Trump’s White House, which has done much to diminish America’s global reputation, has called for American astronauts to set foot on the moon again in 2024, which would conveniently fall within a second Trump presidential term, and four years earlier than originally planned.

We are now seeing Asia advancing their soft power credentials through competition for space-related power and prestige with China, India and Japan all outlining bold space exploration plans. China has announced a manned lunar mission in the 2030s and if successful, China would become only the second country, after the US, to put a citizen on the moon and marking a real shift in the transfer of world leader status. 

A version of this piece appeared on in July of 2019.

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