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A Piece of American (Alternate) History

Jimmy MarksComment

If you're an American, you've seen this image millions of times. A boot print, pressed into the dusty gray soil of the moon, left there for all eternity by the crew of Apollo 11.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began their mission on July 16, 1969 at Kennedy Space Center. They opened the hatch of their vessel on July 21, 1969 and changed the world forever. In those days between the beginning of their mission and their safe return home, America waited, watched and prayed. In the days and months before, NASA and the crew of Apollo 11 prepared for the best...and the worst.

Mike Collins, the Odd Man Out

While Armstrong and Aldrin set about their work on the surface of the moon, the least-remembered and perhaps most-important member of the whole mission, shuttle pilot Michael Collins, circled the moon, waiting for the moment when he would meet his colleagues again at the drop site and bring them safely home. At one point, circling the far-side of the moon, blocked off from communication from the other members of the crew and from Earth itself, Collins was officially the most isolated man in the universe. Though that wasn't Collins' first brush with isolation; his training in preparation for the Apollo 11 mission was, in part, to ensure that solitude wouldn't stop Michael Collins from returning home.

Much of Collins' mission prep centered around possible risks of failure. What if life support systems failed to function? What if the Eagle, after separating from the Columbia, blew up before it reached the moon's surface? What if the engine of the Eagle failed, leaving Aldrin and Armstrong on the surface of the moon? Collins trained both with and without Armstrong and Aldrin for months, going over scenarios, working on all of the "what-ifs" that might have forced him to come back on his own. He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts but never quite found the same level of acclaim as his moon-walking counterparts.

Collins didn't have the luxury of doing the minimum training necessary to drop off, wait for and rejoin the lunar module. His training covered every possible disaster, every alternative to the plan, every conceivable adjustment that might have to be made. Collins wasn't the only one that had a possible failure in mind.

The Safire Speech

William Safire was one of the best political speechwriters and strategists of the last century. His work got him the attention of then-President Richard Nixon, who participated in the "Kitchen Table" debates. Oddly enough, one of Safire's best-remembered speeches is a speech Nixon never had to deliver. It was a speech titled "In Event of Moon Disaster".

Safire wrote the speech on July 18, a mere two days after Apollo 11's launch and a short six days before the crew returned home. In it, he writes with a stirring sense of poetry about the sacrifices of the landing crew ofApollo 11.

"These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown."

After the reading of this speech to the American people, Nixon was instructed by Safire to call the widows of Aldrin and Armstrong to offer his condolences. Fortunately, this speech serves only as a reminder of how close the mission was to disaster and never had to be read or acted upon.

The Contingency

Seven minutes after exiting the landing craft and stepping onto the moon's surface, Neil Armstrong gathered a soil sample and tucked it into the pocket of his space suit. This contingency soil sample would be all the crew would have to show for their work if they had to make a sudden dash back to the lunar module and away from the surface.

To think that billions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of work would all boil down to this little packet of dust is nearly unimaginable. Armstrong and company knew, however, that they couldn't walk away with nothing. The contingency would be a disappointment compared to the rest of the material brought back, but it would at least be something.

This magical moment, these images we've revered for decades, were all part of "Plan A." But there was always a "Plan B," and in some cases, plans C all the way to Z. No one left anything to chance and when chance intervened, there were always next steps at the ready.

Not every organization is NASA, but every organization should have failsafes in place for the most dire of emergencies. More than that, they should have contingency plans for people. Staff members leave, people retire, technologies degrade and buildings wear away to dust. Those that don't adapt and adjust to the unexpected get swallowed by it. Every day, good organizations suffer because "no one could've expected" one minor change in operations that threw everything into disarray.

In software development (and elsewhere in project management), there is a concept known as the "Bus Number." The question is asked: how many team members could be hit by a bus on a given staff without disrupting the project the team is working on? Finding this number and understanding how each individual in the organization contributes to the success of day-to-day operations is imperative. By discovering the importance of everyone's contribution, the "unthinkable" becomes thinkable and those setbacks become avoidable.

People die. Babies are born. Buildings burn down. The best laid plans of the most well-run businesses go astray. It's not pessimistic to plan for the worst... it's a cornerstone of the greatest successes in history.

Just ask the men who walked on the moon.


Jimmy Marks would love to fly to the moon and play among the stars. He would enjoy seeing what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.