When it Needs to be Said
David Freund, Chief Leadership Officer
During the Apollo program, figuring out how to land on the moon and take off again was a major hurdle. The amount of fuel needed to travel the 238,900 miles to the moon, land, relaunch, and travel 238,900 miles home again would have required a massive spacecraft. Several options were explored, and all had major drawbacks. Dr. John C. Houbolt believed that a lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) was the only possible solution. He presented his ideas to several high-level groups, and his idea was dismissed each time. He was attacked in meetings with high-level NASA engineers like Werner von Braun, Max Faget, and Robert Seamans, the Associate Administrator at NASA. Statements were made that his figures lied and that the concept had only a 50% chance of getting to the moon and a 1% chance of getting back. Believing that this was the only option that would work, he wrote a long letter to Robert Seamans detailing his concept and why it was the only solution. In this letter, Houbolt referred to himself as a “voice in the Wilderness.” What a lonely place to be, yet he stayed true to his convictions.
Some of us had the benefit of seeing Houbolt’s idea come to fruition as the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) landed on the moon and returned to rendezvous with the Command Module. Von Braun became an early believer in Houbolt’s idea and stated, “If Houbolt had not pushed for the LOR concept – risking his NASA career and professional reputation – it would have been unlikely that the first successful lunar landing and return mission could have been accomplished by President Kennedy’s 1969 completion date.” Von Braun personally invited Houbolt to the control center for the event.
It takes great courage to go against the crowd, yet that is just what Houbolt did. Often, we don’t speak up because we don’t know how to have those crucial conversations. People don’t react to what you are saying; they react to why they think you are saying it. The good news is that by learning a few key skills, you can say almost anything to almost anyone.
If you would like to learn more about navigating challenging conversations, please join Marisa Norcross and me for episode 245 of The Next Page podcast. I guarantee it will be time well spent.