I was a 19-year-old college sophomore when Apollo 8 flew. I watched it on television – in black-and-white. So I can never share the experience in the same way as it is shared by those of you who lived it. But while I am a dyed-in-the-wool slide-rule-and-pocket protector engineer, I have tried also to understand the history of our enterprise, and the events and decisions that came before my time. I believe that an understanding of how and why our predecessors took the actions they did provides a rich context with which to inform our decisions today.
With that in mind, I have long thought that the decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon was one of the most crucial in NASA's history, and might well stand first on the list. To decide to send people to the moon for the very first time would always be a historic moment. But in the circumstances under which it was made, it was an utterly amazing, astounding decision.
In terms of lessons for today, maybe the most significant thing about the Apollo 8 decision is what didn't happen. The Congress didn't ask for more study. The National Academy was not granted the right to second-guess the decision criteria. There was no call for an independent assessment of whether NASA was really ready to return to flight – to the moon, no less – after a failure on the prior Saturn V flight. White House staff didn't inquire as to how President Johnson's legacy would be affected if the mission failed. The Office of Management and Budget didn't ask why the Apollo 8 mission plan hadn't been submitted for approval along with NASA's FY69 budget request. And no one in the blogosphere was arguing that we should be going to the moon by a different method.
NASA's leaders made the decisions as to when and how to fly, and our agency and contractor teams carried them out. I really don't think that NASA's current leaders, people who in my judgment are every bit as capable as those of the Apollo era, would be allowed by our various overseers to make an equivalent decision today. And until and unless we as a nation can again understand why it is necessary that great enterprises be executed in this fashion, I fear for our nation in this tough and competitive world.
The NASA Administrator was addressing the organisation on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 8 lunar mission