Founders: take moonshots to find out how far your startup can go

A US spacecraft launched Monday from Cape Canaveral to land on the Moon, the first American mission in 51 years and the first ever by a private company. Astrobotic’s robotic lander, called Peregrine, has been contracted by NASA to study the Moon’s surface ahead of human missions starting in November.

Alas due to a fuel leak making it hard to maintain stable pointing of the spacecraft, a touch-down on the lunar surface is no longer possible. Astrobotic calculates the craft has under two days’ worth of propellant left before reserves are exhausted. When that moment arrives, Peregrine, with its solar panels no longer collecting sunlight, will rapidly lose power.

Peregrine is part of a stampede of spacecraft that will attempt to put themselves on the lunar surface in 2024 – possibly as many as eight different projects, including those from Japan and China. They had planned a 23 February descent on the Moon’s near-side, known as Sinus Viscositatis, or Bay of Stickiness – a reference to the type of volcanic material that may have built nearby hills.

Not since Apollo 17 in 1972 has the US landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface. It is back on the agenda because NASA wishes soon to resume astronaut missions, and it is going to use robots from commercial partners to deliver scientific instrumentation, general equipment, and supplies – a move the agency believes will work to reduce costs over time. Astrobotic is the first of three US companies to send a lander under this new arrangement. Two other companies, Intuitive Machines and Firefly, will follow in the coming months.

This initiative is an important entrepreneurial pivot for NASA. It’s allowed a small commercial company like Astrobotic to deliver a lander to the Moon and work with NASA scientists. It will bring creative and scientific minds together, new minds, new thinking to the table, and that will help accelerate the technologies needed to get us back to the Moon.

I’ve always had a keen interest in Space. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles. There was nothing  for ‘Astronauts’, so I didn’t apply to NASA. There probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat anyway.

For me, Apollo XI landing on the Moon is the greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon!

There’s a great book, Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three had died) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 ( The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, but for me the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid astronauts $8 a day while they were in space and deducted bed and board from their pay cheque!

I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year. These planned launches sadly highlight that the number of men who have walked on the moon and are still alive is dwindling. We lost Neil Armstrong in 2012. There are only four people still alive who have walked on the Moon.

President Kennedy launched the original moonshot challenge. He combined the age-old human imagination about the moon along with a spirit of adventure, pioneering, and patriotism. Kennedy had the vision, first presenting a moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962, at Rice University:

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 organise 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. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition captures the sentiment of any startup founder and shows how people uniting behind a vision and achieve something unique. His vision was a fantastic statement of intent, and subsequently an astounding achievement. So, what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo ventures for startup entrepreneurs? Here are ten thoughts, with quotes from some of the engineers involved in the venture.

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Centre for International Science and Technology Policy.

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it succeeded, united and charged by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in ten years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules.

When launching your startup, don’t bother trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down into the major steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time, with a clear sense of direction. The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones and iterations: phase 1 fly to the moon; phase 2 orbit the moon; phase 3 land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of validated learning.

3. Iterate, don’t be afraid to pivot and modify the plan

They expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And there we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot.

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin realised they were going to miss their target. Armstrong took manual control. Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed with just seconds of fuel left.

Apollo was about turning an idea into reality: We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, capturing the spirit of adventure. 

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations.

NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and asking ‘What if?’ As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. It’s about calculated risks: don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead. 

5. It’s about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module.

The Apollo XI team scaled rapidly, from a founding team to over 2,000 people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier. As your startup team grows, create a plan for how your team will communicate, ensure they are aligned, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly. 

6. Recruit for attitude

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down to people who didn’t know how to do them but were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator.

Hiring people without experience may seem counterintuitive, but it was something NASA had to do as no one had done what they were trying to do! The average age of the Ops team was 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity with responsibility.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations.

The Apollo program made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was an opportunity to learn and improve. For a startup, getting out of the building, talking to prospective customers and using validated learning to inform retrospectives should be an ongoing part of your growth cycle, iterating towards product-market fit.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the test teams who put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you. Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit.

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of the team back on the ground. When you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work. 

9. The startup leader creates conviction

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules.

According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; absolute leadership commitment to make it happen. A startup leader is a dealer in hope, creating the belief and passion in the team to be the first to do something remarkable – you have to lead the charge.

10. Dare to dream

Aldrin and Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Startup life has twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Both lived their lives as an exclamation rather than an explanation, absorbing the setbacks as well as keeping the dream alive.

Steve Blank, from the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing the spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise 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.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine mission has failed, but NASA believes this arrangement will introduce more innovation and reduce costs over time. The agency says it was prepared for some of the missions not to work – Pam Melroy, said: What we have learned from our commercial partners is if we have a high enough cadence, we can relax some of the requirements that make it so costly, and have a higher risk appetite. And if they fail, the next one is going to learn and succeed.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, which captures the Apollo endeavour and entrepreneurial spirit. What a leap for mankind they made, and now they’re going again. They risk going too far to find out how far they can go. Make the same leap for yourself with your startup moonshot.

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