Houston, we’ve had a problem. So begins the opening sequence of new feature-length documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. This is a truly heroic tale of a group of young men, many from humble backgrounds, who joined forces to do something out of this world. For those interested in communication, the film has a particular resonance. Katie Macaulay outlines what the men – and now women – from Mission Control can teach us about leadership, communication and culture.

26th March 2017

The birth of human space flight began in earnest in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into outer space. This prompted President JF Kennedy to make a pledge in the same year to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the time, America had managed just 20 minutes of space flight. No one yet knew how – or even whether – Kennedy’s promise could be fulfilled.

Mission Control from Haviland Digital is an absorbing story of tenacity, teamwork and the undeniable talent of those who built Apollo from the ground up in an age long before microchips and digital technology. “Few people realise just how little computing power was used,” explains the film’s director, David Fairhead. “There were just 32 kilobytes of operating memory in the lunar module computer.”

Throughout the film, candid interviews with the founding fathers of Mission Control – now in their 70s, 80s and 90s– give us a compelling glimpse into working life at NASA. It becomes clear that the team’s success was built on a specific type of communication that, six decades later, is still pioneering.

Following a sneak preview of the film, here are seven lessons from those early days of Mission Control that we – as communicators – would do well to replicate today.


Build a hierarchy on mutual trust. The physical layout of the Mission Operations Control Room – one large, open-plan space with banks of consoles – might give the impression of a flat, non-hierarchal structure. This was not the case. Mission Control was ramped and the hierarchy was clear, from the “rocket men” in the “trench” – or first line of consoles – to the flight director who sat literally above the team.  

But this was not the limiting ladder of command and control we often see in corporate entities today. People were carefully chosen for their ability to do their job, and then allowed to get on with it.

Keith Haviland, the film’s producer, describes Apollo as an “extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership and remarkable teamwork.” He speaks from experience. Before becoming a filmmaker, Haviland was a former partner and global senior managing director at Accenture. He adds: “NASA was exceptionally good at delegation. They looked for people who would take real-time and large-scale accountability.”

This was a hierarchy built on reciprocal trust. Not only did subordinates trust their leaders but, more importantly, leaders at every level trusted their subordinates. Fairhead agrees: “It was the antithesis of micro-management.”

The lesson for business leaders is clear – hire the right people, then concentrate on your job, not theirs.


Identify your organisations unscripted values. The film includes an interview with NASA’s flight director, Gene Kranz, immortalised by Ed Harris in the film Apollo 13. Kranz is not a man schooled in management theory. Yet, he instilled two clear and specific values into his team, which are still the foundation of its highly distinctive culture. Tough and competent are not the anodyne values we usually see on motivational posters. And unlike many corporate values, they did not spring from research, focus groups or even organisational best practice. These were borne from tragedy and failure.

In January 1967, three astronauts died after fire swept through the oxygen-filled atmosphere of the Apollo 1 space capsule during rehearsals at Cape Kennedy. The crew were killed within seconds.

The following Monday morning, Kranz called everyone to an all-hands meeting. This was an audience of young engineers, many fresh out of college, but Kranz did not shield them from the truth. He told them “we are all responsible” for killing the crew. And, as such, each person in the room needed to identify their part in this shared catastrophic failure.

“From now on our team in Mission Control will be known by two words: Tough and competent,” he told his assembled audience.

Tough, because we’ll never shirk our responsibilities because we are forever accountable for what we do or, in the case of Apollo 1, what we failed do.

“Competent, because we are never going to take anything for granted. We’ll never stop learning; from now on, as a team, we will be perfect.

“Go back to your offices and write tough and competent on your white boards and never remove it.”

It was a speech the controllers never forgot. In the film, Ed Fendell recalls its impact several decades on. “It changed who we were, what we did and the future of space flight.”

Kranz says he did not script this speech in advance. It was a simply a reaction to what had occurred and the need to move forward. Haviland explains that NASA’s values were conspicuously operational. “They are about getting things done. They grew organically from success and failure, and a certain military spirit that imbued the organisation.”

Today, we strive for authenticity in our commutation. The lesson here is simple – if you are striving to communicate something real and genuine, there is a problem. Allow your values to emerge organically from success and failure. Allow people to speak the truth unprompted. Honest, heartfelt words have lasting impact.


Make humble enquiries. After the Apollo 1 disaster, it was clear mistakes had been made. One of the greatest was silent acquiesce. Before the fire, Mission Control had been aware there were problems, but, as Kranz, says: “We could have gone to the programme manager and said, ‘Look, we are not ready.’ But we didn’t.”

In future, everyone had a responsibility to speak up and, crucially, listen to good news and bad.

In the book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, author Edgar Schein examines a number of corporate disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Schein concludes: “Lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.”

Mission Control learned this lesson the hard way. As a result, when problems beset the Apollo 12 mission three years later, mission controllers were told by their superiors, “We don’t have to go to the moon today.” Despite the cost, political expectations and the eyes of the world monitoring their every move, those closest to the mission were empowered to make the all-important decisions. It was acknowledged too much pressure from above could lead to a bad call.

Sadly, by 1986 it seemed NASA had forgotten this lesson. On 28 January, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. All seven crew members died. The Rogers Commission, which investigated the causes of the calamity, found NASA’s organisational culture and decision-making processes wanting. Managers had known for nearly a decade about a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings that sealed the rocket boosters, but they failed to address the problem. They had disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching the Shuttle on that unseasonably cold morning.

The lesson for business is problematic. We work in competitive cultures that value perseverance and resolve. Asking questions and genuinely listening to the response – especially if it is unpalatable – can be seen as weak or, at the very least, indecisive. But, as leaders, we need to create environments where our teams feel able to speak up because, as Schein warns us, “without good upward communication, organisations can be neither effective nor safe.”

People are capable of more than they know. The film includes an interview with Chris Kraft, the founding father of Mission Control. Now in his 90s, he recalls his no-nonsense leadership style. This was not based on books, but on “intuition and truly understanding how important people were to getting the job done”. Kraft admits to “saying what the hell I thought. If I didn’t like an idea, I’d ask you to ask go away and come back with a better one. But people liked that direct, honest, clear approach.”

Kraft’s toughness was rooted in a deep belief that every member of his team was far more capable than they knew. He had a profound trust in people’s ability – often an ability they did not see in themselves.

Director David Fairhead believes this is the most important lesson of the film; everyone, no matter what their background, can achieve remarkable things. “These were not Ivy League-educated men. Many came from small Southern towns with few prospects. This is a broader lesson here for the UK – our top schools and colleges should not dominate. These men remind us it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, only what you can do.”


Make one, compelling promise. There is an urban myth that goes like this: John F. Kennedy is visiting the space centre at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s. Touring the complex, he meets a janitor in overalls. “What do you do here?” he asks. The janitor replies, “Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” This story has never been substantiated, yet it remains effective in capturing the spirit of an organisation with a clear and common purpose.

As Haviland explains, NASA had one abiding goal; getting a man to the moon and back safely. Kennedy had made a promise to the nation and it had to be kept.

Jim Collins, co-author of Built To Last, says visionary companies communicate what he termed Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs; pronounced bee-hags). Successful organisations used BHAGs as a powerful mechanism to stimulate progress. Of course, all companies have goals. But there is a difference between a goal and a huge, daunting challenge. 

Collins writes: “Think of the moon mission in the 1960s. President Kennedy and his advisers could have gone off into a conference room and drafted something like, ‘Let's beef up our space program’ or some other such vacuous statement. The most optimistic scientific assessment of the moon mission’s chances for success in 1961 was 50/50 and most experts were, in fact, more pessimistic. Given the odds, such a bold commitment was, at the time, outrageous. But that’s part of what made it such a powerful mechanism for getting the United States, still groggy from the 1950s and the Eisenhower era, moving vigorously forward.”

A BHAG is not typical of the many corporate objectives we see today. It is not nuanced, subtle or deliberately ambiguous. Its meaning is not hidden by a cloak of management speak. A BHAG should reach out and grab us in the gut. “It is tangible, energising, highly focused. People ‘get it’ right away; it takes little or no explanation,” writes Collins.

BHAGs have a clear finish line, so the organisation can know when it has achieved the goal. Collins adds: “People like to shoot for finish lines.” 

Today we are told we need to imbue work with a greater sense of purpose if we want to attract and retain the millennial generation who, supposedly, care more deeply than previous generations about the raison d'être of their organisations.

The film reminds us the importance of purpose is nothing new. But, inside too many corporations, it has become muddied by a succession of ever-changing, short-term and often conflicting demands. As a result, few organisations now have a crystal clear rallying cry. This leads to confusion, internal strife and unnecessary duplication. The lesson from Mission Control is to get back to basics; to reconnect everyone to what matters most.


Learn to bend. The concept of agility in a business context is well established. It relates to the ability of organisations to respond rapidly to change in their internal or external environment without losing sight of their overall vision or goal. According to Haviland, NASA was demonstrating the exact characteristics of an agile organisation long before the concept was given a name.

“Everyone kept the goal front of mind and weren’t afraid to make fundamental changes to the programme in a heartbeat to fulfil that goal.”

He describes Apollo 8 as an exemplar of adaptability, creativity and agility. This was initially intended to be an Earth orbit mission but actually became the first mission to take humans to the moon and back.

“The bold and courageous mission that replaced that original intent probably shortened the path to the Moon. It was a decision made quickly and decisively.”

Having the fearlessness and drive to make bold, strategic decisions quickly to keep things on track is not a common characteristic of many complex, corporate entities.  The lesson from NASA is agility takes courage, ambition and a willingness to sacrifice your plan in a heartbeat to keep the mission running as planned.


Take the world with you. With lives at stake, worldwide media interest, political careers in the balance and phenomenal public expenditure (more than four per cent of the country’s annual budget), NASA could have been forgiven for adopting a bunker mentality when it came to media relations. By holding the world’s media at arm’s length and carefully orchestrating the message, they would have had the semblance of control and perhaps could have mitigated the risk of bad publicity. But this was how the Soviets were managing their space programme. America wanted to show how space could be conquered in the free world – without censorship, secrecy or suppression. So, NASA let the media in.

It was a bold move. CBS covered the Apollo 11 landing for 34 continuous hours. More than 90 per cent of TV-owning American households tuned in to watch this live, unedited coverage. In all, 600 million watched and listened as the Eagle landed on the moon. Workers called in sick, children stayed home from school and crowds gathered around TVs in shop windows. Journalist Joshua Rothman calls what transpired “a genuine experience of global intimacy”.

NASA did not have a huge PR machine. Its public affairs office employed professional print, radio and broadcast journalists and operated like a newsroom, feeding information to the world’s press. Whether they were experienced science writers or novice reporters at local TV stations, NASA had plenty to offer them. Reporters and publishers were educated on the mechanics of space flight, given remarkable access to the programme and comprehensive press briefing packs.

During the Apollo 11 mission, there were an estimated 3,000 reporters based at the Cape and Houston alone. According to the authors of Marketing The Moon, Meerman Scott and Jurek, NASA’s goal was not to spin or sell the space programme, but report it in a “remarkably open way”.

Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, describes it this way: "We didn’t say, ‘We’ll tell you about it in two weeks.’ We took you with us… every landing on the moon, and every walk on the moon was given freely to the world in real time. We didn’t doctor up the movie, didn’t edit anything out; what was said was said."

This spirit of media transparency continues at NASA today. It engages with the public, media and enterprise in a remarkably open way. It does not even copyright its material.

NASA’s communication approach can rightly be called one of the first and finest examples of brand journalism. It forged a connection through great storytelling – not manufactured, after-the-event recreations, but genuine stories that were unfolding in real-time. The result was a shared global experience, which, unlike much of the brand journalism we see today, had a profound, life-long impact on its audience.


Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo had its world premiere at the South-by-SouthWest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas this month. It will be on general release in the US from April 14. Pre-order your copy on iTunes or Vimeo. You can watch the trailer here of follow the story on Twitter or on Facebook.

As managing director of AB, Katie Macaulay runs the UK’s longest established employee communications agency, AB, founded in 1964. She has more than 20 years’ experience in internal communications. In 2014, Katie wrote From Cascade to Conversation – Unlocking the Collective Wisdom of Your Workforce, a book exploring the future of employee communications in the face of digital, social and economic change. She is a regular speaker on employee communications and engagement. @Katie__Macaulay

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