13 Minutes to the Moon




“We choose to go to the Moon.”

I’m not sure I’ll ever look up at the moon the same way again.

With some very long journeys ahead of us on our campervan trip around France this summer, the search was on for a podcast that all of us (age range 9 to 45) would enjoy. Not only did we find it, we found one that we all wanted to listen to back to back episodes, and that had us saying ‘wow’ and ‘woah’ from all over the car, and got us talking, and inspired us all in all sorts of ways. That podcast was The BBC’s 13 Minutes to the Moon.

 As I return to the commute, I thought I’d share it not only as great to listen to for the sake of listening to a fascinating, brilliantly researched and brilliantly put together podcast, but because there was so much food for thought in there around leadership.

It reminded me of the Itay Talgem TED Talk that I love so much. One that doesn’t say’ lead like this’, and rather offers heaps of food for thought as leaders.

In this podcast I have found sources of inspiration and reflection on delegation, decision making, preparation, sacrifices, the value of home life and the impact on home, risk, listening, prioritising, preparation and testing, purpose, working back from a deadline, and above all, human engagement, teams and leadership. There was so much in the relationship between mission control and the team in space. And indeed the fascinating insight into the front room of mission control who were in turn supported by their back rooms, and in turn supported by experts from all over the country. And it was good to hear about the women who were there too!

I have no doubt you’ll add to this list!

I have just gone back to Episode 2 again – I remembered being struck as we listened to it for the first time, by how much there was in there that could be of interest and inspiration to leaders. And when I came back for a second listen once I had my notebook in front of me, I wanted to quote the whole thing!

Here are five things that stood out for me in this episode alone.


1. The amount the flight directors had to know and learn, and the skills they had and built to apply that learning.

For example, during a mission Gene Kranz and the other Flight Directors would be listening to everything in order to monitor what was happening, think fast, and make (or delegate) the key decisions quickly.  They had to learn to listen to 3 or 4 conversations at once, and pick out the vital information. Both as an in the moment skill, and a metaphor for what leaders do as they listen to their organisations, I was fascinated by the recordings of the communication loops we hear on the podcast. Lives depended on their fast thinking and processing. Steve Bales said of them ‘Comms was so important. The words you said, how you said them, who said them, and the words that caught your attention so that you go to that loop and link with them.’

And went on to say:

 “No one person understood all the things you’re going to get into. The flight director is sort of like a conductor. He knows all the instruments, may be could play one or two of them better maybe than some of the people in the orchestra, but he can’t play them all, and he doesn’t know some of the subtleties. So you have a Flight Director and he knows all the systems to some degree, but more importantly he knows the people under him, to a better degree than the systems. You make a slight intonation, and all that noise sounds like garble on those loops, you make a slight intonation differently than you normally did, and Gene or Glen would know instantly.”


2. The combination of youth and experience.

Delegating decisions to the most junior was essential to the success of the mission and we hear the fascinating example of the 1202 alarm. In this window onto the ‘hive mind of expertise’ we learn about the back rooms of mission control, connected to that front room we all know from the movies, and in turn the network of experts feeding into that.

There is insight into risk, “we didn’t know what we couldn’t do so we just did it” and how in order to make this extraordinary moment in history happen, and happen safely, decisions were made at every level and indeed ‘We shoved [the decisions] down.’

Kevin Fong reveals to us these “unsung heroes” and how this team with an average age of 26 (you heard right – 26!) were able to achieve the seemingly impossible. He says:

“Throughout the Apollo programme story there are instances just like this, of a mission teetering on the edge of a failure or catastrophe, and a lone individual somehow knowing exactly what to do. But none of that was coincidence. It was the result of years of preparation and sacrifice, of flight controllers who were too young to be afraid of the challenge, and of leaders who made them everything they could possibly be.

leaders quote from 13 minutes to the moon.png

3. The importance of simulations and testing.

Test everything, including the ability to innovate strategy when things go wrong.

‘When the pressure was on in a training episode it was no longer training, it was real.

This testing led to Mission rules – how to react if the particular alarm went off in an actual situation. As a result of endless simulations, tests and back room investigations into testing hypotheses the mission to the moon was made possible, and they knew how to react to certain situations. So much food for thought for leaders, and indeed as a coach in testing my clients hypotheses.


4. The Power of Purpose.

I was struck by the combination of technological purpose “Landing a man on the moon” and how it struck me listening more powerful was the purpose of the second half of that statement made by JFK, and how these men and women were all working so hard, and sacrificing so much, to pioneer in so many ways, while keeping the safety of the human beings that would carry out the mission at the heart of everything they did.

‘Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.

5. Great Leadership and how it stays with you.

Gene Kranz recalls how he was aware of the levels of ‘preoccupation’ and tension in his team, he recognised the ‘need to talk to my team.’ He says of his address shortly before the 13 minute descent, on a communication loop for flight controllers only,

‘I had to tell these kids of how proud I was of the work that they have done.’

This is before anyone knew whether this would be a success or not, because the descent hadn’t begun. I was struck by this powerful timing as a leader, reminding his team to be proud of everything that got them this far, and reminding them that they were ready for what the next half hour would hold.

After 50 years, Steve Bales, when he talks about this moment is choked with emotion – the impact of the leadership at this moment is remarkable in so many ways.

“[Gene] said to us, look, we’re about to do something that nobody’s ever done.You’ve trained for this all your life. We’re going to do it. But I want to tell you all something. No matter how this turns out, when we walk out of this room, we walk out as a team, not as individuals.

You can’t imagine what that meant.

I can’t even say it now.”

Kevin Fong and the team behind this podcast have done an exceptional job of asking the questions, digging into the details and sharing the voices and memories of those who were there. Pictures are painted, snippets of recordings are heard, and then we are taken on the journey behind them before hearing them again with all those new insights and understanding. It’s captivating. 

And for the musician in me to have this topped off with music by Hans Zimmer was very much the icing on the cake!

I hope you enjoy it as much as we all did, and enjoy a new way of looking up at the moon.