“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~Aristotle
Happy New Year, 2012.
This blog entry started out about how making small, mid-course corrections can lead us to our desired destination, despite the fact that we actually may be off-course much of the time. Perhaps you’ve heard an inspirational story that goes something like this: The original Apollo moon landing mission was off course 80 percent of the time, yet small mid-course corrections allowed the astronauts to land within 15 feet of the preferred location.
This version is related by Wayne Hodgins, strategic futurist and “corporate evangelist” at Autodesk, in his Off Course – On Target: The Story podcast. There are various other versions, some of which confuse Apollo 8 (which never landed on the moon) and Apollo 11, which was the first manned moon landing. Some Internet versions claim that the mission was off course 90 percent of the time, or that the landing was within 12 feet of the target. But all of the stories seem to refer to Charles Garfield as source material. Dr. Garfield is author of the widely acclaimed “Peak Performance” trilogy: Peak Performers, Team Management, and Second to None.[i]
My Internet searches tracked these various tales to a reputable source quote from Entrepreneur magazine, February 1997. Dr. Garfield relates, “You need a continuing stream of feedback whenever you are really stretching. The Apollo moon flight was off-course 90 percent of the time between here and the moon, but Apollo had feedback mechanisms that allowed it to make rapid course corrections.”[ii]
Although I can find no mention of Charles Garfield on www.NASA.gov, Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, claims in his book that “Dr. Charles Garfield… became fascinated with peak performance in his work with the NASA program….Although he had a doctorate in mathematics, he decided to go back to get another Ph.D. in the field of psychology and study the characteristics of peak performers.”
The tale is certainly inspiring—that regular, small course corrections can help us reach a target even as we find ourselves constantly off-course. The implications for the “green” movement are what prompted me to pursue this blog path in the first place. There’s just one problem: The facts.
Claims that Apollo 11 landed within a dozen feet or so of its intended target are, to borrow from Mark Twain, “greatly exaggerated.” According to www.NASA.gov, “NASA flight engineers were not yet ready to fine-tune the approach trajectory to much better than about eight kilometers east or west of the target point and about two kilometers north or south. The Apollo 11 ‘landing ellipse’ contains dozens of craters a hundred meters across or more, and the important point is that the LM [Lunar Module] had enough maneuverability and propellant so that Armstrong could avoid even the largest of them.”
According to www.Popsci.com, “When Apollo 11’s lunar lander, the Eagle, separated from the orbiter, the cabin wasn’t fully depressurized, resulting in a burst of gas equivalent to popping a champagne cork. It threw the module’s landing four miles off-target.”[iii] (Still, given that the Apollo computers had less processing power than a cellphone,[iv] getting anywhere close was a remarkable achievement!)
Now to the bigger question: Was Apollo 11 off course 90% of the time? I’ve asked my NASA contact this question, and am still looking for a definitive answer. But it appears to me that there is a basic physics problem with this claim. You see, in the vacuum of space, an object keeps moving in the direction (and with the speed) of its initial thrust, until it falls within the gravitational attraction of another body such as the moon. In other words, you’re either on course or not; none of this “90 percent” business!
I’m hoping someone will rescue Dr. Garfield’s beautiful story for me, for it does provide inspiration and hope. But the moral of my story is: Always check your facts, even when your source seems reputable. All too often in this age of fact-checking at our fingertips, we still relay falsehoods without a second thought.
“Reason obeys itself: ignorance submits to what is dictated to it.” ~Thomas Paine
Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.