When President John F. Kennedy delivered his moonshot challenge to the United States, he laid the groundwork for how best to define and communicate big, bold, and challenging goals.
Why: Kennedy’s Administration wanted to advance peace and knowledge around the world. In Kennedy’s 1962 address at Rice University he explained that there were new knowledge and rights to be “won and used for the progress of all people.” Kennedy made known his opinion that “Only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
President Kennedy’s team brainstormed what significant achievement the USA could win over the Soviets in space exploration. They considered launching a laboratory into earth orbit, or making a trip around the moon. The team also considered putting an unmanned lander on the moon or even going to the moon and back with a person.
After consulting with rocketing expert, Wernher von Braun, they settled on these requirements.
1. Land a man on the moon
2. Return him safely to Earth
3. Complete the goal by the end of 1969
These three points shaped the entire space program. Notice that they do not specify exactly how any of these will be accomplished, they simply explain that within the scope of the space program, people needed to make sure it did those three things. These are the requirements for the solution, not the solution itself.
The US Space Program OKRs
Objective: Expand the space program to be capable of landing on the moon and coming home reliably.
Let’s explore how this goal lines up to the significant, concrete, action-oriented, and inspiring criteria (John Doerr, Measure What Matters, (Portfolio / Penguin, 2018) 7).
President Kennedy in his 1961 address to Congress said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Getting a person to the moon and returning them safely to Earth was very lofty compared to where the science was at the time the goal was set. Both the US and USSR had just recently put men in space and landed them safely. Each was a big accomplishment and pushed the limits of known science at the time. Much work lay ahead to create all the systems and processes required to sustain people for prolonged space flight, landing on the moon, and getting back home. Achieving this would require rocket technology capable of 10 times the power available at the time.
Not only was the Objective significant, it was also bold and inspirational. In President Kennedy’s view at the onset, “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
This objective could be clearly measured. Did they put a person on the moon? Did that person get home safely? Did it happen before the end of 1969? And, implied by other sections of his speech, did it happen before the Soviets could do the same? If the answers to all the questions were yes, they’d have a successful objective.
The objective was also action-oriented. Many things had to be built, people trained, and processes developed that did not exist at the time in order to send people to the moon.
From the Rice University speech, Kennedy acknowledges the difficulty in the goal and why it’s so critical that it be so hard. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
Here, President Kennedy underscores the idea that hard goals cause people to show up differently, think outside the box, and give the best of themselves. These are not incremental growth, but transformational projects.
Now let’s consider some of the Key Results that had to happen to get to the ultimate successful outcome.
1. Sustain humans in weightlessness for the 14- day duration of the flight
2. Build systems and procedures to connect the Lunar and Command Modules
3. Develop lunar landing technologies and processes
4. Create space suit capable of sustaining humans for extended periods outside spacecraft
5. Invent deep space navigation, communication, and tracking systems
These Key Results were then packaged into the missions of the Mercury, Atlas, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. They ultimately succeeded in achieving the overall Objective on July 20, 1969 with Apollo 11.
It turns out that Kennedy’s challenge to the United States to lead in the Space Race excelled in almost every way. It was so good that it is still used as the model for people taking on large projects, referred to as “moonshots”.