That’s no moonshot.


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
UK policy

Friday funnies abounded this morning, as a tech lobbying organisation published a blog post that is probably going to get somebody fired:

One line in their piece jumped out at me and a lot of people too:

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can prove your age online without putting your privacy or personal data at risk.ā€

Now, leaving aside the dubious reasoning behind comparing tech regulation in 2023 to the American moonshot campaign of 1963-1969,

There’s something important to be said about that sentence – something that has very apt parallels for our own issues today, including the internet regulation debate it tried to reference.

There’s even a lesson to teach. A positive one.

And guess what, I’m going to teach it, because, as I have mentioned here a few times before, I am a space geek. Always have been. Always will be.

So if you waft space geekery in my general direction, hoo boy, I am activated. This is my happy place. Strap in, folks, I’m coming in hot.

Because the thing is:

Landing on the moon was not the stuff of Hollywood hard men and heroics. Nor was it the doing of magical technology.

It was the progression of seven years of carefully planned and iterated missions, each building on the previous one, each one meticulously torn apart and studied for lessons learnt.

As you geek out on the history of the space programme, you come to understand that those lessons learnt were not just confined to the technology of spaceflight itself.

Because the space programme, and the moonshot, was never about shiny spaceships. It was about the people, back on earth, feet on the ground, nearly all of whom never slipped the surly bonds of earth, but who made the decisions.

It was about the mission control room, and how NASA learned how to operate it, and with whom.

Meaning: the people who were in it. The roles they played. The working relationships to each other. The ways they communicated with each other. The ways they communicated with the spacecraft. The training they did. The standards they set. The contingencies they planned for. The contingencies they didn’t plan for. The questions they asked. The questions they didn’t ask. The confidence they had to do what it took to fly. The cockiness that caused them to do things when they shouldn’t have.

It’s at that stage in your geeking out on space history that you arrive at the point where failing to get to grips with those last few questions killed people.

Three astronauts, in January 1967, killed in a training accident that never should have happened, due to avoidable circumstances that never should have been allowed to proceed, exacerbated by poor decisions that never should have been made.

And now we introduce one of the greatest leaders ever to emerge, not just in the space programme, but in any field of human endeavour.

That was, and is, Gene Kranz.

He was the boss of mission control. You know him from several movie and TV portrayals – the guy with the military buzz cut and sharply cut waistcoat. (Let’s not talk about what becomes of the alternate history Gene Kranz in For All Mankind because reader, I screamed out loud.)

After Apollo 1, he wrote what became known as the Kranz Dictum. It was a speech he gave to his team, and to the wider NASA family, about how the hell they were going to recover from causing the deaths of three of their own, nevermind getting anyone else’s ass to the moon.

If you were to commit the Kranz Dictum to memory, you would be a far wiser person.

He said:

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.

We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’

I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.

Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

Gene Kranz, ladies and gentlemen, talking about what it takes to get to the moon.

And so we return to our original question, which is, the fuck does any of this have to do with mandating age gates across the open internet.

I can only speak coherently regarding our own domestic context here in the UK – as I haven’t done much of recently, but am happy to say that I will be resuming very, very shortly – by drawing out two of those paragraphs.

We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’

I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

Consider that a red-lettered warning.

Because the very things Gene Kranz warned his team to never, ever do again, are exactly what too many governments, including the UK, are doing right now.

“We were too gung-ho about the schedule” – nah, “we need this Bill in law as soon as possible.”

“Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we” – nah, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Nothing we did had any shelf life” -nah, let’s move on to year 4, version 2, and bolt amendment 127a onto a spacecraft not built to carry it.

“We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day” – actually, sure, we gotta launch this Bill in six weeks for the sake of a procedural deadline.

“We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did” – actually, sure, let’s just legislate a framework, take the credit, and leave it to Ofcom to kit it out.

and then there was Gene’s most heartfelt plea, and the one with the most dangerous parallel of all:

“Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!'”

why not?

Do you want to get to the moon or not?

Because you’re not going to get there like this.

Not when you’ve designed one of the most complex things ever built and staffed it with a team that gets it incinerated on the launchpad.

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.

Humanity isn’t too tolerant of those things either.

On spaceships, or in laws that shape the ways that humanity interacts.

So it shouldn’t take Gene Kranz, or analogies on internet regulation that aim for the moon and instead coast to a transoceanic abort landing, to teach you that the leadership you need to reach the stars isn’t about bombast and bluster, nor is it about Hollywood heroics.

It’s about being tough and competent enough to stand up and look your team in the eyes and say, quite simply:

Dammit,

stop.

The Author

Iā€™m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.