Just Listen -- What Are We Capable Of In 2010? And 2020?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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.

-John F. Kennedy, Speech to Special Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961


My good friend and colleague Barry Pogorel, founder of Crossroads Transformational Consulting ( recently sat down with Dr. Ken Cox, NASA engineer. 

Cox worked for NASA for more than 40 years,  beginning in l963.  He served as the Chief Technologist for the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Other management assignments in the past have included (1) Technical Manager for the Apollo Primary Control Systems in 1967, (2) Space Shuttle Technical Manager for Guidance, Navigation and Control in 1974, and (3) Chief of the Avionics System Division in 1987. In 1990, at the direction of the NASA Administrator, he created the Strategic Avionics Technology Working Group (SATWG), a NASA industry academia interface and networking organization to facilitate an open dialogue between government, industry, and academia concerning space technology issues and futures planning.

The purpose of their interview was to distill what enables organizations to achieve breakthrough performance.  Cox said that the original team that achieved the success of the Apollo missions was composed of proactive, take charge individuals who were not particularly at home with bureaucracies, especially bureaucratic logjams.

What brought them together and enabled them to accomplish a breakthrough was to be part of a mission to a future well beyond their individual or collective imaginations.   That future was to achieve the possibility of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

Cox's closing comment on his interview with Pogorel was:

"You need to state a vision, a purpose, that speaks to people's humanity, that speaks to them personally. That inspires. And who states it is important. It's got to be someone above the bureaucratic, daily organizational level, and be said by someone who has the power to say it and enact it, like a vice-president or a president. Because you're talking about humanity, politics, and individuals' lives: humanity issues. You need someone of a high enough authority to start the uprooting. And this is where the courage comes in: they won't know how to do it! Kennedy didn't have a clue how we were going to get to the moon and back. But he started it. Someone has to start it!"

Flash forward to President Obama at the beginning of a new decade.  As we enter the next decade, we find ourselves like those original NASA engineers, i.e. distrustful of bureaucracies and yet -- because of the economic, health and foreign policy quagmires we find ourselves in -- dependent upon them.

The times may be very different from 1961, but the need to have a transformational possibility issued by a transcendent leader is even greater than it was then.  There is much more skepticism and cynicism facing President Obama than faced Kennedy in 1961 (as divisive a leader as he was). But that is precisely President Obama's greatest challenge and opportunity.  

What grand and noble vision might he declare that would be much greater than the sum of all egos? What journey to what destination could he set forth that would cause all of us to release our hold on our special interests (and their hold on us) and spontaneously enroll us so that at the end of our lives we will be as satisfied and proud as Ken Cox and his fellow NASA engineers are to have been part of the Apollo missions?

Please add what journey to what destination you think could be our mission to the moon and back.