THE BLOG
02/07/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

We've Come a Long Way in 50 Years

It's been exactly 50 years since John F. Kennedy gave his first State of the Union address, the speech in which he announced an American commitment to putting a man on the moon and bringing him back safely by the end of the decade of the '60's. It was not an announcement anyone expected - the Soviet Union had recently launched Sputnik, shocking America out of a complacent haze where no one questioned that we were the world leader in science and technology.

It was also not a commitment that anyone thought was reasonable or prudent. There was no real American technology that could be predicted to get us to the moon. There is a story (probably apocryphal, but instructive nonetheless) that Kennedy told that when he got back to his office after the speech there was a line of scientists outside his door. The first one to come in said "it can't be done;" the President asked him why not and was told "we don't have the fuel." So, JFK said, he put that guy in charge of finding the right fuel. The second scientist in said "we don't have the right metals," so he was put in charge of the metals and so on down the line until the last scientist in line who just said "it can't be done."
"So," said Kennedy, "I put him in charge of the whole thing."

That spirit of possibility that sees objections and obstacles as simply means to revealing what is needed to get the job done seems to have waned in the past 50 years. In the '60's it was a direct outgrowth of the technological creativity it took to win World War II. In the early 1940s a group of brilliant physicists and other scientists were brought together to form the Manhattan Project, the object of which was to design a nuclear weapon. Almost all of the scientists had already been working for several years on the problem, with very little progress. In 1941 they were united under the co-direction of General Leslie Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and placed under extreme time pressure lest Germany develop the weapon first. These were, for the most part, senior scientists of considerable reputation and in some cases with egos to match. To further complicate matters they were not all in the same place; there were 14 project sites. Groves and Oppenheimer had the task of coordinating this widespread and disparate group, and how they did this remains a case study in managing a diverse group to accomplish an impossible task..

A parallel project was underway at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany under Werner Heisenberg. The German project had personnel who were arguably as brilliant as those in the Manhattan Project, a leader in Heisenberg who was at least Oppenheimer's equal, and the same time pressure, and it took place largely under one roof, yet the Manhattan Project succeeded and the German effort did not. The reason lies in large part in a fundamental difference in how the projects were managed. The German project was run along classical scientific lines--scientists worked alone or in small groups, shared their work in colloquia, and went back to work in their separate labs. In the American project free exchange of information, thinking, and speaking across disciplinary boundaries, brainstorming, and creativity were encouraged, particularly by Oppenheimer who sponsored an environment where ideas could come together and interact. Failure was not only tolerated but encouraged as creative approaches were tried. Learning and rate of adjustment were key values as those failures were turned into discoveries and accelerated execution.

This spirit of free collaboration was carried forward into the Moon project that began under Kennedy and culminated in 1967 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface. It was only possible because all those involved - civilians, military, Congressional committees, universities - did more than put aside their differences - they used their differences as fuel for creativity, innovation, and high performance.

Today, it seems, it's the differences that matter, not any common values, goals, or objectives we can find. It's not "we're both out for the same goals in service of the same purposes, so let's see how we can find common ground on methods," it's "my methods are the only ones that will work - if we don't do it MY way, even if we reach the objectives, I won't support it. As W.H. Auden said, "each ear is listening to its own hearing, so no one hears.

Also published in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza