Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon died last Saturday. Overall, I was surprised at just how little attention this received. The Republican convention, Hurrican Isaac and many other issues dominated the news, even though Neil Armstrong represents something that had far more impact on our lives than this hurricane, or anyone attending this convention.
Neil Armstrong represents the adventurous spirit of an innovator willing to lead from the front. The advances in flight, and space travel, might have happened without him – or maybe not. Neil Armstrong was willing to see what could be done, willing to experiment and take chances, without being overly concerned about failure. Rather than worrying about what could go wrong, he was willing to see what could go right!
Most of us forget that it has been only 110 years since the Wright brothers made their 12 second, 120 foot flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Before that, flight had been impossible. Now, in such a short time, we have globalized travel. My father, born in 1912, lived in a world with no planes – or much need for one. I now live in Chicago largely because of O’Hare airport and its gateway (almost always in one leg) to any city. Flight has transformed everything about life, and the world owes a lot to Neil Armstrong for that change.
Neil Armstrong became a pilot at 15 and spent a lifetime pushing the envelope of flight. He not only flew planes, but he obtained an aeronautical engineering degree and used his experiences to help design better, more capable planes. His history of try, fail, test, improve, try, succeed is an example for all leaders:
1. Firstly, know what you are talking about. Have the right education, obtain data and apply good analysis to everything you do. Don’t operate just “from your gut,” or on intuition, but rather know what you’re talking about, and lead with knowledge.
2. Second, don’t be afraid to experiment, learn, improve and grow. Don’t rest on what people have done, and proven, before. Don’t accept limits just because that’s how it was previously done. Constantly build upon the past to reach new heights. Just because it has not been done before does not mean it cannot be done.
Beyond his own leadership, Neil Armstrong is – for much of the world – the face of space travel. The first man on the moon. And that was only possible by being part of, and a leader in, NASA. And we could desperately use NASA today. It was, without a doubt, the most successful economic stimulus program in American history – even though politicians have been moving in the opposite direction for nearly 2 decades!
NASA offered Americans, and in fact the world, the opportunity to invest in science to see what could be done. By setting wildly unrealistic goals the organization was forced to constantly innovate. As a result NASA created and spun off more inventions creating more jobs than Eisenhower’s interstate highway program and all other giant government programs combined.
NASA’s heyday was from the John Kennedy challenge of 1961 through the lunar landing in 1969. Yet since 1976 alone there have been over 1,400 documented NASA inventions benefiting industry!! Not only did NASA’s experiments in flight aid physical globalization, but it was NASA that developed wireless (satellite based) long-distance communications – which now gives us nearly free global voice and data connectivity. And the need to solve complex engineering problems pushed the computer race exponentially, giving us the digital technology now embedded in almost everything we do.
As the American economy sputters, southern Europe looks to drag down economic growth across the continent, and growth slows in China the need for economic stimulus has never been greater. But far too often politicians reach for outdated programs like highways, dams or other construction projects. And monetary stimulus, in the form of lower interest rates and easier money, almost always goes into asset intensive projects like factories – at a time when capacity utilization remains far from any peak. We keep spending, and making money cheap, but it doesn’t matter.
We have transitioned from an industrial to an information economy. Effective economic stimulus in 2012 cannot happen by creating labor-intensive, or asset-intensive, programs. Rather it must create jobs built upon the kind of value-added work in today’s economy – and that means knowledge-intensive work. Exactly the kind of work created by NASA, and all the subsidiary businesses born of the NASA innovations.
Nobody seems to care about going to space any more. And I must admit, it is not my dream. But in one of his last efforts to help America grow Neil Armstrong told a Congressional committee “It would be as if 16th century Monarchs proclaimed we need not go to the New World, we have already been there.” He was so right. We have barely begun understanding the implications of growth created by exploring space. Only our imaginations are limited, not the opportunity.
What Neil Armstrong told us all, and practiced with his actions, was to never stop setting crazy goals. Even when the immediate benefit may be unclear. The journey of discovery unleashes opportunities which create their own benefits – for society, and for our economy. Losing Neil Armstrong is an enormous loss, because we need leaders like him now more than ever.
(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)