If you are a leader in a business you will recognise those crucial moments in business when you either succeed or fail. These are the “pivotal” moments in your career: moments when you are tested the most.
Neil Armstrong is most well remembered for being the first man to step on the moon. He has recently been recognised, by the BBC, as one of the 20th century icons of Exploration. To me, Neil Armstrong, is the hero of the Moon landing for a different reason:
Ten minutes from touch down and 50,000 feet above the surface, Neil Armstrong noticed that the landmarks on the Moon, that he was using for navigation, were coming up two seconds faster than expected. He realised that the lunar module, Eagle, was going to overshoot the landing zone.
Buzz Aldrin compared data from the radar and the computer. There was a discrepancy of several thousand feet. Knowing radar to be more reliable, he instructed the computer to accept the information from the radar. As he hit the ‘Enter’ key, the computer activated the Master Alarm and filled the cabin with a piercing buzz. Aldrin asked the computer for the alarm code. He didn’t recognise the code and asked Mission Control for advice. He suspected the computer was overloaded. There was a 2.6 second delay in communications and the risk that the Lunar Module would hit the surface before a solution could be found.
With these distractions, by the time the computer had been sorted out, the moon surface was only 1,000 feet below. They were four miles off course. At six miles, the mission rules insisted on a mandatory abort. Aborting the landing at this stage was not either easy or certain of success. Once done, there would be no further margin for error.
Looking ahead, Armstrong saw a field of boulders and realised they were still going too fast. Armstrong took manual control and changed the pitch until the craft was almost upright. The rocket was now slowing their descent whilst they were still moving forward. He decided that he would set down on the first clear space he could see. He pitched the Eagle back to reduce the speed and banked left to avoid another field of boulders. Aldrin was issuing a steady stream of data from instrument readings. “How’s the fuel?” “Eight per cent”.
At 250 feet, there was 90 seconds of fuel left of which 20% was needed for an abort. At that level, the computer would automatically fire the rocket in order to throw them back into space. An automatic sequencer began to count down to that eventuality in the Mission Control Room.
Armstrong saw a space, bounded by craters on one side and boulders on the other. This had to be ‘it’. Aldrin began to count down height and position. In that moment, Armstrong’s view was obscured by a cloud of dust.
“All the years of preparation, the billions of dollars, the lives sacrificed – all that energy and ingenuity was now compacted into the next 60 seconds and the judgment of one man.” At 30 feet the Eagle started drifting backwards. Armstrong wrestled with the controls, corrected the backwards movement but started a horizontal drift. He needed more time. They were now 20 feet above the Moon and had reached the point where it was impossible to ‘bail out’. Then…he felt contact. The Eagle settled into the moon dust and Armstrong shut down the engine. They were down and there was just 10 seconds of fuel left. After they had done the post-flight landing checklist, they grinned at each other and Armstrong made his landmark announcement to a waiting world: “The Eagle has landed”.
Buzz Aldrin is the person many of us remember as the popular hero of the Moon landing but it was Neil Armstrong who took control in the most pivotal of all moments. His courage and determination made the mission a success.
If you are an experienced leader, you will have experienced moments like this: moments when you have put everything you know and believe into making one crucial decision or in leading a team forward. I would love to hear about your ‘pivotal moment’. Please take the opportunity to write to me or to add your story in the comments below.
For those of us who aspire to ‘make a difference’, then taking risks is part of learning about leadership in critical situations. So, looking forward, what could you do today that would help you develop yourself or prepare your team for the next ‘pivotal moment’ in your career or your business?
Source: Smith, Andrew, (2009) “Moondust: The Men Who Fell to Earth“, Bloomsbury