Ahead of his upcoming keynote at SB’19 Madrid and 50 years after the Moon landing, we spoke with Jim Adams — recently retired Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA — about the moonshot thinking humanity now needs.
Many people think of themselves as global thinkers; Jim Adams never stopped there: Throughout his over 35 years of aerospace experience, Adams directed or was involved in over 30 spaceflight missions to explore the Earth, the Sun and most of our solar system. He also served as NASA’s Deputy Director of the Planetary Science Division; was responsible for a $1.5 billion annual budget for many missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory, Pluto-New Horizons, DAWN (Ceres and Vesta) and MESSENGER (Mercury); and served on the National Science and Technology Council’s “Strategic Computing Initiative,” helping to assure that the nation’s computing needs in space would be met by US investments in computing technology and infrastructure.
Adams is also a gifted speaker and storyteller, inspiring emerging scientists and entrepreneurs to think creatively and inventively.
As we celebrate this year the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing — the literal outcome of “Moonshot thinking” — we asked Adams about the kinds of thinking we need to ensure a flourishing future for humanity.
What is the significance of the arrival of man to the Moon 50 years ago?
Jim Adams: When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon 50 years ago, and the five more missions that returned to further explore it, the world paused. In that moment all of us realized that Humankind is capable of far more than most of us can even dream. We began to understand that we don’t need to be bound by Earth’s gravity or even political leanings, but rather we can step up and meet the challenges that face us.
What was the key to achieving this ‘Moonshot’?
JA: Human beings are capable of accomplishing incredible things when they are motivated. In the case of NASA and the Apollo program, three things were crucial.
Continued support from both the public and the government. It was 8 years between the time US President John F Kennedy issued the challenge and achieving it — that the US “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.” Two subsequent presidents (Johnson and Nixon) had to continue the vision, as did the US Congress over the intervening years.
Extreme focus on a singular, concrete goal. NASA held a laser-like focus and concentration in the midst of setbacks and the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire. At times, it might have been easier to stop the program and give up. But the leaders were committed.
Committed leadership. A team intrinsically knows whether or not their leader is personally committed to the goal. Individuals like NASA Administrator James Webb and flight controller Gene Krantz were the leaders that kept the agency on track and the focus on the goal. There were, of course, many more leaders that led, as well. Everyone had a part to play!
In your opinion, which is the biggest issue humanity faces today?
JA: Self-centrism. A Moonshot event may appear to the public to have happened in a singular moment. But in fact, these grand projects are accomplished by a team that has set aside their own egos and personal agendas to do what needs to be done.
Today, as we face very real challenges that affect most of the people on this planet, we must set aside the “get the best for me” or nationalistic attitudes for the benefit of all mankind.
In your talks, you engage the curiosity and imagination of your audiences, and inspire emerging scientists and entrepreneurs to think creatively and inventively. How do you do it?
JA: I ask people to imagine what the world needs to look like in 20 years. What can they do toward that objective? And then I challenge them to go make that happen, one step at a time!
What is your personal moonshot?
JA: I believe it is in humanity’s best interest to globally become a safe-faring species. I have dedicated my career to settling Mars — first with robots and then with humans. When we go, we must go to live there, permanently. Along the way, humankind will solve the problems we have right here on Earth.
Moving to Mars isn’t an escape from a planet we have ruined; it is a master course in fixing the problems we have made.