Product Management Lessons from Apollo

Something ain't right...

A picture a friend posted on their Facebook wall got me thinking. I wanted a comment to be accurate, so I looked up the Apollo missions on Wikipedia.

In the process of making sure my comment was accurate, I fell into a deep reading of the details of the Apollo-Saturn missions. It was a mini case-study in product development, and thus in product management.
When asked about the space program, most people just remember the grainy, fuzzy, yet wonderful, analog black and white footage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. But prior to that event was a deep series of unmanned and manned missions to validate and test the various platforms, technologies, and aspects of the mission(s).

Reading about the progress from the genesis of the moonshot program, it tells a tale of:

  • A well defined mission – early on, the goals were well defined, and crystal clear. Get to the moon, and back safely. But, as with all programs of this size, the devil is in the details. And coping with those details requires …
  • Adequate resources – a national priority, there wasn’t penny pinching in the background. The ambitious goals set by President Kennedy of putting a man on the moon in a decade was bold, and it crystalized support across the population. As important was the pipeline of math, science, and engineers being turned out by the universities. The skills that NASA was able to assemble for the program remains awesome even today, looking backwards.
  • A willingness to take risks – None of the technology was “in the bag”. Nothing had ever been done at this scale, and with these high ambitions. However the program leaders were adept at breaking the problem down into smaller (yet still quite large and meaningful) chunks. These lead to the unmanned missions that tested critical systems, and allowed a lot of learning. They tested the launch escape system on a tiny rocket, and built two Saturn class rockets to test various other systems (in all there were three Saturn class vehicles, the 1, the 1B, and the V that we all know) before the full sized launch vehicle was ready. Sound familiar? Sounds agile to me.
  • A continued focus on the goal – No course corrections, no “pivot”, just the moon shot. Of course, in the height of the cold war, and as the proxy battle against the rise of Communism in Vietnam, the Space Program was a good unifying front for the United States. The total cost of the Apollo program, tallied after it was officially shut down in 1973, was $25.4B (or roughly $170B in today’s dollars.) A relative bargain for what was attained.

The sadness is that starting in 1970, missions were canceled due to budget cuts, and we never again set foot on our natural satellite.

While we in product development like to think that our projects are as life changing as the space program, we aren’t quite that grandiose. Yet there is much to learn from a program such as the space race.

Of course, getting the permission of the executive staff to spend mightily on learning steps, doing full functional prototypes with the knowledge that you will likely not be able to reuse that material, and if you live in Hardware land, to truly have 2 or more prototype rounds fully budgeted for (analogous to the Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B launch vehicles) is a luxury afforded to few.


Every time you see a huge product success (iPhone anyone?) the thing to keep in mind is that it is very rarely the first attempt at the goal, and that in the winding path to success, there are many incremental milestones that were achieved. Plan for it, and be cautious of what corners you choose to cut.

Don’t neglect the process.

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Product Manager, physics educated, avid cyclist, dog rescuer, guitar noodler.
San Jose, Callifornia Website
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