Computing Profession

Lessons From Apollo

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

Forty years ago (July 20, 1969), the first humans set foot on the lunar surface. For me, it was a defining childhood moment, fanning the flames of a burgeoning passion for science and technology. It was awe inspiring to step outside, look at the moon and know that traveling there was science fiction no longer. However, for anyone much younger, it is as distant in history as the Wall Street crash of 1929 was for me.

Beyond cold war politics, as we look back from the perspective of forty years, what can the Apollo program teach us about the marketing of science and technology and sustaining research and development investments for the long term? I suspect the lesson is not about economics, innovation or return on investments. Rather, I believe it is about the power of storytelling and inspiration.

We in science and technology often promulgate and perpetuate a stereotype, that research is a coldly rational, logical process, conducted with little or no emotion. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we hew to the scientific method, but we often sanitize the story about the origination of the ideas and the approaches that failed. Scientists and engineers follow hunches and instincts, and we are moved by emotion and passions, just like everyone else.

To launch any research initiative, one must organize and present technically compelling data and rationales, along with expected benefits. That is necessary, but rarely sufficient; there are always more good ideas than resources. One must also inspire and humanize discovery. Each of us became scientists, engineers, researchers and software professionals because we were excited and passionate about the power of computing, whether because the technology itself was fascinating or because its application had the potential to make the world a better place.

 As we consider how to explain the necessity of long-term investment in science and technology research and development, as we teach a new generation of students, and as we seek to broaden the base of participation in computing, it behooves us to remember the small child in each of us, the one who watched in open mouthed wonder, who felt the chill run down their spine and sensed the passion of others who were committed to discovery. The funding, the projects, the teams, they are all just enablers. It’s the childlike sense of wonder that drives innovation. For me, that’s the lesson of July 20, 1969.

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