'Everyone felt that it was up to them to step up to the mark'

11 February 2019

July 20th, 1969: Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the Moon. We all recognise this to be one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Yet what did it take to make John F. Kennedy’s dream a reality?

In his new book Richard Wiseman – Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire – presents a pioneering study of the mindset that took humanity to the Moon, and shows how you can harness and use it to achieve the extraordinary in your everyday life.

Combining personal interviews, mission archives and cutting-edge psychology, Wiseman embarks on the ultimate voyage through inner space. Along the way he identifies eight key principles that make up the Apollo Mindset, including how pessimism is crucial to success, and how fear and tragedy can be transformed into hope and optimism.

Our editor Jon Sutton asked him some questions.

To me, it feels like the moon landing would be even more ‘impossible’ to do now than 50 years ago. Do you agree, and if so what might that say about our world or collective psyche?

I think that's right. It was an amazing moment in history because America suddenly came together and was united behind a common cause. Kennedy really fired people up with a vision that enthused and energised people. Could it happen today? I think so, but we need charismatic leaders, to start thinking about society more than self, and an audacious aim.

You make the point that the effort was at least in part born out of a climate of fear. Is our current sense of fear driving a new ‘moon shot’, and if not why not?  

Part of the fear surrounding Apollo came from the West being scared that the Soviets would beat them to the Moon, and that this would threaten the future of the world. And remember, this was in the late 1950s and so relatively soon after the Second World War. I get the impression that everyone felt that it was up to them to step up to the mark and do their bit for a greater good. 

What role would you have played in the effort?

Hummm.... well, not an astronaut, that's for sure. They were fearless and prepared to put their lives on the line. And I don't have the focus to be a Mission Controller. Maybe I would work as a CAPCOM – these were the people on the ground who spoke directly to the astronauts in space. They had to be able to express themselves in a very simple and succinct way, and I think my equanimous, didactic, and not-at-all platitudinous approach to matters of monstrous magnitude would mean that I am well-suited to the position.

Assuming it was a challenge but there were no obvious practical barriers, and you were guaranteed a safe return, would you go to the moon tomorrow? For years I have used this as a kind of ‘deal breaker’ question… it amazes me that most people I ask have no interest whatsoever in going to the moon… 

Not tomorrow, no. I have an appointment with my barber. However, in general, yes. I think it would be amazing to see the Earth from a new perspective. That's what the astronauts tended to talk about when they returned, and that's one of the major achievements of the missions. As the old adage goes, we had to go to the Moon to discover ourselves.

You quote Bill Tindall Jr – 'I never thought we were working at all... It was just so much fun.' Can there still be practical messages for workplaces where that might feel like more of a stretch?

I think the fun they were having was due to them all being passionate about the goal and finding it so meaningful. In the book I talk about research that involves people reflecting on their work and asking themselves 'Who benefits from this?'. For instance, if you are working on a supermarket checkout, you might be the only human contact that some of your customers have all day. When you realise that, the job becomes far more meaningful. 

What’s your current ‘stretch goal’, or a time in your life when you thought 'Go big or go home'?

Actually, choosing to study psychology when I was a teenager. At the time I was studying maths, physics and chemistry, and psychology was nowhere near as popular as it is today. Lots of people advised me against it and it involved learning an entirely new skill set. It was tricky early on but I just got my head down and kept going, and luckily it turned out for the best. 

Of the principles you identify in the book, which is the one you identify most with?

Probably the notion of being highly flexible. I change my mind all of the time. Even putting together this book was a bit like that. It was an unusual book to write because it has both a strong narrative arc – the Moon landings – and a strong self-development message plus exercises. I am not sure that has been combined before and I struggled at the start to find the right format. There are around ten different versions of the first chapter on my computer, each one with a different structure. But in my experience, if you keep working away and keep open to new approaches, you get there in the end. It's really easy to get stuck on one way of thinking and that can kill a project.

You identified the importance of competition (with the Russians). Do you feel you have competitors or rivals in psychology, or someone you envy?

Not really. In fact, quite the opposite. Early on in my career I carried out lots of work into the psychology of magic and am delighted that lots of people are building on that now. It's the same with the books. When I started there weren't many experimental psychologists doing books with a self-development component, and now quite a few people are doing it. To me, that's great because it means that the area will change and grow. In the book I recommend a fun sense of rivalry but certainly not envy because that can just eat you up.

You mentioned the importance of ‘defensive pessimism’. I think that’s me. Good thing or not?  

Psychologists frequently promote the upside of optimism, but sometimes ignoring possible problems becomes an issue. Defensive pessimists tend to think about the bad things that might happen, and then think about how they will cope if they run into these problems. Under certain circumstances, it is a healthy thinking style and was certainly used during the Apollo landings. They invested huge amounts of time and energy thinking about what they would do if they encountered a problem, and it was crucial to the success of the entire enterprise. So, in general, I am a fan, providing it doesn't get out of hand.

You mention Ted Sorensen’s advice to express ‘big thoughts in small phrases’. Does that drive your approach to writing? You make it look effortless, and I particularly admire the way you regularly identify and summarise the key principles. 

That's very kind – you should see the huge pile of screwed up balls of paper in the corner of my office every time I try to write something! I tend to spend a bit of time thinking about the point that I am trying to get across, and then quickly write something. I often learn most from writing, and so when I put finger to keypad I realise whether it feels right or whether I am driving into treacle. If it does feel ok, I then try to re-write it in about half the number of words. It's amazing what you can take out from an initial draft and still say the same thing. Then I put away the text and don't look at it until the following morning. Then I will try a second trim. It's all about trying to say the maximum amount in the most elegant, but hopefully breezy, way possible.

What’s it like writing about psychology in the midst of our ‘replication crisis’? Do you feel you can ‘trust’ the kind of ‘neat’ findings that make for a good narrative? 

It's fascinating. The replication crisis has shown that some findings are less robust than we initially imagined, and so it underlines the importance of writers presenting information in context, not over-claiming, and doing their best to reflect the current state of knowledge.

Shoot for the Moon: Achieve the Impossible with the Apollo Mindset is published by Quercus, and this extract is with their kind permission. 

Find much more from Richard in our archive.


Before one of the later Apollo launches, astronaut Ken Mattingly spent a few nights going out to the launch pad and studying different parts of the rocket that he hoped would take him to the Moon. He often thought about the thousands of people involved in the design, fabrication and checking of each part of the Saturn V.

One night, Mattingly took the elevator to an upper level of the launch tower and found himself outside an open hatch. There, he climbed through and entered a large room packed with pipes, cables and wiring. A lone technician in the room recognized Mattingly and the two of them started to chat about the risks involved in the mission. During the conversation the technician explained that he no idea about how many parts of the rocket worked. For instance, he didn’t understand how the enormous amount of fuel created the force required to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull or how the navigational systems would guide it to the Moon. Understandably, Mattingly became somewhat concerned. However, the engineer then continued and explained that the panel in front of him was his responsibility. It was his job to fully understand the complex electronics inside that panel and ensure that they were in perfect working order. The engineer ended by assuring Mattingly that when it came to that panel, the project wouldn’t fail because of him.

It was in that moment that Mattingly realized that the Apollo missions had been successful because so many of those involved in the project had exactly the same sense of personal responsibility. Pad leader Günter Wendt is another striking example of this ‘it won’t fail because of me’ attitude.

Thin, bespectacled, German-born and with a fondness for bow ties, Wendt was one of Apollo’s best-loved and most eccentric characters. Wendt was in charge of the Saturn V White Room, the small area used by astronauts to make their final preparations before entering the spacecraft.

It was Wendt’s job to ensure that the astronauts were safely buckled into their spacecraft, say a last goodbye and good luck and then seal the Command Module’s hatch. Wendt ruled the White Room with a pleasant smile and an iron fist. Nobody touched anything in the area without his permission and when one engineer went to make a change without Wendt’s consent, he called security and had the engineer removed.

The Apollo team held him in warm regard and frequently joked about his strong sense of responsibility. In the same way that the technician who chatted to Ken Mattingly felt a strong sense of responsibility in his job, so Wendt was not one to pass the buck. Before the flight of astronaut John Glenn, Wendt told Glenn’s wife, Annie:

'I cannot guarantee the safe return of John. Nobody can. There’s too much machinery involved. The one thing I can guarantee you is that when the spacecraft leaves, it’s in the best possible condition for a launch. If anything should happen to the spacecraft, I would like to be able to come and tell you about the accident and look you straight in the eye and say, ‘We did the best we could.’ My conscience then is clear.'

Over in Houston, many of the mission controllers had exactly the same approach to their work. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, Ed Fendell was in charge of the communications between ground control and the astronauts. Like so many of those involved in Mission Control, Fendell was from a modest background. Born and raised in Connecticut, he spent much of his childhood working in his father’s grocery store and his family never had a great deal of money. After obtaining an Associate Degree in Merchandising and working in Air Traffic Control, Fendell eventually ended up at NASA. Fendell was one of many mission controllers to reflect on the importance of taking responsibility, not wanting to mess up, and working hard:

'It would be wrong to think that we got to the Moon because we were especially smart. Many kids today are way brighter than us, and have much better tools. We got to the Moon because we had the right attitude. Everyone in the team had a strong ‘can do’ attitude. I never heard anyone say, ‘I can’t do that’ – you were expected to find solutions to problems and provide the appropriate work around. We had a strong work ethic. We could be there until 9 o’clock at night, and work Saturdays. It was more than a job, it was a way of life.'

This attitude pervaded the whole of Mission Control. If someone said they were going to do something, they did it. They didn’t procrastinate, pass the buck, or cut corners. They were as conscientious as they were hard working, and their word was their bond.

Glynn Lunney was part of NASA from the early days and played a key role in the success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. He was working in Mission Control during many of the most historic moments of the space race, and is hugely respected across the community. Lunney spoke about the importance of selecting mission controllers on the basis of their ‘can do’ approach and sense of responsibility:

'We got lots of applicants and they all had decent grades, but I was far more interested in their attitude. I was looking for people who really wanted to be part of the Apollo mission, and would do anything to make it successful. Often, they weren’t perfect students, but they had the right attitude, the perfect attitude. Sometimes, if their grades weren’t good enough, I would hire them based on their positive attitude. Everybody was absolutely passionate about getting their job done and getting it done right.’

And it wasn’t just a case of recruiting the right people. The Apollo managers trusted everyone to do their jobs and this imbued them with a strong sense of responsibility. Lunney saw the power of this approach first hand:

'Today we talk about leadership by example, charisma, or fear. This was leadership by respect. The managers made everyone feel trusted, and so people felt a strong sense of loyalty and did the best job that they could do. As I look back, I realize that that’s the best equation for leadership. It felt magical, and I saw it in action again and again.'

Flight Controller Jerry Bostick expressed the same sentiments when he spoke about those leading Mission Control:

'We really didn’t want to mess up. Our leaders trusted us, and we didn’t want to let them down. You were working for living legends like Chris Kraft, and when he gave you a job to do, you felt that you had his ultimate trust. Kraft would say ‘Here’s what I want you to do, and I want you to have it done in three weeks, if you need any help, give me a call but otherwise I’ll see you in three weeks.’ It’s ultimate trust. You would walk out of his office thinking, ‘I can’t let that man down.’

Jay Honeycutt, another Apollo engineer who worked closely with Mission Control, revealed the strong sense of responsibility trickled down at every level:

'I was twenty-seven when I was working on the Apollo program. Chris Kraft took a bunch of people that were around my age, and gave them an incredible amount of responsibility. His message was ‘You’ve got this thing, and you’d better not listen to the Flight Directors, because if they tell you wrong and you do it wrong, then I’m going to blame you, I’m not going to blame them. This is your little spot of responsibility. I think Kraft was right – you develop people by giving them responsibility and giving it to them early on in their careers.'