We present some #RandomThoughts on this #ThanksgivingWeek2021:
I’m often struck by the ability of a small group, even a single individual, to change the world.
One of the key benefits (among many!) of rapidly advancing exponential technologies is that the quality of our tools has finally caught up with the scope of our visions.
This means that small groups of entrepreneurs and innovators can now tackle problems that were once solely the purview of huge corporations and governments.
I’ve seen this happen repeatedly throughout my career, but no example captures the spirit and the power of small groups than famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan.
In today’s blog, I’ll share the story of how Rutan leveraged the power of a small group to create history and win the $10M Ansari XPRIZE. Ultimately, he did something that every major aerospace company thought was impossible: change the paradigm of human spaceflight.
As you read the story and take inspiration from him, ask yourself: How can you use technology to tackle some grand challenge or pursue your Moonshot?
Let’s dive in…
NOTE: Developing a Moonshot Mindset and helping you turn your crazy ideas into Moonshots are key focuses of my year-round Mastermind and Executive Program Abundance360.
ORIGINS OF THE US SPACE PROGRAM
In America, our relationship with the final frontier began in the spring of 1952, when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)— which would later become NASA—decided it was time to go up, up, and away.
The aim was to fly an airplane faster and higher than anyone had ever gone before, with an official goal of Mach 10 (10,000 feet per second) and 100 kilometers straight up (into the middle of the mesosphere).
The result was the X-series of experimental aircraft, including the X-1, which carried pilot Chuck Yeager through the sound barrier, and the X-15, which carried Joe Walker so much farther.
The X-15 was an extreme machine. Built from a nickel-chrome alloy called Inconel X, the plane could withstand temperatures hot enough to melt aluminum and render steel useless.
It “took off” from California’s Edwards Air Force Base, strapped beneath the wing of a B-52.
The bomber carried the X-15 some 45,000 feet into the air, and then dropped it like a rock.
After falling a safe distance away, the rocket plane fired up its engines and went bat out of hell through the sky—which is what it took to get pilot Joe Walker off this planet.
Walker’s departure took place on July 19, 1963, the date he flew the X-15 past the one-hundred-kilometer mark, becoming the first man to fly a plane into space.
It was an incredible feat, and one that required a massive effort.
It took two major aerospace contractors employing thousands of engineers to build the X-15.
By 1969, the program had cost about $300 million—more than $2.2 billion today.
But this was the cost of flying to the edge of space until Burt Rutan came along.
BURT RUTAN’S INSPIRATION: FROM AIRPLANES TO SPACESHIPS
Rutan didn’t start out wanting to build spaceships—he started out building airplanes.
He built a lot of them.
Extremely lucky airplane designers work on three or four machines over the course of a career.
Rutan, on the other hand, is prolific.
Since 1982, he’s designed, built, and flown over forty experimental aircraft: including the Voyager, which made the first nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world, and the Proteus, which holds the world record for altitude, distance, and pay-load lift.
Along the way, Rutan also developed a serious frustration with NASA’s inability to truly open the space frontier.
In his mind, the problem was one of volume.
As Rutan puts it, “The Wright Brothers lifted off in 1903, but by 1908, only ten pilots had ever flown. Then they traveled to Europe to demonstrate their aircraft and inspired everyone. The aviation world changed overnight. Inventors began to realize, ‘Hey, I can do that!’ Between 1909 and 1912, thousands of pilots and hundreds of aircraft types were created in thirty-one countries. Entrepreneurs, not governments, drove this development, and a $50 million aviation industry was created.”
Rutan helped kick off a similar revolution in human spaceflight, and in the process he beat the behemoths at their own game.
His human-carrying spaceplane, imaginatively called SpaceShipOne, outperformed the government’s X-15 in every measure.
For example, rather than costing billions and requiring a workforce of thousands, in 2004 SS1 took flight with only $26 million and a team of thirty engineers.
Instead of just one astronaut, the SS1 boasted three seats.
And forget a turnaround time measured in weeks, Rutan’s vehicle set a record flying to space twice in just five days.
“The success of SpaceShipOne altered the perceptions of what a small group of developers can do,” says Gregg Maryniak, former Director of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in Saint Louis.
“Everyone had grown to believe that only NASA and professional astronauts could travel into space. What Burt and his team did was demonstrate that all of us will have the chance to make that trip in the near future. He changed the paradigm.”
Human spaceflight became possible 60 years ago, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961.
Since then, just over 350 manned flights have taken more than 600 people into space.
This year alone, we’ve seen tremendous progress, thanks especially to efforts by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.
We owe much of the recent progress in spaceflight to what Rutan and his small team accomplished nearly 20 years ago.
His story is yet more evidence of the American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous statement: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
And rapidly accelerating technologies, from AI to biotech, mean that a small group of committed people has more leverage and power than at any time in history.
So, the question is: How will you change the world?
Last month, I talked about how I did some rereading to get me out of a reading funk caused in part by being on the road for the Courage is Calling release. As tends to happen, I got sucked down a rabbit hole and ended up re-reading two other novels I loved. I’m rolling now and excited to share these recommendations with you! Also in fun news, I did a 4 minute summary of my book Ego is the Enemy on YouTube and was surprised to find the book is now also 50% off on Amazon. If you’re looking for signed or personalized copies of Ego or any of my books, we have them over in the Daily Stoic Store, available for personalization and gifts.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer is almost truer now for the millennial (whatever this crazy world we’re in now is) experience than it was in the 60s when he published it. Any reader will relate to the rather ageless angst of the next generation trying to find its meaning and purpose in the world. In the book, Binx is sort of fighting against the Stoic philosophy he grew up with and the horrors of the war he experienced and his love of money and pleasure. I first discovered The Moviegoer in an independent bookstore in New Orleans. It must have been back in 2011. This book turned me onto a bunch of stuff from the Percy family which I have recommend over the years including the memoir Lanterns on the Levee, the biography Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, the letters of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, and one of my all-time favorites, the novel Lancelot, a dark story of revenge and an attempt to go to the heart of evil. I used a quote from it as the epigraph in Conspiracy. Anyway, now I want to go spend some time in NOLA.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Is this the greatest novel ever written? It’s certainly one of the finest displays of the English language I’ve ever seen. I love re-reading Gatsby because I still have my copy from high school, which means I see what struck me then versus what did now as well as the reads throughout my twenties and now my thirties. That’s what great literature is supposed to do—help us learn truths not just of the human condition but of ourselves as well. Little known fact, but actually it was an essay I wrote about Gatsby that first singled me out for some attention as a writer and was what encouraged one of my beloved English teachers to push me towards the path I am on today (apparently I posted it on my blog many many years ago if you want to read it). Some other Fitzgerald (and Fitzgerald adjacent) books I have recommended and loved are: Tales of the Jazz, The Crack-Up, and The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
First: Sandra Day O'Connor by Evan Thomas
I loved Evan Thomas’ other biographies, particularlyThe Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made and Being Nixon: A Man Divided. I knew next to nothing about Sandra Day O’Connor, but found her to be a fascinating and inspiring example of a kind of political moderates we could use more of these days. Thomas, like Issacson, does a masterful job of getting to the essence of the person he is biographizing, without judgement, and always finds wonderful anecdotes and stories that I store away to use in my own writings. I actually ended up finding this book because I bought Wil Haygood’s book Showdown, about Thurgood Marshall. It was decent but I actually like Juan Williams’ fuller biography of Thurgood more.
The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific by Alistair Urquhart
Recommended to me on a British podcast I did a few weeks back, this was an incredible book about perseverance and human survival. Urquhart spent three and a half years as a Japanese prisoner of war and survived torture, a cholera outbreak, 18-hour days constructing the so-called Death Railway, days without food or water crammed on Japanese cargo ships, days adrift on the South China Sea, and then witnessed the explosion of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki. A reminder of the horrific things human beings are capable of. Of course, the stalwarts of this genre are Man’s Search for Meaning, The Choice (I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Eger), Unbroken, and the writings of Admiral Stockdale.
Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When Your World Goes Dark by Julia Baird
I LOVED Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria and have raved about it many times. When I heard she was writing a follow up, I assumed it would be another biography. I did not expect this powerful, inspiring book about resilience and powering through. Through some dark times, Julia said what sustained her was “yielding a more simple phosphorescence—being luminous at temperatures below incandescence, having stored light for later use, quietly glowing without combusting. Staying alive, remaining upright, even when lashed by doubt.” She’s basically talking about Stoicism...without talking about Stoicism (though she does that too). I found myself marking dozens of pages in this one and just continually smiling throughout. It’s a great little book and, among other things, reminds me why I need to get back into swimming. I had a great conversation with Julia on the podcast, which you can listen to here.
Poe For Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History's Least Likely Self-Help Guru by Catherine Baab-Muguira
I’ve been wanting to tell you all about this book for a while. I don’t blurb many books these days but this one was deserving. Here’s what I wrote: “Books about people’s successes are common. Books where you can learn from someone’s painful demons and failures are rarer—but far more meaningful. Cat's writing on Poe is insightful, funny and important.” Look out for my interview with Cat on the Daily Stoic podcast in the next few days.
I read Play Nice But Win: A CEO's Journey from Founder to Leader by Michael Dell and then had a great conversation with Michael on the podcast. Last month, I recommended Seth Wickersham’s book It’s Better to Be Feared about the Patriot’s dynasty, but I ended up having him on the podcast as well, where we dove specifically into what made Brady tick.
Our kids have really loved the Paint By Sticker books (Masterpieces, Dinosaurs, Dogs, and Zoo Animals are their favorites) and have gotten a lot of mileage out of them. They are popular at our bookstore too. We also did this cool plate painting project that parents might like. For whatever reason I found myself telling my kids about the show Catdog from my childhood and now here we are reading all the out of print CatDog chapter books which I found for a few dollars on Amazon. And then after discussing the concept of boundaries once again, we did a few readings of Rissy No Kissies which is a fun little book.