What officers can learn from the Apollo moon landing

Cops can benefit from the hard-won lessons of the Apollo flight controllers

Barbara A. Schwartz served in mission control during the Space Shuttle program. She was honored to learn the foundations of mission operations from those who flew Apollo. She has also devoted herself to championing the cause of police officers through her writing and volunteerism. Because when she was a teenager, three officers – Leo, Larry and Joe – made a difference in her young life.          

On July 20, 1969, Americans first landed on the moon. NASA engineers made that historic event possible by working behind the scenes in flight operations and mission control.

These men and women contributed to America’s greatest adventure. They boldly created the hardware, software and procedures required to fly to the moon. They invented the training processes and curriculums needed to be ready for whatever the mission threw at them.

The historic Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. A recent restoration returned the control center to how it looked the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Current space station flights are controlled from an updated control center in the same building.
The historic Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. A recent restoration returned the control center to how it looked the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Current space station flights are controlled from an updated control center in the same building. (Photo/Barbara Schwartz)

Officers can learn lessons from the culture of excellence the flight controllers established.

Decision-Making Under Stress

These daring individuals made difficult decisions that kept the program moving forward even after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire and loss of three astronauts. They learned from their mistakes and tragedies and pressed forward.

They flew one flight, Apollo 7, in near-earth orbit to test and verify the spacecraft, before embarking on the biggest gamble of the program – sending Apollo 8 to orbit around the moon in December 1968.

Imagine the bold leadership that went into making that decision.

Consider the story of guidance flight controller Steve Bales and his decision-making under extreme stress that saved the first moon landing. When the Apollo 11 lunar module’s flight software issued repeated warning alarms during the final seconds of lunar descent, Bales determined that the alarms weren’t credible and informed the flight director to “Go.”

History would be different if Bales had decided to abort. He had to believe in his training and his knowledge of the lunar module guidance computer. The fate of the astronauts rested with him; not to mention the future of spaceflight. The space program could have died with the astronauts if the lunar module had crashed into the moon’s surface. This was a decision Bales made as billions of people around the world watched live via television, almost the same as a police officer having to make a deadly force decision with a body-worn camera rolling.

Responsibility and Leadership

Apollo would not have happened without visionary leaders willing to take risks and trust their people. Leaders who stood behind the men and women who were doing the boots-on-the-ground, day-to-day work and getting the job done.

NASA’s first Flight Director, Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, who helped lead our nation to land on the moon, maintained a simple formula for leadership:

  • Surround yourself with the right people;
  • Give them responsibility;
  • Develop their confidence;
  • Trust in their ability to do the job;
  • Care about them as individuals.

The flight controllers were all in their twenties in the 1960s. No one had prior experience going to the moon. NASA leadership gave a lot of responsibility to, and trusted in, a young workforce who had to make it up as they went along.

Similarly, in policing, the youngest and newest officers work patrol. These young officers are the public “face” of every department in this country. They are the officers encountering armed individuals and facing deadly force decisions.

Police chiefs, sheriffs and command staffs must follow in the Apollo leaders’ footsteps by trusting patrol officers to do the job they were hired to do and have their backs when they are compelled to use force. Let them know, through your actions, that they have your trust and support.

Every officer, regardless of rank, has an opportunity to be a leader both on and off duty.

Facing Fear

The movie based on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission made the phrase “failure is not an option” famous. During that flight, an oxygen tank in the service module exploded on the way to the moon. Flight controllers had to improvise to keep systems running and create new ways of navigating the crippled spacecraft home.

Disaster is always a possibility in the harsh world of spaceflight – as is the case in law enforcement. Flight controllers must train to be ready for all possibilities. Cops do the same.

Apollo flight controller Brock R. Stone, who went on to lead the flight directors office during the shuttle program, stated, “I tell flight controllers if they ever walk into the mission control room and are not a little nervous, a little afraid, then it is time to quit – they have become dangerous!”

Heed that advice in your police career. Use fear as an ally, not an enemy.

The crew of Apollo 13 made it home because the men and women of mission control never gave up. They never doubted that they would successfully bring the astronauts home.

Are you ready for when disaster strikes in your career? Are you mentally prepared to never give up no matter how dire the circumstances?

Creativity and Innovation

Innovate. Use your imagination and intuition to creatively solve problems and stay alive.

Don’t always look at what has been done before. The heroes of Apollo charted new territory in everything they did. No one before them had designed, built and flown a spacecraft to land on the moon.

Invent new ways of fighting crime and outsmarting the criminal. Design new ways to enforce laws and bring criminals to justice.


The heroes of Apollo invented realistic, scenario-based training before anyone knew what the word meant. Every flight controller spent hundreds of hours in operational simulations to be certified to work in mission control.

Steve Bales was able to make that historic decision because of his pre-flight preparation and by knowing the guidance system inside and out.

Don’t leave your training in the hands of someone else. Be proactive. Seek out the best training and the brightest instructors. Go beyond what the department offers. Make yourself the best-trained cop money can buy.

How prepared are you? Do you understand the penal code, elements of a crime and case law inside and out? Do you practice survival tactics? How often do you practice with the equipment on your belt? Do you regularly go to the range? Do you practice drawing and holstering?

Do you train to live?

Learn from those who flew Apollo missions to the moon

The Apollo flight controllers developed a culture and ideologies for all future mission operations personnel. Study how the following foundations of mission operations apply to you as a police officer. Incorporate the spirit of these foundations into your work and life. Learn from the hard-won lessons of the Apollo flight controllers.

1. To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence:

  • Discipline: Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.
  • Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.
  • Confidence: Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.
  • Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us, we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.
  • Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, if it means following a more difficult path.
  • Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.

2. To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

3. To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

© 2019 Barbara A. Schwartz. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the expressed written consent of the author.

NEXT: From footprints on the moon to female Mounties on patrol: Catalysts for change

This article, originally published 07/20/2019, has been updated.

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