Here’s How Social Missions Can Be As Inspiring As Space Missions

10 steps to building an audacious social mission.

Why It Matters

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Future of Good publisher and CEO Vinod Rajasekaran offers an aerospace take on crafting an inspiring social mission.

This past week was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the very first spaceflight to land humans on the moon. There were all kinds of commemorative activities, from dinner parties that listened to restored Apollo 11 mission audio to media analysis of NASA’s mission to Mars. The search term “Apollo 11 space mission” was trending on Google. 

For us at Future of Good, July 20th marked more than just the day when humans first landed on the moon (which was an unbelievable feat) — July 20th marked the 50th anniversary of the modern definition of audacity, which the term “moonshot,” in many ways, has become synonymous with.

What was so audacious about this mission, you might ask? For one, it’s the sheer scale of investment. NASA spent $25.4 billion on the Apollo program — over $150 billion in today’s dollars. At its peak, Apollo accounted for nearly 4 percent of the United States government’s federal budget. More than 400,000 Americans worked on it in some capacity, nearly all of them in private industry. And then there was the spirit of the goal itself: the moon landing was able to mobilize and inspire millions, as well as demonstrate the power of collective will and ambition.

At Future of Good, we’ve been wondering: What can the world of impact learn from this type of audacity? How audacious is audacious enough? What does it look like to mobilize millions around a set of collective ambitions? What does it look like to get behind wild ideas and innovations that seem so damn risky? Where did the original moonshot fall short and where can we do better?

The point here isn’t to compare a going to the moon type of problem to an ending plastic pollution type of problem. We know they are different. But we do believe that social missions can be as compelling and as inspiring for the future as space missions. At Future of Good, we’re on a quest to make it so. 

Here are 10 ways to flip how we illuminate, promote, and empower audacity in the world of impact. It starts with us. 

  1. Shift your narrative away from one of scarcity. People don’t say space exploration is needed because Earth needs fixing. This is almost never the narrative. It’s always been about extending human potential, showing what’s possible, and building human capability. However, the narrative in social impact tends to “not having enough X” or “fixing Y.” Entire campaigns are built and run on this narrative. The takeaway: The scarcity narrative isn’t an inspiring one.
  2. Visualize high-risk with high-value. There is a recognition of the quantum of investment and risk that’s needed to build a rocket that can reach outer space. There is no room for “drip funding.” One doesn’t hear, “Let’s commit to fins this year, perhaps a guidance system next year, and maybe the nose cone the year after. And to qualify for year 2, submit a report on how the fins are doing.” The takeaway: It’s easy to get distracted by drip funding, but this often leads us to mediocre and piecemeal solutions, rather than high-value, lasting ones.
  3. Find a long-term energy source. A long-term energy source is required for space missions. Flying by Pluto takes time. In fact, New Horizons launched in 2006 and it only approached Pluto in mid-2015 — almost 10 years later. So, the spacecraft must be designed with the “right-sized” energy source that can deliver on the mission as well as mild course-corrects, and not with a source that can only get it half-way, with no room for any changes. Spacecraft are built to mission and ambition specs. The takeaway: Ensure what sustains your ambition is with you for the long haul — plus a bunch of corrections in the event you go off-course.
  4. Celebrate escape velocity (output), not securing the parts (input). Reaching escape velocity (minimum speed for a spacecraft to break free from the gravitational pull of Earth) is paramount in a launch. This is celebrated by everyone. However, in the world of impact, there exists a strange practice of — to use a food analogy — congratulating the chef for getting the ingredients. This is not inspiring. The takeaway: Let’s be mindful of celebrating inputs and be present to celebrate reaching escape velocity. It matters more.
  5. Jettison items that no longer add value. In space missions, the payload is exactly what is required — weight is everything. In cases where redundancy is needed, extra equipment is worked in. When something is no longer relevant, it is shut down or jettisoned. Obsolescence is part of the design of a mission. Space missions cannot afford to service obsolete items or items that no longer add value, as it might jeopardize the mission. However, more often than not, social programs and services are built with a sense of permanence in mind, without active monitoring to see if they are still providing value or progressing on a goal. The takeaway: We must design-in active obsolescence management, such that programs and services stay relevant and inspiring.
  6. Repurpose things that might add value beyond the mission. For a project like Apollo 11, there are a number of new and reimagined technologies, processes, and tools that had lives well beyond the original mission and in industries that had little to do with space. From fire protection gear to autopilot technology, cordless power drills to solar panels, there is a massive list of stuff that we all benefit from everyday that originally came from space missions. The takeaway: Social impact solutions have components that can be spun off, open-sourced, and repurposed as well. What will you make available to others?
  7. Share the mission in real-time. Major space launches have been broadcasting live ever since live broadcasts were possible on TV, and then online and in social media. Today, anybody from anywhere in the world can go to NASA’s website to get updates on any active missions. Launches, delays, blow-ups, lost communications — you can see it all. In social impact, much of real-time progress is shielded, and progress is typically shared in a closed-loop, sanitized fashion with funders or donors. We have become accustomed to shielding experiments, failures, or delays from the public. The takeaway: When we share by default, we inspire.
  8. Build with foresight. SpaceX, the fast-growing private launch provider, could easily make a compelling business case just launching satellites — and still exceed every profitability target. Instead, they have decided that this isn’t enough. They bring a high degree of foresight to their work. SpaceX doesn’t just want to launch satellites the way we know how to do it today, but set the pace and build for how space missions might happen 20 years from now. The takeaway: If we design for how we want social programs to operate 20 years from now, we would inspire millions.
  9. Design to dock with a larger system. Interoperability is critical in space missions. Europeans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese, and Americans all contribute components to the International Space Station. The parts are designed a bit like LEGO pieces — they are designed to “dock” or connect with one another. This level of interoperability makes platforms like the International Space Station possible. Imagine organizations in different sectors — working toward a shared social impact ambition — designed projects, programs, and interventions with interoperability as a core function. We might have interoperable data, processes, technology, and even talent. The takeaway: Interoperability levels the playing field and allows us to bring our best “LEGO pieces” to solutions.
  10. Take the long view. People might come and go, but leadership around an ambition stays. It is rare that a long-term space mission, like New Horizons, gets unmonitored or falls to the bottom of the ambition stack upon a change of employees. Nothing is protected 100 percent, of course, as there are always economical, political, and other factors at play. However, there is a recognition that space missions require a sustained level of “ambition stewardship” by a variety of actors, and that a “start, stop, start” approach causes disruptions that ultimately causes setbacks to the mission. The takeaway: What if we moved beyond the one-year, two-year, or three-year support approach in social impact and had financial commitments that lasted 10 or 15 years? 

We can do better. There isn’t a single moonshot social mission. There is no single actor that can deliver on a solution. There are many opportunities and challenges — most of them the complex kind. There are millions of people, both professionals and passionate amateurs around the world, making a difference everyday — and although it’s been 50 years, there is still much to learn from the audacious energy that gave us the term moonshot.