Have you ever had to pull the plug on an IT initiative that would have brought true innovation to your business because it was too expensive? Sure, anyone that answers “no” to this question is probably not investing enough, or at all, in their innovation strategy. Innovating in business is never a sure thing.
Anyone can have an idea, like putting a man on the moon, but to actually pull it off is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Innovating for the sake of innovating is just too darn expensive; we all need to get our money back in spades when investing in new technologies to increase our capacity to sell more auto parts with increased efficiencies. Just as it happens to us in the auto parts industry, so have our country and our government recently pulled the plug on our most iconic technology innovation investment strategy ever: the space race.
At a sad farewell ceremony in Cape Canaveral recently, President Obama tasked private industry this time to “capture the flag” on space travel as the federal government bowed out.
I’ll be hard pressed not to be on the side of privatization on almost anything the federal government does. But somehow, this one seems wrong and maybe we’ll pay for it down the road. Just this week a Russian Soyuz rocket headed with supplies to the International Space Station crashed in Siberia making NASA and all of America nervous for our astronauts in space. That’s one of the problems with bowing out of the space race. I can almost hear the cheers from Taikonauts in Beijing and Chandrayaan-1 operators in New Delhi, as their governments gear up for their own space race; historically, it is the right time for them to match our Cold War drive that created the space race in the first place.
Timeline had a lot to do with our entry and exit from the space race. In my own timeline, I am a child of the Space Age. As a kid, my folks figured I needed to do a stint in a military academy; not a good idea for me. I hated almost everything about the place and vise-versa. The one thing I remember fondly was their dedication to teaching everything possible about the space program.
The school was run by Cuban exiles who used to be in the military back before Fidel. No doubt their hatred of all things Red, particularly Russian Red, led them to embrace the Space Race with their hearts and minds, and it showed. We had all kinds of very detailed models, diagrams, maps and drawings of the Apollo rockets, Cape Canaveral and the moon. We had pics and bios of all the Apollo astronauts. To this day, whenever I see a moon map, which is less and less often, I look for the Sea of Tranquility. So ok, all those Cuban generals really hated the Russians, but in exchange they schooled the hell out of the space program; a fair geo-political trade-off for an elementary grade school kid like me.
I was just five years old when Houston got the now famed message from Tranquility Base: “The Eagle has landed” words imprinted on our collective consciousness for an eternity. I remember a lot about that day. There was no school (not sure the Cuban generals approved), it was like a snow day. (Well, not really for me. Back in Puerto Rico it was more like a hurricane day; but it was super sunny outside.) I’m sure millions of us have memories like this one.
For me, the most vivid memory is of relief that the lunar module had landed OK. The famous reply to the landing remark made by Mission Control back then was: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue; we’re breathing again.” Somehow I think the whole country felt the same relief at the time and “breathed again” in unison followed by a happy sense of accomplishment. And talking about accomplishment, researching this column I learned something I can’t remember learning from the Cuban generals: We made it to the moon in just little over eight years, not a decade as JFK had told us all.
But the sad truth is that in the end, the space race came to its final halt and I almost missed it. Days after the shuttle Atlantis launched for the 135th shuttle mission in 26 years, I Googled the event and got a great video from a camera mounted on the nose of the fuel tank; my very own mission control view sitting at my house days later. The video was superb and I watched it in its entirety. The one thing that caught my eye was how run-down and honestly a bit decrepit the shuttle looked, especially the fuel tank’s thermal tiles. It reminded me of that one delivery truck we all have that has served us the most but we hardly ever even wash it. And then it hit me, space is just a business you know, the old dollars and cents, risks and rewards, ROI and profits. Is it just unlucky we never found oil, gold or diamonds on the moon?
Meanwhile back on Earth, we are facing a federal government shutdown once again because we just don’t have the money to run the country. One of the reasons we are where we are, is the high cost of health care. It’s hard not to think about pulling the plug on space when our folks are sick and without health coverage. The country and our businesses have an ironic parallel here we can’t afford innovation because health care costs are suffocating us.
As a business owner, I know, I get it, and believe me, I feel the pain. So the decision is to go for the moon or treat our sick. It’s the same thing in our industry: invest in innovation or take care of our employees. No doubt, these are tough choices. In our business, we are working hard to try to do both. We don’t always succeed, but isn’t that what management is all about the art of juggling limited resources?
Mandy Aguilar is a regional vice president for Jacksonville, Fla.-based The Parts House. Visit his blog at www.mandyaguilar.com.