Project Apollo: What if? Why not?

This project is part of a series that looks at using a theme – in our case, the Apollo 11 mission – alongside coaching a school rugby team. You can find out more information about it here.

When we set out on this project months ago at the start of the season, the overwhelming sentiment I had was that this team was thinking too small about its goals and ambitions. They saw scorelines and results as being the ‘be-all and end-all’.

I disagreed.

My hope was that this project might provoke them to something else, to push beyond what they thought they could achieve. Lofty aims perhaps, but how often do we allow ourselves to settle for the status quo?

We see a significant challenge ahead of us as too daunting, too insurmountable and yield to it. We accept our ‘supposed’ fate despite the deep-rooted resentment it stirs within us…

Kennedy’s declaration in 1962 that the US would leap-frog the Soviets to the Moon must also have seemed far-fetched. Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong must have known how risky their mission was especially after the disaster of Apollo 1.

How about, instead of accepting the odds, we asked ourselves:

What if…?

Why not…?

The spirit of the pioneer, the trailblazer, the surmounter-of-impossible-odds lies at the heart of the Apollo program.

NASA: Pioneer Class

During a presentation, we put up the image below and asked the group:

What do you see in the image?

The Firing Room of NASA during the Apollo 11 Launch

Having spent time in recent weeks exploring effective teams and those far from the plaudits, like Michael Collins, many spoke of teamwork: “They are all looking towards one goal” or “They seem to have a uniform showing they are all part of the one group”.

I have asked many people to undertake this task.

No one ever sees her.

Joann Morgan – the woman in a sea of men

When we consider the achievements of Apollo, we cast our minds to the skies. Rarely do we think of Joann Morgan, an engineer that endured years of harassment, lewd conduct and waited 15 years until they put a women’s toilet in her building at NASA. The fact that she is in the room on that launch is due to her determination, her capability and her refusal to accept the status quo: women do not work on space rockets.

If Morgan did not remain true to her hopes, believe in her abilities when so many doubted and disregarded her, if she had never asked herself ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ she never would have made history on Apollo 11. She also would never have become the first senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center later in her career.

(For insight into Morgan’s time at NASA and an explanation why she was sitting down in the image, check out the following podcast)

Once you start to consider her accomplishments, other pioneers start to emerge such as Margaret Hamilton and Katherine Johnson – a Maths genius who literally wrote the book on Space Flight – later depicted in the book ‘Hidden Figures’.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the code she wrote for the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ of Apollo 11.

It was Margaret Hamilton’s father who encouraged his daughter to not let ‘the ways things are’ stand in her way. It was him who told her the mantra: “Why not? What if?”

Blazing their own trail…

This consideration of those overlooked at NASA, allowed us to consider some of the people in our own sport blazing trails of their own. We spoke of Heather Fisher as a role model. Her strength in battling a range of issues, allows others to see that you can overcome insurmountable odds.

What if…

We then had a chance to introduce the group to other leading figures of the women’s game such as: Portia Woodman, Charlotte Caslick and Emily Scarratt, pictured below with some guy at the World Rugby Awards, winning International Player of the Year.

A successful 2019 for 7s and 15s star, Emily Scarratt

We briefly spoke of how these players had refused to accept the odds or the idea that rugby was a game for men.

Finally, we watched the opening of an excellent documentary on the Saracens Women’s team that was screened last year on RugbyPass. What was heart-warming was one of the players went away afterwards and watched the whole documentary. He thanked me for showing it to them. He also said he picked up some really good drills and wanted us to try them. It was encouraging to see how he can see these pioneers who inspire us by their actions and allow us to blaze a few trails of our own.

A mantra we belong to

If you work with young people, actually, if you work with people, you could worse than have a mantra that challenges them like: Why not? What if? If we all spent part of our day dwelling on how to finish the sentences that begin with those phrases, we would soon find ourselves unlikely to give in so easily. It is something we will try to embody in the remainder of the season, both as individuals and as a team.

If this article has piqued your interest in the Apollo program and you would like to find out more about the women who helped put men on the moon, check out this article from The Guardian.

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