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The Apollo missions: Seeking success by analyzing mistakes


Arnold Soltz, an engineer at Draper Lab and a member of the team that developed the software for the Apollo project, gave a talk at BBVA Open Space in Madrid, where he explained the technology, processes and learnings from the NASA space project that took men to the moon. His talk was part of a partnership between BBVA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which gives BBVA access to academics’ latest research and knowledge, as well as MIT’s startup incubator.

At the height of the Cold War, the “space race” between the United States and Soviet Union was a competition achieve a milestone for humanity: technology that would enable a man to set foot on the moon for the first time in history. The Apollo project constituted the largest marshalling of resources made by any nation in peacetime, Soltz explained.

“The review of the entire Apollo project was probably what led to the success [of reaching the Moon]”

According to Soltz, NASA’s Apollo project employed more than 400,000 people from 1961 to 1972, while more than 20,000 companies and universities worked on it — with an investment of more than $116 billion (adjusted for inflation). The project ultimately conducted 17 space missions and six moon landings.

However, as Soltz reminisced, the success of the Apollo project began with a failure.

In February 1967, NASA’s Apollo I spacecraft was to become the first manned mission to reach the moon. Everything was planned for its launch at Cape Canaveral when a tragic event occurred: a fire just before takeoff killed all three astronauts on board: Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.

That tragic event caused NASA to suspend the project and begin a long investigation to identify the causes of the fire. This required the discovery and exposure of the so-called “single points of failure.”

NASA conducted an exhaustive review, not only of the specific circumstances of the fire, but also the entire Apollo project,” Soltz said. “There were no flights for about a year. At that time we were struggling to meet John F. Kennedy’s deadline, enabling him to fulfil his promise to put a man on the moon by 1970.

What can we learn from the subsequent management of Apollo I?

What did those mistakes — and the following successes during the space race — teach us? It’s very likely that if the Apollo project hadn’t been suspended, reviewed and secured, the United States wouldn’t have won the race to reach the moon.

The review of the entire Apollo project was probably what led to the success [of reaching the Moon],” Soltz said.

The process of reviewing the whole Apollo project, which culminated in Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, also informed part of the process of creating new companies in BBVA’s New Digital Businesses unit, which develops projects and serves as an incubator for innovative startups in Madrid, San Francisco, London and the Asian continent set to provide services to the customers of the future.

Since its beginnings, the division has developed projects whose ultimate goal is the launch of new companies proposing innovative products and services to the market with varying degrees of success. Regardless of their success, though, every situation is considered a learning opportunity. New Digital Business (NDB) analyzes every case to obtain knowledge and information that later materializes as improvements to the process of developing new projects, significantly optimizing production time and costs, and accelerating launches and decision-making processes.

The result: New companies are entering the market faster (the last one was completed in just over seven months) and more efficiently acquiring their customers.

Case in point: Azlo has grown to 27,000 new customers in a year, and Upturn has welcomed 20,000 new customers in just over six months. Both of the companies have high growth potential.

Pursue a goal, develop a proposal, test it, analyse the results, learn and improve it — then launch it again, Soltz suggested during his talk. He recalled that while the United States lagged far behind the Soviet Union in the development of space rockets, within just 10 years, all that technology (software, hardware and navigation guides) was created by MIT for the Apollo project — once NASA had commissioned the institution with the task.

Soltz’s lecture was organised as a result of the association between MIT and NDB, the latter led by José Fernández da Ponte, the manager of the strategic Beyond Core pillar, which researches and applies scientific disciplines and technologies that will have an impact on the financial industry within the next three to five years. The academic partnership between BBVA NDB and MIT seeks not only to use technology to resolve complex financial problems in the financial sector, but also to explore future business opportunities in our market.


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