Forty-seven years ago this week, Apollo 11 launched towards the moon, fulfilling President Kennedy’s 1961 goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” and doing it “before this decade is out.” In the years since that landing, the phrase “moonshot” has become synonymous with innovation in the pursuit of audacious goals.
But the moonshot didn’t take place in a single step. Rather, it was a sequence of carefully planned missions that built new prototypes, engaged an ever-growing team of astronauts, engineers, contractors and stakeholders and solved unexpected challenges. When President Kennedy set the goal of a moon landing on May 25, 1961, there had only been one successful American mission into space – Alan Shepard’s flight on Freedom 7 as part of the Project Mercury. Another 19 manned flights, numerous component tests and the development of the intermediate Project Gemini would be needed to bridge between that flight and Apollo 11’s landing.
NASA’s success at building moonshots one mission at a time provides a valuable lesson to innovators.
The Dequindre Cut
Take, for example, the goal of turning Detroit – a city built by and for the automobile – into “America’s best city for biking.” That’s City of Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox’s moonshot for Detroit transportation, and its Project Mercury lies in the Dequindre Cut.
The Dequindre Cut formerly held a rail line running from the city’s Eastern Market towards what is now the newly-renovated Riverwalk area. After rail service stopped in the early 1980s, the line was abandoned. The cut – a 60 foot wide track area 25 feet below grade – became a chasm separating the neighborhoods on either side, home to an overgrown space which few people other than local graffiti artists chose to visit.
But with the Riverwalk project underway, Thomas Woiwode from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and a small group from the community walked the cut and saw a different possibility. Instead of a trench dividing the city, they envisioned a safe bicycle path along a greenway that could connect the new Riverwalk with Eastern Market. As with most innovators, they faced a number of obstacles including a lack of funding and, even more challenging, the fact that the owners of the northern part of this line had little interest in even discussing the possibility.
Undeterred they began planning their first mission, pulling together grants to build the southern section of the bike trail. When completed in 2009, it changed people’s perceptions of what this space could be. The owner of the northern part of the track was now willing to discuss and, eventually, to sell the land for an extension. Two months ago, the link to Eastern Market envisioned in that original walk was completed as part of the Link Detroit program, partially funded through a $10M TIGER grant from USDOT. Mission accomplished!
But there are many more missions to be flown. Detroit plans additional paths to complete the Inner Circle Greenway, a 26 mile non-motorized trail which circles Detroit and links it to Hamtramck, Highland Park, Dearborn and, eventually, Windsor, Ontario – a giant leap forward for the city that would not be possible without taking the first step in the Dequindre Cut.