What got America to the Moon can make you a better cop

Barbara A. Schwartz

Forty-nine years to the day that Americans first landed on the moon, July 20, 1969, the people who made that historic event possible gathered for a private reception at Space Center Houston.


No other group on this planet can say that they had a hand in putting humans on another celestial body.


These men and women did just that.


They contributed to America’s greatest adventure by working behind the scenes in flight operations and mission control.


Gray hair and wrinkles dominated the room; their numbers dwindling as more and more pass away.


They partied and marked the beginning of a year-long celebration for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.


What can Space City police officers learn from the unsung heroes of Apollo?


Decision-making Under Stress

These daring individuals made difficult decisions that kept the program moving forward even after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire and loss of three astronauts.


They flew one flight, Apollo 7, in near-earth orbit to test and verify the spacecraft, before embarking on the biggest gamble of the program—sending Apollo 8 to orbit around the moon in December 1968.


Imagine the bold leadership that went into making that decision.


Consider the story of guidance flight controller Steve Bales and his quick decision-making under extreme stress that saved the first moon landing. When the Apollo 11 lunar module’s flight software issued repeated warning alarms during the final seconds of lunar descent, Bales determined that the program alarms weren’t credible and informed the flight director to “Go”.


History would be different if Bales had decided to abort. He had to believe in his training and his knowledge of the lunar module guidance computer. The astronauts’ lives rested with him. Not to mention the future of spaceflight. The space program would have died with the astronauts if the lunar module had crashed into the moon’s surface. A decision Bales made as billions of people around the world watched live via television.


Almost the same as a police officer having to make a deadly force decision with a body worn camera rolling.



Apollo would not have happened without visionary leaders willing to take risks. Leaders who trusted their people.


Leaders who stood behind those who were doing the grunt work and getting the job done.


One of the flight controllers stated at the party that they were all in their twenties in the 1960s. No one had prior experience in going to the moon. NASA leadership gave a lot of responsibility to, and trusted in, a young workforce who had to make it up as they went.


Similarly, in policing, the youngest and newest officers work patrol encountering armed individuals and facing deadly force decisions.


Regardless of an officer’s rank, experience, or assignment, each day you go to work, you can decide to be a leader or not.


Creativity and Innovation

Don’t always look to what has been done before. Invent new ways of fighting crime and outsmarting the criminal. The heroes of Apollo charted new territory in everything they did. No one before them had designed, built, and flown a lunar module.



Don’t leave your training in the hands of someone else. Be proactive. Seek out the best training and the brightest instructors. Go beyond what the department offers. Make yourself the best trained cop money can buy.


The heroes of Apollo invented realistic scenario-based training before anyone knew what the word meant. Every flight controller spends hundreds of hours in operational simulations to be certified to work in mission control.


Steve Bales was able to make that historic decision because of his pre-flight preparation and by knowing the guidance system inside and out.


How prepared are you? Do you understand the penal code, elements of a crime, and case law inside and out? Do you practice survival tactics?



Officers can benefit from what every flight controller has to learn:

The Foundations of Mission Operations

  1. To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to profession excellence:

Discipline-Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.

Competence—There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.

Confidence-Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.

Responsibility—Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us, we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.

Toughness-Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, if it means following a more difficult path.

Teamwork-Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.


  1. To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.


  1. To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.


Study how these foundations apply to you as a police officer.


That patch on your sleeve says: Space City. Houston is proud of its NASA legacy because the heroes of Apollo went where no human has gone before and did it with professionalism and guts.


Live up to that legacy in your own career policing in the shadows of these giants.


Copyright©2018 Barbara A. Schwartz  All Rights Reserved.


No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the expressed written consent of the author.


Barbara A. Schwartz served in mission control during the Space Shuttle program. She was honored to learn the foundations of mission operations from those who flew Apollo. She retired after thirty years with NASA. During that time, she devoted herself to championing the cause of police officers through her writing and volunteerism.