The right stuff

If you visit The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one of the exhibits you’ll find in the space exploration section is a stopwatch.

At first glance, it seems fairly unremarkable.

Until you discover it’s the watch used by NASA flight technician Bob Carlton, to keep track of how much time was left before the fuel on the Apollo 11 moon landing craft would run out.

The clock is stopped with 18 seconds remaining.

In other words, after over two hours spent trying to find a safe place to set the landing craft down, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just 18 seconds left before they would have to abort the mission and return to earth.

Man might never have set foot on the moon.  The world we grew up in might have felt a very different place.

So those 18 seconds are incredibly significant.

The position of the hands on the stopwatch is a permanent reminder of the moment when mankind became a species that could define its future in terms of more than one planet.

And, recognising the significance of the moment, Bob Carlton was determined to preserve it.

He put the watch in a box, took it home and locked it in his desk drawer.

A week later, he took it out and was perplexed to see that the hands were stopped at 22 seconds. Had he called the wrong time – made a mistake under pressure? Alarmed, he put the watch back and resolved not to mention it to anyone.

The following week, he looked again. This time, the hands were on 31 seconds. What was going on? Was the mechanism faulty? Had there been a risk to the mission? Did he need to report it?

The real explanation was more prosaic. Carlton’s teenage daughter was a drum majorette – she had found the watch in her dad’s desk and, not realising its significance, had used it to time her baton-twirling routines.

So the hands on the stopwatch you see in the Smithsonian are not stuck in the precise position they were in at the historic moment of touchdown.

They’re in the closest approximation Bob Carlton could get them into, before handing the watch over to the Museum 50 years ago.

Does that matter? Does knowing it reduce the significance of the watch – or its authenticity as a historical record?

Not really.

The point is not the watch. The point is the story – and what it tells us about the guts, determination and ingenuity of people who were prepared to fly hundreds of thousands of miles in a metal can to set foot on a totally alien environment.

You could melt the watch down and replace it with a fake one made out of cheese and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Because it’s not the symbol that matters. It’s the story behind it.

That’s something worth keeping in mind next time your business sets out on a mission to ‘rebrand’ itself.

People will agonise for weeks (or sometimes years) about the best colour ways, the ‘right’ font, the optimum balance between the logotype and the end-line.

And none of those things will make the slightest difference, if the business doesn’t also stand for something meaningful to the people who work there and the customers it serves.

Real brand is never about ‘branding’. It’s about having the right stuff.

Photo – The Smithsonian Institution – Museum of Space and Aeronautics

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