Jim Kennedy, former director of Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, saw Apollo 11 leave for its moon landing, then spent almost 40 years with Nasa. The retiree now travels, speaking on leadership.

1.You grew up on the "space coast". How did that affect your childhood?

We moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, when I was 4 in 1953, when the space programme was just beginning. My father was an electrical engineer and worked on the radar that would track rockets. It was kind of a big deal, but every kid at school's family was tied to the space business in one way or another. It was hard to impress! For a year or so before John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, he would sit down the pew from me at church. He was my idol. He signed my Bible. Thirty years later, I was deputy director when he flew on the space shuttle.

2. Why did John Glenn impress you so much?
It was his values. I'm a bit nutty about core values. (John's) were kindness, humility, work ethic and more. He is the only living astronaut of the original seven and continues to inspire me by the way he lives his life. There are many values in my life but some of the important ones are to treat all people with respect and dignity. To cherish diversity - not just tolerate it but cherish it. To live with integrity. It's the most important characteristic of a leader. If you don't have it, people won't trust you. If they don't trust you, they won't follow you and if they don't follow you, you are not a leader.

3. You're an engineer. Did you ever want to fly?
I did join the flying programme in the US Air Force but never tried to become an astronaut. I was quite happy to help design rockets (at Marshall Space Flight Centre) and later, from Kennedy Space Centre, launch rockets. The joke is that with my struggle with weight, and the cost to get to low Earth orbit at $10,000 per pound, Nasa could not afford for me to be an astronaut. I have the most respect for astronauts. It's so hard to be accepted (for the programme). There will be one vacancy for 1000 applicants and they're all the best of the best. A friend of mine, Jan Davis, had to apply five times to be accepted. And that's another value of mine - perseverance. President Lincoln said: "I will prepare, for one day my chance will come." Perseverance got him the presidency too. It is always key to our successes.


4. How vivid are your memories of those early space flights?
Incredibly vivid. I was in a programme where you spent a quarter of your term working, the rest at school. This was 1968 to 1970 and I was driving a rental car picking up all the dignitaries who were there to see the launches. When Apollo 11 launched, I was standing next to the Vehicle Assembly Building and the 7.5 million pounds of thrust created these shock waves which just about knocked you over, then they bounced off the VAB. You're being shaken around by it but it's hard to even describe. You're 19 years old and seeing what you hope is going to land the first men on the moon four days later. You're a part of it. And I have never lost that excitement.

5. How did your career affect your family?
In a very positive way. My work was demanding but I always made time for family first and they have all reaped the benefits. My wife, children and now grandchildren get to go places, see things and do things that my career enabled. There has been pressure, but I think I've coped quite well with that. I had a very low time about 20 years ago when I had an unwanted divorce, but work-wise the most stressful time would be the loss of (the shuttle) Challenger. I didn't sleep for months after that. I was deputy director so it wasn't all personal responsibility but we lost seven souls. You just think about what could have been done differently.

6. How did Nasa overcome the fear after that shuttle failure?
My work focuses on lessons in life and leadership and some of the tips I use in that reflect the culture at Nasa and what helped guide us through those shuttle losses. "Don't be afraid of failure", "out of tragedy comes triumph", "ships in harbour are safe but that's not what ships are made for", "if at first you don't succeed, try harder", and "strive to be truly great".

7. What, in your opinion, is the greatest myth about leadership?
I think it is a myth that some are "lucky enough" to be given key leadership positions. The reality is the harder you work, the luckier you are. Leadership takes hard work.

8. Was man landing on the moon the greatest human achievement, in your opinion?
I have friends in high places who think the Hubble Telescope was even more significant as it's opened up the door to astrophysics and we have learned so much from what we have seen. But what happened with Apollo 11, the spinoffs, 55,000 of them from space exploration including cat scans, MRI, water purification. Did you know we didn't have power tools before Apollo 11? The option was either drag an extremely long extension cord from Earth or develop power tools. I think we are a better world (for space travel). But sometimes I worry we are resting on our laurels a bit. (The US) hasn't flown people in space since 2011.

9. Why has that happened?
Politics - and money. They are working on a new flight system, SLS, but it will be several more years (before that is in operation). We have to send our astronauts to Russia and we pay the Russians $73 million per trip. I love partnership and teamwork but I don't think they are demonstrating their partnership when they are charging almost triple what it costs to go. Just because they can. We have no option.

10. How do you feel about the commercialisation of space?
I am supportive of the trend to commercialise space. The Government's role is to develop technologies to allow access to space and to provide the resources needed before there is an ability for a profit. Once we have the needed technologies and private industry can make a profit, the Government needs to move aside and let free enterprise take over. New Zealand's Rocket Lab is an example of this evolution from Government to private sector for space launches.

11. How does a life of space exploration affect your spiritual beliefs?
I have always been a believer in a spiritual sense and that belief was only strengthened by my proximity to space exploration.
My astronaut friends would come home and often express the beauty of God's world after seeing it from above. On Apollo 14, astronaut Edgar Mitchell was so touched by his spiritual awakening that he devoted his life to it. I think all the astronauts I know have had their faith deepened, whatever faith that was.
I don't think it makes a difference what your faith is, as long as you have one.


12. One hundred years hence, what are the discoveries you will most wish you'd been around for?
Exploring the final frontier will continue to change life as we know it. My favourite example of this is finding ways to exploit the inherent energy from the sun.

One example - and a reason to return to the moon - is this: Helium 3 is a byproduct of the fusion keeping the sun burning. He3 can only get into the earth in a limited way due to the atmosphere that we have. However, the moon has no atmosphere, and so has copious quantities of He3. Why do we care? Because He3 is a super "fuel" for a fusion reactor ... so super that 500,000 gallons would be enough fuel to satisfy the entire energy needs of the USA for one full year. I tell children that their generation will be the one to take us back to the moon, learn how to extract He3 from the lunar soil and bring it home.