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Stamford Lecture – Kevin Fong

Stamford Lecture – Kevin Fong

Dr Kevin Fong OBE, NASA consultant and award-winning BBC presenter, is the latest speaker to take part in the Stamford Lecture series, run by the Stamford Endowed Schools.

500 households registered to join the lecture, held virtually on 29 January 2021, with viewers welcomed from the Stamford Endowed Schools, local secondary schools, and the wider Stamford community, including Old Stamfordians as far afield as the UAE, USA and China.

Dr Fong captivated the online audience with his detailed description of the setbacks and near-fatal problems which beset the final 13 minutes of Apollo 11’s descent to the moon, 50 years after its historic success.

Taking the audience step by step through the process of approach and landing, Dr Fong described in detail the technical challenges that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were faced with in the last seconds of their attempt to land on the surface of the moon.  Exploring communications problems, navigational errors and the limits of fragile technologies, his webinar particularly highlighted the importance of teamwork and trust in your colleagues. In one notable example, Dr Fong explained how the computer on board the lunar landing module displayed a 1202 error message, just minutes before they were due to touch down on the surface of the moon. Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin had seen the code before, and they didn’t know what it meant. Nor did the Flight Director down at mission control, or the Guidance Officer. A junior specialist recognised the code, and reassured the chain of command it was safe to proceed. Without that swift communication and trust in staff at all levels, the historic mission would have been aborted.

Those concepts of trust and communication have especially resonated with Dr Fong during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst many recognise Kevin as an award-winning BBC presenter and author, and for  his work and training with NASA, he also works as a consultant anaesthetist at University College London. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis he has been working on the wards alongside his team: remarkably, his lecture toto the Stamford community was delivered from a cramped broom cupboard at the hospital just before his night shift began.

Drawing on his own experiences as a doctor, Dr Fong explained how the delegation of tasks is critical to the success of large hierarchical teams. He highlighted, to the notable surprise of the audience, that the average age of the team in the Mission Operations Control Room for Apollo 11 was just 28 years old. Dr Fong showed that, equally important to expertise and experience, was the fact that the young team were given ownership of their tasks, that no one “checked their homework”, and that they were given high levels of responsibility at a young age. That combination enabled the team to feel they could take on anything; a theory Dr Fong  believes is just as vital for young people today.

In a live question and answer session following Kevin’s speech, ‘what drives you?’ was a question posed from the audience. Kevin’s response of simply ‘curiosity’ parallels the driving force of the Stamford Lecture series – which is run as part of the Stamford Schools’ commitment to supporting lifelong learning within the local community. In his own words, Kevin describes his career as ‘hotchpotch’ and the result of always asking ‘why’, having developed as an extension of consistently questioning, considering, and adapting; ‘not for the sake of perfectionism’, but because ‘there is always something to help make you better at what you do’.

Dr Fong’s approach, and his evident love of education, were strongly seconded by the Principal of the Stamford Endowed Schools, Mr Will Phelan, who hosted the evening’s session.

Kevin Fong and Will PhelaN

Natalie Prestell, Community Engagement Manager at Stamford, organised the lecture. Natalie said: “It was a delight to welcome Kevin Fong to speak at our first Stamford Lecture of 2021, and we are very thankful to him for taking time out of his busy working schedule to engage our audience with such an insightful talk.

“I’m sure I can speak for the audience in saying that we were all drawn in by Kevin’s passionate and informative presentation, and I can certainly be sure that no one watching will be taking their humble laptop charger for granted – after learning that it is more powerful than the Apollo 11’s onboard computer!

“Whilst we would have loved to have been able to welcome Kevin to the Schools in person, it has been wonderful to bring our community together digitally for the first lecture this year, and the size of the audience shows just how much that love for learning – at all ages – is alive and well in our community. We hope to be able to welcome future audiences back in person soon!”

Click here for further information on the Stamford Lectures.

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