In my most recent blog post, I highlighted several lessons about leadership in a crisis as demonstrated by the story of Apollo 13. This failed mission to the moon is most famously recaptured in the Ron Howard directed film starring Tom Hanks and Ed Harris. Continuing the lessons learned and how they are shown by this story – either in the movie or in real-life.
Contingency plans are a great starting place – not the final recipe. You need to plan for emergencies. Even when the one that happens isn’t what was envisioned, they can be a valuable reference for parts of your situation. Because you can’t prepare for every situation. But NASA’s focus on meticulous planning and testing scenarios pays off. Again, this is not shown in the movie. But NASA had already tested the contingency of navigating the combined Apollo spacecraft from the LM during Apollo 9. And on Apollo 8, Lovell himself had tested navigating by visual reference to the stars and to the Earth’s terminator. Both these backup procedures were available and used in unexpected ways during the Apollo 13 flight.
Sometimes you have to find a way to make do. In a situation that seems unbelievable but actually happened, the filters that scrubbed carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere were different shapes on the two spacecraft. To keep the three astronauts breathing, they literally need to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole, with only the items already on the spacecraft. Kranz assigns a team early to work on this problem and they are given all the items the astronauts might use. Duct tape and the now-useless mission flight plan document are major pieces of the solution.*
It’s not about what things are designed to do, it’s about what they can do. The lunar module wasn’t designed as a lifeboat. The Command Module simulator wasn’t designed as a test bed. The mission flight plan wasn’t designed to be part of the air filtration system. In a crisis it is about evaluating the capability of what you’ve got, and how it can fit in what you need. The same is true whether it is tools or people. Sometimes the best person is not the most technical qualifications, but someone with the determination, commitment or potential. Or all three.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. We all have policies and procedures that are mandatory. Usually there is a good reason for them. But in a crisis it’s much more important to focus on the big picture. In the movie, the flight surgeons on the ground are continually questioning the astronaut’s health and need for sleep. In fact, LM pilot Haise, is quite ill with an infection and fever by this point. But Lovell is fed up with the constant questioning on minor matters. The crew are working round the clock to find ways to survive and get back to Earth. Frustrated, he pulls all the monitors off his body. The other two astronauts quickly join the mutiny. On the ground, it looks like all three astronauts have flatlined. Once mission control has confirmed that everyone is fine Kranz decides to just let it be. They have more important problems to deal with.
Never show you don’t believe. Your team takes their lead from you. If you hint that something can’t be done, that reinforces their fears. In the movie, Kranz is repeatedly being asked for the odds of safe return. These requests are coming from the White House. Even privately, Kranz refuses to allow that there is any possibility of failure. The real Gene Kranz even titled his own autobiography after the other famous quote from this movie: “Failure is not an option.” There is no evidence he actually said that during the Apollo 13 mission, but the statement reflects his determination to find solutions. In real-life, Glynn Lunney, one of the other flight directors, speaking about the mission later said: “If you spend your time thinking about the crew dying, you’re only going to make that eventuality more likely.” Instead you think about how to keep them alive.
If People are inspired, they will work to solve any problem. The movie is filled with inspiring speeches from Kranz and Lovell delivered as only award-winning actors Harris and Hanks could present them. Would that we were all as eloquent in a moment of crisis. But it’s not the speech necessarily that brings the inspiration. In his autobiography Lovell recounts how a senior Grumman executive is recalled from an MIT sabbatical to help once the disaster occurs. Grumman Aerospace Corporation were the designers and builders of the LM. The executive arrives at the office in the middle of the night to find the Grumman parking lot full. Far more people came in than were called – the Grumman factory and office workers wanted to help any way they could. They believed in what they were doing and would do anything they could to help return the astronauts safely. That common sense of purpose and shared commitment made them pitch in without request. And they did that without being asked and without the inspiring speech.
It’s better to set a direction and make adjustments along the way. In a crisis, you don’t always know the exact path to success. You need to get going in the right general direction and fine-tune as you go rather than try to plan for the perfect outcome before moving. In the movie this happens quite literally. First the astronauts onboard stabilize the spacecraft which has been pushed off course by the explosion and the escaping gases. Getting any control at all is the only objective. Then they decide to go for a ‘free return’ trajectory by continuing to the moon and using the slingshot effect around it. Later they speed up the flight to reduce the total time given the limited air and power in Aquarius. They make further minor course corrections navigating by eye with the LM engines. As they prepare for final re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, they are still slightly off-course. But progressively they’ve got closer and closer to their final destination.
Simple solutions often work best. Near the end of the flight, CSM pilot Swigert is in the command module alone executing the power-up sequence with Mattingly on the ground walking him through the procedure step by step. None of the astronauts has slept in days and Swigert is worried about flipping the wrong switch. He places a piece of tape over the one that would allow him to jettison the LM – which still contains Haise and Lovell. Simple and effective.
It’s about getting the job done, not about the most glamorous job. In another scene that would be unbelievable in fiction but is true, Marilyn Lovell needed someone to sit with her aging mother-in-law during the final splashdown. Marilyn wanted to distract her from any upsetting comments that might be made by the many people in the room. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – the first two people to set foot on the moon and arguably in 1970 among the most famous people in the world – volunteer. No one would’ve denied them a spot in Mission Control or elsewhere, but this was another important job to do. (In the movie the mother asks “Oh, are you boys astronauts too?”)
Ask for help and take the help offered. The Apollo 13 drama caught the world’s attention. Every country offered to help, often when there was little they could do. But with the state of technology at the time, NASA had more math & physics problems than they could handle in the time available. In a seldom-told facet of this crisis, Grumman, designers of the LM, reached out to the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies. U of T was asked to help with the plan to jettison the LM from the CSM before re-entry. They needed to calculate the right air pressure in the connecting tunnel between the Aquarius and the Odyssey to get a clean separation. Enough to make sure that the LM did not interfere with the Odyssey during re-entry. And they didn’t want the pressure to change the command modules trajectory either.
Sometimes it’s better not to know the stakes. I believe that generally people work better when they know the big picture. But sometimes when the stakes are high enough that knowledge can be more pressure than help. The U of T aerospace engineers assumed that they were one of several groups calculating the answer to the LM separation problem. No doubt that took pressure off in having to calculate the perfect answer. It can be paralyzing to know lives are riding on how well and how rapidly you complete your work. Years later the engineers were told by LM pilot Haise that no one else was asked to solve this particular challenge. The U of T answer was literally life-critical, not some kind of ‘double-check’.
Sometimes you do have to guess. With the damage to the oxygen tanks and fuel cells, there is a possibility the heat shield was damaged too. If it is cracked, the Odyssey will burn up and the astronauts will perish on re-entry. There is no way to test this, and nothing can be done in any case if there is a problem. So they make the assumption that the heat shield is fine. There is no point in worrying when nothing more can be done.
In the end, with determination, ingenuity and luck, the Odyssey returns the three astronauts safely to Earth. Fred Haise recovers from his illness. Ken Mattingly never gets the measles. Kranz’ white vest ends up in the US National Air and Space Museum. May all your crises end as successfully.
The flight of Apollo 13 occurred from April 11-17, 1970. It was the fifth manned flight to circle the moon.
If you watch the movie, you may be interested to know that the reason the scenes set in space in the movie look so realistic is that that they were actually filmed while weightless. The Command Module and Lunar Module sets were built in NASA’s ‘vomit comet’ and cast and crew were actually weightless for 20 seconds at a time to get each take.
* The command module and lunar module were made by different companies with different design teams. The command module was designed by North American Aviation / North American Rockwell and the lunar module by Grumman. Like most large scale government procurement programs, the US government spread NASA procurement around the country.
Learn More / References used:
At the time of writing, the movie Apollo 13 is available on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link to the IMDB page for the movie: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112384/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
- Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger: Lost Moon – The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (Houghton Mifflen, Boston, 1994): The basis for the movie, it was re-released under the title Apollo 13 when the movie was released.
- Gene Kranz: Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond (2000)