The saving of the lives of the Apollo 13 crew in April 1970 is such a brilliant leadership example. A remarkable achievement where clear and confident leadership contributed hugely to success. The foundation of this success lay in the single positive belief that a huge challenge could be overcome.
Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space programme and the third intended to land on the Moon. On April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST, the craft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Commander James A. Lovell, Jr., Fred W. Haise, Jr., and Commander John L. “Jack” Swigert were the astronauts on board. Ken Mattingly, originally intentioned to be the third member of the crew, was left behind. Unfortunately, he’d been exposed to German measles and had to be replaced. It was actually a good thing for Apollo 13 that Ken Mattingly was still on the ground. His expertise would soon help save his crewmates.
Immediately following its launch, it seemed as if everything was normal with Apollo 13. But almost fifty-six hours into the flight—at about 10:06 p.m. EST, over 200,000 miles from Earth, on the 13th of April, 1970—Apollo 13 got into serious trouble. The astronauts heard a loud bang, which perhaps was a small meteorite strike or malfunction that had catastrophic consequences for the craft. The astronauts observed a problem with the power supply and the loss of a significant quantity of the oxygen supply held in the storage tanks. After about three minutes, the Supply Module’s oxygen supply was entirely depleted. Because the fuel cell depends on the oxygen to generate power, the spacecraft was now entirely dependent on the Command Module’s limited-duration battery power and water. The crew was forced to shut down the Command module completely to conserve any power for re-entry—the prospects looked bleak.
The lives of the crew were in serious danger. The severely damaged Service Module had lost its ability to produce electricity, oxygen, and water. Swigert, followed by Lovell, radioed Mission Control the now famous line: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Back in Houston, Mission Control and Ken Mattingly frantically worked together to find a way to get the crew back to Earth. It didn’t look hopeful, wasn’t easy. The answer to this problem was going to be really complicated.
In the meantime, with their oxygen being depleted, the crew in space had to power down their Command Module (“Odyssey”), power up the Lunar Module (“Aquarius”), and make sure they had working air lines. Aquarius would not take them to the Moon this trip, but thankfully it would help to save their lives.
Solving this problem on the ground meant that flight controllers needed to develop a mission-saving system that could be replicated in space. Simple items, such as cardboard and tape, were used to create what was dubbed “the mailbox,” which saved the astronauts. They did it—one hour before re-entry, the crew jettisoned Aquarius. It helped save their lives but would not survive a re-entry.
Apollo 13 landed in the Pacific Ocean 142 hours, 54 minutes, and 41 seconds after lift-off. The USS Iwo Jima recovered the men and Odyssey. Most of this particular mission had occurred under extremely dangerous, life-threatening conditions.
The teamwork between NASA’s Houston team and the flight crew members was absolutely brilliant. An example of leadership at it’s best. Connected, clear, calm thinking by Johnson Space Center personnel, working under unbelievable pressure, helped to save the mission and the lives of the crew.
Jim Lovell later said:
I think one of the things that showed the people of the world was that even if there is a great catastrophe, good leadership and teamwork, initiative and perseverance—these things make for getting an almost certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.
Returning the crew safely was one of NASA’s finest moments. Without the belief that it could be done, a clear plan, and, crucially, the confidence that this plan could be carried out, the Apollo 13 crew would not have survived. If the team did not believe they could save the crew, then they wouldn’t have done what was necessary to save their lives. That story always amazes me because it shows the power of the human brain, the resource it is against seemingly insurmountable problems.
What leadership challenges do you face that you can solve by
- Believing you can
- Formulating a clear plan
- Taking confident action today?
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