FIRST-PERSON: Lessons from Apollo 13
An oxygen tank exploded on the Command Module slightly less than 56 hours into the mission and a second tank failed almost immediately. NASA Mission Control was alerted to the situation when Mission Commander Jim Lovell announced, "Houston we've had a problem."
Approximately 87 hours after Lovell's understated articulation of the explosion, and 143 hours after liftoff, Apollo 13 splashed down into the azure waters of the South Pacific near the Cook Islands.
Deemed a "successful failure" by NASA, many lessons for life and leadership can be gleaned by reviewing the experiences of astronauts Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert as well as the members of Mission Control.
The most significant lesson to take away from Apollo 13 is that we must know what is most important. Just minutes after the explosion, the mission to land on the moon was scrapped by NASA. The most important element of the mission was getting the three astronauts back to earth alive.
Establishing what is most important will make all other decisions much easier, because all other decisions must support or at least be compatible with what is most important. All considerations that do not support what is most important are superfluous.
A second principle to learn from Apollo 13, which is also found in the lyrics of my high school's fight song, is, "We are one for all and all for team." Every member of the NASA team was important and every member was wholly dedicated to what was most important, getting the astronauts back alive.
Mission Control worked out processes to keep the astronauts alive. Then the space crew carried out the plans. The 87 hours between the explosion and splash-down were an amazing display of teamwork and a perfect illustration of the aphorism, "It is amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."
A third lesson to take away from Apollo 13 is the necessity of doing whatever is necessary to achieve what's most important. Innovation, creativity, adaptability and perseverance were hallmarks of both the astronauts and Mission Control.
The three astronauts abandoned the damaged Control Module for the Lunar Module (LM). The LM was only designed for two men, but the three crammed themselves into close confines. Later they performed a critical course correcting maneuver, not designed for the LM, and without instruments.
If performing difficult, unrehearsed maneuvers in cramped quarters were not enough, the astronauts operated in almost freezing conditions, lacking both proper food and sleep.
Mission Control developed new procedures and tested them in a simulator on the ground before giving them to the Apollo crew. What normally required months to produce took less than 87 hours.
Urgency fostered a new level of production. The NASA team did not have time to whine, "We can't," or "We've not tried this before," or "I'm tired." They pulled together and found ways, created ways, to achieve what was most important.
Another lesson is that achieving what is most important requires training, training and then more training. Of the three astronauts, only Commander Lovell had space flight experience. However, the trio had been drilled mentally and physically to the point that they did not panic when faced with a life threatening and dire situation.
One other take away from Apollo 13 is that an individual or team cannot merely go through the motions if they want to achieve what is most important; it requires complete commitment.
While you would expect the three astronauts to be committed to preserving their lives, their dedication was not enough. It required everyone at Mission Control to give their all to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.
Have you identified what is most important in your life, in your business or your organization? Once you do, you have taken the first step toward realizing it. Next assemble a team, adapt, innovate, train and commit yourself to the goal.
When Apollo 13 blasted off 44 years ago, no one associated with the mission anticipated that it would be a successful failure. But if we will learn from their experience, not only will we be able to realize success from our failures, we will also be more likely to avoid failure altogether.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).