Leadership and Apollo 13

40 years ago yesterday, on April 13th, 1970, an onboard explosion crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft’s service module, forcing the ground crew and astronauts to abandon their original mission of landing on the moon. The story is a well known one, second only to the Apollo 11 mission and still resonates for the actions that occurred over the next week as all involved worked to bring the crew home alive. The successful return of the crew underscored the importance of organization, leadership and innovation on the part of NASA, and remains one of the best examples of the traits to this day.

On April 11th, the Apollo 13 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral, headed towards the Fra Mauro formation, which was rich in geological significance, with a number of hills and meteor craters. Shortly after liftoff, the mission experienced its first problem with a premature shutdown of one of the main engines, but with a longer burn from the four remaining engines, the spacecraft was able to make it to space and on its way. The far better known disaster that befell the crew occurred two days later when the crew stirred the oxygen and hydrogen tanks onboard the ship, causing a short in a wire, thus detonating the tank, causing damage to the Service Module. With depleted oxygen, the crew had to shut down their fuel cells to conserve electricity, and used their Lunar Module as a lifeboat to survive the trip home. Mission Control on Earth decided that the crew would be better off by using a free-return trajectory (allowing the Moon’s gravity to pull the ship around and back in the proper direction) in order to return. In addition to their problems with power and returning home, the crew was forced to improvise a device that would allow them to filter out the carbon dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere. Despite the challenges that faced them, the crew returned to Earth and landed safely.

The Apollo 13 mission has long been a triumph of NASA, not just because of its successes in returning a crippled spaceship to Earth, but because it represents one of the best examples of leadership and ingenuity on the part of a massive organization in order to accomplish an almost impossible task. Oftentimes, these sorts of examples are seen amongst military operations: the Apollo 13 mission is a rare, highly public example of this in the civilian world.

The steps taken on the part of leadership were clearly laid out. The crew and ground teams had to first determine what the problem was – initially, the crew feared that they had been hit by a micrometeorite, but determined the problem shortly thereafter. From that point, they determined the steps to stabilize the spaceship, and ruled out the main mission objective: landing on the moon, and then were forced to work out exactly how the crew would be returning home. What makes Apollo 13 a good example of leadership lies in the successes of bringing the crew back: the clear objective in this instance was to prevent the death of the crew, and highlights a sort of ‘Commander’s Intent’ directive where the leaders of Mission Control, namely Gene Kranz, the lead flight director. From his position, he directed the people underneath his command to come up with solutions to the numerous problems, acting as an intermediary, collecting information and making a decision based on what he knew at the time. The responsibilities of the people below him were with specific issues: determining the extent of the problem, then the solution to either fixing it, or minimizing its impact on the event. These items included the supply of oxygen and trying to figure out exactly how to conserve power because of a reduction in supply, how to scrub the CO2 out of the ship’s atmosphere, how to accomplish burns and ultimately, bring the crew home safely. The end result was the return of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise. They owe their lives to good organization and leadership on the part of NASA and the flight control teams.

In the end, the crew received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their actions, and the Fra Mauro highlands were visited in the next mission, Apollo 14, crewed by Alan Shepard (The United State’s first astronaut into space), Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell.

The sequence of events and actions that were taken demonstrate leadership in moments where the consequences were most dire. However, the lessons that can be learned from the event, such as identifying problems and then identifying their solutions, delegating to other team members and trusting their findings and conclusions, while fitting all of these elements together into the framework of an overall mission are essential traits that can be applied to any number of practices outside of space travel, any place where there are numerous, organized people. While the consequences might not be dire in all instances, having proper leadership and organization is essential to achieving an eventual goal.

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