Apollo 13 – Failure Is Not an Option Fifty Years Later
46 hours and 43 minutes into the Apollo 13 space flight in 1970, the on-duty Capsule Communicator on the ground in Houston, Joe Kerwin, told the Apollo 13 crew, “The spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we are concerned. We’re bored to tears down here.” Nine hours and twelve minutes later, Command Module Pilot and astronaut, Jack Swigert, in a slightly better known quote, advised, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” In that instant, the Apollo 13 mission transformed from the third lunar exploration to critical emergency rescue.
It has been 50 years since NASA celebrated its “Finest Hour” with the safe return of Commander Jim Lovell, Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. While some 205,000 miles from Earth and not yet having reached the Moon, the astronauts heard a “loud bang” with numerous electrical systems immediately lost or compromised. The astronauts and Mission Control sought to promptly assess the situation. Jim Lovell looked out the window of Apollo 13 and saw vapor escaping from the rear of the spacecraft which he knew could only be oxygen. As Lovell later recalled, it was at that moment he understood that “we were in serious trouble.”
Oxygen Tank 2 on the Command Module exploded due to a short circuit between wires in the tank. This explosion damaged Oxygen Tank 1 which was the source of the venting Lovell witnessed. Oxygen Tank 2 emptied due to the explosion. Oxygen Tank 1 continued to deplete rapidly. There was no Oxygen Tank 3 on the Command Module. The oxygen was necessary to maintain life not only of the astronauts, but also for the fuel cells which powered the Command Module necessary for any return home.
OK. Crisis identified. The crew, NASA engineers and other experts conferred on immediate reactive measures, short term action plans, and strategy to return to Earth. Step 1: ensure the crew’s immediate safety and well-being of the damaged spacecraft so matters can be evaluated. The Apollo 13 crew shut down the Command Module to preserve the precious little remaining battery power and moved to the Lunar Module as their lifeboat. The Lunar Module, mostly undamaged in the explosion, provided its own independent systems. However, reliance on the Lunar Module could only be temporary as NASA designed it to support two, not three, astronauts, while going to the Moon’s surface. More importantly, the Lunar Module could not be used to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Based on the known available energy sources, water and oxygen supply, the engineers devised a flight plan to return to Earth. Apollo 13 did not turn around but continued to steam toward the Moon. Using the Moon’s gravity, Apollo 13 “whipped” around the Moon and was thrown back toward home.
With no computer guidance systems available, the crew “steered” Apollo 13 by looking out the window to triangulate the spacecraft, sun and Earth. NASA engineers then calculated the necessary amount of thrust to remain on the proper trajectory to enter Earth’s atmosphere given this triangulating methodology. In post-flight evaluations, these manual calculations and steering by the crew proved to be within 1/2 degree of ideal conditions. I have difficulty balancing my checkbook while these guys performed intricate calculations under dire circumstances.
Next step: Determine how to power up the Command Module; jettison the damaged Service Module; jettison the Lunar Module; and provide the power necessary for Command Module systems essential for re-entry with exceedingly limited battery power. During the Apollo program, new processes would typically take three months to develop followed up with months of testing and training to implement the procedures. NASA now had less than three days to create the processes and teach the Apollo 13 astronauts.
The combination of NASA engineers and experienced astronauts working in simulators eventually yielded the proper sequence of steps to power the necessary components with all of one electrical amp to spare. There would be absolutely no margin of error in executing the new procedures in the condensation filled Command Module. As Apollo 13 careened toward Earth at 25,000 m.p.h., finally, NASA had a game plan.
The Wild Card. Of course there was a Wild Card. NASA calculated that the oxygen in the Lunar Module and limited oxygen in the Command Module would be sufficient, marginally, for survival. Those calculations proved accurate and Apollo returned with a few pounds of oxygen. However, with each breath, the astronauts exhaled poisonous carbon dioxide. Apollo 13 addressed this circumstance by filtering air through lithium hydroxide canisters. Once a canister was used, it would be replaced with a new canister. The Lunar Module’s lithium hydroxide canisters were to serve the lunar landing party of two crew members, not all three astronauts for the multi-day return to Earth.
Simple solution: Take the lithium hydroxide canisters from the Command Module as they were now idle and use them in the Lunar Module. Who said this rocket science is difficult? But not so fast. The Lunar Module canisters were cylindrical shaped with round openings. The Command Module canisters were cube shaped with square openings. NASA literally needed to find a way to place a round peg in a square hole before the astronauts poisoned themselves.
Enter Ed Smylie, NASA chief of crew systems. Smylie cloistered his team armed only with materials available on the spacecraft. Smylie’s team devised a system to draw air through a spacesuit hose which could be connected to a canister for filtration. With ingenuity, hoses and tape, the Apollo 13 crew could breath easy once again.
These reflections illustrate the highlights of the challenges presented to Apollo 13. NASA followed the mantra: “Failure is not an option.” Each issue was cast in life or death decisions. Flight Commander Lovell later noted that each astronaut approaches a space flight with an assumption of not returning. He appreciated that his crew at least had a chance to return home. Fellow crew member Jack Swigert stepped in to replace another astronaut a mere two days before Apollo 13 launched as the fellow astronaut had been exposed to German measles. I wonder if Swigert felt the same as Lovell on this issue.
The safe return of the Apollo 13 crew most certainly classifies as NASA’a Finest Hour. How so many came together so quickly to improvise solutions for impossible problems should amaze us all these fifty years later. Let America have Apollo 11 with the first Moon landing. NASA proudly and rightfully proclaims the rescue of Jim Lovell, Fred Hasie and Jack Swigert as its very finest accomplishment.
In looking back at Apollo 13 and the challenges confronted, the parallels to and lessons for the mediation process stand out. Foremost, a lesson for the mediator and lawyer representatives. Remain calm under pressure. The substance and pace of settlement negotiations can be frustrating. I remind myself of a lawyer with whom I worked for years. In settlement negotiations, I cannot recall him ever once becoming emotional and never caving under pressure. If an offer was shockingly low, he would say only “I have never been offended by money, regardless of amount.” Stay calm.
Use creativity much like the engineers working on Apollo 13. The engineers never expected to have to construct a Rube Goldberg apparatus to filter carbon dioxide, but they did. They worked with what was available. In settlement, use all the resources at your disposal. If money alone is insufficient, think of new or alternative business relationships to offer instead of funds; think of expanding the value of money with annuities (at least when interest rates get above 0%); think of injunctive relief to formally compel or preclude activity; and think of press releases or other communications to customers which could have value to a party. These alternatives are limited by your own thinking and not the four corners of any legal pleading.
Apollo 13 teaches us that nothing goes as expected. By the time of the Apollo 13 flight in 1970, NASA had a decade of studying and preparing for “what if” scenarios. Despite all preparation, NASA had not planned for the circumstances of Apollo 13 as the assumption was that the spacecraft and crew would be a complete loss with any such deep space explosion. The litigation process and trials are case studies in “nothing goes as expected”. Judges make bad decisions which may negatively impact all parties. Juries are unpredictable and susceptible to being swayed by a single, determined juror. Scheduling of trials near holidays may result in juries which have no interest in paying attention to the claim you had so painstakingly litigated for years. Additional and unforeseen costs and expenses always present themselves in trials. Resolution through mediation eliminates the “what ifs”, provides certainty, and provides finality. Avoid confronting large problems you never envisioned.
Mission Control for Apollo 13 repeated the refrain “Failure is not an option” especially when the first dozen or so proposed solutions for any issue did not work. They did not give up until the issue was addressed. Similarly, be careful about claiming “impasse” in mediation negotiations. In fact, some mediators assert that impasse among participants does not exist, but rather presents as an opportunity to look at issues differently. Do not focus on the differences between the parties and gaps between offers, but rather on areas where common ground has been found.
Instead of asserting impasse and giving up, focus can be placed on other issues if the trading of financial offers appears stuck. For example, work on the non-economic terms of a proposed settlement arrangement. You may discover that the timing of payments may be important to one party. If timing can be expedited, then the other party may be willing to further compromise on amount. You may discover that a press release or confidentiality is important to one side. That process may well open up other items for consideration in negotiations. If “failure is not an option”, then keep the process moving forward.
Most incredibly, NASA returned the crew of Apollo 13 safely from disaster’s brink. The lessons taught by the Apollo 13 astronauts and NASA personnel resonate well beyond space exploration. They still resonate on this 50th anniversary of NASA’s Finest Hour.