Of square pegs and round holes

There are lessons to be learned from Apollo 13

On April 13, 1970, three men left Earth at 13:13 hours headed to the moon on America’s third lunar landing mission. Commander James A. Lovell Jr. headed the small team, which also included John L. Swigert Jr. and Fred W. Haise Jr.

Although there were a couple of problems early on, the expedition appeared to be going smoothly when, at 55 hours and 55 minutes after liftoff and some 200,000 mi. away from Earth, the second of two liquid oxygen tanks exploded, damaging the remaining tank as well. When warning lights indicated the loss of two of Apollo 13’s three fuel cells, which were the main source of electricity, the crew retreated from the damaged Command Module to the smaller Lunar Module. With no instruments except a radio and enough fuel for only one try, they managed to get home.

Reading an account of the Apollo 13 mission or watching a documentary about what has been called “the greatest rescue mission in history” should be required for everyone because it has so many lessons to teach about teamwork, innovation and the true relationship between people and technology.

From the moment things began going wrong with Apollo 13, Mission Control and the three men in space were focused together on getting the crew safely back to Earth—period. Success depended upon developing and testing new procedures in an extremely short time, and it is amazing to look back upon what was accomplished in 1970 when everyone worked toward that common goal. It is a sight not often witnessed here on Earth lately, especially among those charged with averting the disaster du jour—the “fiscal cliff.”

Innovation under pressure was a hallmark of the Apollo 13 rescue. After one and one-half days in the Lunar Module, for instance, a warning light showed that carbon dioxide had built up to a dangerous level. The problem was caused by a poor fit between square canisters of lithium hydroxide (brought from the Command Module to remove carbon dioxide from the spacecraft) and the round canister fittings in the Lunar Module.

Mission Control came up with an improvised adapter to solve the problem using plastic (from plastic bags or clothing depending upon the account), cardboard and duct tape—all materials carried onboard. The fix was far from high tech, but it worked. No matter how many times I hear about that lowly, marvelous repair, I want to stand on a chair and cheer.

There are so many square-peg/round-hole problems to be solved, but how often is that can-do-it-together attitude still the guiding principle?

Another amazing thing about Apollo 13 is how much of the success of the rescue mission depended upon the real-time work of the people involved. We have become accustomed to thinking about M2M communications, about as-needed data, and about predictive analytics—all driven by computers many times more powerful than those that put Americans on the moon and brought them home again almost 50 years ago. And yet when the chips were down, innovative people working together toward a common goal made the difference.

I am thrilled by technology and what it makes possible today and helped make possible then. However, for me, the obligations and the opportunities still reside with the people who have their hands on levers, on keyboards, on the future.

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