Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Failure is not an option: What NASA discovered.

On January 27, 1967, a cabin fire occurred during a pre-launch test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft, resulting in the tragic deaths of all three astronauts aboard: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. A huge blow to the morale of the team and the engineers at NASA. 

A massive overhaul ensued in engineering, flight safety and testing. NASA was determined to get past the accident.

Finally, NASA returned to its mission in April 1970, with Apollo 13, the third lunar landing mission to the moon with three astronauts, James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise. This was a critical comeback for the organisation, its credibility and most importantly its fragile morale.  No one understood this better than Flight Director Gene Kranz. 

But Kranz also knew that it was impossible to guarantee success or predict every scenario. He needed to keep his team together, no matter what. 

So, when an oxygen tank exploded on board, and the three lives were threatened in a near-impossible situation that led to the lunar landing being aborted, Kranz took charge. Presented with the impossibility of bringing the astronauts home by his team, he set out a one-line slogan that reverberates to date in NASA corridors and control rooms.

Failure is not an option!

The mission was clear. The astronauts needed to come home. Everyone and every action was working towards a single agenda. And the astronauts knew.

Kranz started by establishing clear communication between him, the control team, engineers and astronauts. No transmission loss. All communication needed to be clear and specific. His calmness and clarity gave the crew on the ground and onboard an extraordinary ability to stay calm and follow instructions. 

They started with a clear analysis: Exactly what needed to be fixed?

He then turned to his team and asked for ideas to fix the problems. Suddenly innovation became the name of the game. And Kranz provided decisive leadership, encouraging teams to work together and make the ideas happen! Here are some examples, of what was inconceivable before the day:

The explosion had damaged the spacecraft’s main power source and one of the two oxygen tanks. To conserve the remaining resources, the crew shut down the command module and used the Lunar Module (LM) as a “lifeboat.”

The damaged spacecraft lacked the necessary equipment to remove carbon dioxide from the cabin air. Engineers on the ground devised a solution using materials available on the spacecraft. They instructed the astronauts to build a makeshift carbon dioxide scrubber using duct tape, plastic bags, and other materials. This innovation ensured the crew had enough breathable air.

The crew performed a series of engine burns using the LM’s descent engine to ensure they followed the correct re-entry path. And a lot more relentless, collaborative work, through the next few hours, before it was time to bring their colleagues home. 

The Apollo 13 spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970. The successful return of the crew became a testament to human ingenuity, teamwork, and the ability to overcome extraordinary challenges. But even more importantly, it became the rallying cry for bigger and bigger achievements. Kranz demonstrated the importance of clarity, communication, innovation in the face of fire, and courageous collaboration. Ingredients that perhaps weren’t mentioned in the rocket manuals!

There are so many things to learn from this legendary tale. Kranz provided us with a masterclass on how collective wisdom can be an asset in a make-or-break situation. His leadership stands contrary to popular belief that when speed is of the essence, the collective must take a back seat.

What does leadership look like in a crisis for you? Ever wondered what it would be like if we didn’t go on the defensive, but came out all guns blazing?

We are passionate about helping leaders, teams and organisations thrive. And always doing work to learn more. So if you’re curious about how your organisation, teams and leaders can thrive – do reach out for a chat. 

About Rameet Arora

Rameet is a highly awarded business leader and marketer, writer, keynote speaker and mentor. He is a co-founder, and leadership coach at The Core Questin

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