Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Apollo 13: A Story of Teamwork, Competence and Responsibility

(This post was originally published on April 10 2013 and has since been updated).
by Cian O'Regan

Forty-seven years ago this month, Apollo 13 launched into the skies above Cape Canaveral to begin its bold journey to the Moon's Fra Mauro Highlands. 

We've all seen the movie, and for most it's a very realistic and true reflection of what happened on that perilous voyage to our nearest neighbour. But just how did Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert make it home all those years ago?
The Apollo 13 crew aboard the USS Iwo Jima following recovery in the Pacific Ocean.
credit: NASA

Today we will focus on three key human factors that ultimately contributed to bringing the astronauts home. Some of these factors come straight from the Foundations of Mission Control - a charter drawn up after the Apollo 1 fire to serve as a code of conduct for those supporting manned flights from the ground.

These rules which are still followed to this very day define the values, expectations and responsibilities that each and every employee in Mission Control was expected to understand, believe and live as a member of the NASA team.

Teamwork: "Respecting and utilising the ability of others, realising that we work toward a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all".

Apollo 13 was more than just three astronauts fighting a crippled spacecraft a quarter of a million miles from home.

Lovell, who at the time was NASA's most experienced astronaut, alongside rookie spacefliers Haise and Swigert were just the tip of the iceberg of the manned US space programme. Below them stood thousands of hard working Americans ready to bring them home. No matter how important or high up you were, on or off the planet, you worked the problem together as a team.

Responsibility: "Realising that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do".

Every single person involved in the Apollo 13 mission were responsible for the jobs they had to do, no matter how big or small. The CAPCOM(Capsule Communicator) was responsible for communicating with the crew in space. The Flight Director took responsibility for crew safety and mission success(crew safety being the number one priority).

Everyone had their own role that they had to take control of in order to bring the crew home. Without even the smallest of jobs being carried out, the crew might not have made it back alive.

Competence: "There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent".

Mission Control Celebrates
credit: NASA

Strong words right? But we can only assume by this statement that every single person involved in bringing the astronauts home must have been prepared to deal with any problem that arose.

No Apollo crew had ever trained for an explosion fifty-five hours into flight. Hence, some procedures being given to the crew had never been tried or even though of prior to the disaster. In the face of adversity, sometimes you have to put the flight plan to one side and deal with what's actually happening in front of you.

Keeping a cool head was essential, something that was perfectly summed up by Flight Director Gene Kranz moments after the explosion took place;

"Everybody keep cool, work the problem, let's not make things any worse by guessing."

No crazy decisions were made on the spur of the moment - every move was studied in detail before it was executed. We must remember that a lot of problems were being dealt with for the first time on Apollo 13, something that makes the crew's safe return so unique yet so extraordinary.

To finish, I leave you with my favourite line from the Foundations of Mission Control which can be applied in a lot more situations than flying and returning men from the Moon;

"To recognise that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort."

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!