Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Apollo 13: The Successful Failure 44 Years On

Forty-four years ago, Apollo 13 launched into the Florida sky to begin its journey to the Moon's Fra Mauro Highlands.

We've all seen the movie, for me let's just say more than a few times, and for most it's a very realistic and true reflection of what happened aboard that perilous voyage to our nearest neighbour. But why did Lovell, Haise and Swigert make it home all those years ago? Let's find out..

The Crew of Apollo 13 from left:
Cmdr. Jim Lovell, CMP Jack Swigert and LMP Fred Haise
Credit: NASA
For me there are three key human factors that ultimately ended up bringing the astronauts home. Some of these factors come straight from the so-called "Ten Commandments" of Mission Control which were drawn up after the mission, rules which are still followed to this very day. The definitions alone give you a sense of the discipline followed by all.

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. Now even though these were the guys that were fighting for their lives at the end of the day, the Apollo 13 crew 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 together as a team. Teams in Mission Control worked the problems and gave their instructions up to Lovell and his crew to do what was needed in order to get home, and we must feel that none of this would have been possible without everybody working together as one.

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. For example, he CAPCOM(Capsule Communicator) must communicate with the crew, the astronauts put Mission Control's commands into action, the Flight Director takes responsibility for crew safety and mission success(Crew safety being the number one priority), the cook just down the hall had to make sure the food was ready etc. 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 mightn't 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

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. I can't imagine any crew prior to Apollo 13 trained for a spacecraft explosion on a journey half way to the Moon!(Excuse me if I'm mistaken!). These guys weren't ready for anything like what we saw, but, the fact is that they all rallied together and saw what each and every one of them could and couldn't do, and went from there. 

Keeping a cool head must have been 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 given to the crew. You have to 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 extraordinary.

Forty-three years on, and terrible accidents and tragedies have occurred as mankind continues to dip his toe into the cold vacuum of outer space. We are still testing the waters of the cosmos. Will we be able to keep exploring? Where will we go next? Thee are all questions we need to ask ourselves if we want to keep going. 

We will learn from mistakes we've made in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. We will learn from these mistakes and will be stronger for it! How else do we expect to move forward? We must also look at what we have accomplished in the past- Apollo 13's successful failure was hailed as NASA's finest hour, and rightly so. If astronauts and their teams on the ground are ever stuck in such a dire situation in  the future, look back at what all those pioneers did the fix the problem in April 1970.

To finish, just remember that we haven't been back to the Moon since December 1972. We are only at the very beginning of our cosmic journey, and the Moon is only a small step to the stars, yet it's the farthest that we've ever been!