Failure Is Not An Option: Crisis Lessons From Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon star in Apollo 13 (1995).

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 13, inspiring me and countless others to revisit the mission itself as well as the 1995 film Apollo 13. The movie helped inspire my abiding interest in space exploration, and it’s darkly serendipitous that this anniversary happened to coincide with an ongoing national crisis of extraordinary magnitude. Americans today confront both a pandemic viral outbreak and an economic collapse unseen since the Great Depression at the same time they’ve been saddled with the most incompetent and mean-spirited political leadership in the nation’s history. 

The contrast with the crisis leadership dramatized so effectively in Apollo 13 could not be more stark. So it’s well worth reflecting on what we can learn about coping with and handling exceptional situations and acute crises from this film. Though Apollo 13 is of course a fictionalized account of the mission, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell (portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie) and co-author Jeffrey Kluger both vouch for the general accuracy of the narrative presented by director Ron Howard.

Indeed, the high stakes and time constraints involved make lessons derived from the film all the more worth our while today. Like the proverbial diamond formed under heat and compression, Apollo 13 tautly illustrates the ways in which the stresses and strains of acute crises can bring out the best in us. It also shows we need skilled, driven, and above all competent leadership to obtain that level of performance in high-pressure situations – all qualities in short supply these days.

In that spirit, here are five crisis lessons from Apollo 13.

1. “Let’s look at this thing from a standpoint of status. What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” 

In extreme and fast-moving situations – not to mention everyday setbacks – it’s easy and understandable to focus on what’s gone wrong above all else. It’s therefore crucial to accurately assess what strengths and capabilities remain available to confront a given crisis – or recover in its aftermath. That’s what Flight Director Gene Kranz (portrayed by Ed Harris) does when he asks one of his flight controllers to evaluate what systems on Apollo 13’s command and service module still work after an oxygen tank explodes and cripples the spacecraft. This mentality proves indispensable when both the crew and and Mission Control quickly determine that the lunar module can be used as a lifeboat, keeping Lovell and fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (played by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, respectively) alive.

Right now, things in the United States seem especially broken. Medical equipment including ventilators and masks remains insufficient to cope with the numbers of people stricken with coronavirus, due in no small part to President Trump’s indolence and incompetence. Likewise, national testing for the virus remains well behind other advanced economies despite the administration’s promises. Moreover, the relief package intended to help businesses and citizens weather the economic fallout of the pandemic appears to be inadequate to the task at hand. But as inept as virtually all our institutions look at the moment, it’s important to remain mindful of that the nation retains strengths as well – and focus on those that can help ups recover when the immediate crisis passes.

2. “Let’s stay cool, people… I want everybody to alert your support teams. Wake up anybody you need, get them in here. Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

In time-critical situations, it’s vital to keep calm and avoid panic by focusing on the actual problem at hand and learning what’s needed to fix it. What’s more, it’s imperative to get a handle on the challenge before attempting to fix it, lest needless and possibly fatal mistakes get made instead. That’s what Kranz tells his flight controllers after they confirm Apollo 13 is venting oxygen from one of its damaged tanks. 

Working the problem also entails calling in as many relevant and knowledgable people as possible to help out. Kranz doesn’t hesitate to tell his Mission Control team to roust other flight controllers; indeed, it’s pretty much the first action he takes once the magnitude of Apollo 13’s predicament becomes clear. Later, Kranz tells his flight controllers and engineers “to find every engineer who designed every switch, every circuit, every transistor, and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy on the assembly line who actually built the thing.” That’s likely a rhetorical flourish, but there’s no reason not to reach out to or consult with anyone who might be able to assist in a crisis scenario – all available hands should be on deck.

We’re only beginning to get a handle on the coronavirus and what will be needed to return society to something resembling normal. Thanks to its novelty, scientific and medical research on the virus remains provisional at best. Social distancing seems to work as a way to drive down infection rates and minimize stresses on national health care systems, at least in the short term. But a coronavirus vaccine seems unlikely to be fielded until next year. Though it’s also still far from clear just how deep the economic damage will run, the International Monetary Fund predicts the world economy will face its worst year since the Great Depression. 

Our political leadership, on the other hand, obviously does not want to grasp the scope or nature of the coronavirus problem – nor does it want to bring as many knowledgeable and relevant people as possible on board to work the problem. President Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat, asserting the virus would “miraculously” disappear, erroneously comparing it to the seasonal flu, or calling it a hoax perpetrated by his partisan rivals. Trump has also flirted with firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and appointed unqualified cronies – including his daughter – to the council charged with recommending when to lift the coronavirus lockdown.

3. “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.”

When lunar module pilot Jack Swigert expresses his concern that Mission Control hasn’t come up with a re-entry plan to his fellow crew members, mission commander Jim Lovell warns him that he’s well ahead himself. Over the course of the conversation, tempers flare and Lovell raises his voice to tell his crew that they’re “not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes, because we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems!” Lovell understands that it’s best to work and solve problems as they arise in a crisis. There’s no reason to worry prematurely and unnecessarily about issues that will inevitably arise in due course. It’s accordingly important to stay in the moment and focus on the immense challenges at hand.

Possessing the attention span of a toddler at best, President Trump seems constitutionally incapable of focusing on the tasks before him – whatever they may be. There’s nonetheless a certain consistency in Trump’s unfounded eagerness to reopen the country’s economy. First, he wanted to lift public health restrictions by April 12 – Easter Sunday. More recently (and perhaps upon seeing his sagging poll numbers), he’s targeted May 1 as the next date he’d like to lift lockdowns across the nation.  Trump’s even attacked responsible state governors for maintaining public health restrictions in order to manage the pandemic, once again singling out his partisan rivals. But there’s no short-circuiting the hard work and patience necessary to bring the coronavirus under a modicum of control.

4. “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”

As Apollo 13 returns home, flight controllers at Mission Control realize that toxic levels of carbon dioxide will soon start building up in the lunar module as the its cylindrical CO2 filters reach capacity. Since the command module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers are cubical and therefore won’t fit into slots for the lunar module’s filters, Kranz advises his team to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole – rapidly.” Using only materials available on the spacecraft itself, NASA engineers hurriedly improvise a solution that brings CO2 levels down and saves the crew from asphyxiation. In more general terms, they used what was available to them at a given moment – even it it wasn’t designed for the the task in question.

Here again, President Trump lends us an example of what not to do in a crisis. He failed to use major tools available to the federal government – the Defense Production Act among them – until too late in the day. By contrast, ordinary citizens have risen to the occasion, sewing homemade face masks and donating protective gear to local hospitals and other medical facilities. Likewise, small businesses like distilleries and craft breweries have switched production from alcoholic drinks to hand sanitizer. It’s not hard to imagine how the nation could be galvanized into action with competent political leadership.

5. “With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Before the command module Odyssey re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, Kranz overhears a NASA big-wig brooding that Apollo 13 could become “the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Kranz responds by taking responsibility for the outcome of the mission, even though it’s unsure. This self-confidence amidst uncertainty echoes the idea put forward by Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American pilot taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, that it’s vital not to “confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

In blunt contrast, President Trump has pointedly refused to fulfill his duties as the nation’s chief executive, let alone take responsibility for his own decisions. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he responded when queried about his administration’s laggard coronavirus testing program. Though unsurprising, this failure to take responsibility is all the more galling with the revelation that his administration starved a pandemic early-warning program to budgetary death in September 2019.

“Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

Just before re-entry, the veteran astronaut Lovell conveys his respect for his fellow crew members by giving them the highest praise possible. Though a deluge of crises prevented him from walking on the Moon, Lovell still considers it a privilege to have flown with Haise and Swigert in such desperate circumstances. That’s not surprising, considering how severe crises like Apollo 13 can bring out our best and most capable selves.

Apollo 13 provides us object lessons in crisis leadership, from both Gene Kranz at Mission Control and Jim Lovell aboard the crippled spacecraft. Above all else, Apollo 13 lets us know that when all’s said and done we should be able to say that it was a privilege to handle a particular crisis or other similar extreme circumstances with a certain cohort. We may not be able to control the outcomes of such crises, but we can control our responses to and handling of them.

Indeed, crises are pressure cookers that test and reveal our characters as individuals, organizations, and societies. Despite bright spots among ordinary Americans, civil society, and state governments, it’s hard to say much of anything positive about our national response to the current coronavirus crisis. As a nation, we need to recapture and imbibe the spirit of Apollo 13 – both the actual mission and the film – if we’re to lift ourselves out of our dismal current national predicament.