Between April 11 – 17, 1970, the Apollo 13 saga gripped much of the world as three NASA spacemen in a badly-damaged ship wound their way around the moon and home to Earth with all bets of their survival fundamentally off.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to the world at large.
But there are few points during that six-day saga at which the men who controlled the mission from Houston, Texas had any real doubt that they would succeed in bringing their men safely home. Not because they had any guarantees – they certainly did not. Nor had they practiced for almost any of the eventualities that came at them hard and fast during that sleepless week.
They were sure they’d pull it off because inherently, they were the perfect breed of independent-thinking team players. They were, to coin a term I heard recently in a totally unrelated TED talk by Britta Riley, R&D-I-Yers: Research & Develop-It-Yourselfers.
Mission control consisted of people who took it upon themselves to check the data they were constantly being fed and to recalculate what it told them in real-time, again and again, in order to take remedial action where it was necessary.
Three major benefits came out of that during the Apollo 13 mission alone:
1) Shortly after the explosion in one of the oxygen tanks that badly damaged the space craft and ended any hope it would be able to land on the moon, one engineer on the team did a calculation of how the other systems would operate up in space. His calculation indicated that though they had more than 70 hours before they’d make it back to Earth, they only had 16 hours of battery life. Recognising that, they were able to run simulations on Earth starting immediately, to determine the minimum power required to keep the astronauts alive for the full 70 hours. That bit of thinking was never in the manual.
2) On the return journey, it suddenly became apparent that the carbon dioxide levels inside the space craft – the result of the astronauts exhaling – were becoming dangerously high and would soon pose a potentially lethal threat. The lunar landing craft where they had taken shelter had simply never been intended to support three astronauts for six days, and with no replacement carbon dioxide filters to hand, one had to be improvised, fast. A group of engineers worked double-time on the ground at Houston to make a new filter using only materials that the astronauts would have with them on the space craft – such as one of their socks – and then radioed instructions on how the astronauts could do it themselves. It was improvisation on-the-fly that surely saved their lives.
3) In the final approach, as last-minute checks were made, one bright spark noted that their angle of approach was wrong. If it was too shallow, the space craft would bounce off the atmosphere and back into space. If it was too deep, they’d burn up on re-entry. The realisation came to an engineer taking it upon himself to check the data one last time for irregularities and noting that their trajectory was wrong for an unexpected reason: since they hadn’t landed on the moon as they had planned, they didn’t have the additional 200kg of moon rocks on board that they expected to have. Again, there was no game plan for that. A correction was calculated and the boosters were fired up for a few seconds to correct the trajectory.
Ultimately, the reason Apollo 13 was merely a failure of technology but did not result in a loss of life is because the NASA of the Apollo-era was staffed by constant R&D-I-Yers who observed no boundaries in the scope of their responsibilities other than playing their part to get the job done.
It’s one of the greatest stories of team work ever told.