On April 11, 1970, just a few months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz gives the green light from Houston’s Mission Control Center for launch. The problems with the Apollo 13 mission started as soon the rocket climbs into the sky, but the craft successfully reach orbit and followed its trajectory to the moon. The three astronauts responsible for the Apollo 13 mission in space were the mission commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. During the third day into the mission the real problems began. The service module oxygen tank exploded, and due to the collateral damaged from the explosion, the second tank was damage. After the accident, the landing on the moon was aborted and a new mission was created for Apollo 13: to the fix the craft that were 250,000 miles into space before the power and oxygen ran out, and to bring the astronauts safely home. To pursue this new mission good leadership focusing on solving the numerous problems that this difficult mission presented could be seen throughout the whole movie.
Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell said the famous phrase from the movie, “Houston, we have a problem” right after the crew feels the explosion and the master alarm goes off. The chaos arouse in Houston control mission. From this part on, the lesson for a good leadership begins. Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the flight commander, used the statement “Let’s stay cool people” trying to put an end to the chaos and begin to plan for the new mission; bringing the astronauts safely home. The two leaders portrayed in the movie exhibit valuable management strategies, the main cause in turning this failure mission into a successful one.
The first good management lesson used in the movie was: keep calm under pressure. In the movie, Kranz the flight commander always used this strategy. Soon his crew begins to panic after a problem rose from a potential solution. He was able to give them the right direction by asking them to keep their cool. Immediately, the crew begins to focus on finding a new solution for the mission. This strategy was also seen with Jim Lovell; his tone was always calm during the moments of communication with the control station in Houston. The good human skills from the two leaders give the control station crew and the two other astronauts a sense of calm and ability to focus.
Second was teamwork; this strategy was essential for the mission to succeed. When the carbon dioxide reaches the lunar module’s filter capacity and put the astronauts life in danger, Kranz instructed the engineering team to team up with line assembly employees if it was necessary to come up with a solution for that problem. The engineering crew by working together was able to create in a short period of time and with a limited resource available at the spacecraft, a way for the square filters to work in the lunar module’s round receptacles. The technical skills used by the engineering crew and how the team worked as a whole was essential for the success in this part of the mission.
The next strategy was planning on how to bring the astronauts home, by determining the mission goals and the ways to achieve them. With the situation with the carbon dioxide solved, the flight commander from the control station in Houston did not worry about anything other than saving the crew. He prioritized and communicated to the rest of his crew the problems as soon they arose. By focusing on the problems as soon as they appeared the crew was able to come up with quick solution. And time was an essential factor for this mission. Gene Kranz by showing support and having the goal of bringing the crew safe home clear to everyone, was able to create a goal commitment into the Houston control mission crew.
Maintaining flexibility by adopting an options-base approach was present during the whole movie. This is other management strategy learned from Apollo 13 was when Kranz says: “Forget the flight plan. From this point on, we are improvising a new mission.” He shows how important it is to adapt to changes, and being creative was necessary for the success of this mission. Loftus from Forbes magazine showed in his article how the crew in Houston quickly adapts to the changes and how fast they create innovation that was essential for the success of the mission. This is a statement from NASA that Loftus used in his article; “The most remarkable achievement of mission control was quickly developing procedures for powering up the CM after its long, cold sleep. Flight controllers wrote the documents for this innovation in three days, instead of the usual three months.” (Loftus)
Commitment was another management strategy used in Apollo 13. “Failure is not an option.” This famous statement from the movie shows the commitment from the flight commander to the mission. Kranz by expressing that failure was not an option makes everyone start working toward the mission with the same commitment solving the problems and overcoming the challenges. The whole Houston mission control crew refused to fail and they did whatever they had to bring home safely the three astronauts.
Apollo 13 mission was considered a “successful failure”. It was a failure because the prime mission of landing on the moon was not achieved, and successful due to tremendous human skills, teamwork, good planning, flexibility, and commitment from Houston mission control to save the crew. The movie Apollo 13 is today a reference for business people in solving problem methods, due the leadership and management strategies portrayed in the movie. If they were successful completing their mission to fix the space craft that was 250,000 miles into space before the power and oxygen ran out and to bring the astronauts safely home, business people could solve not so big problems following management strategies, and always remembering that “Failure is not an option.”
Loftus, Geoff. "Apollo 13: Lesson From the Successful Failure." Forbes 3 Apr. 2013: 1-3. Web. 17 July 2013.