apollo 13 problem solving

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What Went Wrong on Apollo 13?

By: Sarah Pruitt

Updated: April 13, 2020 | Original: April 2, 2020

What Went Wrong on Apollo 13?

For nearly 56 hours after the Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11, 1970, it looked to be the smoothest flight of NASA’s Apollo program so far.

The spacecraft ferrying astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise to their planned lunar landing had traveled just over 200,000 miles from Earth, and was approaching the moon’s orbit.

Just before 9 pm on April 13, the crew wrapped up a TV broadcast in which they had given a tour of the spacecraft and talked about how they were managing weightlessness. “This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening,” signed off Mission Commander Lovell, a captain in the U.S. Navy with three other missions (including Apollo 8) under his belt.

Less than 10 minutes later, after a routine maintenance task went awry and caused the spacecraft’s oxygen tanks to explode, what was supposed to be the U.S. space program’s third landing on the moon turned into a desperate race to save three astronauts’ lives. Working around the clock from Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, NASA flight controllers and engineers improvised a series of innovative procedures to bring Lovell, Swigert and Haise safely home on April 17, marking a successful conclusion to one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the U.S. space program.

Missed Warning Signs

Apollo 13 launch

In order to power the fuel cells that provided most of the electricity used during the flight, the Apollo spacecraft carried two tanks of liquid hydrogen and two tanks of liquid oxygen. NASA’s subsequent investigation revealed that the No. 2 oxygen tank onboard Apollo 13 had been accidentally dropped during maintenance before the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, causing slight internal damage that didn’t show up in later inspections.

During testing in March 1970, the reinstalled tank failed to properly empty itself of oxygen. The testing team decided to solve this problem by heating the tank overnight to force the liquid oxygen to burn off. But the surge of power from the high-voltage DC system on the ground caused the automatic shut-off switches on the tank’s heater to fail, and the temperature spiked to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Though there was no external indication of the problem, the heat apparently damaged the insulation on the wires inside the tank—effectively turning the tank into a bomb waiting to explode.

Chain Reaction Leads to Explosion

Apollo 13

While in flight, the astronauts had to turn on the fuel tanks’ internal fans periodically in order to stir the super cold oxygen, which tended to stratify, or settle into layers. But when Swigert turned on the fans on the second oxygen tank for a routine “cryo stir” on the night of April 13, the damaged wiring caused a spark, starting a fire. At 9:08 pm, with its internal pressure mounting, the tank exploded.

As Lovell recounts in an upcoming HISTORY This Week podcast , he and Haise were caught completely off guard when they heard the bang. “I looked up at Fred Haise to see if he knew what caused the noise. And I could tell from his expression, he had no idea. Then I...looked down at Jack Swigert in the command module and his eyes were as wide as saucers. And I could see that...this was the start of a long, treacherous journey home.” 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” Swigert said, after noticing a warning light switch on after hearing the bang of the exploding tank. (He would later be famously misquoted .) More blinking lights soon indicated the loss of two of the ship’s three fuel cells, which in addition to electricity provided potable water, used for cooling the spacecraft’s systems as well as hydrating the astronauts.

Then, 13 minutes after the explosion, Lovell glanced out the window and saw something else disturbing. “We are venting something out into the...into space,” he reported. “It’s a gas of some sort.” Because the two oxygen tanks were located in the same segment of the spacecraft, the explosion had damaged the other tank as well, and it had begun leaking oxygen into space.

The Rocky Road to Touchdown

Ground controllers in Houston now mobilized to run an unprecedented survival mission. They ordered the crew to make their way from the spacecraft’s command module, Odyssey, into the separate landing module, Aquarius. If things had gone as planned, Aquarius wouldn’t have been turned on until the astronauts were ready to touch down on the moon. Now, it had to keep Lovell, Swigert and Haise alive for an estimated 90 hours, until they could transfer back to the damaged command module for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The crew turned off all non-critical systems aboard the spacecraft to reduce energy consumption, and cut way back on their consumption of water, in order to have enough to cool the landing module’s overtaxed hardware. At one point, when too much carbon dioxide was building up in Aquarius, Mission Control devised a way for the astronauts to clear the gas out, instructing them to build a “mail box” out of plastic bags, cardboard and tape in order to purge the gas using canisters from the command module.

“They worked out a system and then they relayed it up to us word by word,” Lovell tells HISTORY This Week . “Hose. Duct tape and an old sock and my gosh, time was the one thing that kept us from dying.” 

Apollo 13 Declared a ‘Successful Failure’

On April 17, after the engineers in Houston succeeded in powering Odyssey back up, the crew prepared for the final stages of their journey to Earth by jettisoning the lunar module. Finally, at 11:53 am, what was left of the Apollo 13 spacecraft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, touching down in the Pacific Ocean, near Samoa.

Because so much valuable experience was gained in the process of rescuing Lovell, Swiger, and Haise, NASA classified the Apollo 13 mission as a “ successful failure .” Starting with Apollo 14, each spacecraft would be supplied with an additional battery as well as a third reserve oxygen tank, located in another section of the service module from the other two, that could be used exclusively to provide air for the astronauts. Over eight more Apollo missions, no such incident ever occurred again. 

apollo 13 problem solving

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Working out the problems of apollo 13.

50 years later, two Georgia Tech engineering alumni reflect on their experience in Apollo 13’s mission control

A view of the Mission Operations Control Room during a television transmission from the Apollo 13 mission in space.

 “Houston we’ve had a problem” – we all know those infamous words that were transmitted from the crew of Apollo 13 back to mission control at 02:07:55:35 into the flight that took off on April 11, 1970. The mission that was later called a “successful failure” had captured the attention of the entire world, as three astronauts were suddenly in a critical state of danger.  Something had gone terribly wrong onboard the spacecraft and suddenly the mission objective quickly changed from landing on the moon for scientific exploration to finding a way to get these astronauts home safely to Earth.

There was much uncertainty.  At approximately 56 hours into the mission on their way to the moon, the crew reported a “pretty large bang” after a routine stir of an oxygen tank followed by a caution/warning alarm.  It seemed that the command service module was losing power and oxygen fast but there was no determined reason why.  It was very clear though after monitoring the situation for a short time that the command service module was severely damaged and out of commission.  Fortunately, the crew had already docked to the lunar module before the accident occurred so it was determined that the crew would have to move into the lunar module and use it as a lifeboat to get the majority of the way back home. 

apollo 13 problem solving

We recently talked to two flight controllers who were among the mission control team in Houston tasked with finding a way to get these astronauts home.  Spencer Gardner graduated from Georgia Tech with an aerospace engineering degree in 1967 and joined NASA soon after.  He was a Flight Activity Officer (FAO) for the Apollo missions which involved working on on-board flight plans, crew checklists, and being responsible for the data file that was carried on-board by the crew.  Jack Knight graduated from Georgia Tech with an electrical engineering degree in 1965. He was a Telemetry, Electrical, EVA Mobility Unit (TELMU) officer on all of the Apollo missions and monitored the lunar module electrical and environmental systems.

Gardner: “I was supposed to work the lunar descent phase of the mission and I had gone off shift probably eight or 10 hours before the accident happened.  I was sitting at home watching television when a report came out about an issue with the spacecraft.  So, I called my backroom and asked what was going on, and the FAO on duty said, ‘We’re not going to land and you better get some sleep because you guys are going to have a hard time trying to re-work what’s going to happen.’ So, I immediately crawl into bed and about 30 minutes later I get a phone call that says, ‘This is much more serious, and you better get over here.’ Fortunately, I lived right across the street from the center and was able to join the meeting that Gene Kranz had in the backroom with all those folks he pulled together to try to work the problem.”

Knight: “For me the most stressful time is when you have a lot of uncertainty. And a lot of the uncertainty happened very early.”

Gardner: “The most stressful time for me was when I first walked into mission control and all that was going on and nobody really knew what the heck was happening for sure.  But when you start working the problem and pull things together, it becomes less and less stressful because you’re now concentrating on the problem.  We were trained to deal with that pressure and stress and concentrate on working the problem that was presented.”

A view inside Mission Control Center during the Apollo 13 oxygen cell failure on April 14, 1970.

After flight director Gene Kranz gathered everyone together for a meeting, it was determined that the best option was to have the spacecraft continue its journey to orbit the moon, then make a free-return trajectory back to earth minimizing the use of power onboard.  A propulsion burn would be needed though on the way back to speed the return to Earth by 10 hours in order to splash down in the Pacific Ocean rather than the Indian Ocean.

Jack Knight was scheduled to work his post at mission control once the lunar module was powered up and being used for the lunar landing, however, circumstances had drastically changed.  The lunar module would now be the living quarters and control center of the spacecraft for most of the remainder of the mission.  The crew had to work fast to transfer guidance data from the command module to the lunar module and shut down the command module to leave enough power for reentry to Earth later.

Knight: “We had two basic problems in my systems area with respect to the lunar module.  The first problem was carbon dioxide removal.  The second problem was how long was it going to take because we had limited battery power and water inside the lunar module. Early on until we got around the moon, the flight directors really needed to keep the lunar module at a fairly high-power mode to maintain the knowledge of where we were in space because the command service module was down at that point. The crew had copied all the data over when the lunar module was powered up and it had to stay that way for a while.  Once we got around the moon and made a burn to speed things up, we went into a power down.  We got power down to about 300 watts, and at that point, consumable wise, they could make it.  So, if nothing else bad happened from the lunar module perspective, we could make it.  And then it was a matter of monitoring.”

Gardner: “One of the things that my group was concerned with was helping guidance have the ability to sight on the stars.  The crew used the sun in this whole process.  We had to figure out where we were and confirm what the guidance system was saying. The other thing that we were involved in was trying to set up the passive thermal control which was important because we wanted to make sure the spacecraft didn’t get heated or cooled too much on one side.  This was very difficult to do with a minimal amount of energy expenditure and without a computer after the power down.”

Knight: “After the power down, the spacecraft started to get cold.  The command module batteries had been partially depleted, so we were very nervous about when we had to power back up.  They had to delay power up as much as possible.”

One of the Apollo 13 astronauts trying to sleep in the cold, dark spacecraft after power down. 

An additional problem was the astronauts now had a very limited amount of drinking water onboard because of the accident that occurred in the service module.  To conserve water for the remainder of the mission, each astronaut would only drink 0.2 liters of water per day.  Astronaut Fred Haise developed a urinary tract infection during the mission probably caused by the reduced water intake and the three astronauts lost a total of 31 pounds among them by the end of the mission.

Gardner: “Drinking water was normally produced when hydrogen and oxygen were combined to make electricity for the command module.  Therefore, the astronauts would have plenty of water in a normal situation.  But in this case, the water was gone, and the only source of water was the limited supply in the lunar module.”

Knight: “I think people knew immediately that the Co2 was going to be a problem – but it wasn’t a ‘this minute’ problem.  It was going to be a problem when you ran out of the lithium hydroxide cartridges in the lunar module.  But they had time to work on that.  They had to figure out how can we take these square cartridges from the command module and run air through them in the lunar module.”

After a mid-course correction burn was completed manually and the CO2 problem had been solved, the crew was now approaching Earth and needed to power up the command module again to prepare for re-entry.  This meant the command module had to separate from the lunar module (the lifeboat spacecraft) and the service module (where the technical failure had occurred).  When the command module separated from the service module, the crew could see through the window that an entire panel had been blown off the service module. It was clear that a large explosion and much damage had occurred which brought another question that was out of everyone’s control: Was the heat shield damaged?

Knight: “The entry corridor is, if I remember correctly, 40 miles wide and 10 miles high at a certain altitude.  And you need to be in that entry corridor to have them come down at the right place at the right time, and not either skip our or burn up.  So, until they came out of blackout, I’m sitting there with my fingers crossed – I’m sure everybody else was too.”

Blackout took roughly two minutes longer than normal which added to the stress of those watching on Earth, but suddenly the most “beautiful” sight appeared in the sky. Three large parachutes had opened, slowly carrying down the command module to the Pacific Ocean, just 3.5 nautical miles from a rescue aircraft carrier - they had made it safely back to Earth.

The Apollo 13 command module safely falling to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean

Gardner:   “You had spacecraft that were not supposed to be together, controlled by the lunar module which was not supposed to control the stack, and you’re doing not only that long burn but you’re doing this mid-course correction that was essentially done manually which was unlike anything the crew had ever practiced.  And, the crew had to essentially learn to do these things as they were doing them.”

After Apollo 13, Jack Knight continued on with NASA working on the remaining Apollo missions, Skylab, ASTP, and shuttle missions until he retired in 2006.  Spencer Gardner worked in mission control for the remaining Apollo missions other than 17 and eventually became a lawyer and still practices today.

The crew wait for the rescue helicopter after splashdown 

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'Failure Is Not an Option:' What Apollo 13 Teaches Entrepreneurs About Problem-Solving Work the puzzle, "methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen."

By Aytekin Tank • Feb 24, 2021

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entrepreneurs are inherently problem-solvers. After all, we start our businesses because we recognize a need that needs to be filled. Take me, for instance: Part of my previous job at an internet media company was to create tools for editors to build forms, surveys and polls. The problem was that at the time, the form-building landscape offered few good options. I decided to change that, and my company, JotForm, was born.

But in the course of solving big-picture problems, smaller ones are constantly springing up and threatening to derail us. Some days, it feels like there are hundreds of fires that need to be put out before I've even finished my coffee.

On those days, I like to think of an anecdote from Jerry C. Bostick, the flight dynamics officer for the Apollo 13 mission. More than two decades after the spacecraft was safely brought back to Earth after near-disaster, screenwriters Al Reinert and Bill Broyles were interviewing Bostick for the script that would become the film Apollo 13 . One of their questions was, "Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?"

Bostick's answer? No.

"When bad things happened we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them," he said.

If ever there was a situation when panic would be warranted, the Apollo 13 mission was one of them. But panic wouldn't have helped Mission Control then, and it won't help you, either.

Work the problem

One of NASA's most renowned problem solvers was flight director Gene Kranz, who oversaw both the Gemini and Apollo programs during his 34-year career. While trying to figure out how to rescue the three astronauts whose lives were on the line on Apollo 13, he said to his staff, "Let's work the problem, people. Let's not make things worse by guessing."

Kranz's "work the problem" mantra is still used by the agency today. Astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the process in his book, An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth , describing it as "NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen:"

"When we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off – maybe the Russians couldn't hear it in their module – while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste."

University of Virginia Professor Thomas S. Bateman laid out "working the problem" in eight steps:

Define the problem

Determine goals/objectives

Generate an array of alternative solutions

Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution

Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action

Plan the implementation

Implement with full commitment

Adapt as needed based on incoming data

This calm, rational approach to problem-solving works for astronauts and entrepreneurs alike. No matter what you're dealing with, take a step back, understand the problem, and descend each decision tree until you find a solution.

Related: 7 Ways to Help Your Employees Become Better Problem-Solvers

Be adaptable

It might turn out that your original vision isn't the one that ends up being realized. Or maybe you successfully launched one product , but changing technology forces you to reimagine it a few years down the line. That's okay. Successful entrepreneurs know that change is inevitable, and if they want to survive in the long term, they'll have to adapt.

Nokia, for example, began as a paper company before following consumer demand and transitioning to rubber tires and galoshes. In the 1960s, it began making military equipment for Finland's army, including gas masks and radio service phones, among other things. It eventually rose to prominence as the most successful cell phone manufacturer on Earth between 1998 and 2012. Even though it was eventually crushed by Apple after the release of the iPhone, Nokia lasted as long as it did thanks to its agility.

Asking "why?" over and over again might make you feel less like a CEO and more like your toddler. But the truth is that there's a lot we can gain from having an open, inquisitive mindset. Entrepreneur Michelle MacDonald suggests asking "Why?" five times to get to the root of any problem.

"Many times when a problem arises, we jump to the first thought about why that problem is occurring, and then focus on a solution to fix that," she says. "This is like putting an adhesive bandage over a hose and expecting it to hold."

Say you find yourself drowning in work because you keep putting off tasks. Your five whys might go something like this:

Why am I constantly stressed? Because I have too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Why don't I have enough time? Because I often procrastinate.

Why do I procrastinate? Because I don't particularly enjoy some of the tasks I have to do.

Why don't I enjoy them? Because they're not a good use of my time, and someone else can easily do them.

Why isn't someone else doing them? Because I haven't delegated them out.

Doing this will help you treat the actual problem, not just its symptoms, and keep you from trying to resolve the same thing over and over again.

Related: Creativity Is Your Best Problem-Solving Tool -- Here's How to ...

Positive thinking

Bostick's answer about Mission Control's refusal to panic spawned one of the most iconic lines of all time: "Failure is not an option." Though that exact phrasing is an invention of the Apollo 13 writers, the sentiment was accurate.

Negative thinking undermines the brain's ability to think broadly and creatively, because fear and stress obscure options. Of course, you're going to be stressed if, say, you lose a major client or there's a freak explosion aboard your space craft. But those who cultivate positivity tend to be more resilient to such shocks, says Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Positivity .

One report co-written by Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions create a sort of buffer that helps people overcome setbacks. In fact, positive emotions were shown to help businesspeople negotiate better, improve decision-making and drive high-performance behavior.

"Positive emotions expand awareness and attention," Fredrickson says — critical attributes for anyone trying to solve a problem. "When you're able to take in more information, the peripheral vision field is expanded. You're able to connect the dots to the bigger picture. Instead of remembering just the most central event, you remember that and the peripheral aspects, too."

Related: 7 Ways Teams Can Problem Solve Better Than Individuals

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Climate income: an idea for the post-pandemic economic recovery, openmind books, scientific anniversaries, cooling paints to get more sustainable buildings, featured author, latest book, houston, we have a solution: the story of apollo 13.

“Houston, we have a problem.” The famous quote has become a popular phrase applied to almost any situation. Those who were alive then may well remember the Apollo 13 mission as a space thriller with a happy ending. Those who have come across the story through subsequent recreations, notably Ron Howard’s 1995 film, might remember that the success of the rescue involved squaring the circle.

But the adventure of Apollo 13 was much more than that. The problems cropped up one after another, followed by solutions that were thought up one after another, in a brilliant example of crisis management and teamwork.

apollo 13 problem solving

On April 11, 1970, the third of the manned missions to the lunar surface blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center with three astronauts on board: Commander James A. Lovell , Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise , and Command Module Pilot John L. “Jack” Swigert , who was to remain in orbiting around the Moon while his two companions explored the lunar formation called Fra Mauro.

Almost 56 hours after the launch, when the ship was about 330,000 kilometres from Earth, the crew of the Apollo 13 heard a loud bang. While reporting the problem to the control centre—”Houston, we had a problem,” was the original phrase—the oxygen level of tank 2 dropped to nothing.

‘Odyssey’ mission

Among those who heard that distress call was Jerry Woodfill , the Johnson Space Center engineer in charge of the Apollo 13 warning systems. Woodfill saw the flash of the main alarm before hearing the words of Swigert and Lovell. What followed, as the alarms began to sound one after the other before Woodfill’s eyes, led to an anguished conclusion: the mission could not be completed, and the recovery of the astronauts was going to live up to the name with which the command module of the Apollo 13 had been baptized : Odyssey .

The ship en route to the Moon consisted of three parts. The Odyssey command module was the capsule—the passenger compartment for the astronauts during the voyage to the Moon and the return to Earth. This module was joined to two other devices: on its nose was the lunar module Aquarius , in which Lovell and Haise were supposed to descend to the Moon. At the opposite end, the Odyssey was attached to the service module, a non-pressurized cylindrical structure that housed the systems required by the command module and which had to be decoupled on its return, before re-entry into the atmosphere.

The service module carried fuel cells made up of hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which combined to supply drinking water and power the Odyssey , in addition to providing breathable air. Following the explosion of one of the oxygen tanks and the loss of the other, the fuel cells failed, leaving the astronauts with an insufficient supply of water, energy and oxygen to complete their plan.

“Failure was not an option”

The mission had to be aborted, and as Woodfill points out to OpenMind, paraphrasing a promotional motto from Ron Howard’s film, “failure was not an option.” Three years earlier, the Apollo 1 capsule had burned on the launch pad because of an electrical fault, killing its three crewmembers. “The tragedy of Apollo 1 , I believe, led to that deeply felt resolve in all who continued to work to put the first men on the Moon,” says Woodfill.

apollo 13 problem solving

But the obstacles to overcome were considerable. The mission controllers in Houston decided to maintain the spacecraft’s trajectory to return to Earth, taking advantage of the lunar gravity boost . The astronauts had to leave the Odyssey and move to the Aquarius , which had enough water, oxygen and supply batteries, provided they were rationed drastically.

Soon after, the mission’s most memorable problem arose when another of Woodfill’s alarms warned that the CO 2 emitted by the astronauts’ breathing was beginning to accumulate in the Aquarius at dangerous levels. Engineers in Houston were required to design an emergency procedure so that Lovell and his fellow crewmembers could adapt the Odyssey’s square CO 2 absorbers to the circular holes of the Aquarius . “Even if every available round lunar module filter were used, the crew would not have survived without the duct taped apparatus,” says Woodfill.

However, the problems did not end there. When the astronauts set out to align the ship for re-entry into the atmosphere, they discovered that the usual method was impracticable: the remnants of the explosion that traveled around them made it impossible to orient themselves by the stars, so they had to be guided by the Sun. In addition, procedures had to be improvised to transfer energy from the Aquarius batteries to the Odyssey , and then to eject the former at a prudent distance that would allow the command module to clear its re-entry route.

Re-entering the atmosphere

When the astronauts returned to the Odyssey —to re-enter the atmosphere and prepare for landing— the cold temperature in its interior had condensed so much water vapor in the devices that the reactivation of the energy supply could have caused a new and fatal electrical failure. “Powering up those circuits might very well have resulted in the same kind of short-circuit which led to the demise of the Apollo 1 crew ,” says Woodfill. And thanks to the work of this engineer, also responsible for the wiring of the panels, at least the death of the three crew members of the first Apollo mission was not in vain: after that tragedy, Woodfill explains, not only were the alarm systems improved, but also the electrical connectors under the panels were coated with a substance that insulated them against moisture. “In my mind, this saved Apollo 13 ,” he says proudly. The Odyssey landed in the South Pacific on April 17, with its three occupants safe and sound.

apollo 13 problem solving

The investigation after the accident managed to unravel the cause. The liquid oxygen tanks had a heater to turn the contents into gas, controlled by a thermostat. Due to a change in the technical specifications, the power supply of these devices had risen from 28 to 65 volts , but the thermostats were not prepared for this excess voltage and melted, preventing the heater from being switched off. The temperature rise melted the Teflon insulation of the fan wires of the second oxygen tank, causing a short circuit.

The happy ending did not prevent Woodfill and the rest of the engineers from undertaking a thorough overhaul of the systems . Among many other changes, the thermostats were updated, fans were removed and a third oxygen tank was added. Four more missions successfully flew to the Moon. “All later Apollo missions profited from the Apollo 13 rescue,” Woodfill concludes.

Javier Yanes

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Ieee spectrum, follow ieee spectrum, support ieee spectrum, enjoy more free content and benefits by creating an account, saving articles to read later requires an ieee spectrum account, the institute content is only available for members, downloading full pdf issues is exclusive for ieee members, access to spectrum 's digital edition is exclusive for ieee members, following topics is a feature exclusive for ieee members, adding your response to an article requires an ieee spectrum account, create an account to access more content and features on ieee spectrum , including the ability to save articles to read later, download spectrum collections, and participate in conversations with readers and editors. for more exclusive content and features, consider joining ieee ., join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of spectrum’s articles, archives, pdf downloads, and other benefits. learn more →, access thousands of articles — completely free, create an account and get exclusive content and features: save articles, download collections, and talk to tech insiders — all free for full access and benefits, join ieee as a paying member., apollo 13, we have a solution, rather than hurried improvisation, saving the crew of apollo 13 took years of preparation.

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Editors Note: this article was originally published on 13 April 2005. It was republished on 11 April 2018 with minor revisions.

“Houston, we've had a problem."

Thirty-five years ago today, these words marked the start of a crisis that nearly killed three astronauts in outer space. In the four days that followed, the world was transfixed as the crew of Apollo 13— Jim Lovell , Fred Haise , and Jack Swigert —fought cold, fatigue, and uncertainty to bring their crippled spacecraft home.

But the crew had an angel on their shoulders—in fact thousands of them—in the form of the flight controllers of NASA's mission control and supporting engineers scattered across the United States.

To the outsider, it looked like a stream of engineering miracles was being pulled out of some magician's hat as mission control identified, diagnosed, and worked around life-threatening problem after life-threatening problem on the long road back to Earth.

From the navigation of a badly damaged spacecraft to impending carbon dioxide poisoning, NASA's ground team worked around the clock to give the Apollo 13 astronauts a fighting chance. But what was going on behind the doors of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston—now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center —wasn't a trick, or even a case of engineers on an incredible lucky streak. It was the manifestation of years of training, teamwork, discipline, and foresight that to this day serves as a perfect example of how to do high-risk endeavors right.

Many people are familiar with Apollo 13 thanks to the 1995 Ron Howard movie of the same name . But, as Howard himself was quick to point out when the movie was released, the film is a dramatization, not a documentary, and many of the elements that mark the difference between Hollywood and real life are omitted or altered. For the 35th anniversary of Apollo 13, IEEE Spectrum spoke to some of the key figures in mission control to get the real story of how they saved the day.

First, a little refresher on moon-shot hardware: a powerful, 85-meter tall, three-stage Saturn V booster launched each mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Atop the Saturn V rode the Apollo stack, which was composed of two spacecraft: a three-person mother ship to go to the moon and back, called the command and service module, or CSM; and a two-person lander, called the lunar module, or LM, to travel between the CSM and the surface of the moon.

The two spacecraft were also composed of two parts. The CSM divided into a cylindrical service module (SM) and a conical command module (CM). The service module housed the main engine and supplied all the oxygen, electricity, and water the crew needed for the long voyage—it took about six days for a round trip between the Earth and the moon. The crew lived in the cramped command module, which housed the flight computer and navigation equipment. The command module was the only part of the Apollo stack that was designed to come back safely to Earth. It would plummet through the atmosphere, the blunt end of its cone designed to withstand the immense heat generated by the descent, and then deploy parachutes and splash down in the ocean.

The lunar module consisted of an ascent stage and a descent stage. The ascent stage housed the astronauts. The descent stage had a powerful engine used to land the lunar module on the moon. After the surface expedition was complete, the descent stage served as a launch pad for the ascent stage to blast off and rendezvous with the command and service module in lunar orbit.

For most of the way to the moon, the command and service module and the lunar module—dubbed the Odyssey and Aquarius, respectively, on the Apollo 13 mission—were docked nose to nose. But the astronauts generally remained in the command module, because the lunar module was turned off to preserve power.

Most of that power came from a cluster of three fuel cells in the service module. The fuel cells were fed hydrogen and oxygen from two pairs of cryogenic tanks, combining them to produce electricity and water.

There were some batteries on board the command module, but these were intended for only a few hours use during re-entry, after the service module was jettisoned close to Earth.

It was one of the cryogenic tanks that would reveal itself as the Odyssey's Achilles' heel. On 13 April 1970, around 9 p.m. Houston time, almost 56 hours into Apollo 13's flight, mission control asked the crew to turn on fans in all the cryogenic tanks to stir the contents in order to get accurate quantity readings. Due to a series of pre-launch mishaps, turning on the fan sparked a short circuit between exposed wires within oxygen tank two.

The Odyssey was dying, but no one knew it yet.

Even the crew were unaware of the gravity of the situation. In the Ron Howard movie, the oxygen tank two explosion is accompanied by a whole series of bangs and creaks while the astronauts are tossed around like ping-pong balls. But in real life, “there was a dull but definite bang—not much of a vibration though...just a noise," said Apollo's 13's commander, Lovell, afterward. Then the Odyssey's caution and warning lights lit up like a Christmas tree.

On the ground, mission control was initially unperturbed. During the cryogenic tank stir, Sy Liebergot , the flight controller in charge of the fuel cells and the tanks, had his attention focused on oxygen tank one. Liebergot was an EECOM, a job title that dated back to the Mercury program days of the early 1960s. It originally meant the person was responsible for all Electrical, Environmental, and COMunications systems onboard the CSM. The communications responsibilities had recently been split out of the EECOM's job, but the name remained.

In an unfortunate coincidence, oxygen tank two's quantity sensor had failed earlier, but both oxygen tanks were interconnected, so Liebergot was watching the quantity that tank one reported, to get an idea what was in tank two.

As he sat in mission control at his console, with its mosaic of push buttons and black-and-white computer displays, Liebergot wasn't alone in tending to the Odyssey's electronic and life support systems. He was in voice contact with three other controllers in a staff support room across the hall. Each flight controller in mission control was connected via so-called voice loops—pre-established audio-conferencing channels—to a number of supporting specialists in back rooms who watched over one subsystem or another and who sat at similar consoles to those in mission control.

Liebergot's wingmen that day were Dick Brown, a power-systems specialist, and George Bliss and Larry Sheaks, both life support specialists. As the pressure rapidly rose in oxygen tank two and then abruptly fell within seconds, their eyes were fixed on the other cryogenic tank readouts, and they all missed the signs that tank two had just exploded.

Suddenly the radio link from the crew crackled to life. “Okay Houston, we've had a problem here," reported command module pilot Swigert as he surveyed the Odyssey's instruments. “Houston, we've had a problem," repeated Lovell a few seconds later, adding that the voltage of one of the two main power-distribution circuits, or buses, that powered the spacecraft's systems, was too low. But a few seconds later the voltage righted itself, so the crew began chasing down what seemed to be the big problems: the jolt of the explosion had caused their computer to reset and had knocked closed a number of valves in the attitude-control system that kept the Odyssey pointed in the right direction.

In mission control though, things weren't adding up. The spacecraft's high-gain directional antenna had stopped transmitting, and the Odyssey had automatically fallen back to its low-gain omnidirectional antennas. Liebergot and his team were seeing a lot of screwy data, dozens of measurements out of whack. Fuel cells one and three had lost pressure, and were no longer supplying current, leaving only fuel cell two to pick up the load; oxygen tank two's pressure was reading zero; the pressure in oxygen tank one was rapidly failing; and Odyssey had completely lost one of its electrical distribution buses along with all the equipment powered by it. The crew connected one of their re-entry batteries to the remaining bus in a bid to keep the command module's systems up and running.

Liebergot's training kicked in. Simulation after simulation had taught controllers not to make rash decisions based on a few seconds of oddball data—measurements were made by imperfect sensors and had to pass through a lot of space, with a lot of opportunities to get mangled, before they turned up on a controller's screen. “Engineers that work in this business are well schooled to think first in terms of instrumentation," explains Arnold Aldrich, chief of the command and service module systems branch during Apollo 13. He was in mission control at the time of the explosion and recalls that “it wasn't immediately clear how one particular thing could have caused so many things to start looking peculiar."

So when Gene Kranz, the flight director in charge of the mission (referred to as “Flight" on the voice loops), pointedly asked Liebergot what was happening on board the Odyssey, the EECOM responded, “We may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight."

Thirty-five years later, Liebergot still ruefully remembers his initial assessment. “It was the understatement of the manned space program. I never did live that down," he chuckles.

apollo 13 problem solving

A Crisis Begins: This audio is from the mission control tapes of Sy Liebergot's EECOM intercom “loop," where Liebergot could talk to his “backroom boys." The audio has been enhanced to make the astronauts' transmissions easier to hear. It begins with a crackle that marks the moment when the tank explosion knocked Apollo 13's main high-gain antenna offline. After the crackle, you can hear Liebergot notice the antenna drop out, as flight director Gene Kranz talks about some routine updates in the background. Then the crew reports “Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here," and problems begin to pile up. At the end of the loop, you can hear Liebergot make an initial assessment for which he was greatly ribbed about afterward: “We may have had an instrumentation problem."

To Kranz, the answer sounded reasonable, as he'd already had some electrical problems with the Odyssey on his shift, including one involving the high-gain antenna. “I thought we had another electrical glitch and we were going to solve the problem rapidly and get back on track. That phase lasted for 3 to 5 minutes," says Kranz. Then “we realized we'd got some problem here we didn't fully understand, and we ought to proceed pretty damn carefully."

Kranz's word was law. “The flight director probably has the simplest mission job description in all America," Kranz told Spectrum . “It's only one sentence long: 'The flight director may take any action necessary for crew safety and mission success.'" The only way for NASA to overrule a flight director during a mission was to fire him on the spot.

The rule vesting ultimate authority in the flight director during a mission was on the books thanks to Chris Kraft, who founded mission control as NASA's first flight director and who was deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center during Apollo 13. He had written the rule following an incident during the Mercury program when Kraft, as flight director, had been second-guessed by management. This time, as the crisis unfolded, no one had any doubts as to who was in charge. While other flight directors would take shifts during Apollo 13, as the lead flight director Kranz would bear most of the responsibility for getting the crew home.

Mission control and the astronauts tried various fuel cell and power bus configurations to restore the Odyssey to health, but anyone's remaining hope that the problem was something that could be shrugged off was dashed when Lovell radioed down: “It looks to me, looking out of the hatch, that we are venting something out into space." It was in truth liquid oxygen spilling out from the wounded service module.

The problems were piling up at Liebergot's door. Although his voice is impressively calm throughout the recordings of the voice loops from mission control, Liebergot admits that he was almost overwhelmed when he realized “it was not an instrumentation problem but some kind of a monster systems failure that I couldn't sort out...It was probably the most stressful time in my life. There was a point where panic almost overcame me."

Liebergot gives credit to the endless emergency simulation training for getting him through the moment—as well as to the big handles that flanked each mission control console, intended to make servicing easier and jokingly dubbed “security handles" by the controllers. “I shoved the panic down and grabbed the security handles with both hands and hung on. I decided to settle down and work the problem with my backroom guys. Not to say that the thought of getting up and going home didn't pass my mind," he remembers.

The emergency simulations had also taught controllers “to be very careful how you made decisions, because if you jumped to the end, the sims taught you how devastating that could be. You could do wrong things and not be able to undo them," explains Kraft.

As controllers scrambled to track down the source of the venting, flight director Kranz echoed this thinking to all his controllers. “Okay, let's everybody keep cool...Let's solve the problem, but let's not make it any worse by guessing," he broadcast over the voice loops, practically spitting the word “guessing," and he reminded them that, just in case, they had an undamaged lunar module attached to the Odyssey that could be used to sustain the crew.

For now, Liebergot and his back room concentrated on ways to ease the ailing command module's power problem until they figured out what was wrong, and the crew started powering down nonessential equipment to reduce the load temporarily. The goal was to stabilize the situation pending a solution that would get the Odyssey back on track.

But Liebergot, who was starting to realize the full depth of the problem, unhappily told Kranz, “Flight, I got a feeling we've lost two fuel cells. I hate to put it that way, but I don't know why we've lost them."

Liebergot began to suspect that the venting Lovell had reported was coming from the cryogenic oxygen system, an idea bolstered when Bliss, one of Liebergot's backroom life support specialists, asked Liebergot worriedly, “are you going to isolate that surge tank?" The surge tank was the small reserve tank of oxygen that the crew would breath during re-entry, but the massive leak in the service module's cryogenic system meant that the remaining fuel cell was starting to draw on the surge tank's small supply of oxygen to keep power flowing.

Drawing on the command module's limited reserves, such as its battery power or oxygen, was usually a reasonable thing to do in sticky situations—assuming the problem was relatively short-lived and the reserves could be replenished from the service module later. But Liebergot was now worried that the service module was running out of power and oxygen permanently. Once he confirmed that the surge tank was being tapped, he revised his priorities, from stabilizing the Odyssey to preserving the command module's re-entry reserves. This caught Kranz momentarily off guard.

“Let's isolate the surge tank in the command module," Liebergot told Kranz. “Why that? I don't understand that, Sy," Kranz replied, noting that isolating that tank was the very opposite of what was needed to do to keep the last fuel cell running.

In effect, Liebergot's request was a vote of no confidence in the service module, and if the service module couldn't be relied on, the mission was in deep trouble. “We want to save the surge tank which we need for entry," Liebergot prompted. The implication immediately sank in. “Okay, I'm with you. I'm with you," said Kranz resignedly, and he ordered the crew to isolate the surge tank via the CAPCOM, or capsule communicator, the only person in mission control normally authorized to speak to the crew directly.

apollo 13 problem solving

The Turning Point: This audio from the flight director Gene Kranz's loop marks the moment where mission control stops trying to get Apollo 13 back on track for a moon landing and starts working simply to get the crew home alive. EECOM Sy Liebergot asks Kranz to isolate a small, reserve, “surge" tank of oxygen in the command module that was then being tapped to keep the ailing fuel cells in the service module running.

For a few minutes more, Liebergot and his backroom guys fought the good fight to keep the remaining fuel cell on line, but it was looking grim. Without the fuel cell, he was going to have to power down even more command module systems in order to keep the most essential one running: the guidance system. The guidance system was primarily comprised of the onboard computer and a gyroscope-based inertial measurement system that kept track of which way the spacecraft was pointing. Without it, the crew wouldn't be able to navigate in space. But turning off nearly everything else in the command module was going to make it a pretty inhospitable place.

“You'd better think about getting into the LM," Liebergot told Kranz. It was now about 45 minutes since the explosion, and Liebergot's backroom team estimated that at the oxygen supply's current rate of decay, they would lose the last fuel cell in less than 2 hours. “That's the end right there," said Liebergot.

Kranz called Bob Heselmeyer on his loop. Heselmeyer sat two consoles over from Liebergot, and his job title was TELMU, which stood for Telemetery, Environmental, eLectrical, and extravehicular Mobility Unit. What that mouthful boils down to is that the TELMU was the equivalent of the EECOM for the lunar module, with the added responsibility of monitoring the astronaut's spacesuits. Like Liebergot, Heselmeyer had a posse of backroom guys—Bob Legler, Bill Reeves, Fred Frere and Hershel Perkins—and Kranz was about to hand them all a job. “I want you to get some guys figuring out minimum power in the LM to sustain life," Kranz ordered Heselmeyer.

It doesn't sound like a tall order—the lunar module had big, charged, batteries and full oxygen tanks all designed to last the duration of Apollo 13's lunar excursion, some 33 hours on the surface—so it should have been a simple matter of hopping into the Aquarius, flipping a few switches to turn on the power and getting the life-support system running, right?

Unfortunately, spaceships don't work like that. They have complicated interdependent systems that have to be turned on in just the right sequence as dictated by lengthy checklists. Miss a step and you can do irreparable damage.

What follows is a little known story, even to many involved in the Apollo 13 mission. While they have been complimented on rapidly getting the lunar module into lifeboat mode, stretching its resources to keep the crew alive for the journey back to Earth, few realize the lunar module controllers first had to overcome an even more basic problem: how to get the lunar module to turn on at all . Over the last 35 years, the incredible efforts of the lunar module flight controllers have been somewhat overlooked, ironically because the Aquarius performed so well. It did everything asked of it, whether designed to or not. So the attention has focused on the titanic struggle over the crippled Odyssey. But without the lunar module controllers' dedication, foresight, and years of work, Lovell, Haise, and Swigert wouldn't have had a chance.

A fundamental issue stood in the way of getting the lunar module on line. Call it the step-zero problem. They couldn't even turn on the first piece of equipment in the lifeboat checklist because of the way the Aquarius had been designed to handle the coast between the Earth and the Moon.

Remember that for most of this coast, the lunar module and the command and service module were docked, connected by a narrow transfer tunnel, with almost everything on the lunar module turned off to save power. A number of critical systems in the lunar module were protected from freezing by thermostatically controlled heaters. During the coast, these heaters were powered via two umbilicals from the command module, which in turn got its power from the service module.

Within the Odyssey, the umbilicals were connected to a power distribution switch that shifted the lunar module between drawing power from the Odyssey and drawing power from its own batteries, the bulk of which were located in the descent stage. Here was the hitch. The distribution switch itself needed electricity to operate, which the Odyssey could no longer supply. And and so the Aquarius could not be turned on.

With the last fuel cell running out of oxygen, the astronauts needed another way to get the lunar modules batteries on line, fast.

The lunar module controllers were already on the case when Kranz's order came through. Back in the staff support room, the lunar module consoles were right beside the EECOM's support controllers' consoles, separated by a paper strip chart that recorded the activity of the lunar module heaters. From the start of the crisis, they had front-row seats as Brown, Bliss, and Sheaks tried to save the command and service module with Liebergot. It hadn't been long before Brown turned to the lunar module controllers and said, “I'll bet anything that oxygen tank blew up," remembers lunar module controller Legler. “Bill Reeves and I put a lot of stock in what Dick Brown said, and if that was true, the CSM was going to be out of power before long and we were going to have to use the LM as a lifeboat."

Looking at their strip chart, Legler and Reeves could see the lunar module heater activity had flatlined—meaning the electrical bus in the Odyssey that was connected to the umbilicals was no longer supplying power to the Aquarius. “We had lost power to the switch that was used to transfer power from the LM descent batteries. So they would have been unable to turn on the LM," says Legler.

The large batteries in the descent stage were essential to powering up most of the lunar module's systems. They were physically connected to the lunar module's power distribution system via relays—relays that required power to operate, power that was no longer available via the junction box. Fortunately, smaller batteries in the lunar module's ascent stage could be tapped independently of the switch in the Odyssey—but these batteries could only power some systems for a limited amount of time. In order to get major systems such as life support and the computer running, the ascent batteries had to be connected to the power distribution system, which would energize the relays and so allow the descent batteries to be brought on line.

Nobody had ever planned for this situation. Legler and Reeves began working out a set of ad hoc procedures—step-by-step, switch-by-switch instructions for the astronauts—that would coax some power through the maze of circuits in the Aquarius from the ascent batteries to the relays. Working from wiring and equipment diagrams of the lunar module, it took them about 30 minutes to finish the list of instructions from the time of Brown's warning about the state of the command module. The final list involved about “10 to 15" switch throws and circuit breaker pulls for the crew, remembers Legler. Once the relays had electricity, the crew could switch over from the Odyssey's now-dead umbilicals and start powering up the lunar module's life support systems in lifeboat mode, an even more complicated process.

Fortunately, somebody had already been working on that problem for months.

A Year Earlier , in the run-up to the Apollo 10 mission, the flight controllers and astronauts had been thrown a curveball during a simulation. “The simulation guys failed those fuel cells at almost the same spot," as when Apollo 13's oxygen tank exploded in real life, remembers James (“Jim") Hannigan, the lunar module branch chief, “It was uncanny."

Legler had been present for the Apollo 10 simulation when the lunar module was suddenly in demand as a lifeboat. While some lifeboat procedures had already been worked out for earlier missions, none addressed having to use the lunar module as a lifeboat with a damaged command module attached. Although Legler called in reinforcements from among the other lunar module flight controllers, they were unable to get the spacecraft powered up in time, and the Apollo 10 simulation had finished with a dead crew.

“Many people had discussed the use of the LM as lifeboat, but we found out in this sim," that exactly how to do it couldn't be worked out in real time, Legler says. At the time, the simulation was rejected as unrealistic, and it was soon forgotten by most. NASA “didn't consider that an authentic failure case," because it involved the simultaneous failure of so many systems, explains Hannigan.

But the simulation nagged at the lunar module controllers. They had been caught unprepared and a crew had died, albeit only virtually. “You lose a crew, even in a simulation, and it's doom ," says Hannigan. He tasked his deputy, Donald Puddy, to form a team to come up with a set of lifeboat procedures that would work, even with a crippled command module in the mix.

“Bob Legler was one of the key guys," on that team, recalls Hannigan. As part of his work, Legler “figured out how to reverse the power flow, so it could go from the LM back to CSM," through the umbilicals, says Hannigan. “That had never been done. Nothing had been designed to do that." Reversing the power flow was a trick that would ultimately be critical to the final stages of Apollo 13's return to Earth.

For the next few months after the Apollo 10 simulation, even as Apollo 11 made the first lunar landing and Apollo 12 returned to the moon, Puddy's team worked on the procedures, looking at many different failure scenarios and coming up with solutions. Although the results hadn't yet been formally certified and incorporated into NASA's official procedures, the lunar module controllers quickly pulled them off the shelf after the Apollo 13 explosion. The crew had a copy of the official emergency lunar module activation checklist on board, but the controllers needed to cut the 30-minute procedure to the bare minimum.

The lunar module team's head start stood them in good stead. Although Liebergot and his team had initially estimated 2 hours of life left in the last fuel cell when Kranz had asked Heselmeyer and his team to start working up how to get life support running in the lunar module, the situation was rapidly worsening. By the time the crew actually got into the Aquarius and started turning it on, the backroom controllers estimated there were just 15 minutes of life left in the last fuel cell onboard the Odyssey.

This article is presented in three parts. For part two click here .

  • Avoiding Future Disasters and NASA's Memory Problem - IEEE ... ›
  • The Fires of Apollo - IEEE Spectrum ›
  • Documentaries for Engineers: Mission Control, Denial, and Viva ... ›
  • Apollo 13, We Have a Solution: Part 3 - IEEE Spectrum ›
  • Apollo 13, We Have a Solution: Part 2 - IEEE Spectrum ›
  • NASA Apollo Mission Apollo-13 ›
  • Apollo 13 - Wikipedia ›

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The Successful Rescue of The Apollo 13 Mission Through Team Leadership

October 20, 2023 by Hailey Whisenant 1 Comment

The Apollo 13 Mission occurred in 1970 (Moho, 2020) and was originally intended to be “humanity’s third lunar landing” (Moho, 2020), although NASA’s mission to land on the moon was a failure, as the “Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 13 mission” (Moho, 2020) incurred damage which prevented the mission from moving forward. Specifically, the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) had its “service module’s No.2 oxygen tank” (Loftus, 2020) explode and its “No.1 tank failed as well” (Loftus, 2020), which the damaged rocket made the mission impractical and made recovery of the astronauts on board questionable. Although, the Apollo 13 mission has been deemed by many as a “Successful Failure”(Loftus, 2020; Moho, 2020), although the Apollo 13 team was unsuccessful in reaching their goal of landing on the moon for the third time, they were successful in problem-solving, rescuing, and bringing the team astronaut members on board of the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) back home safely to Earth. Bringing the Apollo 13 mission team home was not easy, as the Apollo 13 team was constricted to a very strict time crunch, but the successful rescue of the Apolo 13 astronauts was facilitated by relentless shared leadership (PSU WC, L.9, p.9) of the leaders of the astronaut team and the mission control team (Gene Kranz) (Edwards, 2010).

All of the NASA personnel involved in the Apollo 13 mission were part of a “team” (PSU WC, L.9, p.2) where “there is a single mission or goal” (PSU WC, L.9, p.2) and  “the team members cannot function without interacting with each other while working on the task” (PSU WC, L.9, p.2). The NASA personnel involved in the Apollo 13 mission were part of a “team” (PSU WC, L.9, p.2), not a “group” (PSU WC, L.9, p.2), as the members of this team needed to work together interdependently (PSU WC, L.9, p.2) rather than separately to accomplish their goal. The interdependence (PSU WC, L.9, p.2) of the members of the team was necessary to ensure that all members were on the same page, to ensure that the mission went smoothly, and that all activities of the mission were correctly coordinated.

Once the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) was launched into space communication between the astronaut team on the rocket and the mission control team at NASA occurred strictly through the use of a radio communication system. This implies that part of the Apollo 13 mission team operated as a “virtual team”(Northouse, 2022, p.461), as they were “geographically dispersed”(Northouse, 2022, p.461) and relied “on technology to interact and collaborate”(Northouse, 2022, p.461). It was stated in the text that “trust is an important factor when leading virtual teams”(Northouse, 2022, p.462), which trust seemed to be an especially important factor in the Apollo 13 mission as the astronauts in the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) had to have immense trust and faith in the responsiveness of the mission control team back at NASA while they were navigating their dangerous mission. The trust established by the astronaut team and the mission control team may have served to lessen the panic, uncertainty, and fear the astronauts had when their rocket incurred detrimental damages and subsequently may have served to facilitate problem-solving between the teams.

When the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) was launched into space, the astronaut team on board the rocket appeared to be in the group “performing stage” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3) of development, as the “forming” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3), “storming” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3), and “Norming” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3) stages of team development most likely occurred a long time before the start of the mission, as the astronaut and mission control team spent an immense amount of time preparing and training for the Apollo 13 mission. The interactions between the mission control team and the astronaut team during the mission were not characterized by any conflicts, so therefore the Apollo 13 mission team was not in this stage of group development. In addition, a formal leader of the Apollo 13 mission, the flight director Gene Kranz (Edwards, 2010), had already been established within the team, and “group norms” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3) for the team had already been well established before the onset of the mission, therefore ruling out the team as being in the “Norming” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3) stage of development when the mission occurred.

A formal leader of the mission control team at NASA was needed as there were many NASA personnel involved in managing and monitoring the Apollo 13 mission from the ground and it was stated in the lesson that “In larger groups, it is less likely that leadership can be shared among group members” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3), as there were simply too many group members to take charge of and coordinate the leadership tasks of the mission. Although shared leadership (PSU WC, L.9, p.9) may have been evident in the astronaut team aboard the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) as there were only three astronauts aboard the rocket who were in charge of solving the technical difficulties aboard the rocket, thus making it more likely that they worked together and shared leadership responsibilities in getting back to earth safely. It should also be noted that although before the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) failure occurred, it appears that shared leadership was not a part of the mission control teams processes, after the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) failure, shared leadership among the experts at NASA was essential to saving the astronaut crew aboard the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020), as there was simply not enough time for the flight director Kranz to lead and mange everyone on the Apollo 13 mission team and therefore these leadership roles needed to be delegated to maintain the integrity of the mission. It was stated in the text that “Shared leadership is even more important for virtual teams”(Northouse, 2022, p.464) as shared leadership “promotes both effective collaboration and performance”(Northouse, 2022, p.464), which “effective collaboration and performance”(Northouse, 2022, p.464) was essential for problem-solving on the Apollo 13 mission.

Eight “Characteristics of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467), proposed by “Larson and LaFasto (1989)”(Northouse, 2022, p.466), were presented in the text. The first “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was a team’s possession of a “Clear, Elevating Goal”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) which “energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, and fully engages their talents”(Northouse, 2022, p.467). The initial goal of the Apollo 13 mission was to successfully land on the moon (Moho, 2020), although “The lunar landing objective was abandoned within minutes of the initial explosion” (Loftus, 2020) of the rocket. Regardless of the mission’s goals changing during the mission, both of these goals energized team members (Northouse, 2022, p.467), as this was a highly publicized event as it was a matter of life and death for the astronauts aboard the rocket. The goals of the Apollo mission team also oriented team members “toward their collective objective”(Northouse, 2022, p.467), as the team’s objective, was very evident in both parts of the team’s mission, and these goals also required team members to fully engage “their talents”(Northouse, 2022, p.467), as the team members expertise was critical for the success and retrieval of the astronauts of the mission.

The second “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was a “Results-Driven Structure”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) of the team. When the failure of the “Saturn V rocket” (Moho, 2020) occurred, the Apollo 13 mission team altered its structure to a “Problem resolution”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) team, as at this time the team’s primary mission switched to saving the astronauts on board the rocket, which it was stated in the text that this type of team structure needs to “emphasize trust so that all will be willing and able to contribute”(Northouse, 2022, p.468). Trust was an important factor in the Apollo 13 mission’s team structure as lives were at stake during the mission and this was emphasized by the leader, Kranz, requesting that “all brains in the game”(JWMI, 2020) be utilized in order to avoid any possible mistakes and achieve the team’s goals.

The third “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was “Competent Team Members”(Northouse, 2022, p.468), which consists of team members possessing adequate “technical competence”(Northouse, 2022, p.468), “the right number”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) of members in the team, members being “personally competent in interpersonal and teamwork skills”(Northouse, 2022, p.468), and a diversity “of members to “accomplish the team’s goals”(Northouse, 2022, p.468). It was stated in an article by Forbes that “NASA’s people had been in the lunar-landing business for 9 years when the explosion occurred aboard Apollo 13” (Loftus, 2020), suggesting that the Apollo 13 mission’s team members were equipped with the necessary “technical competence”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) needed to save the mission. It was also stated in this same article that “NASA trained and trained and trained” (Loftus, 2020) its team members, which suggests that its team members may have well established their “interpersonal and teamwork skills”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) with each other well before the onset of the mission.

The fourth “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was “Unified Commitment”(Northouse, 2022, p.468), which consists of team members having “a sense of unity or identification”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) which may emerge from “involving members in all aspects of the process”(Northouse, 2022, p.468). The flight director Gene Kranz (Edwards, 2010), or more specifically the formal leader of the Apollo 13 mission, requested at the onset of the mission’s failure that “all brains in the game”(JWMI, 2020) be utilized in order to avoid any group think and to ensure that the best possible solution to the problem was generated and utilized to get the astronauts on board back home. It should also be noted that “a sense of unity”(Northouse, 2022, p.468) may have been instilled in team members through the urgency of the situation, as it was evident from the damages done to the rocket that unity of the team members was essential if the team was to be successful in solving the team’s problems.

The fifth “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was a “Collaborative Climate”(Northouse, 2022, p.469), which entails a work environment where “members can stay problem-focused, listen to and understand one another, feel free to take risks, and be willing to compensate for one another”(Northouse, 2022, p.469). Kranz, the formal leader of the Apollo 13 mission, was said to have fostered a “Collaborative Climate”(Northouse, 2022, p.469) in the group by instructing “his team to work the problem by creating a culture of debate”(JWMI, 2020), which debates may be said to facilitate collaboration, as they invite new perspectives and ideas, facilitate evaluation of ideas, and help to eliminate faulty ideas.

The sixth “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) proposed in the text was “Standards of Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.469), which refer to “Clear norms of conduct (how we should behave)”(Northouse, 2022, p.469). Before the rocket failure occurred, both the astronaut team and the mission control team had very “Clear norms of conduct”(Northouse 2022, p.469) that were established during the extensive training these personnel received before the start of the mission. Although, the “Clear norms of conduct”(Northouse, 2022, p.469) or “Standards of Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.469) after the rocket failure occurred during the mission, became unclear for the team as rocket failure was not anticipated and therefore the solution to the problem was unclear.

It was stated in the text that the seventh “Characteristic of Team Excellence”(Northouse, 2022, p.467) was “External Support and Recognition”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) which “includes material resources, rewards for excellent performance, an educational system to develop necessary team skills, and an informational system to provide data needed to accomplish the task”(Northouse, 2022, p.470). The Apollo mission team’s success in successfully bringing home the astronauts may certainly be attributed to the appropriate “material resources”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) available to them during the crisis; an excellent “educational system to develop necessary team skills”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) necessary for excellent performance; and all of the appropriate informational”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) systems, such as the other NASA experts in the field, “needed to accomplish the task”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) of successfully get the astronauts home.

Lastly, the eighth “Characteristic of team excellence” (Northouse, 2022, p.467) was stated in the text to be “Principled Leadership”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) which was said to occur when “Effective team leaders are committed to the team’s goals and give members autonomy to unleash their talents when possible”(Northouse, 2022, p.470). In an article by JWMI, the author stated that Kranz “questions his team and challenges their recommendations, but he exhibits true leadership by empowering them to make decisions and find solutions that eventually bring the team home safely”(JWMI, 2020), which relates to principled leadership as Kranz, the leader of the mission control team was committed to the teams goals by analyzing his teams recommendations (JWMI, 2020) to ensure the best outcome for the team. In addition, Kranz also engaged in “Principled Leadership”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) by giving his team members “autonomy”(Northouse, 2022, p.470) by “empowering them to make decisions and find solutions”(JWMI, 2020) for the rocket failure.

In terms of the “Leadership Decisions”(Northouse, 2022, p.471), which refer to “the major decisions the team’s leadership needs to make when determining whether and how to intervene to improve team functioning”(Northouse, 2022, p.471), this process was much more straightforward in the case of the Apollo 13 mission than compared to the text’s description of this process. For example, the first leadership decision mentioned in the text is “Should I monitor the team or take action?”(Northouse, 2022, p.471), and in the case of the Apollo 13 mission rocket failure, the decision to “take action”(Northouse, 2022, p.471) was very straightforward as the astronaut team was requesting an immediate intervention to solve the rocket failures that occurred and to preserve the lives of the astronaut’s on board the rocket. The second leadership decision that must be made in order “to improve team functioning”(Northouse, 2022, p.471) is “Should I intervene to meet task or relational needs?”(Northouse, 2022, p.474), and in the case of the Apollo 13 mission it was made evident by the astronaut’s that a task related intervention was needed. It was stated in the text that “solving problems”(Northouse, 2022, p.474) is a “Task leadership function”(Northouse, 2022, p.474), which the issue the astronaut team was facing was a problem-solving issue, as they were unsure how to resolve the issue the most effectively in the most timely manner, and can therefore be considered as a task-related issue (Northouse, 2022, p.474) that needed an intervention. The third leadership decision that must be made “to improve team functioning”(Northouse, 2022, p.471) is “Should I intervene internally or externally?”(Northouse, 2022, p.475), which in the case of the Apollo 13 mission both an internal and external intervention was needed to help resolve the astronaut’s team issues. For example, an “internal task intervention”(Northouse, 2022, p.475) was needed to refocus the team’s efforts towards focusing on a new goal, which was safely returning home. In addition, an “external environmental intervention”(Northouse, 2022, p.475) was needed to obtain “external support for the team”(Northouse, 2022, p.475), such as with networking (PSU WC, L.9, p.5) to acquire the rescue mission to retrieve the astronauts from the ocean after they crash landed into the ocean and with bringing in other NASA experts to help come up with the best solution to bringing the astronauts’ home. Overall, the decision of whether or not to intervene and how to intervene was made obvious to the leader of the Apollo 13 mission once the problem itself was realized.

In terms of “Leadership Actions”(Northouse, 2022, p.475), it was stated in the text that “to be an effective leader, one needs to respond with the action that is required of the situation”(Northouse, 2022, p.476), which the formal leader Kranz and everyone on the mission control team at NASA (and other NASA personnel) worked diligently through shared leadership (PSU WC, L.9, p.9) to determine a course of action that best met the needs of the situation, the astronauts, and resolved the team problems the most effectively. For example, the team initiated “Internal Task Leadership Actions”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) to address and provide a solution to the team’s problems, specific actions taken include “Structuring for results”’(Northouse, 2022, p.476) and “Facilitating decision making”(Northouse, 2022, p.476). In terms of the leadership-driven action of “Structuring for results”’(Northouse, 2022, p.476), the leaders of the Apollo 13 mission specifically engaged in “planning”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) to resolve the rocket failure, “visioning”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) by creating a vision of urgency to resolve the rocket failure, “organizing”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) experts in the field to develop a solution, “clarifying roles”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) of the astronaut team in resolving the issue from their side, and “delegating”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) research tasks to resolve the rocket failure. In addition, the leaders of the Apollo 13 mission also engaged in “Facilitating decision making”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) by “informing”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) the NASA team members of the mission failure, “controlling”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) the actions of the astronaut crew, “coordinating”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) experts at NASA to find a solution to the rocket problem, “synthesizing”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) information from experts at NASA to make an informed decision, and by “focusing on issues”(Northouse, 2022, p.476) that were detrimental to the astronaut team. The “External Environmental Leadership Actions”(Northouse, 2022, p.477) that the leaders of the Apollo 13 mission engaged in include “Networking and forming alliances in the environment”(Northouse, 2022, p.478), “Advocating and representing the team to the environment”(Northouse, 2022, p.478), and “Sharing relevant information with the team”(Northouse, 2022, p.478). The leaders of the mission engaged in “Networking and forming alliances in the environment”(Northouse, 2022, p.478) by “gathering information”(Northouse, 2022, p.478) in the environment from other experts at NASA. Leaders of the mission also engaged in “Advocating and representing the team to the environment”(Northouse, 2022, p.478) by bringing company-wide attention to the issue and by gathering experts in the field at NASA to solve the rocket issue.

Lastly, it was emphasized in the Team Leadership theory in the text that one of the key functions of  “the leader is to do whatever is necessary to take care of unmet needs of the team”(Northouse, 2022, p.479). This is exactly what the leaders of the Apollo 13 mission did and accomplished by resolving the rocket failure problem and safely returning the astronaut crew home. The Apollo 13 mission team and its leaders united and performed shared leadership which facilitated the rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts. Their mission to rescue the astronaut crew was difficult as the Apollo 13 mission team was spread out in a traditional environment and partially virtually (Northouse, 2022, p.461). Despite the many roadblocks the Apollo 13 mission team faced, they had an advantage as their performance was excellent, and may be partially attributed to the fact that they were in the “performing stage” (PSU WC, L.9, p.3) of development. The Apollo 13 team and its leaders also engaged in shared leadership (PSU WC, L.9, p.9), which thus facilitated the use of NASA experts to devise and implement a successful solution to the rocket failure. In addition, the leaders of the Apollo 13 mission also engaged in all eight Characteristics “of Team Excellence” (Northouse, 2022, p.467) that were described in the text. Lastly, the shared leaders of the mission chose the right variety of leadership decisions (Northouse, 2022, p.471) and actions (Northouse, 2022, p.475) to implement which ultimately led to the successful rescue of the astronauts.


Edwards, O. (2010, April). How Gene Kranz’s Apollo 13 Vest Boosted Morale For His Team . Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gene-kranzs-apollo-vest-9045125/

JWMI. (2020, September 11 ). JWMI Connect Series: Leadership Lessons from the Movie “Apollo 13” . JWMI. https://jackwelch.strayer.edu/winning/leadership-lessons-movie-apollo-13/

Loftus, G. (2013, April 3). Apollo 13: Lessons From the Successful Failure . Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffloftus/2013/04/03/apollo-13-lessons-from-the-successful-failure/?sh=2862f15f5d0b

Mohon, L. (2020, April 6). Apollo 13: The Successful Failure . NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/missions/apollo/apollo-13-the-successful-failure/

Northouse, P. G. (2022). Chapter 16: team leadership . Leadership theory & practice (9th ed.). Thousand Oaks, California:  SAGE Publishing, Inc.

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. PSYCH 485 – Lesson 9: Team leadership. Description of team leadership – definition of team and group (p.2) . Canvas. https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2283258/modules/items/38927224

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. PSYCH 485 – Lesson 9: Team leadership. Description of team leadership – three aspects to groups (p.3) . Canvas. https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2283258/modules/items/38927225

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. PSYCH 485 – Lesson 9: Team leadership. Complexity of Team Leadership (p.5) . Canvas. https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2283258/modules/items/38927227

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. PSYCH 485 – Lesson 9: Team leadership. Shared leadership (p.9) . Canvas. https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2283258/modules/items/38927231

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November 5, 2023 at 5:18 am

Your detailed analysis of the Apollo 13 mission and its application to team dynamics and leadership theories is impressive. Your breakdown of the events and their relation to various concepts in team leadership provides a comprehensive understanding of the situation and how it aligns with theoretical models. Your insights on the multiple leadership decisions and actions taken, especially amid unprecedented challenges, were thought-provoking. Your clear identification of the eight characteristics of team excellence and how they were embodied within the Apollo 13 mission exemplifies the importance of trust, collaboration, and unified commitment in overcoming adversity. In the context of shared leadership, how might the dynamics have differed if the astronaut team onboard the Saturn V rocket was more giant? Would shared leadership have been equally effective?

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A Successful Failure: A Brief History of the Apollo 13 Mission

On this day in 1970, Apollo 13 safely returned to Earth

Published 04/17/2020 , by Kaitlin Ehret, planetarium outreach educator

One of the best-known lines that was never said by an astronaut. 

If you listen to tapes from the Apollo 13 mission, you’ll hear the original words: “Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

While the Apollo 13 movie increased the suspense by changing the quote to the present tense, the original phrase reflects the calm kept by the astronauts of Apollo 13 throughout their ill-fated mission.

With ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, everyone involved in the mission triumphed against immense odds. Today marks the 50 th anniversary of the safe return of those three astronauts. Join us as we take a look at the challenges of the mission and these lessons from the past can help us plan for the future.

A black and white photo of the mission control room

Rubella Grounds Mattingly

Before Apollo 13 ever lifted off, the mission encountered problems. Problems that feel eerily similar to what we’re living through today.

Days before launch, back up crew member Charles Duke fell ill with the rubella virus… after training with the rest of the crew while asymptomatic. Of the six, only Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly and Duke had no previous immunity.

With only two days before launch, Deke Slayton, Chief of Flight Operations and UMN alumnus, decided to replace CMP Mattingly with CMP Jack Swigert.

Even with this last-minute swap, the new crew of Apollo 13 aced a last-minute lunar module docking simulation and had the resiliency to proceed with the mission as planned.

3 astronauts suited up at the launch pad

On the third day of the mission, a sharp bang and alarm lights changed everything. Lovell, quoted above, noticed that the craft was venting some sort of gas into space: oxygen. It was oxygen the crew needed to breathe and to generate power within the fuel cells. Within 3 hours, that oxygen was gone, along with the supply of water, electrical power, and control of the propulsion system.

Shutting down as much as they could, the crew moved into the Lunar Module to use its oxygen supply and Mission Control started calculating how to get them home safely.

a photo of the damaged service module in space

Pointing Towards Home

200,000 miles from home, the Apollo 13 astronauts were hunkering down inside of their Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and getting further away from home by the minute. To get back, their spacecraft would have to be set on a new trajectory. But the LEM was designed to take two astronauts to the lunar surface, not perform extensive mid-course corrections in space while attached to a dead Command Service Module.

But where there’s an engine, there’s a way. The LEM engines were unlike other rocket engines: developed by UMN alumnus Gerard Elverum Jr., they were “pintle injector” and were designed to throttle their output up and down as needed.

With a new way to move their spacecraft, the astronauts, along with Mission Control on Earth, had to finalize a new plan. Under the direction of the Manned Spaceflight Center director Robert Gilruth (another UMN alumnus), Apollo 13 made two crucial adjustments and one trip around the far side of the Moon that set them on their way back home

a timeline showing apollo 13's movement

Square Peg, Round Hole

What do you do when you have to fit a square peg into a round hole? Use plastic bags, cardboard, and tape.

The three Apollo 13 astronauts were living in the Lunar Excursion Module: a craft designed to support two men for two days, not three men for four days. During the four day flight back to Earth, carbon dioxide levels became dangerously high and had to be scrubbed from the air. Unfortunately the LEM’s scrubbers were round canisters, and the only other replacement scrubbers — in the Command Service Module — were square.

To solve this, Mission Control engineers embarked on an incredible example of ingenuity and teamwork. Using only materials available to the astronauts, engineers on Earth designed and tested an attachment system for the scrubbers. Following Mission Controls’s instructions, the astronauts constructed the system on board, which began working immediately.

the moon from the ship's window!

A Successful Failure

Resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance: Apollo 13 is remembered as a triumph of these human characteristics.

Resilience in the face of crew changes; ingenuity in solving fatal problems; and perseverance throughout to get them home safely.

Those same traits continue to guide humanity, including the next generations of astronauts returning to the Moon and going even further — to Mars. 

NASA’s next rover to Mars has been named Perseverance after the quality that humans have always had and will continue to hold as we travel further into space.

Mission control celebrates a safe return with a big thumbs up!

Thanks to NASA for the wonderful photos for use in this post.

Golden horses in space as the Apollo 13 insignia

Problem Solving

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Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem? Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but she just needs to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.

Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

apollo 13 problem solving

Check out this Apollo 13 scene where the group of NASA engineers are given the task of overcoming functional fixedness.

Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in Table .

Please visit this site to see a clever music video that a high school teacher made to explain these and other cognitive biases to his AP psychology students.

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in Figure ? You need nine. Were you able to solve the problems in Figure and Figure ? Here are the answers ( Figure ).

The first puzzle is a Sudoku grid of 16 squares (4 rows of 4 squares) is shown. Half of the numbers were supplied to start the puzzle and are colored blue, and half have been filled in as the puzzle’s solution and are colored red. The numbers in each row of the grid, left to right, are as follows. Row 1:  blue 3, red 1, red 4, blue 2. Row 2: red 2, blue 4, blue 1, red 3. Row 3: red 1, blue 3, blue 2, red 4. Row 4: blue 4, red 2, red 3, blue 1.The second puzzle consists of 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3 inside of a square. The solution, four straight lines made without lifting the pencil, is shown in a red line with arrows indicating the direction of movement. In order to solve the puzzle, the lines must extend beyond the borders of the box. The four connecting lines are drawn as follows. Line 1 begins at the top left dot, proceeds through the middle and right dots of the top row, and extends to the right beyond the border of the square. Line 2 extends from the end of line 1, through the right dot of the horizontally centered row, through the middle dot of the bottom row, and beyond the square’s border ending in the space beneath the left dot of the bottom row. Line 3 extends from the end of line 2 upwards through the left dots of the bottom, middle, and top rows. Line 4 extends from the end of line 3 through the middle dot in the middle row and ends at the right dot of the bottom row.


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Apollo 13 insignia with 3 horses, the sun, the moon, and the words ex luna, scientia

"Houston, we've had a problem…"

Mission Type

Apollo 13 was supposed to land in the Fra Mauro area of the Moon. But at 5 1/2 minutes after liftoff, the crew felt a little vibration…

Apollo 13 Crew Installing ?Mail Box? for Purging Carbon Dioxide From Lunar Module?April 14, 1970.

James A. Lovell, Jr.

John “jack” swigert.

Captain Lovell was selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1962. He has since served as backup pilot for the Gemini 4 flight and backup commander for the Gemini 9 flight, as well as backup commander to Neil Armstrong for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. On March 1, 1973, Captain Lovell retired from the Navy and from the space program.

Portrait of astronaut James A. Lovell in white spacesuit and globe

Command Module Pilot

Mr. Swigert was one of the 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966. He served as a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 7 mission. Mr. Swigert was next assigned to the Apollo 13 backup crew and subsequently called upon to replace prime crewman Thomas K. Mattingly as command module pilot. In completing his first space flight, Mr. Swigert logged a total of 142 hours, 54 minutes in space.

Portrait of astronaut John L. Swigert, Jr. in white spacesuit in front of US flag

Lunar Module Pilot

Mr. Haise was one of the 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966. He served as backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 8 and 11 missions, and backup spacecraft commander for the Apollo 16 mission. Haise was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 13 and has logged 142 hours and 54 minutes in space.

Poratrait of astronaut Fred Haise with a globe of the Moon

Apollo 13: The Successful Failure

On April 11, 1970, the powerful Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 13 mission launched from Kennedy Space Center propelling astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert on what was intended to be humanity’s third lunar landing. Unfortunately, the mission to explore the Fra Mauro region of the Moon did not go as planned. What many viewed as a now “routine” mission soon had millions around the globe glued to television sets watching and hoping for a positive outcome for one of the most intense episodes in the history of space exploration.

Rear Admiral Donald C. Davis, Commanding Officer of Task Force 130, the Pacific Recovery Forces for the Apollo Missions, welcome

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The Hard-won Triumph of the Apollo 13 Mission – 45 Years Later

When their spaceship was severely damaged 200,000 miles from Earth – 45 years ago this week, it was like a…

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Arturo Campos: A Key Player in Bringing Apollo 13 Home

Leerlo en español aquí. Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the year Campos died. He passed away…

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50 Years Ago: Apollo 13 Aquarius European Goodwill Tour

Six months after their return from the harrowing Apollo 13 mission, astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred…

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50 Years Ago: Apollo 13 Review Board Report

During a press conference on June 15, 1970, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, Apollo 13 Review Board Chair Edgar…

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50 Years Ago: Apollo 13 Crew Returns to Houston

On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. “Jack” Swigert and Fred W. Haise splashed down…

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50 Years Ago: Apollo 13 Crew Returns Safely to Earth

The crew of Apollo 13, Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot (CMP) John L. “Jack” Swigert and Lunar Module…

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Liftoff of the Apollo 13 mission from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 11, 1970.

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NASA’s Apollo 13 mission would have been the agency’s third Moon landing and lunar exploration mission. A movie and several books relate the story of this challenging mission which has been described as a “successful failure.”


The Hard-won Triumph of the Apollo 13 Mission

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  1. What Went Wrong on Apollo 13?

    Working around the clock from Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, NASA flight controllers and engineers improvised a series of innovative...

  2. Working Out the Problems of Apollo 13

    Wednesday, 15 April 2020 50 years later, two Georgia Tech engineering alumni reflect on their experience in Apollo 13's mission control "Houston we've had a problem" - we all know those infamous words that were transmitted from the crew of Apollo 13 back to mission control at 02:07:55:35 into the flight that took off on April 11, 1970.

  3. Apollo 13: Lessons From the Successful Failure

    The navigation problem had to be solved; essentially how, when and in what attitude to burn the LM descent engine to provide a quick return home. " As anyone who has seen the incredible movie...

  4. Apollo 13: five crisis management lessons from a successful ...

    Lesson #1: Exemplary leadership Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 and mission control's flight director, Gene Kranz, expertly demonstrated the importance of calm in the midst of chaos after...

  5. 'Failure Is Not an Option:' What Apollo 13 Teaches ...

    No. "When bad things happened we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them," he said. If ever there was a situation when panic would be warranted, the Apollo 13...

  6. 5 Management Lessons From An Apollo 13 Astronaut, Part 3: How ...

    NASA How close was Hollywood to depicting a real-life space emergency? In 1995, the movie Apollo 13 reimagined the famous near-disaster of history into a 2.5-hour packed adventure. Starring Tom...

  7. Solving problems fast & effective: "The Apollo 13 Approach"

    Published Apr 12, 2020 + Follow Yesterday 50 years ago, in April 1970, NASA launched it's Apollo 13 mission. Due to several dramatic events, it became one the world will never forget. But for...

  8. Houston, we Have a Solution: the Story of Apollo 13

    "Houston, we have a problem." The famous quote has become a popular phrase applied to almost any situation. Those who were alive then may well remember the Apollo 13 mission as a space thriller with a happy ending.Those who have come across the story through subsequent recreations, notably Ron Howard's 1995 film, might remember that the success of the rescue involved squaring the circle.

  9. Apollo 13, We Have a Solution

    To the outsider, it looked like a stream of engineering miracles was being pulled out of some magician's hat as mission control identified, diagnosed, and worked around life-threatening problem after life-threatening problem on the long road back to Earth.

  10. Apollo 13: The Successful Failure

    NASA After taking a free-return-to-Earth trajectory and using the Sun as an alignment star for navigation, Apollo 13 soon found themselves approaching home. One final problem remained—powering up the command module after its seemingly long hiatus from the action.

  11. Working the Problem

    Working the Problem The Mission Operations Control Room at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas centralized support and problem-solving efforts during Apollo 13's mission. NASA. From NASA photo S70-35368. Most NASA images are in the public domain. Reuse of this image is governed by NASA's image use policy.

  12. apollo 13

    creative solution by nasa engineers:from problem through brainstorming to solution

  13. PDF Extreme Problem Solving: The New Challenges of Deep Space Exploration

    During the Apollo 13 crisis, Flight Director Gene Kranz instructed Mission Control: "don't focus on your failures - figure out what's working, and work with that for a safe return" [21]. They famously did just that with remarkable ... Problem-solving models from analogous engineering domains can help characterize the skills that must be

  14. Lessons from Apollo 13 on Staying Agile Amid Crisis

    Step 1: See It The first step in remaining agile and taking accountability for success is the willingness to see reality. On a space mission, any issue is a matter of life or death.

  15. Apollo 13: Failure was not an option

    The Apollo 13 mission, its crew, and the NASA-led team demonstrated ingenuity and problem solving under tremendous pressure that led to the rescue of the astronauts, capturing the attention of the entire world.

  16. Solving the problem in Apollo 13 way

    Solving the problem in Apollo 13 way Photo: NASA / Andy Saunders Solving the problem in Apollo 13 way Ilya Lashkin Contract Administrator at Litasco Middle East Published Jun 14,...

  17. The Successful Rescue of The Apollo 13 Mission Through Team Leadership

    Although, the Apollo 13 mission has been deemed by many as a "Successful Failure"(Loftus, 2020; Moho, 2020), although the Apollo 13 team was unsuccessful in reaching their goal of landing on the moon for the third time, they were successful in problem-solving, rescuing, and bringing the team astronaut members on board of the "Saturn V ...

  18. A Successful Failure: A Brief History of the Apollo 13 Mission

    Pointing Towards Home 200,000 miles from home, the Apollo 13 astronauts were hunkering down inside of their Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and getting further away from home by the minute. To get back, their spacecraft would have to be set on a new trajectory.

  19. Psychology, Thinking and Intelligence, Problem Solving

    During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. ... An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving ...

  20. Apollo 13: Mission Details

    Mission Highlights At 5 1/2 minutes after liftoff, John "Jack" Swigert, Fred Haise and James Lovell felt a little vibration. Then the center engine of the S-II stage shut down two minutes early.

  21. APOLLO 13 Problem Solution & Management

    The 1995 Hollywood film "Apollo 13" graphically recounted the space mission. that became "a case study in problem-solving, a drama of solution-finding. played out with limited resources against unknown odds, using the wits of. two teams: the three-man flight crew in open space and the computer. operators on earth."1.

  22. Challenges and Problem Solving in Apollo 13 by Darren Kennedy

    Challenges. Apollo 13 follows three astronaughts on. what was supposed to be the third manned. landing on the moon. While the three. approach the moon, an oxygen tank explodes, damaging their ship and forcing them to use their problem solving skills to find a way back to earth safely.

  23. Apollo 13

    Apollo 13: The Successful Failure. On April 11, 1970, the powerful Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 13 mission launched from Kennedy Space Center propelling astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert on what was intended to be humanity's third lunar landing. Unfortunately, the mission to explore the Fra Mauro region of the Moon ...

  24. Apollo 13

    Apollo 13 (April 11-17, 1970) was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third meant to land on the Moon. The craft was launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module (SM) failed two days into the mission.