AIHce 2011 got underway this morning with a performance by “The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers” whose high-energy rhythms set the tone for the Opening General Session’s spirited keynote speaker, former NASA Flight Control Director Gene Kranz.
As leader of the “Tiger Team” of flight directors who brought the Apollo 13 spacecraft safely back to earth after an onboard expolosion – famously popularized in the movie, “Apollo 13,” Kranz gave a stirring account of his NASA experience and illuminated lessons he learned that went far beyond space travel. “Our nation understood that there is no achievement without risk, and there are certainly no guarantees.”
“Mission control was a marvelous leadership laboratory,” he commented, noting the job description of flight controller consisted of a single sentence: “The flight director may take any actions necessary for crew safety and flight success.”
Describing the series of well-documented crises that developed during the Apollo 13 mission, Kranz stressed that having a clear sense of purpose made every member of the flight control team focus on solving the problems necessary to bring the crew home safely.
Trust, he said, was vital. “Trust allows you to make decisions very rapidly and seek out every option that might exist. We must know when the person next to us needs help, or a few more seconds to come up with an answer.”
With no global communications, computers that were so new that people who knew how to use them had to be recruited from universities and the Army, rocket engineers that spoke only German, malfunctioning engines, and a typhoon threatening the projected landing area, the Apollo 13 mission could easily have ended in tragedy.
The trouble began at the end of the second day of the mission, when the spacecraft was 200,000 miles from earth and 50,000 miles from the surface of the moon.
The controllers began receiving conflicting data, and Flight Commander Jim Lovell reported seeing a substance that appeared to be gas outside the module. Lovell speculated that the ship was venting oxygen. Kranz said there was a brief period of chaos in the control room, “But then the training kicked in and the controllers started working the problem,” Kranz said.
With the crisis being enacted in front of the world (they patched in voice communications so that every development was being reported live), the level of pressure was intense. “We were working outside all known boundaries,” Kranz commented. Problems were listed on a blackboard. Because the venting gas made previous navigational systems impossible, NASA engineers had to rapidly develop new ways to navigate using the sun, earth and moon. One engineer was tasked with figuring out what on board the damaged spacecraft would be useful, then the entire team had to determine how to use those items to clear the atmosphere so that the astronauts were not overcome by the rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide within the module (socks, plastic bags and duct tape were among the items used in what would prove to be an effective device).
Computations were made with on paper, using pencils and slide rules. A checklist hastily devised for getting the crew into the command module, separating the spacecraft into parts and configuring the command module for landing was rife with handwritten revisions, crossouts and scribbled notes.
Kranz attributed the success of the flight controllers in getting the three astronauts safely back to earth with each person of the team having a clear sense of purpose and with high morale. “We obtained our objectives because of our beliefs.”
Kranz, a Medal of Freedom recipient and the author of, “Failure is Not an Option,” received a standing ovation from the AIHce audience.