Apollo 13: A Love Song to Collaboration

“Houston, we have a problem.” Famous words uttered by Jim Lovell in the real Apollo 13 mission, and by Tom Hanks as Lovell in the great movie Apollo 13. The mission, we know, was a ‘successful failure’ in that they didn’t reach the moon, but the three astronauts, Lovell, Swigert and Haise, got home safely.

And they got home, I believe, because of collaboration in its purest sense.

Just after getting the ‘problem’ news, and checking and hoping there were simply reporting malfunctions, Flight Director Gene Kranz (as played beautifully by Ed Harris in the movie) assigns teams to work on solutions with only the gear the astronauts have on board. In the movie we see only a short scene:

Several technicians dump boxes containing the same equipment and tools that the astronauts have with them onto a table
Technician 1: We’ve got to find a way to make this
[square CSM LiOH canister]
Technician 2: fit into the hole for this
[round LEM canister]
Technician 3: … using nothing but that.

The rest of the engineering takes place off camera, but we can imagine what it was like:

Technician 1: Well, we’ve got three meters of g17 tubing to start…

Technician 2: and if that’s too small we can hook it up with the FCG-420 …. and so on until they made it work.

I can also imagine what it wasn’t like:

Technician 1: Well, we’ve got three meters of g17 tubing to start.

Technician 2: No, that won’t work. Too small. (Thinking, I don’t want his idea to win. I wanna be the one who comes up with the solution.)

Technician 3: You’re both wrong. You’re looking at it from the wrong direction. (Thinking: these guys are total dopes and they’re going to make me look bad to the boss.) …and so on until Lovell, Swigert and Haise ran out of air, or fell into the ocean, or hit the entry trajectory wrong and were hurtled right back out into space.

My guess is that the guys on the ground weren’t worried about career limiting moves, one-upsmanship, or even being on the “winning team” which engineered the solution. My guess is that they were worried about one thing and one thing only: how do we bring these guys home?

True collaboration means taking the best of all the individual ideas, and from that building the very best solution. It’s not compromise, a watering down, but playing off one another’s ideas and work to build something better than any one person could have done alone. It’s the highest intersection of cooperation and assertiveness.

What made collaboration work?

First, it’s no coincidence that the space missions were called missions. They weren’t projects or details or jobs, but missions. It took over 400,000 people to get a spacecraft launched, and all of them had a clear and common goal.

Second, there was a terrible sense of urgency that become even more intense in the Apollo 13 crisis: the clock was ticking , and crafting a solution was truly life-and-death.

Third, they had in Kranz a Flight Director who was both a manager and a leader. Once the doors were shut in ground control at the beginning of a launch, he reportedly told the ground crew: “Gentlemen, I will support every decision you make.” And in the movie:

NASA Director: This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.

Gene Kranz: With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.