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April 29, 2020 // Opinion  //       //  Opinion

“Houston, We Had a Problem”: Learning From the Apollo 13 Mission

By Deb McCormick

April 2020 marks 50 years since Apollo 13 returned safely to earth, crashing into the Pacific Ocean after a harrowing adventure in space. The trip brought one life threatening disaster after the next — a story of overcoming massive crisis. But if we look at how Commander James Lovell and his crew faced the adversity, we might apply some of that courage under fire to today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. The spacecraft featured two independent structures joined by a tunnel: orbiter Odyssey and lander Aquarius. The crew lived in Odyssey during the journey to the moon, while lander Aquarius served as the vehicle for the moon landing. It was NASA’s third moon mission and sadly an unsuccessful one. An oxygen tank exploded 56 hours into the mission and forced the crew to abandon their visions of stepping foot on the moon. Lovell uttered those famous words: “Houston, we had a problem,” which Hollywood later changed to “Houston, we have a problem.”

At the time, Lovell was the world’s most traveled astronaut with three missions and 572 spaceflight hours under his belt. That’s a guy you want leading the charge. The damaged Odyssey craft had Aquarius as a backup, but Aquarius didn’t have a heat shield to survive re-entry to earth. Aquarius also wasn’t supposed to be turned on until the crew was close to the moon. The space was cramped, wet and cold and only designed to support two people on the moon’s surface for two days. Mission control in Houston improvised, and came back with new procedures that enabled three men to be in it for four days.

From a leadership perspective, Lovell did the one thing all great leaders do in times of crisis – He didn’t dwell on the coulda woulda shoulda. I’m sure he mourned it for a sour second and then moved on. He then improvised, using everything he and his crew had to work within those moments and moving one step at a time.

The crew had to balance the challenge of getting home with the challenge of preserving power on Aquarius. After they performed a crucial burn to point the spacecraft back toward Earth, they powered down every nonessential system in the spacecraft. Without a heat source, temperatures dropped to close to freezing. Mission controls teams helped the crew with daily activities and spacecraft manufacturers worked around the clock to support NASA and the astronauts. It took a few villages. The journey home was rough, to say the least. They safely splashed down on April 17. 

The mission name and astronaut patches came from Apollo, the sun god of Greek mythology, represented as the sun with three horses driving his chariot across the surface of the Moon. This symbolizes how the Apollo flights have lit knowledge to all mankind. The Latin phrase “Ex Luna, Scientia” means “From the Moon, Knowledge.”

The astronauts brought back space miles of knowledge, and the event resulted in NASA making some well-needed operational changes.

I think we can all relate to this story. These are uncomfortable times for people and for brands. We’re crammed into places we didn’t expect to be, and we face unknowns.

First, it’s important not to look behind you – that’s in outer space now. Next, remember where there’s uncertainty, find your clarity. Use this time to improvise — by definition that means spontaneously or without preparation. Make something from whatever is available. You might just find your brand is capable of something bigger than what you thought you planned for.

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Deborah McCormick is a Creative Director at Allison+Partners. She has more than 25 years of experience leading strategy and brand initiatives across healthcare, travel + hospitality, consumer, financial and automotive. She believes in meaningful content to drive conversions and spark brand love.

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