Houston, we have a problem

April 11, 1970 Apollo 13 launched successfully, only to be met with disaster two days later. An oxygen tank exploded. The mission was aborted and the crew went to extraordinary lengths to return to Earth. Their only mission was to stay alive. Focus.

The harrowing tale of their survival made it onto the silver screen in the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” in which Lovell was portrayed by Tom Hanks. But more importantly it gave us five words that have become synonymous with there being a pressing critical issue to address.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” were the words of Jim Lovell on the evening of 13 April 1970. Nearly fifty-six hours into the mission to the moon, an explosion aboard the spacecraft plunged the crew into a fight for their survival. Within less than a minute there was a cascade of systems failures throughout the spacecraft. ‘It was all at one time – a monstrous failure,’ said NASA’s Apollo 13 flight controller, Gene Kranz (referred to as “Flight” on the voice recordings).

The spacecraft looped around the moon, using its gravity to return to earth. Millions of people followed the unfolding drama on television. Eventually, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga.

In an article headed ‘Apollo 13: From Disaster to Triumph’ the BBC science reporter wrote, ‘Although the mission was not a success from a conventional perspective, it was a triumph of ingenuity and determination’. Jim Lovell said it showed the people of the world that even if there was a great catastrophe, it could be turned into a success.

“Catastrophe brought focus to the astronauts, the control room, NASA, the US Government and the world.” Kranz said. “Everyone was working the problem.”

The crew of the Apollo 13 mission — Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, Commander Jim Lovell, and Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert — aboard the USS Iwo Jima following splashdown and recovery in the South Pacific.














We all face challenges as we lead our teams and organizations; people, commerce, market conditions, product strength. The list could be endless. However, the successful landing of the Apollo 13 mission brought three thoughts to over coming obstacles;

1.) Identify the real problem. While “Houston, we have a problem” told the world there was a problem (an explosion in the oxygen tanks), it would be hours of critical thinking and follow thru to find the real problem; getting home safely.

2.) Focus on the fixing the real problem. Take away distractions. Anything that didn’t focus on bringing the crew of the Apollo 13 home was discarded. Sy Liebergot NASA’s Apollo 13 flight controller in charge of the fuel cells and the tanks later said that the real key “to finding a way to bring the boys home was that we had hundreds of people, some we didn’t even know, speaking into the solution.” The focus of the NASA’s staff, it’s relationships and the flight crew brought a crystal clear focus, meaning and new understanding to the phrase “working the problem.”

3.) Take action. There is a vast difference between knowing what the problem is a taking action. “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened,” said Lovell. “To be successful, you need to be a person who makes things happen”

This reflection of the Apollo 13 rescue is extremely relevant to our lives in leadership today. We live in a rapidly changing time, white water economics, turbulent market shifts and we all need to define the real problems, bring crystal clear focus  and then have the courage to take action.

The entire world held its breath on April 17, 1970, as the flight crew jammed into the Odyssey and began their descent to Earth. The damaged module’s heat shield held, protecting the crew from a fiery death. Forty-five minutes after splashing down in the South Pacific, all three astronauts were safely aboard the recovery ship Iwo Jima. Thanks to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of mission control, what could have been one of NASA’s darkest chapters began a new era of technological innovation and space travel.

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