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Apollo 13 and the Definition of Failure
from Ivy Sea Online


The Apollo 13 mission came to be known as "NASA's most successful failure." By the mere mention of those two words in the same sentence — successful failure — Apollo 13 and her crew provide a rich challenge to the notion that failure exists at all, outside of the "make-believe" reality created by our own minds.

For those unfamiliar with this particular real-life space drama, featured in the Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks, the Apollo 13 spacecraft was launched into orbit on April 11, 1970 with three crew members. After almost three days of smooth operations, an oxygen tank onboard the craft blew up, sending the crews onboard and at NASA's Houston-based command center into overdrive to get the spacecraft back to Earth with its inhabitants alive. The explosion triggered a series of vexing dilemmas, one following another, that lasted several more days. Because the problems occurred while the craft and crew were 200,000 miles from Earth, the situation was life-threatening and the margin-for-error was nil. And you thought your current dilemma was stressful?

The great thing is that we needn't be floating around in space in a damaged spacecraft to learn valuable "here on Planet Earth" lessons from the Apollo 13 crew's handling of the crisis. What can we learn? Here are a few of the lessons I find most valuable from their story:

Not everything goes smoothly.

These days, it seems that almost everyone has the rather silly expectation that everything should be easy and that discomfort or sacrifice of any kind suggests failure. As Doc Holliday says in one of my favorite portrayals—the movie Tombstone, starring Val Kilmer as the infamous Holliday — "There's no such thing as a normal life, Wyatt. There's just life." Likewise, there's no such thing as a perfect (or perfectly smooth) situation; there's just the situation (and our masochistic expectation that it should be something other than it is). Read Marcus Aurelius or the more contemporary Victor Beaseley to learn how to "let the situation be your guru" as exemplified by the Apollo 13 crew.

Present-moment awareness is crucial.

Like many challenging situations, the unraveling of the Apollo 13 mission—as compared to the smooth flight revealed in the mission plan—required both mindfulness and skillfulness on the parts of all involved in the project. Worry too far ahead into the future or belabor the mistakes of the past, and it's likely that you're not attending to something important, like the present-moment, which requires your attention and offers any number of options for your perusal and action.

You have to trust your instincts, your experience - and your team.

The folks careening through space in Apollo 13 didn't have the luxury (or if they did, it was fleeting) of sitting around dilly-dallying and wondering, "Gosh, my gut tells me that something's wrong here, but the computer is broken and the other folks who know are down there in Houston, so, gee, I'm just not sure whether we should take some action here before getting the go-ahead from the executive team." Neither did they bicker with one another about what was whose job, nor did they bloat with ego and tell Houston, "We're really good up here, so we'll just handle this ourselves, fellas." That would have been ridiculous under any circumstances, and because they were in crisis they knew it. As a result, they:

* trusted their training,
* used their analytical skills for essential problem-solving rather than unessential analyzing
* knew that false humility and sagging confidence would waste valuable time and energy, and
* respected their colleagues onboard and in Houston by relying on them to apply their expertise and work their part of the problem.

As a result, they made it through the Earth's atmosphere and into a safe ocean-landing on April 17, 1970, and were alive to tell the story that's now a part of history.

There's no such thing as failure.

Just because it's a cliche doesn't mean it's not true. Failure is just a word we've made up to describe when things don't work out like we might have expected, or work out in a way that's different from the mass hallucination about what's "normal." Apollo 13 — the successful failure — demonstrates that real success is gained from working at the peak of your potential, and doing the very best you can with what you have to navigate the circumstances before you at any given time. That's not so much success or failure as it is just life.

Had they not lived the lessons outlined above, chances are good that the crew would have run out of oxygen or not found the means to power the craft back home. Why wait for a life-threatening crisis to use lessons and skills you have at your disposal right now?

Remember, this information is food-for-thought, not customized counsel. The most effective interpersonal and organizational communication program is one that's been tailored to meet the unique needs of your group. If you have questions, connect with a communication advisor or e-mail us for suggestions. unique needs of your group. If you have questions, connect with a communication advisor or e-mail us for suggestions.


The Author


This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission. Ivy Sea Online is an outstanding source of insightful and inspiring articles on leadership and communications - "visionary resources for mindful business." (ed.)

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