A Story of Improvisation: The Epic Journey of Apollo 13

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People are largely unaware of their true strengths. These strengths are often revealed when they confront difficult challenges — a moment of truth. The same is true of organizations. Teams often demonstrate unexpected abilities by multiplying the individual strengths of team members. We see this in our work, where clients challenged to find solutions to complex problems collectively achieve far more through collaboration.

There is no more compelling example of high-performing teams than the crew of Apollo 13 and its mission support network on the ground. Together they had to improvise solutions to a growing cascade of problems, any one of which could have resulted in the loss of the crew.

Houston We Have a Problem

Launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 was destined to be the third manned landing on the Moon. Commander Jim Lovell was a veteran, having travelled into space before — first in two Gemini flights, then in the Apollo 8 mission that completed ten orbits of the Moon. Lovell was joined on this mission by crewmates Jack Swigert and Fred Haise.

About 56 hours into the flight (55:54:53), approximately 200,000 miles from Earth and 45,000 miles from the Moon, the unthinkable happened. One of the spacecraft’s two oxygen tanks exploded, emptying its contents into the vacuum of space. The second oxygen tank failed simultaneously, slowly venting the precious gas needed to keep the crew alive. Blinking warning lights showed that two of the spaceship’s three fuel cells had also stopped functioning, compromising its electricity supply. “Houston, we have a problem,” Lovell radioed to mission control.

The decision to abort the Moon landing was made quickly, but it was unclear the three astronauts could be brought back to Earth safely. The crew were now at risk in many ways.

There were three pieces to the puzzle, NASA Flight Director Eugene Kranz wrote, as he told the story of the Apollo 13 flight in Failure is Not an Option (2000). The Command Module (CM) – the crew cabin equipped with a heat shield for re-entry – only had limited electrical power. The attached Service Model (SM) was designed to provide propulsion, electrical power and supplies during the mission, but it had been damaged by the explosion. The Lunar Module (LM), engineered to land on the surface of the Moon, would only support two crewmen for two days.

Pressure in the second oxygen tank fell to 100 pounds per square inch – a critical threshold signalling that the Command Module would soon die. The ship would lose power and control of its main propulsion system. There was no alternative. The crew shut down the Command Module and retreated to the Lunar Module (57:37:00). The lunar lander would have to accommodate all three astronauts for more than four days — a lifeboat that would provide life support until the time of re-entry.

Mobilizing Support

The Trench – the front row of the Apollo Mission Operations Control Room – mobilized to improvise a plan of action. “Electrical power, water, and oxygen were critical,” Eugene Kranz says. “There was no way to stretch the power unless the Trench came up with options to speed up the return after we passed the Moon. The return plan split into two phases: in less than eighteen hours we needed a maneuver plan and procedures to speed up the return journey. Once this was completed we needed the entry plan sixty hours later. Everything else had to fit between these two critical events. So far all we had done was to buy the time to give the crew a chance; now we had to deliver.”

Kranz established three teams: one to create the checklist required for re-entry; another to budget electricity, water, life support, and other critical resources; and a third to transform the Lunar Module into a refuge that could support three people for four days.

Kranz addressed assembled program personnel and design engineers. The three team leads, he said, “will ask for things you never thought you would be called on to do and to answer questions you never expected to be asked. I want nothing held back, no margins, no reserves. If you don’t have an answer, they need your best judgment and they need it now.”

Improvising Solutions

The spacecraft was not on a trajectory that would take it safely back to Earth. A course correction was required. But even if there was enough power left in the main spaceship, it wasn’t clear it could take the strain. “No one knew the condition of the service module,” Eugene Kranz said, “but if the force of the bang had been any indication, it was possible that the sudden application of 22,500 pounds of thrust would collapse the entire back end of the spacecraft, causing both docked ships to tumble ass over tea kettle, sending the crew not back toward Earth but barrel-rolling down to the surface of the moon.” They decided to use the engine in the Lunar Module instead, although it had never been designed or used for this purpose.

After several hours of preparation the manoeuver was executed perfectly (61:29:43), moving from a trajectory that would take Apollo 13 from the path to enter a lunar orbit to one that would swing it back home. A further maneuver was made 18 hours later (79:27:39) to aim the spacecraft at a splashdown point in the South Pacific, where the USS Iwo Jima was positioned as a recovery ship.

Estimates showed the Lunar Module was short twenty hours of electrical power and thirty-six hours of water. And water wasn’t just needed for the crew. It was also required to cool equipment. Once the course correction had been made, Mission Control turned its attention to conserving power, water, and propellant. Since there was little water available for cooling, power consumption had to be reduced. The Lunar Module was powered down to twelve amps – a quarter of the power consumed by a household vacuum cleaner. The temperature in the cabin would then fall almost to freezing.

There was another urgent issue. Carbon dioxide was building up in the cabin from the crew’s breathing. The air scrubbers in the Lunar Module were running out. A reading of 15 millimeters of mercury would signal they had removed all the carbon dioxide they could. Carbon dioxide poisoning would then soon set in. While there were other scrubbers in the Command Module, they weren’t designed to fit in the Lunar Module. Unless Mission Control could find a solution, the crew would be overcome by the cabin air.

The engineering team in Houston experimented with options using materials they knew were on the ship. They jury-rigged an adapter for Command Module canisters using the cardboard cover of a log book, a plastic bag used to store space garments, a sock to plug the canister’s bypass hole, and hose from an astronaut’s pressure suit. It was all held together with duct tape.

Mission Control passed instructions to the Apollo 13 crew. The astronauts improvised two air scrubbers (86:24:00), which they plugged into ports designed to circulate air inside an astronaut’s suit. Now these vented into the cabin instead. “Slowly, all but imperceptibly at first,” Commander Jim Lovell wrote in Apollo 13 (2000), “the needle on the CO2 scale began to fall, first to 12, then to 11.5, then to 11 and below.” Within an hour the improvised contraption had reduced the concentration of carbon dioxide in the cabin from 15 to 0.2 millimeters. It had been a close call.

There were four batteries in the Lunar Module. Battery Two exploded about 10 hours later (97:10:05), but it continued to work and the other three picked up the slack. Another piece of bad luck, but thankfully without dire consequences. Eight hours later the crew fired the Lunar Module engine again (105:18:28), to correct the angle of entry. Too shallow and the capsule would skip back into space; too steep and the protective heat shield would burn through, or high g-forces would cause the capsule to break up. Once again all went well.

Just a few hours later, growing pressure in the Lunar Module’s helium tank triggered a safety valve to burst (108:46:00), venting gas into space. Not long after, it became clear the flight path was becoming more shallow. Another course correction would be needed, but Mission Control was uncertain the Lunar Module engine would work after the loss of helium. They decided to use its attitude-control jets instead. The jets would have to run at full power to the point of near exhaustion. To everyone’s relief, once again this went well (137:39:52).

Coming Home

NASA astronaut crews on the ground used simulators to check, re-check, and refine the re-entry procedures. When these were finalized they were read to the Apollo 13 crew to write down. “Thirty-nine pages in length and containing more than 400 entries, they were the ticket home for our crew,” Eugene Kranz says. The read-up was completed fifteen hours before the scheduled splashdown.

After a short, fitful sleep the Apollo 13 crew prepared for re-entry. The first step was to jettison the Service Module. They pushed backward gently with the four Lunar Module jets and then pulled forward just as gently with the Command Module, while activating the jettison switch. Set into a backward motion the Service Module slowly drifted away (138:01:48). When it did, the crew finally saw the true extent of the damage. Jim Lovell recalled the destruction.

There “was a wound, a raw, gaping wound running from one end of the service module to the other. Panel four, which made up about a sixth of the ship’s external skin, was designed to operate like a door, swinging open to provide technicians access to its mechanical entrails, and sealing shut when it came time for launch. Now, it appeared, that entire door was gone, ripped free and blasted away from the ship. Trailing from the gash left behind were sparkling shreds of Mylar insulation, waving tangles of torn wires, tendrils of rubber liner. Inside the wound were the ship’s vitals – its fuel cells, its hydrogen tanks, the arterial array of pipes that connected them. And on the second shelf of the compartment where oxygen tank two was supposed to be,… a large charred space and absolutely nothing else.”

The next step was to revive the Command Module, restoring power to a level precisely calculated to ensure the ship’s batteries would stay charged on re-entry – 43 amps. More than that and the batteries were likely to fail. Power-up was done by the Command Module pilot. When that was completed it was time for the two other crew members to abandon the lander and return to the mother ship. Jim Lovell was the last to leave the Lunar Module. He closed the hatch separating the two cabins and sealed it shut. With the flip of a switch the Lunar Module was gone – slowly falling toward its inevitable impact with the ocean (141:30:00).

The Command Module continued on its path, passing through twilight into darkness and back into daylight. In a final update, Mission Control warned that one of the Command Module’s batteries would fail during re-entry. Two others would survive for the rest of the trip. As the Command Module descended through the Earth’s atmosphere (142:40:46) all communications were blocked by the ionized cloud surrounding the spacecraft.

The radio silence continued longer than expected. Mission Control held its breath, and for agonizing seconds everything seemed to hang in the balance. Then a plane patrolling the splashdown area reported, “ARIA-4 has acquisition.” On the USS Iwo Jima, a sailor spotted the small capsule suspended in the sky under three billowing parachutes. The capsule then hit the water (142:54:41). The Apollo 13 crew had come home.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on March 20, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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