DETROIT – If the auto industry’s current perilous condition has you stressed out, consider yourself in this situation: trapped in a severely damaged space capsule 240,000 miles (386,000 km) from earth with no plan to get home.
That was the predicament the crew of the Apollo 13 spacecraft faced in April 1970, when astronaut James Lovell alerted the National Aeronautics and Space Admin.’s mission control with the now famous announcement: “Houston, we have a problem.”
On their way to the moon, an explosion in a cryogenic fuel-cell canister caused by an errant spark created massive damage to the spacecraft, scuttling the mission and raising serious doubts about whether Lovell and his two fellow astronauts, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, would survive.
Gene Kranz, a keynote speaker for the Convergence Transportation Electronics Conference here, was the man in charge at the time as NASA’s director of mission operations.
For 45 minutes, Kranz mesmerizes his audience with a riveting, blow-by-blow account of how a team of young engineers and scientists at mission control worked together under tremendous pressure to safely bring the astronauts of Apollo 13 home.
While Kranz makes no specific mention of the auto industry, or its current troubles, many in the audience find his comments inspirational, as he explains how the teams collaborated and improvised to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. At the close of his speech, the crowd gave Kranz a standing ovation.
Against such a backdrop, engineering vehicles to meet tougher fuel-economy standards or simply surviving in a foundering economy do not sound nearly as impossible or scary.
Kranz displays detailed drawings and checklists created by an engineering team in Houston during the Apollo 13 crisis that instructed Lovell, Haise and Swigert how to use duct tape and other materials available in the space module to assemble canisters that would absorb excess carbon dioxide and prevent the astronauts from slowly suffocating.
Kranz also explains how the team prioritized and solved each new potential disaster as it came up, whether it was extreme temperature differences on the spacecraft’s skin that were so severe the vehicle’s outer structure was starting to buckle, or a bad flight path that would cause the capsule to bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere like a rock skipping over a pond, making re-entry impossible.
The first problem was solved by using the vehicle’s thrusters to delicately put the spacecraft into a slow spin, so its skin received more even exposure to the sun’s intense rays. The second issue was addressed by creating a crude but workable means of allowing the astronauts to visually steer the spacecraft back into the proper re-entry angle before they reached the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.
But with each exhilarating success they achieved, there were numerous mistakes and miscalculations that nearly led to failure, Kranz acknowledges.
The wrong re-entry angle, for instance, was calculated by engineers that assumed the astronauts were sitting in different positions in the space vehicle than they actually were.
Subsequently, Kranz declared there would be no more assumptions and coined the celebrated motto: “Failure is not an option.”
Leadership, trust, teamwork, creativity and the refusal to accept failure even in the face of many defeats (such as embarrassing exploding rockets and near disasters in the early days of the Apollo program) are some of the key takeaways from Kranz’s speech.
The quest to put a man on the moon was undertaken not because it was easy, but because it was hard, Kranz says, reminding the audience that is why it now stands as one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
Aside from his role in space missions at NASA, Kranz is a New York Times best-selling author.
His book, “Failure Is Not an Option,” chronicles his work in mission control, from Project Mercury through Apollo 13 and beyond. The book was selected by “The History Channel” as the basis for a documentary on mission control.
Kranz’s role in the rescue is well documented in the hit 1995 movie “Apollo 13,” in which he is played by actor Ed Harris.