fred w haise

The Shuttle Orbiter 101 “Enterprise” soars above the NASA 747 carrier aircraft after separating during the first free flight of the Shuttle Apporach and Landing Tests (ALTs) conducted on August 12, 1977 at Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. Astronauts Fred W. Haise Jr., and C. Gordon Fullerton were the crew of the “Enterprise.” The ALT free flights are designed to verify Orbiter subsonic airworthiness, integrated systems operations and pilot-guided approach and landing capability and satisfying prerequisites to automatic flight control and navigation mode.

Apollo 13 and the Successful Failure

Much has been written about how NASA ensures the safety and efficiency of its missions, with every single nut and bolt on every single space craft examined and re-examined exhaustively.  This dedication to detail has meant many millions and millions of miles of safe travels in space, for astronauts as well as spacecraft.  When failures happen, they are as often as not caused by the sheer difficulty and dangerousness of the task at hand.  Going into space, or to the moon or another planet or asteroid is hard, really hard.  Few ‘failures’ exemplify the attention to detail that NASA puts on missions as much as Apollo 13.  

On April 11, 1970 at 19:13 UTC, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission, carrying Commander James Lovell, Command Module Pilot John L. “Jack” Swigart and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise.  A seemingly perfect launch was marred by the catastrophic failure of an oxygen tank 55 hours into the flight and the Lunar Landing was aborted as NASA then focused on returning the now crippled spacecraft safely to earth.  Vibrations and cavitation of various systems caused system shutdowns and eventually the explosion.  The explosion meant no oxygen reserves, damage to power and carbon dioxide scrubbers, leading to loss of heat and drinkable water.  The crew had just finished a live television broadcast at just over 205,000 miles from Earth.  Lovell was still putting away the television camera when the crew heard a loud bang.  Minutes later, Lovell uttered what may be the second most famous sentence uttered in space (after ‘the eagle has landed…’) when he radioed Houston to say, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”  NASA went to work to analyse and solve the problem and after much drama the astronauts returned to earth cold, thirsty and exhausted on April 17, 1970.  

Not long after the Gemini program was announced along with the first seven Astronauts (see my post from April 9), NASA announced the Apollo program in July 1960.  Originally conceived as missions to the Moon, President John F. Kennedy announced his ambition to Congress on May 25, 1961 to place a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, and the Apollo program changed its mission.  It was Abe Silverstein, Director of Space Flight Development who proposed the name Apollo, following the tradition established naming Mercury after a figure in Ancient Greek mythology.  Apollo (Ancient Greek Άπόλλων) was the god of archery, music and poetry, often depicted in his horse drawn golden chariot shooting across the sky.  NASA approved the name suggested by Silverstein (who compared naming the program to naming a baby) and announced Project Apollo to the public on July 28, 1960.  Kennedy’s announcement meant changes to the program, notably the addition of the Lunar modules, but Apollo was underway.

The Apollo 13 failures have long been considered the defining moment of ‘successful failure’ within NASA.  Despite the massive on-board failures, the ground based engineers and astronauts were able to configure a solution to rescue the damaged spacecraft-utilizing the massively redundant systems and safety protocols designed into the space craft.  

NASA succeeds because they prepare for every possible scenario, and even have backup and redundancy that will help them and their missions make it through scenarios that they have not prepared for.  Take another look at the crew photo above:  see the sextant?  For hundreds of years sailors and explorers used a sextant and astronomical chart as a means of navigation.  Today, the United States Naval Academy is teaching ancient navigation methods again, so that in the event of a cyber attack or failure, naval officers will still be able to navigate their giant ships and air craft.  It might seem odd that a billion dollar air craft tanker would use ancient navigational techniques familiar to Francis Drake-or it might seem like an amazingly bright sense of prudence and preparation.  The business lesson here is simple:  preparation for any task is never wasted.