Last July we
celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the first time men landed on
Tomorrow is the 40th Anniversary of the moment we
were reminded that space exploration remained a very dangerous business. That
was the moment NASA received a message from Apollo 13 that turned out to be a
masterpiece of understatement: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
The “problem” was a catastrophe: an oxygen tank ruptured
200,000 miles from Earth. The three astronauts on board survived only because
of some extraordinary technical improvisations.
Entrepreneurs facing an apparently hopeless crisis could
learn a lot from how they and the ground control staff responded.
1 Stay cool. The scriptwriters for Ron
Howard’s superb film of the incident, looking for drama, later asked Flight
Director Gene Kranz if anyone had panicked; he replied, “No, when bad things
happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of
2 Prepare to be flexible. The amazing
improvisation that saved the astronauts was possible only because everyone
involved was highly trained and different scenarios – including that of using
the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” which saved the three men – had been
considered in advance.
3 Innovate. Preparation on its own is not
enough. No one can foresee everything that might happen, so there will always
be events for which no one is prepared. The trick is to be aware of all the
best conventional thinking without being bound by it – indeed, that could be
the motto of the entrepreneur.
4 The unexpected happens – but that can be a
positive as well as a negative. Ken Mattingly was bitterly disappointed
when an unjustified medical alert cost him his place on Apollo 13, but, as
things turned out, none of the Apollo 13 men ever made it to the moon –
Mattingly did, on a subsequent mission.
5 Despair serves no purpose. Lesser men
might have been tempted to put their heads in their hands and cry when things
looked bad. The NASA people were made of sterner stuff. As Flight Director
Kranz said, “We never gave up on finding a solution”.