Teamwork and Apollo 13

Posted on 1st Oct 2014

If you are not old enough to remember the ‘successful failure’ that grew from NASA's Apollo 13 mission in 1970, you may have seen Tom Hanks’ movie that aimed to recreate its events. If, like the crew, you’re still in the dark, Apollo 13 was NASA's 7th manned Apollo mission and intended to be the 3rd craft to land a man on the moon. Just two days after launch, an oxygen tank on the craft exploded. A small fire had ignited inside the tank, turning liquid oxygen into a high-pressure gas, bursting the tank and crippling both the Service and Command modules. It took a Herculean task from both the crew in space and their colleagues back in Mission Control back in Houston, Texas to get the crew back home safely.

This crucial event in NASA's proud history has become the epitome of successful teamwork. With a crippled spacecraft shooting through space, Houston really did have a problem. Nothing like this had ever happened before. There were no rules, no procedures and no plan in how to deal with it. To get the 3-man crew back to Earth in a machine the size of a VW Beetle car, with an ever-decreasing supply of power, food, fuel and oxygen, was no small task. The ultimate ‘success’ of the mission wasn’t just because of the team in space, but also the team on the ground working together in new, innovative ways.

Teamwork starts and ends with a strong team. Having the right selection of team members can often be the difference between success and failure. You can have knowledge without gaining the experience, but not the other way round. The team on this mission were a great mix of people with experience and knowledge; each with their own area of expertise that other team members could rely on. Obviously in this case, they couldn’t have experienced this particular event as it had never happened before, but it wasn’t without precedent. During a launch rehearsal of Apollo 1 in 1967, a fire in the cabin had claimed the life of all three astronauts. NASA learned valuable lessons from this terrible event. They knew every conceivable scenario needed to be planned for, tested and simulated before it could be carried out. This understanding of risk helped the team when developing solutions for Apollo 13’s return.

Minutes after the explosion, the parameters of the mission had changed and everyone understood it. With the need to develop new procedures quickly and accurately, they all worked closely together maintaining clear communication throughout. Ego’s were left outside as they pulled together. Teamwork isn’t about independence, it’s about interdependence. This was key to the mission’s success. Nothing was more important than getting the crew home safely. The NASA team had a common goal and they all pulled the same way to get the job done.

In some ways, the Apollo 13 mission set the standard for team working events ever since. Engaging a group of people to solve problems together with limited equipment, in a limited time has become a stalwart of business training the world over. Whilst the challenges will rarely be as important as saving the life of astronauts hurtling through the cosmos, the lessons you can learn as just as valid.

We have a team building exercise based on a crashed space craft scenario. Teams must plan for survival and attempt to meet with a rescue ship. This exercise has been around since the 1970s and we have brought it up to date so that it will engage a modern audience. We can arrange for a former NASA astronaut to present the activity and share some of his experience of teamwork in extreme situations.

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