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Safety Leadership: Failure Is Not an Option

When lives are in the balance, failure is not an option, retired NASA Flight Control Director Gene Kranz reminded a standing-room only crowd at the opening session of the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo in Portland, Oregon on May 16. Kranz, who was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, is best known as the leader of the “Tiger Team” of flight directors who brought the crew of Apollo 13 safely home on April 17, 1970, after the spacecraft’s oxygen system failed.

All seemed well when the third manned mission to the moon launched on April 11, 1970. Two days later, an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the service module. The explosion caused the fuel cells to shut down. Not only did the fuel cells provide power, but a byproduct of their operation was water, which was critical in maintaining the equipment and for the needs of the crew. The Lunar Module operated on battery power, requiring Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot John L. (Jack) Seigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise to conserve power by keeping the temperature hovering between 35 and 38 degrees and limiting water intake.

Kranz relived the actions of his team for the audience at AIHce, bringing to mind the old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

As soon as one mission- and life-threatening issue was solved, another was discovered, remembered Kranz. For example, the temperature on the surface of the spacecraft closest to the sun was 150 degrees, while the temperature on the other side was -180 degrees, causing the surface to warp. Engineers devised a solution that called for firing the thrusters in a sequence that caused the spaceship to rotate “like a barbecue spit,” said Kranz, thereby keeping the surface at a more uniform temperature.

As the spaceship returned to Earth, it was discovered that the carbon dioxide system was allowing CO2 to build up in the Lunar Module – the system was built to support two, not three, people and then only for a limited and the crew had 10 hours before they suffocated. A system to filter the carbon dioxide out of the air using lithium hydroxide canisters available in the Command Module was devised, MacGyver-like, using a piece of cardboard, a hose from one of the space suits, plastic bags and duct tape.

Despite all of the obstacles placed in the path of the crew of Apollo 13, they splashed down – cold and dehydrated but safe – in the Pacific Ocean on April 17 and was recovered by the USS Iwo Jima.

The job description of a flight director is a single sentence, says Kranz: “To take any actions necessary to ensure crew safety and mission success.”

The crew of Apollo 13 and the flight control team “were united by leadership and trust,” a lesson for success regardless of circumstances and occupations, according to Kranz.

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