Problem Management

Crisis Management and Apollo 13

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” With those chilling words, Apollo 13 announced they were in the middle of a crisis beyond anything that had yet challenged the American space program. One of the oxygen tanks had exploded, and the crippled spacecraft was stranded 200,000 miles from Earth.

Crises differ from more general projects in several ways. First, they are often imposed on the project team with little or no notice. Apollo 13 was going well until suddenly it wasn’t. Crises normally have extreme constraints in time and resources. The clock was ticking. If problems could not be solved in very short order, the consequences would take hold at once — with fatal results.

The key to crisis management is in what you do long before the crisis actually occurs. The Apollo flight teams had prepared for disaster time and time again. Exercises, simulations, and extensive training all went into achieving the goal of “tough and competent.” By preparing for different eventualities and maintaining a high level of readiness, you and your team are in the best possible position to handle a crisis. However, no matter how good you are, failure is always an option.

Evacuating and shutting down the command module was the first order of business, but there were many problems to solve. In one of the most famous examples, an engineering team had to create a kludged-together backup carbon dioxide removal system using plastic bags, cardboard, and duct tape.

The team managed to overcome one problem after another, but the toughest challenge came at the end. There had never been a case where the command module had to be powered up after a long sleep, and the flight controllers had to test and write new procedures to accomplish it. (In the movie, that’s when Gary Sinise’s character tries to find a start-up sequence that draws less than 20 watts.) The normal time for a project like that was three months; the team had three days.

But that was the final hazard. On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 splashed down safely near American Samoa.

Manage your crises before they happen. It’s well known that duct tape solves many problems — but only if you have some handy.

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