What Walking on the Moon can Teach us About Problem Solving

Full Moon

Our fascination with the stars began many centuries ago.

Who doesn't remember the words made famous by Tom Hanks as James Lovell in Apollo 13? 

“Houston, we have a problem.”

On April 11, 1970 at 13:13 CST, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert took off for a lunar mission on board Apollo 13. Two days later, on April 13, Lovell and Haise heard an explosion in the spacecraft. One loud enough to divert Swigert from his observations. It was Lovell who contacted mission control with the famous words—“Houston, we have a problem.”

Lovell described his experience to a rapt audience ten years ago at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. More than thirty-six years had passed at the time, yet he recalled the story as if it had been just a moment ago.

Taking stock of the situation

Apollo was losing gas at a rapid rate and it was more than 200,000 miles from earth. One oxygen reservoir indicated zero and the other showed a steady decrease, causing also a temporary loss of water and electricity that rendered the fuel cell propulsion system inoperable.

At that stage, the spacecraft had already abandoned the safer 'free return' course for a new exploration of reflections on the moon planned by the veteran commander with the ground crew.

Change of plans

The astronauts suddenly had to switch destination from their 'lost moon' to earth. The whole structure under their command and care needed to be repurposed to fit this new mission. With every system virtually stacked against the odds, Lovell and team reverted to old manual procedures.

The service module, built to house oxygen, water and fuel reserves, rendered useless after the explosion, became and excellent shield to protect the command module from deterioration. The module was then shut down to preserve the scarce resources needed to get back home. Lunar module Aquarius, designed to last a 45-hour, 2-people, exploration of the moon surface, became the true rescue craft for the team of three.

4 days separated the astronauts from a possible landing. This was a massive and potentially deadly crisis, yet they just dealt with it.

Engineering the return

Meanwhile, the ground engineers were working around the clock to assemble a way for the space team to funnel poisonous excess carbon dioxide outside the small lunar module.

Materials available on the craft and human ingenuity won the daythis part gave a whole new meaning to the expression 'never leave home without a roll of duct tape'. With room to breathe, Lovell and team had to try to get back into the 'free return' course.

Having served its purpose of preserving the command module for the reentry, the lunar module Aquarius was later jettisoned. The atmosphere had to be hit just right; one degree off on one side would have the module skip off as a rock on a pond, one degree off on the other and it would ignite.

An old manual maneuver was the only option for the space crew.

While Lovell and crew in fact did not get to walk on the moon, their story includes many lessons on solving problems:

1. Always expect the unexpected

While when things go according to plan can be a walk on the moon, the reality is that often things do not work that smoothly. We should have a back up plan, then make a plan C. Our skill and experience are the crucial fall back option.

In a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, it pays off to develop skills across several domainsfor example, engineering, design, and science and train to respond rather than react to unexpected situations.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Before they even know what went wrong, the astronauts had a conversation with their immediate and support teams. We should do the same, so they can help us figure out the problem and become part of the solution rather than get caught in the wake of a disaster.

Teamwork is essential, especially in times of crisis.

3. Persevere and adapt

While experience and skill can save the day, perseverance and ability to adapt to changed circumstances are our best allies. A determined commitment and dedication can make the difference between catastrophe and a successful recovery.

4. Make things happen

Ingenuity is one of the best human qualities we posses. Our wet system, the brain, contains the ability to make decisions at a faster and more appropriate rate than even the most sophisticated computer (dry system). Especially when survival is at stake. In a crisis, being decisive is a positive trait.

During an interview about the making of the movie, Tom Hanks said the experience “educated me an awful lot as to the things that NASA does extraordinarily well, as well as the sort of thing that a big organization like NASA can’t do, nor could any organization do.”

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, has died at the age of 95. Glenn left NASA in 1964.

Six years after his orbiting, Apollo 8 went all the way to the moon, but didn't land. The astronauts on that 1968 mission had a camera with them, and at some point one of them said they were going to turn it around and show audiences the earth, which he did. That was likely the very first image of a planet hanging in space many saw.