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Apollo 13
Apollo 13: successful failure or failed success? (credit: NASA)

Apollo’s failed success

Apollo 13 has been written into the history books as the mission that was the “successful failure”. I disagree. I think the Apollo 13 mission was the complete opposite. If I wrote the Apollo 13 chapter of the history book, I would state the Apollo 13 mission was NASA’s great “failed success”.

The history books state the Apollo 13 mission was a “failure”. That is wrong. I think the mission was a “success”. Many people do not know the difference between “success” and “failure”. There is no need for me to explain my case to anyone who does not understand the difference between success and failure. Perhaps that is why so many organizations fail – because they do not know what it takes to succeed.

The history books state Apollo 13 was not just a failure, but a “successful” type of failure. A “successful failure” should be a failure in which those who failed learn from their failure, and attempt to not repeat history. However, regarding Apollo 13, not very much was learned from the failure. The Challenger accident is the proof of the learning that never occurred. The Challenger accident is very much so a repeat of Apollo 13.

NASA claimed the Apollo 13 mission was a failure, but I say the Apollo 13 mission was a success, and I’ve got good data to prove my point. Some of the data is in the Apollo 13 hearing before the Senate dated April 24, 1970.

A “successful failure” should be a failure in which those who failed learn from their failure, and attempt to not repeat history. However, regarding Apollo 13, not very much was learned from the failure.

In that hearing, what did NASA say? Dr. Paine of NASA stated, “I think it is important that your committee understand clearly our view in NASA of the Apollo 13 accident and recovery. The Apollo 13 mission was a failure.” Many times in the report NASA refers to the mission as a “failure”. Yet over and over again, the senators refer to the mission as a success. Senator Curtis stated, “Dr. Paine, I want to take exception to one statement you made in your presentation. You referred to what has happened as a failure. I would rather describe it as an accident and accept that not as a failure.” I am amazed how many times NASA refers to the mission as a failure and how many times the senators (the customer’s representative) rebut NASA and call the mission a success. So who is right? I side with the customer, not because the customer is always right, but with just a bit more analysis, I think you might agree Apollo 13 was a success, but with a failure to learn and a failure of NASA to lead and to change.

I think NASA failed to learn anything from the tremendous success of Apollo 13. Perhaps this was because NASA was a young organization, incapable of learning lessons in its infancy, with no lessons learning system. Arnie Aldrich hinted at this point during the Challenger hearings when everyone was wondering what had gone wrong at NASA, when he stated, “Perhaps there should have been more self-reflection.” Also, maybe because NASA and Congress were so caught up in the Apollo 13 emotion nobody could think about what had happened. Finally, it is probably easier in general to learn from failure than from success. Since nothing was learned, and with the leadership and direction from outside the agency, there was no reason to change the way NASA did business. As Dr. Paine put it, “I see no reason why this setback should be—or should be made to be—the occasion for a major change in the course of the Nation’s space program.” Thus NASA did not change, and the mistakes of Apollo 13 also became the mistakes of Challenger, and again with no change, the mistakes of Apollo 13 once again became the mistakes of Columbia.

I am sure the glorious “failure is not an option” Apollo old-timers will not readily agree with me. In fact, in the Challenger hearings, the Apollo old-timers scolded the Space Shuttle era and wrote that the Challenger accident probably never would have occurred “if it (the Shuttle era) had insisted upon the exacting procedures that were its hallmark during the Apollo program”. The Apollo old-timers were saying things had changed, and that something was wrong with the new kids on the block. However, the truth is the shuttle era was trying to be just like the Apollo era. In other words, the problem was not that NASA had changed from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. The problem was the opposite: NASA had not changed and was still doing business like Apollo 13. In fact, the right stuff era hangover continues to this day.

The CAIB report lists eight “missed opportunities”—eight opportunities in which NASA’s management system failed to determine and to correct the foam strike problem. But what about Apollo 13? How many Apollo 13 “missed opportunities” were there? According to the introduction of Chapter 5 of NASA’s Apollo 13 investigation, there were at least 11 missed opportunities to correct the Apollo 13 problem. Moreover, the Apollo 13 mistakes were actually just as bad as or actually worse than the Columbia mistakes.

The problem was not that NASA had changed from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. The problem was the opposite: NASA had not changed and was still doing business like Apollo 13. In fact, the right stuff era hangover continues to this day.

The Apollo old-timers bragged during the Challenger hearings about their exacting and thorough procedures and redundant, independent safety program that would have caught a problem like Challenger had, but that is far from true. The same management system that failed to capture the Apollo 13 problems went on unchanged to fail again to capture the problems of Challenger and Columbia. Let’s look back again at the Apollo 13 “missed opportunities”.

  1. During the routine countdown rehearsals, oxygen tank #2 was filled with oxygen but could not be emptied. The ground crew thought a loose nozzle fitting was the source of the difficulty, but there was no thorough investigation. The loose fitting problem was not fixed since gaseous oxygen still passed through the nozzle as needed. Instead of thoroughly investigating the problem, they worked around the problem.
  2. When the normal procedure to empty the tank failed to work, ground crews improvised a procedure and used heaters and fans to empty the tank. (Please notice a similarity of living with and working around an Apollo program unknown problem is similar to the Space Shuttle program accepting the unknown problem of foam strikes.)
  3. The improvised detanking procedures had never been used before, and the tank had not been qualified for the conditions experienced. (Notice a similarity between this and the Challenger launching in cold temperatures for which the vehicle had not been qualified.)
  4. In reviewing the improvised procedures, officials at NASA, North American, Beach, and even the flight crew did not recognize the hazard of overheating.
  5. Many of the managers were not even aware of the extended heater operation.
  6. Neither qualification nor acceptance testing required switch cycling under load as should have been done. This was a missed opportunity.
  7. The problem could have gone completely unnoticed and the Apollo 13 flight completed without the anomaly if the special detanking improvised procedure had not been done, because the switch remained cool and closed during flight and could take a momentary or short 65 V DC charge and probably not fail. Imagine if the Columbia foam strike had just been slightly smaller; perhaps the incident never would have occurred and would have gone unnoticed.
  8. The thermostatic switches failures probably would have been captured if the heater current readings had been checked during the detanking operation.
  9. The oxygen #2 tank had been dropped during installation at North American Aviation, which caused the fitting to become loose, but there was no investigation.
  10. The tank heaters were equipped with 28-volt thermostatic switches supplied by the spacecraft fuel cells. But during the countdown rehearsal they were powered by 65-volt ground power supply. The 65-volt load likely caused the switches to fail. The ground crew kept the heaters on assuming the thermostatic switch would trigger if the tank temperature exceeded 80° Fahrenheit, but the heaters did not shut off and temperatures reached 1000° F. This heat burned the Teflon insulation off the fan motor wiring, leaving bare wires that would short circuit during the mission. The ground crew should have noticed this high temperature or burning smell. Apparently nobody was aware the temperature had reached such a high reading, or else they just did not report the anomaly. Maybe they were in a hurry to complete the task. After all, the heaters had been on for six hours! The electrical parts were damaged and the stage set for potential disaster.
  11. The thermostatic switch 28-volt specification, dating to 1962, was revised in 1965 to carry the 65-volt Kennedy Space Center ground supply. However, Beach Aircraft Corporation, which manufactured the switches, did not make the needed change to the switches. This opportunity was missed by Beach, either intentionally or as an oversight, and also missed by North American and NASA in all of the design, documentation, and flight review systems.

The Apollo 13 problem was right in front of everyone, including the astronauts, just as the foam strike problems had been known and accepted since the very first space shuttle flight.

So how did Apollo 13 “succeed” whereas Challenger and Columbia failed? The answer is the robust crew escape system built into the Apollo 13 design. When the Apollo 13 command module failed, the crew was able to use the lunar module as a lifeboat. The management system failed 11 times to correct the Apollo 13 mistakes. Failure was an imminent option after all. The Apollo 13 mission was saved and was labeled a “success” because of the lunar module crew escape system. As James Lovell stated for Life magazine on May 1, 1970. “The accident could have been worse, much worse, if this had happened when Fred and I were on the moon, we would have lost a whole crew—like that”.

So how did Apollo 13 “succeed” whereas Challenger and Columbia failed? The answer is the robust crew escape system built into the Apollo 13 design.

If NASA had learned the Apollo 13 lesson, I think a robust crew escape system would have been installed into the next generation launch vehicle—the space shuttle. But the lesson was never learned, and on STS-5, the two SR-71-style ejection seats were removed to allow the crew size to be increased from two to four. Why was this decision made? Part of the reason, I think, is what one might call “right stuff irrational exuberance”. Symptoms include the patient beginning to think that failure is no longer any type of option. The disease had obviously infected Rear Admiral Truly when he stated following the Challenger accident that, “The shock and grief of Challenger never affected our determination to fly again” and when he said “Columbia first flew in 1981. I have no doubt it will still be flying in the year 2005.” Another reason is the tremendous success of the Saturn rocket, which never experienced a failure, and the good luck NASA had not only with Apollo 13 but also with one Apollo 15 parachute failing during re-entry and the successful deployment of the nearly failed Skylab solar panel.

Perhaps some day the right stuff irrational exuberance will be cured at NASA, the difference between “failure” and “success” understood, and the probability of success and “option” of failure proven by design, test, and lesson-learning.