How does one deal with failure ? Lessons learnt from Apollo 13

Motion pictures are an integral part of our lives. They not only have have entertainment value for the masses that can keep the audiences glued together during the entire duration of the show, but also have a lasting impact for years and generations later for its  narration,  performances and a gripping story line.

Apollo 13 is one such movie, based on a real life event that I watched and enjoyed just like any other thriller. I watched the movie sometime in the summer of 2002 -3 – can’t recollect the year. However, it was only a decade later when I faced some major setbacks in life that I could draw huge inspiration from this movie. 

As it happened ………………
11/04/1970 –
‘Houston we’ve had a problem’  – was the message from Jack Swigert  when the crew on Apollo 13 was just 200,000 miles from Earth.  That fateful night, a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, ripping apart one oxygen tank and damaging another inside the aircraft.

The Apollo spacecraft  was made up of two independent spacecraft joined by a tunnel: orbiter Odyssey, and lander Aquarius. The crew lived in Odyssey on the journey to the moon.

The main crew on Apollo 13 were Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell who had no choice but  to return home by preserving power on Aquarius, which now had to orbit longer than expected. There was no source of heat, with cabin temperatures down to freezing, food becoming inedible. There was no way the astronauts could have survived on the mission without oxygen.

The astronauts had just lost the moon. It was case of so near and yet so far… Yet, the crew had no choice but to abort the mission and returning to Earth safe and sound was the top most priority for everyone concerned on the mission.

After a tense few days, Lovell, Haise and Swigert  splashed down safely onto the Pacific Ocean with a loud applause at the NASA mission control in Houston.
I share with you below a few lessons I take away from the failed mission of Apollo 13:

  • It is easy to get to where you want to be, but difficult to sustain  at the top, is what most people will tell you in business.  I have a different view though. I believe that is is equally difficult to get there. The astronauts did not just book a ticket and board the mission to the moon. It took them years of  education, training, preparation and hard work to be even considered for the mission. Never under estimate what you have gone through to get where you are at the moment. 
  • Sometimes it is best to step back and re-assess your situation. Yes, all entrepreneurs are bound to be passionate about their maiden start up. But it is not the end of the world. If you are alive, you will surely have another chance.
  • Be ready when the opportunity comes knocking
    Jack Swigert was initially the back up command module pilot and replaced  Ken Mattingly was exposed to German measles. Your turn will come.  Whether it is your 1st customer or your 1st job – Be prepared. You won’t get a second chance. 
  • Certain events in life happen for a reason and they are beyond your control – you have to deal with it.  In Project Management discipline – you call it Risk Management.  You need to have control measures to mitigate any uncertain event.  Apollo 13 did have a backup module.
  • Seek outside help if  required. The astronauts on board were fully supported by a mission control team  and the space craft manufacturers back on Earth and they were in constant communication (except for few minutes during re-entry to Earth).  Yes, I know you like to do it all yourself. But never be ashamed to ask for help. There are people willing to help you and see  you succeed.
  • Crisis stretches your limits and makes you stronger. We don’t know how Neil Armstrong would have dealt with the situation if there was a crisis during his mission. You don’t know how your friends would have responded to failures in life. Perhaps adversity will reveal that you are much stronger than the people you know who were successful. 
  • ‘Failure is not an option’, according to the flight director on Earth Gene Kranz – Failure in this situation was not being able to bring the astronauts back to earth. When crisis hits you hard, when you have no other option available, you have no other choice – but to win.  You create your own destiny.
  • You have more well wishers than you think
    Not just the families, but an entire nation including Neil Armstrong himself prayed for the safe return of the astronauts. Your family, relatives and close friends are there to support you. Be in touch with them.
  • Cut off from the world, if it makes you feel better
    The crew had lost all communications with the mission control on Earth at the point of re-entry to Earth.  If you want to have your time alone, go for it. Disconnect from the world for some time and come back stronger.
  • Barring few disasters, commercial air travel is now considered the safest mode of travel. The airline industry’s outstanding safety record also comes from decades of intense analysis of errors and crashesand a determination to learn the lessons. It is sad though, that the majority of the  air crashes are due to human errors. 
  • Have an extra ordinary and an exciting story to tell your children.  I would have loved to be one of those astronauts. However, I was born only a year later after its launch. We have all lived a comfortable life.  The astronauts on board Apollo 13 had an exciting and gripping bed time story for their children. Perhaps, even more exciting than Neil Armstrong’s successful landing on moon. 
  • Apollo 13 was a ‘successful failure’ according to Jim Lovell.  Surviving a near disaster and and holding onto their nerves and  returning safely to Earth was a grand success for the entire team involved and with few lessons learnt, there were few more successful mission subsequently.

How did I deal with failure ?

When  my 1st start up failed,  I cut off from the world for more than a year.  I took time off to learn new skills, evaluate decided I am going to try again…something bigger…something better. …and if I fail…

I will try again. I will Never Give Up.

Summing Up
Even when the moon is waning, it does not lose it’s shape. You see the moon in full glory only once in a month.  When the day arrives, you must enjoy its beauty and celebrate your well deserved success.

The Never Give Up Man



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