September 22, 2015

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A process perspective on NASA's failed Apollo 13 Mission

This is about Apollo 13. A mission that is considered to be the most successful failure in the history of NASA. A failure, because it could not achieve the mission it was designed for, and a success, because of the most remarkable achievement of bringing the three astronauts back home safely. Hollywood had made a popular movie Apollo 13, and I strongly recommend people watch the movie, which clearly depicts the Apollo 13 accident.

En route to the moon, approximately two hundred thousand miles from Earth, oxygen tanks in the command module of Apollo 13 exploded, and that sealed the failure of the mission. The original mission was aborted, and the new mission, “bring astronauts safely home,” replaced the old mission. The entire world witnessed a series of dramatic events during this new mission. I would like to cite the two most-critical problem solutions in this drama and provide a process perspective.

The first life-threatening problem was the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the cabin of the lunar module. The control room in Houston did a commendable job of designing the solution, but its implementation was to be done by the astronauts themselves. The control room in Houston delivered the lifesaving process—exact, step-by-step procedures that could be executed by the astronauts. All the astronauts did was execute those step-by-step procedures and save their lives. The desired outcome was achieved by the procedural task execution designed by the solution designer.

The drama continued, and there was a second life-threatening situation on reentry procedure into the Earth’s orbit. Because of an acute power shortage, the originally designed procedure was non-workable for reentry into the Earth’s orbit. The captain of the mission, Jim Lovell, repeatedly emphasized the need for “step by step” procedures. This was yet another commendable delivery by the control room in Houston. In a very timely manner, meeting the deadlines, the control room delivered step-by-step procedures to be executed by the astronauts on board and saved their lives again.

What is the takeaway?

We learn about the might of a well-designed process and procedure, especially when dealing with complex systems. We also learn about the positive outcome that it brings in all aspects of life. In our regular business too (of enabling mainstream business through IT systems), well-designed processes can deal with every possible business-critical situation. This is the fundamental principle of the service management philosophy. 

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