Professionalism/Apollo 13

Apollo 13 was a manned mission to explore the Fra Mauro region of the moon. It was the seventh manned flight of the Apollo Program. Liftoff occurred on April 11, 1970 at 13:13 CST with astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise. However, these men never reached the moon. On April 13, an oxygen tank exploded, damaging the spacecraft's Service Module. The next few days were focused on returning them safely. On April 17, the Command Module "Odyssey" splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean and was picked up by the USS Iwo Jima.[1] While the mission itself was a failure, the astronauts' safe return made it one of NASA's most "successful failures." [2]

Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module

The recovery of the Apollo 13 crew can be attributed to the technical and professional skill of the controllers and engineers at Mission Control. Several individuals displayed exceptional professionalism, but a general culture that promoted excellence had developed over the years at NASA. Issues of professionalism during Apollo 1 resulted in disaster, but they provided a valuable lesson that would set the tone for Apollo 13.

Organizational CultureEdit

In 1915, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was established to institutionalize aeronautics research. At the time, NACA was an aggregate of personnel and facilities from the Army and Air Force, research universities, and other government-sponsored labs and generated thousands of scientific publications annually. In 1958, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, NACA was dissolved and President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the federal agency which would oversee the development of all civilian space technology. In its early years, NASA took its identity from NACA; however, as the size and budget grew and developing space technology diverged from aeronautics research, the new organizational culture it developed paved the way for future success.


At first, NACA held two competing ideologies for how to manage its manufacturing and research and development practices. The arsenal concept, adopted from the Army, established in-house production capabilities so that work done by contractors could be compared and assessed on cost and quality.[3] In contrast, the Air Force relied almost exclusively on contractors, demonstrating more confidence and trust in outsiders. From the beginning, NASA valued competition, making even the most well-respected companies "re-compete" for contracts rather than issuing automatic extensions, thus guarding against complacency.[4] Believing that competition bred excellence, NASA also encouraged rivalry between research laboratories and maintained a rigorous hiring process to attract the most qualified individuals.

Automatic responsibilityEdit

All NASA employees were expected to embrace responsibility. Philip Tompkins, an intern at the Marshall Space Flight Center during the Apollo program, described the concept of automatic responsibility: "Despite the obvious and constant hazards involved, they courageously faced each new task with quiet confidence in the thousands of support personnel, systems, and components whose expert functioning they relied upon."[3] Management assumed that individuals would identify and address problems within their areas of expertise and get the attention of more qualified colleagues if the issue lay outside their range of skill. Everyone was treated as an expert in some sphere, and each placed the utmost confidence in his or her peers.

Werhner von Braun


Safety, cost, and time were NASA's three primary constraints.[3] In 1961, President Kennedy issued a directive to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.[5] As a result, NASA prioritized staying on schedule and had a 5.2 billion dollar budget in 1965, 5.3 percent of the federal budget.[6] Monetary cost was therefore not an issue, but the Apollo 1 accident reminded NASA that human lives were at stake in every mission. Following this catastrophe, NASA tightened its testing standards, replacing time with safety as the primus inter pares, or "first among equals."[3] Throughout the Apollo program, however, NASA successfully balanced these competing factors to operate efficiently.


To maintain a "safety first" mentality, NASA practiced redundancy in research and testing. Wernher von Braun, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center during the Apollo years, practiced a policy called "five neins," which required confirmation from 5 independent experts that a part or procedure would not fail. He was once quoted, "It’s a matter of making every possible human effort to avoid a failure in a part and then taking steps to avoid the effects of a failure if one should develop anyway."[3]


The size of NASA, which had reached 367,700 contracted employees in 1965, made constant communication necessary.[6] To promote communication of successes and failures, NASA adopted a culture of openness. Wernher von Braun instituted weekly meetings to provide feedback and hear suggestions from everyone in his division, ignoring hierarchy.[3] The discipline of regular communication ensured that problems were addressed promptly, suggestions could be offered, and even fostered a healthy attitude toward conflict. With the understanding that risk and failure were commonplace in their work, individuals were provided an atmosphere in which these things could be discussed honestly.

Mission ControlEdit

While organizational culture can help during crisis, it is individuals within that culture who affect outcomes. There was no such thing as a bystander during Apollo 13; controllers and engineers rushed to Mission Control even when they were not supposed to, ready to start work.[7] The challenges required these individuals to trust in their technical expertise, and while many people acted as professionals, there are a few standout characters from the control room floor to whom the success of the mission can largely be attributed.

Gene Kranz of the White Team

Eugene "Gene" KranzEdit

Gene Kranz was Lead Flight Director for Apollo 13, and his team, "White Team," was on duty during the explosion.[1] Immediately, his focus shifted to getting the crew home. The Flight Mission Rules state that "the Flight Director may, after analysis of the flight, choose to take any necessary action required for the successful completion of the mission,"[8] and Kranz was aware of his responsibilities. As the situation unfolded, he announced to the control room, "Let's solve the problem, but let's not make it any worse by guessing."[1] When his shift finally ended, he and members of White Team remained in the control room to assist Black Team as they started their shift. Kranz would pull members of White Team aside for consultations. He eventually pulled White Team into a conference room so they could frame and solve an aerospace engineering problem that would bring the astronauts home; they would not take another regular shift in the control room. Kranz himself never left the Control Center, instead taking short naps in the VIP room.[1] Kranz's loyalty was not to the original mission objectives or any individual. He was dedicated to making sure he fulfilled his professional duties.

Seymour "Sy" LiebergotEdit

Sy Lierbergot, a White Team EECOM, monitored the Command and Service modules. Following the explosion, he checked the oxygen tanks' readouts, which appeared abnormal, but might have just been an instrumentation error. He refused to diagnose the situation and prescribe a solution until he had figured out the problem.[9] Leibergot fulfilled his role professionally: by abstaining from reporting uncertainties with certainty he avoided exacerbating the situation. His actions reflected prudence in the face of repeated demands from superiors and colleagues.

Glynn LunneyEdit

Glynn Lunney was a "plerker," one who views work as play. His shift as Flight Director with the Black Team was supposed to start after Kranz finished, but he was in Mission Control early looking around, even before the explosion. Eventually, Kranz called Lunney to the control room floor to get a more complete picture.[1] By being immersed in the control room activities, he was better equipped than anyone to relieve Kranz. Lunney made several important decisions during his shift, including how to keep the crew alive and bring them home. However, he was poised and epitomized trust in his controllers. In several instances, he had to rely on their expertise and deferred to their judgement, but he always ensured that he understood their proposals.[1] His ability to operate under pressure and rely on others was crucial to the successful return of Apollo 13.

Public RelationsEdit

In the wake of the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA changed its public relations strategy and painted the outcome of Apollo 13 in a positive light. NASA became more open leading up to Apollo 13. Prior to Apollo 1, NASA did not grant the media direct access to communications between spacecraft and mission control.[10] Instead, NASA set a seven-second delay to censor transmissions if necessary. However, NASA changed its policy following Apollo 1 and allowed the media to directly access astronaut-mission control transmissions, abandoning the seven-second delay and censorship.[10] During Apollo 13, statements that may have generated poor publicity, such as Jim Lovell claiming "Well, I'm afraid this is going to be the last lunar mission in a long time," reached the public.[11] In addition, NASA was forthcoming with information at press conferences and allowed one reporter to observe the proceedings of Mission Control.[10]

The impacts of NASA's open public relations strategy were positive and wide-ranging. The US Information Agency claims that the splashdown of Apollo 13 in the South Pacific was one of the most heavily observed media events in history.[10] The media's take on NASA's handling of Apollo was clear: TIME Magazine stated in the aftermath of the event, "The total and instant access to bad as well as good news of U.S. space shots underscored the openness of American society."[12]

By being open to the press and the public, NASA turned Apollo 13 into a public relations success. Although the incident resulted in a failure to achieve the mission's goals, NASA was able to portray Apollo 13 as a "successful failure." Whether intentional or not, NASA's actions during Apollo 13 upheld its integrity. NASA also avoided the tendency of large organizations to be paternalistic during disasters. Unlike BP, which hid the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill from the public, or the United States State Department, which took a long time to clarify the situation surrounding the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, NASA was forthcoming with information related to the incident. They allowed the public to judge the magnitude of the case; in return, NASA gained the public's trust.


The Apollo 13 case shows that organizational culture impacts how professionals behave. Leading up to Apollo 13, NASA created an institutional framework that encouraged professional conduct. Ethical standards were institutionalized, with many individuals in upper management leading by example. The mission highlighted the importance of integrity and openness in public relations. By being honest and providing timely and accurate information to the media to allow the public to judge the situation for themselves, NASA gained the public's trust. The actions of Glynn Lunney, Gene Kranz, Sy Liebergot, and others at NASA during the successful return of Apollo 13 also showed that the professional success of an organization depends ultimately on the ethics and behavior of individuals in that organization.


  1. a b c d e f Lovell, J., Kluger, K. (1994). Lost Moon. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. Lovell, J. (1975 July 28). "Houston, We've Had a Problem." In E.M. Cortright (Ed.), Apollo: Expeditions to the Moon.
  3. a b c d e f Tompkins, P. (2005). Apollo, Challenger, Columbia: The decline of the space program. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company.
  4. Levine, A. (n.d.). A summary of NASA contracting philosophy. In Managing NASA in the Apollo Era (The NASA Acquisition Process: Contracting for Research and Development). Retrieved from
  5. Gilruth, R. (1975). “I believe we should go to the moon.” In Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Chapter 2.1). Retrieved from
  6. a b Barry, B. (2004). Project Apollo: A retrospective analysis. Retrieved from
  7. Lunney, G. (Publication Date Unknown). Apollo XIII. NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Apollo 13 Narrative. Retrieved from
  8. NASA Flight Control Division. (1969 May 16). Final Flight Mission Rules.
  9. NASA. (1970). Audio from the EECOM Loop During Apollo 13. Retrieved from
  10. a b c d Kauffman, J. (2001). A successful failure: NASA's crisis communications regarding Apollo 13. Public Relations Review, 27: 437-448.
  11. NASA (1970). Apollo 13 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription: p. 260
  12. (1970). Apollo's Return: Triumph over failure. TIME Magazine, 95: 17.