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Failure is an option

If you were around for the original Apollo NASA missions, or watched the Ron Howard movie “Apollo 13,” you know the name Gene Kranz. As director of NASA flight control for the Apollo missions, Gene Kranz was in the midst of it all when the Apollo 1 disaster that took the lives of Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee. He told his assembled team during the aftermath while several investigations were ongoing, that regardless of what “[the committee] will find as the cause, I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job.” He further went on to say that from then on, “Flight Control would be known by two words, Tough and Competent.” To him, tough equaled accountable and competent meant to be never short on knowledge and skill.


After the Apollo 1 fire and his meeting with the Flight Control team, Gene Kranz instructed his team to write on their office blackboards, “Tough” and “Competent” and to never erase them. “They are the price of admission to Mission Control,” he said. Tough and Competent may have been reserved for his inner team but the outside world may more easily remember another statement by Gene Kranz. “Failure is not an option.” As quite common, even though Mr. Kranz used the phrase for his autobiography title, he did not originate it. It was coined by a screenwriter working on the “Apollo 13” movie project. But he lived the phrase, and his life and work epitomize true leadership: dedication to excellence beyond self.


Gene Kranz was the Flight Director for Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Apollo 11 is known for its success, meeting President John Kennedy’s 1962 challenge to land Americans on the moon before the end of decade. Apollo 13 is best known for its inflight explosion, potentially losing another full Apollo crew, when faulty wiring caused a spark and explosion, causing the spacecraft to lose its oxygen supply. Rather than a moon mission it became a survival mission, racing the clock to return the astronauts to earth before their oxygen ran out. Those who read the book or saw the movie know the Flight Control team took accountability for the disaster and used their knowledge and skill to bring the flight crew safely home.


But they weren’t such unparalleled successes or abject failures. Apollo 11 faced moon landing challenges the crew had not considered. Apollo 13’s impromptu air scrubber assembled from odds parts scavenged from the two ships was no small success. It allowed the crew to return to earth and is that not the ultimate success?


Most of life can be seen as falling somewhere between success and failure. We plan for success and hope against failure. A failing grade in school may provide the best opportunity to seek out a more appropriate life’s path. A failed relationship offers time to consider if it was love or loneliness that drove it and gives us the chance to answer our own questions regarding what we want. An estrangement with a parent, sibling, or child very often leads both parties to examine their communications and what they could have said, done, or heard better. Likewise, successes are not the time to rest on your laurels, but are the time to reset your goals and plan for new challenges and opportunities.


We have written about failure mode analysis (FMA) and how by anticipating problems you move the markers to problem solving. Even not textbook examples of success or failures, not even textbook examples of FMA given that the potential problems were so unknown, the Apollo missions were examples of competence, proof that not all failures have to be disastrous, nor are successes absent of many obstacles along the way. Success, failure, or just plain life give us the chance to prove our toughness and competence, and show our dedication to excellence beyond ourselves.




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