“Houston, we have a problem!” Critical Skills at their finest!

It was just a short transmission.  “Houston, we have a problem,” Captain James A. Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, said calmly.

That was an understatement; and it set in motion one of the most dramatic examples of application of the critical skills in history.

It was April 1970 and the Apollo 13 space vehicles and crew were nearing the moon when the explosion occurred.  An oxygen tank had exploded crippling the service module upon which the command module depended.

The events over the next few hours involved extraordinary teamwork between the Apollo 13 crew and mission control in Houston.  Precise, calm and highly technical communications went back and forth; problems were identified and solutions suggested with the implementation of some.  The key decision was that the mission should be aborted and the crew must return to earth as soon as possible – IF that were possible.

Faced with threatening problems such as a very limited power supply, removal of dangerous carbon dioxide, and consumables that were intended to sustain two people for a day and a half – not three people for four days – the crew and their team of ground personnel managed to bring the service module and command module, Odyssey, into position for re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

Not only was there the normal pressure of making life or death decisions, those decisions had to be made in real time, AND while the whole world was watching and listening live on television.  It was drama of the highest order and would put any normal human beings to the ultimate test.

A key problem arose when the command module and crippled service module approached the earth.  The crew jettisoned the service module and prepared for entry into the atmosphere.  Entering the earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle was crucial.  If the angle were too steep, the entire command module and the crew would burn up; if the angle were to shallow, the entire command module and crew would skip over the top of the atmosphere like a stone skipping on a pond.

This is where Captain Lovell’s technological skills were dramatically displayed.

In his own words:


“We did not know that we were coming back outside the 2 degree pie shaped wedge necessary for a safe landing until the ground tracking us told us. To get back inside the corridor, we had two items we could use:

1) the terminator of the earth (line between day and night) and, 

2) a gun sight or cross hairs on my lunar module window.

Knowing the structure of the lunar module I was aware that if I superimposed the horizontal line of my gun sight on the earth’s terminator I would place the lunar module engine in a position to increase the angle of entry and get the spacecraft back into the corridor. Mission Control had to provide me with the time of engine burn to do this.”

Source:  Captain James A. Lovell, USN

Mission Commander; Apollo 13

July 22, 2014

Fortunately, as we all know, the Apollo 13 crew landed safely in the Pacific Ocean to the relief of an entire planet.

This was application of the critical skills at their very best.

  • Communications – precise, to the point, clear and quick 
  • Production – the idea was to get the crew safely back to earth; the end result was that is what happened.
  • Information – accurate and true information gathering on the ground and in the command module;
  • Analysis – precise analysis to determine the length of the rocket burns and correct approach angle to the atmosphere;
  • Interpersonal – teamwork between the ground crew and mission crew at its finest;
  • Time Management – correct priorities and no time to spare;
  • Technology – maximum use of technology current at the time to solve the problems.  Some solutions required makeshift and “jury-rigged” processes.

The Critical Skills came in handy during those days. 

The whole world breathed a sigh of relief.




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