9img Developing Agile Leadership

Failure is not an option.

—Gene Kranz, NASA

A classic story of innovating as if someone's life depended on it (because three lives did) occurred during the flight of Apollo 13, when an accident in the spacecraft sparked the rather large understatement, “Houston, we have a problem.” Indeed, the lives of the astronauts really did depend on solving the multiple problems that the oxygen tank explosion caused. The propulsion system, the oxygen-scrubbing system, the navigation system, and the power generation all failed, and the astronauts faced the real likelihood that they would not survive.

The story of the race to solve all these problems and bring the astronauts home alive is a compelling demonstration of the capacity to do the impossible. In the 1995 movie version, flight director Gene Kranz (impeccably portrayed by Ed Harris) captured the moment perfectly when he gravely intoned, “Failure is not an option.”

Through an epic process of brilliant creativity, innovation, and engineering, the astronauts did make it back alive.

And actually there's a lot more to the story of Apollo 13 than is told in the movie. About 20 years ago Langdon had the good fortune to meet Dr. Ken Cox, a NASA scientist who, as Langdon subsequently learned, played a critical role in the drama. In Langdon and William L. Miller's book, Fourth Generation R&D, Cox's story was included ...

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