Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

By Thomas J. Lee

It isn't every day you get to sit down with a genuine American hero for an extended conversation about crisis leadership. Today, thanks to a mutual friend, I had the good fortune of doing just that.

Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, agreed to meet with me to talk leadership. We got together at a Starbucks in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he and Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, live on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

Having just turned 90 years old, he struck me as fully engaged, genial, and still sharp. He laughs easily and often, at one point joking that he probably disappoints people because he isn't Tom Hanks. Clearly, he learned long ago to cherish every minute of life.

For those of you who are too young to remember and who never saw Ron Howard's exciting movie starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, here are the basic facts. An onboard explosion in an oxygen tank, fundamentally caused by miscommunication over necessary voltage two years earlier, crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft en route to the Moon in April 1970, only nine months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first persons to set foot on another heavenly body.

Until the explosion and crisis, all three television networks were ignoring this flight. After all, it was "just another" manned spaceflight to the Moon. We had already visited the Moon four times and walked on it twice (Apollo 11 and 12). Lovell himself had already orbited it (Apollo 8), when he and his co-pilots became the first persons to view Earth as a globe, to escape Earth's gravitational field, to see the other side of the Moon, and to view an Earthrise.

On Apollo 13, after assessing the worrisome situation, Lovell radioed back to Mission Control five words that have become iconic: "Houston, we have a problem." For long days afterward, the survival of the three astronauts was in doubt. They were running out of oxygen and burning too much electrical power. Many knowledgeable people, even at NASA, feared for the worst.

The crew — Lovell, Fred Haise, and last-minute substitute Jack Swigert — quickly accepted the fact they would not land on the Moon. As depicted in the movie, they endured cabin temperatures down to 34 degrees Fahrenheit but, with the help of Mission Control, managed to find creative ways to save oxygen and power. 

Using the Moon's gravity as a slingshot, they flung themselves back toward Mother Earth. Still, they had to slip into a tiny window of the Earth's thin atmosphere. That meant correcting their course manually and precisely. Too little and they would burn up on re-entry. Too much and they would bounce off the atmosphere to oblivion. With only one chance, they got it exactly right, but no one knew it for sure until their three brilliant parachutes blossomed over the South Pacific.

(Even after the space capsule survived exterior temperatures of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on re-entry, Jim said, the capsule's interior was cold from the long flight home. He said it was still cold even after it was plucked from the ocean.)

Forty-eight years later, I vividly recall the crisis. Probably everyone my age does. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were riveted to black-and-white televisions.

Jim's memory of it all is remarkably detailed. At one point he even explained the electric circuity and capabilities of the spacecraft. I pulled a little 64GB flash drive from my pocket, and he told me it dwarfed the technical horsepower of the Apollo spaceship.

Jim said the movie was quite accurate except for a couple of dramatic moments that exaggerated interpersonal rivalries, along with some innocuous dialogue the screenwriters fabricated. But one poignant anecdote is entirely true, he said. 

In the midst of the crisis, as friends gathered to keep vigil at the Lovell residence, Marilyn asked his colleagues Armstrong and Aldrin to keep his mother distracted in front of the TV. Marilyn introduced the two world-famous astronauts to the elderly woman, who innocently asked: "Are you two boys in the space program, too?"

I asked Jim about optimism and self-confidence, which I have come to believe are essential components of successful leadership. He enthusiastically agreed. He singled out Mission flight director Gene Kranz, who famously declared to a couple of NASA suits contemplating the imminent disaster: "Gentlemen, with all due respect, I believe this will be our finest hour."

Jim looked at me. "And it was our finest hour," he said.

He told me that Marilyn recently reminded him of something that spoke to his own optimism. Back on the Apollo 8 flight — remember, it was humankind's first journey to the Moon — Frank Borman and Bill Anders, his two co-pilots, had both tape recorded love letters to their wives, to be opened only if they didn't return alive. Lovell hadn't done so, and Marilyn remembered. When she asked him why not, he replied that he was 100 percent certain he would be back — though sixteen months later the Apollo 13 crisis would cast some doubt.

Our conversation turned to the need to act decisively in a crisis. "I could have folded myself up in a fetal position and waited for a miracle. But if I had done that," he said, pointing to the heavens, "I would still be up there."

I asked him about the job of a leader to articulate high, value-based expectations and then enroll people to embrace those expectations as aspirations for themselves. Kranz did exactly that, Jim said, when he declared: "Failure is not an option."

One of only three astronauts to have flown twice to the Moon and the only one not to have landed, Jim said he was naturally disappointed that he had never set foot on the lunar surface. 

However, he believes today that Apollo 13 ironically made an outsize contribution to the space program because it captured the attention of people around the world and dramatically underscored the excitement and adventure of space exploration. My own two cents: Inspirational leadership is like that. Often, you have no idea how your own choices and behavior will ultimately inspire others. Just assume that they will.

At one point I asked him about the common tendency for self-preservation in bureaucratic cultures. The movie has a couple of scenes where that is evident. Jim said he believes a leader must create a culture where people are so focused on the mission that they don't act defensively. Rather, everyone must be concerned first and last about the big picture. 

In the movie, Kranz did that by assuring one nervous Nellie that he wouldn't be held accountable for a wrong prediction. In my own thinking on this subject, which I didn't share with Jim, extreme accountability can be at war with the truth, with self-confidence, with teamwork and collaboration, with creative thinking, and with agile opportunity. 

That led us to discuss another, related phenomenon: issue avoidance in times of imminent crisis and the concomitant reluctance to share negative information. "Happens all the time," Jim said. "But a responsible, wise leader cannot let it happen. You must insist on facts. Otherwise, your decision-making will be off." 

He also said that wise leaders keep their skeptics close at hand. They always listen to them closely and share their own thinking with them. That's essential for building commitment to a common vision, he said. 

Jim pointed to another famous explorer who believed the same thing. That explorer, too, survived long odds against survival and a return to civilization. His name was Ernest Shackleton.

(See also my review of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage under Books > Biographies, Memoirs, and Histories.)