| Jan 6, 2022

What Apollo Astronauts Taught Me About Handling Adversity

While most of us won't be walking on the Moon anytime soon, there are still significant and relevant lessons that we can learn from Apollo-era astronauts.

During my decade-plus career as a spaceflight historian and writer, I’ve had the privilege of being able to interview and interact with many Apollo-era astronauts. Many of these astronauts flew around the Earth during Apollo test missions and orbited the Earth aboard America’s first space station, Skylab. Some even traveled to and walked upon the Moon, an honor achieved by only 12 humans in our world’s history thus far. 

Many astronauts from this era, who were selected to the corps from 1959 to 1966, have been described in press articles as being “lucky” or “in the right place at the right time.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to their selections to the astronaut cadre, many worked tirelessly for well over a decade, earning educations from post-graduate schools and very challenging military test pilot programs. But “hard work” wasn’t the sole thing that made them uniquely qualified to go to the Moon or orbit the Earth for months. Character and management skills also hugely factored into the selection process. Moreover, perseverance – taking “hits” but moving forward – was also an admirable quality. 

The Apollo lunar program ended 50 years ago this year and the Skylab program ended in 1974. However, many of the leadership lessons from this era left resonances and can be adapted to modern times – whether you’re in space or on the ground. Indeed, the following lessons from four Apollo astronauts have inspired me in my own life and career. 

Never Panic Early! 

April 1970’s Apollo 13 mission might be one of the most well-documented spaceflights ever as an emergency forced its crew – commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert, and lunar module pilot Fred Haise – to return to Earth earlier than expected. But that mission wouldn’t be Haise’s first brush with risk and danger during the 1970s. On August 22, 1973, Haise was flying a World War II-era plane, a Vultee BT-13, that cartwheeled during landing after one of its engines failed. Trapped inside of a jammed, fiery cockpit, Haise quickly assessed the desperate situation and calmly kicked his way through the cockpit’s Plexiglas. While he was severely burned, he survived the accident likely to his quick, steady thinking. Within less than four years, he had recovered well enough to be at the helm of NASA’s first space shuttle, Enterprise, for its approach and landing tests. 

On August 12, 1977, Haise sat inside Enterprise’s cockpit beside pilot Gordon Fullerton waiting for the shuttle to be released from its Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Moments after its release, Enterprise’s number two general-purpose computer failed; Haise and Fullerton’s communications were nearly drowned out by a loud “master alarm.” But as he was a former Marine aviator, Haise did what Marines do in moments of crisis: he calmly aviated, navigated, and communicated with the ground crew. Less than six minutes later, Haise and Fullerton touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, making a textbook landing. 

This year, Haise will publish his autobiography, which is entitled Never Panic Early. The title, in itself, summarizes the greatest lesson he has imparted during his long life and career: don’t panic before you receive most of the information you need about a crisis. 

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Moving On With Dignity 

Two other Apollo-era astronauts taught me how to move on from adversity with dignity and grace. While I never met him, Jack Swigert, Haise’s Apollo 13 crewmember, provided a masterclass in how to persevere despite receiving life-altering news. 

In late 1982, Swigert was running for Congress in his home state of Colorado when he began experiencing bouts of ill health. A series of diagnostic tests indicated the worst – cancer. Instead of giving up his Congressional race or even taking a well-needed break, Swigert acknowledged his illness during a press conference and resolved to move forward with his campaign as normal. And in November that year, he won the Congressional seat in the midst of taxing treatments. Sadly, he did not survive to be inaugurated, but his resolve in moving forward despite tragic circumstances is to be commended and remembered. 

Apollo 15’s command module pilot, Alfred Worden, set the template in moving forward after a scandal. In 1972, shortly after returning from a hugely successful lunar mission, he was wrongly implicated in a stamp scandal; he and his crew were excoriated in the media, becoming the subjects of several unflattering newspaper articles. For a period, Worden was devastated because this scandal had all but ended his astronaut career. 

However, after he resigned from his NASA post, he started several successful businesses, worked as a consultant to NASA and aerospace firms, and simply moved on with his life. In 2011, his book Falling to Earth set the story straight about his non-involvement in the scandal. While many wished he had written his account years earlier, his dignity and grace in acknowledging his rocky past – along with his desire to move onward afterward, and enjoy life – set an example of how to handle such a crisis. 

Stick Up For Your Crew

In late 1973, Skylab 4 commander Gerald P. Carr was presented with a problem: his crew was so over-scheduled with activities and experiments that they had little to no downtime – and worse, the unrelenting schedule was causing them to make minor mistakes. Carr asked for a true “day off” so his crew, pilot William Pogue and scientist Dr. Edward Gibson, could take some time, enjoy views of Earth, and get some much needed rest and relaxation. After all, they were spending 84 days in space and were doing a “marathon” mission, not a sprint. 

When this tactic did not work in the long run, Carr knew what he needed to do next to help ground controllers understand that his crew was being overworked and that a more forgiving schedule would help them become more efficient. He held what he called a “séance” with mission controllers over several orbits and together they worked out a schedule that, for example, did not allow for major experiments to be done near day’s end, after dinner. This modified schedule worked beautifully, according to Carr. Skylab 4 ended up surpassing the previous crew’s efficiency rate and was arguably the most successful of the three Skylab missions. Carr’s actions showed that when you know what works best for your team, you must stick up for them and fight for what they need to get the job done. 

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Now, it almost goes without saying that the majority of us probably won’t be orbiting the Earth anytime soon, much less walking on the Moon or flying a space shuttle. But the lessons imparted by Haise, Swigert, Worden, and Carr can still be applied at present time. Great leadership strategies work whether you’re 240,000 miles away walking on the Moon, watching the Earth pass beneath your feet during a spacewalk, or sitting at the boardroom table.

By Emily Carney
Executive Author

Strategic Media Analyst, Massive Alliance

Emily Carney is a strategic media analyst at Massive Alliance, where she helps to define the executive persona and provides publication support for the company’s editorial department. view profile

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