Working The Problem

Via Slashdot, here’s a wonderful article about the engineers in Apollo 13 mission control (today is the 35th anniversary of Odyssey’s safe splashdown). Although it’s in an electrical engineering professional journal, the piece is extraordinarily well-written, and should be understandable and enjoyable even if you don’t happen to have a technical background.

There’s way too much good stuff to quote, but here’s a tidbit that I recognized from my own career experience as a flight test engineer:

Confidence was part of the bedrock upon which mission control was built. When prospective controllers joined NASA, often fresh out of college, they started out by being sent to contractors to collect blueprints and documents, which they then digested into information that mission controllers could use during a mission, such as the wiring diagrams the lunar module controllers had used to figure out how to power up the Aquarius. After that, the proto-flight controllers started participating in simulations. The principal problem NASA had with these neophytes was “one of self-confidence,” explains Kranz. “We really worked to develop the confidence of the controllers so they could stand up and make these real-time decisions. Some people, no matter how hard we worked, never developed the confidence necessary for the job.” Those not suited for mission control were generally washed out within a year.

Having spent several years as a young engineer in the telemetry room for live-fire missile tests, I can vouch for that last conclusion. There are some guys (and gals) who are never going to be ready to wear the headset and man “the button.” That’s not their fault, and it’s better for everybody if they’re identified early, so they can move on to a job they’re better suited for.

Anyway, the article is a really great read, chock-full of stuff that didn’t make Ron Howard’s fine movie, or even most of the documentaries since 1970. Check it out.

UPDATE: From an AP story about the engineers who came up with the now-famous square peg/round hole CO2 scrubber fix:

Among the biggest concerns was whether the astronauts had duct tape, Smylie said. He later learned duct tape was commonly used on the spacecraft to clean filters and for other tasks, such as taping bags of food to heating lamps.

“I felt like we were home free,” he said. “One thing a Southern boy will never say is ‘I don’t think duct tape will fix it.'”

Damn right.


16 Responses to “Working The Problem”

  1. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Will Collier
    RE: Speaking of ‘Confidence’

    Has ABC lifted Stephen Green’s ‘logo’?

    Check Drudge….


    P.S. Maybe they’re just ‘inspired’.

    [Imitation is the highest form of flattery.]

  2. Chuck Pelto Says:

    P.P.S. Cocktails at 11…..

  3. Chuck Says:

    “There are some guys (and gals) who are never going to be ready to wear the headset and man “the button.” That’s not their fault, and it’s better for everybody if they’re identified early, so they can move on to a job they’re better suited for.”

    Has anyone else noted this is true in many, many careers. I have a railroad background and there are many people trained as locomotive engineers who should never operate the throttle. Instead of “washing” the never-will-be’s out, the union insists they remain in the lucrative paying positions. Eventually they seriously maim or kill someone and then are defended till the death about “what a great engineer he/she is.”

  4. Ed Says:

    Manning The Boards

    Will Collier of VodkaPundit notes that today is the 35th anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 13, and links to a nifty article on the engineers who manned Apollo 13’s Mission Control. Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox wrote…

  5. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Chuck
    RE: Too True

    “Has anyone else noted this is true in many, many careers.” — Chuck

    Not everyone can lead a platoon of infantry across the last 100 yards in an assault on a well dug-in defensive position. Or out the door of a plane in flight.

    As the apostle Paul put it, “Having gifts differing….’

    But then again, it would be interesting to find a great poet amongst the sort of man I mention above. Not impossible, but certainly interesting.

    As for the efforts of ‘unions’, ‘good ole boy networks’, ‘sisterhood’….

    …any ‘organization’ that puts personal favor ahead of mission-accomplishment is doomed…I tell ya….DOOMED!!!

    And, yes….they’ll drag good people down with them.

    We see it happen almost every day. Particularly in the medical industry.

    As one four-star general told a brigade commander he was relieving ‘for cause’….

    …if you have your priorities in the proper order, everything will fall together naturally.


    P.S. The ‘unfortunate’ colonel had his priorities in exactly the reverse priority….’Command Image’ at the top, ‘Training’ at the bottom.

  6. Ted B. Says:

    UNfortunately, that NASA of the Apollo Program-glory has lost it’s way and become place-servers and timid. While the Shuttle has been a technical marvel, the apparatus and support-management exemplifies the worst of America’s public unionism and civil-service mentality. Perhaps the privatization of space travel will give us the planets and the stars; today’s NASA can only generate an endless stream of 3-ring-bound reports and navel-gazing analyses of our shortcomings.

  7. Steve A. Says:

    I work for NASA, and I also liked the article. Much of that philosophy is still found in the robotic spacecraft world (government and contractor). Not that we don’t still screw up sometimes (we’re only human), but many of us sit through days of simulations and contingency planning on every mission to be ready, just in case. TedB, NASA is not a monolith; there is much that could be improved, but also much that is going well.

  8. TIm P Says:

    Thanks for posting the article. It was a great read. Admittedly, I’m a little biased, being a fellow EE and IEEE Spectrum reader.

    In today’s media driven 5-minute celebrity world, where ‘The Donalds’ and the Paris Hilton’s or Johnny Cochrans get the limelight, it’s good to read about those who annonymously toil, to the world at large anyway, to improve and expand the boundaries of technology. In an effort to improve our world, as well as keep, it functioning.

    My wife’s a lawyer and I love to take pokes at her professional brethren, in good humor ofcourse, when I tell them that engineers grow the pie larger, lawyers just decide how to cut it up. It drives ’em wild. I love it.

    But seriously, engineering suffers from this incredibly bad press or no press at all. In a perfect or at least better world they’de be held in much higher regard. As it is now, nobody notices unless & until something goes wrong.

    So thanks again for posting a well written, ‘good press’ article about engineering.

  9. RobertJ Says:

    Duct tape fixes anything. Never leave home (or earth) without it.

  10. Deacon Blues Says:

    While attending Auburn University in the early 70’s I played in a rock band. We were traveling to Atlanta in our bus when the support arm for the air brakes broke. We used duct tape to hold it together and it lasted just long enough to get us to Atlanta and back to Auburn. The band was “Menagerie”.

  11. Garrett Says:

    There’s folks around here (Texas Hill Country) who have tool boxes that contain three items: a hammer, a crowbar and a roll of duct tape. If they can’t fix it with those items, well dangit it’s time to buy a new one.

    I’m only mildly kidding. 🙂

  12. Tom Ault Says:


    You left out the can of WD-40.

  13. Matt Says:

    As a lifelong Northerner I take offense at the attempt at usurpation of duct tape as supposedly a Southern thing! Duct tape is truly universal, at least among the civilized tinkerers of the world. 🙂

    Folks in engineering fields, even those who have nothing at all to do with aerospace, owe a PR debt to the space program of the Apollo days. For a few shining moments, our brethren got cast as very public heroes.

  14. Argghhh! The Home Of Two Of Jonah's Military Guys.. Says:

    Stuff of interest.

    I’m guessing someone’s suffered a career ding for this one. The American Soldier will probably go over 150K today – go ahead, try to be that one! On a related note, the Castle will probably break 500K tonight. In Denizen…

  15. Locomotive Breath Says:

    Another EE here. I haven’t gotten to that Spectrum article (print edition at home) but now I will soon. My favorite Star Wars geek quote about duct tape

    “Duct tape is like the force; it has a dark side and a light side and it holds the world together.”

  16. Brown Line Says:

    Chuck writes, “But then again, it would be interesting to find a great poet amongst the sort of man I mention above. Not impossible, but certainly interesting.”

    Three come to mind immediately: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Roy Campbell. The first two were Englishment who fought bravely on the Western Front during WWI; Campbell was a South African who spoke fluent Zulu and fought bravely for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. All were superb poets, though Campbell’s work is out of fashion these days. A little more reflection brings to mind Raleigh, Spencer, Marlowe, Jonson – all men of action and men of letters.

    In fact, the soldier-poet was a common figure in centuries past. Only in the last hundred years or so have the two vocations been divorced.

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