Apollo 13 Question
August 24, 2021 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I am reminded me of how, in the movie, that NASA's mission control was portrayed as working with the astronauts on the crippled spacecraft to solve its O2 and electricity problem by using nothing beyond exactly what the astronauts had available to them. So my question is, knowing what we know now, were there at the time, any calculated odds that either those astronauts or mission control would or would not be successful getting the spacecraft back to Earth with its occupants alive?

I ask this because our culture, as expressed in movies with a technical bent, almost has a kind of magical thinking when it comes to being able to pull off things that are statistical long shots. It's almost a "Ghost in the Machine" belief of where the numbers fail, faith will carry your through. Did Apollo help perpetuate that way of thinking in subsequent treatments of science, at least, in general society?
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's documented that Nixon asked for odds, but as I understand it it wasn't something that was calculated by engineers at NASA: they had one job at the time, which was to get the spacecraft and its occupants home safe.

It's worth noting that IRL the CO2 problem was recognised by mission control well before it actually became an issue; they had folk working on it well before the CO2 in the LEM started to get high.

(Source: the extras for the excellent Mission Control documentary.
"… We knew early on that we needed a fix for that, and I started to talk about the CO2, and the back room came on the loop and said 'Glynn, we already got a bunch of guys in crew systems working on that, we'll have an answer for you in a couple of shifts." ~Glynn Lunney, Apollo 13 Flight Director, Black Team
… . Did Apollo help perpetuate that way of thinking in subsequent treatments of science, at least, in general society?
I don't quite understand what you're asking here. Are you asking if Apollo 13 the movie contributed to that cultural norm, or if the Apollo programme did?
posted by gmb at 9:04 AM on August 24, 2021

My father was one of the first workers at the new Goddard Space Flight Center. His Vanguard group was transferred there from the Naval Research Lab. GSFC is NASA's world-wide communications hub. I worked there as well, but not starting until five years after Apollo 13, which my father said was the worst week ever, of his working life. He had no interest in seeing a movie about the mission, wasn't interested in reliving that horror. He's not around any more, so I can't ask him, but I imagine he would find your question strange. There was a problem, everyone pitched in to solve it, and the efforts were successful. Who would be calculating odds? For what reason? For gamblers in Vegas? To decide whether Mission Control should just give up on this one, let Nixon make his sad speech, switch off the radios and focus on Apollo 14? Doesn't seem like any NASA statisticians would've had enough time or information to make such a call, before it was all over.
posted by Rash at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2021 [20 favorites]

I knew a guy who used to work at NASA, though this was after the whole Apollo 13 episode. He said that the astronauts were all really smart people who were unflappable under pressure and were really good at problem-solving. I guess this isn't at all surprising, now that I think about it. I doubt anyone calculated any odds. They just got down to business.
posted by alex1965 at 9:15 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Did Apollo help perpetuate that way of thinking in subsequent treatments of science, at least, in general society?"

Anecdotally, the movie's image of dramatic line-delivery "failure is not an option!" being trumpeted at engineers is a soundbite that some executives and manager types took exactly the wrong message from. But that's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation as to how much influence the actual movie had, versus how soundbites that vaguely support preexisting worldviews will be ripped out of larger context.
posted by Drastic at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Apollo 1 and the death of Grissom, White, and Chaffee led to a "tough and competent" culture change that probably saved Apollo 13.

The entire Apollo mission was designed so that no single failure should cause the loss of any crewmember, prevent the successful continuation of the mission, or, in the event of a second failure in the same area, prevent a successful abort of the mission. This included a pivotal decision about trajectory that was made years in advance, and inaccurately dramatized in the Apollo 13 movie as one of the astronauts thrashing about a joystick. So many of the safeguards were "baked in" and just worked, like the Saturn V engine shutdown and recovery.

The improvised CO2 scrubber, as dramatized in the film, was the closest thing to a complete "hack" that was designed a la minute. The scenario of using the LM as a lifeboat was anticipated beforehand, though not fully simulated, so many procedures had to be modified. Though there were a lot of scenarios where the astronauts would not have survived, for example if the CM tanks blew up on return from the Moon after the LM had detached.

I think at the time Apollo 13 was perceived by society as more of a close call rather than a miracle, which accounts for the cancellation of the program a few years later. Though during the Shuttle program hubris reared its ugly head to kill Challenger, so maybe this is a manifestation of "magical thinking" and miscalculation of odds.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

"our culture, as expressed in movies with a technical bent, almost has a kind of magical thinking when it comes to being able to pull off things that are statistical long shots"

There's a selection bias. Hollywood generally doesn't make movies about missions that fail. Narrative demands more than that. The whole reason stories are chosen in the first place, especially ones "based on a true story", is precisely because they triumphed over such long odds. To the extent that there are movies about technical failures, they're much different movies.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:47 AM on August 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm an aerospace engineer, and I think your question is flawed. I've never worked anywhere where we go to either extremes that I can glean from your question - either "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" or ready to abandon a project if we don't hit some percentage likelihood of success. In fact, I frequently am in the field where communication back home is limited and we have to rely on our own abilities and wits (although not nearly as dire consequences as dying in space) - we do everything we can to ensure a successful outcome, but things break sometimes and we are all aware of that. There's no mystical "faith" that things are going to work.

So how do we have any confidence we're going to succeed? There's a whole discipline within engineering known as Risk Management, and we incorporate it in to all of our programs. Some folks are properly trained in it and act as experts/mentors, but most of us pick it up along the way. The goal of risk management is to identify anything that may pose a challenge to the program (broadly categorized as Technical or Programmatic) and set up mitigation plans to ensure that these potential issues pose as little risk to the program as possible.

In our risk paradigm, each identified risk is given two scores from 1 to 5 - Likelihood and Consequence. Each combination of Likelihood and Consequence has a color associated with it (you can see an example here). Each program will have a risk management plan that identifies what the acceptable level of risk is (No Red Risks is common, but usually justification is required for anything that's not green). Anything too high on the risk scale needs a "burndown" plan that shows what steps are being taken to reduce the risk in the program.

Risk planning can be done numerically. For example, aircraft design incorporates "chance of occurrence per flight hour" (or, more commonly, the reciprocal - number of flight hours per occurrence) as the Likelihood scale, and Consequence is some combination of property damage numbers and injury/loss of life. Estimating these likelihood values is very complicated and relies on lots of assumptions at the start until fleet data becomes available and Reliability Engineering can start building accurate failure models. A lot of the risk planning I do is empirical, because we don't have any historical data to back up any sort of likelihood calculations.

Risk planning also really depends on how safety critical a system is, as well. Aviation is obviously very risk-averse, because killing customers is bad for business. Hence, aircraft builders have very robust risk management systems in place. Human spaceflight is even more strict. Other industries have different priorities that impact how much they are willing to devote to risk planning.

That is all to say - all this thinking about "odds" happens well before the dramatic scene in the movie where someone's fighting for their life. Even extra thinking goes into systems that may cause injury or death. However, no system is perfect, and even extremely low likelihoods still do have a possibility of occurring. Then, people's general unwillingness to let other people die through inaction tends to kick in.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:54 AM on August 24, 2021 [22 favorites]

We as individuals are constantly calculating odds on pretty much anything we do that has risk or consequences. As a trader, an old trader, I am often accused by my kids and gf of being too analytical and not emotional enough.

When I was trading on the floor of the CBOE, I had to cross Van Buren street. Often I was in a hurry or it was Chicago cold. I look both ways and make some sort of judgement that I can beat that car to that spot. Internally, without much conscience thought, I was looking for 99+% success rate. Working on my roof with no one holding the ladder, I would look at the weather, the distance if I fell, what I might fall into, what I would do if I did fall (did I have a cell to call for help?), etc. Then I would make some sort of internal calculation and probably go on my roof. At a Dead show and have to piss? I calculate whether I can get to the bathroom and back by the end of drums--> Space. Can I weave my way back to the spot in front of the stage me and my friends are at or do I risk staying and peeing my pants. (Or peeing in an empty bottle). I would probably take a 50-50 shot and stay. It is all about the consequences of failure and how much you want to avoid it. Then take the probability of that outcome and make your decision. I am not an engineer, but the link backseatpilot posted about the matrix of risk management you do in your head for almost every action you take everyday.

I think that while there was never anyone sitting down and coming up with a Vegas line on the success of the Apollo 13 mission, everyone associated with it understood the risk reward and acted accordingly. The movie is a movie and can and did take certain liberties with the facts to make it more watchable in the 2 hour format. It is hard to show how someone does an internal calculation. Everyone involved knew that without doing what they had to do, that the odds were slim.

It was the odds of what would happen if no action was taken, not the odds of what the outcomes were if action was taken.
posted by AugustWest at 10:16 AM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that because of the way the Apollo 13 failure happened, neither the astronauts nor Mission Control had enough information to even attempt to calculate odds of success.

They knew that some kind of catastrophic failure had happened, and they had a few observations to go on: a loud bang, oxygen tank pressure dropping to zero, fuel cells failing, and a debris cloud visible out the window. But it wasn't until shortly before reentry, when the astronauts were able to undock from and observe the service module, that anybody realized that a tank had actually exploded and blown off an entire side panel of the spacecraft.

The limited amount of information led to decisions that would minimize the amount of additional risk to the astronauts. For example, they had no way of knowing whether the service module's engine was still functional, so all of the necessary course-correction burns to return to Earth were made using the lunar module's descent engine instead. This was one of the many contingencies that were anticipated and planned for long before the mission actually launched.
posted by teraflop at 11:06 AM on August 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

The movie Apollo 13 is about telling a good story, and by several accounts it's a fairly dramatized version. I don't think IRL anyone had any illusions about how difficult the challenges they'd face would be, but calculating odds and risk is something that goes into planning and design, not an abort/rescue mission. What would you do differently in this situation if it were possible to calculate odds that they'd get back successfully? It's not magical thinking to want to do whatever you can to solve a problem.

This bit in particular:
It's almost a "Ghost in the Machine" belief of where the numbers fail, faith will carry your through. Did Apollo help perpetuate that way of thinking in subsequent treatments of science, at least, in general society?
feels like a complete misread of what was going on, even in the movie. It may be true elsewhere, but Apollo 13, both the real and dramatized versions, feels like a bad place to go looking for evidence to support that thesis. In the movie, they even illustrate several scientific and mathematical approaches to problem solving.

Again, the problem to be solved was a big one, and "failure is not an option" was more about being a rallying call to not give up rather than a denial of the situation they found themselves in. Failure was always likely at any given point in the process, but wanting to do the absolute best to control for factors within your control is not some moral or scientific failing. This time it paid off. Sometimes it doesn't, and Hollywood doesn't typically make movies about those times.
posted by Aleyn at 12:33 PM on August 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

BTW, I recommend the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon" to get an idea of the planning and engineering that went into the Apollo missions, as well as public sentiment at the time.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:32 PM on August 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you're interested in the political side of things this page from the Nixon library discusses the President's actions upon hearing of the accident and has some screenshots of memos about what the plan was if the astronauts died.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:04 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I can answer your question as asked, so instead I'm trying to parse it better -- so apologies if I'm reading you wrong. It sounds like what you're trying to get at is:

1) At the time of Apollo 13, IRL, was there a societal narrative that the crew survived and returned "against all odds"? And if there was,

2) Did this historical narrative contribute in some way to the popular fiction/sci-fi trope that ovewhelming technical limitations can be overcome by pure human determination and/or ingenuity?

If that's a good read of what you're looking for - I would think that while the Apollo 13's safe return certainly doesn't disrupt that trope, the trope itself pre-dates it. In fact the idea that human ingenuity and determination can overcome overwhelming technical limitations is kind of why we had a space program to start with, right?
posted by invincible summer at 2:14 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

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