45 Years Ago Today: Apollo 13 Successfully Returned

Apollo13_CoverApollo 13:  Successful Failure

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.” Gene Kranz; the Monday morning after the Apollo 1 disaster; flight director for Apollo 13.

Apolo 13 is a catastrophe that could have been. While still a failure as far as the intended mission, Apollo 13 shows both the negative and positive side of cascade events working against each other until the balance ultimately revolved around which side was a hair better.

By all odds, the Apollo 13 mission should have ended with three dead astronauts and the entire space program suspended, if not stopped. Instead it was described, strangely, as “NASA’s finest hour.” The flight’s commander, Lovell, more accurately labeled it: “a successful failure.”

As you will see when we go through the cascade events, NASA actually did make a lot of mistakes, but it also did enough things right to nudge out those negative cascade events.

The Facts

On 13 April 1970, en route to the moon, Apollo 13 experienced an explosion which crippled the service module and required the three man crew to abandon their moon mission and focus on getting back to Earth alive. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, they made it back to Earth and a successful re-entry.

27 January 1967: A fire in the capsule during a test of Apollo 1 kills Astronauts Virgil I ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee.

1968: Oxygen tank that will eventually be in Apollo 13 is dropped two inches while being removed.

March 1970: Oxygen tank indicates trouble while being emptied.

11 April 1970: Apollo 13 launches.

13 April 1970: Oxygen tank explodes.

17 April 1970: Successful splashdown of Apollo 13.

Here are the cascade events leading up to the almost catastrophe:

1. A design change wasn’t completely integrated across all equipment.

2. One of the two oxygen tanks was dropped.

3. Unfocused workmanship.

4. Mechanical failure. When the fan was turned on to stir the tanks 55 hours and 54 minutes into the flight toward the moon, the oxygen tank exploded.

5. The catastrophe of Apollo 1 helped save the astronauts on Apollo 13.

6. Innovation, catastrophe planning and leadership helped save Apollo 13.

Leading to a successful landing 45 years ago today.  For more, read the short: Apollo 13:  Successful Failure.

103 Years Ago Today: Titanic Sinks

“There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”  Phillip Franklin, White Star Line vice-president, 1912

Titanic is a classic example of systematic cascade events, many unrelated to each other, any of which if corrected, would have averted the final event.

Titanic_The Facts

 The Titanic sank in the early morning of 15 April 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The official death toll is 1,517 making it #5 on the all time fatality list for shipwrecks. What makes this sinking notable is that the Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time of its maiden voyage and was declared ‘unsinkable’ by its builders.

Hubris is the father of tragedy and catastrophe.


Roughly 1,000 BC: Snow falls on Greenland, which will eventually become the iceberg the Titanic strikes.

31 July 1908: Plans for Number 400 (Olympic) are presented to the White Star Line and approved. Number 401 (Titanic) is also approved.

31 March 1909: Construction begins on Titanic.

1909: The fatal iceberg calves off a glacier on the west coast of Greenland.

31 May 1911: Number 401 slides on 22 tons of soap and tallow into the water. It is not christened or formally named, keeping with White Star tradition.

2 April 1912: First sea trials of Titanic.

10 April 1912: Titanic sets out on her first, and last, voyage.

14 April 1912; 11:40 pm: Titanic strikes an iceberg.

15 April 1912; 2:20 am: Titanic sinks.

The six cascade events that led to the seventh, and fatal, final event:

1. An unusual weather pattern caused more icebergs than usual and forced them further south than normal.

2. Rivets were of inferior material, some put in by inexperienced welders, causing more damage during the collision than should have occurred.

3. Lack of a sufficient number of lifeboats for the crew and passengers.

4. The two lookouts in the crows nest didn’t have binoculars.

5. The ship was going too fast for the conditions.

6. Warnings were ignored and the wireless radio wasn’t used correctly

7.  Ship sinks.

BTW, a cook survived in the water for over two hours, constantly swimming, until he was rescued.  I empathize with this because one of the first things I did upon taking over my Special Forces A-Team was to go to Denmark where we completed the Royal Danish Navy’s Fromandkorpset School– their combat swim school.  We learned great things, like dry suits aren’t.  I’ll post more about this experience shortly.

If you want more about Titanic and the cascade events, check out Titanic: Systematic Failure

Traits of Successful Writers III– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Contentment & Desire

I started by saying wanting to make a million dollars isn’t the best motivation to write a novel. But you do need some tangible reasons. In a perfect world I suppose we could accomplish all the things we would like without having any external stimulus. But this isn’t a perfect world. I find putting my back against the wall helps. I wrote my first two novels living in Korea. I studied and taught martial arts six hours a day and went nuts the rest of the time. I wrote, to a certain extent, to keep my sanity. Then after getting published, I wrote because I enjoyed it but also to make money to live on. I had job offers where I could be financially secure, but I didn’t take them. I wrote, and continue to write, because I have to both internally and externally.

No one wants to talk about money. I remember watching the movie White Palace. In it the character Susan Sarandon plays is having a relationship with a younger man and she goes with him to his apartment for the first time. She’s very impressed with it and asks him how much he pays a month. He equivocates and hems and haws. She looks at him and says something to the effect of: “We can sleep together and make love, but you won’t tell me how much you pay for your apartment?” (I think her language wasn’t as mild, though.) That comment struck me because it’s so true of our society. Talking about money is more taboo it seems than talking about sex. I find this particularly interesting when we consider the academic side of writing. I was sitting in a writer’s group that I helped form and we had invited a professor who edited the local university’s literary publication to talk to us about the magazine. He started out by making the comment, “If you think you can make a living writing, forget about it.” Be careful of bitter people because their aura can be damaging.

Because you can make money writing. I’ve done it now for over twenty-five years and am currently making more as an indie author than I ever made as a best-selling traditional author. I’ve heard some authors and freelancers say never give away anything you’ve written for free, even if just to see it in print, and I tend to agree. If someone isn’t willing to pay for it, then work harder to make it good enough so someone will. Quite honestly, publishers will not be impressed with your credentials of getting published in publications that they never heard of and didn’t pay you anything other than to give you three free copies. I’m not saying absolutely don’t do that, but if you do, realize it is only a step and you need to move beyond. Don’t get stuck there.

I am not saying write simply for the money, but if you don’t factor money into the writing equation somewhere, and take it as a serious factor, you will fail, because eventually you will have to get a real job. Money cannot only be a source of motivation, but it is the basis for making a living at writing, which is very hard to do. It’s a vicious equation: to become a better writer, you must write—to write you must have time to write—to have time to write it most certainly helps to make some money at it.

OK, now that I’ve gotten the mercenary side of the business out of the way, go back to Pearl Buck’s quote: the root of your desire must be a passion to tell a story. Some people tend to look down upon telling a story in a format such as science fiction or mystery or action/adventure. But if that’s your passion and your story, then tell it and don’t worry what anyone thinks. I think there is one bottom line on how good a writer is: how many people read his/her book. That’s called commercial writing and sneered at in certain quarters, but if no one wants to read what a person writes then maybe he or she just isn’t writing that well. Think about it.

I sat on a panel at a conference and they asked each of us what we liked and disliked about writing for a living. The answers were interesting. I think an author needs the paradoxical combination of being able to be content and discontent at the same time. Because publishing is such a slow business and positive feedback so rare, you have to be reasonably content for long periods of time by yourself. At the same time you have to motivate yourself to write the manuscript, to do all the dirty work that needs to be done, to pursue long-range goals.

Setting Objectives

So far I’ve talked about what you need. Now let me mention something we could all do without: procrastination. If you’re like me, when you were in school, that term paper never really needed to be done until the night before it was due. I remember at West Point the radio station would have a contest the night before the big Social Sciences paper was due. They would have call-ins with the award going to the person who could claim they were starting their paper the latest.

In fact, for me, the one time I did a paper early—in fact so early that I was able to get feedback without a grade—the instructor gave me some basic pointers which I incorporated, then turned in the paper—again early, this time for a grade. I got an F. So much for positive reinforcement.

My main theme is that to become a writer you must write. You can be the greatest marketing specialist in the world, but if you don’t have a product to market, you’re not going to get published or sell. I am very big on understanding the business aspects of publishing and marketing your work as best you can, but I have seen people (including myself at times) forget one very important rule: you have to have a good product. Putting ninety percent of your effort into trying to sell your work when it is simply not good enough, is a waste of time. Put that effort into writing another manuscript that is good enough.

The best way I’ve found to overcome procrastination is to set objectives, both short and long range. If you feel such cold objectives interfere with your creativity, you might be right. But a novel is a heck of a long way to go simply burning the fuel of passion. One common fault that many suffer from is starting a novel, getting about a quarter of the way in, then dropping it to move on to something better, and starting a new novel. I know in everything I’ve worked on, about a hundred and fifty pages in, my mind has already started to move on to a new project and I’m somewhat bored with what I am working on. That’s where discipline and a schedule come in. If my next project isn’t due to start for three more months, then I have to work those three months on my present project in order to earn the right to start the new one.

Traits of Successful Writers II—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

An Active Imagination

A story is a living, active world you invent. Imagination is essential.

In some ways a story is like a chess game in that you have to be able to think half-a-dozen to a dozen steps ahead for all of your pieces (characters) while at the same time considering what the other guy might be doing (the limitations of your plot; the point of view chosen to present the story, etc.). You have to pick the successful moves and the correct strategic direction given a very large number of variables. But you are also limited by the personality of the characters you’ve invented—they have to act within the ‘character’ you have given them, much like each chess piece is capable of only a certain type of move. It’s your imagination that allows you to thread the proper path. And in most cases, there are numerous “all right” paths, but one stands out above the others as the “best” path and finding the “best” one is critical.

The Mind

Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer. I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing. Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it’s the driving force behind your characters’ actions.

DefendingAs a “machine” the brain is very inefficient. Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities (watch the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story). In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious. A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful. It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word). Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories. A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.

As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That’s your mind working even when you consciously aren’t. You will also run into writer’s block, which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story. This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in. I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing: the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%). It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.

There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people. You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity. Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.

I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.

If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others. Therapy can be a very useful tool to help a writer dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from. Later, where I discuss what to write about, a critical question I think a writer should know the answer to is: Why are you writing this novel?

After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels. There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning. The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing. For example, there is the issue of outlining. I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write. However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline. Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting. But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.

The Novel Writers Toolkit: Toolkit_TN  And coming on 5 May, my next book, The Green Berets: Chasing the Son ???????????????????????????????????????

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