Apollo 13

Communication is a funny thing; it requires both a sender and a receiver.

And both ends have flaws. Both lack clarity.

In the case of human communication the flaws are countless; more flaws than a Microsoft product. They’re almost always there, even though we don’t realize them.

Going to the bathroom is pretty easy for most of us. But in space it requires a slightly more detailed procedure; “camera-assisted aim” and high tech stuff like that. Instead of flushing, Apollo astronauts had to remove human waste by dumping it outside the spacecraft, allowing it to harmlessly drift into space.

In the movie Apollo 13, the quote was “Aquarius, we don’t want you to make any more waste dumps, the venting may push you off course.”

In real life Apollo 13, the controller said “stop making waste dumps, I can’t get a fix on you.”

Ron Howard almost got it right.

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Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise spent the next several days innovating, improvising, and building new ways to store all this crap. Plastic bags, excess “containers” and duct tape. It all worked just fine in the freezing cold of space.

But not so much in the heat of re-entry, when it all melted.

The putrid waste had splashed, splattered, spilled all over the place from the impact of the ocean splash-down.

An ocean-bobbing space craft requires a “Frog-Man” diver to inspect and stabilize the craft prior to opening the exit door.

When he opened the door, the wave of stench walloped him.

“Now I have heard of someone being scared shitless, but this is ridiculous! How did all of this crap get outside of your space suits?”

Later at the flight debriefing, one of the astronauts said “Why did we have to stop making waste dumps for the entire mission? It was a horrible mess.”

The flight controller who gave the command was in the debriefing room.

“What are you talking about? I said stop making dumps so I could get a Doppler fix on you. I meant for you to stop for 5 seconds, not the whole mission!. Who told you to stop for 4 days!?”

Communication is never as clear as you think.

Are you sure you really heard what your employees asked for? Are you sure you understand what your customers asked for? Did you really understand the marketing presentation?

Human communication will never be perfect, but it pays to ask as few more questions once in a while.

Mark L. Fox

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Mark L. Fox is a leading authority on teaching practical creative thinking techniques for business. Mark was the youngest Chief Engineer ever on the Space Shuttle program at the age of 31. He received NASA’s highest recognition of “Launch Honoree” at the age of 23. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering with an MBA. Having held top management positions in Rocket Science, Aircraft Hydraulics, Engineering Services, Customer Service, Software, and e-Business, Mark has an extremely diversified background.

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