To the Moon and Back: NASA-Based Lessons on Virtual Problem-Solving

“Uh Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Many people remember this shocking statement uttered by astronaut Jim Lovell about Apollo 13’s status.  Others are simply familiar with this iconic announcement, which is still often used to signify the gravity of a particular situation.  In April of 1970, the status of Apollo 13 couldn’t have been more serious, prompting the entire team at NASA to rally together in order to overcome an unexpected life and death scenario.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 crisis that not only placed three moon-bound astronauts in peril but also sent shock waves around the world. Millions of people watched and waited to discover whether or not scientists and astronauts could somehow resolve a problem that involved potential loss of life as well as the probable end of the space program.  In essence, this extraordinary dilemma had physical as well as fiscal consequences.

Does this sound strangely familiar?  In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, people aren’t worried about thriving right now—they’re anxious about surviving.  Many Corporate Family® leaders are concerned about sustaining their companies long enough to reopen.  Team members are trying to figure out how to stay connected with stay-at-home and social distancing mandates and guidelines.  How can leaders meet these unprecedented demands? Apollo 13’s “failed” mission can provide some practical solutions.

Amazingly, without the help of smart phones, satellites, or the modern technology we take for granted, the NASA team brainstormed with their astronaut colleagues isolated 200,000+ miles away from Mission Control. Talk about virtual problem-solving at an astronomical distance!  Their teamwork proved pivotal as one by one solutions were found to the mounting problems that could have been disastrous for the astronauts and for NASA. Eventually, against all odds, the Apollo 13 crew safely returned to Earth—much to the relief of family, friends, colleagues, and the global community which awaited them.  That mission to the moon taught the team at NASA many lessons, and here are several you can apply in the midst of this 2020 pandemic:

1. Rally the troops. Immediately after the Apollo 13 explosion, Mission Control in Houston summoned all team members into action in order to maximize their collective cognitive capacity and the team’s capabilities. This same approach can be implemented by you, despite social distancing or adjusted work environments. Be sure to stay connected with your Corporate Family® members as much as possible, perhaps utilizing one or more of the many virtual platforms available today.

2. Work the problem(s). The initial explosion on Apollo 13 created what would become a series of potentially catastrophic events that the astronauts and NASA team had to resolve. Eventual success was achieved by working on each problem, step by step, until solutions were found and implemented. You and your team need to face today’s dilemmas and those future problems that will need solutions with similar skill sets. Keep the end game in mind: what will recovery, stabilization, and eventual measures of success look like? You must embrace the reality that your problem-solving efforts today will determine whether or not you will reach that final, desired destination.

3. Think outside the capsule. In order to save power for their return to Earth, the astronauts had to utilize the “useless” lunar lander as a lifeboat instead of staying in the command module. To do so, the NASA team had to find a way for this fragile piece of equipment to keep the astronauts and the computer’s re-entry information safe for several days during their return from the moon. Alternative ways of thinking are equally critical today. Your pre-COVID-19 leadership may not work now, so begin strategizing in new ways to lead in problem-solving and execution. Remember, challenging circumstances require creative minds that are willing to implement innovative ideas and novel approaches that just might become your organization’s lifeboat to success.

4. Stay positive! The entire NASA team adopted a mindset that “failure was not an option.” Despite the long-distance dilemma, the Apollo 13 astronauts and their colleagues back in Houston adjusted their attitudes from the “failed” mission to one full of possibilities. During this season of unparalleled challenges, you and your team need to adopt a similar optimistic outlook. Circumstances may have changed, but a clear mind focused on executing solutions will help your Corporate Family® conquer today’s problems and those that you are certain to face in the future.

In a recent interview, a 92-years-young Jim Lovell shared how having a positive outlook has allowed him to survive many of the difficulties life so often brings. And although his dream of walking on the moon was never fulfilled, Lovell admits he has since realized that something much bigger was happening back in 1970.  Like Lovell,  lessons learned from the crisis we find ourselves in can have a much greater impact than we realize.  Some of those lessons include the importance of embracing our challenges, working problems out together, and moving forward with an unyielding determination that can positively change the trajectory of our lives—now and forever.

For over two decades, the team at LEADon® has been striving to meet the needs of leaders like you.  Many of our resources and leadership development courses like LEADers Problem Solve and Execute® and LEADing by Executing: The Art of Getting Things Done® can assist you and your team during this challenging season (please see  And wherever you are in the world, feel free to connect with us directly at 858.592.0700.  We’re here to help and happy to serve.