Apollo 13's Importance: How Failure Can Lead to Great Success
The view from NASA's Mission Operations Control Room as the Apollo 13 crew is welcomed aboard the USS Iwo Jima on April 17, 1970 following a perilous flight around the moon by astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert.
Credit: NASA

Carie Lemack is co-founder and CEO of DreamUp, the first company to bring space into classrooms and classrooms into space. A former national security policy expert/advocate and producer of an Academy Award-nominated film, Lemack is a proud alumna of Space Camp and a supporter of all space cadets reaching for the stars. Lemack contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Contrary to the five-word theme of the movie "Apollo 13," failure is an option. It is not only indispensable to understanding the success of the space program, but it is inseparable from success itself. 

Great milestones often follow maelstroms, so to speak. Every aborted rocket launch and every experiment that does not work the way a scientist or engineer anticipates, reminds us that space is hard to master — and that a change in direction is not a failure, but a symbol of discipline and courage. Our greatest accomplishments are sometimes the result of our initial failure to accept the divide between our soaring rhetoric and the sobering reality that confronts us, be it the promise of landing a human on the moon and returning the moonwalker safely to Earth or planning a crewed mission to Mars. That divide ranges from aborted projects to lethal fires to midair explosions. [Mishaps in Space: Failures and Foul-Ups]

Take, for instance, the Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank exploded and forced the crew to abort its lunar landing and return to Earth. The spaceflight forced the astronauts to make critical repairs to the craft's carbon-dioxide removal system. Despite loss of power, limited cabin heat and a shortage of potable water, the crew converted a potentially catastrophic loss into a victory of will and grace under pressure.

As much as we want to avoid failure, and as much as scientists seek to set expectations about the outcomes of an experiment, we must also recognize that failing to embrace unexpected results is a threat to our understanding of science. How can we learn to succeed if we are not familiar with the obstacles to success? How can we solve a problem if we do not concede that almost every problem has a solution, even if some problems (like proving the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle") go unsolved for decades or centuries, and the solutions seem beyond our realm of comprehension?

More people need to understand that failure is not a bad thing, because it can be a source of inspiration rather than a means of exasperation. The fear of failure keeps too many bright and capable minds from shooting for the stars, prevents them from reaching their full potential and, in turn, impedes the growth and innovation of society as a whole — all because of the negative connotation of failure. We must, therefore, encourage our fellow citizens — teachers, students, scientists and explorers alike — to treat failure as a way to foolproof a solution, not as a fool's errand or an error only a fool would make.

United States Navy underwater swimmers assist in the recovery operations of the Apollo 13 crewmembers, shortly after splashdown on April 17, 1970.
United States Navy underwater swimmers assist in the recovery operations of the Apollo 13 crewmembers, shortly after splashdown on April 17, 1970.
Credit: NASA

The world could stand to benefit from a shift in culture around the concept of failure, and to recognize it as a summons to be creative and to learn. Parents and educators need to teach students to think about how every failure, despite posing a temporary setback, can contribute to success in the long term. We need to strengthen the confidence of future explorers of space by allowing them to fail and learn from it without feeling stigmatized for their mistakes.

By changing our perception of failure, we may choose to succeed — not because we choose to evade risks, but because we aren't afraid to learn, grow and rise when we fail. 

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