Tom Zelibor

Tom Zelibor, member, Defense Innovation Board Space Advisory Council

Fifty years ago, this month, the world held its breath – hoping, praying and wishing for a miracle that would spare the lives of a crew stranded in the most hostile and remote of conditions. Aboard a ruptured spacecraft, a three-man crew once bound for the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon found themselves in an epic race to survive against every conceivable obstacle imaginable. Their journey — the mission of Apollo 13, deemed by some as a successful failure given that the crew safely returned home to Earth. It was one of those moments that showed with ingenuity, skill and creative thinking, even the worst odds can be beat and great things can still occur despite the most epic challenges.

Fifty years later, the world holds its breath — again, hoping, praying and wishing for a miracle to spare lives across our planet that has been attacked by an invisible force delivering disruption, heartbreak and severe economic costs.

While there are a world of differences between the Apollo 13 mission and today’s Coronavirus pandemic, there are powerful leadership lessons from that experience of 50 years ago that can guide us forward. The most important of those — we must learn to think and act differently.

Too often we shackle ourselves to a singular goal with an inability to adapt to conditions when they dramatically change. While keeping our eyes on the prize keeps us focused, that vision can be blinding to other threats and circumstances around us, especially if we are unable or unwilling to change with the new conditions we are experiencing.

It’s a given that any athlete, businessperson or individual should be able to perform in ideal conditions, but it’s the ones who adapt, overcome and operate in the worst of circumstances that we want to invest our time and resources. Which is why listening to unlikely sources for solutions and not relying on conventional wisdom are the preeminent tools to access in times like these.

As comfortable and stable as status quo may be, it will never refine or advance innovation or the solutions we need. It is the maverick, the one who colors outside the lines and often overlooked, that has the idea or missing piece that can solve our problem.

As deserving as they are of our unwavering support and esteem, we are dependent upon our public health care leaders, the health care system, and the pharmaceutical industry to help us endure the current pandemic, but unconventional players are also needed to contribute to solving this epic world problem. Data scientists who create models to identify unseen patterns and track outbreaks; design engineers to optimize enormously complicated supply chains; collaboration on therapeutic and vaccine development that prioritizes drug candidates with worldwide clinical trials in half the normal time; and cybersecurity assets to assure the integrity of networks and infrastructures from those who would further victimize us.

It also includes space community innovators. Far beyond the new ventilators and personal protective equipment being produced by aerospace companies to support the pandemic response, all those handheld thermometers, air and water filtration systems, body sensors, imagery tests and even mylar blankets used in mobile hospital units we have seen on the news, have direct origins that came from space missions. The tools and technologies that have served us to “go out there,” will make life better “back here.”

That is why this awful challenge we are all enduring may be in some way, as Mission Control Flight Director, Gene Kranz phrased it 50 years ago, “our finest hour.”

Bringing new people, ideas and even the unconventional into the mix is not as much a disruptor as it is a way of simplifying the complexity of the problem at hand. These are people that make “square pegs and round holes,” connect and work seamlessly together.

Which is why leadership that beckons, like that of Gene Kranz, his Mission Control team, and the crew of Apollo 13, were able to work their problems without becoming the problems themselves. Was it perfect? No... but as insurmountable as those circumstances were 50 years ago, we face nothing less daunting now.

A complex problem that threatens catastrophic loss requires creativity, initiative and willingness to suspend usual approaches to address unusual circumstances.

We see some of this leadership unfolding as the virus continues its sweep across the globe, but also in how we are all adapting and transforming education, business and daily life. None of it has been easy because our intended focus of several weeks ago has been dramatically altered. Moving forward, to get everyone safe back home, will require everyone to work as a collaborative team. The lives of our crew (which is all of us) are dependent upon those actions. Failure is not an option.

Tom Zelibor, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.) is the CEO of the Space Foundation, Colorado Springs.

Tom Zelibor, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.) is the CEO of the Space Foundation, Colorado Springs.

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