Life: One Envelope. Instructions, Tear pouch along dotted line. Open, Add Water, Heat for 1-2 minutes. Stir, Enjoy.
So often, we want the wonderful results without paying much of a price in the way of effort, energy or engagement. Sometimes, simplicity is a God-send. The car didn’t start a few days ago. It turned out that the battery was drained, because the car is very old and had been sitting, awaiting sale. The onboard computers used up a little of the battery’s power every day that it wasn’t driven. One free tow, thanks to an auto club rider on my insurance, was followed by a six page estimate for what could be fixed to bring the car into ideal condition. Nah, thanks. Just the battery charge will do.
This car has had quite a lot of work, recently. It’s got a list of repairs that range from “if not now, then sometime in the next few months” to “this would be nice to do if you’re planning to throw money away for no particular reason”. But the “fix this, so that it can be driven safely and so that it will remain largely reliable” stuff? That was the last $2100 worth of brakes, tires, assorted other essential fixes and about $550 of “not really needed, but okay, you did it, so I’ll pay.”
The cost was higher because I was stranded on the other side of Houston and I needed to rely on this vehicle for daily use, then. And I needed to get this diagnostic code cleared so that the car would pass inspection. All of the stuff that I thought was needed? Strictly speaking, it wasn’t. It’s always more costly to fix things later, when time, resources, priorities, plans and money are tighter. There’s also frankly an expertise factor. I know a LOT about this car after all of these years. I knew that those knock sensors probably needed fixing.
Guess what? The fix didn’t actually fix the issue with the codes. It didn’t address the reason for my having brought the car into the shop. I needed brakes and tires and the other repairs, so it worked out. At the time, however, the fix… didn’t FIX the car. I had some words for the mechanic, and while they weren’t profane, they were quite pointed. Now, I have a replacement vehicle and it’s just a nice “bonus” to have it available. So, I make sure to drive it for at least twenty minutes daily and if it goes onto automotive life support for some unforeseen but expensive reason, it has the equivalent of DNR orders. We’re not planning on bringing Baby back, though he’s been quite a good car.
There’s another story about a series of fixes that failed and the resultant complications that’s both more interesting and more instructive. “Houston, we have a problem!” Astronaut Jack Swigart actually said “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. Over radio, it had to be repeated and Jim Lovell stepped in with “Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem”. The designated astronaut in charge of communicating with the capsule, CAPCOM Jack R. Lousma hadn’t quite caught it. Even so, in any verb tense and in any context, it means things are bad. The crew of Apollo 13 were fifty six hours into their lunar mission when an oxygen tank exploded. The impact of an explosion in oxygen tank two caused a rupture (either in a line or valve) in oxygen tank one. The door to service module four was blown off, too. Within three hours, all oxygen stores were lost, along with use of the propulsion system, water and electrical power. One object was impacted and serial impacts followed.
The tank in question had been scheduled for use on the Apollo Ten mission, but was dropped two inches when it was removed for modification. Apollo Ten got a replacement unit. But even though this unit had its exterior inspected, the interior was not checked. The damaged fill line remained undiscovered. Some switches set to operate by opening at 28 volts remained overlooked when other modifications were done to the tanks at Kennedy, which interfaced with the units using 65 volt outlets.
They didn’t know the scope of the problem they had, though anomalies in tank two had been detected on the ground. And, they didn’t complete the retrofit for the switches when other parts were modified. Finally, in an effort to address the problem of tank 2 not fully emptying on the ground, heaters in the unit were used to “boil off” the excess oxygen, which is believed to have welded the switches shut.
There were several pain points in the process of removing, retrofitting, reinstalling, testing and troubleshooting the performance of oxygen tank 2. In the end, each fix that was applied addressed the symptoms seen in the moment, but never got down to the heart of the problem and caused more damage to the unit into the bargain. This happened initially with the drop during the move, and continued with the inspection that failed to verify a damage free interior, the decision to reuse a tank that was known to have been dropped, the oversight of failing to retrofit switches so that they were adapted to receive sixty five volt power at Kennedy and the decision to “boil” off the excess oxygen on the ground without taking possible damage to the Teflon coating that was insulating internal wires into account.
Every pain point was addressed with a solution that got things over the current hurdle. However, every solution addressed only the known problem as it was presenting in that moment. Other factors went unaddressed or were unacknowledged, unknown and unresolved. Investigations after the fact often knit the narrative together more coherently, shedding light on blind spots and uncovering failures in performance, processes, systems and tools that will continue to exert costly consequences on the operation in question.
In the case of Apollo 13, the mission was deemed a “successful failure”. They never landed on the moon. That part of the mission was aborted. Thankfully, the trouble occurred before the landing and return, or the crew would not have been able to survive. The crew moved from the capsule into the lunar module, which presented a problem, because it was designed to hold the two astronauts who were to have actually landed on the moon, not the three astronauts that would normally have inhabited the capsule. There was now an excess of carbon dioxide circulating due to the presence of the third astronaut. There were extra units called “scrubbers” that removed carbon dioxide for both the lunar module and for the capsule. However, they weren’t interchangeable and the “extras” on hand were fashioned for use in the capsule. NASA engineers on the ground successfully figured out how to plug a square peg (capsule scrubber) into a round hole (lunar module scrubber) using only the materials available to the astronauts.
AND, engineers on the ground had to rely on talking it out with the astronauts. No pictures, no graphics and no particularly good sound. The lunar module was also quite cramped for the three crew now forced to shelter within. The capsule had to be shut down in order to conserve resources for reentry. In the lunar module, the crew had a wet and chilly cabin, very limited power and limited drinkable water. Hardship was significant. On their return, tens of millions watched the splashdown into the Indian Ocean. Review of events leading up to the explosion found a number of failures in testing. Also, one of the changes made going forward was to avoid the use of combustible materials such as Teflon in the units going forward. The gap between what DID happen and what SHOULD have happened required a reckoning. As the degree of efficacy in the process of reckoning with that gap declines, the inherent cost of a comprehensive fix rises.
The gap between where we are and where we should be is always a friend to be embraced. We’ve already paid a high price for the wisdom to be found there and should take care to make the most of any opportunity to learn from the shadows cast when our failures are backlit by our vision. As fallible humans, we always contend with that gap. It’s an ever-present reality in our human context and experience. That said- when we have the opportunity to wrestle with the gap, let’s do our utmost to take the available wisdom from it as early in the process as we can. Had the tank not been dropped and then slotted for reuse… had the inspection revealed the damage inside… had the performance failure on the ground been addressed without further damaging the unit instead of by heating it for so long… had the retrofit been more comprehensive so that the switches were included… any of these might have lessened the likelihood of incurring a much higher cost later in terms of an aborted lunar landing and the prospect of the loss of Apollo 13’s entire crew.
As inspiring as this story is with its amazing save- it should also serve as a cautionary tale. In rushing to solve any problem or face any challenge, beware of addressing the point of pain without actually addressing the cause. THAT, if anything, is the wisdom of this tale.
(Consult:https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/ap13acc.html#:~:text=The%20Apollo%2013%20malfunction%20was,a%20valve%20in%20the%20no.&text=All%20oxygen%20stores%20were%20lost,use%20of%20the%20propulsion%20system. For full chronology and illustrations.) and for a simplified, comprehensive order of events and subsequent impacts, consult https://www.history.com/news/apollo-13-what-went-wrong