What Lessons Can Apollo 13 Teach Us About Analytics?

Tom Casey explains lessons from the Apollo 13 program and how they can be applied to day to day dealings in the analytics world.

Tom Casey
Tom Casey
February 13, 2019 5 min read

Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated with all things related to outer space. It is with awe and wonder that I continue to look at the stars and think about the amazing answers that await us as we continue to push the boundaries of our own understanding of the universe. To that, if you ask anyone to name the top 10 achievements in the past century, putting an astronaut on the moon will undoubtedly be on that list - if it isn't already #1.

I thought about this recently as I was watching Apollo 13, the movie that chronicles that ill-fated mission to the moon as part of the Apollo program. For those that are not familiar with the story [Spoiler Alert], a damaged wire caused a fire in an oxygen tank which ultimately forced the astronauts to abandon their plans to land on the moon and instead focus on getting home safe - which was hampered by a myriad of other related issues. Ultimately, the astronauts and their supporting team at NASA overcame these issues and I came to the realization that there were a great many lessons one could take from this story - especially as it pertains to analytics. For instance:

  1. They accomplished this extraordinary feat of science with very limited tools by today's standards
  2. Despite all the challenges, they seemed to have a contingency plan ready
  3. Everyone seemed to have a very strong cross-functional working knowledge
  4. The collective team was extremely motivated towards achieving a single goal (i.e. getting the astronauts back alive)

Now most of us are not faced with life or death scenarios at work, but I thought I could take the following lessons from the Apollo 13 program and see how we can apply them in my day to day dealings in the analytics world.

Lesson 1 - Tools Are Overrated…Experience is Not

One of the most impactful scenes in this movie centers around the moment when the NASA team needs to calculate the trajectory required for successful reentry. In this scene, you have dozens of engineers, scientists, and even the astronauts themselves, working through calculations using nothing more than pencils and slide rules. Given the dire situation and the importance of the outcome, it was very telling that everyone used a very basic tool set to make what was literally a lifesaving decision. However, it was critical that they understood the very complex science and math necessary to make that decision. Now this isn't to say that NASA didn't use computers. In fact, they had access to some of the most powerful computers available at that time. Keep in mind, however, that the combined computing power available to them was only a fraction of the computing power available from our everyday smartphones. Nevertheless, these rudimentary tools (by today's standards) still enabled them to accomplish monumental things because everyone had relevant experience.

Lesson 2 - Be Prepared to Adapt Based on New Information

When thinking about the myriad of problems faced on the Apollo 13 mission (and the incalculable number of issues any of these missions could have faced), it was amazing to me that there were at least workable plans ready to deal with the various situations. Certainly, the NASA team had every intention of the mission being successful, but they must have spent countless hours thinking about what could go wrong. Therefore, they were able to very quickly change course (figuratively and literally) as new problems arose. No matter what you think beforehand regarding a particular problem, you are almost certainly wrong in some area (if not completely wrong altogether). Have a plan if your solution doesn't work and be prepared to quickly try something else as you learn more information. You may have built a solution with a specific intention in mind, but you should also be ready to adjust as you learn new information.

Solving the problem requires knowledge about the specific business, its challenges, its opportunities, and how it works today.



Lesson 3 - Know Your Business

When faced with the daunting task of trying to minimize power in a sufficient manner to allow for reentry, NASA assembled a team of engineers to try and work through the problem. These rocket scientists, however, were not enough. They also included an astronaut from the Apollo team so that they could understand the practical realities of what the crew faced in space. It was clear that practical knowledge was important in eventually finding a solution and the same could be said for any analytical endeavor. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say something along the lines of, "I just need a smart person and a lot of data to build the best algorithm to solve that problem". I cannot disagree more with this statement. The first thing anyone building a solution needs to understand is, “what is the problem I am trying to solve?” and the practical ways to go about finding the answer. Solving the problem requires knowledge about the specific business, its challenges, its opportunities, and how it works today. While NASA knew this all too well, many of our analytical practioners today miss this point.

Lesson 4 - It's All About the Culture

Any time I think about a project team that tells me that something cannot be accomplished, I remember the scene in this movie where a group of engineers are told to come up with a solution to remove CO2 from the cabin using only what is available on the ship. They have limited time to do this and failure results in the astronauts dying in space. Timelines were unrealistic, resources were limited, but the mission was clear. Given clear directions with organizational hurdles removed, this team was able to come up with a solution in a short period of time. This solution was not only feasible but was suitable to perform in the most difficult of circumstances. What I have learned in my career is that knowledgeable people that are interested in solving complex and impactful problems, can accomplish amazing things when working in a culture that incentivizes these things.

Real World Problem Solving

Today, with all the buzz around analytics it seems that people are very interested in learning a particular tool or technology. To me, that seems analogous to becoming an expert in using a word processing application because you think it will make you a great writer. If you want to be proficient in using analytics to drive business outcomes, you need to practice the use of analytics in this endeavor. In a recent article for the MIT Sloan School of Management, Dr. John Van Maanen  states that "While millennials’ technical skills are far ahead of other generations, [they] are often lacking in soft skills, like communication and problem solving.” In other words, they have strong technological skills but are light on the skills that ultimately lead to their success. This presents a management challenge in the area of analytics, as too many people today ignore the “soft skills” in lieu of the next big technological innovation. As a result, many of these innovations turn into hype which creates a whole other set of issues and ultimately leads to opportunities lost.

To be good at something, you need to work at it – you need to develop relevant experience and be prepared to adapt as necessary. I have coined the term “intellectual curiosity” which, at its core, defines the key attribute required to be successful in the world of analytics. Embrace this concept and take a few lessons from the Apollo 13 team, and you too can solve problems that are literally out of this world.


About Tom Casey

Tom Casey is Executive Account Director for Teradata. He has nearly 25 years of experience working with, designing solutions around, and helping global customers make analytics actionable. As a data analyst, Tom has successfully implemented the use of statistics to better segment and target customers in support of major corporate programs. He’s a featured speaker at conferences, author of several papers, and has a solid track record delivering enterprise-scale analytical solutions.

View all posts by Tom Casey

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