How Design Thinking Saved the Apollo 13 Astronauts

Houston, we’ve had a problem.” – Jim Lovell

Apollo 13 was supposed to be NASA's third moon-landing mission. Instead, in an instant, the spacecraft pivoted from a moon-bound mission to a crippled vessel. The spaceflight stands today as a demonstration of NASA Design Thinking, and vividly illustrates the dangers of working in space.

On April 10, 1970, the Apollo 13 astronauts launched for the moon.  After the successful moon landing of Apollo 11, many Americans had started to regard space travel as routine. Three astronauts were about to make another trip within a capsule not much larger than the interior of a VW Beetle.  As the Apollo crew closed in on the moon, an oxygen tank exploded forcing the three-man crew to abort their mission, power down the command module, and move into the lunar module for the journey home. All three men "abandoned" the command module (CM) for the close confines of the lunar module (LM). The LM was intended for two men (Lovell and Haise) to use in their landing on the lunar surface and then their return to the command module. It wasn’t designed or built to be used extensively by three men, but Apollo 13’s crew had no other options

For the next four days, the world was transfixed as the crew of Apollo 13—Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert fought to stay alive in the cold vacuum of space. The world looked to the NASA engineers and flight controllers to come up with a miracle, and fast.

Planning for an Emergency
NASA had been planning for an emergency like this for decades. Gene Krantz, NASA flight director, had assumed there would eventually be an unforeseen emergency and team members would need to rely on a thinking strategy to solve problems that were impossible to predict. Gene worked very hard to ensure the approved budget included exact replica spacecraft simulators and full-scale mockups here on Earth. Ground-based engineers, scientists, and standby pilots would need to have access to an exact replica of Apollo spacecraft systems, clothing, tools, and objects the astronauts had in space. With these tools, NASA team members could think outside the box and initiate Design Thinking to work towards creative problem solving as needed.

What is Design Thinking?
At the heart of Design Thinking is the intention to improve products by analyzing and understanding how users interact with products and investigating the real-world conditions in which they operate. Team members employing Design Thinking ask significant questions and challenge assumptions.

Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach which assesses known aspects of a problem as well as ambiguous of peripheral factors that may contribute to the conditions to a problem. This contrasts with the Scientific Method where the concrete and known aspects are tested to arrive at a solution Had the astronauts tried this approach, they would most likely would have blacked out as they tested their gauges to see of they were indeed reading correct CO2 levels.

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which knowledge is constantly being questioned and acquired so it can help us redefine a problem to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.



The first step is to pain an understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Empathy is crucial to human-centered design process and allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions and gain insight into the user and their needs. In the movie Apollo 13, Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly) is placed inside the scale model of the Apollo 13 spacecraft to actually BE an astronaut in peril, cold, no sleep, and communicating with ground-based team members through a microphone and speakers. This is an essential element. He was experiencing the same issues the astronauts were experiencing on the far side of the moon.

During the Define stage, team members pull together the information you have created and gathered during the Empathize stage. Rather than define the problem as We need to… a much better way would be “The Apollo 13 astronauts need to…” This stage is a focus on solving the problem for the end user. Gene Krantz, NASA Flight director, made sure the engineers and scientists were solving the astronaut’s problem, not the problem being worked on within the simulator on Earth. In fact, there is an actual problem statement and directive given to the team. Defining a problem for real people ensures that empathy, gathered in step 1, is at the very top of solving the problem.

The Lunar Module had to be used as a lifeboat for all three astronauts for several days, but it was only built for two people for1.5 days. The more air the crew breathed, the higher the CO2 levels raised. Eventually, the entire crew would be lost due to high levels of CO2.

The problem statement eventually boiled down to: How do we connect a square CO2 air filter to a round CO2 air filter using the tools we currently have on the spacecraft to get the CO2 levels down to safe range before our astronauts black out and die from high levels of CO2?

During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, team members begin to start generating ideas. With understanding the users’ needs and a human centered Problem Statement in place, it’s time to look at alternative ways to solve the problem. Brainstorming sessions erupted immediately for the Apollo 13 team as engineers and scientists bounced ideas off one another.

The design team is now tasked with making a quick prototype of the solution. Prototypes are often tested and shared within the internal team with the aim to provide the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. The solutions are implemented into the prototype and the team will be accepted, improved, re-examined, or rejected based on the users’ experiences.

The Apollo 13 ground-based crew had access to everything the astronauts had. The prototype was based on real objects including creative things like socks, bungee cords, and the cover sheet of the flight manual. A working prototype was tested internally and the procedure for making the prototype was relayed to the internal crew for testing.

Designers or evaluators rigorously test the complete product using the best solutions identified during the prototyping phase. This is often an iterative process, and the results often redefine one or more problems the product was intended for. The testing phase is an opportunity for constant improvement and team members can dive deep to learn more about some of periphery elements that may have initiated the problem.

The NASA team had done some internal tests on the air scrubber prototype, but they were running out of time. The engineering team hand-delivered a working prototype and a procedure list to the flight operations team as the astronauts were on the verge of passing out. Had they waited for exhaustive internal testing the outcome of the Apollo 13 would have been much different. The best tests are initiated with real users very early on in the prototyping process to solve problems quickly and to anticipate new problems and iterate as needed. In this case, the speed of the process literally meant life or death.


The Take Away

Solving complex problems, we face isn’t rocket science. In fact, many of the problems can be solved The IRIS team has embraced a Design Thinking approach to solve problems with next generation health care systems.