The character of human beings is often measured by how they deal with crisis. Case in point: The Apollo 13 disaster, which saw a trio of American astronauts fighting for their lives aboard a crippled spacecraft tens of thousands of miles away from Earth. NASA administrators and scientists worked tirelessly to get Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert home — and the manner in which NASA dealt with this daunting task is often viewed as a textbook example of successful crisis management.

For example, NASA didn’t dwell on the cause of the oxygen tank rupture, but merely how to deal with it. As soon as Lovell radioed in his famous understatement — “Houston, we’ve had a problem” — every available expert was brought in to solve that problem. This meant establishing available assets, not bemoaning what was lost. Those assets largely comprised an almost entirely undamaged Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which could serve as a lifeboat once the Command Service Module (CSM) had to be abandoned. More importantly, the explosion had occurred very early in the mission, when the LEM and the CSM had a maximum store of supplies that could be called upon to help the astronauts survive the impending four-day ordeal.

Following the establishment of assets, NASA set about to apply those assets to reach the goal — three astronauts safely returned home. Despite the fact that the LEM was only intended to keep two men alive on the lunar surface for two days, it had enough oxygen to support a trio for four days, as the cabin would not have to be repressurized after moonwalks. Instead, the astronauts had to jury-rig carbon-dioxide scrubbers to keep the abundant air clean for the extra duration. The LEM’s landing thrusters also had to be used to make course corrections, and electrical power had to be conserved, so heating was shut down and communications were kept to a minimum.

These ingenious endeavors saw Lovell, Haise, and Swigert home safely. When the astronauts’ return was assured, NASA and its associates actually indulged in another time-honored tradition of successful crisis management: a little post-gallows humor. North American Rockwell, which built the LEM, got a jab in at Grumman, which built the damaged CSM. The former sent the latter a “towing bill” for aid rendered to its craft and passengers, complete with itemized calculations for a final (though not inconsiderable) sum.

HOW MUCH WAS THE “TOWING BILL” PRESENTED TO NASA CONTRACTORS BY THE MAKERS OF THE APOLLO 13 LUNAR MODULE?

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How much was the “towing bill” presented by Grumman to North American Rockwell after the Apollo 13 disaster, a humorous jab by the makers of the lifeboat Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) at the builders of the damaged Command Service Module (CSM) that suffered a crippling explosion during the mission?

North American Rockwell “owed” Grumman $312,421.24 in total, according to calculations by Grumman pilot Sam Greenberg. The itemized invoice broke down as such:

  • Four dollars for the first towed mile, one dollar for each additional mile, for a total charge of $400,004
  • A battery charge road call of $4.05 (The LEM batteries were used to augment the damaged CSM power supply for capsule reentry.)
  • An oxygen fee, at 10 dollars per pound, of $500
  • A hotel room rate of eight dollars per night, described as “no TV, air-conditioned with radio, modified American plan with view, additional guest in room,” totaling $32
  • A standard 20 percent United States government discount
  • An additional two percent discount for paying in cash

Thus, North American Rockwell faced a total liability of $400,540.05 before the 22 percent cash and federal discount, for a final bill of $312,421.24.

North American Rockwell, as you might imagine, politely declined to pay the bill on the grounds that for Apollo 10 (which did everything but land on the moon), Apollo 11, and Apollo 12, North American Rockwell CSMs had towed Grumman LEMs all the way to the moon for free. As such, North American Rockwell was certain that, were they to present charges for those services, it was Grumman that would come out owing.

Such actuarial humor is probably appropriate given how little margin for error there was in engineering the Apollo spacecraft. The CSM alone was composed of more than five million separate components, so even if North American Rockwell achieved the vaunted “five nines” of quality — 99.999 percent success rate in component manufacturing — at least 50 parts of the CSM would still fail. And that’s before we discuss the LEM, the Saturn V rocket, or any of the various and sundry other technologies that made landing a dozen men on the moon possible. The fact that there was only one major Apollo in-flight accident (excepting the Apollo 1 fire, which was a ground-test incident), and that there were no in-flight casualties, proves NASA and its partners demonstrated a remarkable level of quality control.

That’s not just some exceptional engineering excess, it’s a quantifiably crisis-quenching quaff of Geek Trivia.

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