The lessons of the NASA space program of the ’60s and ’70s are instructive for healthcare facility management professionals of today.
From Quality Assurance and Quality Control programs to continuous training and education, many parallels can be drawn from NASA’s quest to get to the moon to today’s healthcare landscape. Significantly, both adhere to to a higher mission of preserving human life; FM leaders seek patient safety in healthcare facilities as NASA seeks astronaut safety in transit to and from and in space.
So, this episode of High Reliability discusses healthcare lessons gleaned from the Tom Hanks produced 12-part miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon. Released in 1998 on HBO, the series explores the origins and milestones of the Apollo lunar landing program, its mission, and those whose lives and careers were impacted by NASA’s journey into space.
Our discussion is framed through the lessons of Apollo 1, Apollo 8, Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and the wives of the Apollo Astronauts. Leadership, courage, and risk were daily staples of the Apollo program.
The same movie crew who joined the High Reliability Band of Brothers leadership podcast joined me for this look at the space program. My thanks to each:
- Thomas Elliott: Director of Facilities, Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, CA
- Geoff Schuller: Owner, GH Schuller Consulting, Mission Viejo, CA
- Steve Spaanbroek: CEO, MSL Healthcare Partners
The tragedy of Apollo 1
We led off our discussion with a look at Apollo 1, the first crewed mission of the United States Apollo program. It was planned to launch on February 21, 1967. The mission never flew. A cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967 killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee, seen above—and destroyed the command module. The name Apollo 1, chosen by the crew, was made official by NASA in their honor after the fire.
Testifying in front of a Congress that had members openly hostile towards NASA, Astronaut Frank Borman, who was the only astronaut chosen to serve on the review board investigating the Apollo 1 tragedy, said of the cause:
“A failure of imagination. We’ve always known there was the possibility of fire in a spacecraft. But the fear was that it would happen in space, when you’re 180 miles from terra firma and the nearest fire station. That was the worry. No one ever imagined it could happen on the ground. If anyone had thought of it, the test would’ve been classified as hazardous. But it wasn’t. We just didn’t think of it. Now who’s fault is that? Well, it’s North American’s fault. It’s NASA’s fault. It’s the fault of every person who ever worked on Apollo. It’s my fault. I didn’t think the test was hazardous. No one did. I wish to God we had.”
A powerful phrase of accountability and lament. It’s applicable to healthcare facilities management today. As Steve Spaanbroek says in the podcast, “our patients are our astronauts.” Like NASA did for its astronauts, FM professionals seek patient safety in healthcare facilities.
We hope you enjoy this broadcast. And if you know Astronaut Frank Borman, please ask him to listen to Healthcare lessons from NASA’s quest for the Moon podcast. He’s mentioned often in our discussion.
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