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Crisis Communications: 50 years on from the first moon landing


Written by Alex Kent

Crisis communications at NASA

20th July 2019 marks 50 years since the Apollo landings put the first humans on the Moon. NASA overcame danger, near misses and numerous other challenges throughout the mission. But there’s one incident that occurred during the final descent to the Moon that stands out for me. It’s an awesome example of effective crisis communications.

Permission to land

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were just four minutes into their landing sequence. A warning alarm sounded in their headsets.

Armstrong consulted Apollo Guidance Computer, the system responsible for the guidance, navigation and control of Eagle.

“Program alarm,” called out Armstrong over the radio to Mission Control, 240,000 miles away in Houston, Texas, “It’s a 1202.”

This was simulated numerous times during training. The first time Mission Control faced a similar alarm, they called for an immediate abort.

But terminating the actual landing would force a risky manoeuvre, returning Eagle back to the orbiting Command Module.

The flight directors had wondered if the flight controllers had been too hasty to abort in the training. Doing it in reality would jeopardise an unprecedented level of investment for NASA and the USA itself.

After 18 achingly long seconds of silence, Armstrong prompted “Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm,”.

“Roger,” replied Mission Control, “We’re go on that alarm.”

Armstrong and Aldrin got the go-ahead and were able to land, despite the alarms.

Planning for disaster

Mission Control used those 18 seconds to assess what the alarm meant and whether it was ‘safe’ to proceed.

After the simulated abort in training, they’d created an ‘error reference sheet’. It contained every single guidance computer error message, what they meant, and how critical they were to the safety of the crew and the mission. It meant a decision could be made quickly during the real flight.

Crisis communications were helped by NASA's planning

The Error Reference Sheet from the first Moon landings (source: NASA)

 

In just a few seconds they diagnosed the 1202 alarm was non-critical. The descent could go on. The alarm actually sounded several times more but, as we all know, the Eagle landed safely and the crew later returned to Earth safely.

Without the sheet Mission Control may have aborted the landing, or delayed the diagnosis too long with disastrous consequences.

All about comms

The lesson for comms? Two things stand out for me. On the one hand it reminds that communications has to be a central part of any organisation’s crisis planning. I still hear tales of comms team’s struggling to get on the radar of the planning process and it beggars belief this is still happening. Clear, consistent messages at a challenging time can only be achieved by planning, not chance.

Secondly, I think it’s a great reminder to all businesses that less is often more in the time of crisis. When everyone is looking for answers to a deluge of questions in the midst of a fast-moving, difficult scenario, communicators have to keep their focus on communicating the right info at the right time.

Communicators need to hold their nerve in the heat of the moment and resist the natural urge to panic. They must ask the right questions, evaluate the facts and produce relevant information in the most timely and appropriate manner possible.

After all, if it’s good enough for rocket scientists, it’s good enough for me.