Skip to content

Houston, We’ve Had A Problem

May 27, 2014

We know that line as

Houston, we have a problem.

And we see Tom Hanks’ Mission Commander Jim Lovell saying it.

Actually, it was the Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, who was played by Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13, who said it and it was in the past tense. In any case. As you may know, one of the critical issues the astronauts of the crippled Apollo 13 faced was trying to remove CO2 from the air. They were all three crammed into a portion of the spacecraft that was designed to hold two men.

The solution was to grab one of the “CO2 scrubbers” from the damaged part of the ship and use it in the landing module (LM.) The problem was literally trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Or in this case, a square filter into a round hole.

But, in an example of “their finest hour” the NASA engineers figured out how to make it work. Here’s a picture of the actual device in place on the Apollo spacecraft.

(Photo Credit: NASA)

Why didn’t they just make all the filters the same shape?

Probably because different firms and different engineers built the different parts of the spaceship. They weren’t required to work together and each built a solution that worked for their needs.

I helped a friend move some sheetrock on Saturday. I was using our 15 passenger van to move it. That’s not a problem. The seats are easy to remove and the designers of the 2000 GMC Savanna 3500 realized that someone might want to put a 4×8 sheet of plywood or sheetrock in the back of the van.

Here’s a shot of the van before we removed the last last seat.

Like I said, there’s plenty of room. You might have noticed the jack that is in the lower right hand portion of the picture. THAT is the problem.


The jack comes out of course. But, the brace for the jack is welded, WELDED, to the frame. As you can see from the earlier picture, the jack is in that 4×8 space. To move sheetrock we had to find a board to place over the jack and then pile the sheetrock at an odd angle.

Why would they do that? Why would they go to the trouble of giving a nice 4×8 bed and place an obstruction right in the middle? Personally, I think it’s similar to what happened to Apollo 13. Probably the guy deciding where to place the jack didn’t talk to the engineers who designed the bed.

What does this have to do with business? Anyone who’s worked with software development or engineering teams probably got it right away.

People occasionally ask me what a Project Manager does. See that immovable jack stand in the middle of the van bed? We do that. Well, if we do our jobs well, we prevent that from happening. Many of my projects involve multiple teams. My current project involves

Desktop Engineering
Telecom Engineering
Account Management
Workforce Management
Quality Assurance
Senior Management (The hardest group to work with at times)

In addition, I need to work with our client’s engineering teams.

Project and Program Managers are the guys who are supposed to look across the engineering silos and realize that Team A needs to make a change so that Team B will later be able to take advantage of their work.

It’s humbling in a way. I cannot do what the engineers do. In terms of actual work, I don’t DO very much. But, the one thing I CAN do is talk. I talk to the client and get their requirements. I talk to the engineering teams and make sure they have the specifications and the resources to build the solution. I talk to Operations and make sure they are prepared to take over ownership of the product when it’s ready.

Daddy, what do you do at work?

I talk to people.

That seems like an easy job.

Sometimes Sweety. But, not often enough.

The Project Managers are the ones who respond to “We have a problem here.”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (
LinkedIn (
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply