Categories: ApolloHistoryNASA

13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13, Epilogue: The ‘Failure is Not an Option’ Attitude

To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, Universe Today has been featuring “13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13,” discussing different turning points of the mission with NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill. Today, we let Jerry have the final word as he talks about a different aspect of the Apollo 13 mission.

Written By Jerry Woodfill:

I hesitated to include this among the “Things That Saved Apollo 13” because it is sort of intangible, i.e., not related to actual hardware, software, mission operations, and all things STEM. Nevertheless, in my mind, it is, perhaps, most responsible for the ultimate success of the rescue. I think it might override all the original “13 Things” as well as the “13 More Things that saved Apollo 13.”

Adding it came to me on New Year’s Eve of 2014. For a number of years, Apollo Flight Director Gene Kranz has presented a wonderful motivational program entitled and based on this concept, this motto, this creed — that failure is not an option. Five years ago, I borrowed the title for annual programs presented to high school and college students visiting the Johnson Space Center, such as in the picture above and below.

Jerry Woodfill speaking to students. Image via the NASA National Community College Aerospace Scholars Website.

Universe Today writer Nancy Atkinson discussed in part 11 the origin of the saying “Failure is Not an Option,” which actually came from one of the “Trench” team members, Jerry Bostick.

Of course, there are those who consider the phrase “pie in the sky,” altogether “over-the-top” and “Pollyanna.” They assert that such is unrealistic when faced with obviously insurmountable challenges. For me, the best argument to counter that view came years ago from comments I’ve found on the internet. Below are a couple of paraphrased examples:

“Well… Apollo 13 has become my role model, my support, my comfort, and my favorite movie at 3 AM when I can’t sleep because I’m so overwhelmed with my own life. This is about how I use the movie as a crutch to get me through the day. This is about how Apollo 13 keeps me sane in an insane time!”

“They say that Apollo 13 was a Successful Failure because of all they learned from the experience. I’m hoping that my experience with cancer will also be a Successful Failure. The doctor has already told us that my dad won’t be cured, and any treatments we do won’t change that. So I already know that I’m going to be a failure. Nothing I do can save my father’s life. But maybe I can learn and grow. Just maybe my dad and I can have some more good times together. Maybe we can have some fun and overcome some challenges on this journey. Then I’d say it would be a successful failure for sure. Sometimes, I’m surprised at how my life seems to parallel the hardships the astronauts had to endure. I find myself doing things for my dad that I never imagined I would have to do.”

In like fashion, the heroism of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert along with the resolve, perseverance, and herculean efforts of all involved would always be revered. “Failure Is Not an Option” is not naïve whatsoever. It is a guiding principle for whatever challenge we face.

I’ve also received emails, like the one below from people who have come across my off-the-job internet site:

Dear Mr. Woodfill:
I just watched the movie Apollo 13 and started researching the quote “failure is not an option”. In doing so I came across an article you had written, and I wanted to thank you for it.

I appreciated everything you wrote, but I was especially touched by the following: “I have to make sure that I do my best to make every day with my dad as wonderful as possible, that the end of his life is as good as it can be, and we learn something new every day we are together. I also need to remember that no matter how bad things get, I love my daddy and he loves me. If I just remember that… I can’t fail.”

Finding your article was such a blessing because today they just told me my father would have to go on hospice, and I have been praying to God for strength and peace for my father and for myself. After all, what could I possibly say or do that could help him? But after I read this I knew. I just have to love him. So thank you for that.

You wrote the article many years ago, and I know chances are small that you will ever receive this email. But I just wanted you to know how much peace I received from what you had written. Because, as you said, no matter how bad things get, if I just love him, I can’t fail.
Bless you for reminding me of that.

+ + + + +

Finally, Nancy asked me to explain how the phrase “Failure Is Not an Option” affected me. So how did that tagline affect me? Experiencing the “13 Things” and “the 13 More Things, at first in real time, and later in 100s of hours of reflection wholly changed the course of my life. I simply could not ignore the overwhelming evidence of so many things that saved Apollo 13 being fortuitous. In both series, I’ve done my best to “de-spiritualize” the accounts, knowing this series is a secular assessment. Actually, the genesis of every one of the now “26 things,” for me, was altogether providence or answered prayer. How this ensued is recorded on my off-the-job website if you are interested, as Paul Harvey used to say, in “the rest of the story.”

But I wanted to reach out to a much broader audience by sharing a factual secular account. I’m grateful to Nancy and “Universe Today” for making that possible.

In an off-hand way, many who have followed the series may have concluded what I discovered – that a person or power above had intervened as another of “the things that saved Apollo 13.” So I am always encouraged by the tagline “failure is not an option.” Now, it is, for me, another way of saying what I discovered through Apollo 13’s rescue that “all things work together for good,” as the above email says.

Thank you!
Jerry Woodfill

Jerry Woodfill with students from the Community College Aerospace Scholars, with the ‘Failure Is Not an Option’ pledge in the background. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.
Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at and and Instagram at and

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