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Apollo 13: Strategic Decision Making Case Study



The film, Apollo 13 reflects unique situations that require problem-solving and decision-making skills. It captures copious ways in which the astronauts are able to use basic concepts of decision making to achieve a common goal. Particularly, the movie depicts three astronauts whose journey to Moon is typical of unending challenges that prompt them to make critical decisions.

The decisions have to take place within a context of limited time and other resources. Soon after the launch of NASA’s Apollo 13, part of the spacecraft explodes leaving the astronauts with limited decisions. Their major aim is to ensure that Apollo 13 gets back into the lunar system while at the same time enhancing their chances of survival.

It is important to articulate that the movie has immense numbers of incidences that require strategic decision-making. Leadership frameworks and theories that allow the crew to make a heroic return to earth motivate the movie. This paper reflects an analysis of the movie in the light of Drucker’s decision-making models and process. The paper focuses on various decisions that the director and the characters made to enhance teamwork and ultimately, the success of the mission.

Apollo 13 and Drucker’s Decision-Making Model

Peter Drucker is one of the contemporary managers whose decision-making models have influenced numerous people across the world. He distinguishes various aspects of decision-making and comes up with distinct types of decisions (Dess 1987, p. 278). Although he is equivocal on the need to make decisions, it is clear that his model revolves around understanding key aspects of a decision. At the outset, Drucker (1997, p. 34) defines a decision as a type of a choice.

When people make decisions they tend to make conclusions about the situation that confronts them (Drucker, 1997, p. 49). The conclusion that the decision maker arrives at helps him or her to adopt the appropriate decision and as such, he or she takes specific course of behavior and action.

Drucker (1997, p. 37) argues that decisions people make when faced by specific situations reflect their ability to put plans and goals into tangible actions. As such, it is important to pinpoint that the process of planning always leads to actions that reflect the organizations, group or individual’s values as well as goals (Eisenhardt & Zbaracki 1992, p. 28).

In the movie, there are various instances that the characters make decisions after considerable planning and formulating objectives. For instance, the astronauts plan on ways to use their limited resources effectively. The resources include time and technology that enhances their chances of returning to Earth safely. Not only did they put up with time constraints but also survived in one of the most scary space exploration at the time.

Drucker & Cohen (2007, p. 76) explores various types of decisions by distinguishing between strategic and tactical decisions. He also distinguishes the important aspects of decision-making models such as the purpose (Priem 1990, p. 469). It is critical to highlight that various decisions that groups, managers and individuals make aim at directing human behavior towards accomplishing a common objective and goal.

As such, it is important to note that decisions exist only in situations of wide variety of alternatives (Dess 1987, p. 260). In other words, if an individual does not have a choice, he or she does not engage in a decision making process. Apollo 13 depicts a movie whereby the major characters have only two choices when attempting to launch the Odyssey back into the lunar module and the earth’s orbit.

They have a choice of saving the fuel they had but used it to launch the spacecraft back at its orbit. The movie projects Jim Lovell as a flight director who does not only face a dilemma but also competes with various alternatives. For instance, if he allowed the usage of the limited resources (fuel) to launch Apollo 13 back into the orbit, it would mean that a simple error would lead to the explosion of the spacecraft.

On the other hand, failure to use the little they had would insinuate that the spacecraft would never return to its orbit. The results would be equally disastrous. Through concise planning and ability to convince the rest of the team, Lovell is able to take the former decision that translates into a heroic return to earth.

Drucker (1986, p. 34) says that decisions can either be strategic or tactical. Strategies involve the action of the management of an organization or group in trying to attain the shared goal. In many instances, the performance targets are critical elements of motivating the management to undertake strategic decisions.

In addition, Drucker (1986, p. 67) says that tactical decisions entail taking actions based on the available resources. The movie, Apollo 13 has some themes that depict both tactical and strategic decisions. The decision by the three astronauts to use the available resources in an effective way was an illustration of a tactical decision (Priem 1990, p. 464). Besides, the attempt to transmit live pictures was an important demonstration of the strategic decisions that the astronauts made.

The rationale is that the astronauts were able to ensure that they achieved the goal of the entire trip to the Moon. In fact, the trip would have been worthless for Houston Mission Center if the astronauts had not made the decision to stir the mixture of liquid oxygen. Despite the devastating explosion that ensues, it would have been possible to relay the live pictures to the Mission Center.

Further, Drucker (1997, p. 45) makes an important distinction between generic and unique types of decisions. In his strategic decision making model, he articulates that a generic decision is a kind of decision that occurs frequently. In making a generic decision, the decision maker ought to follow a specific principle or law.

It is imperative to ensure that decisions that a person or management makes should be addressed by a particular law. In addition, a generic decision ought to be predictable (Bedeian & Wren 2001, p. 223). The movie begins by highlighting the launch of Apollo 13 at Houston by NASA.

The decision to launch the spacecraft is a truly generic decision. In other words, the astronauts depend on various scientific rules and principles to ensure that the spacecraft launches at the most ideal time and takes the right course. Besides, Drucker & Cohen (2007, p. 34) postulate that a truly generic decision relies on accurate data and checklists that allows the decision maker to predict a conclusion and take a specific course of action.

Hence, we see the astronauts comparing various checklists that allow them to make a decision of launching the spacecraft or to avoid it. This is apparently important since the launch of the spacecraft ought to be accurate to enhance the survival of the astronauts. As a truly generic decision, the astronauts have to certify that the spacecraft is ready and fully functional.

Any error may lead to the postponement of decisions. In truly generic decisions, Drucker (1997, p. 45) argues that an individual ought not to be creative and utilize the problem solving skills. This helps to avoid catastrophes and other devastating outcome. Olsen (1976, p. 19) asserts that truly generic decisions require extreme ability to predict an outcome. As such, the movie portrays NASA decision to launch Apollo 13 as a truly generic decision.

On the other hand, Drucker (2002, p. 67) illustrates the characteristics of truly unique decisions that typify various contexts. Such types of decisions are typical of creativity and allow the decision makers to utilize creativity and problem solving skills when taking a course of action. The decisions are usually abrupt, unique and require the decision maker to contend with other challenges such as time and resources (Pfeffer 1981, p.124).

In other words, the decisions are unforeseen and unpredictable. In Apollo 13, the director depicts Lovell and Swigert as major characters that make truly unique decisions. When Swigert goes to Aquarius to mix the liquid oxygen, the explosion makes him to make an instant decision of releasing the Odyssey to the atmosphere.

When he returns to Krantz, Swigert looks distressed because of the explosion but receives an assurance that ‘failure is not an option’ from Krantz. In other words, Krantz, uses his creativity and responsiveness to come up with a unique decision that only a few astronauts have ever witnessed. In addition, Eisenhardt & Zbaracki (1992, p. 28) point out that truly unique decisions require the decision makers to ensure effective communication in both formal and informal contexts.

Besides, such situations require the team members to show support by listening clearly about a specific decisions (Olsen 1976, p. 19). In the movie, Lovell indicates his vision and desire to achieve the objective of returning to earth by asserting that he intended to go home no matter the price or the effort. In the context, the three astronauts allowed one of them to make critical but unique types of decision by allowing effective communication.

Drucker’s Decision Making Model and Process

Drucker (2008, p. 17) is articulate about the specific decision-making process. He specifies five steps through which a decision maker must go through when arriving at the appropriate course of action. First, he says that it is imperative to identify the problem at hand. In other words, the decision maker ought to help the team to enhance effective process of deciding on the priorities and identifying the problem (Pettigrew 1973, p. 56).

In Apollo 13, the astronauts identified the major problem to be the re-launch of the spacecraft back into its orbit. The astronauts face momentous challenges as they attempt to achieve their goal of making a return to earth.

A clear problem identification process allows a team, group or an organization to develop concise goals that match the overall goals and values of an organization or a group. Second, Drucker (1997, p. 76) states that the decision maker ought to come up with alternative solutions after identifying the problems. This facilitates the ability of the team to explore the consequences and impacts of certain decisions.

In the movie, Lovell explains to Swigert and Krantz that they had various options although only one would be achievable using the resources they had. They choose the decision to abandon the Odyssey after an extremely heated debate amongst themselves. Third, a decision maker ought to assist the team members or the management of an organization to analyze and compare the alternatives of the decisions (Bedeian & Wren 2001, p. 224).

Comparing the alternatives helps an individual to weigh the pros against the cons and vice versa. Besides, it allows a person to take the most rational decision given that many decision makers experience constraints of resources. Drucker & Cohen (2007, p. 76) assert that the fourth step of decision-making process involves the selection of the action plan which, is dependent on the alternative that an individual chooses.

Finally, Drucker & Cohen (2007, p. 67) explain that an individual in a decision-making process ought to enhance the effectiveness of a decision. This step is the climax of the movie, Apollo 13. Lovell and Krantz ensure that their final decision to use the remaining fuel to align the spacecraft into its orbit was effective. Although initially unsure of the consequences, they finally succeed.


In essence, Drucker’s decision-making model is comparable to Apollo 13. The movie allows the viewer to explore various aspects of decision-making and leadership. Apollo 13 reflects a spacecraft launch that turns to be a nightmare for the three astronauts that were aboard.

In the movie, it is apparent that the major characters are able to distinguish between tactical and strategic decisions, generic and unique decisions as well as many other types of decisions. Drucker’s decision-making model involves identification and definition of a problem, exploration of alternative solutions, and comparison of the possible solutions, taking an action and enhancing the effectiveness of the actions (Pettigrew 1973, p. 86). All these aspects of decision-making models have been apparent throughout the movie, Apollo 13.


Bedeian, A & Wren, D, Winter 2001, ‘Most Influential Management Books of the 20th Century’, Organizational Dynamic, vol. 29 no. 3, pp. 221–225.

Dess, G 1987, ‘Consensus on strategy formulation and organizational performance: Competitors in a fragmented industry’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 8 no. 3, pp. 259-277.

Drucker, P & Cohen, W 2007, A Class with Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher, McGraw Hill Publishers, New York.

Drucker, P 1986, The Frontiers of Management: Where Tomorrow’s Decisions are Being Shaped Today, Truman Talley Books, New York.

Drucker, P 1997, ‘The man who changed the world’, Business Review Weekly, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 45-89.

Eisenhardt, K & Zbaracki, M 1992, ‘Strategic decision making’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 13 no. 9, pp. 17-37.

Olsen, J 1976, Choice in an Organized Anarchy, University of Berlin, Bergen.

Pettigrew, A 1973, Politics of Organizational Decision-Making, Tavistock, London.

Pfeffer, J1981, Power in Organizations, Pitman Publishing, Marshfield, MA.

Priem, R 1990, ‘Top management team group factors, consensus, and firm performance’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 11 no. 5, pp. 469-478.

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