“Houston, We’ve HAD a Problem.” Successful Failures: Lessons from the Adler’s “Year of the Moon” Programming and the Importance of Community Partners and Digital Interactions

Jessica BrodeFrank, University of London, USA/UK


As Captain Jim Lovell said, "For Apollo 13, the primary mission was lost, but in a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and courage, the mission morphed into something entirely new and continued. I always compared this like a game of solitaire. You turn up a card and that’s a crisis. If you can put it someplace, the mission keeps going." We invite conference goers to learn how the Adler has worked to put our cards in place. Apollo 13 was classified as a "successful failure" due to the experience gained in rescuing the crew despite the mission objective being abandoned. Similarly, many of our own plans went awry, but throughout our "failures" we regrouped and found a way to still present a strong narrative to our guests, learning from our mistakes. In this talk we propose a discussion of what we found worked and what we found failed. Over the last year we saw "formulas" we had employed over previous years completely fall short, while new programming more reliant on outside partners and digital interaction soared. Just as the Apollo 13 crew was reliant on the ground crews and technology, we are reliant on our community partners and our digital presence. We will share some of the ways we have found success in crafting overarching themes and longer lived campaigns, versus one-off blow-out events. We will also share the places where interdepartmental miscommunications and siloes have put stoppers in our ability to clearly deliver on our institutional mission, but where collaborative groups have found success, as was the case in Apollo 13. Session attendees will leave with very real examples of successful failures, and hopefully an idea on how to reshape the way they look at their own failures and successes.

Keywords: project management; community; digital experiences ; digital engagement

As with many institutions focused on astronomy and the history of astronomy, December 2018 kicked off a year (and a half) of celebrating the Moon at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. In the short span of 18 months, the Adler (Planetarium) planned and executed anniversaries for Apollo 8, Apollo 11, Apollo 13, as well as a Lunar Eclipse viewing event. As the Planetarium looked at how to celebrate these momentous events, we ended up taking inspiration from the missions themselves.
We started with the awe-inspiring beauty of the Moon felt from the Apollo 8 mission with a stunning art installation by British artist Luke Jerram (Adler, “Choose the Moon”) and a brand new dome show “Imagine the Moon” (Adler, “Imagine the Moon”) focusing on humanity’s enduring fascination with the Moon. We felt the personal connection observing a lunar eclipse/moon gazing can make in much the way the Apollo astronauts have always described. We then connected to the excitement of watching the first human taking a step on a foreign body with a sell-out event for Apollo 11. Nevertheless, throughout our year of the Moon, we experienced the “successful failures” that defined Apollo 13.
Throughout these 18 months, the Adler initiated several new guest-centered experiences. We developed a new sky show featuring collections objects. We created online exhibitions with stronger inclusive and diverse narratives. We encouraged thousands of people to look up at a lunar eclipse. Moreover, we welcomed thousands more to hear the “Voices of Apollo” share their victories and accomplishments in their own words. However, as our successes mounted, we also struggled with short timelines, unpredictable weather, disjointed goals and objectives, and day-to-day operations conflicting with project-based work.
After the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew, Apollo 13 was rebranded as a “successful failure” due to the tireless innovation, problem-solving and communication gained in rescuing the crew (NASA, “Apollo 13”). Similarly, we revised and adapted our plans as objectives and circumstances changed. Learning from our missteps, we regrouped and found a way to present a celebratory and cohesive experience to our guests at every one of these events. Here we propose a discussion of what we found worked and what we found fall short. Just as the Apollo 13 crew was reliant on the ground crews and technology for their safe return, our lessons reinforced a reliance on our community partners and our digital presence to remain integrated and essential to the communities we serve.

Apollo 8: Imagine the Moon
We kicked off our “Year of the Moon” celebrations in December of 2018, celebrating the Apollo 8 mission’s fiftieth anniversary. Apollo 8 was the first mission to take humans to the vicinity of the Moon, and the Apollo 8 crew were the first to witness and photograph an earthrise (NASA, Earthrise). As we prepared to celebrate this capstone in human ingenuity, we saw the opportunity to create a sky show that explored how the Moon has inspired human creativity, learning, and exploration ever since humanity looked to the sky.
At this same time our institutional mission and vision statements were being rewritten with more community and inclusivity in mind. As we published to the world, the vision of the Adler is that, “The Adler connects people, communities, and institutions to one another through the wonder of space science so we can explore our Universe together and use our collective knowledge and skills to create a better world for everyone” it felt poignant to truly begin connecting people (Adler, “Adler Mission”). This sparked the idea for what would become “Imagine the Moon” -the overarching theme for our Apollo 8 celebrations, and our newest dome show.
Fittingly, the description of “Imagine the Moon” stated, “Each discovery has brought new opportunities to contemplate and imagine, until, driven by dreams, we left Earth and went there in the amazing journeys that culminated in astronauts walking on the Moon. People have imagined the Moon as a glowing disk in the sky, a destination in space, and a world that shares its origin with the Earth. The power of human imagination continues to inspire our relationship with the Moon as our partner in space and companion in our sky.” This set a new precedent for the Planetarium grounding its new show not just in imagination, but also in history, for the first time featuring historical collections from the Adler.
This inclusion was a timely update at the Adler. In 2018 we had conducted a visitor and member survey with the company Cygnus Applied Research Inc. (Cygnus, 2018). After interviewing 3,492 members and visitors to the Planetarium (and gathering demographic data from approximately 9,775 patrons), we discovered that data did not support many preconceived ideas about our guests’ interests and motivations. We discovered that only 15% of our guests are coming internationally, and 43.5% of our visitors were coming in a two-person adult group (with only 39.3% coming in the traditional family units, which we expected the majority of our guests to account for). Also, when asked about motivations for attendance, 62% mentioned coming for sky shows, and 32.8% responded to wanting to learn more about the history of astronomy through artifacts.
The data supported a sky show grounded in universal emotion, and including a strong historical background would appeal to a broad cross-section of our guests. The sky show’s release coincided with the Apollo 8 anniversary. During our premiere, former astronaut (and Apollo 8 crew member) Captain Jim Lovell attended. Upon watching the sky show, Captain Lovell stated it looked just like he remembered seeing the Moon for the first time. We were able to bring this moment of fascination and joy to our guests and provide more content to match what they wanted and asked of us.
In addition to these discoveries, the Cygnus report also revealed we were not reaching an international audience as initially thought. International guests were not visiting the Planetarium onsite; the Adler was reaching them online. Where we were only serving about 15% of our onsite guests coming internationally, on Google Arts and Culture, we saw, on average, 51.15% of our viewership coming from an international audience (Cygnus, 2018). Using the Google Arts and Culture platform, we created an exhibition also titled “Imagine the Moon” with a similar focus on the historical fascination with the Moon and its impact on modern space science (Google Arts and Culture, “Imagine the Moon”). For our “Imagine the Moon” exhibition, which we shared extensively through international consortiums for planetariums, astronomy, and history of astronomy, we saw this number bloom to 62.34% of viewers coming from outside the United States. We expanded our reach to a much more international scope by utilizing pre-existing technologies, and used surveys to not only hear our guests, but then give them what they were asking for.

Apollo 11: Voices of Apollo
Success often follows failure, since it frequently occurs after other options have tried and failed. Many people think failure is the undesirable end of something they attempted when it is just the beginning. As we planned for Apollo 11, we had a handful of false start in programming plans. Early in the planning process, it was still unclear how we would uniquely message this mission. Initially, it was conceived we would pursue the theme “Big Leaps, Giant Steps,” connecting the amazing scientific and technological advances of the historic Apollo programs to the current technological endeavors set in Chicago. Brainstorms included live streaming the Walter Cronkite broadcast of the Moon landing on a skyscraper in Chicago, and passing out virtual reality (VR) headsets in the city to allow guests to walk on the Moon. While appealing, time and resources impacted our ability to execute these ideas. What did become apparent was the desire and ability to host a large-scale public event at the Adler celebrating the anniversary by inspiring people to come together to do science and contemplate achieving the next impossible feat.
We reassessed the theme for our Apollo 11 event. We moved away from solely focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education), and focused our attention more on programming for the community. Time, again, would become our Achilles heel. Finding individuals, or institutions with connections to Chicago and the Apollo program, became our biggest challenge. We researched and identified several people (particularly African American women) who made the Apollo missions successful. Our efforts to realize Adler’s values of collaboration, diversity, and inclusivity were a driving force in identifying speakers, partners, and activities. The Adler’s celebration would be a more inclusive story of all the people needed to accomplish the Apollo program (Adler, “Voices of Apollo”).
We looked at successes and failures from our previous events, specifically, the ones that were culture driven and partner led. We identified and studied our long-standing Adler After Dark program. Held on the third Thursday of each month, this event often involves partners around a theme. The Cygnus report had shown that 63.6% of our event visitors were between the ages of 25-34 (the target demographic for Adler After Dark) and similarly saw that of all our special events held between 2016-2018, 83.6% of visitors and members polled had attended an Adler After Dark. We wanted our Apollo 11 celebration to capitalize on the success of this program, but also to better align the program to the Adler’s inclusive and diverse mission, vision, and values.
In early 2019 our Adler After Dark program presented “A Night in the Afrofuturism,” better aligning with Black History Month. We took a fan favorite “Geek Chic” and reframed it as “Geek Chic(k)” to celebrate Women’s History Month in March. Furthermore, for the first time, the Adler celebrated “Out in Space” for June’s LGBTQ month. We saw massive success working with local partners to celebrate Black History Month and LGBTQ month, where we faltered from indecisive messaging for International Women’s Month. For “A Night in the Afrofuturism” and “Out in Space,” we relied heavily on partner institutions to define the theme authentically, and in a way that appealed to the communities. Both of these events saw the highest attendance rates of 2019, with “A Night in the Afrofuturism” not only having our highest attendance rate (at 1,399 guests) but also selling the highest number of presale tickets (at 1,263). “Out in Space” similarly saw a high turn out (1,252) and one of our most significant reactions on social media.
In comparison, we saw “Geek Chic(k)” falter. It only sold 793 tickets in the presale and had the lowest attendance of the three events at 1,020 people. For this event, we did not rely on partners to help shape, and in looking back, it became evident we did not sell this event as a celebration of women in science fiction and pop culture. We learned we needed to not only engage our partner institutions but genuinely represent our community and market to them digitally with a cohesive, concise, and authentic message.
We learned from this misstep. If we wanted to set ourselves apart with our Apollo 11 planning by focusing on the “400,000 people it took to get Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon,” then we needed to commit to telling that story through the voices of those who lived it.
An initial highlight of our Apollo 11 programming was to be an online exhibition with Google Arts and Culture of our Apollo objects narrated by Captain Jim Lovell. As much as our guests respond to Captain Lovell, we looked to our mistakes with Geek Chic(k) and realized by having one of the most famous astronauts in the world tell the stories of those whose stories had not been told, was not going to work. We partnered with the Chicago Public Library and the DuSable African American Museum to reach a more diverse section of the Chicago community, to call for responses to prompts such as “What is your memory of Apollo 11?” “How does Apollo 11 continue to inspire you today?” and “Did you or someone you know work on the space program?” We were now positioned to craft the online exhibition from contributor’s direct quotes; “Voices of Apollo” was born (Google Arts and Culture, “Voices of Apollo”).
By receiving submissions from partner institutions, the exhibition represented more of Chicago and reached new audiences. (Chicago Public Library, “Celebrate the Moon”). The exhibition also expanded our programming to an international level through a call on social media. When it launched in July 2019, it became our most-viewed exhibition launch to date on Google Arts and Culture, and our pre-existing exhibitions saw jumps in viewership (in some cases as high as 500% increases from June 2019 to July 2019). On average, people spent over two minutes engaging with the exhibition (with Voices of Apollo, our average was 135.57 seconds in July, while our overall average for all exhibitions is 76.59 seconds); we saw our viewership was 93% international on this exhibit. We truly reached an audience who likely otherwise would not have engaged with the Adler.
This exhibition became the guiding light for all of our Apollo 11 programming, and even worked as a jumping off point to bring in Dr. Reatha Clark King (an African American chemist who worked on rocket fuel formation) and Bob Davidson (Apollo program space suit designer) on-site for our large scale event to talk about their experiences in the program.
Over the weekend of the Apollo 11 Fiftieth Anniversary, the Adler held “Moon Bash”, a three-day celebration of the ingenuity, collaboration, and imagination of the Apollo program. We held an Adler After Dark on that Thursday evening called “Moonshot” which looked to not only celebrate the mission 50 years ago, but looked forward to what the next “moonshot” in 50 years could be. We saw high attendance (1,377 people) and high levels of engagement. Similar to “A Night in the AfroFuturism” and “Out in Space”, we engaged with our community partners for this event, and saw real success with a series of community-created murals that were unveiled at the event, and where an additional “moonshot” mural was created by event guests.
The “Moon Bash” programming (Chicago Now, “How to Celebrate Apollo”) was happening throughout the day and evenings on July 19th and 20th. On our website and social media accounts beautiful graphics were displayed encouraging people to come to the event with highlights including exploration stations, VR games, a Smithsonian Affiliate film, Moonshot murals, and at the very end a plug for “Voices of Apollo”.
One thing that was not advertised was a Friday night lecture co-hosted by the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. This lecture was only included in “Additional Apollo 11 Celebration Events” on a completely different webpage. On this site it was presented as an academic talk, which in many ways it was, but it was not shared on Adler’s social media at all.
Unlike our other programming, it was expected that the Adler’s History of Astronomy and Astronomy departments would fill this event by sharing the event within their circles (listservs, consortiums, etc.). It was not originally seen as an event our public would be interested in, and for previous academic talks (the annual Webster Lecture or specific astronomy talks) it sufficed to post the event on the website and fill the rest of the space with invited guests of the community. Due to tight budgets and the precedence our Marketing department diverted funds to promoting other programs on Friday and Saturday. In hindsight, however, this sort of event is perfectly geared towards the two-person groups of 25-34 year-olds our Cygnus data showed the Adler attracted the most. Unfortunately, due to lack of promotion, for an event held on a Friday in July it was a low attendance event for the Adler. Again, a lack of utilizing digital tools and connecting to our community (and truly communicating internally) had caused issues with our programmatic reach.
Saturday’s programming also saw a disconnect. While Dr. Clark King and Mr. Davidson (of our “Voices of Apollo” exhibition) were a highlight of our program, the messaging that was sent out on our social media and website didn’t actually highlight their talk’s time or location. As the talk was in the morning, and in our most underused theater, very few attendees came to hear them speak. Throughout the day we had guests asking when they could hear from these two speakers, and they were continuously let down to hear they had already missed the talk. Whereas, in the afternoon, our “in conversation” between Captain Jim Lovell and Virgin Galactic Astronaut Beth Moses on the future of space travel was sold out. Though we all agreed their conversation was nothing less than “magic”, it was very disheartening to realize we failed to deliver on our mission. We focused our messaging and media attention on a conversation we knew would sell out (and indeed it did within a matter of days), but though we had highlighted attention on a talk that actually anchored our theme for the entire event, by forgetting to simply add a time and place, we made a huge error.
We similarly saw the Apollo 11 “Moon Bash” overall work out to be a successful failure. We had a large group of people attend the Adler for our “Moon Bash”; however, when looked at against 2018 the attendance numbers were incredibly similar to the same weekend in July (which did not feature a large scale event). It is difficult to see a big attendance weekend as a “failure” but also hard to see a large scale event that moves the needle of attendance so little as a “success.”
However, we saw engagement with our community expand during our Apollo 11 anniversary celebrations. As Captain Jim Lovell said, “For Apollo 13, the primary mission was lost, but in a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and courage, the mission morphed into something entirely new and continued. I always compared this like a game of solitaire. You turn up a card and that’s a crisis. If you can put it someplace, the mission keeps going,” (NOVA, 2000).
Whether people were answering our prompts at the Library, at Dusable, onsite, or online, people were engaging with us. Whether people were finding our events onsite, viewing our Google Arts and Culture exhibition, or engaging with our blog and social posts; they were engaging with us. Overall, this emphasis on a diverse and inclusive narrative made our celebration of Apollo 11 stand out among the rest of the world’s celebrations, and was done in a way that once again reaffirmed that our commitment to digital technologies and community partners is the way to go moving forward. Though in some ways we failed to deliver on our mission to highlight the unsung heroes of Apollo 11, we still basked in the success of a well-attended event and the success we found in our digital exhibitions. However, we learned where we went astray, where we failed our mission objective, and are now planning our Apollo 13 event with these lessons firmly in mind.

Apollo 13
As we looked to celebrate Apollo 13’s fiftieth anniversary we took the successes and failures from the “Year of the Moon” in to account. Apollo 13 was always going to be more difficult. This was not a mission resulting in the first glimpse of the Moon, or of someone walking on the Moon for the first time. This was a mission that is famous for almost causing the death of three astronauts. But, it is also a mission that brought back these three astronauts safely due to collaboration and ingenuity. As Captain Jim Lovell said, “For Apollo 13, the primary mission was lost, but in a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and courage, the mission morphed into something entirely new and continued,” (AmericaSpace, 2018). That is a theme everyone can connect to.
While writing this paper, and even during the time we present on April 4, 2020, this event is still being planned. We will not be able to report on the “success” or “failure” of this event as we can do in hindsight of our other events; however, we can report on the ways we are planning this event differently with these learned lessons in mind.
Apollo 13 is being celebrated not in one large event, but throughout a month. Programming for a single day or weekend has turned out to be difficult, and rarely results in the effect on attendance we hope. Instead, we hope this will be an easier haul on our staff time, but will also allow a higher proportion of our guests to engage with various programs throughout the month.
We are kicking off the celebration in mid-March when we will have loaned objects from NASA installed onsite. According to our Cygnus Visitor Survey we found the vast majority of Adler guests (82%) have only visited the Adler once in the last two years. Of those surveyed guests, 24% of Adler’s regular visitors’ and 30% of members’ visits to the planetarium were motivated by seeing/experiencing the Mission Moon exhibit and/or the Gemini 12 capsule. According to a Science Museum of Minnesota visitor survey from 2011, the majority of the science museum visitors (85%) would be more likely to visit the museum more frequently if they knew something was different or had changed (ASTC, 2013). While visitors’ intentions do not necessarily lead to actions, additions to exhibitions may inform visitors’ perceptions of change at the museum and encourage repeat visits and new memberships.
Displaying the loan objects will hopefully increase foot traffic and motivation of Adler guests to visit the 2015 permanent exhibition, Mission Moon, as well as increase publicity opportunities and ongoing promotions of the anniversary celebrations.
During this same time we will be launching a four-week film series at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. We see this partnership as a great community partner opportunity. Like the Adler, the Music Box is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, and as two Chicago staple institutions, it felt organic to host a screening series at the Music Box. We can bring many Adler patrons to the Music Box, but also benefit from a more cinephile audience who may not otherwise engage with the Adler. By featuring a film series of “space films where something goes wrong,” we are able to show that the events of Apollo 13 were inspirational and iconic throughout the American psyche for years to come. It also allows Adler staff to speak to the real science and ingenuity shown (or dramatized) in these films. This allows us to further appeal to community members who may not see Adler as a place for them.
We will also return to an idea we scrapped from our Apollo 11 planning due to its inability to fit the “Voices of Apollo” theme. Launching in April, we are once again partnering on a Google Arts and Culture exhibition. This time we are focusing on a Google StreetView tour of the Adler’s “Mission Moon” exhibition (an exhibition that tells the story of the space race through the life story of Captain Jim Lovell) that will allow guests who cannot come on site to see this moving exhibition. We are also using exclusive interviews with Captain Lovell within this tour so guests can be guided through this exhibit of Captain Lovell’s life while listening to him share his story with them. This will then also be available onsite, to allow guests in the exhibition to hear these soundbites as well.
While this tour did not fit the “Voices of Apollo” theme, it perfectly captures the mood of Apollo 13 and allows guests to hear how the men who lived Apollo 13 remember this iconic event in history. We also have the pleasure to welcome Captain Lovell on site on April 15th, in conversation with astronaut John Grunsefeld, to speak about the importance of communication, collaboration, ingenuity, and imagination as we celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of Apollo 13. We worked with Universal Pictures to feature images and clips from the Apollo 13 film during this talk, so guests can hear from Captain Lovell as they see the clips that likely first come to mind when they hear “Apollo 13”.

In this last eighteen months of programming we have learned that Captain Lovell was also describing museum work when he said, “it’s like a game of solitaire. You turn up a card and that’s a crisis. If you can put it someplace, the mission keeps going.” The Adler has worked to put our cards in place. We have found success in crafting overarching themes and longer-lived campaigns, versus one-off blow-out events. We have found that interdepartmental miscommunications and siloes have put stoppers in our ability to clearly deliver on our institutional mission, but also that collaborative groups have found success in mitigating these issues. Further, we have found that in this new decade, much as the Apollo missions learned, we must rely on digital technologies and community partners to engage our guests where they are if we want to be respected cultural institutions.

Works Cited:

Adler Planetarium. “Adler Mission.” Accessed January 14, 2020. https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/explore/about-us/adler-mission/

Adler Planetarium. “Choose the Moon with Us this Winter!” Accessed January 14, 2020. https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/blog/imagine-the-moon-with-us-this-winter/

Adler Planetarium. “Imagine the Moon.” Accessed January 14, 2020. https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/event/imagine-the-moon/

Adler Planetarium. “Voices of Apollo.” Accessed January 14, 2020. https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/blog/voices-of-apollo/

AmericaSpace. “Sampling the Moon: Remembering the Lost Moonwalks of Apollo 13.” Last Modified April 22, 2018. https://www.americaspace.com/2018/04/22/sampling-the-moon-remembering-the-lost-moonwalks-of-apollo-13-part-2/

Association of Science and Technology Centers. “Should Science Centers and Museums Spend Resources on Hosting Blockbuster Exhibitions? Why or Why Not?” Last Modified January 3, 2013. https://www.astc.org/astc-dimensions/should-science-centers-and-museums-spend-resources-on-hosting-blockbuster-exhibitions-why-or-why-not/

Chicago Now. “How to Celebrate the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in Chicago.” Created July 20, 2019. http://www.chicagonow.com/cosmic-chicago/2019/07/apollo-11-moon-landing-celebration-in-chicago/

Chicago Public Library. “Celebrate the Moon Landing Anniversary with Adler Planetarium.” Created, June 7, 2019. https://www.chipublib.org/news/celebrate-the-moon-landing-anniversary-with-adler-planetarium/

Cygnus Applied Research Inc. “Adler Planetarium Survey of Visitors and Supporters Key Findings Report.” Created December 11, 2018.

Google Arts and Culture. “Imagine the Moon.” Created December, 2018. https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/imagine-the-moon-adler-planetarium/5wKCDN8OEGfTKg?hl=en

Google Arts and Culture. “Voices of Apollo.” Created July, 2019. https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/voices-of-apollo-adler-planetarium/9wJiPVBr8_qJJA?hl=en

NASA. “Apollo 13.” Last Modified July 8, 2009. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo13.html

NASA. “Earthrise.” Last Modified June 25, 2013. https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1249.html

NASA. “Apollo 8.” Last Modified July 8, 2009. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo8.html

NOVA. “Jim Lovell.” Last Modified November 2000. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tothemoon/lovell.html


Cite as:
BrodeFrank, Jessica. "“Houston, We’ve HAD a Problem.” Successful Failures: Lessons from the Adler’s “Year of the Moon” Programming and the Importance of Community Partners and Digital Interactions." MW20: MW 2020. Published January 17, 2020. Consulted .