A-P-O-L-L-O 13: “Houston, we’ve got a problem!” 50 years later
Fifty years ago this week, the world witnessed a miracle.
The Apollo 13 mission blasted off from Earth on April 11, 1970. The goal of the crew was to reach the moon and return to Earth. The mission had become oddly routine since the Apollo 11 mission reached the moon a few years before. Moon landings had become so ho-hum that networks didn’t even cover a live broadcast interview with astronauts from space.
All that changed on April 13 when a malfunction caused an explosion in one of the two oxygen tanks aboard the craft. Suddenly, far more than any other, the mission was in jeopardy. The lives of the crew — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise — were in peril. The mission quickly shifted from landing on the moon to bringing the crew safely home.
In a stunning demonstration of ingenuity, determination, and teamwork, Mission Control in Houston quickly crafted a plan to repair the spacecraft enough to sustain the lives aboard and slingshot it around the moon and back to Earth.
Here is the 1995 movie poster AND clip courtesy of YouTube from the movie Apollo 13 featuring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton as the 3-man crew, when it ran into an existential threat: https://youtu.be/C3J1AO9z0tA
Against all odds, Lovell, Swigert, and Haise splashed down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970.
It takes moxie to overcome such staggering challenges, and the Apollo 13 team had it. It will take moxie to overcome our current challenges in the face of the current COVID-19 virus, too, and I believe we can draw lessons from Apollo 13.
Moxie keeps perspective.
Everything about the mission seemed unlucky. The number of the mission, for example, was 13. The date of the accident was 13th. And blowing an oxygen tank while hurtling through space seems particularly unlucky.
But that’s not the way Jim Lovell sees it.
“The explosion could not have happened at a better time,” Lovell said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I think we had some divine help in this flight.”
If the explosion had happened earlier, the craft wouldn’t have had the electrical power to make it back to earth. If it had happened during the moon landing, crew members might have been left stranded or killed outright.
That reframing of the narrative from “unlucky” to “lucky” takes moxie.
As I write this, most of the country is practicing “social distancing” and hunkering down at home to avoid spreading COVID-19. It’s been a month so far, with no end in sight. It’s easy to think “I have to stay at home.” How powerful would it be to reframe that thought as “I get to stay at home”?
Moxie refuses to fail.
Flight director Gene Kranz refused to fail-(See our July 2019 Medium.com article on Kranz-entitled A-P-O-L-L-O: Kranz’s Moon Moxie)-https://medium.com/moxietalk-with-kirt-jacobs/a-p-o-l-l-o-kranzs-moon-moxie-3a6a71286e53
He’d tasted bitter failure in 1967 when the Apollo 1 mission ended in disaster and the deaths of three crew members. He drew lessons from the failure which came to be known as the
Kranz Dictum: “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect,” he said to his team in the wake of Apollo 1.
There was no way Mission Control was going to lose another crew.
They pulled together every scrap of equipment and material they knew to be accessible to the crew aboard the craft. They found a way to make a square filter fit a round hole and keep the crew from asphyxiating. And ultimately, they found a way to bring the crew home.
We face a similar situation today. With a critical shortage of Personal Protective Equipment available for front line health care workers, it seems as if everyone everywhere is figuring out a way to help. Grannies in sewing circles and home crafters are churning out cloth facemasks at incredible speeds. Robotics teams and anyone with a 3D printer is making face shields. Auto repair shops and beauty salons and tattoo parlors are donating unused boxes of disposable gloves.
Citizens from all walks of life are simply refusing to let health care workers down. They are stepping in to offer whatever protection and comfort they can.
Moxie remains humble.
The service module was severely damaged by the explosion that took out the oxygen tank. The lunar module, however, was relatively unscathed and had sufficient power to bring the crew home. The only problem was it was designed to hold only two crew members for a short period of time. Now it would hold three men for four days. Temperatures plunged inside the module, and the three astronauts were left shivering miserably.
Yet despite the conditions, the crew did not snipe at each other. They did not rage at Mission Control to get the problem fixed and get them out of there. They trusted the team on the ground and they trusted each other. They fully engaged with proposed solutions and did their part to ensure the safety of the mission.
It takes humility to set aside one’s fear and trust in others to lend their expertise and guidance. It takes humility to set aside one’s own preferences for the sake of the community.
But it’s what we all must do if we are going to get through this coronavirus challenge together!
Apollo 13 mission’s Wikipedia Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_13