Humankind (not just in Houston), We Have A Problem

On April 11, 1970… at 13:13 (military time)… Apollo 13’s three-stage, Saturn-5 rocket successfully blasted off from launch pad 39-A. For any triskaidekaphobics out there, that 39 does crunch out as 3 x 13. All superstitions aside, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were moonward bound and… if all went well… Lovell and Haise would wind up moon walking… exploring and prospecting a lunar region known as the Fra Mauro Highlands. Needless to say, all did not go well.

A scant two days later… on the 13th no less… an oxygen tank explosion severely crippled their spacecraft’s Service Module… that massive destruction creating a life threatening shortage of power, heat, water and breathable air.

In a blink of an eye… in one human heartbeat… saving the lives of these three men had become paramount. The new, revised mission had instantaneously repurposed the Lunar Module… BUT… seeing how it had been designed to only keep two men alive for far fewer days than it would take for all three to safely return to Earth… its role as a lifeboat was limited.

At stake here… even the slightest miscalculation could’ve easily repurposed their linked up, three-piece spacecraft (Command / Service / Lunar Module) one final time… i.e., made it a floating tomb where their suffocated, frozen bodies would be traversing the starlit, inky black cosmic vacuum… throughout eternity.

Fortunately, once everyone’s initial adrenaline surge had eased up a bit, NASA Mission Control’s Gene Kranz, ground crew leader and “steely eyed missile man” (that’s a compliment), began coordinating the rescue efforts. From that moment forth, all concerned Apollo 13 personnel… flight and ground crew alike… began bravely soldiering on.

Crisis after crisis mounted. Contingencies never before dealt with (even in flight simulators) now presented themselves. One critical decision after another had to be made. Scribbled out in pen and pencil painstaking procedures needed to be [1] relayed to the flight crew and [2] executed in the precisely correct order… e.g., a duct-taped CO2 scrubber improvisation and fly by the seat of your pants, computer UN-assisted, engine blazing, mid-course corrections… all with little to no margin of error.

The Kranz Team’s perfectly thought out, (literally) on the fly plans were also providing humanity a fleeting glimpse at our true intellectual potential… how limitless it can be when we set our minds to it. Also impressive… how quick thinking, innovative grown-ups had fully and rapidly realized that egos, finger-pointing / assessing blame and other unproductive posturing had to be checked at the door prior to entering Mission Control.

In the meantime, publicly, Apollo 13’s real life, unfolding in real time, life or death drama was astounding and captivating a goodly portion of Earth’s (then) 3.7 Billion onlooking souls… I among them. This event was also affording us a better sense of our global community… and how three members of our human family were now in such deep trouble that they might never make it back home again.

Might our resultant beamed to the heavens, positive energy surge (the devout would deem this the power of prayer) have also played a role in the Apollo 13 crew’s survival? At the very least, it’d be a good bet that Mission Control’s CAPCOMS had intermingled their tech talk with morale boosting news of the worldwide well-wishers. Yeah, I’d hazard a guess that we did make a difference.

And while we space-age, Earthbound onlookers had all traveled along the wondrous path to unity (at least twice) before… especially during the Apollo 8 and 11 missions (8’s first humans in lunar orbit and 11’s first man on the moon) this time around, the specter of death was lurking off in the closer-than-you-think, distance. And that, indeed, did present an almost palpably unsettling feeling.

Then, during Apollo 13’s last day, the one remaining key question became…

Would the Kranz Team’s accumulation of consistent, spot-on decision making be sufficient to earn them the right to look the Grim Reaper squarely in the eye to proclaim…

NO… NOT TODAY! GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!

Well as it turned out… on this very April 17th, 1970 day, NASA’s efforts had allowed astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise to survive the perilous journey back to Earth… their one final challenge being Swigert successfully piloting the Command Module through Earth’s atmosphere. There was further concern, too, because that days earlier O2 tank explosion could’ve damaged their spacecraft’s heat-shield… to the extent that it might not withstand the fiery reentry…

As we just saw in Director Ron Howard’s 1995 big screen, mostly spot-on dramatization, NASA had transformed what could’ve been the worst disaster in the history of space travel into their finest hour. Apollo 13 made a picture perfect, all three parachutes deployed, right on target, splash down just scant minutes into the noontime hour.

And while this is one chapter in the book of human history with a “they lived happily ever after” ending, one still has to wonder why the same could not be said re the spirit of global unity?

It would appear that, not unlike Apollo 13’s ruptured Service Module oxygen tank, civility… especially now… has been bleeding out from the inky black, intracranial vacuum, which typically afflicts thoughtless people.

Just how does THAT jibe with a society capable of successfully putting a man on the moon when everything goes right… and mounting a triumphant, heroic rescue when everything goes wrong?

The short answer… it doesn’t jibe.

The longer answer… that can be found within the lessons learned from this Apollo 13 mission… and within similar stories. Just to name one? Captain Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson.

BTW, should anyone reading this post wish to contribute some additional, similar historical references… maybe even relate your own personal account(s) re that “can do” human spirit… and how it/they made a difference at a crucial moment… the comment section awaits you.

 

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