Space: The Final Frontier. We’ve dreamed about it throughout history, and in the last Century we began to creep tantalizingly close to the Moon and the planets. Almost fifty years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth aboard Vostok 1. Less than ten years later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And yet the journey has not been an easy one. The first three Apollo astronauts – Grissom, Chaffee, and White – died in a training accident before the first Apollo took flight. Fourteen astronauts and scientists perished in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Transcripts of our spaceflights reveal multiple problems and system failures on every launch.
The real story of the space program is a tale of creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance. When people were ready to give up, a few leaders and believers pushed the rest to keep going. Working as a team, they focused on the problems that could be solved instead of searching for blame for the mistakes that had already occurred. There is no better example than what happened on Apollo 13.
Apollo 13: Crisis in Space
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, Sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”
– Dialogue from the Apollo 13 film
On April 11, 1970, forty years ago, the Apollo 13 mission set out with three men to study the moon’s surface. The mission motto, “Ex Luna Scientia” – Out of the moon, knowledge – explained why we needed to return to the moon even though a few astronauts had already walked upon its surface.
What began as “routine” – the third expedition to land men on the moon – turned into a harrowing adventure.
First the ship’s main inline engine developed problems that caused it to shut down earlier than planned. The astronauts corrected for this by using the auxiliary outboard engines and the mission continued.
The second problem was far more serious. Faulty insulation and other factors caused one of the two oxygen tanks to catch fire and rupture. The remaining oxygen tank failed. The electrical fuel cells shut down. And then, an explosion blew out part of the ship’s hull.
A spaceship 200,000 miles from the Earth had lost most of its oxygen supply and electrical power. There seemed to be little chance of any of the Apollo 13 crew surviving.
What CAN We Do?
“I don’t care about what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.” – Gene Kranz, Apollo 13 (the film)
The Apollo 13 crew used the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” during the four-day return to Earth. But it was not intended to be used in space, and many of the supplies – including essential air filters – were inaccessible. The Command Module had air filters, but they did not fit the sockets on the LM.
It was a classic “square peg in a round hole” problem, and the usual answer is, “You can’t make a square peg fit in a round hole.” The engineers solved the problem by thinking outside the box. They had the astronauts connect the filter with a spacesuit air return hose, one of the few “spare parts” on board.
Not enough power? Ground control ordered the crew to shut off all non-essential circuits including most of the instruments. From that point on, they were flying blind. Could the ship even survive contact with the Earth’s atmosphere with its damaged hull? The odds still looked bad.
But long odds have a way of confounding the bookmakers. Faced with multiple challenges, each seemingly insurmountable, the engineers on the ground team and the astronauts solved each one in turn, and Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth.
My take on the Apollo 13 “disaster” is this: People faced a crisis and overcame it. They – and by extension all of us – beat seemingly impossible odds to win. Apollo 13 never made it to the Moon, but it made it back to Earth and all three astronauts survived.
“There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.” – Ronald Reagan
The space program has been expensive, but its value is incalculable. We have an International Space Station, an orbiting telescope, and men have set foot on the moon. The world would not be what it is today without the technologies and spirit of innovation that began with our need to go beyond the surface of the Earth and visit strange new worlds.
What limits have you set on your own life? Are you “playing it safe” – afraid that striving for more will be too risky? Are you waiting for a miracle to turn your life around?
There are no miracles, but there are people who regularly do what others consider impossible. They use their creativity, their inner strength, and a lot of hard work to turn the impossible into “merely very difficult.” Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth, and four more Apollo missions successfully landed men on the moon. There are no limits to creativity or to where we can go with it. There are no limits to where you can go when you believe, commit, and create.
(The 1995 film, “Apollo 13”, starring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell retells the story of heroism, adventure, leadership, and teamwork on the Apollo 13 spaceflight. It is well worth watching or seeing again.)