American history shows we are capable of ingenuity, devotion and great courage.
By Jim Lovell and Jim Bridenstine
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, Americans can take comfort in our history of facing difficult times with courage and emerging stronger on the other side of struggle. The Apollo 13 mission, launched 50 years ago Saturday, reminds us of Americans’ characteristic resilience and ingenuity.
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was supposed to be the third mission to land men on the moon, after Apollo 11 and 12 the previous year. Thirteen was no less daring than its predecessors, but the launch wasn’t front-page news. By 1970, space travel was no longer a novelty and few Americans tuned in for the launch. At that time, no one could have imagined that the mission would become one of the most harrowing odysseys in American history.
When things went wrong on the Apollo 13 mission, it captured the world’s attention. News of the oxygen-tank explosion and crippled service module jolted the public awake to the drama unfolding 200,000 miles from Earth. Americans were reminded that space exploration is high-risk work demanding exceptional technical competence and bravery.
Fortunately, the flight engineers at Mission Control in Houston and the astronauts hurtling toward the moon understood the complex dangers space holds. The rescue mission wasn’t solely the product of improvisation, but of an innovative and cooperative workforce ready to take on any challenge.
For four vexing days, the Apollo 13 flight crew endured bitter conditions. The astronauts powered down all nonessential systems, which caused cabin temperatures to drop near freezing. Some food became inedible. Drinking water was rationed to ensure the cramped lunar module would operate longer than planned. The ground crew worked for 87 hours straight to come up with possible solutions. At one point, the crew flew through space with only the sun as a guide, a reminder of the original meaning of “astronaut,” which is derived from the Greek for “star” and “sailor.”
Benefiting from extensive planning and rigorous training and testing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration overcame the obstacles of insufficient oxygen, water and power. Apollo 13 splashed down in the South Pacific, its lunar module ingeniously repurposed as a lifeboat. No one familiar with the perils of the mission can look at duct tape, plastic bags and cardboard the same ever again.
On this golden anniversary of NASA’s most successful failure, the nation honors the physical and intellectual courage of the astronauts, as well as the diligence and ingenuity of the ground crew that kept Americans alive aboard a crippled spacecraft hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Apollo 13 revealed more than technical talent. It reminded the world of America’s frontier spirit. In the face of seemingly impossible odds, Americans didn’t let fear paralyze us. Instead we joined together, working calmly and efficiently to find a solution.
America has an ambitious future in space exploration. NASA’s Artemis program is working to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, which in turn will help prepare for humanity’s next giant leap to Mars. Artemis will require state-of-the-art technology and push the boundaries of human knowledge like never before. It will also demand the same courage, ingenuity and devotion Americans showed in Apollo 13. We, as a nation, must continue to do hard things. That’s how we soar into the heavens and progress as a civilization.