“Houston, We had a Problem Here”
Two and a half days into the third mission to land astronauts onto the surface of the moon, the crew of Apollo 13 experienced what could arguably be the defining moment in the heroic events of space exploration.
The event became classified as a “successful failure,” that strengthened the image of a technologically advanced United States, which could handle great events and overcome great adversity.
Astronauts are considered the epitome of a life devoted to learning, exploration, and adventure. An astronaut embodies our noble aspirations to be better than we are and to search for meaning in great deeds and selfless acts. And the astronaut was the face of the space effort, but the individuals supporting the space program run wide and deep. Even the casual viewer, taking part in the viewing of the event feels a part by seeing themselves, even peripherally, as supporting something so much bigger then themselves.
Spaceflight is a momentous event sandwiched between a controlled explosion and a fiery re-entry. The image is doing the impossible through the accomplishment of a seemingly infinite series of smaller tasks. This is not a lost art or a technique unique to aerospace. In fact it is not a practice founded solely in science.
Through the act of thinking beyond one-self, through thinking that one’s own efforts can allow someone else to reach beyond their own reach, through becoming the instrument that enables others around you, … that is the full connotation of success.
Only few become astronauts, but I argue that it is equally the breadth of effort to make this a better place for others that truly defines what is good. The path to success does not always allow us to reach the moon. We wish to achieve material wealth, to acquire items, to live well, but truly some very simple acts are all that is truly required. Our days are filled with an infinite series of small tasks that get us through our day. And it is through these acts, by becoming self-less, by thinking beyond oneself, by allowing those around us to reach a little farther … that is truly humanity at its best.
The world needs astronauts.
But more so, the world needs those who think beyond themselves and who, for some time during their day, seek their own means of being there for those around.
More on the Apollo Program
Apollo 1 was a sad tragedy. The launch rehearsal changed the course of NASA when on January 27th, 1967 a flash fire swept through the command module. Within minutes of the fire the hatch was opened with the sad realization that all three had died of toxic gas inhalation. From the book Calculated Risk, it appears that Gus Grissom had worked to depressurize the cabin and broke two of the valves in his unsuccessful try to deprive the fire of oxygen. The astronauts worked, but unsuccessfully to open the hatch and affect their escape.
It is sad but telling that amid lethal conditions the astronauts bent to their training and died being the professionals and heroes that astronauts are.
The Accident Review Board determined the cause of the fire was an electrical arc in a wire harness in an equipment bay. The crew cabin was filled with pure oxygen that was a design option that saved weight by not producing a more complex system to mix oxygen and nitrogen. The wire bundles were wrapped by machine and had potential for fraying and shorting.
On the day of the launch rehearsal the communication was intermittent to which Gus Grissom responded, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”. That was 60 seconds before the 1000 degree fire burned through the command module.
- Moments after a significant electrical short was recorded.
- Moments after an astronaut message was garbled as “Hey”, “Break” or “Fire”.
- And then “I’m reporting a bad fire …. I’m getting out …” and a final scream.
The tragedy led to an extensive redesign and a focus on further redundancy and astronaut safety. In the words of Gene Krantz, an Apollo Flight Director, “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, ‘Competent’ means we will never take anything for granted.”
And from tragedy we build. In the words of Lead Flight Director Chris Kraft, “Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon, … And I know damned well we wouldn’t have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.”
The best in mankind comes from the recovery from tragedy.