Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission. For those not up on their ancient history (or did not see the Tom Hanks movie of the same name), the crew were over three quarters of the way to the moon when an oxygen tank suddenly exploded, crippling the spacecraft. The landing was scrubbed, and the support technicians at Houston worked round the clock to get the three men safely back to Earth.
This was dubbed NASA’s “Successful Failure” in the way it attracted worldwide attention. The trips to the moon had become, if not routine, then something people only had a passing interest in. With the lives of the crew suddenly in peril, this one turned into front page news. I can recall in the local paper where the editorial cartoonist had sketched a picture of a large Uncle Sam surrounded by a crowd of smaller people, all of them anxiously looking up into the night sky at the wisp of a vapor trail. Beneath it was the caption, “Suddenly we are united”, a reference to the turbulent America of a half century ago.
Should a similar space accident occur in today’s polarized political climate, the reactions would be far different. Given the way the president and his advisors have mismanaged the covid-19 epidemic, they would probably first deny that anything happened, then claim the crew were not in any danger. (The Apollo 13 astronauts were in fact damn lucky to have made it back; it was touch and go the entire way.) The democrats would be accused of causing the explosion as a way to embarass the president, and after the capsule finally splashed down, Mr. Trump would tout its safe return in hopes of boosting the stock market.
Interestingly, a contageous virus was also part of the Apollo 13 story. Before the launch, the original command module pilot was exposed to German measles, so the backup pilot, a fellow named Jack Swigert, took his place. Jack must have thought he’d gotten a real break — right up to the moment he and the rest of the crew heard a large, unexplained bang.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Swigert later experienced another round of wildly uneven fortune. In 1982, he was elected as a Representative to Congress from Colorado. However, he died of cancer a month before being sworn in. One of the things he said before he passed away has made a lasting impression on me, especially as I contrast all the things I’ve been able to do with how the rest of the world gets by.
“I believe God measures your life.
He puts you on Earth, gives you talents and certain opportunities,
and, I think, you’re going to be called to account for those opportunities.”