Fifty years ago today, on April 13, 1970, Apollo 13’s oxygen tank ruptured while it was on its way to the moon. Astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise would have been the fifth and sixth humans to walk on the moon. Instead, a catastrophe occurred.
All the Apollo missions were formative events for me in my childhood, from the disastrous landing-pad fire that destroyed Apollo 1 to the night of July 20,1969, when my brother and I ran in and out of the house watching Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon on our little black-and-white TV, and looking up at the moon in the sky, and beyond, all the way to the last Apollo mission in December of 1972 when Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the last humans–so far!–to walk on the moon. The moon landings represented the potential of scientific and technical achievement for peaceful ends. They were a powerful vision of hope for me, growing up, as I did, with the announcement of the “body count” in the war in Viet Nam on TV every night, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and so many others, I thought that the world was made up of violence and death. But then there was space.
Apollo 13 has been dramatized for younger generations through the Tom Hanks movie, but I watched it play out in real time. Two days after launch, the catastrophe happened. I remember watching Walter Cronkite explaining the steps that were being taken to return the astronauts to earth. I felt like I was holding my breath until, on April 17, all the jury-rigged CO2 scrubbers and hand-calculated trajectory changes resulted in a successful splashdown.
Ironically, the anniversary celebrations for this mission have been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. And here’s what I want to say: the Apollo 13 mission suffered a catastrophe, but it was not a disaster. It’s widely regarded as a “successful failure,” because it showed what could be done to recover from a catastrophe. There’s no question that the pandemic is a catastrophe. What happens next depends on all of us. We need to believe the science. Believing the science is what put the Apollo missions into space, and it’s what brought Apollo 13 back to earth. And we all have to be heroic–even if heroism requires inaction, rather than action. Staying home, refusing to participate in the spread of the virus–that’s a far cry from our usual conceptions of heroism, which usually involve a lot of action. When I was thirteen, and dreaming about going to space myself, I could not have pictured a future in which a virus shut down the world, and the best and most important thing I could do is just stay in my house. But here we are. We have to believe the science, we have to follow stay home orders and physical distancing advice. We have to wait. Wait for the science to do its work, to develop a better understanding of this virus.
Jim Lovell and Fred Haise are still alive, ages 92 and 86, respectively. I would like the both to live to be at least 113. For that to happen, we have to fight this pandemic with the only weapons available to most of us right now–patience and compassion.