“Along with our idealism, there was an unquestioning faith in the unprecedented technological expertise of the time, accompanied by a blindness to the extreme dangers inherent in these missions. If you stop to think about it for just a moment, how many of us would feel safe today driving the freeways in a 1970s model car? We’re talking just seatbelts here: no crash reinforcements, no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, no automatic collision aversion systems, etc., etc.”—David Christopher Loya
By David Christopher Loya
BURBANK California—(Weekly Hubris)—August 2017—There was a time when America had achieved genuine greatness—greatness that to this day remains unparalleled in this country in terms of substance and achievement.
It wasn’t born of cheap slogans woven onto truckers’ caps made in China, and hawked by a grifting, meretricious, carnival barker to unconscious masses desperate for meaning, any meaning, while imprisoned in pockets of rural and suburban desperation.
Nor was it a greatness achieved through victory in war. Many may cite the conclusion of World War Two as the apotheosis of American power but, over the course of human history, other nations have claimed the title of the world’s most powerful country. No, though the dynamics of World War Two were in many ways unique, America’s emergence as a dominant power in a major conflict was not.
The greatness I speak of remains to this day unmatched; and it came about in the 1960s and early 70s, during an otherwise particularly tumultuous era in American history. While the nation’s social foundations shuddered from a counter-cultural revolution that both defied and exposed the ugliest realities of America, from deeply institutionalized racism and arrant inequality to the utter bloody waste of the Vietnam War, quite another narrative was being imagined, and embodied, in a grand collective endeavor insulated from all the unrest.
Ours was a tale of two nations, even then: one in turmoil, and the other, oblivious to the din of assassinations, riots, and revolution, moved forward with urgency to manifest an inspired vision. The work of some 400,000 US scientists and engineers would serve to propel humankind into space, into a celestial realm that had beckoned poets, mystics, lyricists, travelers, and dreamers since the first night men and women . . . looked up, into the night sky.
This other American nation coalesced upon a mandate articulated by the late President John F. Kennedy before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, and then again on September 12, 1962 at Rice University. He challenged the best and brightest among us to achieve the impossible—to walk upon the lunar surface. He did this at a time when we had barely achieved low earth orbit in a one-man tin-capsule via the Mercury space program. Just less than two years prior, we could barely figure out how to get a test rocket off a launch tower without providing some of the most spectacular fireworks ever filmed.
But we did figure it out. And by the time John F. Kennedy shared his vision for a second time, Mercury astronauts were almost routinely reaching the vestibule of space and orbiting the earth. Still, there was a catch to Kennedy’s “space decree.” A manned landing on the moon had to be achieved by the end of 1969.
The moon is 240,000 miles away. In contrast, we were orbiting astronauts at only 162 statute miles above the earth: we had a hell of a lot of space to cover, and just a little over six years to cover it.
The original impetus for the US Space Program via NASA was to check the Soviet Union’s space endeavors that had begun with the successful launch of Sputnik (the world’s first orbiting satellite) in October of 1957. In the context of the Cold War era, Sputnik rattled us. And the USSR had had other first-time successes: placing the first man in space, and being first to achieve manned space orbit.
Eventually, however, NASA’s quasi-military motivations were overshadowed by the fact that by the time we had concluded our two-man Gemini space program, US engineering and ingenuity had eclipsed anything the USSR had accomplished.* Our more existential motivations behind reaching the moon embodied a more noble purpose than military hegemony.
And thus, in 1966, we entered the era of the three-man Apollo Space Program. And it was a golden age for US space exploration. It was an era of greatness. Our spirits collectively soared with the Apollo astronauts, as we collectively accompanied them on journeys to the Moon’s surface and back.
We met and beat Kennedy’s deadline when, on June 20, 1969, TV viewers the world over witnessed grainy, black & white images of Neil Armstrong descending to the lunar surface and heard him utter the timeless “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong’s moonwalk comprised the apex of the fifth successful manned mission of the Apollo space program that began with Apollo 7: Apollo 2 through 6 involved unmanned vehicles, and Apollo 1 never left the ground. During a test of launch procedures, its three astronauts were tragically killed in an inferno sparked by a short circuit in a pure-oxygen cabin environment.
The Apollo 1 disaster led to a complete overhaul of the Apollo command module. The sacrifice of its crew demanded a redesign that turned out to be absolutely critical to the success of the future manned Apollo missions; especially Apollo 11, which will always be remembered as the first mission that landed humankind on “land not terrestrial,” in a far place where none had walked before.
When it was Apollo 13’s turn in space, America had experienced six successful Apollo missions; with two that had orbited the moon, and two that had successfully landed astronauts there. Apollo 13 was slated to achieve the third manned landing on the lunar surface.
Surprisingly, by the time Apollo 13 was launched, we had become quite blasé about our manned space program. Nonchalance had set in and there was a sense of “been there, done that” in the land. America had begun taking these truly monumental accomplishments for granted; not for lack of interest in ongoing exploration but, rather, because we were so absolutely confident in our abilities: we truly believed that nothing was out of reach.
In fact, many of us imagined that, by the time we reached the year 2000, we’d have established colonies on the Moon and Mars, and perhaps even made contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Everything seemed possible. Period.
No other movie captures the idealism, and the inherent arrogance, of that era better than Director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.”
Along with our idealism, there was an unquestioning faith in the unprecedented technological expertise of the time, accompanied by a blindness to the extreme dangers inherent in these missions. If you stop to think about it for just a moment, how many of us would feel safe today driving the freeways in a 1970s model car? (We’re talking just seatbelts here: no crash reinforcements, no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, no automatic collision aversion systems, etc., etc.)
Well, now imagine crossing the vastness of space in a capsule designed using technology equally primitive by today’s standards: the equivalent of that airbagless 1970 sedan. An average modern smart phone with 64 gigabytes of memory has literally millions of times more power and memory than all the guidance computers aboard the Apollo command and lunar modules combined.
Looking back now, it was no small miracle that we landed a man on the moon back then. And yet, Americans were among the last to face facts. We had an unwavering confidence and pride in our space program.
If nothing else, though, despite the turmoil enveloping our nation then, we wore like a badge of honor the knowledge that no other nation had achieved what we had. And for such pride, ultimately, a fall is demanded.
The Apollo 1 disaster comprised the first such reckoning. Apollo 13 was to become the second, but with far greater implications.
The astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were: Mission Commander James Lovell (played, in the film version, by Tom Hanks); Command Module pilot Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon); and Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton).
Two days after the launch of Apollo 13, an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the service module, which provided both power and air to the command module—the portion of the Apollo spacecraft that housed the astronauts.
An Apollo moon mission consisted of three primary spacecraft modules—the service, command, and lunar modules. The service module contained the fuel, the last-stage rocket engine, electrical fuel cells, and the main oxygen and water tanks.
The lunar module was designed to separate from the service and command modules. It was the piece of the Apollo spacecraft that ferried two astronauts to the surface of the moon and back. At the end of a successful mission, only the command module remained intact to return to Earth with three astronauts aboard.
With the service module no longer able to sustain life aboard the Apollo spacecraft, the Apollo 13 lunar module, The Aquarius, was jerry-rigged to serve as the first “life raft” in space. After the explosion that resulted in the loss of nearly all fuel cells, any hope of landing on the Moon was abandoned, and Apollo 13′s new mission became simply to return the astronauts safely to Earth, against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The situation was as dire as anyone, on the ground or in the ether, could possibly have imagined. In fact, no one had imagined the kind of emergency the crew of Apollo 13 confronted. Certainly, the astronauts had rehearsed again and again coping with all conceivable potential eventualities, but this kind of show-stopper had been . . . beyond imagining.
Still, no one was ready to give up.
The classic quote by Mission Control Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris in the film version), “Failure is not an option,” has become a self-replicating meme in our culture. Kranz spoke not simply for himself, but gave voice to the indomitable spirit of his era. His strength of character and unblinking leadership also condensed into one being the best of the idealism, courage, and vision that characterized the American space program of the 1960s and early 70s: mid-century American greatness.
Once the press and the world realized that the lives of the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were in grave danger, resting on the thin, sharp edge of what technology could and couldn’t do, the mission dominated newspaper headlines; television and radio news. The hopes and perhaps hubristic dreams of not just the United States, but the entire planet, were now riding along with the three beleaguered star-sailors.
The film clip I include here takes place right after the astronauts have participated in a live television broadcast which, unbeknownst to them, was not aired by any major network, due to their refusal to preempt sponsor-supported programming.
Following this aborted broadcast, Mission Control instructed the Apollo 13 crew to go through a routine set of technical “housekeeping” adjustments, and it was then that they experienced a violent detonation as the oxygen tank blew a near-lethal hole in the service module. For the very first time, an entire nation experienced the real prospect of astronauts’ dying in the midst of cold space; their irretrievable bodies to be forever suspended between Earth and Moon. Like a nation once terrorized by the shadow of Sputnik, we felt ourselves vulnerable again.
The Apollo 13 story arc creates what is among the most inspirational films an audience has ever had the privilege to view. Few motion pictures embody a conscious intent to “accentuate higher humanity” in the manner achieved so thoroughly by Ron Howard in Apollo 13. If you have not seen this movie, you must. Put it high up there on your cinematic bucket list.
Apollo 13 is, yes, a life-affirming experience that makes you both appreciate your place in the universe, as well as contemplate that indefinable, divine drive to lift yourself up above this particular, “found,” world into which you emerged.
But it aims even higher, this film, this story. Despite the all but certainty of failure, of death, sometimes, just sometimes, human beings call up the transcendence to reach out much farther than their grasp; to explore (without seatbelts) an ocean of space, whose tides are alive with the stardust of our collective origins; and come home, safe and sound, to tell the tale.
This feat—the Apollo 13 mission—and this film embodied real American greatness.
*Although we had technically eclipsed the Soviet Union via the accomplishments of the two-man Gemini space program, not everyone was convinced that we had an insurmountable lead in the space race. In late 1968, American intelligence and surveillance revealed that the Soviets were testing a new rocket that if made functional had the power to propel them to the moon. In a panic, decision makers green-lit the Apollo 8 mission to be the first to reach and orbit the moon. Apollo 8 was in many respects the riskiest mission NASA ever undertook. It was estimated that there was only a 1 in 3 chance Apollo 8 could actually traverse a half million miles of space; the farthest any astronaut had traveled up that point was only 800 miles above the earth’s surface. Yet NASA moved forward with the full knowledge that all three Apollo astronauts were likely to perish. Defying those odds, the Apollo 8 crew achieved lunar orbit on Christmas Eve of 1968 and, several days later, returned safely to earth. Apollo 8’s success was in many ways the coup de grâce in the American/Soviet space race. Ironically, the command module pilot of Apollo 8 was none other than Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission.
For the story-in-pictures of Apollo 13, go to https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/jscfeatures/articles/000000363.html.