In April of 1970, a team of engineers, astronauts, and support personnel put the finishing touches on the Apollo XIII mission. Their aim was to be the third crew to land on the moon, but the lunar landing was aborted when, two days into the mission, an oxygen tank failed due to the ignition of damaged wire insulation. In the four days that followed that explosion, the crew worked with mission control to confront challenge after challenge in order to get the crew safely home.
If you saw the 1995 movie by Ron Howard, you saw the drama of each challenge the team faced. There was a shortage of water and food, a health emergency for one of the crew, a build-up of dangerous carbon dioxide that could impair or even kill the astronauts. There was a debate on the ground about how best to bring the guys home: turn the spaceship around or use the moon’s gravity to loop them around and effectively ‘slingshot’ the spacecraft back to Earth. Inherent in either plan were still more layers of challenge: the need to conserve electricity in the fuel cells for use on re-entry, figuring a precise angle and trajectory to bring the spacecraft out of the moon’s orbit and toward earth, using bursts of a propulsion system to move the craft into a very specific path. The goal had shifted from exploration to survival, and the odds were stacked against them.
While the crew bravely faced challenges in the darkness of space, engineers on the ground worked equations, ran simulations, and fitted together gear to give support and information to the three-man crew above. And it worked, all except the time in which they were out of communication with each other, when the spaceship made its way around the dark side of the moon.
In Howard’s movie, this time is represented well by quiet, haunting music. Mission commander Jim Lovell’s wife is seen slumped in a chair as her NASA radio plays only static. The astronauts’ families, the nation, and the world wait for word on this mission-gone-wrong, tied to their television screens as the force of their hope unites them together. The astronauts come to grips with the knowledge that their dreams are lost. Though they don’t know it yet, none of the men will ever walk on the moon, and their mission and gaze instead turn toward home.
Have you ever launched anything you cared about deeply? I have. I’ve launched two children, three book proposals, one early childhood music business, several article queries, and a hatful of hopes, dreams, and plans. I’ve packed them with everything I could think to pack, everything they might possibly rely on later on their trajectories. And I’ve been in contact, too, with the kids of course, but also with my projects and dreams as they move along to agents, publishers, and schools, but still there’s that part in the process when there’s only silence. When it’s only my hope that unites me to the things, projects, and people I’ve launched. It’s a quiet, lonely time when all you can do is look up.
In the case of Apollo XIII, the crew relied on what they’d been given, on their own ingenuity, and on an outside force they could neither see, produce, nor control: gravity. Every member of the mission, whether on board the craft or on the ground, were counting on gravity to make their untenable situation work. Gravity would keep them on track and gravity would propel the guys home.
As I consider the things, people, and dreams I’ve launched, I find myself relying on an unseen force to keep everything on track, as if there is such a thing. After all, things happen beyond our control. Plans change, missions are reworked, and priorities are clarified. We make adjustments and shift our goals, but we on the ground keep looking up, sending our quiet, persistent hopes heavenward. We add that hope to the much bigger force out there making it all work in a way we can’t quite understand. And though the sound of static in our ears can be deafening, it’s also true that each thing we launch is making its own way on its own power, even out of our view.
Apollo XIII was a monumental, inspiring display of teamwork, ingenuity, resilience, and endurance, with a reach far beyond the original scope of the mission. The mishap and its resulting complications required a NASA team to solve impossible problems under intense pressure. It caused the country to unite and look up and pray and hope and wonder together as one. It called forth better natures and changed the lives of the three men aboard forever. It’s remarkable, really, the force of it all, the exertion of hope from below and gravity from above. Unseen, unpredictable and miraculous, even and especially in the time of silence and wondering. As Jim Lovell said, “you never know what events are going to transpire to get you home.”
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