A Space Nerd Gets His Geek On or What Apollo 13 Taught Me About This Corona Crisis

The current coronavirus crisis is a reminder of another one that happened nearly 50 years ago with humans isolated and in need of rescuing.

BY KEN KALE

At the risk of boring those of you who know this already, Apollo 13* was NASA’s third attempt to land on the Moon. There was an explosion on the spacecraft and so the landing was not possible and it was an amazing feat just to get Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise home in one piece.  

A few months ago I was looking forward to viewing the 50 year anniversary celebrations of the “successful failure” when NASA employees worked tirelessly to save those three astronauts, who faced imminent danger, and get them home safely**. How things change! I don’t think those commemorative events, if they are being held at all, will even cause a blip in the news headlines now, nearly 50 years later, and yet I still can’t help but think of the parallels between that crisis and this one. 

1. Course corrections

The spacecraft needed to make adjustments to its trajectory as it returned towards the Earth, to make sure that it would splashdown safely. A few engine burns were needed just as now we have had to change course to bring in various higher stages of controls to keep us safer. 

2. Isolation

The astronauts knew that they were going to be isolated in space. Obviously, unless they landed on the Moon, they were not expected to open the hatch door and go for a walk! With tasks to perform and updates to make they kept their boredom at bay and kept life interesting and productive. However, that sense of isolation grew deeper and darker after the explosion occurred and extended their mission. Pre-corona crisis we may have had times when we felt isolated, but it’s a lot more so now. 

3. Back to Basics

The astronauts were forced to shut down their highly sophisticated, for the time, but laughable now, systems and relied on a sextant and mechanical watches – no Apple watches in those days! – to guide them home and perform those critical course-correcting engine burns. Are you discovering the lost art of a family conversation or have you dusted off a board game or two? By the way, NASA awarded Omega, the manufacturer of that watch, the Speedmaster, their Snoopy award***. And further by the way, watches, and that watch in particular, is something else that I love to geek out on.

4. Trust

Jim, Jack and Fred trusted the engineers (yes, go engineers!) and support staff on the ground to come up with solutions for all the problems they experienced and there were many, one after the other. The initial explosion, determining the best way to get them home – immediate U-turn or slingshot around the Moon – and how to give them breathable air in the Lunar Module that was never designed to carry three persons for as long as it did. Most of us have placed our trust in the epidemiologists who have determined the best level(s) of control and have, or will be trusting healthcare staff to keep our loved ones safe. 

5. Dedication

The Apollo 13 crew dedicated their lives, at least an important part of them, to serve NASA and their country. They dedicated their survival and safe return to the thousands of engineers (yes, go engineers!) and support staff who worked hard to get them home. We have seen, at least many of us have, UK crowds clap in unison for their NHS and other healthcare staff who have been and will be saving lives in the weeks to come. 

6. Skepticism

I enjoy watching the scene in the Apollo 13 movie, and if you haven’t seen it I thoroughly recommend that you do, or if you have seen it watch it again, when they remove their healthcare monitors because Jim, especially, is tired of the whole world knowing about his bodily functions. We will have skepticism now and that’s fine as we are intelligent beings living in a country where we can question and criticise, but for the most part they followed orders and procedures even when they were new and unusual and we seem to be doing the same now – not just one person, not just one country – millions of us across many nations.

Jim, Jack and Fred understood that they were going to be far from the Earth and isolated, but they never knew just how isolated, just how dependent they would be on others to save their lives. They called the Lunar Module their “lifeboat”. We are all in the same “lifeboat” now, if you will excuse the pun. 

Those astronauts returned and so shall we. 

Further reading:

* To follow the Apollo 13 mission “live” from 50 years ago follow Apollo 50th @apollo_50th on Twitter. 

**To geek out more – read 13 Things that Saved Apollo 13 and 13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13. Google now!

***To see the commemorative Omega Speedmaster “Snoopy” video go to: https://youtu.be/I-_ARlGJ0t0 and learn more about the original and why it’s the best watch in the world or out of this world see: https://youtu.be/e002RfWn6mE.