Saturday, April 17, 2010

When Failure Was Not an Option

It struck me as ironic — perhaps that was by design? — that Barack Obama came to the Kennedy Space Center this week to defend the changes he has proposed for the space program.

I say that, not because of the Tea Party's now annual April 15 protests or the increasingly strident criticism that comes Obama's way from the Republicans, but because this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 space mission.

In fact, today is the anniversary of the Apollo 13 crew's return to earth, so Obama made his remarks during the 40th anniversary of that ill–fated mission.

Jeffrey Kluger, a writer for TIME magazine who co–authored "Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13" with Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, reflected in TIME recently that the mission was a miracle that was "due to the extraordinary technological and navigational improvisations the people on the ground and in the spacecraft dreamed up along the way." But he also gave considerable credit to Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz and their "surreal cool."

As well he should.

Essentially, Lovell and Kranz were products of a special mindset that has always existed at NASA. Some folks would call it a "can–do" spirit. In a memorable scene from Ron Howard's movie about the mission in 1995, Kranz (played by Ed Harris) summarized it for the ground crew during the crisis — "failure is not an option" — although it is my understanding that Kranz never said that.

Maybe that's an example of the differences in word usage from one generation to the next. In 1970, an option was something extra you had installed in your car. "Option" simply wasn't used in that "failure is not an option" context in those days. But it was used in that context when the script writers were doing their interviews in preparation for the 1995 film.

Dramatic dialogue, yes, but it also pretty efficiently describes the problem that NASA faced in April 1970.

It may be hard for many modern people, conditioned by the convenience of the internet and cell phones and global positioning systems, to imagine how challenging Apollo 13 was. The folks on the ground had to figure out how to bring the crew back to earth when an oxygen tank exploded — I guess it was more or less understood immediately that, once that tank blew up, the original mission was out of the question.

After the crew returned safely to earth 40 years ago today, it was frequently called a "successful failure" as people learned how remarkable the accomplishment had been, even though the original mission had to be scrapped.

President Nixon didn't seem to be nearly as jubilant posing with a crew that never made it to the moon as he did the year before when he was only too happy to bask in the glow that came from Apollo 11. I always thought Nixon regarded the Apollo 13 crew as losers. Well, it was an election year. Perhaps he felt he had been deprived of a victorious photo for campaign pamphlets.

I was pretty young at the time. I remember the incident and being as stunned as everyone else to discover that something actually could go wrong on these space missions, which often seemed to be routine. But I don't think I understood the issues that had to be dealt with.

And I don't think many outside NASA's ground crew and the three men in space knew how perilously close the crew came to losing their lives.

To preserve power, the crew had to power down. Back on earth, the ground crew had to design and then describe "the mailbox" that would remove carbon dioxide. It had to be built from materials that were on board the space ship — it wasn't just laying around the capsule.

Modern folks, immersed as they are in 21st–century technology, may wonder why an image wasn't transmitted to Apollo 13. But there was no e–mail in 1970. I don't know if fax machines existed, but, if they did, no one had figured out how to send a fax from earth to outer space.

In fact, the computer you use at work or at home is far more powerful than the computers NASA was using 40 years ago. In hindsight, the space program was nowhere near as advanced as most Americans believed it was — but it did represent the best that was available at the time.

It wasn't primitive, but if it sounds primitive, that is only in comparison to what we have now. But let's not lose our perspective. Modern technology was made possible to a great extent by the research that was done by America's space program in the 1960s and 1970s. Even Apollo 13 made its contributions to scientific knowledge.

So, when Obama insists that the federal government will continue to support NASA financially as it has done over the years, I hope he is telling the truth.

I hope he will always remember the United States consistently and adequately supported NASA, even at those times when its work could not be linked to any tangible benefits.

And let's all remember a couple of truisms that emerged from NASA's moon program:

First, discoveries don't follow preset timetables. They happen when they happen.

Second, when the new technologies of tomorrow emerge from the research that is being done today, let's take steps to use it to benefit our economy. Let's encourage companies to keep the jobs that will be created by new industries we can't even imagine here instead of outsourcing them to other lands.

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