In retrospect, NASA probably should have skipped from 12 to 14 like many hotel elevators do.
For a while, it seemed like everything that could go wrong on Apollo 13 did: an explosion during a routine “stirring” of the oxygen tanks of the Apollo Service Module (SM) left a gaping hole in its side, leading to a cascade of life-threatening and complex conundrums no one had ever conceived of, much less planned or simulated for.
Hopes of landing on the moon vanished. The new mission was to somehow, in the words of a common military slogan, “improvise, adapt, and overcome,” and bring Astronauts Jim Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise home.
The cool heads of the flight crew, their fellow astronauts, Mission Control (MC) staff, and perhaps most importantly their leader, Flight Director Gene Krantz, combined to form a hive mind which buzzed with creativity, focus, and synergy. A small army of NASA engineers and contractors, wearing short-sleeve white shirts, skinny black ties, and wielding pencils and slide rules like weapons of war, crafted solutions seemingly from thin air, each more improbable than the last. Together they reached the boundaries of their knowledge and training and blew past them to perform feats of derring-do that defied the gravity of human limitations.
One jerry-rigged jewel stood out: a life-saving carbon dioxide (CO2) scrubber, fashioned only from materials available to the astronauts onboard, including, naturally, duct tape and cardboard. The device, dubbed “the mailbox,” enabled the different-shaped CO2 filters from the CM and LM to work in tandem, essentially fitting the proverbial “square peg fit in a round hole.”
I was in second grade when the events of Apollo 13 occurred in April 1970 and barely remember it. Still, when the full import of the COVID-19 pandemic hit me on the evening of March 15, I thought of Apollo 13 and how we could apply the same lessons of courage, creativity, resiliency and perseverance in humanity’s latest “darkest hour.”
There is one vital difference between the pair of dire straits. Apollo 13 was blindsided by a random stroke of bad luck fueled by a small design flaw that had been overlooked. We, on the other hand, knew what was coming because we could see our peril approaching from thousands of miles away.
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