There was a long period in my life when I wanted to be an astronaut. My grandfather worked on the Gemini Program, and I could imagine nothing cooler than the only true exploration left to us. However, then I discovered NASA has a height restriction and demands some kind of adequate math and science skills (not my strongest areas). But I have remained a space geek and historian of NASA’s efforts to explore the cosmos.
Apollo 13 was my favorite non-Star Wars movie for a long, long time (still in the top 5). It, and the amazing HBO mini From the Earth to the Moon, chronicle the amazing efforts of NASA in the 1950’s to 1970’s to pioneer manned spaceflight. We’ve lost the Challenger. We’ve lost the Columbia. Before that, though, it was all but certain that we were going to lose Apollo 13. It’s a story of a group of brilliant people tackling an impossible problem and finding a solution against every possible obstacle. It’s a triumph of the human spirit and not at all a failed mission. Getting Apollo 13 home was every bit as an accomplishment as landing on the moon.
It all starts with the problem that has become an iconic cinema catchphrase, “Houston, we have a problem.” Shortly after a national broadcast, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert were doing routine maintenance; part of which was to stir the oxygen tanks. What happens next, both in the spacecraft and in the control room under the direction of Gene Kranz is gripping film, but if you listen to the mission tapes, the calm problem solving determination the film shows is even more matter-of-fact in real life. These men were explorers, pilots, and geniuses of the highest order.
We live in tough economic times. That’s the understatement of the century. NASA has seen its funding cut and cut to the point where they can’t send safe spacecraft up any more. If you want to go into space, you’re going to have to take your chances in a Soyuz Russian “shuttle” and have fun with that. Why explore? Why pour money into, say, building a moon base or going to mars? Because it’s what we do. We saw a hill and we climbed it. We saw mountains and we scaled them. We saw vast expanses of water and sailed into the unknown. Humanity was meant to explore. And from a purely economic standpoint, setting a goal that cannot currently be achieved by the technological means available forces innovation. The calculator, the microwave and-to a large extent-the PC all came about because of technology developed for space travel. We’re all so downtrodden now. It’s a horrible time. We need a dream. Not “hope for change”, but a real goal. Cure cancer in ten years. Eliminate fossil fuel emitting vehicles by 2025. Go to Mars. We’re crafted to do great things and we’re stagnating as a species. This is my favorite scene from a movie that shows a generation that had no limits on their imagination.