[April 13, 2020] American novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “courage is grace under pressure.” Having spent many decades in the U.S. Army, I can attest to the truth of Hemingway’s quote. An old, grizzly Marine gunny sergeant once told me that in combat, you had better keep your head or the enemy will. Today, my topic is the Apollo 13 mission; ingenuity, courage, grace, and keeping your head.
For those who follow the unmanned and manned space missions, we know the risks taken by astronauts. Several died in training and on missions. A manned mission to the moon is the ultimate test of human entry into space, and the space race was on between the Soviet Union and America. By the end of 1969, two successful missions to the moon were accomplished, ultimately fulfilling U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”1
Apollo 13 was to be the third mission. However, the mission was aborted when an oxygen tank on the command service module exploded two days into the flight. Mission commander James Lovell reported to mission control on Earth, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” These words could not have been more prophetic. With oxygen running out, electricity, and light about to end, it was up to a few men of NASA to come up with emergency procedures. The incident occurred 50 years ago today, April 13, 1970.
The best way to find out what really makes up a person’s character is to put them under pressure. A live or die situation is the epitome of tests of character. Fortunately for the three astronauts aboard, the NASA crew and their ingenuity helped save the day. How to do this was no easy task. The first question was to return the spacecraft directly back to Earth or allow it to continue to the moon and then return.
Also, the astronauts and mission control faced enormous logistical problems in stabilizing the craft and its air supply. Without functioning oxygen cells, the spacecraft could not return to Earth. Navigation was another problem. Dramatic and untested maneuvers repeatedly corrected Apollo 13’s course.
Fortunately, with the world watching, tragedy turned to triumph as the Apollo 13 astronauts touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Looking back and coming to grips with what happened during that journey, Astronaut, now retired, James Lovell, sees the triumph of ingenuity, courage, grace, and keeping your head.