Reflecting on Apollo 13

Posted on Fri, April 17, 2020

This week 50 years ago, the crew of Apollo 13 was engaged in an epic struggle to return safely to earth. Though we all know the ending to that remarkable story, we are still held spellbound hearing it recounted as in this week’s Facebook Live discussion between Museum curator Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony and Apollo 13 commander Captain Jim Lovell. 

Like many of you, I took some time this week to go back and listen to the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History from 2010 that convened on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, featuring a panel discussion moderated by the Museum’s Dr. Margaret Weitekamp that included the original Apollo 13 prime crew, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Ken Mattingly, and flight director Gene Kranz.

I’m thankful for that recording, and others like it, that permit us to go back and listen again and again to the trials and tribulations of the dramatic mission, as it is a story that never tires. But this year, I was struck especially by a few comments that Mattingly shared toward the end of the evening. Dr. Weitekamp asked him what he thought was the lesson from Apollo 13. His answer is particularly poignant today as we work our way through the current crisis. The take-away for Mattingly was to “never get in the way of success.” He noted that each of the elements needed to ensure the spacecraft’s successful return—electricity, propulsion, oxygen—were in notable short supply and when assessed individually, would “not be enough to make it back to Earth.”  What made up for these shortcomings was the unyielding commitment and expertise of the crew, Mission Control, and all others supporting the flight, who collectively insisted on achieving success at every step. They made sound decisions that wouldn’t get in the way of the crew’s safe return. 

And therein lies an important lesson I see for all of us, at the National Air and Space Museum and beyond, as we contend with the COVID pandemic. Just like other challenges we have faced and those we will face in the future, we know that the COVID crisis will one day be behind us, but between now and then the trek is long and daunting. Like the Apollo 13 crew, we will improvise, be creative, problem solve on the fly, and have faith and trust in those working alongside us. We talk a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who made the Apollo program possible – the same is true here. I am buoyed by the number of people I have seen come together to support one another during this time, and that is how we will get through this — as a community, together, but apart. Be safe and be well.  

Chris Browne is the Deputy Director of the National Air and Space Museum.

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