Discover more from Culture & curiosity
#31 Apollo 13
The first thing I wanted to become in life was a cosmonaut. This is in the 80s. I had a map of the world above my bed on which the USSR loomed large. Hundreds of kilometers above that map, Mir circled the earth. Cosmonauts have always appeared more steampunk to me than their US counterparts. Briefly, I became a huge admirer of Sergei Korolev, the Soviet’s Glavny Konstruktor and unsung hero of their initial Space Race successes.
All that changed when I read Jim Lovell’s 1994 book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. I can still remember the story almost entirely. His career as a US Navy pilot. His initial disappointment at being assigned to ‘electronics tests’ as a test pilot – the least sexy of all test pilot careers. And, of course, his NASA career. Lovell flew Gemini 7, 12, Apollo 8 (likely the most daring space flight ever), was on the back-up crew for Apollo 11, and finally got his chance to walk on the Moon with Apollo 13.
I listened to BBC’s 13 Minutes to the Moon second season this week. Season one was exceptional. The host Kevin Fong uses original sound recordings from mission control and interviews with flight controllers, engineers, and other key people to tell the story of Apollo 11’s Lunar Module descent to the Moon. Bit by bit, every sound and every decision is explained so that by the time you hear the full 13-minute transmission, it actually makes sense. As somebody who has never entirely accepted that he will not be a cosmonaut, it is the closest I’ve felt to space travel.
Season two is slightly different because its story is much longer and better known: the disaster and recovery of Apollo 13. Unlike the movie with its faux drama and unfair portrayal of Jack Swigert (and Tom Hanks, who I can’t stand), 13 Minutes to the Moon stays true to what actually happened and doesn’t shy away from the hardcore engineering that kept the astronauts alive.
Without a doubt, the heroes of Apollo 13 are the hundreds of people working in Mission Control, led by Gene Kranz. They are the surprisingly young, well-trained professionals that made the decisions that kept Lovell and his crew alive. As host Kevin Fong points out, their behavior is a template for all conduct in times of crisis.
Given our current and future state of crisis, what made Apollo 13 snap success from the jaws of defeat? The best summary is given in episode 4. First of all, for none of the people involved, failure was a valid option. “That is not the thinking that gets the job done.” (The phrase “failure is not an option,” which proved so popular in the movie, is a script writer’s invention. In truth, even considering failure, let alone mentioning it, was not an option.)
Another aspect of the team’s success was that everyone made all decisions with 100% certainty and never second-guessed. This was possible because NASA, at the time, allowed experts on the floor to actually make all decisions, which higher-ups then accepted at face value. At one point, Tom Paine, head of the agency at that moment, famously asks the team, “What can we do to help you?”
John Aaron, who is interviewed at length in a bonus episode, epitomizes Apollo 13’s ground control team’s attitude and success. The accident in Apollo 13’s service module seriously limits the amount of energy and other resources available to the crew. Therefore, in the early hours after the accident, they use some battery power of the command module before they shut it down entirely. As the command module needs all its power for successful reentry, restarting the command module within the limited budget available is a careful puzzle. In the movie, this puzzle is solved by Ken Mattingly, the crew member who was replaced last minute by Jack Swigert. In reality, this job was John Aaron’s.
There is a persistent urban legend that the Apollo spacecraft had less computing power than an average smartphone. As a lot of the computing power was hardcoded into the various modules' structure, this comparison is impossible. Your iPhone may be better at text editing and video conferences, but it can never land on the Moon. With the batteries, a comparison is possible. Aaron needs to reboot the command module – computer, lights, positioning systems, parachutes, … – with about 100 amp-hours. Nonetheless, he says,
“We weren’t heroes. We were just ordinary people, with a basic understanding of little bit of physics, a little bit of mathematics, a little bit of science. And that’s all we had.”
After the safe return of Apollo 13, NASA was back to the Moon in 9 months. They flew 4 more missions, all of them successful. According to Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 was the best thing that could have happened to NASA. It added suspense to the program that was waning after its initial successes.
When Apollo 13 took off, the public saw it as a routine flight to the Moon. They couldn’t care less. The crew and ground control team didn’t see it as routine. Their preparedness as experts – John Aaron –, leaders – Gene Kranz –, and stars – Jim Lovell – avoided disaster and made for one of the best space stories ever.
Last week, Dutch cultural organizations dreamed about the future with a poetic statement. 400 institutions made a promise of packed houses. They promise surprise and imagination. They promise an industry that will flourish like never before. When I first heard the promise, I almost drove my car into the canal with enthusiasm.
An hour later, with the melody of Simeon ten Holt still in my head, the question arises: what exactly is promised here? The Corona crisis is one year old, the world and society have changed irrevocably, the next crises emerge. What is the promise of the cultural sector for this new world?
And, to reflect on the above, are they prepared for what’s next?
One promise in the statement is, for example, “This is where the art will soon be made that will help us through the next crisis.” That sounds wonderful. Was the Corona crisis not good enough to take a real role?
I think this has to do with preparedness. A lot of us were unprepared for Corona. Maybe it was impossible to prepare for a pandemic at this scale. If we want to be better next time, every day needs to be spent preparing and practicing. Especially because while the Corona crisis will be over one day, the same cannot be said for the climate crisis or global inequality. We cannot wait them out. We need to act.
Another promise is for inclusiveness. “It is precisely the art, which was given so little space in the theaters, that has given space outside the theaters. In houses, in heads, in hearts.” While not a commitment, this statement raises an expectation that such bottom-up community art will be given a stage after the crisis. Once again, this demands the sector to prepare for that situation. Invest in community relations. Open up to the unexpected. Collaborate and share with others.
Unless the promise is combined with an all-out investment in a different kind of culture, the beautiful poetic statement is nothing more than a promise for a night out. That is a good promise. Who doesn’t crave a night out? But if that is all, it is an empty promise.
This annoys me. Almost 300 thousand people work in the arts and cultural sector in the Netherlands. They are all talented, motivated, and well-meaning professionals. Imagine they are allowed to work on the significant challenges of our time. Thousands of theaters, libraries, and museums at prime locations are empty for part of the day, even in good times. Imagine there is more room there for that art of the houses, heads, and hearts. And then imagine that all of this is as captivating and as appealing as a great night out!
It is easy to talk about a better future. It is much harder to talk about achievements in the past. To overcome the next crises, we need both. We need the arts and cultural sector's imagination, the power to tell stories compellingly and enthusiastically. The poetic statement is a prime example of this. But it needs to be based on genuine accomplishments and a steadfast commitment to doing things differently, better.
Thanks for reading my newsletter! As always, I much appreciate it. While I’m writing this, the Netherlands is being covered in a thick layer of snow. We will have freezing weather in the coming days, so it’s likely the next update is about ice skating. I hope so, at least. Stay safe, stay warm, and see you next time!