NASA’s most successful failure

45 years ago today, Apollo 13 launched.

When I was a teenager, I woke up to a clock radio that went off just in time for the morning’s top news stories. These days I have a hard time thinking of a worse way to start the day — except to the sound of almost anything else on the radio lately — but I liked it back then. Though not so much when on April 14, 1970 what woke me up was the news announcer saying, “Their lives in grave danger, the Apollo 13 astronauts…” And let me tell you, that woke me up.

I don’t think anyone who didn’t live through that week can really appreciate what it was like — the harrowing uncertainty and helplessness, the hope-against-hope cautious optimism, the small victories adding up in the end to the astonishing triumph of their successful return — though the movie Apollo 13 does convey some of that pretty well. I watched that with my wife, who was born a year after the mission, some years ago. There’s a scene where they need something calculated, and they need it fast, and everyone in Mission Control breaks out their slide rule. Heather was dumbfounded, even though she knew there were no pocket electronic calculators in those days. “They had no business going to the Moon with nothing but slide rules!” she opined. Maybe not, but they did!

45 years. Hard to believe.

So here’s to you, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, and to the memory of Jack Swigert. Your mission was a failure we can all be proud of.



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