What can we learn from Apollo 13?

March 27, 2020

My friends, we've had a problem... 

 

     Imagine this scenario: You're finally at a point in your life where everything you've worked so hard for is finally paying off. You've dreamed about doing this very thing since you were a child and have worked tirelessly toward this goal and it's about to pay off.

 

     Everything is going like a dream, some would even consider it "boring" and don't pay much attention. Sure, there might have been a few hiccups along the way, but nothing worth bothering you because this is your time.

 

     Suddenly, what started out as something routine turns out to be an absolute disaster. In a matter of minutes your dreams are crushed and everything becomes so uncertain that you're not even sure if you're going to wake up tomorrow morning. The very thing you set out to study and explore is now officially trying to kill you at every turn. There's nowhere to turn, no one to come to your aid, you can't even leave your immediate area or you might die, you're in a load of trouble.You listen to the reports and it only sounds worse each time you check in. To make matters more challenging, the people with you have never done anything like this before. 

 

     Given the pandemic crisis raging across the globe, I know there are a lot of people who on some level feel this way. I'm personally struggling with the uncertainty of the times, my life plans are currently on hold and the news is nothing short of alarming. I know I'm not alone in this. 

 

     In my state of isolation, I've been studying up on my favorite portion of history: the Apollo space program. Last July we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was the first time in history a man set foot on another planet. After the first landing, there were 5 more successful landing missions over the next three years. Apollo 13, however, was not so successful. This April will be the 50th anniversary of the most intense space mission ever carried out. This was where the famous quote, "Houston, we've had a problem." comes from. It drives me crazy when everyone says, "Houston, we have a problem." 

 

     Back in 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert set off into space on the massive Saturn V rocket to explore the region of the moon known as the Fra Mauro Highlands. This was an exciting mission for scientists and explorers alike. Not only was this a scientifically significant area for studying the moon, NASA was finally at a point in the lunar program where it was no longer testing and figuring things out, mankind was finally ready to begin exploring our closest celestial neighbor. 

 

     Commander Jim Lovell was the most experienced astronaut by this point having done 3 previous missions in space, including the first time anyone has ever orbited the moon. Walking on the moon was the very reason he signed up to be an astronaut in the first place. Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise was an astronaut for some time and was finally set for his first mission. He was also scheduled to be commander for Apollo 19, but that mission was cut not long after, so he never had another chance to land on the moon. Command Module Jack Swigert was a last minute change to the crew due to the original crew member Ken Mattingly being exposed to measles. (See, astronauts have always taken this sort of thing seriously.) 

 

     Everything was going so well that the news didn't feel like broadcasting any coverage of the mission. The people in mission control were basically getting bored and totally let their guard down. Not a single person in the world could have known what was going to happen, nor was there anyway to prevent it once they were in space. During the testing of the command module on the ground, a small copper wire was exposed inside one of the liquid oxygen tanks. When Swigert stirred the tanks, a small spark caused the oxygen to ignite. Half of the service module was blown off, two of the three oxygen tanks were emptied and two of the three fuel cells were killed. Oxygen was needed to breathe and to power the fuel cells, the fuel cells produced electricity and water, water was needed for drinking and cooling the system. The command module's life support had less than two hours left before the crew would have suffocated on their own carbon dioxide. The service module was useless, so they couldn't use the thrusters to adjust position, nor was the main booster able to turn them around to get home. The only way for them to get home was to swing around the moon, use its gravity to slingshot them back to Earth, then make a careful rocket burn with the lunar module to get on the right path home. If everything went right, it would still take at least three days to get home. 

 

     Obviously, there wasn't going to be a landing. This turned into a matter of survival. The astronauts rushed over to the lunar module and used it as a lifeboat. This module wasn't made for this purpose. Its purpose was to land two men on the moon, keep them alive for two days and get them back to the command module safely. Now, it has three men it for three days. It was cramped, it was cold because all non-essential systems were turned off, they had no navigation computer, the rockets and thrusters were only meant for landing and take off and the scariest part was the oxygen was limited. If they missed the narrow window of reentry, they would shoot past the Earth and be stuck in a crazy 250,000 mile elliptical orbit forever. 

 

     How did they handle it? The teams at mission control worked quickly and tirelessly to figure out the immediate solutions to keep the crew safe. Their pressing issue was life support, secondary issue was getting them home quickly and safely. To keep the carbon dioxide levels safe, they had to rig two different CO2 scrubbers that weren't compatible. They literally had to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole, and it had to be done using only whatever items were on the spacecraft. They had to figure it out, test it, show the CAPCOM (capsule communicator) how to assemble it, then he had to talk the astronauts through how to make it without any visual aid. People's lives depended on it, what else were they gonna do about it? Getting them home required using the lunar module's booster and keeping the Earth in the window as they performed the rocket burns. Remember, miss by a little bit and they're stuck in space forever. Finally, they had to weigh the risk of using the command module for reentry. They didn't know if the heat shield was damaged in the explosion, and no heat shield meant certain fiery death for the crew. They had no other choice, so they went through with it. 

 

Why am I sharing all this? What does Apollo 13 have to do with our present crisis with the coronavirus? What can we learn from a national crisis that happened 50 years ago? 

 

     First, we accept the reality that things aren't going to be normal anytime soon. For now, this is the new normal. The sooner we come to grips with it, the better off we are. It's okay to grieve the loss of plans. Go ahead and take some time to work through how you feel. This is hurting everyone, no one is exempt. Don't wallow in it, but accept it. If Apollo 13 tried to land anyway, they would have all died in space. If they tried to make something work instead of aborting the landing, they at best would have wasted precious life support time messing with it.

 

     Next, we prepare for the days ahead. Make sure you have enough food and supplies to last you a few weeks. Fill up your gas tanks in case the gas stations close. Make sure your vehicles are in working order in case mechanics need to limit their business or close. Learn how to prepare meals at home if you're used to takeout. They were certainly not expecting this to happen, but in general missions in space require hundreds of hours of all sorts of training. Not only were the astronauts training in simulators, but mission control was right there with them. That way, they're ready for general trouble. In fact, the idea of using the lunar module as a "lifeboat" was actually something they came across in one their simulation runs. Looking at the Bible, we see in the book of Genesis where Joseph instructs Pharaoh to set aside 1/5 of the crops during the 7 years of plenty. In the 7 years of famine, everyone still had food available to them.

 

     After that, we adapt for the time being. The lead flight director Gene Kranz is famous for quoting in this time, "Let’s solve the problem, team… lets it not make it any worse by guessing." Let's not just guess, but know what we need to do. This pandemic isn't going away anytime soon, so we need to work out some solutions for how to work through this crisis. But how? One thing the crew needed to do in order for any of the plans to work was to set their sights on two different specific stars outside the spacecraft. The navigation computer was able to calibrate itself based on where stars were in relation to the spacecraft, so as soon as they could position themselves right, they could get their bearings. For you this means to take careful inventory of your life and figure out what's the most important. Stars for all intents and purposes are in a fixed position in the sky, so they provide a great source of stability for navigation. What do you have in your life that's foundational to you? What do you need in order for things to move in the right direction? This will be different for everyone, so take some time to search your heart. Ask the Lord to show you your heart and where your foundations are. The good thing is the Lord is unchanging, He's more stable than a bright star in the sky for getting your bearings. Who knows? Maybe this will be where you finally find your true purpose and calling in the Lord. 

 

     Also, make sure you're trusting in what, or who, is trustworthy. The crew and mission control had different readings on their instruments regarding the situation, which almost resulted in dismissing the entire thing as an instrumentation issue. It was when Lovell looked out the window and noticed the oxygen venting out into space that both the crew and mission control concluded this was no simple instrument malfunction. Imagine if they had trusted that? They would have been dead within a few hours. There is no doubt that this is a major world crisis. We need to be careful who we flock to for solutions and aid. Those so-called "faith healers" closed down a lot of their healing ministries due to the virus, which means they were never actually doing any of that in the first place. Money-hungry televangelists are charging a fortune for their supposed "faith cures" for the virus, which got them in a mountain of trouble. The government is doing all it can on every level. None of them have dealt with a crisis of this sort before, so we do need to give them a fair amount of grace. However, they're not all going to be altruistic in this time, so we need to exercise a level of caution and discernment so no one takes advantage of vulnerable people.

 

     Most importantly, trust in the Lord through all of this. He made a promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." He hasn't gone back on His promise, nor has He radically redefined the terms of it. He hasn't altered the plans, so we don't need to pray He doesn't alter them any further. The crew of Apollo 13 had only one shot for a safe reentry, and it required the bottom of the spacecraft to be in perfect condition. This was known as the heat shield. It was necessary due to the extreme heat from the friction of hitting the atmosphere at 25,000mph, which was close to 5,000 degrees. If there was even a small crack in it, they would have burned up. My friends, the Lord is our shield! He is our perfect shield for even the most intense heat and friction we could ever experience. The key is He needs to be between us and the heat, otherwise the shield won't work at all. 

 

     In the end, the crew of Apollo 13 splashed down safely and basically lived happily ever after. We're going to get through this. My question to you is: Who is God in your life? Is He your guiding star for navigation? Is He your ultimate sustainer through all things? Is He your shield through the intense heat and friction our trials put us through? 

 

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