Apollo 13: a triumph over adversity

A TV doc reminds us that even failed space missions can be inspiring. Surely it’s time we returned to the moon?

Patrick West

Patrick West

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There is something enduring about the tale of Apollo 13, the third lunar landing mission that failed to make it to the moon in April 1970.

The near catastrophe captured the world’s imagination at the time, and as a news story it even eclipsed The Beatles splitting up and David Webb scoring Chelsea’s winner in a thrilling FA Cup final replay against Leeds United – watched by 32million people in the UK, more than half of the population. (For all the sports fans who’ve stumbled into this column by mistake, Webb’s goal is well worth watching on YouTube as a great example of the power of the long throw-in.)

Some say that the Apollo 13 episode was even bigger news than Apollo 11, which saw the first men land on the moon in July 1969. I’ve talked to hacks who were working on Fleet Street at that time and many insist that Ted Kennedy driving into a lake at Chappaquiddick and accidentally killing his brother Bobby’s former secretary was a much bigger story at the time than Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Sea of Tranquility.

In recent years, the Apollo 13 legend has come to appeal to a younger generation thanks to Ron Howard’s 1995 film of the same name. The success of the superlative book Moon Shot (1995) also suggests a popular fascination with, even nostalgia for, lunar exploration – an adventure now sadly defunct.

America soon became disillusioned with sending men to the moon because, it is argued, it couldn’t afford it anymore and the attitude is very much ‘been there, done that’. Anyhow, non-stick frying pans were invented in the 1930s, so that’s that ‘by-product of the space race’ myth exploded. But I think disillusionment and pessimism were also contributing factors to the demise of lunar exploration. What’s more, ever since space shuttles have been blowing up in mid-air (Challenger in 1986; Columbia in 2003), and the Mir space station threatened to fall on our heads, many experts regard it as simply too dangerous to send men into space, and argue that space exploration should be unmanned. That is, everyone except the Chinese.

So it was nice of Channel Five to return to the story of Apollo 13 this week in the latest edition of the series Situation Critical, which not only recreated in docudrama style that heroic episode, but also featured interviews with the heroes, most notably Apollo 13‘s commander Jim Lovell and former NASA flight director Gene Krantz.

Admittedly, there was an element of real life imitating fiction imitating real life. One couldn’t help thinking, during the recreated scenes, of Ron Howard’s film, of Lovell as Tom Hanks, or of Krantz as Ed Harris. And of course, the documentary, like the film, was perhaps handicapped by the fact that we already knew the ending. But, really, such complaints miss the point: it’s a bit like protesting that you know the Allies are going to win the 1944 Battle of Normandy in the 1962 film The Longest Day or that, in the 1970 movie Waterloo, you knew all along that Napoleon would lose the battle. And has anyone watched a James Bond film in the naive expectation that 007 would lose out to the international criminal mastermind in the end? Movies rest on the suspension of disbelief. You know Apollo 13 was going to make it back all along, but the characters in the film don’t.

The Apollo 13 mission is often called a ‘successful failure’; I think it should be regarded simply as a triumph. It was no one’s fault that an oxygen tank exploded on the spacecraft, but it was the human ingenuity of the astronauts and the ground staff that ensured that a crisis didn’t turn into a catastrophe – not least the efforts of Ken Mattingly at Houston, who coordinated the re-entry procedure. The Apollo 13 astronauts could have frozen to death; they could have been vapourised on re-entry if their heatshield had been damaged; they could have suffered from carbon dioxide suffocation; they might have skipped off the Earth’s atmosphere had their re-entry trajectory been too shallow, or suicidally plunged into it had it been too deep; their parachutes might have been frozen, sending them plummeting into the Pacific Ocean at a fatal velocity. But none of this transpired (see the BBC coverage of the Apollo 13 re-entry here).

In her 1992 hit single ‘Sleeping Satellite’, Tasmin Archer sang: ‘I blame you for the moonlit sky / And the dream that died / With the eagle’s flight / I blame you for the moonlit nights / When I wonder why / Are the seas still dry? / Don’t blame this sleeping satellite’, lamenting how we had abandoned the moonlanding project. And I suppose in these cash-strapped times this is probably not the best time to go back. But I’d rather governments spent money on sending people into space than sending young men to their deaths in fruitless wars, bailing out bankers who have only themselves to blame, or squandering millions on ridiculous Olympic projects.

And a fear of risk should not be an excuse for not trying. Had Christopher Columbus or Edmund Hillary lived in a culture such as ours, Europeans would never have discovered the Americas and Everest would remain unconquered. It’s no coincidence that science fiction novels about lunar colonisation were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, because this was an era of confidence and optimism. It’s telling how this particular genre has gone into serious decline ever since the West started getting all miserable in the 1970s.

We should return to the moon for the same reason Hillary gave for deciding to climb the highest mountain in the world: because it’s there.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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