Our fascination with the stars began many centuries back.
Tomorrow morning, November 8, the planet Mercury will pass directly in front of the sun. Read about the 'transit' and follow its progress on the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy site.
Who doesn't remember the words made famous by James Lovell's Tom Hanks in Apollo 13? The story was too amazing not to retell it.
On April 11, 1970 at 13:13 CST, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert took off for a lunar mission on board Apollo 13. Two days later, on April 13, Lovell and Haise heard an explosion in the spacecraft. One loud enough to divert Swigert from his observations. It was Lovell who contacted mission control with the famous words: "Houston, we have a problem."
Lovell described his experience to a rapt audience last night at the Philadelphia Speakers Series. More than thirty-six years have passed, yet the vivid images came easily.
Taking stock of the situation
Apollo was losing gas at a rapid rate and it was more than 200,000 miles from earth. One oxygen reservoir indicated zero and the other showed a steady decrease, causing also a temporary loss of water and electricity that rendered the fuel cell propulsion system inoperable. At that stage, the spacecraft had already abandoned the safer 'free return' course for a new exploration of reflections on the moon planned by the veteran commander with the ground crew.
Change of plans
The astronauts suddenly had to switch destination from their 'lost moon' to earth. The whole structure under their command and care needed to be repurposed to fit this new mission. With every system virtually stacked against the odds, Lovell and team reverted to old manual procedures.
The service module, built to house oxygen, water and fuel reserves, rendered useless after the explosion, became and excellent shield to protect the command module from deterioration. The module was then shut down to preserve the scarce resources needed to get back home. The lunar module Aquarius, designed to last a 45-hour, 2-people, exploration of the moon surface, became the true rescue craft for the team of three.
4 days separated the astronauts from a possible landing. This was a massive and potentially deadly crisis, yet they just dealt with it.
Engineering the return
Meanwhile, the ground engineers were working around the clock to assemble a way for the space team to funnel poisonous excess carbon dioxide outside the small lunar module. Materials available on the craft and human ingenuity won the day -- this part gave a whole new meaning to the expression 'never leave home without a roll of duct tape'. With room to breathe, Lovell et all had to try to get back into the 'free return' course.
Having served its purpose of preserving the command module for the reentry, the lunar module Aquarius was later jettisoned. The atmosphere had to be hit just right; one degree off on one side would have the module skip off as a rock on a pond, one degree off on the other and it would ignite. An old manual maneuver was the only option for the space crew.
While Lovell and crew in fact did not get to walk on the moon, their story includes many lessons on solving problems:
- Always expect the unexpected. While when things go according to plan can be a walk on the moon, the reality is that often things do not work that smoothly. Have a back up plan. Then make a plan C. Your skill and experience are the crucial fall back option.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Before you even know what went wrong, have a conversation with your immediate and support teams. They can help you figure out the problem and are part of the solution. Teamwork is essential, especially in times of crisis.
- Persevere and adapt. While experience and skill can save the day, perseverance and ability to adapt to changed circumstances are your best allies. A determined commitment and dedication can make the difference between catastrophe and a successful recovery.
- Make things happen. Ingenuity is one of the best human qualities we posses. Our wet system, the brain, contains the ability to make decisions at a faster and more correct rate than the most sophisticated computer (dry system). Act on those decisions. In a crisis, act on them quickly.
I leave you with a quote from Tom Hanks' interview on the making of the movie. The experience "educated me an awful lot as to the things that NASA does extraordinarily well, as well as the sort of thing that a big organization like NASA can’t do, nor could any organization do."