It’s hard to remember the exact details from something that happened over twenty years ago, but I heard that during a showing of the movie Apollo 13, at the end when the returning Command Module finally appeared in the sky and radio contact was reestablished and everyone knew the astronauts would return safely and the whole world breathed relief, someone in the theater leaped to their feet, arms in the air, and cheered. The reason I am fuzzy on the details is because at the time it happened Cyndi was tugging on my shirt and saying, “Sit down!”
Even today, two of my all-time favorite movie scenes are from Apollo 13. I love the scene where all the engineers grab their slide rules (just like my own Post Versalog 1460) to recalculate and confirm the navigational rocket firing coordinates, as well as the scene when the mission controller dumps a big pile of stuff on a table and tells the engineers to build an air filtering device from only those components. Two sides of engineering at its best! As a profession, engineers don’t get many scenes better than those.
Why am I writing about a space mission that took place in 1970? Because Captain James Lovell, 88 years old, commander of the real Apollo 13, spoke in Midland this week. He was amazing. Even when telling a story he’s told countless times since 1970, he held the audience tightly.
During the question and answer time, someone asked how Apollo 13 changed him. He said, “I don’t worry about crises.” And then he added, “When crises occur, you just do the next important thing, solve the next critical problem, and depend on your team.”
One of our most basic human desires (well, at least for men) is to do something epic and heroic. And we all have stories from our life when everything went terribly wrong yet we lived to tell the story. Apollo 13 is more famous today because of its heroic survival than it would be had they successfully landed on the moon.
Lovell said whenever he speaks, no matter where he is, he hears a similar story over and over, and never gets tired of it: “I was a youngster fascinated by space travel, so I became an engineer, and I’ve practiced engineering for 30 years.
Yes, Captain Lovell, that’s my story as well. I too was captured by space and rockets and astronauts and a very young age. I heard astronaut Ed White speak in San Antonio the summer of 1965. He was fresh from taking America’s first walk in space. My grandparents took me to the outdoor ceremony so I could see him and hear him. I don’t remember much about it except that it was very hot and humid and the crowd was huge and much taller than me. My grandfather had given me a cardboard periscope about 24” long when extended, and I used it that day to watch Ed White make his speech. It was very cool, and from that day forward Lt. Colonel White was my guy.
I was nine years old. I’ve been an engineer for 37 years.
They asked Captain Lovell which was harder and more stressful, being an astronaut or a CEO (something Lovell has been at least twice). He said being an astronaut is easier. It might be more intense, but there is a beginning and an end to each mission, then it is over. A CEO has to make hard decisions and solve daily crises for months and years
So in our desire to be the epic hero we can take Lovell’s words to heart. The real hero is someone who makes good decisions, solves the next problem, and depends on their team, day after day for a lifetime. Maybe you and I won’t go to space, but we can all be heroes.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32