Thirteen

When I was a child, all I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. I loved learning about outer space, especially about the planets in our solar system. (Although, I must say, I was not scandalized by Pluto’s “demotion” to dwarf planet status in 2006. Given the discoveries of other objects in the solar system at the time, the reframing of the definition of planet was probably the best solution. Otherwise, we’d either eventually have five hundred planets, or nine planets, one of whom always bore an asterisk. I’m glad to have Pluto as King of the Dwarves.)

I also loved to learn about the United States NASA Space Program. I wanted to go to Space Camp as a kid, and I loved to learn about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I was going to join them one day, after all! I grew out of my desire to travel to the stars, but as I grew up, I became more and more fascinated by the story of Apollo 13. It didn’t hurt that Ron Howard made an outstanding film version of the story when I was about twenty. Apollo 13 was the third manned spacecraft intending to land on the moon. Apollo 11 had landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, and Apollo 12 had landed Pete Conrad and Alan Bean in November. (Apollos 1-10 were all preparatory, building up toward the moon landing. You may recall that Apollo 1 never even got off the ground, due to a fire in the cockpit that killed all three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee).

By the time Apollo 13 came around in April 1970, the public were actually starting to get bored with space travel. The excitement surrounding Apollo 11 had faded. We’d made it to the moon (and we’d beaten the Soviets there), and then we did it again five months later. What’s the point now? Yawn. But that boredom fell away quickly when, about two days into the mission, a routine tank stirring led to an explosion on the craft that crippled it, and made a moon landing impossible. The command module, where the astronauts spent most of their time during normal flight, was dangerously low on power, so they were forced to move into the lunar module, which was designed for only two people to travel from lunar orbit to the surface and back. The next four days were spent in anxiety, as the three astronauts and hundreds of people back at NASA worked hard to solve problem after problem, using parts of the spacecraft for purposes they were never intended for.

One of those problems involved scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the lunar module. There was plenty of oxygen there for all three crew members, but the CO2 scrubbers were only designed for two astronauts for 36 hours, not three astronauts for 96 hours. In a scene that was beautifully dramatized in the 1995 film, a group of engineers at NASA were able to jury-rig a working CO2 scrubber from various parts on the craft (including the cover to the flight plan!), and send a procedure to the crew to make the same.

You can see the original procedure written out here.

And you can watch the scene from the 1995 film here. I love this scene from the movie. My favorite line is, “We gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” Watching that scene made me want to work for NASA again, but this time as an engineer, not as an astronaut. I wanted to be part of that group, solving impossible problems to save lives. I never did end up becoming a NASA engineer, or an engineer of any sort. But I have used that scene in churches on several occasions. I have found it to be a great Stewardship metaphor. Just like the folks at mission control likely thought they couldn’t solve their problems with just a “pile of stuff,” yet they could; so we in the church are able to solve any problem we have with just the “pile of stuff” God has given us. God has given us exactly what we need to find solutions for anything we face. If only the church would remember this, we could focus far more on the hope that God provides us, and far less on “woe is us” because we’re not the same church as we were fifty years ago.

Maybe it’s time for me to talk about Apollo 13 again soon in church.

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