Friday, April 17, is the 50th anniversary of the day the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13, the U.S.’s seventh crewed mission to the moon, splashed down in calm waters on a sunny day in the South Pacific, having aborted the mission two days after launch when wiring inside an oxygen tank in the service module caught fire. Captain Jim Lovell and his crew, Fred Haise and the hastily recruited Jack Swigert, returned to earth six days after departing Kennedy Space Center. 40 million Americans gathered around television sets, holding their collective breath, waiting to see if the astronauts emerged safely from the capsule. Thanks to the imagination of scientists at NASA, they did.
“This is a remarkable chapter in NASA’s history that has lived for 50 years to remind everybody at that remarkable storied agency what a tremendous accomplishment can be yielded even in moments in which it appears to be on the verge of failure,” says Sean O’Keefe, NASA Administrator 2001-2004, now a professor at Syracuse University Maxwell School. O’Keefe says the legacy of Apollo 13 is to remind us today, facing a frightening pandemic, of the value of creativity in problem solving. “It reminds us of our humanity. This is happening around us every day in ways large and small that ought to be every bit as inspirational as that event 50 years ago.” It was an imaginative view that brought the nation through a shared peril in space fifty years ago, and it is the contributions of scientists today, all over the world, that will lead us through the enduring impact of a highly virulent coronavirus.
Listen to Professor O’Keefe’s statement drawing similarities between the experience decades ago and what we are experiencing in 2020: