The Apollo Moon Program took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface in 1969. During the third mission to land men on the moon (1970) an explosion left the Apollo crew in grave danger.
The story of Apollo 13 offers an important message for humankind as we face up to climate change: “Failure is not an option.”
These words were uttered by Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director, when he addressed the engineers and scientists responsible for returning the three crewmen to Earth under what appeared to be impossible circumstances and limitations.
As we learn more about the daunting task of reducing carbon emissions well below 1990 levels even while the world’s population grows exponentially, the challenge feels every bit as awesome as that faced by Krantz on that fateful mission.
Kranz advised his team to not be emotional but to “work the problem.” It seems to me that is good advice. We have to cut through the arguments and individual beliefs that each of us holds to create a sustainable human enterprise on Earth.
And like Apollo 13, the clock is ticking for us, too. Beyond a certain point we will not be able to reverse the physical adjustments of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and of living communities most vulnerable to them.
So just how did these scientists and engineers “work the problem?” Well, to begin with they erased the previous flight plans and went back to the drawing board. Then, they looked at what was on hand that could be used in new ways to meet the needs of the moment: “We’ve got to take this square battery pack and make it fit into this round receptacle,” the engineer explained to his team.
And what were they attempting to solve? Chillingly for us, the crew was experiencing a lethal build-up of carbon dioxide on board their small craft, and the engineers were attempting to build a carbon scrubber with the stuff on board the spacecraft.
Cutting through all preconceptions, the team put their heads together and managed to build a new scrubber with a square end that fit into a round hole.
Without being simplistic, much of what we have to do to come together as communities, nations, and international bodies seems just like that: a square peg in a round hole. So far nothing fits very tight.
But here is a simple example of how a great accomplishment was achieved:
- Work the problem, skip the rhetoric;
- Gather what is on hand and if necessary use it in new ways that can get us the solutions we seek;
- Failure is not an option – we do not have the luxury to try this another time, therefore our leaders, social institutions, and citizens must all come to the table with sobriety and willingness to think anew.
Apollo is the Greek god of reason, morality, and maintenance of society. Perhaps in our cultures these have not always been united. Just as the Apollo crew was buoyed by the worldwide prayers and hopes of people and nations, we could look at the human community, and all the living communities that keep us alive and happy, as a crew on an endangered spacecraft that we have got to bring home safely.
Let’s work that problem.