Monday, 13 April 2020

The Coronavirus and Apollo 13

Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, Jim Lovell & Jack Swigert shortly after the end of their flight. (NASA)
This week marks 50 years since the flight of Apollo 13, the mission whose crew of three astronauts was nearly lost while heading to the Moon. As is well known thanks to the 1995 feature film Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, the bravery of the astronauts and the ingenuity of controllers back on Earth saved the crew during the nearly four difficult days that the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft took to get back to Earth.

Many celebrations were scheduled for this month, and most of them have been cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. "My compatriot Jim Lovell says, the curse of Apollo 13 continues,” Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise told the collectSPACE website following the event cancellations. 

In reflecting on this anniversary of Apollo 13, I have found the confluence of events to be strangely appropriate. There are many similarities to the situation Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert faced during their harrowing journey in space, and the difficulties much of the population of Earth are dealing with today while we isolate ourselves to fight the spread of COVID-19. There is even a viral angle to Apollo 13 - an astronaut on the prime crew for the flight was replaced the day before launch when it was found that he was in danger of coming down with the measles.

On the evening of April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced the three Apollo 13 astronauts from their mother ship into the Lunar Module, which was pressed into service as a lifeboat despite not being designed to support three astronauts for the time it would take to get back home. At the time, Apollo 13 was three days into its mission and was much closer to the Moon than the Earth. The astronauts had to quickly absorb the disappointment of having their lunar landing cancelled so they could turn to the difficult job of working with flight controllers in Houston to save themselves.

The Apollo 13 Service Module quickly lost power, and batteries on board the Command Module Odyssey began to drain. Once on board the Lunar Module Aquarius, the crew had to turn off their Command Module, something that had never been done, and run the Lunar Module on extremely limited power. Water was also at a premium, and an ingenious solution had to be found to make sure that the air in their spacecraft was cleaned of the carbon dioxide the three astronauts exhaled. 

At the time of the explosion and for much of the flight, Earth was so far away from Apollo 13 that its astronauts could look out the window into the black void of space and hide their home planet behind a thumb. When Apollo 13 passed around the Moon the next day, the three astronauts set a new record for the greatest distance humans have ever been from Earth, a record that still stands today.

For four nights and three days, the astronauts shivered in a damp, unheated spacecraft as it looped around the Moon and brought them home. They had little sleep. The crew had to fire their engines to stay on the narrow path home with untried procedures. As the spacecraft neared the Earth, they had to go through a complicated checklist to restart their Command Module, which was the only way they had to get through the re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Controllers back on Earth had to make tough decisions on the path home, and for reasons of safety, they did not select the shortest route back to Earth. Instead, they had to figure out how to husband air, water and power during the way around the Moon and back home.

Most of us on Earth are spending our period of social isolation today in the friendly confines of home, which are confines just the same where unknown dangers of viral disease lurk just outside. Many of us are suddenly faced with having to manage resources that are unexpectedly short because of a loss of employment or business. Some of us are alone and most of us have lost direct access to family, other loved ones, and friends. 

Public health authorities and governments now face difficult decisions about how long the extraordinary measures they have ordered will need to stay in place. At the time of writing, the disease has not reached its peak in North America and we have many weeks of social distancing measures ahead of us. 

Saving Apollo 13 was a complicated and difficult challenge, but today’s danger involves managing millions of people while the invisible and still poorly understood coronavirus circulates. Turning the economy off for several weeks and then restarting it will present us all with many challenges, just like turning a spacecraft off in space and then back on did in 1970. Scores of thousands of people have already died in today's pandemic, and many more will die, although public health measures give promise of saving many more lives. There is a good chance that further rounds of public health measures lie ahead later in the year and next year due to the danger of new waves of this contagion.

The scales of the challenges of Apollo 13 and of COVID-19 are quite different, but we can learn something for our challenge of today from the success of 50 years ago.

"The lesson of Apollo 13 is what we had to do to survive,” Fred Haise observed. "We had to be willing to be able to change the norm, if you will, because we had to deal with a lot of new things and new procedures to work around and get through it all, and that's exactly what the world and people are having to deal with today.”



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