At that time, I was involved with model rocketry (cardboard and balsa wood models powered by solid fuel rocket engines that could fly over a thousand feet in the air). I decided to launch one of my rockets in conjunction with the launch of Apollo 13, listening to the countdown on a transistor radio. It sounds corny now, but I was glad to “follow Apollo 13” by paying tribute with my small rocket.
Little did I know at the time that two days later (April 13, 1970) would come the infamous words “Houston, we have a problem.” I remember the normal network programming getting pre-empted with bulletins and coverage from the Johnson Space Center. The phrase “Failure is not an option” also comes from this incident. The next few days were very tense as America realized there was a grave potential that these astronauts might be the first to die in space. The drama was intense!
We are all so grateful when they made it back alive. It was recognized as another triumph of American ingenuity. The Cold War rhetoric of the day also interpreted this as another example of how the Russian space program, which had started off quickly, had been humbled yet again. America is number one! God must obviously be on our side! Reactions such as these were commonplace.
Fifteen years later, I was fortunate to get hired as a Presidential Management Intern with NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. I worked as an analyst in the Business Management Division for the fledgling Space Station program. As part of my work, I got to meet with John Aaron, who was one of the heroes involved with saving Apollo 13. If you have seen Ron Howard's excellent movie “Apollo 13”, you may recall a young hot-shot electrical engineer who was tasked with coming up with ways to extend the remaining battery life by using various available workarounds. That was John Aaron's role, and it was key to their survival. During my stint at NASA, I went to Houston a couple of times, and spent some time in the old mission control center that I used to see on TV during my younger days.
I am glad that I can look back 40 years later and relish a triumph, and not a tragedy. But for several days, America was on the edge of a disaster. It was something I will never forget.