Apollo 13: a heroic failure

Fifty years ago today human beings proved we can overcome impossible odds. We can do so again.

Patrick West


Many cultures have their own narratives of ‘heroic failure’ – an event in their past that was a disaster or embarrassment of some sort that has since been transformed into a story of triumph. The British have Dunkirk, the Irish have Easter 1916, the Australians have Gallipoli. For America, the unifying narrative of ‘heroic failure’ has undoubtedly become that of Apollo 13.

As we commemorate and celebrate the spacecraft that never landed on the Moon, and which almost never came back at all, but which landed safely in the Pacific Ocean 50 years ago today, it’s worth keeping in mind that it hasn’t always been thus. As Andrew Smith wrote in his 2005 book, Moondust, ‘the now-received perception of the Apollo 13 save as “NASA’s finest hour” dates no further back than Ron Howard’s eponymous 1995 film of the mission’. When the movie’s co-scriptwriter, Al Reinert, went looking for Jim Lovell in the late 1980s, he found him running a tugboat company, ‘the forgotten commander of a “failed” mission… it was Reinert who wrote the “finest hour” line’.

If the story of Apollo 13 had fallen into obscurity in 1995, in April 1970 the episode had captured the world’s imagination. It was followed on television networks by the largest worldwide audience ever assembled, with Pope Paul VI praying for the crew’s return – and 100,000 pilgrims at a Hindu festival in India doing likewise. No wonder: it seemed like a real-life human disaster was unfolding right in front of their eyes. No one really expected them to make it.

NASA buffs and fans of the film will be familiar with the events. After a successful launch and acceleration out of Earth’s orbit, and with only 45,000 miles to the Moon to go, the crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert heard an explosion. Moments later, Swigert noticed oxygen pressure dropping. Shortly after, Lovell saw gas leaking into space. It transpired that an oxygen tank had ruptured their spacecraft’s service module, blowing out the electricity and safe oxygen supply, forcing them to shelter for the next four days in the landing module – freezing, starving, thirsty and sleepless – while they waited for their craft to make the slingshot around the Moon and journey back to Earth.

Even NASA thought their chances of survival were hopeless, telling the astronauts’ wives that their chances of coming back alive were 10 per cent at best. No NASA preflight simulation had prepared the three man crew for this dire predicament. Flight director Gene Kranz remembers watching ‘the Command Module’s life-sustaining resources disappearing, like blood draining from a body… the controllers felt they were toppling into an abyss’.

It was a close call indeed. The landing module wasn’t supplied with enough oxygen for all three to make the entire journey, so they had to make the perilous undertaking of burning its descent engines to hasten their return journey. They came close to carbon-dioxide poisoning, too, a fate only avoided by fabricating an improvised air-filtration system out of cardboard, duct tape, plastic covers from checklist books, storage bags and anything else to hand. Using the land module for re-entry, they could have easily burnt up. Against all odds, they made it home alive.

But you know this already, thanks to Ron Howard’s film. Yet, even if that was a fictionalised version of real events, it was a deserved homage to a heroic failure, and one worth celebrating today. It reminds us that no matter how grim and hopeless circumstances appear, there can be a way out. Human beings are innate, genius problem-solvers.

Today we have a problem. Tomorrow we will have a solution.

In defence of Classic FM

It’s always tempting to mock Classic FM for its repetitious and conservative playlist. Indeed, some spiked readers may remember me having done so many years ago. That was back in 2002, when the station’s listeners voted Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending their favourite piece of classical music. Fast forward to 2020, and Classic FM is getting flak again. Why? Because for the second year in a row its listeners have voted The Lark Ascending their favourite piece of classical music.

Writing in The Times on Tuesday, the paper’s chief music critic, Richard Morrison, noted the irony that the number of larks in Britain has plummeted over recent decades. ‘Sadly I don’t think Classic FM’s listeners were registering an environmental protest when they voted for the work. What they were doing was reflecting the narrowness of the repertoire served up by Classic FM.’

I’ve changed my tune over Classic FM. There’s nothing wrong with it playing The Lark Ascending every day, for years never ending, if that’s what the audience is partial to. The same goes for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius or movie soundtracks by John Williams.

Why give in to the tyranny of the new for its own sake? Complaining that people still like Vaughan Williams is like bellyaching that they still regard The White Album by the Beatles as one of the greatest albums ever; it’s like claiming that admiring the works of Shakespeare is, like, so predictable. Classics are timeless, which is why they tend to come top in these polls year after year.

The familiarity and cosiness of Classic FM is especially welcoming now, a reminder of better times gone past and a hint of better times to return. The theme to The Magnificent Seven literally brought tears of joy to these eyes on Tuesday. Likewise ‘Sunrise’ from ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ on Wednesday. There are memories. There is hope.

Learn a language during lockdown

People are spending their hours of domestic isolation doing all sundry of things: cooking, DIY, gardening, drinking loads of alcohol. I’m carrying on where I started 10 years ago: learning foreign languages.

It’s the best hobby I ever took up. In my case – first with Italian – it opened up a whole new world of understanding, perceiving and thinking. I even learned how English grammar works as a byproduct. It’s so rewarding, and it’s a lot easier than most British people fear. If you’re intelligent and interested in words, you’ll love it. And no, age doesn’t matter. It’s a myth that you’re too old to learn a second language. Infants can absorb English without being taught it, this is true, but even by the time they become teenagers they need English lessons.

A world of discovery awaits. My preferred method is initially through teach-yourself books and then through free online courses such as Memrise. Now I even know a little German (he’s over there).

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty

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Simon Parker

18th April 2020 at 8:05 am

The comparison of Apollo 13 and CV is illuminating.
Imagine mission control run by a buffoon who cared less about the plight of the astronauts on that flight, but who was throwing all his energies into the subsequent mission, a one way doomed voyage into eternity.

Lord Anubis

18th April 2020 at 2:24 pm

Yes it is, because there is no comparison whatsoever.

Even wearing my utilitarian hat, There was no “Cost” associated with attempting to save the crew of Apollo 13 and a great deal to gain from making the attempt to do so, even had that attempt ultimately failed.

All the hardware was already up there and I doubt if any of the ground crew/support contractors claimed any more in expenses than they were due to be normally paid anyway.

What is more, there would be considerable costs associated with choosing not to attempt to save them. Had flight control abandoned the crew to their fate, It would have been the end of the Apollo program and probably the end of the USA’s space program altogether.

By contrast, with covid, there needs to be a balance struck between saving lives and leaving a life left that is worth living for those who’s lives have been saved.

As a 60 year old, given the choice of facing a (say) 1:30 chance of being killed by Covid vs that of being “Saved” but at the price of losing my home and being left destitute. I would rather take my chances with the Covid than face the consequences of an economy destroyed in an attempt to protect me.

Brian Holloway

17th April 2020 at 8:48 pm

Anyone who has seriously researched the moon landings can come to no other conclusion but that they were faked. It is only the reason why which is up for debate.
I am surprised that any writer of this esteemed publication has fallen for the fairy tale of NASA and the moon landings.

Simon Parker

18th April 2020 at 8:01 am

And the logic for pretending to send men to the Moon, not once, but six times, with four practice flights, and one failure was?

reality lite

18th April 2020 at 8:49 pm

With beliefs like that, it’s no surprise “5G “- the cause of coronavirus ” receives currency.
On the other hand, the guy who wrote the piece seems to have little idea what he’s writing about.
Heavens preserve us from arts graduates

reality lite

18th April 2020 at 9:49 pm

With beliefs like that, it’s no surprise “5G “- the cause of corona-virus ” receives currency.
On the other hand, the guy who wrote the piece seems to have little idea what he’s writing about.
Heavens preserve us from arts graduates

James Knight

17th April 2020 at 7:43 pm

It is not a problem it is an opportunity. An opportunity to solve a serious problem…


17th April 2020 at 4:43 pm

Some people have said the mission of Apollo 13 never happened. It was all docu-acting to influence Americans to support NASA with trillions through their tax system.
Some are questioning about WHO and the mercy killing agenda.
All hocus pocus of course but finding balanced truth is essential for our sanity.

Mor Vir

17th April 2020 at 2:27 pm

If one finds Classic FM to be overly hoi polloi then one can use a Russian torrent website (ru tracker) with the complete works in FLAC of everyone ever recorded – or YT which has loads of the lesser known art music. Wiki has lists of composers by era and style that can used in cross-reference with the archives.

I am just now listening on the wireless headphones to Philipp Schoendorff – The Complete Works performed by Cinquecento, which is austere and small-scale yet gorgeous liturgical polyphony punctuated with brief sections of plainsong, by a lesser-known composer of the foundational Franco-Flemish School (Burgundy) of the Renaissance. It is quite the pleasant trance-out.

Renaissance music is all about Burgundy not Italy, which later assimilated the Burgundian style. In turn Burgundy was influenced by the ‘English manner’ of John Dunstaple of Bedfordshire. I do not get the adoration of Josquin out of the F-FS composers, I much prefer Du Fay and Ockeghem. Sadly there is not a single mention of Philipp Schoendorff on YT, so a big shout-out to the Russians.

Mor Vir

17th April 2020 at 2:58 pm

Yes, the bulk of historical composers have never had any of their works recorded, let alone their complete opus, including some composers considered to be important in their time and place.

A first recording is always a milestone, even if no one buys the cd. Major record companies historically played it safe with what consumers would go for, the big names, but a lot got recorded and specialist labels filled in some of gaps.

The history of first recordings is itself a fascinating history; even the giants of art music had first recordings of major works/ cycles, well obviously, just a few decades back. The recording archives have a long way to go yet.

Re Josquin, clearly complexity and the innovation of novel polyphonic device is not everything, as I always say.

Mor Vir

17th April 2020 at 6:22 pm

Yes, it is easy to now take the historical ‘canon’ for granted. Even the giants like JS Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi were largely forgotten or overlooked before their revival in the 20th century.

It was only with the end/ wane of Romanticism/ Post-Romanticism that they were rediscovered and gradually revived one by one. Arguably it is not only the recording industry but also the wide unpopularity of Modernism that made possible a grand survey of historical art music and a retrieval of the ‘greats’.

So, there is a danger of approaching the ‘popular classics’ of Classic FM with an inappropriate estimate of their value and the effort that went into making that possible. We nearly did not have all that great stuff for everyone to listen to at leisure.

Gareth Edward KING

17th April 2020 at 1:19 pm

Patrick West! Your sense of humour dates you somewhat! re. ‘I know a little German…’. When I was a kid I used to say that my father was a small Midlands’ businessman (true), yes, that’s right, he’s only two feet tall.. (groan). I think it came out of that classic 1970s ‘Two Ronnies’ show! Actually, 1970s humour does still work e.g. Les Dawson, now, I wonder why that is?
West’s insights into successful language learning are interesting: it’s true that, yes, toddlers do seem to ‘absorb’ basic English words much as they would their mother tongue, but, no, such a simple method does not work as one gets older, mainly because an adult (or teenager)’s brain demands much more complicated ideas which really is the only reason to learn a language i.e. being able to buy a coffee in a newly learnt language is really the least of it. One’s new language only works in parallel with one’s MT; if you don’t read much in the latter, you won’t in the former, and the learning process is much slower as a result.

Stephen Elliott

17th April 2020 at 12:05 pm

“Using the land module for re-entry, they could have easily burnt up”

The land(ing) module was not used for re-entry, it would have been incinerated. There were concerns about possible damage to the heat shield on the command module which was used for re-entry as planned.

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