Lessons from America's space exploration

Richard Eckstrom S.C. Comptroller

Saturday, April 17th marked an important day in American history: the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13’s safe return to Earth.

The 1970 space mission was intended to be the third time for humans to land on the moon, but the landing was aborted because an oxygen tank ruptured. Suddenly the Apollo 13 astronauts faced the prospect of running out of oxygen more than 230,000 miles from Earth.

In one of America’s great triumphs of ingenuity, the crew from Mission Control in Houston began working feverishly to find a way to get their three colleagues safely home. One task for Mission Control was to quickly devise a way for the astronauts to patch the ruptured oxygen tanks using only their limited tools and supplies. To do so, they simulated fixing a similar rupture on a “dummy” command module with the tools available to the three astronauts and with duct tape.

Their plan worked. Among other things, the astronauts rigged their craft to conserve their limited oxygen supply to avoid breathing dangerously high carbon dioxide levels, turning a failed moon landing into a great triumph of space exploration. Some say this was NASA’s finest hour.

One of the great values of space exploration lies in its power to inspire. It reminds us that almost nothing’s out of reach… that there’s very little we’ll fail to accomplish if we’ll put our collective minds to it.

The Apollo missions are also a reminder of the greatness of America. In 1969, the United States won the race to put a man on the moon, making good on President Kennedy‘s pledge to do so by the end of the 1960s. Many in my generation remember exactly where we were the moment Neil Armstrong descend the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar landing vehicle and confidently declared, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Today, like then, our nation faces tremendous uncertainty, yet today the causes of that uncertainty differ. Our nation’s unemployment rate remains sky high, reckless government spending continues to increase record shattering federal deficits, and partisanship and bickering consume Washington. Today many people are, quite justifiably, angry at the direction our nation is heading.

At this pivotal time in our history, as we grapple with some of the biggest challenges in generations, perhaps a lesson from our early days of space exploration - the lesson that almost nothing is beyond our reach - is more important than ever.

Let’s find inspiration in the lessons of Apollo 13 in which American ingenuity and resolve turned a frightening moment of adversity into a timeless tale of triumph. That’s the history, and the future, of America.