Friday, 19 March 2021

Learning from Apollo 13

One of the few joys of lockdown has been going for a walk and listening to a podcast, something I rarely seemed to have the time to do before. I have particularly enjoyed Louis Theroux's Grounded and, most of all, re-listening to both series of 13 Minutes to the Moon. Everything about the latter is perfect for this listener, from Hans Zimmer and Christian Lundberg's majestic score to Dr Kevin Fong's enthusiastic and knowledgable narration and the wealth of archive material. It's truly an epic listen, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Series 1 covers Apollo 11, the thirteen minutes in question being the time taken for the powered descent from lunar orbit to the Moon's surface. Series 2 covers the ill-fated, but ultimately triumphant, voyage of Apollo 13.

It struck me, listening to the concluding episode of series 2 last night, that we can all learn from Apollo 13, how to deal with and overcome adversity, however challenging. Here's a quote from Fong's closing monologue that really hit home:

There is so much that we might learn from the people who flew and saved that mission, even today, perhaps especially today.

In the face of crisis, no matter how apparently insurmountable, we must act. We must do so urgently and decisively. We must delegate authority, defer to expertise, and understand where in the system that expertise truly lies. We must know when to lead, and when to get out of the way. We must know when to follow, but learn to take full ownership of the tasks that fall to us. We must act together, across whatever distance, so that the whole becomes far greater than the sum of the parts. And we must never, ever give up, no matter how impossible the future might suddenly appear, because within all of that lies a kernel of hope and determination that might grow into something much more.

This is surely all applicable to any great challenge. It's certainly applicable to how humanity might face a pandemic, and how I wish those that lead us could have been more urgent and decisive in recent times, deferred to expertise, all the rest. But more than that, this kind of thinking needs to be applied to how we address climate change. The Apollo programme, for my money, is our greatest achievement, and the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew represents what can be achieved with decisive leadership, a collective will, co-operation, determination and hope. Preventing our planet from burning is going to be hard but has not become impossible... yet. We just need someone like Gene Kranz to take charge of it...

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