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The Legacy of Apollo 13 and the Case for a Space Culture Today

On the night of April 13, 1970, astronaut Jack Swigert famously beemed into NASA headquarters to declare “Houston, we have a problem.” A nation of inspired onlookers watched in suspense as the Apollo 13 crew worked frantically against the clock, and their failing ship, to return to earth alive to tell the tale.

April 17, 2012, marked the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 13 splashdown, a historic moment for NASA and a landmark event in the American age of space exploration. Splashing down safely in the South Pacific ocean heralded the end of a terrifying ordeal for the astronauts and NASA. The failure of the mission took a backseat to the death defying return of the astronauts, who paddled into the dark perilous waters of space and refused to drown — the Apollo 13 crew had fought against space, and won.

What’s the Big Idea?

The safe return of NASA’s Apollo 13 crew from 200,000 miles into space with a failing ship was a feat of awesome technological strength and prowess that Americans had grown accustomed to attributing to NASA’s space exploration program. In those days, the zest for exploration in American culture was animated by the astonishing successes that NASA was achieving with the tools of science. Those days now seem long ago. Neil Degrasse Tyson has argued that there are three things that motivate societies to exercise the the kind of capital it takes to make huge leaps of progress: “the celebration of a divine or royal power, the search for profit, and war.” The absence of these motivations in American society has lead to a decline in the exploratory spirit, at least when it comes to funding NASA.

What’s the Significance?

Tyson argues that NASA’s funding is small in the portfolio of spending authorized by Congress each year. Congresspersons are up for election every two years. Tyson says this type of election cycle is  not conducive to the approval of bold, audacious “vision statements” that NASA projects normally require. That’s a lamentable outcome, Tyson tells Big Think, because

Innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economies and I know of no greater force, a force practically that should be elevated to become a force of nature unto itself.  I know of no greater force than that of NASA to stimulate that ambition in the country, in the nation, in the educational pipeline to influence what people want to be when they grow up. Do it because I don’t want the nation to go broke.  It’s an investment in our economic security as we go forward.”

So according to Tyson, not only is funding important, but so is the culture of exploration and awe for science and innovation in our society. Tyson told Big Think:

You can become a poet, a novelist, an actor, a comedian, but they understand that it is science, technology and innovations in those fields that makes tomorrow come.  So if they’re not the ones doing the inventing they vote for those who support those who do.  That is a change in the mindset of a culture that only advancing a space frontier can bring.  That’s the future I look forward to.  That’s what I grew up in and it’s not going on now and I fear for the future of country.  I don’t want this to be the beginning of the end of America.  We know how to fix it.  The answer is staring us in the face because we’ve done it before.”


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