Friday, February 1, 2008

Space Heroes Revisited

“Apollo 13,” one of my favorite movies, was on TV last weekend. It’s a good story about a “successful failure” that illustrated how good ol’ American ingenuity and determination saved the three moon-bound astronauts from perishing in space.

Although the film takes some artistic license in depicting the events and people of the flight, what popped out at me in watching it were the astronauts’ and flight commander’s leadership qualities of courage, confidence, determination, and focus.

I suspect that these qualities came through because like so many Americans I’m desperately searching for them in today’s political leadership.

The heady days of the Apollo moon flights and the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded them were different times from today to be sure. America was growing. We were ready for any challenge. We were well-respected for our principles and ideals.

The NASA space program of the 1960s served as a beacon of our national pride as the exciting race-to-the-moon match up between the USA and the Soviet Union consumed us, I maintain, in a healthy way. We educated ourselves on space technology, watched their flights from lift-off to splash-down and reached for the stars ourselves in our own stations of life.

However, by April 1970 when Apollo 13 was launched, it became obvious that we had come to a turning point as Americans grew blasé about space flight. Going to the moon? Well, we had seen it twice before.

Some of this attitude is cultural: Americans are hyper-active for new and improved things. However, we were also affected by the heaviness of the disastrous Vietnam War, which like today’s Iraq War, seemed to have no end.

We were also probably exhausted over the challenge and excitement that the civil rights and the women’s movements made on our business-as-usual attitudes toward racism and sexism. Working for justice and equality was in the air but it was painfully difficult to face the ways our prejudice had silenced and omitted so many people from full participation in our society.

Most assuredly our attitudes were also influenced by the loss of our heroes—John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy—who had given us hope, moved us to our best selves and ignited our activist spirits.

Those tumultuous times drained our confidence in ourselves and perhaps killed our spirit along with our heroes. It left us to sink in a grand funk of self-absorption, greed, and anxiety that we’ve been unable to shake ever since. Perhaps that is why our leaders today seem to be short on leadership and long on pandering.

However, when the Apollo 13 astronauts were in trouble at least for a little while we forgot our malaise and gathered around Commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert in genuine prayer and heartfelt support for their safe return. That happened because we moved outside ourselves and our own problems and focused instead on three people in serious trouble.

Here are some examples of ways the film depicts leadership.

Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton) is so sick he can hardly function yet he never gives up on himself or on the crew to do his duty.

When the crew learns that Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise) is working on their re-entry procedure in the simulator, they all breathe a sigh of relief because they trust him. He refuses to take a break because he knows that his fellow astronauts aren’t able to rest either.

As the astronauts pass around the moon, Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) prefers to look away not because he had seen it before on a previous flight but because he is deeply disappointed about the scrubbed landing. He struggles with his disappointment and then bucks himself up to move on.

“Gentlemen, what are your intentions?” he asks. Then answers: “I want to go home.”

But going home presents its problems. He must steer the ship without a computer. Carbon dioxide levels become too high. Food is frozen and the three astronauts are freezing. A typhoon forms near the splash-down site and the heat shield may be damaged.

As the men prepare for re-entry, Lovell congratulates his men on what they have been able to do. “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

Lovell is a brave gentleman himself without tears and without gimmicks who has understood that his responsibility as commander requires that he set a good example for his crew.

On the ground Flight Commander Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) shows the same leadership qualities. He has an absolute commitment to the crew and an absolute faith in his engineers to do the impossible, like “putting a square peg in a round hole.”

Kranz sets goals and organizes his ground crew to achieve them. He asks for opinions, listens carefully, and makes calculated choices. He is competent. Most importantly, he knows the value of life and is determined “not to lose those men on [my] watch.”

The film also illustrates what leadership isn’t through the characters of the lunar module (LEM) contractor and the media. They represent the “fear factor” with its accompanying paralysis as well as the greed that accompanies selfish concerns.

For example, the contractor could only aver that the LEM was not designed to be anything other than a moon taxi to and from the command module. He limits his imagination because he is more concerned about losing his own job.

Kranz pushes him back and reminds him that the mission has changed and requires new definitions. The LEM becomes a “lifeboat.”

The media looks equally bad in the film. Uninterested in an “old news story” of landing on the moon, reporters ignore the Apollo 13 flight until it gets into trouble. Then, like a pack of starving dogs going after a slab of meat, the reporters discover a “new story” and intrude on the astronauts’ families in a brash, voyeuristic and just plain rude way.

Only Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman of that time, shows a human side to his work. He worries about the astronauts during the flight and then shares his tears of relief and joy when they return to earth.

America needs to recognize that it has reduced itself to the level of the LEM contractor and the media and WE need to change.

In this year’s presidential election WE need to call forth a new kind of leader who is willing to confront not only our country’s problems but those of “spaceship earth” (i.e., global warming, poverty, health care, unemployment, resource depletion).

And WE need someone who will inspire US to tackle these problems courageously and confidently with determination and focus.

I think Barack Obama might be the one we’re looking for.

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