Fifty years ago, the crew of Apollo 13 headed toward the heavens aboard a technological marvel of engineering and chemistry, with the expectation it would explore the Fra Mauro crater. What appeared to be a routine mission took a potentially deadly turn on April 14, 1970, when command module pilot Jack Swigert stirred the oxygen tanks, as per NASA command, and an explosion rocked the ship.
The following three days were a series of unforeseen dangers and calculated risks, as the astronauts and mission control navigated a high-wire act unlike anything anyone had ever imagined. For a space program steeped in by-the-numbers calculations, it was a harrowing set of best guesses and duct-tape solutions. For the crew, frustrations grew as each solution seemed to create an opportunity to just fail in some other way.
By the time Swigert, Fred Haise and Jim Lovell splashed down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970, the act of getting three men home alive from what was supposed to be a routine mission had likely become one of the most memorable feats of modern history.
I fell in love with this story during my college years, when a good friend lent me Lovell’s book “Lost Moon.” It became even more a part of my life (and I’m sure many other folks’ as well) when Ron Howard and Tom Hanks turned the event into a blockbuster film. If anything typified my love of the underdog and the sense that when stuff goes wrong, you figure it out, “Apollo 13” was it.
The value of the lessons from this space epic are particularly salient in today’s educational environment, where we start to see how the coronavirus pandemic has led to some uncharted waters for students and teachers alike. I thought a lot about this, after a friend posted this story about students complaining about their current educational situation. One line in particular got to me:
“Sitting in my own home, and not in a gorgeous classroom paid for by rich donors and students’ tuition — that’s not what I was promised,” Warren said.
To be fair, it’s not just the students who are apparently tone deaf in this time of crisis. A note was floating around a few Facebook groups that support professors during the pandemic, in which a professor railed against his students for not showing up on time for a synchronous lecture. Another note was about “proper attire” for students showing up to class, explaining that sweats and PJs were just not acceptable on a Zoom call.
(Side note: I try to find something as obnoxious as possible to wear in each call, in hopes it will dissuade my colleagues from having them. Next stop, 1970s Hawaiian shirt!)
Also, and maybe it’s just my observation, but a lot of folks seem to want to hold a hell of a lot of meetings via Zoom or Ultra or whatever, in which we all kind of look at each other and talk things we can’t actually do now because we have no idea what’s coming next. The extroverts who are scheduling these things seem to be bouncing around like my dog when she sees a squirrel through our living room window.
(Side note: My response is the same to both: “Stop it. You’re not getting out there and even if you do, you’re not going to get the damned thing…”)
In hopes of saving my own sanity, and possibly rebooting the reality of people who are in full, “This isn’t what _I_ signed up for!” mode, consider these Apollo 13 tidbits that might put things in perspective. In kind of a “cheat-mode effort,” I grabbed the quotes and bits from the movie, which was tweaked and enhanced for dramatic purposes, obviously:
“Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon, are we?”
It boggles my mind that we have to say this at this point, but NOBODY signed up for this. Some students were planning for a beautiful final semester before graduation. Others were planning for a spring break trip with their friends to an exotic location. Hell, I was planning on being in Arizona to see my grandfather and celebrate his 97th birthday.
Instead, we’re all stuck at home, probably getting enough screen time to give us radiation poisoning.
One student in the IHE story noted: “We understand you still have to pay the professors, but that shouldn’t come out of our pockets,” Oganesian said. “If I wanted to go to an online school, I could go to an online school. I paid to go to class and sit in a lecture.”
And if I wanted to do nothing but record podcasts in my basement, I’d probably be exactly the loser my students already think I am. Clearly, neither of us is getting what we want, but we’re making the best of a bad situation.
Occasionally, frustration can build, but it merits remembering that we’re not landing on the moon now, are we? So let’s do what we need to do to make this thing work the best it can and worry less about what we planned for when the semester started three months ago.
“Let’s work the problem, people.”
“What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”
In every decent disaster or alien movie, the good guys come in fully stocked with all the guns, food, toys or whatever, ready to take on the the bad guys. Inevitably, something goes terribly wrong and suddenly the good guys are in deep sheep dip.
That’s when you see the scene of the remaining members of the team tossing a bunch of random crap on the table, explaining how much ammo or food or whatever they have left, and it’s never enough. That’s kind of where we all are right now.
It’s always easiest to see what’s wrong and when what’s wrong seems completely overwhelming, it’s always easiest to give up hope. Instead of thinking that way, it is imperative for professors and students to think, “OK, what do we have left here that works?”
Would it be easier if you could stop by my office and get some one-on-one editing? Sure, but now you’re working at the grocery story 12 hours a day, I’m on 26 frickin’ Zoom meetings that should have been emails and the frustration over why we can’t get some together time is really burning holes in our souls.
OK, what can we do that works? Let’s edit online in an asynchronous environment. I’ll move the deadline back a day for the draft, if you promise to respond to the edits with questions before then. First one to hit an epic disaster emails the other.
It’s like the other part of this clip notes: “Let’s work the problem, people.”
“There’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number 8. You’re talking about number 692.”
“We’re not going to do this. We’re not going to go bouncing off the walls for 10 minutes if we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems. Trying to figure out how to stay alive.”
We used to have to do this “crashed on the moon” exercise almost every year when I was in school. Maybe it was because space travel was seemingly more awesome then, or we had fewer CGI dragons or Kardashians to watch on TV. I don’t know, but when I mention it to my students now, they have no idea what I’m talking about.
The principle is simple: You somehow crashed on the moon or landed in the wrong spot and you have 15 items that survived. You need to prioritize them and determine which ones you definitely need to stay alive until help shows up or you can get to the right spot.
The idea was to teach critical thinking and problem solving through prioritization. It was also useful to help identify the psychos in your class, as they were the people who picked the guns first and shot the other people in the lunar party to keep the resources for themselves.
Priorities become crucial at a time like this, which is why it would behoove all of us to keep that in mind. Professors online who have taking this approach have listed a series of questions we should be asking students right now, such as “Do you have a safe place to hole up?” “Do you have enough food?” “Are you physically and mentally healthy enough to continue?”
At this point, showing up for a chem lecture at exactly 1:30 p.m. or whatever should be somewhere in the neighborhood of number 692 in terms of priorities.
The frustration of professors is probably misplaced anger and anxiety as well. Getting booted out of my office so they could disinfect the whole building kind of threw me for a loop. I’m also trying to remember that students are now in a completely new environment, so it’s not just laziness or a bad hangover that might lead to a missed deadline. It can be hard working in a new environment, as I can attest to, given the make-shift office I have in the basement of my house.
Frustration can lead to anger and people boiling over at each other. Professors are often control freaks, um… sorry… “Type-A personalities.” When we suddenly lose control of our environment, we can get really into enforcing rules or cracking down on something. We can also feel hemmed in by all those other folks who seem to be on either the side of “The world is ending and we’re all going to die” or those who are like “Dude, watch me cough on this produce and freak everyone out!”
Guess what? Ten minutes after we send back that snarky email to a student or we start screaming about a deadline, we’re right back where we started.
With the same problems.
Possibly blogging in a basement.
It’s not what we wanted or what we planned on, but it is what we have. It’s like the other great line in here:
“This piece of shit is going to get you home. Because that’s all we have left, Jack.”
“With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”
According to Lovell, the Apollo 13 mission was dubbed “a successful failure,” in that the mission failed, but they managed to successfully dig themselves out of the disaster without having anyone die.
If you watch the final scene of the film in which Gene Kranz (the flight director played by Ed Harris) finally realizes that the ship is back on Earth and the crew is safe, you’ll notice he doesn’t celebrate. He slumps into a chair and presses his finger and thumb onto the bridge of his nose.
The guys were home. They were safe. The job was done.
We often imagine that success is an area in which we do something incredible. We provide the best class or get the best grades or create the best work anyone has ever seen. It’s even more amazing than whatever was the most amazing thing we ever saw.
The truth is that our finest hour is often the one in which the odds are long, the pain is real and success is about avoiding failure. Its when what “I” wanted or what “you” expected becomes what did “we” manage to do together when nothing good seems possible.