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Ben Tullis: Remembering the lessons of Apollo 13 and the value of a human life

SHARE Ben Tullis: Remembering the lessons of Apollo 13 and the value of a human life

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the explosion that crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft and brought about the “successful failure” of the mission that nearly killed the three astronauts on board the ship — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise.

Apollo 13 showed, perhaps more insightfully than any other event in American history, the value of a human life. And that lesson is one that should be reinforced today as the nation and the world face a humanitarian crisis of refugees and as Utah looks to solve the issue of homelessness.

With Apollo 13, the mission turned from landing on the moon (the failure) to the flight controllers in Houston fighting to help the three astronauts keep the ship together long enough to get home. The crew traveled 248,655 miles — the farthest anyone has ever traveled from Earth — and circled the moon before making it back to Earth alive (the success) on April 17, 1970.

The astronauts went through tremendous hardships as their spacecraft ran low on power and heat. In addition to experiencing the extreme stress of not knowing if they’d survive, the astronauts ran low on water and had to execute dangerous and time-sensitive maneuvers to get the ship back on track to reach Earth and give themselves a shot at survival.

In one of the more dramatic moments of the event, the carbon dioxide removal system in the lunar module (the spacecraft that would have taken two of the astronauts to the moon) couldn’t keep up with the added third person and the CO2 levels became dangerously high.

To solve this potential disaster, some NASA engineers in Houston were given an assignment to literally find a way to fit a square peg in a round hole — and they could only do it with the tools and materials that the astronauts had on board with them.

They did it. The astronauts were able to follow their instructions and complete the makeshift repairs, and the carbon dioxide removal system worked well the rest of the flight.

At the time of the Apollo 13 incident, an estimated 3.7 billion people were living on planet Earth, with 205 million living in the United States. An important question everyone involved with the rescue operation needed to answer for themselves was this: Did the lives of three men — who weren’t even on Earth — matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Letting the astronauts perish in space certainly would have been the much easier option. The astronauts knew the risks of traveling in space and the odds were highly against them anyway.

Yet no one, then or now, would argue that the astronauts’ lives weren’t worth saving, even though the effort was difficult and time-consuming and increased the cost of the mission. People all over the world prayed, and even America’s Cold War and space race foe, the Soviet Union, offered to help in any way to get the astronauts home alive.

Today, more than 65 million refugees have been forced to flee their homes in the Middle East. In Utah, according to the 2016 Point-in-Time count in the Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, 1,810 people were experiencing homelessness last year.

Every one of these refugees and homeless individuals is just as important as three astronauts in space in 1970.

As with the NASA engineers who had to come up with a creative solution to solve a crisis in space, politicians and leaders today must make it a priority to find ways to resolve the refugee and homelessness crises and provide relief to those who are suffering before it is too late.

Tackling the refugee crisis will take time. Solving the homelessness issues in Utah will take money. The lessons of Apollo 13 show that human lives are worth the time and expense that are sacrificed — even when all seems lost and there doesn’t seem to be any hope for those involved.

Every human life matters, whether it is one of the 65 million refugees in the Middle East, a person without a home in Utah or an astronaut in space.