HUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

I wasn’t aware John Glenn was the first man to orbit earth. What an adventure that must have been. Everything worked on paper. If he reached a given altitude and then used his retro-rockets to adjust his speed to the prediction written in his memo he should be in orbit. That’s how the numbers predicted it.

It was a test of his fellow-man. Faith in teamwork. Faith that the laws of physics. Faith in things working as the mathematicians said they would. But what if it didn’t work out? Was there a plan B?

The company that won the contract to put a man in orbit had to earn that privilege by submitting the lowest realistic bid. In order to beat out their competition they would need to be more efficient – cut costs as much as possible. Where would those cut take place? Manpower? Materials? Ideas?

I don’t recall who, but one of our early astronauts was asked what he was thinking about as he waited atop the vehicle that would soon lift him into space. “That I was sitting in a product created, built, and delivered by the lowest bidder,” he replied.

Later, while en route to the moon aboard Apollo 13 (?) the crew encountered a very serious problem. They lost power, among other things. They radioed back to Houston for assistance.

An article I read many years ago stated that – at that time – if everyone who worked for NASA had been issued paper and pencils and made no mathematical errors the answer would have required about 100 years.

But they only had three days.

Enlisting a computer with about three kilobytes of RAM – equal to a dozen or so pages of text, they provided the crew aboard this disabled spacecraft with the data they required – when to fire their retro rockets and for how long to let them burn.

(If Earth were a nine-inch dinner plate the path the space craft would need to follow would be about as thin a sheet of copy paper. There would be no second chances.)

That information furnished the proper velocity to slingshot around the moon and then coast back to Earth. Armed with those numbers the crew returned home to tell their stories.

AMAZING!

But none of this would have been possible without teamwork, the ability of humans to share the burden of a common goal.

Where do they find these people capable of this?

I have no idea. But John Glenn was one of them.

May he rest in peace.

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