‘Routine’ space travel doesn’t exist

There is a scene in Ron Howard’s acclaimed film “Apollo 13” in which the wife of the moon mission’s commander takes her young family to the Space Center in Houston thinking she would be watching a nationally televised broadcast from the spacecraft as it hurtled toward the moon.

NASA’s press officer informed Marilyn Lovell that the networks decided against carrying the broadcast. No one really cared about the April 1970 mission, he told Jim Lovell’s wife. Space flight had gotten to be “routine,” he said. Marilyn Lovell and her children watched a broadcast, all right, but it was beamed only to the control center.

Well, as it turned out, the Apollo 13 mission turned out to be anything but “routine.” The command module suffered an explosion; NASA ground controllers moved the three-man crew into the lunar lander; they had the lander slingshot around the moon and it headed home — in a hurry. The ground crew had to recalculate every measurement. Everyone on the ground and in the spacecraft had to improvise. Pope Paul VI and other religious leaders led the world in prayer for the safety of the crew. The craft landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.

Routine trip? Hardly.

The Apollo 13 mission ended happily for everyone. The space shuttle Columbia mission ended far differently a decade ago. It was on Feb. 1, 2003 that the space ship commanded by Amarillo’s Rick Husband broke apart on re-entry over Texas. Everyone died. The world went into grief. NASA suspended further flights until it could probe what went so terribly wrong on that beautiful Saturday morning.

PBS’s “NOVA” will be re-aired Thursday night at 9 on KACV-TV. “Space Shuttle Disaster” will take us back to that terrible day when Amarillo lost one of its proud sons to a horrifying tragedy.

The broadcast should serve to remind us that these adventures are the opposite of routine. They are dangerous, potentially deadly and they involve great skill and, yes, heroism from those who carry these missions out.

When the United States once again sends human beings into space, we never should lose sight of the dangers that await the brave men and women who put themselves into harm’s way.


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