My family calls March and April the “lost months” due to COVID-19. The term reminds me of the book “Lost Moon” by astronaut Jim Lovell. Lovell commanded Apollo 13 when an explosion crippled the ship and forced the crew to abandon the moon landing to return safely to earth. The explosion sparked the famous phrase “Houston, we have a problem.”
“Lost Moon” became the award-winning movie “Apollo 13.” (Another inspiring movie relevant to our times is “Hidden Figures,” which tells the remarkable story of Black women at NASA who helped make the Apollo missions possible.) Apollo 13 Commander Lovell was played by Tom Hanks (recently recovered from contracting COVID-19 in Australia). The events took place in April 1970, almost exactly 50 years ago, yet the dramatic story of Apollo 13 has important parallels for us today.
The explosion that left Apollo 13 leaking oxygen into space forced Mission Control to order the crew to seal off fuel cells necessary for the lunar landing. Before flipping the switches, Lovell says “We just lost the moon.” These three astronauts, and thousands of others at NASA, had trained all their lives for this mission. And with no warning, their dream was gone.
COVID-19, in so many ways, has caused many “lost moon” moments for us all. Lost loved ones, church services and weddings. Lost school years and graduations. Lost sports, arts and cultural events. Lost jobs and the threat of a lost national economy. Lost freedoms. Events we have anticipated our entire lives have been taken from us. If we did not grieve these losses, we would not be human.
But Apollo 13 moves beyond loss to inspiration. In the blink of an eye, the mission changed to bringing the astronauts safely home again. Flight Director Gene Kranz utters two equally famous lines: “Work the problem, people!” and “Failure is not an option!” NASA’s focus becomes saving three astronauts against all odds. Extraordinary feats of teamwork, science, engineering and ingenuity turn the lunar module into a lifeboat and create a splashdown celebrated around the world.
Everything we learn in Kirkland’s Emergency Operations Center strengthens my belief that like Apollo 13, our community, our nation and our world will survive the COVID-19 pandemic. We are working the problem. Failure is not an option. Our ability to combat the virus grows by leaps and bounds. The greatest minds in America (and the world) in government, science, technology, epidemiology, medicine, manufacturing, finance and more are focused on solving COVID-19. Daily we hear of testing machine breakthroughs that deliver results in minutes, not days. Vaccines and treatments are rapidly under development. Stories abound of innovation and entrepreneurial solutions, from 3D printer nasal swabs to furniture stores building masks and personal protective equipment.
Trillions of dollars are being invested by the federal government to stabilize the economy and fight the virus. Billions more are being invested by creative problem solvers like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Google, Apple, GM and industry leaders throughout the United States. State and local governments are helping impacted residents and businesses. Neighbors are caring for each other with extraordinary acts of kindness. When “We the People” unite, we are awe-inspiring. The tide is turning. Victory over the virus is inevitable.
Finally, Apollo 13 teaches us that a changed mission can still be a successful and rewarding one. Apollo 13 did not land on the moon. But it is one of the few flights in human history that orbited the moon and returned home. NASA emerged a stronger organization. And the astronauts went on to productive lives. The loss we feel today from COVID-19 is real. There is no timetable on how long one should grieve. But when the time is right, I encourage you to seek out the changed missions and see their value. We can also emerge stronger than before. This time of staying at home has given us unprecedented opportunities to connect. This is a chance to forge new relationships and create new paths to replace those that are lost.
Above all, this pandemic shows us what is truly important — family, friends, love, kindness, compassion, health and happiness. May these blessings surround you and your loved ones as we overcome this challenging time together.