Thursday, April 16, 2015

45 Years of Thrilling Truth: Rediscovering Apollo 13

 
On this blog about truth, beauty, and literature, most of the adventure stories I write about are fictional. But every once in a while, I encounter those absolutely true adventure stories which are all the more marvelous. The saga of Apollo 13--NASA's "successful failure"--is one of those tales.
 
Tomorrow, April 17, is the 45th anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 13. Inside that tiny command module which landed safely in the Pacific Ocean were astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. These three men had just been through a four-day ordeal unlike any other in the annals of survival stories--guiding, with the help of the Mission Control technicians on the ground, a dangerously malfunctioning spacecraft back to earth from 200,000 miles away.
 
For those of you not already familiar with this incredible account of courage, teamwork, and ingenuity, I cannot enough recommend Jim Lovell's own book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (co-authored by Jeffrey Kluger). The popular 1995 movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, was based off this book. The movie was actually my first introduction to the story. I watched it over and over as a kid, though I didn't really understand much of it until later. Although naturally a dramatized and somewhat abridged account of the events, the film is thrilling and well done. It's definitely worth a viewing (or a re-viewing, if you've seen it before!). The book is even more exciting. Lost Moon gives the reader a much fuller grasp of the story, including the backgrounds of the main characters, Apollo 13's place in the context of the NASA moon missions, and explanations of the highly-technical spacecraft operations in layman's terms--all woven into a plot so skillful and tight, you'll forget you're reading a non-fiction memoir and think you've plunged into a novel.
 
This past winter, I read the book for the first time, and watched the movie again for the first time in a few years. I was struck very deeply by the romance of the tale--the improbable catastrophe and the even more improbable triumph. And so this high-tech, space-age rescue story came out in my own words as a poem.
 
The references to Ulysses, Ithaca, and other names and places from ancient Homer, are not just my love of the classics randomly making themselves known. The name of Apollo 13's command module was actually Odyssey. (How NASA expected to blast a ship into space named after the most misfortune-ridden quest in literature, and not have a little trouble, is beyond me.)
 
Here, then, is my own retelling of this remarkable tale, in verse. It is dedicated to the three astronauts and Mission Control team of Apollo 13, and all those others who took part in or witnessed the extraordinary events of one April in 1970.
 

 
Crucible of Love: Apollo 13, April 17, 1970
By Mary Jessica Woods
 
Reentry
The placid arc of earth fills up the glass
As Odyssey spins silent homeward-bound—
No great Greek fate-tossed warship, lone-captained,
But a thimble of steel crafted for airless seas,
Guided by three chilled crew with rudders of flame.
Four days the ship has fought, a blasted cripple,
Tracing a giddy whorl through death’s void,
Brilliant with cold stars and a starkling sun;
Four days in the gray tiered fort of Mission Control
A thousand have strained at their screens, marking the numbers,
Nursing the Odyssey’s slowing breath and blood;
Four days. Now, minutes from Ithaca,
All guidance is shed, all tillers are abandoned,
Surrendering to the fierce mother-love of Earth.
 
For the mother cries for the children of her body:
The metal drawn from the hard depths of her womb,
The mortals raised in the bounds of her warm breath—
These she clasps close again with a deadly joy,
An engulfing kiss of fire, a crushing strength;
Her fragile sons, knit of soft flesh and bones,
Plunge, trusting, through her crucible of love.
These men who have survived the span of space,
Now merely seek to endure the Earth’s embrace.
 
Splashdown
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.
Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
The silence on the surface swallows hearts
Of millions: wives, children, parents, friends;
Technicians, flight controllers dragging smokes;
Navy men glassing the South Pacific surge;
And strangers by the hundreds of thousands,
Willing, praying their mortal brothers home.
The sizzle of the empty radio
Is, for three minutes, the smolder of burning hope;
And for the fourth, the crackling choke of fear;
And by the fifth, the sputter of despair—
Again the hopeless greeting ventures out:
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
 
Of a sudden the radio gives a gasp—
A raspy, rushing hack of stirring life—
And the Odyssey replies to a heart-stopped world.
A roar goes up, a million pulses freed.
Ulysses once hailed his wife and son; now,
The whole world is Telemachus, Penelope,
To three men strapped exhausted in their ship,
Watching the scarlet ‘chutes, with quiet eyes,
Spin like three jewels against the silken skies.


 ~ Poem Ó Mary Jessica Woods, 2015


 
Photo credit: "Mission Control Celebrates - GPN-2000-001313" by NASA - Great Images in NASA Description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mission_Control_Celebrates_-_GPN-2000-001313.jpg#/media/File:Mission_Control_Celebrates_-_GPN-2000-001313.jpg