Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Apollo 13 -- turning tragedy into triumph

Director: Ron Howard, 1995 (PG-13) 

On May 25, 1961, President  Kennedy announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. That goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, stepped onto the Moon's surface. The space race had been won.

By the time Apollo 13 came along, space flights had become routine, not worthy of TV coverage. That is, until Commander Lovell (Tom Hanks) uttered the now famous words, "Houston, we have a problem."

Howard's film takes us back to the true story of this ill-fated mission. Though the facts are well known, he manages to retain the suspense in this disaster film by focusing on the astronauts, their families and the mission control crew. Using the claustrophobic insides of the rocket's flight deck and Houston's ground control, the plot remains tight and taut.

As almost an omen of the impending mission, the astronauts scheduled for Apollo 13 are bumped out due to disease exposure. That puts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) in the drivers' seats of the rocket. But when blood work shows Mattingly has measles, he himself is replaced at the 11th hour by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), breaking up a team that had worked for months together -- another bad sign. But the mission proceeds. And soon after take-off an accident causes them to start losing oxygen and then power. At that point, they "just lost the moon," the title of Lovell's autobiography on which this film is based.

Once this tragic accident has occurred, the film moves into focus. While Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) and her family ponders the possibility of never seeing Jim again, it falls on the ground control in Houston to turn this tragedy into a triumph. And it is Mission Control Commander Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) who has the bold leadership and the best lines. When the NASA director comments, "This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced," Krantz responds, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour."

It is the focus on the people that draws us into this film. But it is the workings of the mission control crew, including Mattingly, that gives us the lessons to consider.

Kranz commands his crew, "We've never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option." Sometimes, at home or at work, we declare we will try to do something, to complete a project or task. The word "try" implies failure. We might succeed, but we might not. And if we try, that is enough. But that was not good enough for Kranz or the stranded astronauts. The message was clear. We cannot fail. We need to adopt this kind of mindset in all that we do, especially our ministry. When we do, we will give more than 100%, we will be totally committed, as though someone's life depended on it. For Lovell and crew, that was true. For our unsaved neighbors, their spiritual lives depend on it. Will we take Kranz's words as our evangelistic mission, alongside the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20)?

As they started to realize the dilemma and argue among themselves, Kranz told his crew, "Let's work the problem people. Let's not make things worse by guessing." Too often, when the smelly stuff hits the fan, we move into blame mode. It's someone else's fault, so they should fix it. But that usually does not solve the problem; rather, it compounds it, since it adds another layer to work through. Kranz cut through this. So must we. We must refuse to play the blame game. Instead, we must be focused like a laser beam on the problem, tackling it head on, working together, until we have a solution that will work.

Team work is the final theme. With so little power to work with, the three astronauts had no computer, no heat and little hope. They were relying on the team of engineers in Houston. In particular, they were relying on grounded pilot Ken Mattingly. Kicked off the flight crew in error, he could have slunk away and lost himself in resentment or anger. Instead, he put his friends above himself and set to work, to find a way to help them land with only enough power to heat a coffee pot.

When we feel passed over, at work or at church, we can choose to mope and blame, or we can get on with life, seeking to serve under the new boss or leader. Ultimately, our life is in God's hands and he moves us as he wills. By accepting this, we are freed up to become better team players, helping others without regrets. In the church this is especially true, as God has gifted each of us differently so we might serve one another in different ways (1 Cor. 12:4-6). We cannot all be the voice that sings or speaks; we cannot all be the hands that build (1 Cor. 12:12-26). We must serve in the way we have been designed by God. In this way, he will get the glory and we will find the peace and joy.

In the end, the astronauts are given the instructions on how to power up to be able to come down to earth. They must trust their fellow NASA workers on the ground. And in the tense moments when radio communication is lost, everyone on earth is wondering if they have done enough to make the new mission, of bringing them home alive, a success. And when the communication is restored, cheers ring out and tears flow. At that point, we are all one team, one family rejoicing in the safe return of three human beings. This might be an imperfect picture of the rejoicing around God's throne that occurs in heaven when even one human being is saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Lk. 15:7).

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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