Houston, We Have A Problem

Curtis R. Joseph, Jr./Opinion

Like many in this part of the country, my family and I have been coping with the winter storm that has besieged our area. It goes without saying that this is unlike any Mardi Gras that I’ve ever experienced. There were no parades or socially-distanced parties to attend. In their place, were movies, comfort food, books and solitude. Nevertheless, we remain blessed to be on this side of the dirt. We have each other, food on the table and a warm house to call home. That said, there are certainly times when it’s easier to count your blessings. On other occasions, we fall too easily into the “why me” mentality. This morning was one such occasion.

As I walked through our house, checking water pressure, I came upon my daughter’s shower. I turned the faucet…nothing…not even a drip. In all of our precautionary measures, I’d failed to drip the water in her shower, which faces an outside wall. Consequently, the pipes to her shower were frozen. The homeowner in me immediately began doing the calculations. How much will this cost? And when can the plumber get to me knowing that so many others may be worse off? Once I got past the economic uncertainty, I phoned our plumber (insert shameless plug for Joe Baca with Affordable Plumbing of Shreveport), who told me exactly what I didn’t want to hear. I needed to go underneath the house with a hair dryer and thaw the pipes.

For those who do not know me, I run a notch over 6’5’’. So, crawling under a house, in tight spaces, is not my forte. But there I was, under the house, in 10-degree weather, hair dryer in hand. During the 25 minutes or so that it took to get the water flowing, I began to lose sensation in my fingertips. While I continued to direct the heat in various directions, having no idea what I was doing, my mind turned to the astronauts on Apollo 13.

Just the day before, I’d watched the Smithsonian Channel’s ‘The Real Story: Apollo 13’. The production moved between interviews with the astronauts and their ground crew and Ron Howard, who directed the movie, which featured Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise. Many will recall the famous phrase “Houston, we have a problem”, even if they haven’t actually seen the movie. Although the essence of the phrase was, in fact, uttered by a couple of the astronauts shortly following the mechanical failure that doomed their mission, the wording was slightly tweaked by Ron Howard to add dramatic effect.

I make mention of this particular Apollo moon mission because of the way the astronauts handled themselves after the explosion that damaged their spacecraft. At that very moment, they realized that landing on the moon was no longer their objective. Not only would they be unable to land on the moon but returning safely to Earth would take a Herculean effort from them and the ground crew.

As a result of the referenced explosion, although their spacecraft carried sufficient oxygen for the return trip, they were unable to remove carbon dioxide from the cabin. One of the scientists on the ground, devised a plan for the astronauts to fashion a filter from materials that were available to them. Then, ground control communicated the protocol to the astronauts, who were able to complete the task. Problem solved. The device was referred to as “the mailbox”. Jim Lovell (the astronaut portrayed by Tom Hanks) later described the improvised device as “a fine example of cooperation between ground and space.”

But they weren’t out of the woods just yet. As the spacecraft ran low on electricity and water, the temperature inside the cabin dropped to as low as 3 degrees Celsius (38 degrees Fahrenheit). As you can imagine, making precise calculations and executing moves that require fine motor coordination in those conditions required the kind of resolve that most can never muster. The least I could do was hold the hair dryer and thaw the pipes to my daughter’s shower.

Mainly, I reference the Apollo 13 story because, during the interview with astronaut Jim Lovell, he stated that there were a few overly dramatic scenes in the film that were not accurate as it relates to what actually occurred within the close confines of their spacecraft. In fact, the three astronauts complained to director Ron Howard about the inaccuracies. But Howard insisted that the drama needed to be a part of the film “because viewers will need it”. However, according to the astronauts, given their precarious situation, more than 240,000 miles from Earth, in a hobbled spacecraft, they didn’t have time for drama. Every second counted. They had to keep their minds clear and focused.

I offer this example to stress the point that we don’t really need the drama that fills so much of our animosity toward one another. Instead, if we focused our various talents and energy on solving common problems, we can safely navigate our common vessel. After all, we’re in it together.

As the astronauts hurled toward Earth at speeds in excess of 25,000 mph, the world watched with bated breath. Jack Gould of The New York Times stated, “Apollo 13, which came so close to tragic disaster, in all probability united the world in mutual concern more fully than another successful landing on the Moon would have.” They’d worked together to turn tragedy into triumph. On April 17, 1970, they landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. And, after those pipes in my daughter’s shower thawed, I took the best shower I’d ever taken.


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