A 2010 National Commencement Address
Based on the 40th Anniversary Celebrations of
Apollo 11 and Apollo 13
Former Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 Warning System Engineer
“The Eagle has landed.” “Houston, we have a problem.”
An Apollo 11 or Apollo 13 Future?
A half century ago, I attended a graduation like this one, giving a 15 minute talk, the valedictory message. I still have my notes from that evening in May of 1960. What an idealist I was! Looking back, I was so naïve, thinking college and my future would be like high school. I had a basketball scholarship to Rice so not only would I compete for top scholastic honors at Rice, but I’d be on my way to the NBA after All-American honors.
But, sad to say, it was not to be. Yes, I made records at Rice…lowest shooting percentage in Owl history, lowest grade ever made in Math 300 Differential Equations, but I DID GRADUATE!
I became a NASA employee, and still am, assigned the warning systems for Neil Armstrong’s Columbia and Eagle spacecraft. I monitored their warning systems, on that Sunday, July 20, 1969, when these ships triumphed for America being the first to journey to and land men on the Moon.
Likewise, I was monitoring Apollo 13’s warning system at the Manned Spacecraft Center, the evening of April 13th, 1970, two score years ago last month, when I heard in my headset, Tom Hanks, I mean Jim Lovell, call out “Houston, We’ve Had a Problem!”
My alarm system was the first alert of a malfunction that should have been fatal - had it not been for the heroism of the crew, the perseverance and dedication of the flight control and engineering teams, and, yes, because of world-wide prayer for a successful outcome.
I’d like to compare those two missions today in light of what the future holds for you, the graduates of America, as well as all of us, your support team, past, present and future.
We would all like an Apollo 11 future. By that I mean a relatively unimpeded voyage to whatever goals we’ve set for ourselves. But most don’t know that Apollo 11 was fraught with the same types of near tragedy and potential hardships that Apollo 13 encountered. I do because I was equally involved in both missions.
For example, there was Apollo 11’s lunar descent when my alarm system rang nuisance alarms that had to be ignored, and then Neil Armstrong’s emergency take-over from the automated landing system. Had he not steered Eagle down, a fatal crash into a lunar boulder field might have ensued.
Then, few know that the Eagle nearly exploded at Tranquility Base shortly after lunar touchdown. A fuel vent pipe was frozen. The tank’s pressure was ascending. A disaster was imminent. Then for some inexplicable reason, the plumbing thawed, saving the crew.
Now, I can readily make parallels to exactly what all of us have faced and will continue to face. President Kennedy had said it, and I listened as a student in Rice Stadium, “There will be high costs and hardships, as well as high rewards.” And so it was with Apollo 11 as it will be in each of your lives and mine.
Now I always ask, “How many have seen the movie, APOLLO 13?” But the better question is, “Who has not seen it?” To the first, all hands rise…to the second, perhaps, a single hand in a large audience. And if I ask what statement do you remember from the movie, most will say, Tom Hanks voicing “Houston, we have a problem!”
That is not exactly what I heard in my head-set…but Hollywood adapted “Had a problem” to “Have a problem.” And each of you will make the same statement, about future problems, as you set sail from our meeting today. But it’s great to know that your parents, instructors, and community have been your mission control to turn your “having a problem” into the past tense of “had a problem.”
Now, all view Apollo 13 as a problem fraught moon-mission compared to Apollo 11. Most would agree that they’d rather not have an Apollo 13 future. But among all the manned missions flown over the entire course of human space exploration, the most inspiring and well-known, and admired throughout the world is the rescue of Apollo 13. It is even more revered than man’s first landing mission, Apollo 11. And that is because of the courage to overcome overwhelming odds and succeed despite the peril, despite the cost, despite the hardship.
On the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 13 rescue, this past April 13th, the HOUSTON CHRONICLE featured a front page article about the phrase HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM. Among famous movie quotes, it ranked in the top fifty. But that’s not the quote I most remember from the movie. I like FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION. In fact, I did a Google search of both phrases, “Failure is not an option” won 289,000 to “Problem’s” 279,000.
The Houston radio station KTRH 740 AM interviewed me that morning about my recollections of Apollo 13, and that is what I was able to close with, “Failure was not an option,” when we were faced with life-threatening obstacles.
Martin Luther King, Jr., put it in these words in 1963,
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Then President, Theodore Roosevelt had phrased it like this almost a century ago,
"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." – Theodore Roosevelt
…and this is what each of you will experience as we leave here, May the words of Gene Kranz, Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Theodore Roosevelt, be your strength, your motto, your creed!
I want to close with what I heard John Kennedy speak about going to the Moon. His message burned in my heart as I sat there that September 12th, 1962 as a junior engineering student. It led to my NASA career.
“Many years ago, the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever .embarked,”
Likewise, you will be setting sail on your GREATEST ADVENTURE ON WHICH YOU WILL EVER HAVE EMBARKED.
As President Kennedy wished for me nearly a half century past, I ask God’s blessing on you, and as Scott Carpenter encouraged John Glenn, GODSPEED TO YOU AMERICA’S CLASS OF 2010! THANK YOU.