The Moral Equivalent Of Apollo

"FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION." THESE ARE THE WORDS OF Gene Kranz, the Apollo 13 flight director played by Ed Harris, and they deserve to linger in the minds of moviegoers at least as long as the superb technical re-creation of the American space program. The film is tightly focused on the immense drama of the aborted mission; beyond astronaut Jim Lovell's daughter in a hippie costume, it pretends to no social comment at all. And yet I couldn't help thinking about the larger ideas this movie's heat shield reflects--not about 1970, but 1995. The real heroes of "Apollo 13"--on screen and in life--are today's villains, namely federal bureaucrats. The paper-shuffling government geeks who (we're informed daily from the House floor) couldn't handle a three-car funeral not only put men on the moon; they rescued them against all odds. Twenty-five years ago, failure was not in their vocabulary. Today, we're told, failure is their first name.

Unless there's an American soldier or airman in danger. Then we briefly suspend our disbelief about the federal government, and remember the miracles. In recent years, this impulse has become a kind of tiny rescue asterisk in our otherwise deep skepticism about what we can accomplish as a nation. When Americans are lost in space (or Bosnia) we pull together and get the job done. But when Americans are lost in America--through terrible education, say, or a broken welfare system--then it's hopeless. Let them come home under their own power. Let the private sector save 'em. Let the states do it.

Ironically, this loss of faith in Washington coincided almost exactly with the staggering accomplishment of the federal Apollo program. The Vietnam war soured the public on the government just as that same government was making history that will be remembered 500 years from now. The emerging bias against government solutions has been plenty justified by horror stories of unconscionable waste. But the bias is also impervious to evidence of success. The formulation went: "If we put a man on the moon, why can't we [fill in the blank]?" The assumption behind the question was that nothing ever filled in the blank: the moon was a glorious exception. In fact, in the years since, the U.S. government essentially ended hunger (through food stamps), cleaned up polluted air and water (through federal regulation), transformed the role of women and blacks (with routes for upward mobility). Almost no one stopped to notice.

It's true that today's problems are less amenable to NASA-style big fixes than yesterday's. The American family module is much easier to break and harder to repair than the lunar module. Even for technical problem solving, mainframes and command-and-control hierarchies are being replaced all over the world by PCs and decentralized systems, which work better.

But this development is not at odds with the message of Apollo 13. In fact, the small quality-circle teams of Houston technicians on the ground anticipated 1990s-style problem solving. At one point they saved the crew from fatal CO[sub 2] poisoning by feverishly improvising a device with duct tape, then asking the astronauts to replicate their experiment. It worked. They literally fit a square peg into a round hole.

Social problem solving is often just a variation on these challenges. Simplistic as it was, Ross Perot had a point when he argued in 1992 that we need to get under the hood, identify what's wrong with education, welfare and the rest, experiment with pilot programs, then apply the workable solutions nationally. In the case of Apollo 13, this took the form of grounded astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) and others experimenting under extreme time pressure with solutions in the Houston flight simulator, then telling Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) to apply the ideas in space.

Such thinking is light-years removed from today's debate, where replicating an idea nationally has become unfashionable. Newt Gingrich's approach is to eloquently conjure the problem, but offer no solution, His favorite sound bite is: "You cannot maintain civilization with 12-year-olds having children, with 13-year-olds killing each other. with 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, with 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can't even read." Then he argues that Washington simply can't figure out how to change those conditions. National goals for education? No way. And don't dare compare them to JFK's goals for space. If the states want to try, fine, but forget the idea of a national mission.

If this kind of thinking applied to the space program, Apollo 13 would still be orbiting with three dead astronauts. Texas was not about to rescue Lovell while Colorado figured out another way to get Jack Swigert back to earth. The private sector could not have handled the problem. Gingrich understands this; space exploration is an exception to his thinking about the role of the federal government. He supports it.

It's the implications of that distinction that are so troubling. Are Lovell Swigert and Haise somehow more American, more deserving of heroic national efforts, than the rest of us, just trying to get prepared for brutal re-entry into the global work force? Of course, struggling Americans ultimately have to make their own way back from the dark side of the moon, just as the crew of Apollo 13 did. But they, too, could use a little help from those imaginative federal bureaucrats on the ground. To William James's moral equivalent of war, add the social equivalent of Apollo. If the plastic doesn't work, try the duct tape. That's our nation up there, and as the clock ticks down, the mission has not been completed. Failure should not be an option.