Apollo 13 and Our Educational System

In 1995, I sat in a movie theater with my parents and my brother as I watched the drama of the Apollo 13 mission unfold on screen. Granted, this was the movie version of the events – starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and a host of other all-stars – but that didn’t change the fact that I was hooked to the screen, not wanting to even blink and miss a millisecond of the film.

Keep in mind, I wasn’t alive when Apollo 13 launched. It was, after all, April of 1970 and I wouldn’t be born for another 14 years. My parents, however, were alive at the time, and I think they took my brother and I to see the movie not only because of our unending interest in the universe, but also because they wanted to see how these true events played out on the screen. In 1995, when the movie was released, I was preparing to enter 6th grade, so I had no clue how the events resolved themselves. I remember turning to my mom and whispering, “They make it out alive, right?” Always the teacher, my mom just shrugged. “I don’t know,” she whispered back. “Keep watching.”

Spoiler alert: They do make it out alive, and the ending of the film is triumphant and hopeful and everything Hollywood would have wanted it to be.

Apollo 13 quickly became one of my favorite films of all time, but it wasn’t the happy ending that drew me in. It was all of the stuff that had to happen to get to the happy ending that intrigued me. My favorite part of the movie is when one of the NASA guys dumps a box of stuff on the table and says, “OK. We need to get this [holding up a part of the spaceship] to fit into the hole for this [holding up another part] using nothing but that [motioning to the stuff he just dumped on the table].” The best part about it was that they figured it out. This was problem solving at its best. I wanted to be one of those problem-solvers in that room when I grew up.

As you can imagine, when I was flipping through channels last night and saw that the movie was on AMC, I turned it on. I hadn’t watched it in a long time, so I was excited to cuddle up with a blanket and watch it again. Aside from being a little bit heartbroken that I am now officially old enough to remember seeing a movie in the theater that is now showing on AMC, the movie was exactly as I remembered it. This time, even knowing the outcome, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for those three minutes for the ship to make it through the Earth’s atmosphere.

This time, though, I was watching it through a different lens – that of a teacher. Without actually knowing it, in many ways I have actually become one of those problem-solvers in the room. Teaching is constant problem solving; it is always about being able to make something work using limited resources. And, somehow, we always make it happen. In last night’s viewing, though, that scene wasn’t the one that fascinated me. It was one just before that when Ed Harris is talking to another group of problem-solvers, asking them to figure out what the ship is capable of. The room erupts in a chorus of, “The ship wasn’t designed for that!” and “We’ve never tested that before!” Ed Harris stops the nonsense by saying, “I’m not interested in what it was designed to do; I’m interested in what it can do.” Essentially, he was asking these men to think outside of the box and do what it took to figure out a way to get the astronauts home.

In this instance, it wasn’t the problem solving that fascinated me; it was the resistance to it. These men were arguably some of the best and brightest scientists, mathematicians, and engineers that the United States had to offer, and they were resistant to making a piece of equipment do something other than what it was designed to do. Of course, they were reminded that this was a life and death situation and took on the task, but their original reaction was a negative one.

This particularly interests me as an educator. In the 1950’s and onward, there was a huge push in our educational system to emphasize science and math in public schools. In many ways, this was NASA’s doing – during the Cold War, we were afraid that the Russians would make it to the moon before us and, facing a lack of qualified engineers to work in the space program, we needed more and we were hopeful that a push toward math and science in schools would get us there.

However, teaching math and science isn’t the same as teaching critical thinking skills. Sure, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classes are all about solving problems, but they aren’t necessarily about thinking outside the box. That’s where the arts – literature, music, art, etc. – come in. By balancing the STEM classes with a dose of creativity, the end result is a well-balanced approach to problem solving. The resistance of the NASA team in Apollo 13 is a classic example of what too much left brain and not enough right brain can do.

This is just an observation of mine, and could be completely false. Furthermore, I’m talking about a film version of actual events, so who knows how true any of it is at all. However, growing up with an engineer/physicist for a father, I’m thinking a lot of this is more true than not. My dad and I are a lot more alike than I sometimes want to admit, but there is a crucial difference between us: he has made a living in the STEM fields and I have made mine in the arts. As such, he tends to approach everything like a science, and I think of a problem more like an art. My childhood is riddled with stories of my dad and I butting heads because I just couldn’t see why he did things the way he did. I preferred my own solutions, which were creative and worked, but were not necessarily full-proof. He preferred to work out all of the options and come to a solution that worked best. To this day, he won’t do anything unless he’s done it “the right way.”

I’m not criticizing my father here; far from it. There have been many times when I wished I had half of his analytical brain power. I’m only using this as an example of how two approaches to problem solving can be very different, and that having a balance between the two is vital, especially in life or death situations. More than that, having many ways of looking at a situation, whether it’s a problem or not, is crucial. Like Ellie Arroway breathlessly uttered in Carl Sagan’s Contact, “They should have sent a poet.” Her scientific mind could analyze and scientifically explain what she was looking at, but a poet’s mind could explain it in a different way. Both minds capture the beauty, but each has a different perspective.

A balance in our educational system is crucial. There is still a push toward STEM fields in our society and, while I do believe that is a good thing, I also believe that we shouldn’t push so far so as to take the art out of living. Sometimes, even the best and brightest need a different perspective.

Photo Credit: dbking

2 thoughts on “Apollo 13 and Our Educational System

  1. Carrie on

    I love this. For a few reasons. For starters, I also remember seeing Apollo 13 when I was a kid, and I remember loving it for all the reasons you mention.

    But also, I completely agree that teaching arts and humanities is crucial, and those subjects never get enough credit. I struggled with science and math when I was in school, but I credit my English and arts-based classes with helping me develop the critical thinking that, as you point out, is often the key to navigating STEM in the real world.

    Additionally, I love that this whole revelation came about because of a movie. You might’ve read about the real Apollo 13 in school, but a film adaptation made you connect with it on an emotional and personal level and apply it to your own life. That’s exactly why I love the arts, and exactly why I’m so happy that educators like you value the arts.

  2. I totally agree with you. I am an aerospace engineer and I work in ISS Mission Control. It’s not just my engineering degree that I use, the humanities have a place too. My job is equal parts knowing everything (well, within reason) and being able to communicate those things you know effectively. When new people get hired on, they usually pick up technical knowledge easily and have the most problems with what we call the “soft skills,” communication, teamwork, problem resolution… things you don’t learn in an engineering class or a technical manual. I am lucky that I like to write more than I like to do physics, because that creative side of my mind comes in handy here all the time.