Dave's 88-year-old father has been involved in the space program most of his career. We have always been interested and supportive of the space program and the benefits that it has brought to all humankind. When Dave served as John Denver's environmental and political advisor, support for the space program was one of his top six priorities.
Recently, at the Kennedy Space Center, Dave picked up an Apollo 13 hat for his dad. It had the wording, "Failure is not an Option". The hat seemed fitting as his dad had been told a couple years ago that he had only three days to live. He didn't accept the prognosis and sought other treatment. For him failure was not an option so the hat seemed quite fitting for him to wear in the event he has to go to the hospital again.
Recently we heard a podcast where the NASA Space program was used as a metaphor for how we might better respond to critical environmental issues of our time.
This naturally caught our attention.
The story begins with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. This was the mission where Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. The landing for this mission was tense and uncertain but they made it. The famous words were spoken by Neil Armstrong: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
The Apollo 12 mission then followed with a second successful mission to the moon.
The astronauts were able to land much easier this time, spend more time on the moon, and gained more knowledge, skills, and furthered the NASA Apollo project.
Apollo 13 began its journey to the moon with the goal of further gains. Once again the launch was successful. Before the crew could land on the moon an explosion crippled the service module. The famous words were then relayed, "Houston, we have a problem".
At first there was disbelief in Houston; the thinking was that some technical glitch was probably just giving false information. 15 full minutes past before Mission Control in Houston realized this was now a critical life and death crisis.
At that point the Apollo 13 mission was abandoned and the new mission was survival. The astronauts had to shift their priorities to the all out task of making the space craft life sustaining until they could return to Earth. This meant they needed to conserve water, get the carbon dioxide out of the air they were breathing, conserve the energy from the batteries, conserve the air needed for the last hours of the journey, learn how to adapt to uncomfortable temperature changes, conserve the limited potable water, and find ways to use the resources of the lunar module not for exploration but as a lifeboat for their survival.
Despite the great challenge and uncertainty of the return voyage, failure to both Mission Control and the astronauts was not an option.
With Mission Control putting all their focus on a new mission, and the courage and support for each other among the astronauts, all were brought home safely to what NASA called a "successful failure".
Our state of planet Earth continues to become more perilous as we are fast approaching and in some cases have already surpassed the planetary boundaries for sustainability.
Today, we are threatened with many challenges that science has labeled our planetary boundaries. In an article in Nature, Johan Rocstrom and his co-authors argue that to avoid catastrophic environmental change, humanity must stay within defined planetary boundaries. If one boundary is transgressed, then safe levels for other processes could also be under serious risk. The planetary boundaries include: climate change, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol loading, chemical pollution, land system changes, ozone depletion, overload of phosphorus and nitrates, and decreasing fresh water resources.
Just as the Apollo 13 mission aborted its original goals and its passengers focused on their own survival boundaries, crew aboard Spaceship Earth are being called to change their mission in order to live within our planetary boundaries. There is a need to abort the mission of business as usual to a new mission of creating a sustainable planet that functions within the limits of the planetary boundaries.
Like the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 this will mean using our resources more creatively, making sure our air is clean without to much ozone or carbon emissions, that there is potable drinking water for all, that chemicals don't contaminate the space ships water and food supply, and all passengers are able to be able to have the basic survival needs to complete the journey.
Like the 15 minute pause in Houston where there was disbelief that the Apollo space craft was in trouble despite the warning signs, there has been the same kind of disbelief among many that Spaceship Earth is in trouble.
The question now is: Will enough people on Spaceship Earth realize that we have already exceeded some of the planetary boundaries and are dangerously close to exceeding others? Like the Apollo astronauts we need to change our mission.
There are some important lessons that we can learn from the Apollo 13 experience including:
Scientists from around the world have sounded the alarm. Many in government, higher education, NGO's, and business sectors have started to respond. Some encouraging examples include:
To bring back the Apollo 13 crew safely, it took the cooperation of mission control, the astronauts, and many supporting scientists and other experts to use the ship's resources wisely.
Imagine if there was a coordinated effort of uncompromising integrity between governments, institutions of higher education, NGO's, and corporations. Imagine if they all worked together with a shared vision to have Spaceship Earth return to operation within safe planetary boundaries.
The simple truth is that like the Apollo 13 team, it will take bold leadership willing to acknowledge that we have serious problems on planet Earth, are willing to work to create a shared vision, sense of community, a positive culture that is committed to success, and that they really get it, that failure is not an option.
Dr. David Randle is President & CEO of the Whale Center. Dr. Reese Halter is an Earth Doctor; Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology, conservation biologist at Cal Lu University and public speaker.