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This article was published on April 15, 2020

Ingenuity saved Apollo 13 — it could save us from coronavirus as well

Ingenuity saved Apollo 13 — it could save us from coronavirus as well

In 1970, the world stopped to root for the Apollo 13 crew. Entire families bunched around the TV, as thousands of people from different cultures gathered in prayer for the brave astronauts. It was a week filled with nail-biting tension.

“If something can go wrong, it will usually be at the worst time.”

It looked like Apollo 13 had been hit by Murphy´s law. Suddenly, NASA´s third attempt to land on the moon became the biggest and the most difficult rescue mission ever seen. Fortunately, the extraordinary ability of the crew and mission control team saved their lives.

Teams on the ground — and human ingenuity — saved the crew of Apollo 13. Could that same spirit help save lives today? Image credit: NASA

Apollo 13: Turning failure into success

It was April 11, 1970. Apollo 13 took off without a hitch. After just two human missions to the Moon, the mission already didn’t hold the same novelty it had with Apollo 11. This journey to the Moon didn’t result in the same commotion in the press as previous flights had only a year before.

Things remained quite monotonous at first until on April 13, when everything changed. The team was performing a routine procedure in the service module tank when they heard an explosion. Astronauts noticed gas leaking — It was oxygen.

Closeup of the lunar surface
A recreation of the views seen by the crew of Apollo 13, as they raced around the Earth, headed home. Image credit: Video from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, video from NASA, editing and .gif creation by The Cosmic Companion.

Soon, they realized they would never step on the Moon. They were disappointed — who wouldn’t be? But worse than watching their dream fade away was having to fight for survival.

How ingenuity saved the Apollo 13 crew

Against all odds and without ever having simulated such a situation, the team had to rely on ingenuity.

After the explosion, they had to move to the landing module, using it as a lifeboat. For the next days, they had to face a series of unfortunate events such as lack of energy, stress, sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, and water rationing.

Besides that, they had a problem removing carbon dioxide. The square lithium hydroxide canisters were not compatible with the round openings in the landing module system. To solve this problem, mission control had to be quick and creative. Using duct tape and other materials, they built an apparatus that the crew could copy.

Mission control did not rest until they found a way to safely bring the spacecraft back to the Earth. They used the Aquarius decent engine to place the ship on a return path, passing behind the moon. The service module, damaged by the explosion, was removed. On April 17, the capsule reentered Earth’s atmosphere, and the astronauts landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.

How can we use Apollo´s 13 lessons to overcome the coronavirus pandemic?

Jim Lovell reads about the flight of Apollo 13 after arriving safely back on Earth. Someday, this pandemic will also be behind us. Image credit: NASA

With the coronavirus, we can all feel the same level of uncertainty that the team did. We’re experiencing a new, challenging and unexpected situation. No nation was prepared for this.

We´ll have to rely on human ingenuity to fight this virus, using the resources we have available, just as mission control did.

Intriguing ideas

We are not recommending any of these ideas or inventions. These are just a few examples of unique thinking.

Creative inventions are beginning to show promising possibilities. Here are five examples:

  • A virus-killing mask

An Israeli company developed a sticker containing nanofibers that capture nanoparticles and disinfectants capable of killing any viruses. They are designed for use together with protective masks.

  • The “hands-free” door opener

Using 3D printers, a variety of models are being launched. The concept is pretty simple: open doors without having to touch them with your hands.

  • Food delivering robots

In China, robots are delivering food to people in quarantine to avoid contact.

Do not touch your face! Don’t do it! Image credit: Taken by James Maynard, screenshot of DoNotTouchYourFace.com
  • The “don´t touch your face” website

Not touching your face is not that easy, right? This website was created to help you with that. It uses a machine-learning algorithm to recognize images of each user touching their face, or not. Once it’s trained, it sends you notifications every time you touch your face.

  • Software that helps nurses by automating the filing of virus test results.

Supporting healthcare workers, giving them more time to treat patients is a good thing.

Take a look at other ways technology is being employed during the Cornonavirus pandemic on the latest edition of Mobile Apps News.

NASA had to make quick decisions to overcome a life or death situation. In some ways, it is not much different from what we’re facing right now. That same spirit can bring us together to help us save thousands of lives while facing this global challenge.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by Dr. Ana Luiza Dias.  She earned her Ph.D. in Psychobiology (sleep sciences) and is a specialist in Biotechnology from the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil. Here’s The Cosmic Companion’s mailing list/podcast. You can read the original piece here.

Astronomy News with The Cosmic Companion is also available as a weekly podcast, carried on all major podcast providers. Tune in every Tuesday for updates on the latest astronomy news, and interviews with astronomers and other researchers working to uncover the nature of the Universe.

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