These fateful words were spoken by Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert of the 1970 Apollo 13 flight crew when unexpected catastrophic events aboard the spacecraft threatened his life and those of Commander Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise. True to form and training, the crew responded in a calm, rational manner in coordination with a support team in Mission Control, while over 200,000 miles from the Earth’s surface. Dire consequences were possible, even probable, but through the hardships and obstacles, a combination of determination and creative solutions brought the mission, launched on April 11th, to what Lovell called “a successful failure.”
Lessons were learned from the experience including attention to small details that precede a decision and may offer a warning. In an article about the flight by Lovell, he says, “Looking back, I should have been alerted by several omens that occurred in the final stages of the Apollo 13 preparation.” In addition, he notes “a lot of innovation” that included expertise of the crew, new procedures and “teamwork between the ground and flight crew that resulted in a successful return.”
Difficult problems require a systematic and coordinated effort to achieve a desired result. When emotional factors are involved, methods can be skewed toward unsatisfactory conclusions, reducing effectiveness. In the case of political decisions, added factors of economic pressure and electoral influence add to the mix. Often, governing bodies are asked to approve routine items with little controversy or debate. However, when decisions are required in the midst of sensitive and raucous debate, the odds of success decline.
Currently, a major challenge facing the Fremont community is a proposed Navigation Center to assist homeless individuals find permanent housing and develop habits to ensure successful reintegration with acceptable societal behavior. The multi-faceted problem of homelessness is difficult to categorize and should not be shaped by foregone conclusions looking for a rationale. As the astronauts of Apollo 13 faced seemingly insurmountable problems and used ingenuity and a team approach to achieve a successful conclusion, so too can a calm analysis determine a viable solution to the furor surrounding the Navigation Center.
Lovell overlooked several key indicators of problems and, in retrospect, understood their significance. Looking back at the genesis of the Navigation Center, several preliminary decisions might have been handled in a more sensitive manner. However, this is not the time for a full analysis of past behavior. Elected representatives are faced with a decision now and have collected a plethora of information – data from other navigation centers, survey responses, public oral and written statements. With a divided constituency, each councilmember must show courage and commitment to follow their conscience. It is only through firm, affirmative action by our representatives that a path toward success can be possible. Time will tell if the right decision is made, but without a solid commitment, failure is probable.
Hopefully, following a decision about the Navigation Center, Fremont staff and councilmembers will analyze the process and factors that led to upheaval in order to moderate such conflicts in the future. When the call goes out, “Fremont, we have a problem here,” the response and conclusion will be as successful and heartening as when three intrepid astronauts were safely recovered from their charred command module on April 17, 1970 by USS Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean.