American ingenuity, from Apollo 13 to Deepwater Horizon

Late last week my eyes were glued to my Internet browser, where a strange and sometimes baffling underwater ballet was unfolding. Perhaps you were watching the live video feeds from the BP oil well spill, too.

I watched with a mixture of revulsion and pride. Revulsion at the sight of the filthy plume of oil that had been poisoning the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months; and pride in the ingenuity of the engineers who designed the cap that finally shut it off, and in the team that was executing the mission with cool heads and steady hands. Although it wasn't intended as a permanent fix, five days later the cap is holding.

The video feed was a mosaic of raw footage from individual robot cameras. There was no accompanying commentary, no "expert" blogger to help make sense of what I seeing, just tiny squares of action, each one a small mystery to be decoded.

If it hadn't been for the occasional darting fish — or that geyser-like oil plume, roiling with methane bubbles and attended by a robot that waved a pipe of chemical dispersant like a magic wand — I might have thought that I was watching a space mission.

I was only 3 years old when Americans watched, with bated breath, its finest engineers and mission controllers attempt to fix another colossal disaster: the explosion aboard Apollo 13 that left three astronauts in grave danger of asphyxiating in outer space. The 1995 movie "Apollo 13" gave me a sense of the nation's horrified fascination with the rescue.

Movies favor drama over facts. While it did hew fairly closely to actual events, the film glossed over the root causes of the explosion, which were detailed in the Cortright Report, issued in June 1970. As one would expect, they were multiple and intertwined: last-minute changes to the design of a critical oxygen tank; a subcontractor's failing to upgrade a key part in the tank; and, most importantly, a series of all-too-human mistakes. Before the launch, technicians had dropped a shelf inside the tank, causing hidden damage; managers implemented a hasty work-around when a drain line wouldn't drain; mission controllers ignored puzzling real-time data on the status of the tank; and the astronauts turned off master caution and warning lights in the cockpit under the assumption that they were giving false alarms.

Individually, any of these causes might have amounted to nothing more than a glitch. Taken together, in the context of a mind-bogglingly complex operation, they nearly proved fatal.

It may be a long time before we know the root causes that led to the explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon on April 20. The America of 2010 is far more litigious than the America of 1970, a fact reflected in the absurd blame game at the congressional hearings into the disaster, where each stakeholder in the drilling operation, no doubt acting on the advice of legal counsel, vociferously denied responsibility and implicated the others.

First and foremost, Apollo 13 is remembered as a human rescue mission. The world held its collective breath while NASA struggled to bring the three astronauts home. The BP oil spill, on the other hand, has largely been understood as an environmental and economic catastrophe. Most people have been quick to forget that 11 workers were killed in the initial explosion.

The Apollo 13 rescue was a test of American ingenuity, set against the backdrop of the space program, one of our nation's crown jewels. The BP oil spill, by contrast, is the result of a multinational business endeavor, an ugly reminder of our nation's shameful addiction to oil, and of the cozy relationship that developed between the industry and the government agency that was supposed to be overseeing it.

The Apollo missions were a symbol of our national hunger for exploration. Space exploration, alas, has become unfashionable. Today, when people talk about "exploration," the words "oil and gas" hover silently in the background.

Matthew Olshan is a novelist and newspaper columnist who lives in Baltimore. His website is http://www.matthewolshan.com.

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