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Monday over Coffee: Number 8, Today.

Need Some Words of Encouragement?


Number 8, Today.

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13. I imagine you’re familiar with the show, if not the actual events of the mission. Commanded by astronaut Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 was forced to abort its planned moon landing after a routine stir of an oxygen tank ignited damaged wire insulation inside the service module, causing an explosion. The crew was forced to loop around the Moon without landing, then — through remarkable engineering work on the ground and steady nerves in space — return safely to Earth.

The movie does a terrific job moving between the harrowing experiences of Lovell and his crew and the tenacity shown by members of mission control. Here in Space City, we may have grown tired of the film’s signature line — say it with me…”Houston, we have a problem,” but it’s pretty iconic. Even so, that’s not the line in the film’s script that keeps popping into my head over and over the last few months. Instead, it’s two others.

After the explosion, a flurry of activity ensues both in the spacecraft and at mission control until Flight Director, Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, focuses everyone’s attention and efforts with these words:

“Quiet down. Stay cool…alert your support teams. Wake up anyone you need…Work the problem, people."

More about this in a minute.

The next line that’s stayed with me and keeps entering my mind these last few months, is given voice deeper into the story as the astronauts are still a long way from getting home and dealing with a multitude of oxygen, navigation, and power problems. Astronaut Jack Swigert, played by Kevin Bacon, begins to fear the reported telemetry they’ve been given by NASA for re-entry is off, and, if followed, will lead their craft to either skip off the earth’s atmosphere or burn up in a fiery disaster upon re-entry. While obviously crucial, Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, responds to Swigert with some irritation:

“Alright, there are a thousand things that have to happen in order. We’re on number — eight. You’re talking about number six hundred ninety two.”

As we face each day, it’s easy, even natural, to get overwhelmed, anxious with all the problems and uncertainties we’re facing. They’re legion, most of them unprecedented in nature, but what tends to tame my own agitation in the ongoing forging ahead into the unknown, is to break things down into bits, not too big, not too small. Then I consider what’s really before me each day. There is an art to it and we need to get the hang of it as we further integrate this pandemic into our lives.

“…there are a thousand things that have to happen in order. We’re on number — eight. You’re talking about number six hundred ninety two.”

If I can’t hear the calm, cool, and collected voice of Commander Jim Lovell telling me this, I can at least hear Tom Hanks. Focus on number 8 today, or maybe 8 through 12. When 8 through 12 are done, maybe take on a few more, maybe you’ll get to 20 today. It doesn’t make sense to take up number 8 and then number 692, or even worse, number 8 through 692 all at once.

Yes, many, many things are ahead, and a lot of them are very important, some of them, in fact, crucial. But there’s a sequence and they can’t all be done at once. They can’t all be done today. To try to do so just leads to that panicky feeling that you’ll never get home.

“Quiet down. Stay cool…alert your support teams. Wake up anyone you need…Work the problem, people."

Just work the problem that’s in front of you today. And get some backup. Alert your support teams. Wake up anyone you need. We’re here for you. This sequenced, step-by-step, bit by bit approach, supported ably on the ground, got the astronauts home from the dark coldness of distant space. I bet it works here on earth too.

God—

Sometimes I feel like a dozen problems are coming at me like giant meteorites. I know from experience that all but one or two will veer off and away before they reach me and the others I can typically deal with as they get closer. Yet I worry about all of them. May I hear Your voice echo inside of that of a courageous astronaut and a brilliant actor — “There are a thousand things that have to happen in order. We’re on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred ninety two.”
 Help me to quiet down, stay cool, alert my support team, and wake up anyone I need. And be with me as I work the problem. Amen.
 
—Greg Funderburk

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