I’ve never actually watched Apollo 13. I’ve heard it. A lot. I could tell you within 3 seconds if it were on in another room. But I’ve never actually watched it.
This is actually true for me for several movies. My father, like me, is a night owl, and while I was growing up tended to spend those sleepless nights watching a certain selection of movies, on a seemingly endless loop. Among those in heavy rotation were Apollo 13, The Thing, and just when you thought there was a theme, Babe. I could basically quote any of these to you from start to finish, but Babe’s the only one I’ve actually every watched, until today.
Today I found myself in a government training class, the kind where they teach you leadership, or followership (yes, it’s a word), or some sort of way to be a better employee (TM) by learning a few simple axioms by way of Franklin Covey or some such. Generally it’s a lot of bullshit and very little substance, leading the average participant to wonder if the people developing the training believe we all woke up one day unaware of both the world around us and the mechanisms by which it works. I signed up for this particular training because it seemed like the lesser of many evils, and because during the precursor training I’d actually gained a nugget or two of new information. But still, my hopes were not high.
The instructor, in the tradition of high school teachers right before summer recess, decided to show a movie towards the end of the class, in the hopes that from it we should gain some insight into how to be a team player. The movie he chose was Apollo 13, and I’ll admit it was a worthy one. Certainly working together in those conditions was something to be commended and emulated, and unlike the Pickett’s Charge references from my PMF orientation, was actually ultimately successful (insofar as no one died, not, like, the landing on the moon part).
But what struck me as I watched wasn’t the lessons of leadership, or teamwork, or whatever, but was how fucking badass we were then. We put people on the moon. The fucking moon. Do we ever take the time to think about that? Calculators were still the size of a compact car, and we put some people on the moon. The fact that we even got people into orbit is amazing. We sat some guys and gals on millions of pounds of fuel, said a prayer, pulled the trigger, and went the fuck into space. Yes, of course it was far more complicated than that. Yes, of course lives were lost, and treasure, and time, but seriously: we, the people of the United States, put other people On. The. Moon.
I thought about that, looking around the room at my fellow civil servants, most of us uninspired. We talked earlier in the day about the incentive to do our work, in the absence of profit, and the reason that came back was service. Service to our citizens, to each other. But what is that service, really, when you’re talking about lower level bureaucrats like myself. Sure, a secret service agent, a border inspector, a benefits processor, these people have tangible, daily impact on the lives of Americans. But us paper pushers? What do we do? When I first moved here, I thought it was something. Now I’m not so sure.
So that’s my new question: what’s my moon? What’s our new moon? The government, this government, is capable of greatness. Amazing, astronomical, impossible greatness. So what’s it gonna be?