Harrison Schmitt: Apollo 13, the Gulf Oil Spill, and BP





[Harrison Schmitt is a a former senator from New Mexico and a geologist. He walked on the Moon as part of the crew of Apollo 17.]

Mr. Tony Hayward, CEO of British Petroleum, has again used the 1970 Apollo 13 experience as analogous to the effort to contain and cap the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama’s administration’s and the supportive media have done the same, repeatedly. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The response after an oxygen tank explosion in the Apollo 13 spacecraft on its way to the Moon illustrates how complex technical accidents should be handled. It stands in sharp contrast to the Gulf fiasco. Solve the problem first; then investigate objectively; apply the lessons; and then, if absolutely necessary, worry about responsibility.

Nothing in the government’s response to the blowout explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath bears any resemblance to the response to the Apollo 13 situation by NASA and its mission control team at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

Gene Kranz and his Apollo 13 flight controllers and engineers worked on the assumption that “failure was not an option.” In contrast, President Obama and those claiming to have been on top of the Gulf oil spill situation “from day one” assumed that failure is an option and, indeed, may want BP to fail for their own ideological reasons. Whatever their motives, the president and his cabinet officers, without any experience in real-world management of anything major, much less a crisis, have no idea how to deal with a situation as technically complex as the Gulf oil spill.

It has been left to BP engineers and managers and to Gulf state officials to respond as best they can in a regulatory environment that is politically charged, incompetent, fearful, and hesitant. Rather than allowing BP to stay focused only on solving the problems of the spill, Attorney General Holder now has launched a civil and criminal investigation! And let’s then follow with sending an unsupported bill to BP for $69 million! For good measure, lets also stop offshore oil exploration by the United States. How misguided (or ignorant and devious) can our president be!

A more appropriate analogy to the Deepwater Horizon accident is the nation’s recovery from the tragic fire during a pre-launch test on January 27, 1967. That fire took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The clearly recognized crisis atmosphere of the Cold War established the context for dealing with the Apollo 204 fire. America was racing to demonstrate to the world the superiority of freedom over the communist oppression of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Deepwater Horizon explosion has taken place in the equally serious crisis of America’s dependence on sources of oil from foreign nations governed or intimidated by our enemies or economic competitors....


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