SAN JOSE, Calif. Former astronaut Thomas K. Mattingly, keynote speaker at Embedded Systems Conference here Tuesday, called upon his audience of several hundred engineers to meet today's difficulties with confidence in their abilities -- and by extension, their country's abilities -- to solve any crisis they encounter.
Invoking what he affectionately calls "the spirit of Apollo," Rear Admiral Mattingly resolutely said, "We've got hard days ahead of us, but we are equipped to take care of it."
Mattingly's proof of the capacity of well-trained and well-prepared people to cope with any crisis was indisputable. It consisted of his own efforts, on the ground at the NASA space center in Houston in April, 1970, to rescue the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft after an explosion on board left three astronauts fighting for their lives.
In offering a blow-by-blow of that experience, Mattingly dismissed his portrayal, by actor Gary Sinise in Ron Howard's film of "Apollo 13," as an act of individual heroism. Mattingly joked, "When I saw that movie, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be Gary Sinise."
The reality, said Mattingly, was that "one of the most amazing pieces of leadership and teamwork I've ever seen in peacetime" resulted from the contributions of thousands of people focused on "a single, simple, measurable, understandable objective."
Clearly suggesting that there are broader, current implications in the lessons of Apollo 13, Mattingly recalled the words of Gen. George C. Marshall: "There's no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit." To that Mattingly added, "You can fly another day."
Mattingly was scheduled to fly that day, on Apollo 13, but lost his place to alternate pilot Jack Swigert after being exposed to the measles. Mattingly said that actor Sinise's efforts to depict the depths of his self-pity at that moment were "amateur." His own performance was "Oscar-winning."
But part of his recovery from that moment of anguish lay, said Mattingly, in an earlier experience.
While preparing for the flight, he made frequent visits to the Cape Kennedy launch pad and the 363-foot Saturn V rocket that was to carry the Apollo capsule into space, "just to see what the little critter looked like." He picked his way through the "construction site" and up into the towers there, and encountered one of the Apollo program's countless technicians.