Apollo 13, the Gulf Oil Spill, and BP

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.

NASA's response to the 204 fire rapidly implemented a previously well-formulated and reviewed, objective investigation of its causes, both technical and managerial. George Low and his engineering team made appropriate changes without a prolonged exercise in finger pointing or the delays of another presidential, buck-passing "commission."

Although NASA's future accidents, such as Challenger and Columbia, were handled more politically, NASA of Apollo moved forward and even accelerated the Moon landing effort to its successful conclusion. Less than two and one-half years after the 204 fire, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, with Mike Collins in orbit overhead, landed on the Moon. The lessons from the 204 fire had been applied and we moved on.

Current information indicates that BP installed a defective blowout preventer for the very difficult challenge of drilling to an oil reservoir through 13,000 feet of rock in 5,000 feet of seawater. Essential to learning from this accident will be an objective and complete investigation of  BP's and the federal government's technical, managerial, and regulatory causes and responses. Why did a geological and engineering situation of known risks spin out of control and why were pre-planned responses not implemented? Time will tell if such an investigation can be possible in the politically charged, adversarial “boot on the neck” atmosphere created by the Obama administration.

If America and freedom are to survive indefinitely, the next Congress must begin to restore sanity and intelligence to national energy policy. Until economically competitive alternatives become fully feasible, fossil fuels will remain the mainstay of our economy. Our dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil has become one of our greatest national security vulnerabilities that only domestic production can solve in the next 50 years.