Universities offer a degree called a master’s of taxation.
Yes, you can actually earn a master’s degree in tax. Law schools offer a master of laws (LL.M.) in tax.
Should we have a tax system so complex that such degrees are possible? If this sounds odd to you, perhaps it is because you would (logically) think, “It’s not rocket science, you know.”
It turns out there is some evidence that even rocket scientists may be frightened by our tax laws. In this edition of The Twilight Zone, I submit for your approval the strange case of Apollo 13 Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, Jr.
Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. Cmdr. Jim Lovell, Jr., Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, Jr., were on the mission. This mission gained fame when the lunar landing was aborted and the crew forced to use the lunar module as a rescue ship.
A 1995 movie starred Tom Hanks as Lovell. Kevin Bacon played Swigert. Then 38 years old, Swigert was not supposed to be on the mission. When Charles Duke, lunar module pilot of Swigert’s crew, was exposed to rubella, the Lovell crew was also exposed.
Ken Mattingly of Lovell’s crew was not already immune and was forced to sit out the Apollo 13 mission. Swigert took his place.
Swigert was one of our early astronaut heroes who fulfilled President Kennedy’s pledge to place a man on the surface of the moon. The world watched as the Houston Command worked to bring the three astronauts home.
The Apollo 13 mission is legend. There are books, TV shows, and movies that recount the heroic efforts of the Houston personnel and the three astronauts.
The famous communication between the Houston Mission Command and the flight crew is often stated as “Houston, we have a problem.” In fact, Swigert first said, “Okay. Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
But Swigert had something else to say before the problem arose. It seems that CMP Swigert had a personal problem caused by the last-minute switch from Mattingly to Swigert.
As Mission Command updated the crew on earth news, Swigert interrupted to ask, “How do I apply for an extension?” It seems that Swigert had not satisfied his April 15 filing responsibilities with the IRS.
The transcript records laughter as the Mission Command response. Swigert stuck to it. “Yes, Joe. I got to – hey, listen – it ain’t too funny. Things kind of happened real fast down there and I do need an extension.”
Again, the transcript records the response as laughter. Swigert pleaded, “I didn’t get mine filed. And this is serious, would you …”
This plea was cut off with “You’re breaking up the room down here,” to which Swigert replied, “Because I may be spending time in a …”
Mission Command replied, “We’ll see.”
Initially one might think Swigert was going to say he might be spending time in a cell. Seems he did mean that as he continued that he might be spending time in “another quarantine” other than the normal post-mission one.
Mission Command said they would see what they could do. They then returned to the earthly news report.
Commander Lovell then brought the discussion back to the tax thing, asking, “Houston … is it true that Jack’s income tax return was going to be used to buy the ascent fuel for the (lunar module).”
Mission Command picked up on Lovell’s tease, saying, “Well, considering that he’s a bachelor and hasn’t got that deduction to take, yes.”
Swigert was undeterred, again pleading, “Hey, Joe. I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really serious about that.”
Finally Mission Command saw the seriousness of the Swigert situation. They replied, “Okay, Jack, we’ll – we’ll take care of it. Tom Stafford says he’ll get an extension for you.” Swigert ended the exchange with “OK.”
Tom Stafford was himself an astronaut and in 1970 served as Chief of the Astronaut Office. Drive 475 miles east of Albuquerque on I-40 to Weatherford, Oklahoma, and you can see tributes to hometown boy Stafford.
I doubt Tom Stafford knew that his Chief of Astronaut position included arranging income tax extensions.
The income tax really is for rocket scientists.
Jim Hamill is the director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at email@example.com.