Quick Study:

Apollo 13 kept nation on edge 45 years ago

Apollo 13 started as a routine mission -- but that changed with an explosion that imperiled three astronauts.  Image: NASA.
Apollo 13 started as a routine mission -- but that changed with an explosion that imperiled three astronauts. Image: NASA.
Forty-five years ago this week, television sets were wheeled into classrooms and workplaces as Americans anxiously awaited word about the fate of three American astronauts onboard Apollo 13.

     James A. Lovell Jr., commander, John L. Swigert Jr., command module pilot, and Fred W. Haise Jr., lunar module pilot, were seemingly marooned in the dark night sky after their spacecraft was damaged 200,000 miles from Earth. Here is the rundown:    

     Blastoff:  April 11, 1970. 

     About Apollo: The command module was known as Odyssey, which, of course, was a poem about a great hero making his way home after the fall of Troy. In Webster's Dictionary, odyssey is also defined as a "long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune." The lunar module was called Aquarius. 

     It looked good at first: While there were “minor surprises” during the first two days, no one was alarmed, a NASA account recalls.  

     Showtime: On April 13, astronauts finished a televised broadcast in which they demonstrated working in the weightlessness of space. Lovell ended the broadcast saying, "This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we're just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. Good night."
     Nine minutes later, a spark ignited one the oxygen tanks. As recounted on NASA’s website, “The blast obliterated one of three fuel cells and an oxygen tank. Oxygen jetted into space from the command module’s remaining tank. … One of the command module’s two main electrical circuits had experienced a drop in power.”    

     A famous line: The chronology of events is posted on NASA’s website. The matter-of-fact dialogue retains a chilling quality, right down to Swigert’s remark: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
     "This is Houston," came the response, "Say again, please."
      Lovell jumps in: "Houston, we've had a problem. ..."

     Bail out: Less than two hours later and with 15 minutes of power remaining in the command module, astronauts moved to the lunar module. The moon landing craft, now a lifeboat, was designed to sustain two men for a day and a half, NASA recalls, not three men for three days.  

     The headlines: The New York Times headline April 14 read, “Power Failure Imperils Astronauts; Apollo Will Head Back to the Earth—No Moon Landing.” 

     An unsought distinction: So, the astronauts didn’t get to land on the moon. As a result of their predicament, Apollo 13 was forced to circle the moon without landing (the famous slingshot around the moon). Here, they set a record, according to the Guinness World Records website -- greatest distance from Earth achieved by humans. At their farthest point, they were “254 km (158 miles) from the lunar surface on the far side of the moon and 400,171 km (248,655 miles) above the Earths surface” on April 15, the website says.

     A bumpy ride: The astronauts were forced to ration food and water. In an attempt to conserve power, they shut off various instruments, and the temperature dropped to 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
     Carbon dioxide reached dangerous levels, and, “The crew, with direction from Mission Control, built an adapter for the CM (command module) cartridges to accept LM (lunar module) hoses,” according to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum account.

      A mess: Four hours before landing, the crew shed the service module -- the detachable compartment carrying fuel and supplies. It had been kept previously out of fear of "what the cold of space might do to the unsheltered CM (command module) heat shield," according to NASA. "Photos of the service module showed one whole panel missing, and wreckage hanging out; it was a mess as it drifted away."
     Three hours later the crew left the lunar module and returned to the command module to land. 

     Coming home: There was another problem.
      “Debris from the explosion made it impossible for the crew to navigate by the stars using the on-board sextant,” NASA recounts. “In a nail-biting maneuver, the astronauts improvised by using the limb of Earth, or the horizon where Earth meets the atmosphere, as a reference point. They were then able to perform a controlled fuel burn to shorten the time until splashdown on Earth.”

     Return: On April 17, 1970, at 1:07 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the mission splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.  


     Quick Study was compiled by YT&T editors using these sources:

  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Apollo 13


     NASA In Brief -- Astronauts remembered; public invited to help find planets