April 17, 1970: A Happy Ending for Apollo 13

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A Brief History

On April 11, 1970, NASA launched their third moon-landing mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying three astronauts.  After so many preparations, and failed attempts NASA is finally ready to send Jack L. Swigert, 38, with previous experience from Apollo7, Jim A. Lovell, 42, he had unbelievable 572 spaceflight hours of experience, and Fred W. Haise, 36, with previous experience on Apollo 8 and 11 on a lunar landing mission.

They did incredible things just to train the astronauts and made simulations of every obstacle they might encounter like reduced gravity walking simulator, water landing (which came out useful), Lunar Roving Vehicle, and many others. NASA’s mission was to land the astronauts on the moon and return them home safely.

Digging Deeper

The launch

Apollo 13 launches from Kennedy Space Center, April 11, 1970

The launch was brilliant and everything was how it was supposed to be. Nonetheless, the live TV broadcast wasn’t an exciting horse race and completely failed to capture the public imagination, so people started to get bored at the sight of 55 hours necessary to depart into the journey. The first day Jim, Jack, and Fred on their way to the Moon didn’t encounter any problems, and everything was normal. Even Joe Kerwin (the communicator), was joking saying: “the spacecraft is in real good shape, and we’re bored to tears down here”.

“Houston, we’ve got a problem”

Mission Operations Control Room during Apollo 13’s fourth television transmission, on the evening of April 13, 1970. Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise Jr. is seen on the screen.

Two days into the mission, they traveled almost 200,000 miles from Earth and closing on the Moon after experiencing unexpected failure. The second (back up) oxygen tank blew up in the spacecraft. That is when Swigert reported to mission control on Earth the famous sentence “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”. The accident was caused by a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank which damaged the spacecraft. After the explosion, NASA abandoned the mission and told the astronauts to get back to Earth.

The spacecraft was damaged, now they had limited electricity, no heating, and they burned their reserves of by fuel returning to earth on a different path. Their plan was to orbit around the Moon and land on the back side, which is much more fuel efficient just because of the trajectory and gravity pull of the moon.

Without any heat source, the cabin temperature was dropping quickly, and it got down close to freezing. The situation on the spacecraft was bad, some of the food became inedible, and they were down on their water reserves as well. Countless hours passed on their way back home, as the mission control on Earth were working around the clock helping the astronauts with their daily activities.

The entire crew dramatically lost weight, one member of the crew even developed a kidney infection. The astronauts were not aware of how the explosion damaged their heat shield and landing gear, which had to protect them after entering Earth’s atmosphere landing them safely. After all that happened, on April 17, 1970, they managed to land safely in the Pacific Ocean a couple of miles from the recovery ship.

Apollo 13 Experience

Apollo 13 splashes down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970

NASA made many design changes after this mission failure, improving the oxygen tanks, adding battery that can supply the astronauts 400 hours of power, adding water supply storage bags to the command module, and much more. Fortunately Apollo 13 had a happier ending than later NASA missions, like the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), who resulted in the death of all the crew members.

As for the astronauts from Apollo 13, Swigert was elected to Congress in 1982 in his home state of Colorado. Unfortunately, during his campaign, he found out that had bone cancer, and died before he could be elected.

Haise was still in NASA working on projects. He was assigned to command the Apollo 19 mission, however, the mission was cut out, because of NASA’s budget limiting.

Lovell co-wrote a book with Jeffrey Kluger (journalist) about the events that occurred in Apollo 13. The book was called Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13.

There are successes and failures in life, both of them are extremely useful. Apollo 13 was a mission that will be forever written in our history, it gave us the knowledge to do greater things and expand our way of seeing the space. The story was later, in 1995, recreated by Hollywood studios, becoming also a cinema classic, starring Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton in the roles of the three tripulants of the spaceship.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Kruger, Jeffrey and James Lovell.  Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13.  Houghton Mifflin (T); 1st edition (October 1994)

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The featured image in this article, a photograph of the original Apollo 13 prime crew, is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGovNASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)


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