“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These were the immortal words of astronaut Jack Swigert after a mysterious vibration and jolt shuttered through the command module of the third manned flight to the moon. They would later be repeated by Mission Commander James Lovell, and, over time, became as legendary as Neil Armstrong’s “one small step,” epitomizing the ingenuity and bravery that defined America’s determination to lead the world in technology and conquer space.
Apollo 13 had been discussed by NASA to have its numerical designation changed, but being of scientific minds, in which there was no room for superstition, the mission retained its ominous nomenclature.
Adding to the concern was that it was to launch at 13:13 Eastern Time on April 11, 1970, and require critical maneuvers to be pulled into the moon’s orbit on April 13.
All went well with the launch (except for the primary rocket engine shutting down two minutes early, but not affecting the flight’s trajectory), and for two days, astronauts Lovell, Fred Haise and Swigert sailed effortlessly through the heavens to a point 200,000 miles from Earth. At 56 hours into the mission, however, that all changed. A switch that would allow one of the two oxygen tanks to be warmed up overheated and an explosion destroyed the tank, damaging the second one as well. As a result, the life-sustaining gases drifted off into space.
The spacecraft had been designed so that the astronauts would, under normal circumstances, crawl through a hatch from the command module to a separate lunar module. The lunar module would detach and carry them to the moon, then back up to the command module for a return home.
With the command module oxygen supply gone, the crew transferred to the lunar module as a lifeboat, but it had been engineered to sustain life for only two days. The maneuvers necessary to get the spacecraft back to Earth would require at least four days.
As such, nearly all electrical systems were shut down, and the lunar module limped on one-fifth of the amount of power it was intended to use. With little heat other than sunshine trickling through small windows, temperatures dropped to 34 degrees. The astronauts were restricted to a mere 6 ounces of water and a frozen hot dog per day. Lovell, the mission commander, lost 14 pounds during the mission, and Haise was hobbled by chronic fever and hypothermia.
It wasn’t the frigid conditions in the spacecraft that was the biggest threat, though. Breathing what limited oxygen there was available meant also exhaling carbon dioxide gas. In the Earth’s atmosphere, this is not a threat, but in the confines of a space capsule, if the CO2 gases are not filtered, the gas becomes a poison and asphyxiates the occupants.
Unfortunately, in this case, the filter system of the command module was designed with square-shaped connections, and the equipment for the lunar module had circular adapters. The two systems were incompatible, and the astronauts faced the possibility of their own breath ending the mission eternally in orbit.
At the last minute, pulling all their resources together (along with ideas and assistance from Mission Control on the ground), plastic bags, duct tape and cardboard were assembled into a makeshift connector, allowing for the lithium hydroxide panels of the filter to clear the air.
With that resolved, it was believed the crew could then, albeit in not the most comfortable conditions, make it safely back to Earth. That safety was, however, jeopardized once more when it was discovered that so much debris had cluttered around the spacecraft that the astronauts couldn’t see the stars through their windows to be able to set the navigation for a descent into the atmosphere. The only star discernible was the sun, so Lovell and Haise rotated the spacecraft until the yellow dot filled the window. Lovell had been so accurate that the course correction for re-entry had been off by only a half of a degree.
Aligned properly for re-entry, all three crawled back into the command module and attempted to restart the computers for their capsule’s fiery plummet down onto the Pacific Ocean.
The command module was successfully undocked from the lunar module and in their descent, so much water vapor had condensed on the instrument panel that it rained inside the capsule. Ironically, as during their circling of the moon, the crew could clearly and distinctly see a peaceful, ideal landing site within a geological plain known as the Ocean of Storms.
Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific near Samoa on April 17 in a nearly picture perfect landing. Lovell, Haise and Swigert emerged from the capsule slimmer, barely able to walk, but smiling. President Richard Nixon greeted them on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Iwo Jima, to which they had been taken and expressed to each the gratitude and admiration of the world.
Asked during the mission if he felt it was going to be NASA’s darkest moment, Flight Director Gene Kranz responded, “No this is going to be our finest hour.”
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With all they were up against facing indomitable odds and a crucial race against human endurance and time, he was right. Today, 50 years after the harrowing epic, the return of Apollo 13 safely to Earth remains one of space exploration’s finest achievements.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.