Fifty years ago this month, the crew of Apollo 13 departed Earth and headed for the Fra Mauro highlands of the Moon. Less than six days later, they would be back on Earth following an epic life and death struggle to survive the effects of an explosion that rocked their spacecraft 200,000 miles from home.
Apollo 13 was slated as the 3rd lunar landing mission of the Apollo Program. The intended landing site was the mountainous Fra Mauro region near the lunar equator. The Apollo 13 crew consisted of Commander James A. Lovell, Jr., Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise, Jr. and Command Module Pilot John L. (Jack) Swigert, Jr. Lovell was making his fourth spaceflight (second to the Moon) while Haise and Swigert were space rookies.
Apollo 13 lifted-off from LC-39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday, 11 April 1970. The official launch time was 19:13:00 UTC (13:13 CST). During second stage burn, the center engine shutdown two minutes early as a result of excessive longitudinal structural vibrations. The outer four J-2 engines burned 34 seconds longer to compensate. Arriving safely in low Earth orbit, Lovell observed that every mission seemed to have at least one major glitch. Clearly, Apollo 13′s was now out of the way!
The Apollo 13 payload stack consisted of a Command Module (CM), Service Module (SM) and Lunar Module (LM). The entire ensemble had a lift-off mass of nearly 49 tons. In keeping with tradition, the Apollo 13 crew gave call signs to their Command Module and Lunar Modules. This helped flight controllers distinguish one vehicle from the other over the communications net during mission operations. The CM was named Odyssey and the LM was given the name of Aquarius.
The first two days of the outward journey to the Moon were uneventful. In fact, some at Mission Control in Houston, Texas seemed somewhat bored. The same could be said for the ever-astute press corps who predictably reported that Americans were now responding to the lunar landing missions with a collective yawn. The journalistic sages averred that the space program needed some pepping-up. Going to the Moon might have been impossible yesterday, but today its just run-of-the-mill stuff. Actually, it was all kind of easy. So wrote they of the fickle Fourth Estate.
It all started with a bang at 03:07:53 UTC on Tuesday, 14 April 1970 (21:07:53 CST, 13 April 1970) with Apollo 13 distanced 200,000 miles from Earth. “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” This terse statement from Jack Swigert informed Mission Control that something ominous had just occurred onboard Apollo 13. Jim Lovell reported that the problem was a “Main B Bus undervolt”. A potentially serious electrical system problem.
But what was the exact nature of the of problem and why did it occur? Nary a soul in the spacecraft nor in Mission Control could provide the answers. All anyone really knew at the moment was that two of three fuel cells formerly supplying electricity to the Command Module were now dead. Arguably more alarming, Oxygen Tank No. 2 was empty with Tank No. 1 losing oxygen at a high rate.
There was something else. The Apollo 13 reaction control system was firing in apparent response to some perturbing influence. But what was it? The answer came with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer blow. Jim Lovell reported that some kind of gas was venting from the spacecraft into space. That chilling observation suddenly explained why the No. 1 oxygen tank was losing pressure so rapidly.
Once Mission Control and the Apollo 13 astronauts fully comprehended the gravity of the situation, the entire team went to work to bring the spacecraft home. Odyssey was powered-down to conserve its battery power for reentry while Aquarius was powered-up and became a makeshift lifeboat. A major problem was that Aquarius had battery power and water sufficient for only 40 hours of flight. The trip home would take 90 hours.
Amazingly, engineering teams at Mission Control conceived and tested means to minimize electrical usage onboard Aquarius. However, the Apollo 13 crew would have to endure privation and hardships to survive. The cabin temperature in Aquarius got down to 38F and each man was permitted only six ounces of water per day. The walls of the spacecraft were covered with condensation. Sleep was almost impossible and fatigue became another relentless enemy to survival.
And then there was the build-up of carbon dioxide. The LM environmental system (EV) was designed to support two men. Now there were three. Between the CM and LM, there was an ample supply of lithium hydroxide canisters to scrub the gas from the cabin atmosphere for the trip home. However, the square CM canisters were incompatible with the circular openings on LM EV. The engineers on the ground invented a device to eliminate this compatibility using materials found onboard the spacecraft.
The Apollo 13 crew had to fire the LM descent motor several times in order to adjust their return trajectory. Use of the SM propulsion system to effect these firings was denied the crew due to concerns that the explosion could have damaged it. These rocket motor firings required precise inertial navigation. The star sightings required for celestial navigation were impossible to make owing to the huge cloud of debris surrounding the spacecraft. Means were devised to use the Sun as the primary navigational source.
While the nation and indeed the world looked on, the miracle of Apollo 13 slowly unfolded. Many a humble heart uttered a prayer for and in behalf of the trio of astronauts. Millions throughout the world followed the men’s journey home via newspaper, radio, television and other media.
As Apollo 13 approached the Earth, the overriding issue was whether the systems onboard Odyssey could be successfully brought back on line. The walls and instrument panels of the craft were drenched with condensation. Unquestionably, the electronics and wiring bundles behind those instrument panels were also soaking wet. Would they short-out once electrical energy flowed through them again? Would there be enough battery power for reentry?
Happily, the CM power-up sequence was successfully accomplished. Once again the resourceful engineers at Mission Control produced under extreme duress. They devised an intricate and never-attempted-in-flight power-up sequence for the CM. Too, the extra insulation added to the CM’s electrical system in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire provided protection from condensation-induced electrical arcing.
Approximately four hours prior to reentry, the Apollo 13 crew jettisoned the SM. What they saw was shocking. The module was missing a complete external panel and most of the equipment inside was gone or significantly damaged. One hour prior to entry, Aquarius, their trusty space lifeboat, was also jettisoned. The only concern now was whether the Command Module base heat shield had survived the explosion intact.
On Friday, 17 April 1970, Odyssey hit entry interface (400,000 feet) at 36,000 feet per second. Other than a worrisome additional 33 seconds of plasma-induced communications blackout (4 minutes, 33 seconds total), the reentry was entirely nominal. Splashdown occurred at 18:07:41 UTC near American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. The USS Iwo Jima quickly recovered spacecraft and crew.
The post-flight mishap investigation revealed that Oxygen Tank No. 2, located deep within the bowels of the SM, exploded when the crew conducted a cryo stir of its multi-phase contents. Unknown to all was the fact that a mismatch between the tank heater and thermostat had resulted in the Teflon insulation of the internal wiring being severely damaged during previous ground operations. This meant that the tank was now a bomb and would detonate its contents when used the next time. In this case, the next time was in flight. The warning signs were there, but went unheeded.
Apollo 13 never landed at Fra Mauro. And none of its crew would ever again fly in space. But in many ways, Apollo 13 was NASA’s finest hour. Overcoming myriad seemingly intractable obstacles in the aftermath of a completely unanticipated catastrophe, deep in trans-lunar space, will forever rank high among the legendary accomplishments of spaceflight. With essentially no margin for error and in the harsh glare of public scrutiny, NASA wrested victory from the tentacles of almost certain failure and brought three weary men safely back to their home planet.