“Uh… Houston? We’ve had a problem.”
- Same Old, Same Old
Apollo 13 launched at 2:13 p.m. EST, April 11, 1970 and since this was the third mission to the Moon, the public weren’t interested in moon landings. It was old news. Even things were too good to be true at mission control as capsule communicator (Capcom) Joe Kerwin had said that the spacecraft was “in real good shape” and joked to the crew “we’re bored to tears down here.”
As we all know, this boredom did not last long.
2. An Omen?
A few days before the mission, Charles Duke, who was the backup lunar module pilot, accidentally exposed the crew to German measles. Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly had no immunity to measles and was replaced by backup command module pilot, John Swigert.
3. The Apollo 13 Crew
John Swigert joined the crew 48 hours before launch as the Command Module Pilot. This was his first time flying at age 38. Jim Lovell was the Commander and at the time was the world’s most travelled astronaut. Jim participated in Apollo 8 which was the first mission to circle around the Moon. Finally, Fred Haise was the Lunar Module Pilot. He was in the same astronaut class as Swigert and had previously been a backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11. Very importantly, all the crew had test flight experience before becoming astronauts. They were used to dealing with inflight problems which would prove very handy during the Apollo 13 mission.
4. Routine Instructions
No words any CAPCOM really want to hear! Before the crew settled down for the night, they were asked by Mission Control to ‘stir up the cryo tanks.’ This was a routine instruction to mix the liquid inside the fuel tanks so that Mission Control could keep an eye on them. These tanks held oxygen and hydrogen which converted into electricity and water in three fuel cells.
5. ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem…’
Two minutes after Swigert flicks the switches for the fans, there is a bang and the master alarm sounds. Concern began to rise when the crew saw something venting out into space from the spacecraft. Oxygen was venting out! The oxygen had completely gone from one tank and was rapidly disappearing out of the second.
6. Mission Control – Who were the men on the ground?
The flight director had overall operational responsibility for missions. They led their flight control team. On Apollo 13, there were four flight teams operating in shifts. Gene Kranz was one of the key flight directors who motivated his team to ‘work the problem’.
The CAPCOM was another astronaut who was the main person to communicate with the crew. It was considered that someone who had that training would be best able to clearly and concisely pass information back and forth to the crew.
CAPCOM Jack Lousma was on shift when the explosion took place. The whole team worked tirelessly to ensure the safe return of the crew; this meant catching up on sleep under their desks when they got a chance!
7. ‘Working the Problem’
Mission Control used an already planned strategy which was to begin powering down the spacecraft as this would reduce the demand on the one remaining operational fuel cell. This abort plan was devised in 1966. It was never tested and never used before, but they had no other option. They needed to start conserving energy to ensure the safe return of the astronauts. Meanwhile, the crew in space began to move across to the lunar lander as it was still fully intact. The lunar module was designed to have 2 people for 1.5 days and now it needed to support 3 people for 4 days!
8. Power was a concern
Mission control worked out a procedure in which the control module batteries were charged with the lunar module power. All nonessential systems were turned off and energy consumption was reduced to one fifth. This was a great plan but there was a near-miss during the mission as one of the control mission batteries vented with such a force that it momentarily dropped off the line. If the battery had failed, there would not have been enough power to return the ship to Earth!
9. Water was also a concern
The crew had to conserve water to make sure they had enough to get them back to Earth. They cut down to six ounces of water each day. This was one fifth of their normal intake. When they got a chance to eat, they ate hot dogs and other wet-pack foods.
10. Record Weight-Loss
Due to the lack of water the crew became dehydrated. Lovell lost 14 pounds and the crew lost a total 31.5 pounds, which was nearly 50 % more than any other crew! Due to such strict measures, the crew finished their journey with about 9% of their total water remaining.
11. Improvised Solutions
The most concerning issue was trying to remove carbon dioxide from the spacecraft. The lunar module did not have enough carbon-dioxide-scrubbing chemical cannisters to keep the air breathable for the astronauts. This was were the crew and mission control had to get creative; the astronauts had to build an improvised adapter using tape, cardboard and plastic to make use of cannisters meant for the command module. (Never underestimate the powers of duct tape)!
12. Pretty chilly
Powering down the spacecraft meant that the astronauts had to do all this quick-thinking and survival in very cold conditions. The temperatures onboard plummeted to 3 degrees celsius and condensation started to appear. As Lovell joked in a BBC interview “It was a collaboration, a tale of two groups … one in a comfortable control room with hot coffee and cigarettes – that had to come up with the ideas to get us back… and the second group in a cold, damp spacecraft to correctly execute those decisions.”
13. ‘Successful Failure’
The final hurdle on their return to Earth was if the pyrotechnics used to fire up the parachutes failed; the astronauts would have been going too fast to survive a water landing. Thankfully, on the 17th April, the Apollo 13 capsule came down through the clouds on its three parachutes to space down in the Pacific. All three astronauts returned safely; both the crew and mission control ready for bed (or a stiff drink)!
The mission was marked a ‘successful failure’ because of the experience gained in rescuing the crew.