A SUCCESSFUL FAILURE
Apollo 13 was to be the third lunar landing, but the mission was aborted after the Service Module ruptured due to a malfunction in an oxygen tank. Still, Apollo 13 is considered a “successful failure” because of the experience gained in rescuing the crew.
OFF TO A GOOD START
The trip to the Moon from Earth took about three days. The Apollo 13 flight was looking like the smoothest flight of the program. Two days into the mission, Joe Kerwin, the capsule communicator (CAPCOM) on duty, indicated the spacecraft was in good shape and even joked about boredom.
EXPLOSION IN OXYGEN TANK
Houston, we’ve had a problem …
Apollo 13 astronauts heard a loud bang. Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert saw a warning light and said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem …” Additional warning lights indicated the loss of two of three fuel cells, which were the spacecraft’s prime source of electricity.
Commander Jim Lovell reported gas venting from the spacecraft. One oxygen tank appeared to be completely empty, and the second tank was quickly draining.
COMMAND MODULE SHUT DOWN
About an hour after the explosion, it became clear CM Odyssey needed to be shut down, saving the limited power it had left for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. There was no procedure to shut down the CM, so ground controllers in Houston wrote completely new procedures and tested them in the simulator before sending the instructions to the crew in space.
LUNAR MODULE AS LIFE BOAT
The LM’s oxygen and water for cooling the spacecraft systems would be sufficient. Power would have to be conserved. All noncritical systems were turned off and energy consumption was reduced to 20 percent.
The crew reduced their consumption of drinking water to six ounces per day. The astronauts became dehydrated throughout the flight. Lovell lost 14 pounds, and the crew lost a combined total of 31.5 pounds, nearly 50 percent more than other crews.
HIGH LEVELS OF CARBON DIOXIDE
Apollo CM and LM systems used lithium hydroxide filters to absorb CO2. Filters for the LM were stored outside the LM, out of reach of Apollo 13 astronauts. There were plenty square filters from the crippled CM, but they did not fit the LM’s round filter system. Mission control devised an adapter using only materials the crew had available on the spacecraft, tested it, and radioed the instructions to the crew. Mission Control’s Apollo 13 CO2 Scrubber is on display in Starship Gallery.
NAVIGATING IN A DEBRIS FIELD
After its long cold sleep, the CM had to be powered up for reentry and splashdown. Flight controllers wrote the new procedures in three days, instead of the usual three months. The CM was cold and clammy at the start of the power-up. All the surfaces were covered with condensation. Mission control worried the moisture would cause problems during power-up, but the extensive electrical insulation improvements made after the Apollo 1 fire prevented any issues. The crew does recall, “as we decelerated in the atmosphere, it rained inside the CM.”
A few hours before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, the Service Module was jettisoned. Apollo 13 astronauts were able to see the damage from the explosion. An entire panel was missing and adjacent areas were in shards. Before reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, the crew transferred from the LM to the CM Odyssey and LM was jettisoned.
Finally, Odyssey regained radio contact after a delay due to Apollo 13’s shallow reentry path, which lengthened the blackout. Soon after, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean.
Although exhausted, the crew was in good condition except for Fred Haise, Lunar Module Pilot, who was suffering from a serious urinary tract infection due to dehydration.
President Richard Nixon awarded the crew the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. President Nixon also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team in Houston.
[Apollo 13] was a failure in its initial mission; however, it was a tremendous success in the ability of people to get together, like the mission control team working with what they had and working with the flight crew to turn what was almost a certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.
Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Commander