Thanks in part to Ron Howard’s space odyssey movie, Apollo 13, several generations are very aware of what happened in one of the most incredible survival stories in NASA’s history, when the 1970 mission went terribly wrong and changed from an obscure event to one that captured the attention of millions, who were glued to their television sets for days.
Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth 44-years ago today, on April 17, 1970 bringing American astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), rookie Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) back, after three harrowing days in space, during which they did not know if they would be able to make it home alive.
Swigert, 38, was originally the back-up command module pilot, but was added as part of the crew just 48-hours before Apollo 13 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center, when Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) was inadvertently exposed to the German measles and NASA scratched him off the voyage, despite Captain Lovell’s protests.
The veteran Lovell, 42, had 572 spaceflight hours of experience according to Space.com, and had participated in three missions including Apollo 8, which was the first to circle the moon, plus two other Gemini missions.
Fred Haise, 36, was a back up pilot for the Apollo 8 and 11.
Lovell had been in line for the Apollo 14 but was bumped up to Apollo 13, and the German measles that Mattingly was exposed to that took him off Apollo 13 never materialized, but he became an integral part of the Mission Control team working to get the three men back.
The spacecraft was actually two separate modules, the orbiter called the Odyssey, and the lander named Aquarius.
On April 13, 1970, while the crew was about 200,000 miles from the Earth, a mission control staff detected a low-pressure warning signal on a hydrogen tank in the Odyssey, and when Swigert flipped the switch to see if it would reset, disaster struck as the whole aircraft shook, taking the crew by surprise.
As the oxygen pressure on Apollo 13’s Odyssey dropped dramatically and warning lights beeped everywhere, Swigert notified Mission Control with the famous line: “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which was slightly embellished by Ron Howard in his 1995 flick to say, “Houston, we have a problem,” told by Lovell, not Swigert.
Apollo 13 was to return the crew to the moon for the first time since Neil Armstong became the only man to walk on its surface the prior year. However, the mission was aborted because of a fire caused by an exposed wire in the oxygen tank prevented these astronauts from reaching the lunar destination.
NASA later determined that it was nothing Swigert did, but a defect in the manufacturing of the oxygen tanks and failure to detect the problem during testing prior to Apollo 13 lift-off.
Due to oxygen and power failures, the crew was forced to ditch the Odyssey and move to the Aquarius, which was to be used to land on the moon, but wasn’t equipped with a heat shield, needed to make the return trip to Earth.
The Apollo 13 crew had to make use of all their knowledge to get back home and after successfully completing a burn to direct the Aquarius toward Earth, the astronauts turned off all non essential instruments to conserve power.
As Ron Howard depicted so well in his movie, the Apollo 13 crew endured days of temperatures near the freezing mark and rationed water and food.
Over in Mission Control, flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) used his staff around the clock to help the stranded crew with daily tasks and the critical steps they needed to accomplish in order to come back home.
The crew endured three harrowing days, during which they all lost weight and Haise even began to develop a kidney infection, but their biggest worry was whether their module would short upon turning the instruments back on, after being in a freezing state for days.
On April 17, 1970, the exhausted crew of Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth, splashing in the waters of the very warm south Paciifc Ocean.
Even though the mission was a failure — as it never reached the moon — Apollo 13 is seen as a prime example of the American spirit and how with some imagination, a story that could have ended in tragedy turned out to be one of the most enduring missions of the United States Space Program.
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