Houston, we have a Problem

Apollo 13 Liftoff, April 11, 1970

Apollo 13 Liftoff, April 11, 1970

On April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST Apollo 13 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

Apollo 13 was the third mission in the American Apollo program, intended to land on the moon. The crew consisted of Commander James Lovell, Command Module pilot John Swigert, and Fred Haise, who replaced Ken Mattingly. Mattingly was exposed to German measles without even knowing and unfortunately, (or fortunately, how ever you want to see it) could not attend the mission. Lovell was back then the world’s most experienced astronaut. He attended three missions and completed 572 spaceflight hours. He participated in Apollo 8 and further Gemini missions before Apollo 13.

During the journey to the Moon, the crew mainly lived in orbiter Odyssey, one of the two independent spacecrafts that were joined by a tunnel. Two days after the launch, the Apollo crew was 200,000 miles away form Earth and a low-pressure warning was detected in Odyssey’s hydrogen tank. When a problem like this appears, the pilots have to perform a routine procedure called cyro stir, which Swigert flipped the switch for. Right after, the spacecraft began shaking, the power went out and oxygen pressure kept falling. This was, when Swigert notified Mission Control with ‘Houston, we´ve had a problem‘.  It was later changed into the famous sentence ‘Houston we have a problem‘ by the makers of the 1995 Apollo 13 movie.

Apollo 13 Crew

Apollo 13 Crew

However, it was later found that wires were exposed in the oxygen tank, an error that occurred before the flight. Due to a spar from one of the wires, the oxygen tank exploded, which also caused the lack of power. The crew attempted to stabilize the ship through small tanks with only modest success.

In order to survive, the crew had to turn on Aquarius, the other of the two spacecrafts that formed Apollo 13. It was supposed to be turned on for the actual moon landing and since it did not have a heat shield it was no use for the returning trip to Earth. Aquarius was now in use longer than expected and all remaining power sources had to be used efficiently, wherefore the temperatures inside the cabin dropped close to freezing. The next few days before splashdown were pretty exhausting for the crew on Earth working day and night and especially for the crew in space. Haise developed a kidney infection due to the cold and everyone lost lots of weight.

Odyssey was then turned back on and they prepared for splashdown, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 17. Even though the mission was no success in its original sense, NASA set an example of solving life threatening issues in space.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the video lecture of the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 13 from 2010. Guests of the panel discussion are Apollo 13 pilots Lovell and Haise as well as Apollo 16 pilots Mattingly and Kranz.

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