HOUSTON – On April 11, 1970, three astronauts and a team here on Earth dared to attempt what was expected to be the third moon landing. However, just shy of 56 hours into the mission, the crew experienced a problem that would turn into a full-fledged effort to get the crew back to Earth alive.
In Houston, Mission Control was led by four flight directions: Eugene ‘Gene’ Kranz (lead), Glynn Lunney, Gerald ‘Gerry’ Griffin & Milton ‘Milt’ Windler. The Apollo 13 crew consisted of Commander James ‘Jim’ Lovell Jr., Command Module Pilot John ‘Jack’ Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise Jr. Fifty-one years later, the surviving astronauts of Apollo 13 sat down with KPRC 2 Space Reporter Rose-Ann Aragon.
Apollo 13 was expected to be NASA’s third moon landing mission with the objective to help further scientific research and redundancy in their operations on the moon. On April 11, 1970, the Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center with no major issues. However, two days into the mission, after a televised show-and-tell of the Lunar Module, Houston’s Mission Control had asked the crew to do a routine stir of an oxygen tank.
“Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” Swigert said on the radio.
“This is Houston. Say again, please?”
“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Lovell responded.
One of the two oxygen tanks on the service module exploded. Lovell happened to have an inkling to look out of the window.
“As I got into the Command Module, I was trying to determine what really happened there and how serious it was. I thought to myself that I ought to go over to the right window of the Command Module and look out the window. As soon as I did, I saw out of the rear of my spacecraft, escaping a gaseous substance,” said 93-year-old Lovell.
It was oxygen. The explosion had caught tension.
“As I left my position and started drifting up through the tunnel between the two vehicles to get to the Command Module - the capsule - there was a little crinkling of the tunnel area,” Fred Haise, now 87-years-old, said.
The explosion caused the rupture of a second oxygen tank.
“It became apparent that we had a slow leak in the second tank,” Haise said. Just by looking at the data, Haise knew.
“I knew instantly that meant an abort,” Haise said.
The oxygen from the tanks was needed to run fuel cells, which were the crew and vehicles’ source of electricity and water. The Apollo 13 crew worked with flight controllers and teams in the support services room in the back of mission control to come up with logistics and a plan to save the crew. Without oxygen, two of the three fuel cells were in jeopardy. They needed a plan. Lead flight director, Gene Kranz, responded first. His team worked furiously to see if there was any way to contain the leak in the tank that ruptured second. Then, the crew and flight controllers ultimately agreed that the crew would have to power down the Command Module in order to save its battery for a hopeful future landing. The mission objective changed. The crew would instead orbit around the moon and then return to Earth.
“The reason we were successful was Mission Control,” Lovell said.
Spending days on the Lunar Module, a vehicle that was meant for two people, the astronauts suffered cold and wet conditions. Some of the astronauts put on spare underwear. However, the crew encountered a problem that their environmental support services team members predicted early - the problem of carbon dioxide. The Lunar Module was not meant to hold three people for multiple days.
“The carbon dioxide was building quite rapidly,” Lovell recalled.
With directions from the team at what was then the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center), the crew adapted the Command Module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers to fit and work in the Lunar Module.
“It worked like a charm!” Lovell said with a smile.
Though, conditions got colder as Kranz had ordered the team to calculate how much power they needed to sustain life in the Lunar Module. All unnecessary power systems had to remain off. Lunney, who relieved Kranz, had the controller check in on the crew and continue to work on preventing any future problems.
Haise said there was only one working spacesuit that had the proper air ventilation, though no one used it to stay warm.
“Jim had decided that we would all suffer equally,” Haise laughed.
Together, they bore the noisy sounds of the Lunar Module, ate snacks and hot dogs from the Command Module, and tried their best to sleep. “Catnaps,” Haise added.
The Lunar Module, as usual, lost connection with the ground crews. During this time, Haise and Swigert took photos of the moon. Lovell, having flown on Apollo 8, had seen it already.
“We were like tourists,” Haise laughed. “We took black and colored photos because the black photos were more clear.”
To get back to Earth, the crew had to use the Lunar Module’s engines and orbital mechanics to orient the spacecraft so that it could safely splash down. That required both automatic and manual burns. The manual burns’ purpose was to refine the position of the spacecraft. All three astronauts, including Swigert with a stopwatch, worked to make those changes a success.
On April 17, 1970, at 1:07pmET, the world watched the Apollo 13 capsule splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
“We were all happy, and we all breathed a sigh of relief,” Lovell said laughing.
“As we were riding on board the Iwo Jima, I was certainly happy we were back, even though I ended up going right back to sickbay,” Haise laughed.
Lovell and Haise both credited the hard work of the flight controllers, support services, and the contractors who built the vehicles for making the mission a “successful” failure.
“They know their job. They know the vehicles,” Haise said.
“We were able to take a most certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery,” Lovell said.
51 years later at Space Center Houston, the Johnson Space Center’s official visitor’s center, an Apollo 13 exhibit and bronze statue tell their story.
“This flight was the perfect example of cooperation,” Lovell said. “This statue represents that cooperation between the crew, mission control and the aerospace industry.”
“I think it’s great,” Haise said. “This is fitting here in Houston because it’s the home of mission control.”
One on one with Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell
One on one with Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise