Future Space Exploration

What's significant about Apollo 13?
Answered by Craig C. Freudenrich and Discovery Channel
  • Craig C. Freudenrich

    Craig C. Freudenrich

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The story of Apollo 13 is that what could have been the worst space disaster in history became one of NASA's most stunning triumphs. Apollo 13 was crewed by commander James Lovell, command module pilot Ken Mattingly and lunar module pilot Fred Haise. It was to be the third lunar landing mission. The mission started with an unusual twist when Mattingly was replaced by backup pilot Jack Swigert two days before launch because Mattingly had been exposed to the German measles. Apollo 13 launched on April 13, 1970, and the mission went well until 56 hours into the flight. An oxygen tank exploded in the service module, damaged a nearby oxygen tank and rocked the command and lunar modules. The command module (CM) was losing oxygen and electrical power. The astronauts' lives were in jeopardy.

    Mission controllers struggled to isolate the CM problems with no success. The astronauts quickly realized that they had to power up the lunar module (LM) and use it as a lifeboat. Flight director Gene Kranz, ordered the crew to shut down the CM to conserve its batteries, which would be needed to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

    Mission controllers had the astronauts do a number of course corrections with the lunar module engine to swing them around the moon and speed them back to Earth. To conserve power, the astronauts had to shut all of the spacecraft systems down except the radio. The spacecraft was cold and unpleasant.

    Controllers had to devise new procedures so that the astronauts could navigate home without a computer and to power up the CM for re-entry using only the weakening battery power of the lunar module. The carbon dioxide in the spacecraft rose to toxic levels, so engineers had to device a system to adapt square-shaped carbon dioxide scrubbers from the CM to work with the round-shaped system in the lunar module.

    As the spacecraft approached Earth, the astronauts jettisoned the service module and saw the vast damage caused by the explosion. They next jettisoned the LM and re-entered the atmosphere. There were intense moments as flight controllers waited to hear from the astronauts because the CM heat shield may have been damaged, meaning the astronauts might not survive re-entry. The astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean and Apollo 13 was dubbed a "successful failure."

    An investigation determined that a wire to the oxygen tank had been damaged, which caused it to spark and set off the explosion. None of the crew members ever returned to space.

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  2. One of NASA's greatest achievements was the brilliant rescue of the crew members aboard the spacecraft Apollo 13. Apollo 13 was launched on April 11, 1970, with the goal of reaching the moon. Unfortunately, almost 56 hours after takeoff, one of the oxygen tanks exploded. The second oxygen tank malfunctioned as a result of the force of the explosion, and two out of the three fuel cells stopped working. Soon, all of the crew's support systems, including oxygen, light, heat, water and power, were out of commission. The crew members managed for six days with scarcely any food, water or sleep in freezing temperatures. NASA's Mission Control Center worked tirelessly to bring the crew back safely, performing calculations that usually would have taken months to perform. On April 17, Apollo 13 landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.

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