On April 11, 1970, the Apollo 13 lunar landing mission made a successful launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying three astronauts set to conduct geological experiments on the moon. But despite the promising launch, the mission became a project in crisis management that put spacecraft technology to the test.
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The Apollo 13 was crewed by astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise, with Lovell and Haise set to become the fifth and sixth men to walk on the moon. But there was a significant problem: on April 13, oxygen tank No. 2 had blown up on the Command Module (CM). That meant the module was entirely without its normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water—those things that are essential for life.
As a result, the craft didn’t land on the moon and instead was rerouted back to Earth. Here’s what happened next, from the History Channel:
As the CM lost pressure, its fuel cells also died, and one hour after the explosion mission control instructed the crew to move to the LM, which had sufficient oxygen, and use it as a lifeboat. The CM was shut down but would have to be brought back on-line for Earth reentry. The LM was designed to ferry astronauts from the orbiting CM to the moon’s surface and back again; its power supply was meant to support two people for 45 hours. If the crew of Apollo 13 were to make it back to Earth alive, the LM would have to support three men for at least 90 hours and successfully navigate more than 200,000 miles of space. The crew and mission control faced a formidable task.
It was an exercise in emergency survival, with the crew conserving energy and cooling water, which meant that the astronauts in question were subsisting on a mere 20 percent of their usual water rations each day while also enduring barely above-freezing temperatures. The crew was also required to build an adapter to vent out carbon dioxide, since the Landing Module and Control Module’s venting systems were incompatible. And let’s not forget that this was the 1970s, so there wasn’t a massively successful navigation system onboard, and Lovell was forced take step-by-step guidance from mission control.
After a five-minute engine burn that took place after swinging around the moon, the crew was able to point their craft back at Earth and hope for the best; calculations said it would provide just enough energy for them to reach home. The procedure was successful, and the Apollo 13 was able to make it back to Earth via a reentry into the Pacific Ocean.
It was a journey that may not have achieved its ultimate goal, but it proved to be pretty damn impressive in terms of troubleshooting. The Apollo 13 mission could have been a complete disaster, but resourcefulness between mission control and the onboard crew transformed a possible mess into a fact-finding mission that taught NASA how to recover from a hot mess and create a better craft for the next trip.