Wednesday 11 April 2012

Houston, We Have A Problem

Photo of Apollo 13 launch on April 11, 1970, courtesy

"Houston, we've had a problem here" spoke Captain James Lovell to Mission Control.  It was April 13, 1970 and Apollo 13 was about to reach the moon to land at the Frau Mauro Highlands.  The astronauts heard a boom; they were stuck in space with a burst oxygen tank.  How would they survive long enough to return to Earth?

On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 had blasted off from Cape Canavaral with everything intact.  With the success of Apollo 11 and 12, everyone thought this would be a routine mission; in fact, the press hadn't even planned on televising the launch.  However, with the spacecraft disabled, all of a sudden the worldwide media saw a front page story and scrambled to get interviews with the astronaut's families. 

Photo of Italian newspapers with Apollo 13 headlines courtesy

In the meantime, Captain Lovell spotted gas venting from the Command Module and realized that they would not survive in the capsule, ordering it to be shutdown.  James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise would have to use the Lunar Module as their lifeboat for the bulk of their journey.  The mission would have to be aborted and the focus would turn to saving their lives.  How would they survive in the Lunar Module which was built for two astronauts to live in for only 45 hours when they needed room for three astronauts for 90 hours? 

The astronauts cut their water rations back to one-fifth the normal supply.  However, how would they get rid of the carbon dioxide in the capsule given that they only had square shaped filters when they needed a round shaped one?  This is where the engineers at NASA came into play.  They spent hours trying to figure out how the astronauts could build a filter using materials already on boar the spacecraft?  They set to work brainstorming.

In the meantime, the three astronauts huddled together at temperatures barely above the freezing mark, trying to preserve power.  Fred Haize contracted the flu.  As he looked out the window at the green and blue ball below, he wondered how his wife was coping, eight months pregnant with their child.

Photo of Earth's surface courtesy

The engineers radioed up to Apollo 13 crew, instructing them as to how to make the carbon dioxide filter using a sock, a plastic bag, a flight manual cover and lots of duct tape.  Miraculously, the homemade contraption seemed to work.  The astronauts passed through another major hurdle when they had a successful engine burn on the far side of the moon, preparing their spacecraft to return to Earth.  It was bittersweet for the threesome to stare out the window, with that white crater-filled ball so close that they could almost touch it, but yet so far away:  they would not be landing on its surface on this mission. 

Photo of moon's surface courtesy  

On April 17, Captain Lovell and his crew returned to the Command Module (they could not re-enter the earth's atmosphere in the LM).  Lovell was a pilot in the Air Force during World War II, landing bombers on the decks of aircraft carriers during the dead of night.  Once he had to land without any instrumentation to help him and he relied on the glow coming from the reefs under the ocean's surface.  During the Apollo 13 crisis, his wartime experience not only helped him command his spacecraft but also his nerves.

NASA's Mission Control members held their breath as they waited for Apollo 13 to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.  Four minutes passed:  had the CM been damaged so much that it could not endure the exhorbitant temperatures?  Finally the three parachutes were spotted hovering above the Pacific Ocean.  Hallelujah!  Apollo 13's crew made a safe landing and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. 

Photo of Apollo 13 crew courtesy

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