Sunday, April 11, 2010

Countdown: Apollo 13

Today, April 11, marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13. Apollo missions 11 and 12 had landed on the moon’s open plains. Apollo 13 was designed to touch down among the Fra Mauro range — more interesting for the geologists studying the moon, and more challenging for the pilot landing on it.

The crew of was James Lovell, Commander; Jack Swigert, Command Module Pilot; and Fred Haise, Lunar Module Pilot. Lovell had written his thesis at the Naval Academy on liquid-fuel rocketry, flown jets off carriers for the Navy, and tested experimental jets at the Navy’s Aircraft Test Center in Patuxent, Maryland. He’d applied early for the astronaut program, but wasn’t selected for NASA’s first class of astronaut trainees, the group known as the Mercury Seven; during physical fitness tests performed on astronaut candidates at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lovell’s bilirubin was found to be a little high. An arcane reason not to be chosen, perhaps, but then again many of the tests at the clinic were arcane, bordering on simply odd (including fertility tests and up to six diagnostic enemas per day). By the time NASA was ready to recruit a second class of astronauts, the Lovelace tests were considered unnecessary, and Lovell was admitted to the program as part of the group dubbed the New Nine. By the time he was assigned to Apollo 13, Lovell had already flown three flights into space — Gemini 7, Gemini 12, and Apollo 8. No one had spent more time in space or logged more miles there, but none of those trips would turn out to be anything like Apollo 13.

The mission began routinely enough — not without glitches, but with no major problems. Then, at fifty-six hours into the mission, on April 13, a routine maintenance procedure set off an explosion in one of the ship’s oxygen tanks. “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Lovell told Mission Control. (It was the movie that put the phrase into the present tense.) The explosion transformed Apollo 13 into a harrowing and sustained test of men and equipment. It sent a crippling blow through the systems of the command module, created shortages of electricity, water, heat, and oxygen, scrubbed any chance of landing on the moon, and threatened the astronauts’ chances of returning to Earth.

For the next half week, the astronauts, mission control, and the engineers who had designed and built the components of Apollo 13 worked together to perform a sort of sustained miracle of educated improvisation, putting ships, equipment, flight plans, and engines to uses for which they were never designed. Since the explosion had cost the command module all but a bare reserve of power, the lunar module became a “life raft” in which the crew spent most of the flight. They used the LM’s engine — designed for landing on the moon — to adjust and speed their flight back to Earth. (During the crisis a wag at Grumman, which had built the LM, circulated a billing form to be sent to North American Rockwell, which had built the command module. Fees included: “Towing, $4.00 first mile, $1.00 each additional mile. Total charge, $400,001.00.”) Finally, on April 17, after four cold, dangerous, and nearly sleepless days, Lovell, Swigert, and Haise, returned safely to Earth. The last fears of the teams on the ground were that the command module heat shield or parachutes had been damaged in the explosion, but both worked flawlessly.

The mission was, by some obvious standards, a failure. Commanding a landing on the moon was to have been the capstone of Jim Lovell’s career; now that was not to be. The mission’s scientific objectives had all been lost. And yet Apollo 13 became known as a “successful failure” for the way in which the agency, contractors, and astronauts worked together. In a situation that could easily have turned tragic, they found a way to bring the crew safely home to Earth. And though at one point in the mission Lovell let loose the impolitic observation, “I think this is going to be the last moon flight for a long time,” in fact NASA diagnosed and corrected the failures of the mission with what now seems like remarkable speed. By January of the next year, Apollo 14 was on its way, its destination the Fra Mauro range.

Above: A view of Apollo 13’s damaged service module, its innards revealed by the explosion onboard. Sources: Lost Moon: The Perilous Flight of Apollo 13, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger; A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin; and

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