Thursday, April 17, 2014

APRIL 17 = Apollo 13 Returns to Earth

Bergman : "The one un-jinxed element of this flight in addition to their survival.   Beautiful pictures, the para- chutes opening... descen- ding into a slight cloud cover over the Pacific.  But a spectacularly clear day after earlier threats of bad weather. And a mill pond sea... calm as could be."  Reynolds: "And there's the splash..." 

These were the words of two ABC newsmen, Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds as they describe the return of Apollo 13 to planet earth on today's date, April 17 in 1970.  Apollo 13 had suffered a major malfunction which had put the Astronaut's lives in danger for several days, until the return to a safe splashdown on this date.  It had been only a few minutes before the splashdown that we found out that the Astronauts had survived.

Apollo 13's Ill-fated Mission to the Moon

Apollo 13's  mission had been to land on and explore the Fra Mauro highlands, which had been named after the 80-kilometer-diameter Fra Mauro crater inside of it. It is a very large, hilly area thought to be composed of moon rocks from the impact that began the moons formation. The mission had been launched on April 11.  Aboard Apollo 13 were (pictured above, L to R) the mission commander. James A. Lovell for whom this was the fourth and final space flight, and with him were John L. Swigert, the command module pilot and Fred Haise, the pilot of the lunar module.  This was the first space flight for Swigert and Haise. All three were former test pilots.

"Houston. we've had a problem..."

On the afternoon of April 14 a significant problem arose.  Mission Control asked Swigert to turn on the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, and he did. About a minute and a half later, the astronauts heard a "loud bang," in addition to changes in electrical power and firing of the attitude control thrusters. This is when Swigert made the famous report to the Johnson Space Center in Houston
(where Mission Control - pictured left - was located): "Houston, we've had a problem." About two minutes of their subsequent conversation can be heard on a Wikipedia Sound File by clicking on the highlighted words in the quotation at the top of this paragraph.  In that recording you can hear the crew reporting not only the "loud bang" that they heard, but also right at the end you can hear them reporting that they could see that they were venting some sort of gas into space.  At first, the crew thought that a meteoroid might have hit the Lunar Module. But what had actually happened was that the number-2 oxygen tank, one of two in the Service Module, had exploded due to some faulty wiring insulation.  This explosion had taken out the ship's main supply of air and power. Lovell said later that he thought "...the odds were very small at that time that we were going to get out of this alive." 

The Perilous  Return Trip

With so much of their oxygen gone, the decision was sorrowfully made that the landing on the moon would have to be cancelled.  The only hope of success would now be to get the crew back to earth alive. This with depleted energy left on the space craft meant that a whole
bunch of new emer- gency proce-  dures would have to be impro- vised.  This also  brought the dangerous situation into the focus of television news all over the world.  As Americans and people around the world, anxiously followed the situation on TV, a whole array of jury rig-type solutions were utilized.  The craft was taken around the moon to use the its gravitational pull to fire the modules back toward earth.  Various odds and ends around the craft were put together into a make-shift purifier to leave enough breathable air for the men to breathe (pictured, above).  And a whole series of dramatic and quite untried navigational maneuvers had to be used in order to correct Apollo 13's course in order to bring her back into the earth's orbit at the right place.  And to top it all off nobody was at all sure that Apollo 13's heat shield had survived the initial explosion.  So as said before, it was not until after a six minute radio silence during the plunge to the ocean that anybody could be certain that the crew had not burnt up during re-entry.  But they had indeed survived.

"When that spacecraft splashed down an water came over the windows," Jim Lovell would later remember, "I said 'Hey, we're home!!'" 


"Apollo 13", directed by Ron Howard, 1995.

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