Apollo 13: Disaster in Space
By the time Apollo 13 lifted off Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center on April 11th, 1970, a journey to the Moon seemed --- after only two, successful missions ---- almost routine to the general public. The excitement of previous missions, especially that first landing on the Moon in 1969, had actually began to wane. TV audiences worldwide had already started to dwindle from billions to millions. It was 'old hat' to many. Maybe …. too many. Because as anyone knows (or should), space travel is never routine. It was, and still is, the most dangerous human occupation, and the most difficult of all human endeavors.
The lack of public interest was manifested on April 13th --- the second day of the mission ----- when even the big three networks … ABC, CBS and NBC, refused to preempt their prime-time TV programming so that NASA could feed them a live broadcast from the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Despite weeks … actually, months of advance notice, network 'suits' decided it was not prudent to lose the advertising revenue that prime time shows --- including a Bob Hope special ---- would yield. The networks made no money from Moon missions, they reasoned.
The broadcast went on as scheduled. About the only people who were watching were either at JSC (Mission Control) in Houston, and a handful to PBS stations that had everything to gain, and no money to lose. NASA did not tell the astronauts that the broadcast had been shunned by the big three networks.
And it was a fun broadcast. The astronauts, commander, Jim Lovell, pilot, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, lunar module pilot, were having a ball as they gave viewers a tour of both spacecraft …. Odyssey, the command module (CM) and Aquarius, the lunar module (LEM). The mood was jovial.
But that would quickly change.
After the broadcast concluded, Haise floated into the LEM to to take care of some personal business, while Swigert and Lovell began 'station-keeping' ---- a quick cleaning of all the surfaces inside the ship. As bacteria thrives in zero-gravity, it is important to keep things clean. They wiped all the handles, bulkheads and port holes with a strong disinfectant (Lysol) and were about ready to begin preparing for their pre-sleep period and a snack when NASA called from the ground and ordered a 'cryo-stir' inside the main oxygen tank.
Liquid Oxygen (LOX), stored in spherical, insulated containers aboard the Service Module (SM) that contained all of their life support equipment and a rocket engine to maneuver (the command module itself had no engines other than small thrusters to change pitch, yaw and roll), had to be kept at a supercool 235 degrees below zero in order to maintain a liquid state. This oxygen was not only vital for the obvious reason of providing a breathable atmosphere inside the spacecraft, but the combination of it, along with liquid hydrogen, created, as a by-product, two other necessities; electricity and potable water.
As the tank used up it's liquid and the volume of the tank decreased, it was necessary to 'stir' the inside of the tank to make sure it continued to feed into the ships' life support system in the weightless environment. To turn the LOX into a gas, a heating element that turned (almost like a blender) inside the tank was connected to a thermostat that would signal the operator to stop the 'stir' once the proper temperature was reached. It was a routine job that had been a part of every Apollo mission.
Acknowledging NASA's order, Swigert flipped a switch to begin the stir.
The spacecraft jolted and shook, knocking it slightly off course. And it was gyrating --- rocking back and forth. The ships computer, which detected the anomalous movement, began firing thrusters to correct the now erratic course Apollo 13 was suddenly experiencing.
At this point, Haise was still in the LEM, and both men in the command module could hear Haise yell “What the f**k was that??” Haise was always known as the official Apollo 13 prankster ---- always joking and playing practical jokes on the crew. But as Haise began floating through the airlock that kept the two spacecraft together, Jim Lovell looked at him and could see a look of grave concern on Haise's face. “I looked at Fred and I could tell he didn't have anything to do with it.” Lovell recalled.
By now, the master alarm was sounding and warning lights blinked like beacons. Swigert opened his microphone. “OK Houston, we've had a problem here.”
“This is Houston, say again please.” NASA asked. Jim Lovell replied this time, with words that are forever etched in history.
“Houston, we've had a problem.”
All of this happened within seven seconds after the explosion.
With their microphones now on VOX (voice operated activation – automatically transmitting at the sound of one's voice for hands-free operation), NASA could hear Swigert and Lovell calling off readings and observations. Engineers at their consoles immediately saw data that they weren't supposed to see. Nobody knew what had happened. Not Houston. And certainly not the astronauts. All they knew was that they were losing power and oxygen at an alarming rate.
“The first thing I thought,” Swigert recalled, “Was that maybe we were struck by a meteorite.”
But this was worse. Much worse. As the three men struggled to make sense of the explosion and trying to figure out exactly what it was, Jim Lovell looked out his window and saw something that was venting into space. “It looks to me,” Lovell said over the radio “looking out the hatch that we are venting something. We are venting something out …... into space.”
It was oxygen. Oxygen meant to keep the crew alive in the command module.
Fred Haise told Houston “We had a pretty large bang associated with the warnings here.”
As seasoned test pilots who flirted with danger on a daily basis, their transmissions to JSC were stoic and measured. To hear the radio exchanges, one would never think that lives were now in the balance.
And they were over 200,000 miles from Earth.
At Mission Control, engineers were reading off telemetry data that was more than disturbing. Oxygen levels in the CM were dropping quickly, and electricity measurements were showing the CM losing power instead of having it constantly replenished. Stu Roosa, who was monitoring power systems at the time, said over the intercom. “I got a feeling we've lost two fuel cells. I hate to put it that way, I don't know why we lost em.' And it's not an instrumentation problem”
Everyone in mission control gulped. They all knew what that meant.
In a span of five minutes, Flight Controller, Gene Kranz, huddled with the core team ---- the group of controllers who had levels of expertise in every aspect of the two spacecraft. Chris Kraft, another flight controller, who had been ready to relieve Kranz, and had been drinking coffee in the commissary, came in and joined them to start his shift. “What the f**k going on?” He asked Kranz.
“Chris, I think we're in a bunch of shit.”
Within another five minutes, Houston sent a message to the astronauts, ordering them to start powering up the LEM --- the lunar module. But Jim Lovell had already sent Haise to the LEM to begin that procedure, while he began transferring food, water and other essentials. “I knew,” Lovell said in his memoirs “we didn't have much time to stick around in the command module. By the time we got the call, Fred was already in the LEM configuring switches.” Swigert, meanwhile, was simultaneously powering down the command module. They had 15-minutes of battery power remaining. And that power was for re-entry.
If they survived.
With the CM powered down, Lovell floated through the dock between the LEM and the CM, closing the hatch behind him. This was supposed to be snack time. But nobody on board the spacecraft had an appetite. And nobody was going to be sleeping tonight. The radio chatter between the spacecraft and Houston was incessant. Checks and double-checks were made of the LEM life support systems. Next to oxygen, electricity was a prime concern. The LEM had no provisions for fuel cells --- the ability to generate it's own electricity. Only batteries were able to provide power. And those batteries were only designed for providing power and life support on the lunar surface for two men for 36 hours.
The return to Earth would take at least four days.
“When Deke (Slayton, an astronaut and flight controller) came to me first,” Said Stuart Roosa, “And asked me if we had enough power in the LEM to get them home. I said 'Deke, I don't think so.'”
Meanwhile, the two spacecraft (three, actually …. the command module, the now crippled and useless service module, and the LEM) were hurtling towards the Moon at 24,000 miles an hour. Somehow, Houston had to figure a way to get the three men heading back towards Earth. But that turned out to be the easiest task. By now, the ship was back on a perfect and stable trajectory for a lunar landing.
To enter lunar orbit, they had to maneuver around the far side of the Moon, turn the spacecraft backwards, and fire the CSM engine --- towards the direction of travel ---- to slow the spacecraft enough to achieve orbital velocity. But instead of firing their booster engine aboard the service module to slow them down (something they couldn't do anyway, now), they still had to slow down the spacecraft in order to go into Lunar orbit, allowing the gravity of the Moon to whip them around and into a trajectory back towards Earth. Otherwise, the spacecraft and it's crew would have flown past the Moon and lost forever. Once again, the brains of NASA gathered together to figure out the next move. They used the descent engine aboard the LEM.
By this time, NASA had already notified the families. Astronauts, along with Chaplains, paid visits to each of their homes and informed their spouses and families what had happened aboard Apollo 13. At about the same time, the story was hitting the media. NASA did everything they could. The wives of other astronauts were bringing food and providing support, along with their astronaut-husbands. At a NASA press conference the second day of the disaster, the families of the astronauts were in attendance. It took every ounce of courage to retain their composure. The Press, in a gesture that would never be afforded by the media today, respected the astronauts families and gave them their space unless they were personally invited.
Three NASA astronauts are there, visiting and comforting the family. Pete Conrad (far left), Buzz Aldrin (second from left) and Neil Armstrong (background, sitting)
The Lovell family watching TV coverage of the Disaster
The Lovell family watching TV coverage of the Disaster
[Imagine if you were this family, watching your loved one's fate being played out on TV]
The only way for the crew to make it back to Earth, alive, was to speed up the spacecraft. It was decided to use the engine on the LEM ------- designed only for a lunar landing ---- to provide the thrust necessary to gain speed and cut short at least 28-hours of spaceflight time. It was a time consuming process. There was no checklist of procedures for this kind of maneuver. Mission Control sent these instructions --- step by step ---- to the crew over the radio. They quickly found themselves running out of paper. So they used every scrap of it they could find to write down all the instructions. It took almost an hour to transcribe the procedures. And the radio began draining more power, causing communications to be unstable, and sometimes fade out.
Jim Lovell's hand scribbled notes for engine burn procedure
As the spacecraft began to follow a path that would take them to the far side of the moon, the three men had a few minutes to catch their breath. Lovell was studying the procedures that had just been written down and noticed his two crewmates snapping photos of the lunar surface. He was puzzled.
“Gentlemen, what are your intentions?” Lovell asked.
Both men said they were taking pictures of craters on the far side of the Moon.
“Gentlemen,” Lovell calmly said “If we don't get home, you won't get them developed.”
As the time approached for the burn, Lovell became slightly agitated and sternly told his crew “OK, Listen. Let's get all the cameras squared away and get all set for the burn. We've got one chance, Pals.”
And they did. The spacecraft only had enough power to initiate one burn. There was no margin for error. It had to work. The timing would have to be precise. If the engine, which had to be manually fired, was even a half second late, they would miss Earth entirely and orbit the sun for eternity.
Fortunately, the burn was successful. Another obstacle had been overcome.
But there would be more.
After the burn, mission control wanted to get the men some sleep. They hadn't slept for two days at this point. They divided 'watch' times so that at least one man would be awake while the other two slept. That, unto itself, was a chore. The LEM was only designed for two people, not three. And it had as much space as a spare bathroom.
With the spacecraft on it's way back to Earth, mission control had to figure out how to conserve what little battery power they had to get back. Every person who had been involved in the design and construction of the spacecraft were called in. Tom Mattingly, who was bumped from the mission when he became exposed to the measles, and John Aaron, an engineer and flight controller, was charged with developing procedures to get the three men back home, and keep power levels to a minimum. Mattingly then directed other astronauts, who had all gathered at mission control to help, into the LEM simulator to test the calculations. Time was so critical that the intercom inside the simulator was patched back to the control room, and each astronaut called back to the flight controllers and engineers with the results. Every time Mattingly confirmed a procedure, it was relayed to the crew. One of the procedures was turning the LEM's thermostat ---- the device that controlled the spacecrafts heater, off. It was cramped, and it started to get cold. Very cold. Near freezing.
Meanwhile, Fred Haise told Lovell that he had trouble urinating, and it had become painful. There was really nothing that could be done. Instead, Haise had only aspirin and acetaminophen on-board to reduce the fever --- which had spiked as high as 105 degrees. But it wasn't enough. Haise had chills and began shaking uncontrollably. His crewmates alternately took turns hugging him to transmit what body heat they had.
Though not life threatening, Haise was suffering from a prostate urinary infection.
The men trapped inside the tiny LEM could only do what they could to stay alive. With no fuel cells to create water, the crew had to make it with what packaged water they had on-board. Water was rationed, and was a contributing factor to Haise's medical malady. Food, most of which had to be heated and rehydrated with hot water, was unpalatable, and the astronauts had to ration what ready-to -eat food they had left. And it wasn't much.
But there was nothing to do to keep active. First, there was no room to move around without bumping into someone. There were no experiments to conduct, and only two course corrections to make en route back to Earth. Each of the men would alternatively nap. Nobody had any energy. It wasn't long before Swigert noticed that the CO2 levels in the spacecraft were quickly exceeding nominal levels. At the same time, mission control also expressed concern. The LEM, which had only been designed to support life for two people for 2-days, had almost exhausted it's supply of lithium hydroxide canisters ---- canisters that scrubbed deadly carbon dioxide --- exhaled by the three men ---- from the air.
The command module had canisters, but there was one problem. Actually, two problems. The connectors for each of the 'scrubbers' were different; one was round, the other was square.
Fortunately an engineer named Ed Smyley began working with various items that were also inside both spacecraft. His solution was amazingly simple; he used plastic bags ---- normally used for collecting urine, and common duct tape, for which there were several rolls of inside the LEM (supplied to do emergency repairs to spacesuits and the razor thin hull of the LEM), and taped them together to allow the air circulation hoses, cut from the suits originally designed for Lunar EVA, and thick paper backing from the flight plan books, to created a seal around the 'hijacked' canisters from the command module. Instructions were relayed to the crew, who had the jury-rigged system in place, and working, within 20-minutes.
Another life threatening crises, diverted. Ed Smyley is rarely credited with saving the the lives of the three astronauts.
As the spacecraft crawled towards Earth at a paltry 3500 miles per hour, Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert had to begin powering up the command module in preparation for reentry. Nobody ---- not the crew, not NASA, knew if this procedure would be successful. The CM was near freezing. Condensation covered everything. As systems were activated, would they short circuit? Would the batteries deliver enough power to affect reentry?
A quick overview of the Apollo 13 Disaster ............
Note: The date of the explosion is often cited as April 13th. Technically, in Houston, Texas, it was April 13th. But mission time is logged in GMT ---- Greenwich Mean Time, also known as Coordinated Universal Time ---- UTC. GMT/UTC is the solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, which is six hours ahead of Houston. And in England, it was indeed April 14th. But both dates can be claimed as accurate. It was a little after 8pm CST in Houston … on April 13th …. that the explosion occurred.
As Swigert, who was the command module pilot, was configuring switches, he scribbled a note on a piece of paper. It was a note to himself. It simply said 'NO.' The piece of paper was put over the switch that jettisoned the LEM, which they still needed. Jim Lovell saw the piece of paper and simply said “Good thinking, Jack.”
The CM powered up. There were no anomaly's. The command module was fully functional. All that remained was one, last critical maneuver that involved an engine burn to make a final course correction in order to 'hit Earth's atmosphere at exactly the right angle in order to safely reenter. NASA engineers calculated the time of the burn to exactly 24.4 seconds. If the engine was cut at 24 seconds, the spacecraft would have burned up in the atmosphere. If the burn was a mere half-second too long, ship would miss Earth entirely and orbit the Sun for millions of years with three frozen bodies inside, never to be recovered.
“If we had to choose a way to go,” Jim Lovell said, “We would have rather burned up in the atmosphere rather than orbit the Sun for eternity.”
The burn was perfect. Lovell raised his hand and pilot, Jack Swigert, grabbed it and smiled.
Now, the service module had to be jettisoned. As it floated past the CM, the crew trained their cameras on it. The sight they saw was simply unbelievable. Lovell, the normally stoic test pilot, could not help but shudder as he reported the condition of it to mission control “There's one whole side of that spacecraft missing!”
The Apollo 13 Service Module
"And there's one whole side of that spacecraft missing!!!"
----- Jim Lovell
NASA controllers looked at each other, knowing full well that another danger presented itself. An explosion that severe could have loosened the heat shield designed to protect the ship and the astronauts from burning up as they reentered the atmosphere. Deke Slayton, in his memoir 'Moonshot,' recalled that “Nobody said anything. (to the astronauts) Nobody had to.” And he was right. Jim Lovell and his crew knew full well when they saw the damage that their heat shield could have also been compromised. They ignored it, and nothing more was said. “I think we had just become so used to danger,” Jack Swigert later said, “That we just said 'to hell with it' and didn't even think about it.”
Now the crew had to jettison the LEM. As it floated away from the command module, and heading to an eventual, fiery breakup in Earth's atmosphere, as planned, Joe Kerwin, the CAPCOM --- the person who communicated directly to the astronauts ---- at the time, said over the radio “Farewell Aquarius. And we Thank You.”
One hundred and forty two hours into the mission, Odyssey began to enter the atmosphere. Heat levels under the spacecraft exceeded 3000 degrees. The plasma created by the friction cut off communications with the ground. From that moment on, nobody knew if the astronauts would make it back alive. Nobody knew if the heat shield would do it's job or fail. And there was no way to monitor the spacecraft during re-entry.
While Apollo 13 didn't rate airtime on the three big networks a few days earlier, it did now. The world was also watching and listening. The crew never once thought about what was happening back on Earth, and how many billions of people were following the near-tragic mission. People were gathering on streets and in stores around the world, watching the events on television. Apollo 13 now had everyone's attention, and everyone kept their ears to their radios, and their eyes to their TV's. People around the world were praying for the astronauts lives. Churches of all Faiths had special prayer services every day.
As Odyssey plunged into the denser layer of the atmosphere, all communications would be blocked for three minutes.
But as three minutes came and passed, there was no radio transmission. Another thirty seconds went by; Nothing. The control room was deathly quiet. Only static could be heard over the intercom. For a few moments, everyone at mission control thought the astronauts didn't make it.
“If there was a time you died a thousand deaths,” Gene Kranz said, “It was then.”
As the four minute mark came, several controllers could be heard vomiting into trash cans at their consoles. Almost everyone had their heads down, as if in fervent prayer.
Then, at four and a half minutes, the static that had been filling the control room was broken by the end of a transmission from pilot, Jack Swigert “OK, Joe, Over...”
There was a collected sigh of relief and more than a few yelps. But not from everyone in the control room. At this point, Odyssey had not yet deployed it's parachutes. Those parachutes were activated by explosive bolts. Explosives that had been in sub-freezing temperatures for almost five days. If they didn't explode, the capsule, with the three astronauts inside, would have hit the ocean at over 230 miles per hour. An un-survivable crash.
But, as God's good graces prevailed, the explosives detonated and the parachutes unfurled perfectly. It was at that point that the control room exploded in cheers. Controllers were hugging each other. Cigars were brought out and lit. Gene Lunney, one of the flight controllers came over to the console where Flight Director, Gene Kranz was sitting. He had his head down on the desk. When Lunney asked Kranz what was wrong, Kranz raised his head. His eyes were red and gushing tears. Lunney put his arm around Kranz, and then both men started crying. They hugged and then lit a traditional celebratory cigar.
Millions around the world, and especially the astronauts families, were wiping tears away too.
The investigation that followed found that the problem that almost caused the loss of the three astronauts was a technical failure that had happened almost two weeks earlier during a 'plugs out' test (oddly, the same kind of test that took the lives of three astronauts on Apollo One back in 1967) held while the rocket was still on the launch pad. After the test, technicians drained the liquid oxygen tank --- the same one that exploded, which was standard procedure. As the liquid oxygen level dropped, the coil inside the tank got too hot ---almost 1000 degrees (enough to melt lead) --- causing an insulated wire to melt, fusing the thermostat. When Swigert initiated the stir, the bare insulation overheated the Teflon interior of the tank which heated the gas until pressure caused the tank to explode like a bomb. Which, in fact, at that point, was a bomb.
The mission was doomed before it ever launched.
Procedures were changed, of course. And for the rest of the Apollo program, before each launch, the thermostat and heating fans inside the LOX tanks were thoroughly tested, and NASA would never again have to worry about a repeat performance. Additional food, water, and life support supplies were also added to future missions as a precaution.
Apollo 13 was dubbed 'NASA's most successful Failure.' NASA had never prepared for such a calamity. Yet it was human intelligence, not computers, that solved one insurmountable problem after another, and brought three men ---- whom the odds said would never get home alive ---- to a safe landing.
The crew of Apollo 13
L/R - Jim Lovell, John 'Jack' Swigert (d. 1982), Fred Haise
Fred Haise, Jim Lovell, and Gene Kranz (2015)
An Addendum to the article above:
What is also interesting about this near-catastrophe, was the TV news coverage. Here's Jules Bergman, the science editor at ABC news, in a series of montages from the first bulletin --- reporting the accident to millions, and all the way through the mission to the emotional splashdown. (Yes, it was quite crude in those days)
Over on CBS, the legendary Walter Cronkite teamed up with retired astronaut, Wally Schirra to offer the insight of an expert. After all, Wally was a veteran of the Mercury, Gemini, and he flew the first Apollo test mission that lasted 10 days. Nobody knew that spacecraft better. (Try not to laugh at the spacecraft models they use)
Addendum #2 -
NASA history is replete with 'target oriented' decisions reached when the guys wearing suits and pocket pouches crammed with pens and sliderules were scared to death to say anything that would stop an aspect of a mission or a test, knowing full well that something may be amiss. You can look at any number of 'accidents' that caused, or almost caused, a loss of life.
You can go back, for example, to the Gemini program back in 1965. Astronaut, Gene Cernan, almost passed out attempting the first spacewalk (EVA). While Ed White was the first American to walk in space, all he did was float. Cernan had to work ----- tighten bolts, turn screws, unplug connectors, and so forth. NASA physicists and engineers knew that sending a man outside the spacecraft to challenge Newton's 4th Law of Gravity was a very dangerous proposition. Yet there was no dissent among them when they met with NASA brass to begin planning the mission. So Cernan is up there, 180 miles above Earth, trying to tighten a bolt, and every time he turned it one way, he would be flipped around in the opposite direction. Cernan was exhausted. Thirteen pounds of perspiration were floating inside his suit. Cernan's visor was totally fogged, he couldn't see, and his pilot, Tom Mattingly, who was belted into his seat (both cockpits doors were open during the EVA), would not be able to go out and help him back into the spacecraft. And if Cernan wasn't able to get back into that spacecraft, the standing order was to cut the man loose, close the doors, and reenter. Fortunately, thank God, Cernan did make it back inside.
The kicker is that NASA totally ignored this dangerous condition and in the very next mission, they sent another astronaut to do the same thing Cernan tried to do. And the results were the same. Dick Gordon almost passed out outside the spacecraft ---- something that would have been fatal. But NASA had that goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon, and to hell with the known dangers.
And then there was the Apollo-1 tragedy --- another result of insane work schedules and putting the possibility of danger aside. NASA engineers knewthat pumping pure oxygen, under pressure, into a confined space, was the catalyst for a disaster if so much as a spark jumped from a short circuit. Which, by the way, is exactly what happened, and three men on the ground were burned alive.
And the Apollo 13 flight, of course, which brought out the best and the worst of NASA. Engineers knew that any exposed wire inside that LOX tank could result in a spark if it came in contact with a piece of metal. Yet the service module was designed, built, tested and cleared for manned spaceflight with a handful of engineers knowing full well that the LOX tank had wires going into that thermostat that were bare. And they didn't raise any alarm. We almost lost another three men on that mission.
The Challenger disaster was attributed to poor communication between the builder of the solid rocket boosters and NASA. On the morning of the launch, Thiokol engineers told NASA that the outside temperatures could compromise the seals between sections of the booster segment, and urged them to wait until warmer weather to launch. But NASA was more interested in keeping on schedule so that they could get a teacher into space. NASAknew that those boosters were unsafe to use that morning. But they were 'confident' everything would proceed without a hitch.
And don't forget Columbia. NASA knew that there was a problem with foam being dislodged from the external fuel tank during liftoff. They had seen it happen dozens of times on previous flights. Almost every single shuttle launch showed debris flying off and hitting the wings. But they figured that a piece of foam couldn't possibly damage a carbon fiber skin. Despite seeing it over and over and over, nobody at NASA suggested a test be conducted that would confirm the danger. But after seven people were killed during reentry, a test during the investigation revealed that, Yes, most certainly, a piece of that foam could puncture the skin on the shuttle's wings because that's exactly what happened during the test! And why they didn't perform such a test when they first saw that debris 14 years earlier is known to no one but God.
Today, NASA is but a faint shadow of what it once was. Despite a massive influx of new funding in the past year, we still don't even have a vehicle in our inventory that is rated for manned spaceflight. We have to depend on Russia to get our people to and from the space station.
And that is absolutely deplorable.