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Apollo 13

What happened to Apollo 13?

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December 11, 2017 3:46AM

The Apollo 13 spacecraft suffered an explosion in the oxygen tank in the Service Module due to an electrical fault which resulted in a shortage of electrical power and oxygen. Conditions were appalling in the cold, dark and cramped lunar module. An explosion made the astronauts abandon the Command Module and use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat to get home.

Meanwhile on Earth, teams of hundreds of scientists and engineer created new strategies and procedures, ranging from instructions for a device that would prevent the men from suffocating on their own CO2 exhalations to the burns and procedures needed to send them around the moon and back to Earth using the moon's own gravity.

No one knew the extent of the damage done until the Service Module was jettisoned just prior to re-entry. Even then, it was not known if the heat shield that would protect them from burning up was damaged, but all went normally and they splashed down uneventfully.

The Apollo 13 Command Module is now in the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.

The mission took off on April 11th 1970. On the way to the moon, two days later on April 13th there was an explosion on board the service module. This ripped part of the service module wall away and damaged much of the inside, including the life-support system. Much of the oxygen needed for breathing and for operating the fuel cells (to produce electricity) escaped into space.

The three-man crew had to use the lunar module that was attached to the command module which in turn was connected to the damaged service module as a 'life raft'. A full-scale resule mission then ensued. The only way for the men to return without using vital energy was to use 'free-return trajectory' - using the moon's gravity to speed up the craft, and sling-shoot the spacecraft round the moon and back to earth. In order to conserve as much energy as possible all non-essential systems were closed down including the cabin heating. Temperatures plummeted to way below zero as a result causing many problems for the three astronauts, especially Fred Haise (who was experiencing his first spaceflight) who developed a serious fever from a urinary infection. In addition to this, there was a dangerous build-up of carbon dioxide in the cabin from the astronauts' breathing as it was not removed by the filters in the damaged service and command modules. Therefore, the astronauts had to fashion makeshift filter systems by adapting the filter cartridges to fit into the lunar module life support system. This they did by using what they could in the craft - including Duck tape, the flight manual covers and even an old sock!

Their problems were not over on return to earth as they were coming in to the atmosphere at the wrong angle because they were underweight - the expected large amount of moonrock cargo, of course, was missing as they did not land on the moon. After a nailbiting manual adjustment of re-entry angle (something that had not even been attempted in simulators) because the computer on board was also out of action, the craft made their re-entry. However, there were doubts that the heatshield would hold after the damage to the craft causing the craft to burn up in the atmosphere.

After a record-breaking time in radio blackout during re-entry the craft did land safely in the ocean as planned (although off course) and all three astronauts were rescued.

The Apollo 13 mission was known as the 'successful failure' and many believe that, next to the success of Apollo 11 being the first to land on the moon, Apollo 13 showed Nasa at its finest. Literally hundreds worked round the clock to rescue the astronauts and the dedication of the team was regarded by the world as second to none.

I remember well this actually happening (I was 16 at the time) and the tension right across the world was astounding. One journalist said that during the rescue attempt 'the world held its breath'.

The three astronauts were Fred Haise, Jack Swiger and Jim Lovell (the captain). None of the three ever flew in space again. Swigert ended up elected to congress as a politician, but sadly died of cancer before taking up his seat.

Fred Haise is still alive (born 1933). In 2010 (when this was written) this makes him 77.

Jim Lovell was born in 1928 which makes him 82 this year (2010). On the movie Apollo 13 he was played by Tom Hanks. However, what most people do not know is that at the end of the movie Tom Hanks shakes hands with the captain of the US navy vessel that picked up the three astronauts from the sea. the captain of that ship was played by the real Jim Lovell, given a cameo part to play because of his help in getting factual material in the movie just right.