Remembering Apollo 13, NASA's Most Famous 'Successful Failure'

Apr 10, 2015
Originally published on April 10, 2015 7:30 pm

Space travel is never routine or easy and the Apollo 13 mission to the moon proved that point. An explosion aboard the spacecraft 55 hours after liftoff forever changed NASA. The surviving astronauts and flight team recently met to remember and talk about NASA's most famous "successful failure."

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Tomorrow marks the 45th anniversary of the start of a mission that came to be known as NASA's most famous successful failure. Apollo 13 captured the world's attention after an explosion crippled the spacecraft. The three astronauts and dozens of flight controllers labored for days to solve one challenge after another. Many people directly involved in the mission came together on the eve of the anniversary. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: The Apollo 13 mission started like so many others before it when it lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: Ignition sequence has started - six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. We have commit and we have liftoff at 2:13.

LEWIS: The massive rocket thundered skyward sending Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert to the moon. This was to be the third lunar landing mission, and by this point, public interest in the Apollo program was waning. But 55 hours into the mission and approaching the moon, this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LEWIS: An explosion ripped through the spacecraft and Commander Jim Lovell uttered one of the most famous phrases ever said in space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM LOVELL: Houston, we've had a problem.

LEWIS: Houston, we've had a problem. An oxygen tank inside the service module exploded. Speaking at the San Diego Air and Space Museum recently, Lovell recalled that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVELL: I was coming down from the lunar module into the command module when suddenly I heard that big hiss bang and everything rocked back and forth, lights came on, jets were firing, noise all over.

LEWIS: Fellow astronaut Fred Haise started scanning the gauges and didn't like what he saw. Oxygen tank sensors were reading zero. The multiple error warnings were confusing. Haise says he knew right away the mission was in jeopardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRED HAISE: So my feeling just went to a - just a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew we had lost the landing. That was probably within the first minute, I knew we couldn't go land.

LEWIS: Controllers on the ground hadn't quite come to that realization yet. Gene Kranz was the lead Apollo 13 flight director and on duty when the explosion happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GENE KRANZ: When we got the call down from the spacecraft, I didn't think too much of this at this time because basically we had had two electrical glitches earlier in that particular shift. So I thought gee, this is just another glitch, we'll work this after we get the crew to sleep.

LEWIS: Fifteen minutes after the accident, the gravity of the situation became clear as Lovell radioed down to mission control.

LOVELL: It looks to me looking out the back that we are venting something. We are venting something out into the - into space.

JACK LOUSMA: Roger, we copy you're venting.

LOVELL: It's a gas of some sort.

LEWIS: The gas was oxygen. From this point on, the Apollo 13 mission shifted from landing on the moon to survival. The flight controllers scrambled to try to understand what was happening. Sy Liebergot was responsible for the electrical and environmental systems on board - the very things that were failing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SY LIEBERGOT: I remember at one point Kranz asked me, Sy, what do we got on the spacecraft that's good?

(LAUGHTER)

LIEBERGOT: And of course I shrunk up in my little shell (laughter).

LEWIS: As electrical power and oxygen dwindled, the crew abandoned the command module and entered the lunar module to use it as a lifeboat. On the journey back, problems continued to crop up. The lunar module was designed for two people, not three, so too much carbon dioxide built up, and they didn't have the proper size filters. They wrestled with other issues - how to fire the engine without the usual guidance system, would there be enough power when the crew returned to the command module? One by one, NASA worked these and other problems.

FRANCIS FRENCH: It's hard to say what NASA learned from Apollo 13 more than what NASA proved on Apollo 13.

LEWIS: Francis French works at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and is author of several books on the space program. He says NASA was ready for all kinds of disasters, but this was their first chance to prove it.

FRENCH: They were ready to think about things that were way outside of their procedures they practiced, to run through checklists, to use their imagination and come up with ways to very calmly work out the best way to bring three people back to Earth alive.

LEWIS: Jim Lovell says it wasn't until Apollo 13 made it through the Earth's atmosphere and the parachutes opened that he knew they'd make it back.

LOVELL: Well, the ship saw that we were safe, they radioed to Houston, and I kind of think they very quietly tore up the obituaries they had all planned for us.

LEWIS: Apollo 13 set a record that still stands today. On its high-speed trip around the moon, the crew traveled the farthest any human has ever gone from Earth. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.