“A miraculous recovery”: remembering Apollo 13 to 50 years old

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Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The Apollo 13 astronauts never thought of their mission number when they took off for the moon 50 years ago. Even when their oxygen tank ruptured two days later – April 13.

Jim Lovell and Fred Haise insist that they are not superstitious. They even use 13 in their email addresses.

As the mission commander, Mr. Lovell, sees, he is incredibly lucky. Not only has he survived NASA’s most heartbreaking moon shot, but he’s here to mark his golden anniversary.

“I’m still alive. As long as I can keep breathing, I’m fine, “said Lovell, 92, in an interview with The Associated Press from his home in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Half a century later, Apollo 13 is still considered the best hour of Mission Control.

Lovell calls it “a miraculous recovery.”

Mr. Haise, like so many others, considers it NASA’s most successful failure.

“It was a great mission,” said Mr. Haise, 86. He showed “what can be done if people use their minds and a little ingenuity. “

As a lunar module pilot, Mr. Haise would have become the sixth man to walk on the moon, according to Mr. Lovell on the dusty gray surface. The oxygen tank explosion robbed them of the moon landing, which would have been NASA’s third, nine months after Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin took the first human steps on the moon.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has robbed them of their birthday celebrations. The festivities are on hold, notably at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the mission began on April 11, 1970, on a Saturday like this year.

That won’t stop Mr. Haise, who still lives in Houston, from marking what he calls the “boom day” next Monday, as he does every April 13.

Mr. Lovell, Mr. Haise and Jack Swigert, last minute substitute who died in 1982, were almost on the moon when they heard a knock and felt a chill. One of the two oxygen tanks had burst in the spacecraft’s service module.

The tense words that followed are the fame of space and cinema.

“Okay, Houston, we had a problem here,” said operator Swigert, the control module pilot.

“It’s Houston. Please repeat. “

“Houston, we had a problem,” said Lovell.

Lovell reported a sudden drop in voltage in one of the two main electrical circuits. Within seconds, Houston Mission Control saw the pressure readings from the damaged oxygen tank plunge to zero. The explosion also destroyed two electricity-generating fuel cells and damaged the third.

As Mr. Lovell looked out the window and saw oxygen escaping into the dark void, he knew that his landing on the moon was also moving away. He repelled all his emotions.

“Not landing on the moon or dying in space are two different things,” said Lovell, “so we forgot to land on the moon. It was a matter of survival. How to get home? “

The astronauts were 200,000 miles from Earth. To come back alive you would need calm, skill and, yes, luck.

“The explosion could not have happened at a better time,” said Lovell.

Much earlier, he said, and the astronauts would not have had enough electrical energy to bypass the moon and return to Earth for a splash. An explosion in lunar orbit or, worse still, while Mr. Lovell and Mr. Haise were on the surface, “it would be the end”.

“I think we had divine help in this flight,” said Lovell.

The aborted mission has gone from so commonplace that none of the main television networks broadcast the show-and-tell of the astronauts a few minutes before the explosion, to a drama of life or death which seized the world. whole.

As flight director Gene Kranz and his team in Houston rushed to find a rescue plan, the astronauts kept their cool. It was Mr. Lovell’s fourth space flight – his second on the moon – and the first and only for Mr. Haise and Mr. Swigert.

Dark thoughts “have always run through our minds, but silently. We haven’t talked about it, “said Lovell.

Haise added, “We have never reached the point where there was nothing more to do. So, no, we never got to the point where we said, “Well, we’re going to die. “”

The less confident White House demanded ratings. Mr. Kranz refused, leaving it to others to put the crew at 50-50. In his mind, there was no doubt, no room for failure – only success.

“Basically, that was the name of the game: I’m going to take them home. My team will take them home. We will take them home, ”said Kranz.

For the record, Mr. Kranz never said “failure is not an option”. The line is pure Hollywood, created for the 1995 film “Apollo 13” with Ed Harris in the role of Mr. Kranz and Tom Hanks in the role of Mr. Lovell.

The flight controllers went into crisis mode. They immediately ordered the Odyssey control module to be closed to conserve the little remaining power, and the astronauts moved into the Aquarius lunar module, now a lifeboat.

One of the weak spots, said Lovell, was to realize that they would be cramped in the lander.

“It was designed for two people for two days. We were three people for four days. “

The carbon dioxide overload from breathing threatened to kill them.

The engineers worked to figure out how to convert the square air purification cartridges in the dead capsule into round cartridges that could fit in their temporary home.

Their solution off the beaten track, the seat of the pants, using the remains of spaceships, worked. But it was so humid and cold that the astronauts could not sleep. Condensation was covering the walls and windows and the temperature was close to freezing.

Dehydrated and feverish, Mr. Haise had the hardest time during the six-day trial. Despite the exorbitant stress, Mr. Haise does not remember any crossword puzzles among the three test pilots. Even Mr. Swigert integrates, although he only joined the crew three days before takeoff. He replaced command module pilot Ken Mattingly, who with his teammates had been exposed to German measles, but unlike them, he had no immunity.

There have been rumors that the astronauts had hidden poison pills when they were in dire straits. Mr. Lovell dispelled this notion on the front page of his 1994 autobiography, “Lost Moon,” the basis of the film “Apollo 13”.

The day of the Splashdown finally arrived on April 17, 1970 – without any guarantees.

The astronauts managed to power their control module, avoiding short circuits but creating precipitation inside as the spacecraft slowed down in the atmosphere.

The communication failure lasted 1 1/2 minutes longer than normal. The controllers are alarmed. Finally, three inflated parachutes appeared over the Pacific. It was only then, said Mr. Lovell, that “we knew we had done it.”

The astronauts had no idea the impact of their cosmic cliffhanger on the world until they reached Honolulu. President Richard Nixon was there to greet them.

“We never dreamed that a billion people would follow us on television and radio, and read about us in the headlines of all the newspapers we published,” Lovell noted in a NASA story. .

The explosion of the tank was then linked to damage caused by electrical overheating during ground tests.

Apollo 13 “demonstrated teamwork, camaraderie and what NASA was all about,” said Mike Massimino of Columbia University, a former shuttle astronaut.

In the decades that followed, Mr. Lovell and his wife, Marilyn, almost 68, discussed the assumptions and contingencies.

“The result of everything is, of course, that he is alive,” she said, “and that we have lived all these years. “

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all of our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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