What Happened to Apollo 13 and How the Crew Came Home?

Everyone heard the phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” coming from Apollo 13 near disaster — not just from a film but from a real space mission. But what truly happened with this unfortunate launch, and how did real-life events unfold in real life? Here, we will give you a quick account of what happened to Apollo 13 and how its crew managed to come home.

Apollo 13 crew & pre-mission setbacks

Apollo 13 was the 7th manned flight to the Moon, and it seems that this notoriously unlucky number started affecting the 13th mission even before it launched. First, the original Apollo 13 crew had to be replaced with the 14th mission staff because of the original crew’s health. As a result, NASA appointed James Lovell as mission commander, while John Swigert and Fred Haise went as Apollo 13 command module and lunar module pilots, respectively.

Interestingly, John Swigert was a reserve crew pilot as its original command module pilot, Thomas Kenneth «Ken» Mattingly, contracted measles two days before the mission launch. Those, however, were all minor setbacks compared to an upcoming Apollo 13 incident that made the whole world bate its breath.

Mission launch & what caused Apollo 13 accident details

Apollo 13 Mission crew took from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, at 06:00 UTC. The first problem occurred just five and a half minutes into the flight, as the second-stage engine switched off prematurely, two minutes before the scheduled time. However, Saturn V heavy rocket had already gained the necessary acceleration by this time, so the Apollo crew fixed this problem by igniting side engines.

For some time, it seemed that the Apollo 13 mission, aiming to collect lunar soil samples, was going normally — until April 13, when its crew repaired the first explosions onboard. Oxygen Tank 2 exploded after its sensor level went off the scale at the 56th hour of the Apollo 13 flight. The explosion damaged three existing fuel cell batteries, depriving the Apollo command module of its power supply, which rendered the Moon landing impossible. This, however, was not the main problem as by that point, the astronaut crew was facing a larger problem — decreasing oxygen levels and the necessity to come back to Earth. Jumping a bit ahead, did the crew of Apollo 13 survive? Fortunately, they did, but three astronauts and NASA’s mission control center were about to face a few stressful hours, to put it mildly.

At the time of the explosion, it was difficult to say what caused this incident, and it first seemed that the Apollo crew postponed the tank destratification procedure, which was necessary to mix oxygen and hydrogen, by roughly nine hours in favor of a broadcast with Earth. Further analysis proved that this was not the case, as Apollo 13 crew flew with the tank from Apollo 10 mission onboard. Orbital Today reports that the latter was dropped accidentally just before the 10th lunar mission launch (according to NASA) and returned for maintenance. NASA’s further retesting also implied removing any remaining oxygen from this tank, which damaged its Teflon insulation. By the time Swigert started with Apollo tank destratification, a spark had ignited an already damaged insulation layer and eventually led to the explosion. 

Apollo 13 Rescue Mission Efforts & Alternative Scenarios

The mission crew survived not only because of its courage and resourcefulness, but also because of a great analytics effort from NASA Emergency Rescue Headquarters. In a few hours, they developed five scenarios to return Apollo 13 crew back home, eventually stopping on the safest one. Its only drawback was extending the mission length by nine hours, which, in the extreme conditions of cold and gradually decreasing oxygen, posed risks of its own. So, how long did it take Apollo 13 to get home? The total mission duration from launch to splashdown in the Pacific was 142:54:41. Still, all major decisions had to be taken within six hours after the tank explosion, and both ground and space crews had to wait for another six days before witnessing their intended outcome. So, how exactly mission crew managed to return?

First, the Apollo crew had to move from the Aquarius lunar module to the Odyssey command module. The main problem with Aquarius was that this Apollo 13 capsule was not designed to filter the air for three crew members for such a long time. So, ground engineers came up with a quick adapter design that the astronaut crew assembled right onboard.

Another challenge was constant cold and lack of water, aggravated by an explosion in the Aquarius module, disabling one of its batteries. However, the mission crew managed to perform all necessary maneuvers to dock with Odyssey, load it up to a required mass (since return calculations included 100 pounds of lunar soil samples that were never collected), and finally undock service modules.

After a series of trajectory corrections and activating a landing navigation system, the Apollo crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 pm Houston time. This landing took place less than 8 km from a rescue ship that picked up Apollo 13 crew and returned it to the NASA base. All mission members, both in space and on Earth, were later awarded the highest civilian award in the United States — the Medal of Freedom.

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