Today in History: Safe Return of Apollo 13 Crew
by M.C. Millman
Apollo 13, the third crewed mission meant to land on the moon, returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970.
The mission began on April 11, launching from Florida with three astronauts on board: James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise.
Almost 56 hours into the flight, a dramatic series of events began to unfold when an oxygen tank exploded in the command module, seriously damaging the spacecraft. Thoughts of reaching the moon were abandoned immediately when the crew realized they were fighting for their lives.
Swigert said his famous line, "Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here," alerting mission control of the pressing issue.
The astronauts and controllers on Earth worked together on emergency procedures to get the astronauts back to safety despite the damaged oxygen and power supply. According to the Planetary Society, the astronauts quickly powered up the lunar module, which functioned as a 'lifeboat,' and powered down the command module to conserve batteries for re-entry and splashdown.
The lunar module was only designed to support two astronauts for 48 hours on the lunar surface. The three astronauts were forced to use whatever resources they had to survive in the lunar module for almost 90 hours. During the trip back to Earth, all non-essential systems, including lights, heaters, and the guidance computer, were shut down to conserve energy. According to the National Air and Space Museum, the astronauts had to improvise to filter out the deadly excess carbon dioxide they were producing, using a plastic bag, cardstock, a spacesuit hose, and duct tape.
The New York Times reported that an estimated 40 million Americans watched Apollo 13's splashdown, which was live on all three networks. Outside the U.S, millions watch what unfolded as well.
Journalist Jack Gould of The New York Times stated that Apollo 13, "which came so close to tragic disaster, in all probability united the world in mutual concern more fully than another successful landing on the moon would have".
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