Apollo 13: the mission that failed but was considered a success

Hyperaxion Apr 11, 2020

Famous for the phrase “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, the mission to the Moon was interrupted after technical problems put the lives of the astronauts in jeopardy.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem” is the most memorable phrase from NASA‘s Apollo 13 mission, which started on April 11, 1970. At 2:13 pm, three astronauts – James “Jim” Lovell, John “Jack” Swigert and Fred Haise – took off aboard the Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The destination was the same as the previous year’s Apollo 11 mission: the Moon. But, 56 hours after takeoff, things got out of hand.

Apollo 13: the mission to the Moon that failed but was considered a success
The three astronauts who boarded the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo 13 mission: Fred W. Haise Jr. (left), James A. Lovell Jr (center) and John L. Swigert Jr. (right). (Credit: NASA).

Shortly after finishing a broadcast to the TV directly from the command module, the crew noticed a slight drop in the pressure of the module. Upon investigating what had happened, Swigert soon alerted the mission control center, located in Houston, Texas. That’s when he said the memorable phrase, reproduced by Tom Hanks in the Apollo 13 film slightly differently: the actor says “Houston, we have a problem”, using the verb in the present; when, in fact, the astronaut used it in the past, since the failure had already occurred.

A malfunction in the oxygen tank fan caused an explosion in the compartment. The effect was so intense that it also hit part of the module where the astronauts were – causing the cabin to be depressurized. The team had to act quickly: the three astronauts evacuated to the module that would be used to land on the moon called Aquarius, and used it as a “lifeboat”.

Mission Control of the Apollo 13. (Credit: NASA).

But this “maneuver” was not so smooth: the lunar module was designed to accommodate only two people. With three men on board, the lithium hydroxide canisters, which were supposed to remove the carbon dioxide (CO2) expelled by the astronauts’ breath, began to fail, and the CO2 level started to rise. In other words: the crew could die of suffocation from their own breathing.

They were able to find a solution to the problem by using canisters from the command module – which, however, were larger than those designed to fit on the Aquarius. With the help of plastic bags, covers ripped from procedures manuals, duct tape, and other items, the astronauts managed to adapt the canisters to an appropriate air circulation system.

Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr. being lifted off the command module, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr. being lifted off the command module, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: NASA).

The problem now was how to get back to Earth: there was not enough fuel to simply turn around the spacecraft. The option they found was to place the spacecraft on a free return trajectory, that is, the spacecraft would swing around the Moon and enter the trajectory that would bring them back to Earth. For that, it was necessary to get rid of Aquarius, in order to obtain momentum. It worked: on April 17, the command module fell into the Pacific Ocean and everyone returned home safely.

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Apollo 13 NASA


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