44 years ago today, James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert made a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, bringing an end to Apollo 13’s perilous journey. Considered a “successful failure” in that the intended objective of landing on the moon never transpired, the crew of Apollo 13 worked with NASA on improvisational procedures to return home after an oxygen tank exploded two days following liftoff.
At a distance of approximately 200,000 miles from Earth, Jack Swigert was advised by Mission Control to stir the cryotanks associated to the onboard oxygen supply; a seemingly routine procedure. Two minutes later, the crew of Apollo 13 reported a “loud bang,” later determined to be the number-2 oxygen tank exploding. This explosion caused extreme damage to the Command Module’s power and oxygen capabilities, forcing the crew to power it down completely, and utilize the LEM — originally intended to land on the lunar surface, as a lifeboat.
Engineered to transport Haise and Lovell to the Fra Mauro Highlands, the LEM now had to be retrofitted for it to be habitable for three men over four days. Due to a hardware flaw, Mission Control was imposed the task of developing a working procedure to quickly lower the carbon monoxide levels if the crew were to have any chance of survival. In what still stands as one of the finest displays of improvisation in NASA’s history, Lovell, Haise and Swigert were able to “fit a square peg into a round hole” by fabricating a device for the oxygen canisters from the Command Module to be used on the LEM.
Now being able to breathe, Apollo 13 faced another huge problem; to develop a power-up procedure from scratch after the Command Module was completely powered off. With only a limited allocation of power due to the Command Module shutdown, the flight controllers identified alternative methods for Apollo 13 to begin re-entry.
After a longer-than-usual radio blackout, the crew of Apollo 13 made a safe splashdown southeast of the Samoan Islands on April 17th, 1970. Lasting nearly six days, the entire world stood united as they awaited the fate of Apollo 13, and their journey has been inspirational for generations, resulting in Ron Howard’s exhilarant motion picture released in 1995.
Fun fact: The phrase “Failure Is Not An Option” was not coined by Gene Kranz, as is widely believed.