On the 11th April 1970, Apollo 13, the third mission planned to land on the moon, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 14:13 Eastern Standard Time. About fifty-six hours later, the mission was in serious trouble. Do you think it is strange or portentous that it was on the 13th day of April, 1970, when the mission was some four-fifths of the way to the moon, that Apollo 13, should be suddenly crippled?
The malfunction was caused by an explosion and rupture of oxygen tank no. 2 in the service module. The explosion ruptured a line or damaged a valve in the no. 1 oxygen tank, causing it to lose oxygen rapidly. The service module bay no.4 cover was blown off. Within about three hours, the command module's oxygen stores were lost, along with loss of water, electrical power and light, and use of the propulsion system. They were about 200,000 miles from Earth. The lives of the Apollo 13 crew, astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise, were in real danger.
It all happened in the evening thirty-five years ago, 21:08 EST. so it would have been very early the next morning when the news broke in Great Britain. I hadn't been up very long and I remember coming back into the bedroom to see my husband sitting on the edge of the bed listening to the news. "Apollo 13 is in real trouble," he said chokingly, "they have had an explosion on board". "Oh, no!" The thought of three men stuck out there in space, knowing that they could run out of power, and air and water, before making it back to Earth, was to awful to contemplate.
The mission aborted, we heard that the three men had left the command module for the safety of the Lunar Module's lifeboat. Water was one of the main problems and not just for drinking, the system was water cooled. Also, the lifeboat was designed for two men, not three! The next few days were so full of tension - we were glued to the television bulletins. The three men suffered from cold, they lost weight conserving their rations, they could hardly sleep. We followed their every move. The relief was palpable when they finally splashed down alive and well in the Pacific Ocean on 17th April, 1970. It had been the tensest four days in our memories.
Well, do you think Apollo 13 was unlucky? It was certainly an unpleasant experience for all concerned but I think that the crew was incredibly lucky to survive. This was due to their own intense training and coolness under duress and also to the incredible work by the ground support personnel. So, although the mission was a failure, the rescue and safe return was a resounding and memorable success which contributed to the safety of subsequent missions.
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