The failures, successes, everything you need to know about Apollo 13

The story of


Houston, We've had a Problem

By Anthony P


         It was the day that oxygen tank 2 for Apollo 10 mission of the Apollo project was to be tested. All went well until someone dropped the tank from a height of two inches. It passed the external examination, but one small thing was wrong with its interior. Testing continued, but when they adapted its parts to accept 65 volts DC (Direct Current) they forgot the heater switch.


       So, when the part damaged in the fall prevented the tank from emptying well, they used the heater to boil off the excess oxygen. After eight hours of being used, the heater switch was welded onto the setting "ON." For various reasons, it was not used for Apollo 10. Instead, it was fitted on Apollo 13.         

Prologue (Continued)

Diagram of a   Saturn V Rocket 

        April 11th,1970, 2:13 PM: With a rumble and a cloud of smoke, Apollo 13 lifted off the ground and rocketed into space with a crew of three. The onboard astronauts' names were John L. Swigert Jr, James A. Lovell, and Fred W. Haise. At a height of forty-two miles, the first stage was jettisoned, and the second stage took over.


          For reasons unknown, the second stage middle thruster, or inward thruster, stopped working. This might have been a good thing, because that same thruster would have caused catastrophic damage had it been running a few seconds longer. To balance it out, the remaining four thrusters burned for an extra four minutes.

       After the supposed detatch time plus an extra four minutes, the second stage was jettisoned, and the third stage took over. This time unintentionally, the third stage burned for nine seconds longer than intended.

      When the third stage engine shut down, everything was going well; the astronauts achieved Earth orbit and were ready to take their space suits off. The intentional extra four minutes of burn time for the second stage and the unintentional extra nine seconds of burn time for the third stage surprisingly only resulted in a 1.2 feet per second faster orbit speed than intended. 

     The astronauts had an interesting launch and a very good view of the continents and oceans for taking pictures. The astronauts were finally able to not feel like a gorilla was sitting on their chests.

 The section in the red bracket is used up. The section in the blue bracket is still in use. The section in the purple bracket is the Launch Escape System. It can be ignored here. 

       After one-and-a half Earth orbits, the third stage engine was fired to escape Earth orbit and put Apollo 13 on a path to the moon. The astronauts were communicating with Houston and at one point, the astronauts radioed back, "We're dying of boredom here!" That was the last time anybody would say that until the end of the mission.

      About halfway to the moon, the astronauts were ordered to "stir the tanks," or agitate the liquid oxygen with fans, so the gauges could get a more accurate reading. A guage was damaged, so they stirred the tanks every few hours, rather than once every twenty-four hours. That's when disaster struck. 

         There was enough gaseous oxygen in oxygen tank 2 to allow the damaged wiring to cause the Teflon insulation to catch fire, causing oxygen tank 2 to explode. The explosion destroyed oxygen tank 2 and caused oxygen tank 1 to start draining due to a damaged pipe.

       The side panal nearest oxygen tank 2 was knocked loose, and that damaged the high gain antenna. Data was lost while the astronauts switched to low gain. Because there was no oxygen for the three fuel cells to use, two cells were found to be offline. The last one still online was going to be lost too, due to the dropping levels of oxygen in tank 1.

         Now the astronauts thought that the LM (Lunar Module) Aquarius's hull was punctured, so they tried to close the hatch between the CM (command module) and the LM, believing that the LM hull was punctured. But the hatch wouldn't close.

          After a few more times trying to close the hatch, the astronauts quit trying because they knew by then that it would have depressurized, and they would have died. So when they saw how Aquarius's systems were working perfectly, they realized that Aquarius could be used as a lifeboat.

      So the descision was made to power up the LM. The problem was that powering up the LM took time and energy, and the SM's (service module) last remaining fuel cell was found draining the CM's oxygen supply for reentry.

       Now that same oxygen-hungry fuel cell had to be kept generating power long enough to power up the LM which, as stated before, took time. The situation was at a standstill. A standstill that needed to get moving fast.

      Luckily for the astronauts, the LM was powered up with enough oxygen to keep the astronauts alive during reentry. The astronauts made changes to their positioning, residing place, consumable consumption, etc. It gets better. The LM had so much oxygen that oxygen wasn't a problem, though one may assume otherwise.

         Really, they had more than twice as much oxygen as they needed to get back alive. The real problem was much worse. The real problem created a situation that when you solve what you think was the problem, but when you test it or when you actually do something with it, then you see the real problem. In this case, the real problem was CO2 (carbon dioxide).

      The spacecraft needed filters to get rid of the CO2, which in turn needed cartridges. The LM cartridges could support two men for two days. Now keep this in mind: The astronauts chose to go around the moon and fire the LM descent engine to correct their path, so they would actually return to Earth. 

       The alternative to using the descent engine would have gotten the astronauts back much faster. However, the service module engine was involved, and it was too risky because the engine was very close to the site of the explosion. If the engine was damaged, that would have not been good at all. 

        So the astronauts chose to go around the moon. Now here were three men trying to survive for four days on cartridges meant to keep two men alive for two days. Not good. 

      Even though the CM had plenty of cartridges, they were square, and the LM cartridges were round. For a moment, they were babies trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

        What ended up happening was that they came up with an adaptor to that the LM filter could take, but on the other side, was a CM cartridge. All they needed was a way to stop the adaptor from leaking, which was the almighty duct tape. Duct tape really can do anything.     

       When the service module was jettisoned, all unnecessary systems were deactivated, due to the fact that the descent engine used about half the LM battery power, and the remaining power needed to be carefully rationed.      

      One of the unnecessary systems was the heaters, and those had to be deactivated. The temperatures dropped, making the ride back a cold and damp one. Some food also became inedible. Those days during the trip back were loooong, cramped, cold days.

      Finally, at one hour before reentry, the LM is jettisoned. Joe Kerwin (he was on the ground) said.

     "Farewell Aquarius, and we thank you." 

        When the astronauts returned to Earth, they were found to have lost weight, and one of them got kidney disease. Overall, this was one heck of a mission, with the astronauts barely making it back.

        When the Astronauts returned to Earth, unlike the Apollo 12 and 11 astronauts, the Apollo 13 astronauts weren't quarantined because they never reached the Moon. Unfortunately that meant no time to rest before the press came. Later, Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts weren't quarantined, and they wished they were, probably, so they could get a working excuse to rest before the press came. Sometimes, there is no stopping the press. 


        After Apollo 13, the SM design changed. Instead of having the two oxygen tanks in the same section of the SM, they were moved to different sections of the SM, and an additional backup tank was installed in case of another explosion. Thankfully, that didn't happen. This mission taught the world a valuble lesson: When you put your mind to it, you can do anything.