On this day in 1970, approximately 205,000 miles from Earth, an explosion aboard Apollo 13 ruptured an oxygen tank in the service module. The resulting shortage of power and oxygen forced the abandonment of the Moon mission and imperiled the lives of three astronauts and the very space program itself.
On what was to be the third mission to land on the moon, Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were two days into their flight, and the mission was proceeding exceptionally well; so well in fact that two planned course corrections were scrubbed due to the ship’s precise trajectory. Early on the evening of April 13, the astronauts pressurized the lunar module Aquarius, and Lovell and Haise passed from the command module Odyssey through the connecting tunnel while checking all systems for the forthcoming landing.
Suddenly, as Lovell was moving through the tunnel on his way back from Aquarius to Odyssey, a loud explosion was heard. All three astronauts quickly gathered in Odyssey to study the instruments in an effort to determine what had happened. When the astronauts radioed mission control to report the incident, Swigert uttered the famous quote, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
About an hour after the accident, mission control announced that “we are now looking toward an alternate mission, swinging around the Moon and using the lunar module power systems because of the situation that has developed here this evening.” Meanwhile, on newsflashes across the radio dial, the plight of the mission and a simulation of the tank explosion sound struck terror into the hearts of “space-bugs” and NASA devotees, including a 7-year-old version of your humble scribe.
Still three days away from Earth, the astronauts moved into the lunar module Aquarius, which they powered up before shutting down the command module Odyssey to conserve the latter’s emergency battery power for the atmospheric reentry maneuver at the end of the mission. Only the command module could pass through Earth’s atmosphere; the lunar module would have to be discarded, along with the service module, before the outer atmosphere was reached. In the meantime, however, the lunar module would be their chilly home.
Along with the U.S. Navy, Soviet, French and British warships moved to the planned rescue area in the Pacific, as teams of NASA experts worked feverishly to explore all feasible maneuvers and scenarios in flight simulators, feeding every plan and contingency through computers. A pensive world watched and waited.
The three shivering men eventually had to return into the service module for reentry, and were unaware if their heat shield had been damaged by the explosion. Having missed their moon shot, Apollo 13 had purposefully crashed the long-since-discarded S IVB third stage onto the Moon as part of a planned experiment to cause an artificial moonquake, and had set the record for farthest flight from Earth, at 249,205 miles; the ultimate objective, mere survival, remained an open question for the ages.
By divine good fortune, training, experience, the skill of mission control and the leadership of NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, Lovell, Swigert and Haise triumphantly splashed down in the Pacific Ocean south of Samoa on April 17, to the collective relief of all of us. After 142 hours 54 minutes 41 seconds from the time the huge Saturn V had roared to life, the men were safely home with no lasting ill effects from their ordeal.
While Lovell, Swigert and Haise continued service toward the program in various capacities, none of the three ever flew in space again.