On the evening of April 13, 1970, the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were just hours from the third lunar landing in history. But as they soared through space, two hundred thousand miles from Earth, an explosion badly damaged their spacecraft. With compromised engines and failing life-support systems, the crew was in incomparably grave danger. Faced with below-freezing temperatures, a seriously ill crewmember, and a dwindling water supply, a safe return seemed unlikely.
Thirteen is the shocking and miraculous true story of how the astronauts and ground crew guided Apollo 13 back to Earth. Expanding on dispatches written for the New Yorker, Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. brings readers unparalleled detail on the moment-by-moment developments of one of NASA’s most dramatic missions.
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About the Author
Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. is the author of eight books about NASA and space exploration, and was a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker. He lives in Cooperstown, New York.
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The Apollo Flight That Failed
By Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.
All rights reserved.
At a little after nine central standard time on the night of Monday, April 13, 1970, there was, high in the western sky, a tiny flare of light that in some respects resembled a star exploding far away in our galaxy. At the Manned Spacecraft Center, near Houston, Texas, the glow was seen by several engineers who were using a rooftop observatory to track the Apollo 13 spacecraft, which had been launched two days before and was now a day away from the moon and two days from a scheduled moon landing. One of the group, Andy Saulietis, had rigged a telescope to a television set in such a way that objects in the telescope's field of view appeared on the screen. Above, the sky was clear and black, like deep water, with occasional clouds making ripples across it. Saulietis and his companions—who, incidentally, had no operational connection with the Apollo 13 mission but were following it for a related project—had lost sight of the spacecraft, two hundred and five thousand miles away. However, they had been watching the much larger booster rocket that had propelled the spacecraft out of earth orbit and was trailing it to the moon; the booster had appeared as a pinprick of light that pulsed slowly, like a variable star, for it tumbled end over end as the result of dumping its fuel, and the sunlight glinted off it with varying intensity. Shortly before nine, the observers on the rooftop at Houston had lost track of the booster, too, for the pinprick had been almost at the limit of the resolving power of their equipment. Suddenly, near the middle of the TV screen, a bright spot appeared, and over the next ten minutes it grew to be a white disc the size of a dime. The rooftop watchers had no communications link with the Mission Control Center, about two hundred yards away—a large building consisting of two linked wings, with operations rooms in one, offices in the other—and they had no reason to connect the flaring light with the spacecraft or to be concerned with the safety of its crew: Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., of the United States Navy, who was in command; and the pilots for the command and lunar modules, John L. Swigert, Jr., and Fred W. Haise, Jr., both civilians. It was to be some time before either Mission Control or the astronauts themselves realized that one of the ship's two oxygen tanks had burst, spewing into space three hundred pounds of liquid oxygen, which meant the loss of half the craft's supply of this element for generating electricity and water. The oxygen came out in one big blob, and in gravityless space it formed a gaseous sphere that expanded rapidly; the sunlight made it glow. In ten minutes, it was thirty miles in diameter. Then the white disc slowly disappeared—though traces of it were observed an hour later through a more powerful telescope in Canada.
Saulietis and the others assumed the white spot to be a defect in their television set, which had been flickering and blipping badly, so they went home to bed and thought nothing about the incident until the next morning. They were not the only ones who failed to grasp the situation. After two successful lunar landings, which had been preceded by two Apollo flights around the moon, no one at the Space Center was thinking in terms of accidents. Later, some of the first interpretations of what had happened would center on the notion that the spacecraft had been struck by a meteor—a borrowing from science fiction, for Jules Verne's space capsule in From the Earth to the Moon had almost been hit by one while it was approaching the moon. No one believed that there could be any flaw in the craft itself. Yet in the Mission Control Center, where dozens of automatic pens were scribbling data radioed from Apollo 13, at the time of the explosion the pens stopped writing for almost two seconds—a "drop-out of data" indicating a major problem with either the electrical system or the system of transmitting data from the craft. No one noticed.
Inside the Mission Control Center's Operations Wing, a chunky, monolithic three-story structure as white and silent as a block of ice—the geometric representation of an intelligence brooding on far-off space—the flight controllers were at least as thoroughly cut off from the world around them as sailors belowdecks on a ship at sea. There were no windows, as there are none on the lower decks of a ship—and, in a sense, the Operations Wing really was the lower decks of a ship, the upper deck being a couple of hundred thousand miles away in space. Astronauts are more like officers aboard a large ship than like solitary heroes, and that may account for some of the difficulty many people have in comprehending their roles. In the spacecraft and the Mission Control Center combined, there were about as many astronauts and flight controllers as there are officers aboard a big vessel, and they worked together as closely as officers belowdecks work with officers on the bridge. In fact, one of the controllers, the Flight Director, in some respects might have been regarded as the real skipper of the spacecraft, for although the relationship between the astronauts and the ground crew was a delicate, interdependent one, the astronauts usually did what he advised, particularly in an emergency. Though the flight controllers were on earth, they had, by means of telemetry—data radioed constantly from the spacecraft—more information about what was happening aboard than the astronauts themselves had. The walls of the Mission Operations Control Room, on the third floor of the Operations Wing, were the same color as the inside of the command module—gray. Five big screens at the front of the room might have been windows looking out into space: the middle screen showed the earth on the left and the moon on the right, with a bright-yellow line representing the spacecraft's trajectory as it lengthened slowly between them. And some of the consoles at which the flight controllers sat duplicated equipment aboard the spacecraft.
The flight controllers, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties, sat in four rows. Before the accident, they were relaxed—even bored. The first fifty-five hours of the flight had gone so smoothly that they had once sent word to the astronauts that they were "putting us to sleep down here." One team of flight controllers had been reduced to commenting on the number of "thirteens" that cropped up; for example, the time of launch in Houston—the official time for the flight—had been 13:13, or in our terms 1:13 P.M. About the only event requiring the controllers' close attention since Apollo 13 left earth orbit had been a small rocket burn the day before, called a "hybrid transfer maneuver," which had aimed the spacecraft for its target on the moon, the Fra Mauro hills—and, incidentally, had taken it off a free-return trajectory, the safe path most previous Apollos had followed so that in the event of trouble the spacecraft could, without navigational adjustment, swing around the moon and head back to earth. Now, a couple of minutes before nine, one of the flight controllers, the Retrofire Officer, whose responsibility it was always to have a plan ready, in case of trouble, for bringing the astronauts home, sent word to the Flight Director that another bridge was about to be burned: via a pneumatic-tube system connecting the consoles, he dispatched a routine memorandum to the effect that the spacecraft was nearing the spot where it could no longer reverse its direction and return directly to earth if anything went wrong.
There were a couple of dozen controllers on duty, of whom only about half were directly involved with the running of the spacecraft at any given time. In the front row, which was called the Trench, sat three Flight Dynamics Engineers, the men responsible for the ship's trajectory: from right to left, the Guidance Officer, or GUIDO, who was the chief navigation officer; the Flight Dynamics Officer, or FIDO, who plotted the trajectory and made sure the spacecraft followed it; and the Retrofire Officer, or RETRO, who was in charge of the spacecraft's reëntry into the earth's atmosphere. Most of the second row, behind the Trench, was taken up by the Systems Operations Engineers, who monitored the equipment inside the spacecraft: in the center, the EECOM, who looked after the electrical, environmental, and other systems in the command module, where the astronauts rode; next to him, the LM Systems Officer, or TELMU, who did the same thing for the lunar module, in which the astronauts would land on the moon; and then two Guidance and Navigation Control Officers—one, the GNC, for the command module, and the other, the CONTROL, for the lunar module—who were in charge not only of the guidance and navigation equipment in the two modules but of the propulsion systems as well. To their left was the Spacecraft Communicator, known—from the old Mercury-capsule days—as the CAPCOM, the only man who could talk directly with the astronauts, and to his left was the Flight Surgeon. Behind the Flight Surgeon, in the third row, was the Instrument and Communications Officer, or INCO, who was responsible for the radios and telemetry transmitters aboard the spacecraft. Finally, in the center of the third row—a good vantage point for keeping an eye on everyone else—there was the Flight Director, the ship's earthbound co-captain. (In the fourth row sat administrators, including a Public Affairs Officer.)
There were four shifts, or teams, of flight controllers—White, Black, Maroon, and Gold—and at that moment the White Team was on duty. The controllers talked to each other over an intercom hookup called the loop. To cut down on what they called loop chatter, which had a way of sounding like random thoughts popping up in a single individual's mind, the controllers referred to each other by their acronyms or abbreviations: FIDO, GUIDO, RETRO, CAPCOM, EECOM, and so on. Apollo 13 was just plain "Thirteen."
On April 13, about half an hour before the white spot was seen by Saulietis and his companions, the flight controllers were watching a television show, which the astronauts were broadcasting from the spacecraft, and which was projected on one of the big screens at the front of the room. As it happened, none of the three major networks carried the telecast—though they would show tapes of it later—and it concluded ten minutes before the occurrence of the episode that could have made it as dramatic as any performance in history. As the flight controllers leaned back in their chairs to watch, they thought the astronauts seemed happy. Captain Lovell, the commander, who was forty-two, and who had graduated from Annapolis in 1952, ten years before he became an astronaut, was cameraman and announcer for the show; he first panned the camera around the gray interior of the command module, a cone whose base was almost thirteen feet in diameter and whose height was ten and a half feet. It was about as big as the inside of a small station wagon, though the astronauts, who could float about, found it roomier than a similar space on the ground. Lovell was resting on the left couch. Beneath him was the service module, which contained, among other things, the electrical system, including the two big oxygen tanks. The cylindrical service module, with the conical command module at one end, formed a single pointed unit, in front of which was the bug-like lunar module, giving the spacecraft a total length of almost sixty feet. Above Lovell's head, at the apex of the cone, was a round hatch leading through a short tunnel to the lunar module. Lovell had flown in space three times, and this was the second time he had set out for the moon; he had circled it, in December, 1968, as a member of the Apollo 8 mission. This may have accounted for a certain bland professionalism he displayed as master of ceremonies. He began, "What we plan to do for you today is start out in the spaceship Odyssey and take you on through from Odyssey in through the tunnel into Aquarius." Odyssey was the code name for the command module, and Aquarius for the LM. (The latter was named for a song in the musical "Hair," which Lovell—who was Special Consultant to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports—had not seen. When he caught up with the show later, he walked out.)
Lovell aimed the camera at Haise, the lunar-module pilot, who was hovering by the hatch, ready to lead the way into the LM. Clothed, like the others, in white coveralls, Haise was hard to make out, because the television relay was none too sharp. Haise, a native of Biloxi, Mississippi, is a slight man with dark-brown hair and a square jaw, who speaks with a slight drawl. Although he had become an astronaut only four years before, and this was his first spaceflight, he had made enough of an impression so that Lovell and the other Apollo 8 astronauts had seen fit to name a crater on the moon after him. Haise was not particularly busy at the moment—the LM was not scheduled to be powered up until they were in lunar orbit, a day hence—so Lovell had persuaded him to act as guide for his tour, and now Lovell, holding the TV camera at arm's length, followed Haise as he swam through the tunnel into the LM. There Haise demonstrated various pieces of equipment to be used on the moon, including a rectangular bag (called the Gunga Din) that he and Lovell would wear inside their helmets, so that they could drink while they walked about the Fra Mauro hills. "So if you hear any funny noises on television during our moon walk, it is probably just the drink bag," Lovell said. Haise was doing something in the middle of the LM now, but the flight controllers had trouble seeing exactly what it was. The CAPCOM asked if he were opening the food locker, and the flight controllers laughed, because Haise had a well-known penchant for food. Haise said that he was rigging his hammock for sleep, and the CAPCOM replied, "Roger. Sleeping and then eating."
Leaving Haise in the LM, Lovell went back through the tunnel and, in the command module, sought out the third member of the crew—Swigert, the command-module pilot. "There he is! We see him!" the CAPCOM said, and, sure enough, there he was, seated before the ship's controls in the middle one of the astronauts' three seats, surrounded on three sides by nine dashboard panels. Swigert, a sharp-faced, sharp-eyed man, who was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1931, and had become an astronaut with Haise in 1966, was too busy just then to do more than smile at the camera. He did not take a big part in the television show. This was his first spaceflight, as it was Haise's, but he felt himself to be under more pressure, because he had been merely the backup command-module pilot, and had been officially assigned to the flight only the day before it left, after the prime crew had been exposed to German measles and it was discovered that the prime command-module pilot was susceptible. Lovell had worked with Swigert for two days without letup before agreeing to take him on the flight. (Swigert had been in such a rush that he hadn't thought about completing his 1969 income-tax return, due in four days, until he was a quarter of the way to the moon.) During the first fifty-five hours of the flight, Swigert had run into a few minor difficulties; for instance, he had been having trouble reading the quantity gauge for one of the oxygen tanks, which had gone off-scale on the high side, and earlier that day the CAPCOM had told him he could expect frequent requests from the ground to turn on the fans in the tank to stir up the oxygen—what is called a "cryogenic stir"—for the purpose of obtaining accurate quantity readings. Now, as the television show continued, Swigert found a moment to hold the camera and trained it on the commander; Lovell appeared on the screen for the first time. A tall, sober-looking man whose face at times breaks into a broad grin, Lovell demonstrated a tape recorder that could play a number of songs, among them "Aquarius" and the Richard Strauss "Thus Spake Zarathustra" theme used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At length, the CAPCOM broke in to suggest that Lovell conclude the program. The commander replied, "Roger. Sounds good. This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everyone there a nice evening, and we're just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. Good night." It was then 9:00 P.M.
Excerpted from Thirteen by Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.. Copyright © 1972 Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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