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When a tragedy turned into triumph

Swigert working to create a makeshift device to help them in their journey back home.   | Photo Credit: NASA

The Apollo 11 mission is among the best remembered space missions and will probably remain so for a long time. For it enabled human beings to set foot on our natural satellite, the moon, for the first time. Missions, both before and after this one, often pale in comparison, even though scientifically significant. Despite being a failed mission, Apollo 13 comes close in popularity to Apollo 11 as its story portrays the triumph of human will in adverse circumstances.

Doesn’t excite people

By the time the Apollo 13 mission was successfully launched on April 11, 1970, the space programme had become a bit of a bore for the average American. Apollo 11’s historic first was followed by the precise touchdown on the moon that was achieved by Apollo 12, leaving people wondering if money could be better spent solving issues here on Earth.

Astronaut Jim Lovell reads a newspaper following their safe return with the headline “Astronauts safe” splashed across the front page.

Astronaut Jim Lovell reads a newspaper following their safe return with the headline “Astronauts safe” splashed across the front page.   | Photo Credit: NASA

 

It therefore comes as no surprise that none of the major U.S. TV networks carried the prime-time television broadcast relayed by the crew aboard Apollo 13 on the evening of April 13. A few hours later, however, not just Americans, but people from around the world waited with bated breath for updates about Apollo 13.

Jim Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13 and in his fourth to space. He had two rookies in the form of command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise for company. Swigert, in fact, was a last-minute replacement for Ken Mattingly. As Mattingly was exposed to German measles just days before launch and was the only one in the crew who did not have immunity, he had to make way for Swigert.

Odyssey and Aquarius

The command module of Apollo 13 – an orbiter named Odyssey – and the landing module, called Aquarius, were joined together by a tunnel. After conducting the TV broadcast on April 13, the astronauts activated Aquarius to check its systems as they were scheduled to enter the moon’s orbit the next day.

An explosion rocked Apollo 13 just as Lovell was moving back to Odyssey through the tunnel. Within seconds, pressure in one of the oxygen tanks of the spacecraft dropped to zero. This disrupted the supply of oxygen, water, electricity and light to the command module.

From the time of the explosion, till the astronauts safely returned, the mission control continuously had scenes of feverish activity.

From the time of the explosion, till the astronauts safely returned, the mission control continuously had scenes of feverish activity.   | Photo Credit: NASA

 

Lunar module turns lifeboat

Even as the astronauts hurried to find what happened, Swigert communicated their distress to mission control. When mission control asked them to say it again, Lovell repeated Swigert’s famous words: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Less than an hour after the explosion, the lunar landing mission was aborted, with the primary objective now to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. Mission controllers at Houston instructed the astronauts to move into Aquarius.

The lunar landing module, which was designed for transport from the command module to the lunar surface and back, suddenly found itself serving the purpose of a lifeboat that had to traverse a distance of over 3,20,000 km as the astronauts tried to make their way back to Earth. While Aquarius had enough power supply for two astronauts over 45 hours, it now had to support three men for at least 90 hours.

Ration necessities

Lovell, Swigert and Haise not only restricted the amount of water they drank, but also the electricity they consumed. Based on instructions from mission control, they also made a makeshift device to remove the excess carbon dioxide from the cabin. Using inputs from mission control, they also executed a five-minute engine burn that generated enough speed to get the spacecraft home-bound even as its power ran out.

Despite finding themselves in a difficult position, the astronauts clicked photographs of the moon while passing around it before returning .

Despite finding themselves in a difficult position, the astronauts clicked photographs of the moon while passing around it before returning .   | Photo Credit: NASA

 

Without a heat shield, Aquarius wasn’t equipped for re-entry to the Earth. Following three days of non-stop work on the part of engineers, flight controllers and NASA managers, the astronauts finally performed the process of powering up Odyssey once again. Once done successfully, the astronauts moved from the lunar module to the command module in preparation for re-entry.

On April 17, Apollo 13’s Odyssey re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Following four minutes of radio silence, which seemed like years to the countless observers following the progress, the astronauts’ parachutes were spotted and they touched down safely on the water’s surface.

NASA’s investigation revealed that manufacturing and testing errors had led to the disaster, even though the worst was averted. Though the mission was effectively a failure, Lovell, Swigert and Haise were celebrated like heroes. As for Apollo 13, it remains one of the most famous space missions ever as it showcased collective human ingenuity and tenacity in the face of a life-threatening situation.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 5:17:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/when-a-tragedy-turned-into-triumph/article34281929.ece

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