Apollo 13: Triumph on the Dark Side

April 1970 - the Apollo 13 mission is 178,000 miles from Earth, just two days away from a lunar landing, when an explosion rips the spacecraft apart and puts the crew’s lives on the line.  Captain Jim Lovell has to work quickly and decisively to save his crew and what’s left of his ship. After struggling to stay alive for four days in a freezing cold spacecraft, no one knows if the command module carrying the astronauts can survive a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.   Only the leadership of Jim Lovell, the ingenuity of the NASA team in space and on the ground, and the robust systems of the spacecraft offer a chance for survival. 

Jim Lovell is born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1928.  As a young man he is inspired to become a rocket engineer by Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.”   Jim’s father dies when he is only seven, and his mother can’t afford to send him to college.  Lovell takes advantage of a Navy education program and, at Annapolis, writes his thesis on liquid fuel rocketry.   After graduation he flies for the Navy as part of a carrier squadron, qualifies to become a test pilot, and, in 1962, becomes one of the nine Gemini astronauts.  He goes on to fly in the Gemini 7, Gemini 12 and Apollo 8 missions and finally heads for the moon’s surface as Spaceship Commander on Apollo 13.

The Lunar Module is one of two spacecraft that make up Apollo 13.  The other components of the “Apollo stack” are the Command and Service Modules. The Command Module serves as the control and communications center for the mission; the Service Module accommodates all of the storage and propulsion for the stack.   The LM (pronounced LEM) is only designed to keep a two-man crew alive for a brief period of time on the lunar surface – now it needs to sustain all three men for over 90 hours.   There aren’t enough carbon dioxide scrubbers on the LM. The Machine will have to be adapted to save them. NASA engineers improvise an invention to clean the air, saving the men’s lives.

The desperate struggle to survive in the vacuum of space lasts for four days.   The Lunar Module is being pushed beyond its design limits. After the explosion, the astronauts are on a course that will leave them adrift unless they can use the LM propulsion system to correct it.   To increase their chance for survival, Captain Jim Lovell executes several burns of the LM’s descent engine.  The alignment of the craft is critical, but the damage from the explosion has rendered their normal alignment device useless. Mission Control devises a series of novel solutions to navigate.  Time after time, the crew is able to successfully ignite the LM’s engine and accomplish what they need to do to correct their course and survive – splashing down in the Pacific near Samoa.

The ingenuity of NASA engineers, the heroic actions of the crew and the robust qualities built into the spacecraft all come together successfully.   This exemplifies the continuing success of the space program, leading to more missions and stunning accomplishments. Apollo 13-another example of fate’s fusion of man, moment, machine.