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50 years ago, the Apollo 13 crew came home in a way more incredible than Hollywood had imagined

The test was routine, on what should have been a routine mission. But after astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world.

Today, fifty years ago, three astronauts set out from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on what seemed like an ‘ordinary’ trip to the moon at the time.

After all, the Apollo 11 crew had walked on the lunar surface in July, followed in November by the Apollo 12 crew.

Apollo 13 was commanded by James Lovell, with Jack Swigert piloting the command module and Fred Haise piloting the lunar module.

Lovell, 42, had completed three previous space missions. Haise, 36, was a former Marine Corps fighter pilot on his maiden voyage to space, while Swigert – including on his maiden flight – was brought in last minute after another backup astronaut accidentally exposed the crew to German the measles.

After astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world (still from 1995 film Apollo 13)

After astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world (still from 1995 film Apollo 13)

The command module pilot, Ken Mattingly, was not immune to the disease and had to be replaced in case he developed it in space.

The mission’s motto, Ex luna, scientia (From the Moon, knowledge) said it all: the excitement was over. This trip was to collect rock samples.

Instead, Apollo 13 delivered an exciting drama that made the original moonshot with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin look almost tame by comparison.

The mission to return the craft and its three occupants to Earth owes much to the steadfastness of the men, as well as the ingenuity of NASA flight controllers and engineers, most of whom bent over mainframe computer terminals at Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

It is rightly remembered as the space agency’s best hour, just as it was perfect food for Hollywood. But even the critically acclaimed 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, did not record what really happened …

3.08 am GMT, April 14

“Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Jack Swigert’s now immortal words – often slightly misquoted – to Mission Control on their third day in space, suddenly cuts off the assumption that this will be the smoothest flight of the Apollo program.

The mission is to take the crew to the Fra Mauro Crater of the Moon and they are still on the outward journey.

The mission had started on April 11 at 7:13 PM GMT and the only drama initially was when Swigert realized he had forgotten to file his tax returns and asked flight inspectors how to get an extension request.

“We’re bored to tears down here,” a NASA official complained to the crew on the radio. Not for long. With the vessel 210,000 miles from Earth and closing as planned on the Moon, an explosion – described as a ‘fairly large’ bang accompanied by fluctuations in the electric current – is just nine minutes after Lovell finishes giving a tour of their vessel heard a television broadcast.

Today, fifty years ago, three astronauts left the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on what seemed like an 'ordinary' trip to the moon

Today, fifty years ago, three astronauts left the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on what seemed like an 'ordinary' trip to the moon

Today, fifty years ago, three astronauts left the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on what seemed like an ‘ordinary’ trip to the moon

The spacecraft, brought into space by a giant Saturn V rocket, consists of two independent modules connected by a tunnel – the lunar module (called Aquarius) to land on the moon and the two-part command and service module, or CSM (called Odyssey), where the crew lives on the trip there and back.

Lovell initially thinks they’ve been hit by a meteoroid (a small rock flying through space, perhaps no bigger than a pebble), or one of Haise’s infamous jokes. In fact, one of their two oxygen tanks was blown up after Swigert performed a so-called ‘cryo rudder’, a routine procedure where a fan is turned on in the cryogenic tanks.

This stirs the liquid oxygen so that the supply levels can be measured more accurately. Experts now believe that a spark from a damaged wire ignited a piece of Teflon insulation in Tank 2 and destroyed it in the oxygen-rich environment. 3.21 am GMT Lovell happens to look out the window and see that their problems are even worse than they thought. “We’re blowing something into space,” he tells Houston.

“It’s kind of a gas.” Oxygen escapes at high speed from the other oxygen tank, tank 1, which has been damaged by the explosion.

The oxygen is not just for the men to breathe. Mixed with hydrogen in three fuel cells, it also supplies power and water. In Mission Control, Flight Director Gene Kranz and his staff relay instructions and page references to a crew who – due to technological limitations – had to go into space with all emergency instructions written down in a set of 20 pound plain spiral bound notebooks.

Marilyn Lovell and Mary Haise, the astronauts’ women, miss the drama. They were at Mission Control because that was the only place they could watch the TV broadcast (the networks weren’t interested in broadcasting it) but went home just before the accident.

4.45pm GMT

Clearly the leak to oxygen Tank 1 cannot be stopped. It is dry, which means that the remaining functional fuel cell will shut down in two hours.

In Houston, NASA has formed a “tiger team” of specialists committed to recovering the spacecraft. Both the controllers and the crew agree that they should, at least for the time being, exit the command module and go to the ‘rescue boat’.

This is the first in a series of critical decisions to be made within a few hours that will determine the course of the next four days. The ‘lifeboat’ is the lunar module, now the only source of enough power and oxygen to enable the crew to make the return journey – now the only ‘mission’ that matters.

But unlike the command module, the lander does not have a heat shield to go to Earth.

Lovell later admits that they were “lucky” – if the explosion had occurred on the return journey, the lunar module would have already been thrown and they would have died.

5.09 am GMT

With just 15 minutes of power left in the command module, the crew completely turns it off to preserve what’s left to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. They float quickly through the tunnel to their stuffy new home, the moon module.

Ground traffic controllers in Houston face an arduous task. NASA had previously considered using the module as a ‘lifeboat’ impractical. Fortunately, it ran a test run while training the Apollo 10 crew. The necessary procedures that were established at the time are now excavated and passed on to the Apollo 13 crew by radio.

6:30 am GMT

‘Aquarius; Houston. We have both of you on VOX. ‘

Mission Control gently remembers Lovell and Haise, who is beginning to use bad language, that their voice-activated microphones send everything they say back to Houston and may even broadcast it to a much wider audience.

In fact, the world quickly depends on every word.

“All of humanity is taking part in the pain of their return with them,” says the newspaper Le Monde in Paris.

Later today, Pope Paul leads 60,000 people in prayer for the astronauts in the Vatican, while even the Soviet envoy to the United Nations praises their courage. In the United States, both the Senate and the House will pass resolutions asking all Americans to pray that evening at 9 p.m. for the safe return of their countrymen.

Apollo 13 eventually sparked a dazzling drama that left the original moonshot with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looking almost tame in comparison

Apollo 13 eventually sparked a dazzling drama that left the original moonshot with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looking almost tame in comparison

Apollo 13 eventually sparked a dazzling drama that left the original moonshot with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looking almost tame in comparison

Prayers are said on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and on the Chicago Stock Exchange.

In Times Square, New York, huge crowds gather to watch updates on giant TV screens, while a media army gathers at the Lovell family’s home near Houston, where Mrs. Lovell is taped to the TV with the other astronauts’ wives .

They are joined by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 8.43 am GMT The Moon module’s Descent Propulsion System, designed to take it to the moon, burns for 34 seconds, the propellants produce an almost transparent flame.

It sets Apollo 13 on a new course – a ‘free return’ journey. This was one of two options for bringing the spacecraft home, leaving Mission Control experts highly divided. Some advocated speed and favored a so-called ‘instant breakdown’, with Odyssey using the main engine to return before reaching the moon.

But Kranz was concerned that the engine could be damaged, and if the instant breakdown did not end perfectly, Apollo 13 might even collide with the moon. In what he will describe as the mission’s most difficult decision, he opts for a ‘free return’, sending the spacecraft on a longer route around the moon, but one that uses its gravity to return Apollo to the moon in about four days. to catapult earth.

3.10 am GMT, April 15

Two hours after they orbit the moon at a speed of 4,552 ft per second, the moon module’s motor is relighted, this time for four minutes, to change its course a second time. The spacecraft is said to land in the Indian Ocean, but the United States has few salvage ships there.

It now hopes to land in the Pacific on a new journey that will save 12 hours.

Mission Control tells Lovell that a part of Apollo 13 that had previously been detached as part of a science experiment successfully landed on the moon. “Well, at least something worked on this flight,” he says sarcastically.

After the second engine was burned, the crew shuts down most of the lunar module systems, including the electric ones, to save energy.

The crew is immersed in an increasingly colder darkness. 17.50 GMT The conditions on board the lunar module are tough. There is a lot of oxygen, but not much water, which should be used not only for drinking, but also for cooling equipment.

They save water and reduce to 0.2 liters per day, just a fifth of their normal intake. They drink orange juice and eat foods with a high water content, such as hot dogs. Lovell loses 14 pounds before he gets home, while Haise develops a serious urinary tract infection.

8:21 am GMT, April 16

The crew has an impromptu DIY lesson. Mission Control is increasingly concerned about a potentially more deadly problem than a shortage of water or heat – the build-up of carbon dioxide in the lunar module.

It does not have enough canisters of lithium hydroxide pellets used to absorb the suffocating gas. The command module does have enough canisters, but they are the wrong shape to work in the moon module’s equipment.

The mission to bring the craft and its three occupants back to Earth owes much to the steadfastness of the men, as well as the ingenuity of NASA flight controllers and engineers

The mission to bring the craft and its three occupants back to Earth owes much to the steadfastness of the men, as well as the ingenuity of NASA flight controllers and engineers

The mission to bring the craft and its three occupants back to Earth owes much to the steadfastness of the men, as well as the ingenuity of NASA flight controllers and engineers

NASA engineers ingeniously create a makeshift device they call the “ letterbox ” from items they know to be on board – including duct tape, a sock, a flight manual cover, and a space suit oxygen hose – and tell the crew how they can make it themselves. Carbon dioxide levels drop immediately and – a bonus – Mission Control tells Swigert that he has been given a 60-day extension on his tax returns.

12.40 pm GMT

In the endless exchange of technical information between the crew and Mission Control, there is still time for small talk.

Hearing the sound of a woman’s voice on a pop song the crew plays on a tape recorder, a NASA official says, “Hey, do you have a woman on board?”

Haise shoots back: “I absolutely cannot handle that.”

Mission Control was reinforced by Ken Mattingly, the crew member who had to drop out. As a pilot of the command module, he has tried to figure out how to supply it with enough power to get the others safely back to Earth.

He and NASA experts came up with a solution: transferring power from the lunar module batteries to the command module.

20:00 GMT

The trio is astonishingly stoic, but Swigert eventually complains to Mission Control about the chill in the command module, where the exhausted astronauts try to sleep, but not much sleep at temperatures near freezing.

Lovell decides they get too hot when they put on their spacesuit. Instead, they wear two sets of Constant Wear garments, a combination of full-body cotton underwear and Teflon flight coveralls.

They cannot even empty their urine into space, as this can change the trajectory of the vessel because everything that comes out of the vessel has a propulsive power. Instead, it should be stored in bags that often float around the cabin.

The windows, walls and ceiling are dripping with so much condensation that the crew is afraid it could cause a short circuit in the electricity – but they dare not turn on the heater for fear of draining the battery.

12.45 GMT, April 17

The crew spent hours writing down the procedure for reactivating the command module. Extreme fatigue, stress and thirst take their toll. Haise has to go to the bathroom, where he undresses. “I was bouncing around touching bare metal, and it just chilled me every time I touched something,” he recalls.

After astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world (still from 1995 film Apollo 13)

After astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world (still from 1995 film Apollo 13)

After astronauts discovered a leak in their oxygen tank on Apollo 13, the desperate four-day journey of a paralyzed spacecraft changed the world (still from 1995 film Apollo 13)

“You can’t help bouncing around there.”

His exhaustion suddenly catches up with him, but they cannot rest because they are about to start the command module.

4.10pm GMT

“I’m looking out the window now, Jack, and the earth whistles like a high-speed train,” Lovell tells Swigert.

Under Earth’s gravity, their speed increased to over 6,000 miles per hour as they approached the planet. Returning to the command module, they throw the moon module off. “Goodbye, Aquarius, and we thank you,” says a Mission Control official.

“She was certainly a good ship,” Swigert adds.

6:07 PM GMT, April 17

The engineers have done their sums correctly and the command module has enough power to get them down safely. However, NASA is concerned that the heat shield will fail if the communication loss caused by ionization of the air around the command module takes longer than usual.

But the three are safe when exhausted, and still freezing cold as the craft splashes gently down into the Pacific Ocean off Samoa.

Mission Control erupts as cheery NASA employees take to the skies and light festive cigars. Many, including Kranz, just cry.

The next day, she and the astronauts of President Nixon receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

After just under six days and 622,268 miles, a truly epic journey is over. Undaunted, NASA Apollo 14 will land on the moon in less than a year.

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