Apollo 13 recounts NASA’s “successful failure”

“Fred, no more jokes,” were Captain’s James Lovell’s first words to his Lunar Module Pilot, Fred Haise, after hearing an explosion while aboard Apollo 13.

For the weeks leading up to the flight, Haise had been firing a repress valve to get a scare out of Captain Lovell and Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert. Firing the valve during training created a loud bang sound and always got a laugh from Haise.

“Suddenly on the flight, I hear the same thing,” Captain Lovell said. “When I looked up, [Fred’s] eyes were real wide, and I could tell from his expression that he had no idea what was going on.”

The Apollo 13 craft launched on April 11, 1970 on its journey to the Moon, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days after takeoff.

Nearly 50 years later, Captain Lovell and Haise recounted the mission that has since been classified as a “successful failure” at the Frontiers of Flight Museum’s Exploration Space 2017 Gala, where both astronauts were presented the George E. Haddaway Award.

Presented each year by the Frontiers of Flight Museum, the award honors individuals who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in the realm of flight and can include pilots, aircrew members, corporate or political leaders, engineers, educators, or writers.

“I’m glad that Fred and I received this together, because Apollo 13 was a team effort, not any individual but a team effort to make sure we got that spacecraft back in one piece,” Lovell said.

Haddaway was involved in the north Texas aviation scene in the 1930s through the mid-70s as a pilot and aviation journalist, publishing the aviation magazine “Southwest Aviation”.

Past winners of the award include General James “Jimmy” Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and Wiley Post.

Mark Davis, host of 660AM’s The Answer, moderated a discussion between Lovell and Haise following the awards ceremony, where both astronauts spoke about their experience on the mission.

THE MISSION

Ken Mattingly was originally intended to be the Command Module Pilot on the flight, but only three days before launch at the insistence of the flight surgeon, John “Jack” Swigert was moved to the main crew.

“Jack helped develop some of the malfunction procedures for the command module,” Lovell said. “If we wanted someone else on board, he was the guy to have.”

Several days into their mission, however, Jack recorded the first incident on Apollo 13.

“Jack suddenly looked at us and said, ‘You know, I didn’t file my income taxes. I’m in deep trouble,’” Lovell said. “He told mission control and finally they called back and said, ‘Well we talked to the President and he said since you’re out of the country, we’ll give you a pass.’”

Not long afterwards, the crew heard a loud bang.

“It kind of echoed, because we were sitting in metal hulls,” Haise said. “It sounded like somebody hitting a sledgehammer on the side of a big tin can you’re in.”

That explosion crippled the Service Module and led to uncharted territory for NASA, which for the first few minutes after the explosion was not certain what was happening.

“The first thing that mission control thought about was all this could not happen at one time, because we build things with redundancy,” Lovell said. “The original thought was it’s gotta be a communications problem. The information coming down from the spacecraft was really caused by a solar flare. Of course in the spacecraft, we knew what was going on. It took a little while for the ground to finally realize this is not just a communications problem, it’s a real one.”

The crew then had to rely on the lunar module, a device meant only to operate for two days. The crew, however, was at least four days away from getting back to earth. Captain Lovell asked Haise to do a consumable check, a checklist of everything they had remaining on the ship.

“I felt we were really in good shape excepting I forgot about the lithium cartridges,” Haise said. “They are the things that cleanse the air of carbon dioxide, which builds up as you’re breathing out. In a submarine, you have to figure out a way to scrub it. I didn’t think about it but we didn’t have enough of those cartridges.”

NASA engineers on the ground had to quickly solve the problem and relay instructions.

“They actually tested that with human subjects in a chamber before it got shipped up to us,” Haise said.

REENTRY INTO EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE

Upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere, the crew was concerned their heat shield was damaged. If the heat shield didn’t function properly, the hull would burn up.

“There was nothing we could do if the heat shield was damaged,” Lovell said. “All of the other questions we’d gone over one by one, but the damaged heat shield, there was nothing that we could do. We just prepared to come in.”

For roughly three minutes entering the atmosphere, a ball of fire surrounded the hull and kept a signal from going out from the capsule and Houston’s signal from coming in.

“Jack and Fred and I looked at each other and said ‘Don’t call [Houston] because this might make a good movie,’” Lovell said.

The craft was recovered by the USS Iwo Jima six days after launch. Lovell says that although the flight was a failure, it could not have happened at a better time. 

“If you recall from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, success looked so easy,” Lovell said. “The news was getting to be stale. The launch of Apollo 13 was registered on the weather page of the New York Times, because people weren’t interested anymore. Then suddenly, there was a resurgence of interest in space flight.”

FUTURE OF NASA

In recent decades the trend among space exploration has turned toward international cooperation. The International Space Station (ISS) launched its first component into orbit in 1998. The station is a joint project among five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (European Space Agency), and CSA (Canada). Ownership and use of the space station is established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements. The American portion of the ISS is funded until 2024.

“It’s worked out pretty good from a management standpoint,” Haise said. “I hope people will now get more of a picture of not the U.S. Space Program but the Earth Space Program, to have that unity and that funding support from a multitude of countries, to really make it happen. Right now without a drastic change in what this country’s willing to fund, it’s not going to get there very fast.”

NASA was established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the percentage of the federal budget allocated toward NASA has been steadily falling since the 1966 Apollo program, when the U.S. saw the federal budget briefly fund the program at 4.41 percent. Now the number sits at just under 0.5 percent.

“NASA’s hopefully going to get back into the exploration business and continue to build things that can move us further out,” Haise said. “Right now underway they have a capsule, a little bit bigger than the Apollo capsule that can carry a few more people, and they’re building a big booster. They can go out to the moon, but they really don’t have all of the ingredients to land on the moon or certainly not to go to Mars at this point.”

“It takes a lot of money, and it actually has to be a national policy and a national priority to do something like Buzz preaches to go to Mars or if you went back to the moon even and set up a base,” Lovell said, who believes we have barely scratched the surface of the moon.

“We should direct our technology for going back up to the moon, learning more about it and developing the infrastructure to be very comfortable about doing regular flights back and forth without really having the risks we fought when we did it on Apollo. We then take that and build it up to eventually go to Mars.

“We know more about Mars today than Neil Armstrong knew about the moon when he landed on it,” he said. “Mars is there, and someday, somebody is going to go there. It’s like the highest mountain to climb, somebody is going to do it, and it might as well be the United States.”

About the Author

Joe Snell

Joe Snell studied film and business law at the University of Southern California. He has worked for a number of film and television companies including 21st Century Fox, Starz Entertainment, Creative Artists Agency, and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.