FIFTEEN

The Successful Failure

Houston, we’ve got a problem!”

Inside Mission Control, flight controllers jumped to their feet.

“What the hell happened?” a voice called out. “The data’s gone haywire!”

Shift manager Sy Liebergot was on it instantly. “Listen up,” he ordered as he stared at the numbers on his monitor. “We’ve lost fuel cells 1 and 2 pressure, and we’ve lost oxygen tank 2 pressure and temperature.”

Apollo 13 was built for deep space and only moments before, astronaut Jack Swigert had flipped a switch to “stir the soup,” to activate tiny mixing paddles inside the liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks. These super-cold liquids in Apollo 13’s fuel cells kept its three astronauts supplied with breathing air, drinking water, and electricity for their weeklong mission.

Unknown to the astronauts and Mission Control, during the “stirring,” two electrical wires had touched. A spark flashed. Fire raced toward the tank’s oxygen supply. Internal pressure grew. The tank’s dome blew as if it were a shotgun, blasting and shredding everything in its path.

Until that moment, fifty-five hours and fifty-five minutes since Apollo 13 had launched from Cape Canaveral, the third mission to land two men on the moon had been uneventful—even boring. But when the left side of the service module exploded, the astronauts felt a sudden bang! Two hundred thousand miles out, all hell had broken loose. Linked together like a train, the three-unit Apollo 13 assembly was rocked. The service module, the command module, and the lunar lander twisted and rolled through the debris field created from the explosion while inside the command ship, Swigert contacted Mission Control. His words, “Houston, we’ve got a problem,” put everyone on alert. Flight controllers took the temperature of Apollo 13’s life-support systems. Liquid oxygen had to remain at a critical 297 degrees below zero, and the liquid hydrogen tanks even colder, an unbelievable 423 degrees below, if the fuel cells were to continue supplying power and oxygen and water to the astronauts.

Apollo 13 continued its wild flight toward the moon. It looked as if the assembly of space vehicles could be breaking apart. The alarms wailed, the lights flashed while the crew and Mission Control clung to the belief that electrical glitches were causing the problems. No one wanted to believe Apollo 13’s astronauts were in mortal peril as the three quickly moved through their emergency list. They were resetting their cockpit’s switches, adjusting proper instrument settings that had been sent spinning by the explosion, and they were expecting that once they had everything back in its proper place, back on line, all would be well.

They were wrong. When they completed their emergency list resets the alarms still wailed, the lights still flashed, and in the language of pilots everywhere, they told Mission Control, “No joy.”

Apollo 13’s assembly continued to pitch, roll, and moan like a sailing vessel being tossed by high waves. Commander Jim Lovell and his crewmates, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, were not only concerned, they were puzzled. Thirteen minutes had passed since the jolting bang when Lovell looked outside, through a porthole. My God, he thought quietly as he stared at what could be a catastrophe.

“Houston,” Lovell said quietly. “We’re venting something out into the…into space.”

Jim Lovell felt a knot tightening in his stomach—a familiar knot from years of hairy situations in test flight. He was 200,000 miles from home, and the only tank that still held life-sustaining oxygen was draining itself into the black void. He was instantly aware that they had lost any hope of landing on the moon, and the immediate emergency was simply staying alive. His ship was in a circumlunar orbit—a figure-eight flight path around both Earth and the moon—and in this orbit, without a miracle, they would be marooned.

If the crew of Apollo 13 were to survive, experts on the ground had only hours to calculate and engineer a rescue.

Gene Kranz, the no-nonsense flight director who had landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, was in charge. He began by calming his shocked flight-control team. “Okay, now let’s everybody keep cool,” he said. “We’ve got the LM still attached. The LM is still good, so if we need it to get back home then let’s solve the problem. Let’s not make it worse by guessing.”

Kranz had barely pulled his team together when the second oxygen tank on Apollo 13 began to fail. It had been damaged in the explosion. The flight director told Lovell and his crew to start powering down the ship and reduce to an absolute minimum what they needed to survive. Then, he took a deep breath and paused for effect. “Two hours from now, unless we come up with something that’s never been done before, those guys are going to be in a derelict ship,” he told his team. “All they’ll have left are three short-life batteries and their reserve oxygen supply. And we can’t use them. They must save them for reentry.”

Deke Slayton stared at Kranz. “If they get that damn far. Let’s get this situation under control,” Slayton shouted. “We’re not losing this crew.”

CapCom Jack Lousma turned for his mike, only to be stopped by the words coming in from Jack Swigert on board Apollo 13. “This is Odyssey, Houston. What’s our oxygen status?”

“Oxygen is slowly going down to zero. We’re starting to think about the LM as a lifeboat.”

“That’s something we’re thinking about, too,” Swigert fired back.

The lunar module named Aquarius was the only chance Lovell, Haise, and Swigert had. They had to shut down the command ship and put it into hibernation, so later on it could be brought back to life for reentry.

“Odyssey, this is Houston. It looks like we’ve got about eighteen minutes left. The last fuel cell is going fast.”

Lovell and Haise pulled themselves through the docking tunnel connecting the two ships. The lunar module was built to land two astronauts on the moon safely and then, after a two-day stay, launch them for a rendezvous with the command ship. Under normal conditions the LM would be used for about forty hours. Somehow those forty-hour systems must be stretched to support not two, but three astronauts for four days, time needed to fly them around the moon and bring them back to Earth.

Swigert stayed behind in the dying Apollo while Lovell and Haise powered up the lunar module. One by one he shut down the Apollo’s systems. When the lights were off, he continued working by flashlight before he joined the others in the LM. Swigert transferred the precise alignment of the Apollo’s guidance platform to a similar guidance system within the lunar module. The guidance platform was a collection of gyroscopes and instruments needed to keep the spaceship aligned precisely with Earth and the moon—to keep Apollo 13’s location known to Mission Control every moment of the flight.

Even though Apollo 13’s crew would now be sustained by the lunar module, the astronauts would need to return to the cold, damp, hibernating command ship for food and bathroom facilities. It promised to be an uncomfortable ride.

Flight director Gene Kranz and his team decided to use the lunar-module descent engine for needed propulsion. They worked out a couple of rocket burns that should bring the Apollo 13’s crew safely home: “We’ll go for a brief burn a few hours from now before they reach the moon. That will give them the free-return trajectory. Then we’ll do a second burn later to drop them into the slot for reentry. That should bring them home in four days.”

Five hours and thirty-five minutes after Apollo 13’s service module blew away its left side, the astronauts fired off the lunar module’s descent rocket for thirty-one seconds. The burn was perfect. “Okay, Houston. Burn’s complete,” Jim Lovell reported. “Now we have to talk about powering down.”

The astronauts had more than enough oxygen to get home, but the carbon dioxide canisters needed to scrub the poison from the air they breathed was another question. They had to find a way to make the canisters in Apollo work in the lunar module for three or four days, or the two big guys would have to throw the little guy overboard.

They had more than enough carbon dioxide scrubbing canisters from Apollo, but they were square. They would not fit the round openings used on the LM.

Deke Slayton laughed. “What do you expect from a government contract?” he shouted. “Now damn it, let’s do a little engineering here; let’s rig it to where they’ll all work together!”

Farm-boy Slayton led a group of engineers that came up with what they called “the Wisconsin dairy farm fix.” Using only materials the astronauts had on board, they jerry-rigged a contraption that would use Apollo 13’s square canisters.

It worked. Apollo 13 swept around the small world, disappearing behind its cratered surface. The crippled spaceship crossed the backside of the moon and when it emerged with its antennas pointing toward Mission Control, the astronauts were told by Houston to prepare for the lunar module’s descent-rocket burn. This would be the long rocket firing, the one needed to get them home.

On any other flight, proper flight-course alignment would have been confirmed by using a space sextant to sight a suitable navigation star and feed data into the computer, which would verify that all was set to ignite the course-correction burn. But Apollo 13 was on its way home in the midst of a cloud of trash left by the explosion. The trash was really a part of the Apollo/lunar module assembly that traveled along at the same speed.

“If a star wasn’t visible, what about the sun?” Mission Control worked out the details. Before racing around the other side of the moon, the crew and ground controllers conducted a sun check and locked into the lunar module’s guidance platform.

At two minutes and forty seconds before the burn, Houston CapCom Vance Brand radioed a voice check.

“Roger, we got you,” Jim Lovell responded through a storm of air-to-ground static.

There was long silence, then Brand called, “One minute.”

“Roger,” Lovell acknowledged and returned to silence.

One minute passed, and Lovell reported, “We’re burning forty percent.”

“Houston copies.”

“One hundred percent,” Lovell announced, excitedly.

“Roger.” Static roared full-blown into their headsets. “Aquarius, Houston. You’re looking good.”

The lunar module’s descent rocket was at full thrust, and every person involved was holding his breath.

Aquarius, you’re still looking good at two minutes.”

“Roger,” Lovell answered.

Aquarius, you’re go at three minutes.”

“Roger.”

The life-saving rocket burn was just beautiful.

Aquarius, ten seconds to go,” reported Brand.

“Five, four, three, two, one.”

“Shutdown!” Lovell smiled.

“Roger. Shutdown. Good burn, Jim,” and the Apollo 13 train chugged on.

The major milestone of their uncertain flight was behind them. But cold and wet, their teeth chattering in the powered-down spacecraft they called the refrigerator, the astronauts of Apollo 13 were lonely. Ahead were sixty-three uncomfortable hours of crossing the quarter-of-a-million-mile void. Even though each hour was getting them closer and closer to home, Deke Slayton was becoming more and more concerned for the astronauts’ emotional state. They were sleeping only in short catnaps. They were not only worn out, their food was frozen, and for drinking water they had to suck on ice cubes. “Damn it,” cursed Slayton, “they need rest.” They were now two days away from reentry and were needed at their best.

Lovell smiled and told Mission Control, “We’re three men cold as frogs in a frozen pond.”

Slayton laughed and moved into the CapCom’s chair. “Hey, guys, this is Deke.”

“Hey, Boss,” Lovell answered. “How’s it going?”

“It’s going great, Jim,” he answered as if he were enjoying his favorite rocking chair. “Just wanted you guys to know we’re in great shape. Las Vegas says it’s a hundred to one we’re gonna get you back.” Slayton didn’t mind lying when it was necessary. “We think the odds are better than that. You guys are in good shape all the way around. Now, I just had to break a few heads down here to make sure they leave you alone so you can get some sleep. I want you guys rested and at the top of your game come reentry. You’ve already proven you are three of the best pilots we have in the Astronaut Office. Let’s put that thing on the deck of the recovery ship. Okay?”

“Okay, Boss,” Lovell acknowledged.

“And Jim,” Slayton grinned. “According to your mother if we gave you a washing machine to fly, her Jimmy could land it. Is that true?”

“You betcha, Boss,” Lovell laughed. “With or without wings.”

“Get some sleep,” Slayton said, laughing too. “We’ll call if we need you.”

This was Boss Deke Slayton talking. The man they trusted implicitly. Deke’s personal touch did the trick. Soon those cold frogs were snoozing in their icy pond.

More than a billion of Earth’s people listened to every broadcast, camped out in front of their radios and televisions, staying within earshot of every report. Such an extraordinary effort had never before been launched to save three humans. People of every faith prayed. Apollo 13 was headed for a splashdown near American Samoa. There the aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima waited to fish the rescued from the sea.

Since the beginning of the four-day emergency, I had been on the air with few breaks. The phone in our NBC broadcast trailer outside Mission Control rang.

“Jay, this is Russ Tornabene.”

“Hi, Boss,” I smiled. “What’s up?”

“Following the splashdown,” Russ began, “President Nixon will be flying to Mission Control to congratulate the flight controllers, and then on to Honolulu to meet the Apollo 13 astronauts. We want you to join the White House Press Corps in Houston and make the trip with the President.”

“You realize this is going to cut into my splashdown party big time, Boss?”

“Party on the plane,” Russ said, laughing.

Apollo 13 was wrapped snugly in the arms of Earth’s gravity, racing toward reentry as Jack Swigert floated forward from Aquarius to start the “reincarnation” of the command ship Odyssey. He drifted into what had been a familiar spaceship cabin to find a cold and clammy flight deck. Every piece of equipment and instrument was soaked. His fear was that the icy water had seeped into electrical connections, and circuit points were waiting to arc into instant flame once power began to flow.

Swigert moved one switch at a time to return life to his Apollo, and because Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee had given their lives in the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire, every circuit in Odyssey held solid. No arcing, no short circuits. Swigert peered down the connecting tunnel and called to Lovell and Haise, giving them a thumbs-up.

Lovell said a quiet prayer, giving personal thanks too to Apollo 1’s crew, and Swigert switched on the three batteries needed to power the command module during reentry. Two batteries were fully charged but the third was low, so Swigert went back to Aquariusfor a power cable. He returned and recharged the weak battery from the lunar module’s power supply.

Astronaut Haise called Mission Control. “What are you guys reading for cabin temperature in the command module?”

“We’re reading 45 to 46 degrees,” Houston replied.

“Now you see why we call it a refrigerator.”

“Uh-huh. Sounds like a cold winter day up there. Is it snowing in the command module yet?”

“No,” Haise grinned. “Not yet.”

“You’ll have some time on the beach in Samoa to thaw out.”

“Sounds great.”

More fighter-pilot banter, good for the nerves as Apollo 13’s astronauts slipped into the final hours. They were getting set to fly a reentry from the moon on Friday morning, April 17, 1970, just over five hours before splashdown. One last time, Lovell fired the lunar module’s small steering thrusters to improve his landing-target accuracy.

An hour later, Swigert separated his command module from the Apollo 13’s battered service module. Lovell snapped several photographs as the section of the ship that had caused all the trouble drifted away. “There’s one whole side of the spacecraft missing,” Lovell reported. “The whole panel is blown out almost from the base of the engine…It’s really a mess.”

Three hours later, just one hour away from punching through the atmosphere, Lovell and Haise moved into the restored command module. They closed the double hatches of the connecting tunnel, triple-checked the seals, and pressurized the connecting passageway. They fired the explosive bolts designed to separate Apollo from the lunar module, and, just as expected, the LM popped away like a champagne cork.

“Farewell, Aquarius, and we thank you,” Mission Control called with a salute to the astronauts’ lifeboat.

“She was a good ship,” Lovell said with emotion.

Odyssey, along with its crew of three, plowed into Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour—a speed at which it would take the astronauts only six minutes to cross the United States. Instantly, they were feeling the pressures of deceleration, and instantly they were surprised. It wasn’t snowing, but it was raining inside Apollo 13’s command ship. As the temperature rose and the forces of gravity grew, the icy mush that had saturated the command module’s interworks broke free in a sudden shower, pooling along the bottom around their booted feet.

Then, Apollo 13 was deep into the fires of reentry. For three minutes the ship was encased in heat hotter than a volcano’s bowels. A plasma sheath formed around the spacecraft, cutting off all communications.

Clocks crawled.

Mission Control was a church of silence.

Squawk boxes crackled. A tracking aircraft over the Pacific radioed. It had picked up a signal from Apollo 13. No one cheered. Not yet. What about the heat shield? Had it held? Or was it damaged in the explosion? And what about the parachutes? Had they opened?

Apollo 13 broke through a cloud deck two thousand feet above the ocean riding beneath three huge orange-and-white parachutes. Mission Control went mad with relief, applause, and cheering.

Unbelievably, Apollo 13 splashed down only three miles from the Iwo Jima.

Jim Lovell and crew were lifted by helicopter to the deck of their prime recovery ship, and splashdown parties worldwide burst into wild and thankful celebrations.

In Houston it was 12:07 P.M. April 17, 1970, three days and fifteen hours to the minute since Apollo 13’s oxygen tank 2 exploded.

In the Lovell home, Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, opened the first bottle of champagne. Buzz Aldrin grabbed the second, and he and Neil Armstrong popped the cork. Others followed. In the midst of hugs and screams of joy, Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, heard the phone ring. She ran into the master bedroom and picked it up.

“Mrs. Lovell?”

“Yes.”

“Hold for the President.”

She couldn’t take her eyes off the television. She watched her husband’s spacecraft bob in the Pacific as she danced in place, about to burst with joy.

“Marilyn, this is the President. I wanted to know if you’d care to accompany me to Hawaii to pick up your husband.”

“Mr. President,” she said, laughing, “I’d love to. How soon can you get here?”

Mr. Nixon was there bright and early the next morning, shaking the hands of the flight controllers who had snatched Apollo 13 from the jaws of failure, and soon Air Force One was winging its way to Hawaii.

As ordered, I had joined the White House Press Corps for the trip. Amidst Hawaii’s swaying palms and a cheering assemblage of thousands, the President welcomed Apollo 13’s astronauts home. We reporters filed our reports and took to the Honolulu sun. We were walking on clouds instead of sand, but my thoughts were with my friend Alan Shepard. Thanks to pioneering surgery that had corrected Shepard’s inner ear problem, he was back on flight status and had been given command of Apollo 14.

We all knew the near-fatal flight of Apollo 13 would delay Apollo 14. There could be no other way. Every nut, bolt, and inch of the Apollo’s service module would need to undergo inspection, review, and design improvement. And thanks to President Nixon, we also knew Apollo 14 would fly. Mr. Nixon had promised NASA that America would return to the moon, and I knew the burden of saving the country’s space program would again fall on the shoulders of America’s first in space.

As darkness fell over the island, I found myself walking alone in the balmy spring night, trying to ease my thoughts. The success of the Apollo 13 rescue gave all Americans great pride in the men and women of NASA. But I had been there from the beginning. The first Russian cosmonaut flights had mocked America’s stumbling efforts to ascend to Earth orbit. Alan Shepard was to have led the way as the first man in space, but the stumbling block then had been lack of confidence, not the reliability of the rocket, and Shepard had had to settle for being the first American in space.

He had been called upon then to save America’s space future from the myopic, from those who were so eager to quit in the face of what they judged to be Russian superiority. They were convinced the Russians could never be matched, let alone exceeded. The decade since has shown them to be wrong, and we of confidence, this night, were aware that even though Apollo 13’s crew had been safely returned to Earth, the never-finish-anything crowd were certain the mission had been a failure.

It was equally clear to us that Alan Shepard had more than a space flight to command. He again carried the full weight of Apollo on his shoulders. If Apollo 14 succeeded, he would share the accolades. If it failed, he alone would bear the burden. I found comfort in the thought that I was damn sure Shepard was up to it.

Jack King (second from right) escorts astronaut Alan Shepard (third from right) and his crew as their mammoth Apollo 14 moon rocket is moved to its launch pad. (NASA).

The next morning, Apollo 13’s astronauts were headed home to take their place in NASA’s future. Instead of Apollo 13 being NASA’s darkest defeat, it was clearly the agency’s finest hour, thanks to the men and women who would not accept failure as an option.

Inside the wings of Air Force One and the White House Press Corps’ jet on April 19, 1970, sat the mellow and satisfied. Who said a superb glass of wine wasn’t good for the soul?

Below, for that single day at least, all was right on a planet called Earth.

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