This Day in History (11-Apr-1970) – Apollo 13, the only mission bound for the moon to be launched and not reach its target, takes off from Cape Canaveral

Apollo 13 was to be the third mission to land on the Moon. The Apollo spacecraft was made up of two independent spacecraft joined by a tunnel: orbiter Odyssey, and lander Aquarius. The crew lived in Odyssey on the journey to the moon. The spacecraft was launched at 2:13 p.m. EST, April 11, 1970 from launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The crew consisted of James A. Lovell, world’s most traveled astronaut, John L. Swigert, the First-time flyer and Fred W. Haise, backup crew member of previous Apollo missions.

On the evening of April 13, when the crew was 200,000 miles from Earth and closing in on the moon, mission controller Sy Liebergot saw a low-pressure warning signal on a hydrogen tank in Odyssey. Swigert flipped the switch for the routine procedure. A moment later, the entire spacecraft shuddered around the startled crew. Alarm lights lit up in Odyssey and in Mission Control as oxygen pressure fell and power disappeared. The crew notified Mission Control, with Swigert famously uttering, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

A spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, ripping apart one oxygen tank and damaging another inside the spacecraft. Luckily for Apollo 13, the damaged Odyssey had a healthy backup: Aquarius. The crew now had to balance the challenge of getting home with the challenge of preserving power on Aquarius. The crew performed a crucial burn to point the spacecraft back towards Earth and powered down every nonessential system in the spacecraft.  Without a source of heat, cabin temperatures quickly dropped down close to freezing. Some food became inedible. The crew also rationed water to make sure Aquarius — operating for longer than it was designed — would have enough liquid to cool its hardware down. It was a long few days back home; the entire crew lost weight and Haise developed a kidney infection. However they returned safely to the Pacific Ocean on April 17 after 4 days of anxious hourney. Although Apollo 13’s design problems left a mark on NASA’s reputation, today it also stands as a shining example of how NASA solved a life-threatening problems in space.


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