NASA should take a page from and REMEMBER Apollo 13

This is a lengthy blog full of History on the Apollo 13 Mission. It however needs to be read to understand my point which I make at the end of this blog. Take your time as you are reading and understanding history concerning one of our “FINEST HOURS” and achievements known to man! (The information comes from Wikipedia. The opinion at the bottom is my own. ENJOY!)

Apollo 13 was the third manned lunar-landing mission, part of Project Apollo under NASA in the United States. The crew members were Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module pilot John L. “Jack” Swigert, and Lunar Module pilot Fred W. Haise. It launched on April 11, 1970 at 13:13 CST. Two days after the launch, the Apollo spacecraft was crippled by an explosion, caused by a fault in an oxygen tank. The explosion damaged the Service Module, resulting in a loss of oxygen and electrical power. The crew used the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” in space. The command module remained fully functional on its internal batteries, but they were needed for re-entry and landing so it was shut down shortly after the accident. Despite great hardship caused by severe constraints on power, cabin heat, and potable water, the crew successfully returned to Earth. The mission was thus called a “Successful Failure”


James A. Lovell, Jr (4) – Commander

John L. Swigert (1) – Command Module pilot

Fred W. Haise, Jr. (1) – Lunar Module pilot

Ken Mattingly was originally slated to be the Command Module pilot. After being exposed to rubella (German measles) – a disease to which Mattingly was not immune – contracted by backup Lunar Module pilot Charles Duke, Mattingly was grounded shortly before launch. He was replaced by Jack Swigert, and later flew with the Apollo 13 backup crew as CMP of Apollo 16. Mattingly never contracted rubella.

Backup Crew

John W. Young – Commander

John L. Swigert – Command Module Pilot

Charles M. Duke, Jr – Lunar Module Pilot

Support Crew

Vance D. Brand

Jack R. Lousma

Joseph P. Kerwin

Flight Directors

Gene Kranz(lead) – White Team

Glynn Lunney – Black Team

Gerry Griffin – Gold Team

Thomas Mullen III – Silver Team

Mission Highlights

The Apollo 13 mission was scheduled to explore the Fra Mauro formation, or Fra Mauro highlands, named after the 80-kilometer-diameter Fra Mauro crater, located within it. It is a widespread, hilly geological (or more properly, selenological) area covering large portions of the lunar surface around Mare Imbrium, and is thought to be composed of ejecta from the impact which formed the mare. With the failure of the mission, the flight to Fra Mauro was done on Apollo 14.

The flight’s problems began during the liftoff with a lesser-known malfunction: during the second-stage burn, the center engine shut down two minutes early. The four outer engines were run for longer than planned, to compensate for this. Engineers later discovered that this was due to dangerous pogo oscillations which might have torn the second stage apart; the engine was experiencing 68g vibrations at 16 hertz, flexing the thrust frame by 3 inches (76 mm). However, the oscillations caused a sensor to register excessively low average pressure, and the computer shut the engine down automatically. Smaller pogo oscillations had been seen on previous Apollo missions (and had been recognized as a potential problem from the earliest unmanned Titan-Gemini flights), but on Apollo 13 they had been amplified by an unexpected interaction with the cavitation in the turbo-pumps. Later missions included anti-pogo modifications, which had been under development since before Apollo 13. Those modifications solved the problem. They entailed (a) the addition of a helium gas reservoir in the center engine’s liquid oxygen line to dampen pressure oscillations, (b) an automatic cutoff for the center engine in case this failed, and (c) simplified propellant valves on all five second-stage engines.


As the spacecraft was on its way to the Moon, at a distance of 321,860 kilometers (199,990 mi) from Earth, the number two oxygen tank, one of two tanks contained in the Service Module (SM), exploded. (It is important to note that the report of the Apollo 13 review board does not refer to this incident as an “explosion”, instead detailing how the oxygen tanks were designed with rupture disks and other safeties to prevent a catastrophic explosion.)

Mission Control had requested that the crew stir the oxygen tanks, a task required to prevent the oxygen‘slush’ from stratifying. The Teflon-insulated wires that provided electricity to the stirrer motor were damaged, causing a large fire when electricity was passed through them. The fire heated the surrounding oxygen, increasing the pressure inside the tank above its nominal 1,000 PSI (7 MPa) limit, and causing the tank to explode. The cause of the explosion was unknown at the time, however, and the crew and Houston conjectured that a meteoroid had struck the SM or even the Lunar Module (LM).

This explosion caused damage to other parts of the Service Module, including, critically, the number one oxygen tank. Because the Command/Service Module (CSM) relied on the oxygen tanks to generate electricity, damage to number one tank meant that very little power was available for the spacecraft. The Command Module (CM) contained batteries for use during re-entry after the SM was jettisoned, but these would only last about ten hours. Because the power needed to be saved for re-entry, the crew survived by using the LM, still attached to the CSM, as a “lifeboat”. The LM “lifeboat” procedure had actually been created during a training simulation (in the simulator) not long before the flight of Apollo 13.

The damage done to the CSM meant that the planned Moon-landing at the Fra Mauro Highlands had to be scrubbed. To return the crew to Earth as quickly and safely as possible, only a single pass around the Moon was made, in what is called a free return trajectory, which uses the Moon’s gravity to “slingshot” the spacecraft back to Earth. To enter this trajectory, a significant course correction was required. This would normally have been a simple procedure, using the SM propulsion engine, but the flight controllers did not know exactly how much damage the service module had taken, and did not want to risk firing the main engine. Therefore the course correction was performed by firing the LM’s descent engine, an option settled upon after extensive discussion among the engineers on the ground. The initial maneuver to change to a free return trajectory was made within hours of the accident. After passage around the Moon, the descent engine was fired again for a PC+2 burn (PeriCynthion + 2 hours) in order to accelerate the spacecraft’s return to Earth. Afterwards, only one more descent engine burn was required, for a minor course correction.

Considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure was required from both the crew and the flight controllers to work out how to jury rig the craft for the crew’s safe return, with much of the world watching the developing drama on television. (Because of the severe electrical power limitations following the explosion, no live TV broadcasts were made from the craft for the remainder of the mission; network commentators used models and animated footage to illustrate their coverage).

A major challenge in keeping the crew alive was that the LM “lifeboat” was only equipped to sustain two people for two days, but had to sustain three people for four days, an increase by a factor of three. The lithium hydroxide canisters available for the LM’s carbon dioxide scrubbers would not last for all four days. The CM had an adequate supply of replacement canisters, but they were the wrong shape to fit the LM’s receptacle. An adapter then had to be fabricated from materials in the spacecraft. The astronauts called it the “mailbox.”

Due to reduced temperatures on the return leg of the mission, there was extensive water condensation in the CM. There was some fear that this condensation could seriously damage the electronics of the Command Module by causing a short circuit. Until the electronics were activated, it was impossible to know whether this would occur. The equipment worked normally when activated, however, partly due to the extensive design modifications made to the CM after the fire aboard Apollo 1.

As the time for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere approached, NASA took the unusual step of jettisoning the Service Module before the Lunar Module, so pictures of the SM could be taken for later analysis. When the crew saw the damaged service module, they reported that the access panel covering the oxygen tanks and fuel cells, which extended the entire length of the Module’s body, had been blown off.

The crew returned unharmed to Earth, although Haise had a urinary tract infection as a result of the scarcity of potable water on the damaged ship and the difficulty of urine disposal. (The crew was instructed to store urine and other waste products on board instead of dumping them into space, to avoid altering the trajectory of the spacecraft.)[10]

Although the explosion forced the mission to be aborted, the crew was fortunate that it occurred on the first leg of the mission, when they had maximum of supplies, equipment, and power. If the explosion had occurred while in orbit around the Moon or on the return leg after the LM had been jettisoned, the crew would have had a significantly smaller probability of survival.

Ironically, the crew’s lives may have been saved by another failure in the oxygen tanks. At around 46 hours and 40 minutes into the mission, the oxygen tank 2 quantity gauge went “off-scale high” (reading over 100%) and stayed there. As a result of this failure, and to assist in determining the cause, the crew was asked to perform cryo-tank stirs more often than originally planned. In the original mission plan, the stir which blew out the tank would have occurred after the lunar landing.

Cause of the Accident

The explosion on Apollo 13 led to a lengthy investigation of the underlying cause. Based on detailed manufacturing records and logs of mission problems, the oxygen tank failure was tracked to a combination of multiple faults. Individually, they were not critical problems; but together they led to near disaster for Apollo 13.

Cryogens, such as liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen, require great care in handling, and most storage containers holding them are unsealed so that pressure from expanding gas will not cause the container to fail. The Apollo’s liquid oxygen tanks were made capable of safely holding liquid oxygen at supercritical pressures for years before it evaporated, because of their design and insulation. Each tank was able to hold several hundred pounds of the highly pressurized liquid to supply the craft with oxygen, fuel for electricity, and water from the byproducts of the fuel cells. However, the very characteristics that made the tank useful made internal inspection impossible.

The tank was made of several basic components that were relevant to the accident:

a thermostat to control the heater within the tank, used to speed the evaporation of the liquid into gas; a thermometer to determine the temperature of the heater; valves and piping that were designed to allow the tank to be completely emptied of liquid, by forcing gas into the tank; an interior coating of Teflon that protected the wiring from the extremely cold gas; and an internal fan to stir the liquid oxygen (which will turn into a “slush” at these pressures if it is allowed to sit for a long period of time).

These were the basic design, manufacturing, and operational problems that led to the accident:

The thermostat was originally designed to handle the 28-volt supply that would be used in the command module. However, the specification for the tank was changed, so that it had to handle 65 volts on the launch pad. Most of the wiring was changed to handle the higher voltage, but the thermostat was not. Engineers at Saturn V subcontractor Beechcraft later admitted they knew they had put 65 volts on a line designed for only 28 volts. The tank then made it into the Apollo 13 Service Module which crippled the mission.

The thermometer was designed to read out at the highest operational temperature of the heater, about 100 °F (38 °C). As a result, higher temperatures registered at only 100 °F (38 °C). At the time, this was not an issue, because the thermostat was supposed to cut out at 80 °F (27 °C), making higher temperatures impossible.

The oxygen shelf carrying oxygen tanks no. 1 and 2 was originally destined to fly in the Apollo 10 mission. Due to potential electro-magnetic interference problems, it was removed from Apollo 10. During removal, the shelf was accelerated upwards then dropped a distance of about 2 inches (5 cm). The exterior was undamaged, but calculations of the force of the impact showed that a loosely fitting filling tube could have been displaced by this event. In addition, photographs suggested that the close-out cap on top of tank no. 2 may have hit the fuel cell shelf (installed above the oxygen shelf) during the initial upward acceleration. The report of the Apollo 13 review board considers the probability of tank damage during this incident to be “rather low”.

For ground-testing, the tank was filled. However, when it came time to empty it, the problem with the piping was discovered. As such, the tank could not be properly emptied except by running the heater to evaporate the liquid gas. Not using this tank would have delayed the mission, and there was no alternate tank available. Lovell was aware of the decision to use the heater to evaporate the oxygen, which was calculated to take a few days at the highest operational temperature of 80 °F (27 °C).

However, when the heater was turned on continuously:

The higher 65-volt supply fused the thermostat, which was only designed to handle 28 volts.

This malfunction eliminated the thermostat’s ability to switch off the heater, which in turn allowed the heater to keep heating up past 80 °F (27 °C), and eventually past 100 °F (38 °C).

The electrical current recorder in the power supply showed that the heater was not cycling on and off, as it should have been if the thermostat was functioning correctly, but no one noticed it at the time.

Because the thermometer could not register temperatures higher than 100 °F (38 °C), the monitoring equipment did not register the true temperature inside the tank — an estimated 800 degrees Fahrenheit (430 °C). Instead of taking several days, the gas evaporated in hours.

The protracted high temperatures then burned off the Teflon coating, leaving the wires inside the tank exposed.

When the tank was refilled with oxygen, it became a bomb waiting to go off. During the “cryo stir” procedure, the electricity needed to run the fans passed through the exposed wires inside the tank, setting off sparks which led to the explosion.

The proximity of the two oxygen tanks exacerbated the situation. Although the remaining tank survived the explosion, its valves were damaged, allowing the oxygen within to leak out. In subsequent Apollo missions, the two oxygen tanks were situated farther apart, while a third tank was installed in an isolated location.

Mission Notes

Following the established protocol for crew rotation on Apollo missions the original prime crew for Apollo 13 was the back up crew for Apollo 10 that would have seen Mercury veteran Gordon Cooper command the mission with Lovell’s crew being Apollo 14 (as they were the backup crew for the historic Apollo 11 mission). Deke Slayton, the Director of Flight Crew Operations (“Chief Astronaut”) bumped Cooper from the position in favor of Mercury 3 veteran Alan Shepard, who recovered from an experimental, yet successful operation to correct an inner ear disorder. In addition to Shepard’s reinstatement, Cooper was also bumped due to his criticism toward the NASA management, criticisms that go back to the days of his preparation for the Mercury 9 mission that almost led to him being grounded and replaced by Shepard due to an unauthorized low-level flyby (“flathatting”) of the Mercury Operations office at Cape Canaveral. In a change from the usual procedure, the prime crews of 13 and 14 were swapped, to afford Shepard more time to prepare.

Two days before the launch, backup Lunar Module pilot Charlie Duke contracted rubella (German measles) from one of his children, exposing the main crew. Although Lovell and Haise had had rubella as children, command module pilot Ken Mattingly had not, and the flight surgeons grounded him, replacing him with Swigert. This may have been a blessing in disguise for him – Mattingly never developed rubella, and later flew on Apollo 16, STS-4, and STS-51-C, retiring from both NASA and the U.S. Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral. Mattingly was also able, using the simulator, to map out a plan for the astronauts to get the module going again using the limited power supply they had left.

There was no time to properly replace the original lunar plaque on Aquarius (which bore Mattingly’s name), so Jim Lovell was given a replacement (with Swigert’s name) to put over the original plaque once they landed on the moon. However, because the lunar landing was never made, Lovell kept the plaque, which is one of the few mementos from the mission that he has on display at his home.

As a result of following the free return trajectory, the altitude of Apollo 13 over the lunar far side was approximately 100 km greater than the corresponding orbital altitude on the remaining Apollo lunar missions. This could mean an all-time altitude record for human spaceflight, not even superseded as of 2008; however, the variation in distance between Earth and the Moon, owing to the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit about Earth, is much larger than 100 km, so it is not certain whether the actual distance from Earth was greater than that of all other Apollo missions. The Guinness Book of Records listed this flight as having the absolute altitude record for a manned spacecraft, and Lovell should have received a certificate from them attesting to this record. (Lovell wrote in the book Lost Moon — later renamed Apollo 13, that apart from the plaque and a couple of other pieces of salvage, the only other item he possessed regarding the Apollo 13 mission was a letter from Charles Lindbergh.)

The splashdown point was 21°38′S, 165°22′W, SE of American Samoa and 6.5 km (4 mi) from the recovery ship, USS Iwo Jima.

Superstitious people have associated the belief that 13 is an unlucky number with the mission, due to the fact that the mission began on April 11, 1970 (4/11/70, digits summing to 13) at 13:13 CST from Complex 39 (three times thirteen), the problems began on April 13, and the mission is called Apollo 13. Other coincidental appearances of the number 13 connected to the mission included the explosion occurring at 19:13 CST, and a post-flight estimate that, had the explosion occurred on the ground, repairing the damage would have cost $13 million. In a feature on the making of the Apollo 13 film, Jim Lovell pointed out that NASA has never had another spacecraft numbered 13. However, in NASA’s preliminary schedule for the return to the moon, an upcoming spaceflight is to be called Orion 13.

The A7L spacesuit worn by Lovell would have been the first to feature red bands on the arms and legs of the suit, as well as on the life-support backpack and lunar EVA helmet assembly, to easily distinguish him from Haise. This was done because during the Apollo 12 mission, Mission Control personnel watching the video feed had trouble distinguishing the two astronauts while both Charles Conrad and Alan Bean had their side sunshades extended down. The red bands were a feature for the remaining Apollo flights, and are used on the Extravehicular Mobility Units worn by the astronauts of the Space Shuttle program and on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Apollo 13 mission has been called “A Successful Failure”, in that the astronauts were successfully brought home despite not landing on the moon.

The Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their actions during the mission, as were the astronauts.


The Apollo 13 logo featured three flying horses of Apollo’s chariot across space, the motto “Ex luna, scientia” (from the Moon, knowledge, borrowed from the U.S. Naval Academy‘s motto, in which Lovell was a graduate, “Ex tridens, scientia,” from the sea, knowledge), and the number of the mission in Roman numerals (APOLLO XIII). It is one of two Apollo insignias (the other being that of Apollo 11) not to include the names of the crew (which was fortunate, considering that Ken Mattingly, one of the original crew members, was replaced not long before the mission began). It was designed by artist Lumen Winter, who based it on a mural he had done for the St. Regis Hotel in New York; the mural was later purchased by actor Tom Hanks, who portrayed Lovell in the movie Apollo 13, and now is on the wall of a restaurant in Chicago, owned by Lovell’s son.

Now having read all that we come close to me making my point, please bear with me for a little longer.

Kranz is perhaps best known for his role as lead Flight Director during the Apollo 13 Space Mission. Kranz’s team was on duty when the Apollo 13 Service Module exploded, and they dealt with the initial hours of the unfolding accident. His “White Team,” dubbed the “Tiger Team” by the press, set the constraints for the consumption of spacecraft consumables (oxygen, electricity and water), controlled the three course-correction burns during the trans-Earth trajectory, as well as the power-up procedures that allowed the astronauts to use the Command Module for the trip home. He, his team, as well as the astronauts received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their heroic roles.

Kranz would continue as a Flight Director through Apollo 17, the end of the Apollo missions, and then was promoted to Deputy Director of NASA Mission Operations in 1974, becoming Director in 1983. He retired from NASA in 1994 after the successful STS-61 flight that repaired the optically flawed Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. In addition to having written Failure Is Not An Option, which was adapted for cable TV for The History Channel in 2004, he also flies an acrobatic airplane and serves as a flight engineer for a restored B-17 Flying Fortress. He and his wife Marta, along with their six children (one boy and five girls) and several grandchildren, still reside in Texas.

And now my point:

This Mission happened in 1970 when technology is nowhere what it is or what we have today and yet these men worked to bring three men home ALIVE, because one man; Kranz pounded into them that “Failure is NOT an option!”

They did the impossible; they brought those men home making another of Kranz’s proclamations come true, “I believe this will be our finest hour.”

Since this time NASA has done nothing to top this and in fact has gone down the shitter. They lost Challenger, screwed up the Hubble, lost Columbia, and several failed missions to or dealing with Mars. Seventeen astronauts had died since Apollo 13 due to their arrogance and incompetence.

It seems to me NASA has lost Kranz’s spirit that: “Failure is not an option.” It seems that Failure is the only option they believe in or hold near and dear these days. I love space and its exploration. I have in fact had hoped we would be much further with it than where we find ourselves today. However until NASA once again adopts the spirit of the Apollo 13 Mission they will never get it right, advance our exploration, or have the success it should by now.

I can only hope the next time NASA fucks up, especially when it involves the live of our brave men and women astronauts it will be like Apollo 13 was:

“A Successful Failure”


~ by Digory Kirke on July 27, 2008.

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