Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Houston, we've had a problem."

Liftoff of Apollo 13 mission at 13:13

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, made famous in the minds of most by the film starring Tom Hanks, but the true story was even more dramatic than Hollywood could have made it.

At 55 hours, 55 minutes into the mission, after the crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert had just completed their broadcast to Earth and were performing a few routine maintanance procedures, the number two oxygen tank exploded. Within seconds there were warning lights all over the CM, telling them their main power was failing and they were drifting irratically as they vented their breathing oxygen into space through a huge hole in the side of the craft. They were 200,000 miles from home, hemorrhaging oxygen, losing power, and facing death.
It is truly astonishing that in spite of the many obstacles they faced throughout the next days, everything from dimishing water supplies, rising carbon dioxide levels, a freezing spacecraft, illness, and almost no sleep, the three men on board managed to stay pretty calm and do the job they needed to do: keep themselves alive and get back home."You don't put that in your mind," Lovell said. "You don't say how slim they are but rather how you can improve the odds." And on the ground, there were hundreds working towards the same end, so many more than any Hollywood movie could show. These people worked round the clock to save the crew, and they were always aware that if one more thing went wrong they could lose them to the cold desolation of space.

Against all odds and thanks to the tireless efforts of NASA, Grumman (who built the LEM that kept the men alive), North American (that built the CM), and everyone else who ever worked in and around the spacecraft and the incredible skill of the crew, the Apollo 13 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, never having landed on the moon, but safe home at last.

This month, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago has a series of moon-themed events; Lovell, Haise, and Gene Kranz, the flight director for NASA during the Apollo 13 mission, were on hand Monday to commemorate the mission. If you live in the Chicago-area, stop by. I encourage you to read Jim Lovell's book, Lost Moon, which details everything that happened during those few days and everything they did to get those men home; it's a fascinating and exciting read.

And, remember to keep looking to the stars.

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