On April 27, James Lovell spoke at MIT as a special guest, invited by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Photo: Bill Litant

On April 27, James Lovell spoke at MIT as a special guest, invited by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Photo: Bill Litant

It was 46 years ago this month that the words “Houston…we’ve had a problem” shot across space to ground controllers on Earth.

On April 14, 1970, just 56 hours into the Apollo 13 mission to the Moon, those words were uttered by crew members aboard the spacecraft.

Apollo 13 was to be NASA’s third landing of humans on the Moon. The transit to the Moon by the crew members was not prime-time television.

“All three networks received the signal — nobody carried it. There was the Dick Cavett show … a rerun of ‘I Love Lucy,’ and a ballgame…even people in the control center were watching the ballgame,” recalls Apollo 13 commander, James Lovell, speaking Wednesday as a special guest invited to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Hiss, bang

Prior to the trouble, an oxygen tank explosion, “I said goodnight to everybody, turned off the camera, and was coming down the tunnel, when suddenly there was a ‘hiss, bang!’ and the spacecraft rocked back and forth, jets were firing, and there was noise all over,” Lovell explained.

James Lovell at MIT. Photo: Bill Litant

James Lovell at MIT.
Photo: Bill Litant

“That explosion was the best thing to ever happen to NASA,” Lovell told the MIT audience. “It showed, really, the talent that NASA people had, in mission control and throughout the organization that turned an almost complete catastrophe into a successful recovery.”

Bomb waiting to go off

In a story written by Jennifer Chu of the MIT News Office, Lovell explained to his AeroAstro audience it was two weeks before launch of Apollo 13 that the spacecraft underwent its last test.

“As the countdown went on, we could see the whole spacecraft come to life,” Lovell said. “The test was successful — everything looked perfect.”

When the ground crew came by to empty the liquid oxygen tanks, which would be refilled before launch, they were unable to do so. It would take a month to replace the tanks, which would have delayed the mission. However, they noticed that one of the tanks was an old design — meant for Apollo 10 — that was configured with an oxygen-emptying tube and a heater.

i13-1

“They figured, why not turn on the heater and boil the oxygen out and therefore save time? Not a bad idea, so that’s what they did,” Lovell said. “The day before liftoff, they filled it up once more with liquid oxygen. It was a bomb waiting to go off” because the fix actually damaged the internal elements of the tank.

Serious trouble

Shortly after Lovell ended a television broadcast back to Earth on April 14, a ‘hiss, bang!’ shook the spacecraft, he said. Checking the instrument gauges, he found that one oxygen tank was completely empty, while another was being rapidly depleted. As he looked out a side window, he witnessed a “gaseous substance, at high speed,” shooting out into space.

“That’s when that old lead weight went down in the bottom of my stomach,” Lovell added. “Because we needed oxygen for electricity, the third fuel cell would die, and because we used electricity to control our rocket engine, we’d lose the entire propulsion system. We were in serious trouble.”

Last maneuver

The cascade of spacecraft system failures that would follow — requiring the ingenuity of the Apollo 13 crew and ground controllers to safely bring back the astronauts to Earth — is a story captured in the 1995 Hollywood blockbuster “Apollo 13,” with Tom Hanks starring as Lovell.

Fred Haise (left), Jim Lovell, and Jack Swigert emerge from the recovery helicopter on-board the aircraft carrier Iwo Jima on April 17, 1970. Credit Scan by Ed Hengeveld from Eric M. Jones Apollo 13 Image Library.

Fred Haise (left), Jim Lovell, and Jack Swigert emerge from the recovery helicopter on-board the aircraft carrier Iwo Jima on April 17, 1970.
Credit Scan by Ed Hengeveld from Eric M. Jones Apollo 13 Image Library.

Underscoring Apollo 13’s reentry to Earth, “If you come in too shallow, it’ll be like skipping a stone across water, and you’re gone,” Lovell said. “If you come in too steep, the sudden deceleration will put you on fire like a meteorite and that will be it. … I guess I wouldn’t be here if that last maneuver wasn’t successful.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read the full account by Chu of Lovell’s MIT visit, go to:

http://news.mit.edu/2016/apollo-13-commander-james-lovell-0428

One Response to “Astronaut James Lovell: Recounting Apollo 13’s Successful Failure”

Leave a Reply

Griffith Observatory Event