The Successful Failure
Aside from Apollo 11, Apollo 13 might be the most famous mission of NASA’s entire lunar landing program. This is due, at least in part, to Ron Howard’s wildly successful 1995 film about the mission. Though it took some artistic license, the film did capture the drama and uncertainty about whether the crew would make it home alive. Over the course of the rescue, malfunction checklists, like the one displayed here, were vital in making the mission a success.
Museum Exhibit: Apollo Operations Checklist
This page, signed by mission Commander Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, is from the Abort Guidance System section of the checklist stowed in the Lunar Module, and was used to restart the guidance control systems of the LM. Normally, this document would have been left aboard the LM after return from the moon’s surface and docking with the command module. In this case, the documents were transferred from the LM as “ballast” to help align trajectory for the unusual return to Earth.
The crew of Apollo 13 was 55 hours into their mission when one of their oxygen tanks exploded. Necessary for both power and breathable air, as the oxygen vented into space the spacecraft bled to death. Luckily, NASA had sent the crew with procedures for a variety of malfunctions; the item on display here is one of the malfunction checklists that was actually flown on the mission.
Fun Fact 1: A Lot of 13s
For the superstitious, Apollo 13 had “disaster” written all over it from the start. Using a 24-hour clock, the mission launched at 13:13 on the afternoon of April 11, 1970, a date when written numerically (04-11-70) adds up to 13. The spacecraft even entered the Moon’s gravity on April 13.
Training for Disaster
NASA expected things to go wrong. In fact, when designing the Apollo program in the early 1960s, NASA leadership decided that no system would be approved for Apollo if it were less than 99.9 percent reliable – a value known as “three nines.” But that meant that there was the 0.1 percent chance of something going wrong, and to minimize the fallout from that off chance of a failure, the astronauts and men in mission control practiced disaster scenarios prior to launch. Crews trained for total loss of cabin pressure on the Moon’s far side just before losing communications with Houston. They trained for computer errors, navigation problems, and power loss. Most of the disasters involved multiple systems failures, teaching the crew how to deal with two or more problems popping up simultaneously. But in the years of Apollo simulations, no one ever imagined an oxygen tank could explode like it did on Apollo 13.
The LM as Lifeboat
With their main Command and Service Module damaged beyond use, the crew of Apollo 13 had no choice but to move into their Lunar Module. The crew needed to preserve enough power in their Command Module’s batteries to power the spacecraft back up and get them through the Earth reentry phase. Unfortunately, the LM was ill-equipped to be used as a lifeboat. Designed to keep two men alive during a 45 hour trip to the Moon, it was now charged with keeping three men alive for the remaining 90 hours of their mission, one that would take them swinging around the Moon’s far side before returning to Earth. The main concern was how the LM’s available consumables could support the crew. By rigging a carbon dioxide filter from the CSM into the LM’s system, turning off all electrical power, and tightly rationing their water supply, the crew made it work. The mission, because it came back safely but didn’t land on the Moon, was called the “successful failure.”
Fun Fact 2: AAA in Space
Once Apollo 13 was safely back on Earth, Grumman Aircraft, the contractor behind the Lunar Module, pulled a prank on North American Aviation, the contractor behind the Command Module. Grumman jokingly sent NAA an invoice for a towing fee: $1 per mile across 300,000 miles, plus incidentals. The total came to $324,750.
In many ways, Apollo 13 sums up the trials and triumphs of the early space age. That no one imagined such a devastating failure could occur speaks to how little was really known about manned spaceflight when NASA accepted Kennedy’s lunar challenge. And the way NASA solved the problem says a lot about the attitude not only of mission controllers to get things done at all costs, but of NASA management’s similar sentiments. Failure wasn’t an option, and the men behind the mission stopped at nothing in their efforts to bring the crew home.