Apollo 13 Story Is Still Gripping After 45 Years (1970)

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The flight of Apollo 13 in April 1970 was one of the most dramatic events in the history of human spaceflight –- and ultimately one of NASA’s finest hours. For three days, the lives of three astronauts who had been bound for the third lunar landing mission hung in the balance.

Even those Americans who are unfamiliar with the story -– and those numbers are probably few given the multiple books and Hollywood movie it spawned -– are likely familiar with phrases it added to the national lexicon, such as “failure is not an option” and “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” Regarding the latter, interestingly, mission Commander Jim Lovell never uttered those exact words, as you can see in the first page of our news report at the time.

Indeed, though the basic story is well-known, reading Aviation Week’s report on the mission, 45 years later, is fascinating for details like that, and it still makes for gripping reading even though everyone knows the happy ending,

The events of April 11-17, 1970, were before my time as a reporter. But I met many of the key people involved when I began covering space and science for the Houston Post and over the years working at Aviation Week.

As a young space reporter in Houston, I remember nervous glances in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center when occasionally an astronaut would say on the “air-to-ground” loop, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” But we would all find out a moment later the problem was something mundane, like the crew couldn’t remember which mid-deck locker held the extra rolls of paper for the orbiter’s fax machine.

Apollo 13 also taught me the concept of a “successful failure.” And, I learned that redundancy, which at the time seemed key to maximizing safety, was not always good. A veteran of Apollo 13 told me about a reporter at the time who asked why the Apollo service module didn’t have more oxygen tanks for redundancy.

“That only would have multiplied the number that could explode,” the old-timer explained.

But I’m getting ahead of things. In a nutshell, 56 hr. after a successful launch, with the Apollo 13 spacecraft combo and its three-man crew outbound for the Moon, an oxygen tank in the service module exploded, setting off a chain of failures that also dramatically reduced critical resources like electrical power.

It was “as serious a situation as we’ve ever had in manned spaceflight,” explained Chris Kraft, the legendary Mercury and Gemini flight director, who by 1970 had become the deputy director of what was still called the Manned Spacecraft Center. He had been the flight director on Gemini 8, in which Neil Armstrong and David Scott went into a high-speed spin. You can read our coverage of that flight here. That was definitely perilous, Kraft said in one of our Apollo 13 articles, but at least the crew was only 1.5 hr. from home. In Apollo 13, the best way to get the crew home, how long it would take and whether the astronauts would still be alive when they did get back to Earth were open questions.

“As the situation deteriorated rapidly,” Zack Strickland wrote in our lead story, “only a trained observer monitoring the space-ground conversations could tell that the mission had changed from benign lunar science exploration to one of basic survival.

“Cool, matter-of-fact voice tones exchanged vital data and brief, but descriptive observations of spacecraft and system performance,” Strickland reported. Clearly, he was impressed, citing “an astonishing capability for trained men to keep abreast of a rapidly worsening, highly complex technical situation.”

One thing that struck me in reading the contemporaneous reports is how many times controllers on the ground and the crew in space independently reached the same conclusions. It reminded me how wrong are the simplistic views -– either that of brilliant, gutsy astronauts being the lone heroes of human spaceflight, or that it is the engineering geniuses on the ground who figure everything out and simply give the crew orders. This was a true collaboration, and one that must have reassured both sides.

A key example of the two sets of people reaching the same conclusion was the realization that the lunar module (LM) Aquarius would have to be used as a “lifeboat” if the crew were to be kept alive. That in turn led to the counter-intuitive decision not to execute a maneuver to get the crew back to Earth as quickly as possible. Doing that would have required undocking from Aquarius in the vicinity of the Moon. Going around the Moon instead into a “free-return” trajectory would allow the LM to remain attached to the command module much longer.

Last weekend, I tracked down Jerry Goldmacher to see what he remembered. Goldmacher was the head of the team that built Aquarius at Grumman. True to form for an engineer, though, he called it “LM 7,” not Aquarius.

At 89, he is long retired and lives in Florida. He said he was on Long Island at the time when he got a phone call in the middle of the night informing him of the trouble in space.

“There was not much I could do but listen,” he said, but he hustled to Grumman’s facilities to help provide NASA whatever technical assistance might be necessary.

As the three-day, fingers-crossed journey home for the crew unfolded, Goldmacher recalled, “I was worried about the guys in the LM. It was so wet and cold.” Fred Haise, who along with Lovell was to have walked on the surface of the Moon, was “very sick,” Goldmacher remembered. Some years later, Haise, whom Goldmacher called “a great guy,” became his boss at Grumman.

Goldmacher said the LM-as-lifeboat idea was NASA’s, not his company’s. But he bristles at one scene in the movie Apollo 13 –- the one in which an actor playing a contractor tells a NASA official that the spacecraft his company built was never designed for what the space agency was about to do and that the company could not guarantee the hardware would work.

That never happened, Goldmacher said, calling the movie character a “dopey guy.” He added, “They did what they do in Hollywood,” and said otherwise the film is pretty accurate.

I had never read through all of Aviation Week’s coverage of Apollo 13 until recently. I knew many details of the recovery effort from talking with those involved over the years and from reading things like lead flight director Gene Kranz’s excellent memoir, Flight. But I was curious to know how much Aviation Week reporters had captured in their deadline-driven coverage –- always a challenge, and one that weighs heavily when we know what we are writing will still be read decades later.

My predecessors’ work was impressive. It was detailed and comprehensive. And there was an entire article on one aspect of the mission few remember. The third stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the McDonnell Douglas S-4B, was deliberately crashed onto the lunar surface to create a “man-made moon quake” for scientists. Accelerometers to measure the impact had been left on the surface by the Apollo 12 crew. When the crew was informed of the experiment’s success, Lovell dryly remarked, “Well, at least something on this flight worked.”

Like every generation, I had anticipated that the preceding generation’s work might reveal some flaws. For instance, I suspected Aviation Week might have been softer on the aerospace industry back then. But I read in Edwin J. “Pete” Bulban’s story that the failure of the North American Rockwell service module began when one of the Beech Aircraft Corp. cryogenic oxygen tanks exploded. That then caused the Pratt & Whitney fuel cells to fail. Hardly an example of soft-pedaling who was responsible for what.

Read through the reporting and Bob Hotz’s editorial. It’s long, but I think you will be glad you did. It’s hard to stop once you start. And it is a good an example as you will see of the kind of journalism that has famously been called “the first rough-draft of history.”

► Read the article from the April 20, 1970, issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Crew Brings Apollo 13 Mission To Safe Ending (part 1)

Crew Brings Apollo 13 Mission To Safe Ending (part 2)

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

Editor's note: This article was corrected to show that the launch of the Saturn V, while successful, was hardly uneventful. As reported in one of our 1970 articles, a second-stage engine shut down prematurely.

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