As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches, now would seem to be a good time to remember
a potential disaster of more recent times… one which had a happier in ending insofar as no lives were lost, but was (like Titanic) dramatic enough to be adapted into a big screen movie…
On this day in 1970, at 13:13 local time, Apollo XIII was launched. The mission was intended to be the USA’s third Moon landing, but for the crew (Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert) and those in Mission Control, what transpired was arguably even more incredible than setting foot on the Moon…
The early part of the flight had passed without major incident and, just over two days into the flight (2 days, 7 hours,
46 minutes and 1 second if we’re being precise, future astronaut Jack Lousma spoke via CAPCOM (capsule communicator) to the crew who were transmitting to the television audience back on Earth:
CAPCOM: Okay, Jim. It’s been a real good TV show. We think we ought to conclude it from here now. What do you think?
LOVELL: Roger. Sounds good. And this is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we’re just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. Good night.
Just six short minutes later, Lousma gave this instruction…
CAPCOM: 13, we’ve got one more item for you, when you get a chance. We’d like you to stir up your cryo tanks. In addition, I have shaft and trunnion [a calculated angle adjustment involving use of a light source] … for looking at the Comet Bennett, if you need it.
This is what followed:
SWIGERT: Okay. Stand-by.
HAISE: Okay, Houston…
SWIGERT: I believe we’ve had a problem here.
CAPCOM: This is Houston. Say again, please.
LOVELL: Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt [Technically, a bus undervolt is a reduction in voltage through an electrical interface which carried current to connected devices… in my world, it’s simply an excuse to panic].
CAPCOM: Roger. Main B undervolt… Okay, stand-by, 13. We’re looking at it…
And so, with what turned out to be an explosion in an oxygen tank, the drama began to unfold…
The Command Module eventually splashed down on 17th April… “a successful failure” was how Lovell described the
mission, but that arguably undersells just what a remarkable achievement it was to bring the crew safely home. The blog’s title comes from the words spoken by Joe Kerwin (CAPCOM) as the capsule appeared on the screens in Mission Control for the first time… it’s an amazing story… actually the film is superb too… and on the eve of a maritime tragedy in which over 1,500 perished, it’s perhaps nice to briefly reflect on a disaster averted and three lives that were saved…
All my own work... almost.