On this day in 1970, Apollo 13 is launched. Just two days later, the mission would unfortunately be struck by catastrophe. An oxygen tank would explode, leaving three astronauts in a crippled spaceship about 200,000 miles from Earth.
How would they survive? For days, the country waited in suspense. Congress passed resolutions asking Americans to pray.
The flight began uneventfully enough. Apollo 13 had run into a few pre-flight hiccups, but it still launched from Kennedy Space Center, as scheduled, on April 11. “The spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we are concerned,” NASA’s Capsule Communicator reported two days into the flight. “We are bored to tears down here.”
Unfortunately, that boredom would be short-lived. The crew would soon learn that the pre-flight “hiccups” had been indicators of more serious problems. Late on the evening of April 13, the Apollo crew was filming a television broadcast. Just nine minutes after the astronauts wrapped up the show, an oxygen tank in the spaceship’s service module exploded.
In the Tom Hanks movie, this explosion rocked the whole ship and even threw the crew around a bit. In real life, the explosion felt more muted. Mission commander James Lovell said that it was “a dull but definite bang—Flashes not much of a vibration, though. . . . just a noise.”
The crew did not immediately realize the seriousness of their situation. “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” the command module pilot, Jack Swigert, famously radioed back to Mission Control.
For the moment, the astronauts were mostly disappointed. They would not get to visit the moon, as they’d planned. But then Lovell looked out the window and realized that the service module was venting a gas into outer space.
The full breadth of the calamity finally sank in.
Apollo’s electricity and water supplies were lost or compromised. Now it was losing oxygen, too. Not visiting the moon was the least of their problems! The astronauts would need to fight for their lives.
The next few days reflected the American spirit at its best: Perseverance, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and courage were on full display, both aboard Apollo and back at Mission Control. The rescue operation has since been deemed “NASA’s Finest Hour.”
The Apollo crew used the lunar module as a sort of life raft while other parts of the ship were shut down to conserve energy. They rigged a device to scrub carbon dioxide out of the air. They used the gravitational pull of the moon to slingshot their ship back toward Earth. They kept the damaged service module attached to their ship in an effort to protect the control module from the cold of space.
Only when the service module was released, mere hours before landing, did the crew get a good look at the damage that had been inflicted. “I’m glad we weren’t able to see the [service module] earlier,” Lovell later wrote. “With one whole panel missing, and wreckage hanging out, it was a sorry mess as it drifted away.”
The astronauts’ final days aboard Apollo were tough. They didn’t have enough food or water, and it was very cold. When they finally splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, they were dehydrated—and amazed to find that the entire world had been focused on the crisis playing out above the Earth’s atmosphere.
The incident wouldn’t keep Americans down for long! Instead, NASA resolutely applied itself to figuring out what had gone wrong. A mere ten months later, Apollo 14 successfully carried three new astronauts to the moon.
Apollo 13: The NASA Mission Reports (Robert Godwin, ed., 2000)
Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13 (2000)
James A. Lovell, “Houston, We’ve Had a Problem” (Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: Ch. 13.1)
Mark Bloom, Apollo 13 astronauts return after deep space crisis in 1970 (NY Daily News) (reprint of article first published April 18, 1970)