Today marks the 45th anniversary of NASA’s “successful failure”, the Apollo 13 mission. The scheduled third lunar landing took an unexpected detour when technical failure erupted in the spacecraft.
The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three modules, the Service Module (SM), the Command Module (CM) nicknamed “Odyssey”, and the Lunar Module (LM) nicknamed “Aquarius”.
Aside from the early shutdown of the second stage inbound engine due to high-amplitude longitudinal oscillations, a near-nominal trajectory parameter was achieved at orbital insertion and the mission began smoothly. However, things went from zero to one hundred nearly 56 hours into the mission.
Houston, we’ve had a problem.
Such words marked the moment when onboard astronauts, James Lovell, John Swigert Jr., and Fred Haise, knew something went wrong. The entire spacecraft shuddered, alarm lights were flashing, and oxygen pressure was dropping. An electrical fire to an oxygen tank in the Service Module caused a loss of oxygen, electricity, and water. Basically every astronaut’s worst nightmare. Knowing emergency initiatives must take place, the crew, living in the Command Module, moved into the Lunar Module which was equipped with backup systems. Knowing the mission could not continue, they began returning to earth.
Since the Lunar Module was not designed to withstand the heat of atmospheric re-entry, the crew needed to move back into the failing Command Module for splash-down. Thankfully, the quick thinking of the astronauts allowed them to return home safely, deeming the Apollo 13 mission a “successful failure”.
(Sources: Space.com, www.awesomestories.com, NASA, Lunar and Planetary Institute)