Space Shuttle

‘Houston, we have a problem’
Ignoring superstition is one thing. Mocking it is something else entirely. Developers of high-rise buildings refuse to designate a 13th floor for fear of accidents caused by bad luck, yet the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) gives the name Apollo 13 to one of its lunar missions–an undertaking with, oh, about five million more things that can go wrong than building a high-rise hotel.

Bang! Compounding the irony, and folly, of that decision, on April 13, 1970, Apollo 13, carrying astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, is jolted by the explosion of one of its oxygen tanks, which knocks out the other tank. Without oxygen, the fuel cells that supply power won’t work. Without power, the on-board computers and control systems won’t work. Without computers and control systems, the command module won’t work. Without the command module, Apollo 13 shuts down, meaning that, as flight commander James Lovell said to Mission Control in Houston, the three astronauts have “a problem.”

Talk about heroic understatement. In succession, Mission Control and the astronauts had to shut down the command module and reconfigure the lunar module–whose engines were only designed for a shortjourney to the moon’s surface and back–so that the lunar module could power the whole spaceship the nearly 300 thousand miles back to Earth. Then they had to change the ship’s course so that it swung around the moon and headed for Earth, rather than go into lunar orbit. Then they had to align the spaceship for re-entry into earth’s atmosphere (a process with no margin for error and fatal consequences for failure). Then they had to figure out how to separate the service module, command module and lunar module right before re-entry (which had never been done before), all without the usual on-board computerized data assistance, and using as little power as possible.

Meanwhile, the astronauts were without water, so they quickly became dehydrated; without sleep, increasing the likelihood of human error; working in extremely cold temperatures (no power, no heat), making them very uncomfortable; and facing a malfunction of the equipment that removed excess carbon dioxide, threatening to make them sick and disoriented (they eventually repaired it).

And finally, even under optimum conditions, revising a flight plan of this magnitude would normally take about three months. Under the conditions described above, the astronauts and Mission Control had three days.

Despite all of this, when Apollo 13 finally splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 17, it was less than four miles from the recovery ship, and all three astronauts were in good spirits and good health. They had beaten odds that can only be described, literally and figuratively, as “astronomical.”