Last week was Apollo 13’s 50th anniversary – the most “successful failure” in the history of space exploration. On April 27, 2016, former NASA astronaut and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell made a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and told the story of the legendary Apollo 13 flight. Here’s the full video of that speech below.
The legendary former NASA astronaut Jim Lovell was born on March 25, 1928, in Cleveland, Ohio, United States.
In 1968, as command module pilot of Apollo 8, he became one of the first three humans to fly to and orbit the Moon, and to see the Earth as a whole planet. The Apollo 8 crew also witnessed the first Earthrise in history.
Jim Lovell had previously flown on two Gemini missions, Gemini 7 in 1965 and Gemini 12 in 1966. He was the first person to fly into space four times.
Jim Lovell then commanded the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission which, after a critical failure en route, circled around the Moon and returned safely to Earth through the efforts of the crew and mission control.
One of 24 people to have flown to the Moon, Jim Lovell was the first person to fly to it twice (unfortunately, he never landed). He is a recipient of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (in 1970, as one of 17 recipients in the Space Exploration group), and co-author of the 1994 book Lost Moon, on which the 1995 film Apollo 13 was based.
Apollo 13 incident
Apollo 13 was launched on April 11, 1970. Two days after the launch, an oxygen tank exploded and crippled the spacecraft. As the astronauts communicated their discovery of the explosion with the ground control, the words actually spoken, initially by the command module (CM) pilot Jack Swigert, were “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.
After being prompted to repeat the transmission by CAPCOM Jack R. Lousma, Mission Commander Jim Lovell responded, “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The erroneous wording “Houston, we have a problem” was popularized by the 1995 film Apollo 13, a dramatization of the Apollo 13 mission, in which actor Tom Hanks, portraying Jim Lovell, uses that wording, which became one of the film’s clichéd taglines. Since then, the phrase has become popular, being used to account, informally, the emergence of an unforeseen problem.
The picture above shows the Apollo 13 Service Module after it was released from the Command Module and set adrift in space about 4 hours before re-entry of the CM into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing”, Jim Lovell said as the Apollo 13 astronauts got their first view of the damage that had been caused by the explosion. This blurry photo taken by the astronauts shows the extent of the injury to the Apollo 13 spacecraft, which exposed most of the inside of the service module to space. The Service Module was towed all the way back to Earth after the explosion in order to protect the Command Module heat shield.
The Apollo 13 malfunction was caused by an explosion and rupture of oxygen tank no. 2 in the service module. The explosion ruptured a line or damaged a valve in the no. 1 oxygen tank, causing it to lose oxygen rapidly. The service module bay no.4 cover was blown off. All oxygen stores were lost within about 3 hours, along with loss of water, electrical power, and use of the propulsion system.
The oxygen tanks were highly insulated spherical tanks that held a “slush” of liquid oxygen with a fill line and heater running down the center. The no. 2 oxygen tank used in Apollo 13 (North American Rockwell; serial number 10024X-TA0008) had originally been installed in Apollo 10. It was removed from Apollo 10 for modification and during the extraction was dropped 2 inches, slightly jarring an internal fill line. The tank was replaced with another for Apollo 10, and the exterior inspected. The internal fill line was not known to be damaged, and this tank was later installed in Apollo 13.
The oxygen tanks had originally been designed to run off the 28 volt DC power of the command and service modules. However, the tanks were redesigned to also run off the 65 volt DC ground power at Kennedy Space Center. All components were upgraded to accept 65 volts except the heater thermostatic switches, which were overlooked. These switches were designed to open and turn off the heater when the tank temperature reached 80 degrees °F (26.6 °C). Normal temperatures in the tank were-300 to -100 °F ( -184.4 to -73.3 °C).
During pre-flight testing, tank no. 2 showed anomalies and would not empty correctly, possibly due to the damaged fill line. (On the ground, the tanks were emptied by forcing oxygen gas into the tank and forcing the liquid oxygen out, in space there was no need to empty the tanks.) The heaters in the tanks were normally used for very short periods to heat the interior slightly, increasing the pressure to keep the oxygen flowing. It was decided to use the heater to “boil off” the excess oxygen, requiring 8 hours of 65 volt DC power.
This probably damaged the thermostatically controlled switches on the heater, designed for only 28 volts. It is believed the switches welded shut, allowing the temperature within the tank to rise to over 1000 degrees F. The gauges measuring the temperature inside the tank were designed to measure only to 80 F, so the extreme heating was not noticed. The high temperature emptied the tank but also resulted in serious damage to the Teflon insulation on the electrical wires to the power fans within the tank.
56 hours into the mission, at about 03:06 UT on 14 April 1970 (10:06 PM, April 13 EST), the power fans were turned on within the tank for the third “cryo-stir” of the mission, a procedure to stir the oxygen slush inside the tank which would tend to stratify. The exposed fan wires shorted and the teflon insulation caught fire in the pure oxygen environment.
This fire rapidly heated and increased the pressure of the oxygen inside the tank, and may have spread along the wires to the electrical conduit in the side of the tank, which weakened and ruptured under the pressure, causing the no. 2 oxygen tank to explode. This damaged the no. 1 tank and parts of the interior of the service module and blew off the bay no. 4 cover. The rest is history.
The CM’s (Command Module) systems had to be shut down to conserve its remaining resources for reentry, forcing the crew to transfer to the LM (Lunar Module) as a lifeboat. With the lunar landing canceled, mission controllers worked to bring the crew home alive.
Although the LM was designed to support two men on the lunar surface for two days, Mission Control in Houston improvised new procedures so it could support three men for four days. The crew experienced great hardship caused by limited power, a chilly and wet cabin, and a shortage of potable water.
There was a critical need to adapt the CM’s cartridges for the carbon dioxide removal system to work in the LM; the crew and mission controllers were successful in improvising a solution. The astronauts’ peril briefly renewed interest in the Apollo program; tens of millions watched the splashdown in the South Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970, on television.