The story of Apollo 13 (called a “successful failure” by the mission commander Jim Lovell) goes beyond a tale of survival. The mission also successfully completed a scientific investigation that is still helping to inform our understanding of the Moon to this day. Early in Apollo 13’s voyage, Mission Control sent the spacecraft’s empty S-IVB rocket booster on a collision course with the lunar surface, where a seismometer set up by the Apollo 12 mission would measure the tremors.
The video below, published by NASA Goddard Channel contains archival footage captured by the crew & newly-uncovered audio. It highlights the beginning and end of that impact experiment and shows how current data and imagery from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission help us better interpret and analyze the results.
This video not only contains archival footage captured by the crew of Apollo 13, but also newly uncovered audio of a humorous exchange between astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Capcom Vance Brand at Mission Control. This booster impact experiment audio had been recorded and sent to the National Archives and Records Administration in 1970, but was unplayable at that facility due to differences in audio equipment, so it sat in storage.
The only machine capable of playback is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, but that equipment had been out of service for decades. In 2015 an effort funded by the National Science Foundation saw the equipment refurbished, and all 7,200 hours of Apollo 13 audio was digitized. This material was first made publicly available in early 2020 at ApolloInRealTime.org. Among this never-before-heard material, scientists were able to find the conversation covered in this video.
This video also utilizes images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) as well as a data visualization of the Moon showing the locations of the booster impact experiment relative to the Apollo 12 seismometer station. The network of seismometers set up during the Apollo era, combined with data from the LRO mission, is teaching us about moonquakes and the interior structure of the Moon. This information will be useful to all future NASA missions to the lunar surface.
Apollo 13 booster impact experiment
The experiment involved sending the launch vehicle’s S-IVB (the Saturn V‘s third stage) rocket booster to impact the lunar surface. The seismic signals would be recorded using equipment set up during the Apollo 12 mission.
Jim Lovell (mission commander): “OK, I can see the S-IVB now out the hatch window and it’s -“
Joe Kerwin (CAPCOM – capsule communicator, see notes 1): “Okay, Jim. Suddenly we have a very good picture.”
Jim Lovell: “Okay.”
At 7:09 p.m., S-IVB slams into the Moon with an impact force of more than 11 tons of TNT. It blasts a new 120-foot (36.5 meters) wide crater some 85 miles (137 km) west of the Apollo 12 landing site. The impact keeps the Moon rumbling for more than four hours. The crew was able to capture footage of the S-IVB booster out of the window of the Command Module.
Jim Lovell: “And, Houston, I can see the gold shroud around the IU (Saturn V instrument unit, see notes 2), and it looks that’s all intact.”
Mission Control monitored the seismometer station from Earth. An audio recording of the communications during the booster impact experiment was made and sent to the National Archives.
Few in the public have been able to hear that conversation, until now.
Vance Brand (support crewman of the Apollo 13 mission): “By the way, Aquarius, we see the results now from 12’s (Apollo 12) seismometer. Looks like your booster just hit the Moon, and it’s rocking a little bit.”
Jim Lovell: “Well, at least something worked on this flight.”
Vance Brand: “And I just want to verify one thing – “
Fred Haise (Lunar Module Pilot): “Yeah, I am sure…”
Vance Brand: “… we could… go ahead…”
Fred Haise (jokes): “I say, I am sure glad we didn’t have a LM (Lunar Module) impact, too.”
Vance Brand: “Right.”
More than four decades later, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission located and photographed the Apollo 13 S-IVB impact site. And with the additional data collected by the spacecraft, it’s now possible to determine the impact coordinates and distances from all of the Apollo seismic stations more accurately.
This data still continues to improve our understanding of moonquakes and the interior structure of the Moon.
The seismograph network recorded more than 13,000 seismic events and delivered some of the most important scientific results of the Apollo missions.
Apollo 13 was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 lifted off with Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise aboard.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem…”
Two days after the launch, with the spacecraft well on its way to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded, scrubbing the lunar landing and putting the crew in jeopardy.
Working with Mission Control in Houston, the crew used their lunar module as a “lifeboat,” and even rigged an adapter so that a command module “air scrubber” would work in the lunar module, preventing a dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide. The mission ended safely when the crew splashed down on April 17, 1970, but its “can-do” spirit lives on at NASA.
It shows in the efforts of thousands to return the shuttle fleet to flight, and it will ultimately help NASA fulfill its exploration Vision – returning to the moon, journeying to Mars, and beyond.
The flight passed the far side of the Moon at an altitude of 254 kilometers (137 nautical miles) above the lunar surface, and 400,171 km (248,655 mi) from Earth, a spaceflight record marking the farthest humans have ever traveled from Earth. The story of the Apollo 13 mission has been dramatized multiple times, most notably in the 1995 film Apollo 13.
When the oxygen tank exploded, the words actually spoken, initially by 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 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, for the emergence of an unforeseen problem.
“When you’re talking on the radio, the first word you have to say is who you are talking to. When the people at the mission control hear ‘Houston, we have a problem’, it’s an understatement – but it has a huge impact. All the normal operations cease, and everybody is listening to hear now what the commander gonna say next, looking at their data like crazy. It’s a wonderful, succinct way to phrase it, and all space commanders since then, self-included, have used that phrase when needed.”
1. Spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM)
Generally, only the spacecraft communicator communicates directly with the crew of a crewed space flight. The acronym dates back to Project Mercury when the spacecraft was originally termed a “capsule.” NASA felt it important for all communication with the astronauts in space to pass through a single individual in the Mission Control Center. That role was first designated the capsule communicator or CAPCOM and was filled by another astronaut, often one of the backup- or support-crew members. NASA believes that an astronaut is most able to understand the situation in the spacecraft and pass information in the clearest way.
For long-duration missions, there is more than one CAPCOM, each assigned to a different shift team. After control of U.S. spaceflights moved to the Johnson Space Center in the early 1960s, each CAPCOM used the radio call-sign Houston. When non-astronauts are communicating directly with the spacecraft, CAPCOM acts as the communications controller.
As of 2011, due to the shrinking size of the astronaut corps at the end of the Space Shuttle program, fewer astronauts are available to perform CAPCOM duties, so non-astronauts from the space flight training and flight controller branches also function as CAPCOM during ISS missions, while the role was filled solely by astronauts for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. Astronauts still take the CAPCOM position during critical events such as docking and EVA (Extravehicular Activity or simply spacewalk).
2. Saturn V instrument unit
The Saturn V instrument unit is a ring-shaped structure fitted to the top of the Saturn V rocket’s third stage (S-IVB) and the Saturn IB’s second stage (also an S-IVB). It was immediately below the SLA (Spacecraft/Lunar Module Adapter) panels that contained the Lunar Module. The instrument unit contains the guidance system for the Saturn V rocket.