“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Two days into its flight, Apollo 13, about two hundred thousand miles from Earth and rocketing toward the Moon at two thousand miles per hour, had suffered a catastrophic explosion of oxygen tank number 2. “We had a pretty loud bang,” Commander Lovell radioed to Mission Control.[i]
Like blood pouring from a wound, glowing vapor gathered outside the spacecraft’s service module as its oxygen supply emptied out into space. Oxygen needed for breathing. Oxygen needed to generate the power to control the ship at all, let alone to fly it back to Earth. Apollo 13 and the three souls inside began to drift out of control, pushed around by unidentified forces.[ii] The engineers on the ground and the astronauts stuck halfway between the Earth and the Moon quickly realized that their mission was no longer lunar exploration but survival. The fastest way home required three days of flying. The fastest way home required three days of breathing.
The world looked up at the sky in wonder and worry. Then the gaze shifted to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Everyone inside the space center looked to the one person responsible for the men and machines of Apollo 13: flight director Gene Kranz. With the whole world watching and the president on line 1, Kranz was responsible for everything that happened next, for all efforts to prevent three astronauts, men he knew and liked, from asphyxiating and floating off into space forever.
Flight director Kranz called his direct reports to his station in the crowded and stunned command center. After the data confirmed that the situation was as dire as it seemed, Kranz asserted his full authority over and responsibility for the mission.
He issued three orders to his team on the spacecraft and on the ground:
- Keep cool;
- Solve the problem; and
- Let’s not make the situation any worse by guessing.
If there was any chance at all of salvaging the mission and saving the men’s lives, a full command of all the facts and options was vital. The team quickly became too busy applying their talents and experience to the data and exploring options to experience any of the distorting influences of guilt, fear, or panic. This approach generated two lifesaving outcomes. First, neither the astronauts nor Mission Control did anything to make the desperate situation worse. Second, they made astonishing use of the means at hand to fashion a rescue vehicle out of a broken spacecraft and its lunar landing module.
The three astronauts left the large command module and powered it down to save electricity for the flight back. The attached small lunar landing module became their lifeboat. To conserve power and water, Apollo 13 switched to the guidance system intended to enable the lunar module to land on the Moon. The flight trajectory was changed so that the Moon’s gravity would slingshot the disabled spacecraft back to Earth without using the damaged engines.
Engineers on the ground helped the astronauts figure out how to jury-rig a lifesaving device for removing carbon dioxide from their air supply, using a space suit air hose as a filter holder. They also invented a protocol for an in-flight power-up of the command module section of the spacecraft, something never before achieved or even envisioned.
About one hour before the end of the sixth day of traveling, Apollo 13 landed in the South Pacific, and was collected by the USS Iwo Jima. All hands onboard had been saved.
The astronauts’ lives were preserved by gumption: courage + resourcefulness + common sense (“let’s not make it worse by guessing”), demonstrated by Gene Kranz and taken up and copied many times over by the astronauts and Mission Control.
Notes: [i] “We had a pretty loud bang”: Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not an Option (New York: Berkley Books, 2000), 311.[ii] …pushed around by unidentified forces: Ibid. 312.