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This Day in History: The Close Call That Was Apollo 13

  • VOA News

The crew of the Apollo 13 lunar landing mission are shown in their space suits on their way to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Kennedy, Fla., Saturday, April 11, 1970.

"Houston, we've had a problem here."

The famed, understated words were uttered in April 1970 —at least in the Hollywood version — by astronaut John L. Swigert upon hearing the explosion of oxygen tank No. 2 on the spacecraft.

Astronaut John Swigert adjusts something inside his space suit at the Kennedy Space Center Saturday, April 11, 1970, as the Apollo 13 astronauts suited up for their lunar flight. Swigert took the place of Thomas Mattingly as the command module pilot.
Astronaut John Swigert adjusts something inside his space suit at the Kennedy Space Center Saturday, April 11, 1970, as the Apollo 13 astronauts suited up for their lunar flight. Swigert took the place of Thomas Mattingly as the command module pilot.

An investigation showed that the normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water had been disrupted. A scheduled moon landing was aborted, and the astronauts and controllers on Earth scrambled to come up with emergency procedures.

The real threat was the loss of power.

The crippled spacecraft continued to the moon, circled it, and began a long, cold journey back to Earth.

Along the way, NASA gave its first press conference:​

The astronauts and mission control were faced with enormous logistical problems in stabilizing the spacecraft and its air supply, as well as providing enough energy to the damaged fuel cells to allow successful reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Navigation was another problem, and Apollo 13‘s course was repeatedly corrected with dramatic and untested maneuvers.

Finally, the astronauts figured out that they had to fire the lunar module’s big landing engine several times to get back on the right trajectory.

On April 17, the potential tragedy turned to triumph as the Apollo 13 astronauts touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

Watch the re-entry as broadcast live on television:

The astronauts became instant heroes.

Apollo 13 astronauts John Swigert Jr., with his arms upraise and James Lovell ride in parade in their honor, Friday, May 2, 1970 through Chicago’s financial district as confetti streams from the skyscrapters.
Apollo 13 astronauts John Swigert Jr., with his arms upraise and James Lovell ride in parade in their honor, Friday, May 2, 1970 through Chicago’s financial district as confetti streams from the skyscrapters.

A Hollywood movie was made in 1995, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris.

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