By the time the towering Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 13 crew left the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, thundering into the skies on April 11, 1970, traveling to the moon seemed about as interesting to the general public as commuting to work.
It was, after all, America’s third mission aimed at landing on the desolate orb, a feat accomplished nine months before during the much-celebrated Apollo 11 mission.
“After the landing there was a general letdown, not just by the general public, but I think by NASA itself,” Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell explained to VOA during a 2015 interview at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “Enthusiasm for lunar flights had diminished greatly. ... By the time Apollo 13 came around, I think the only mention in The New York Times was on page 67 of the weather page, because everyone had forgotten.”
Lovell added, “Very few people in the news media had manned the news desk at Johnson Space Center.”
The public’s lack of attention all changed in an instant, when an explosion rocked their spacecraft hurtling through space two days into the mission. Lovell and crewmates Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were in grave peril.
“It had been a major sound, a metallic echoing, a bang that came through the spacecraft,” Haise recalled. “We knew it was nothing normal, something bad.”
As warning signals lit up the cabin of their command module – and instrument panels at NASA’s mission control in Houston, Texas – Lovell uttered a sentence that would reverberate through history.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
“My team was the one who responded to Jim Lovell’s call,” said Gene Kranz, NASA’s lead flight director for Apollo 13. “This was the third attempt at a lunar landing, and we had problems all along the way.”
“We were not prepared for any kind of problems as large as Apollo 13,” said NASA Flight Director Gerald “Gerry” Griffin who, alongside Kranz, led mission control through the crisis. “We had never contemplated anything quite that drastic.”
“We had three crewmen in a dead spacecraft 200,000 miles away from Earth heading towards the moon,” Kranz explained. Getting them back alive meant round-the-clock problem-solving in a high-stress environment where the stakes were life or death.
“We had been trained with the notion that as long as you had plenty of options left, don’t give up, just keep on plugging,” Griffin said. “We never ran out of options.”
But the one option that quickly evaporated once the explosion occurred was completing the mission as planned.
“I was sick to my stomach because I knew that we were not going to be able to land on the moon,” Haise told VOA.
As the world witnessed the events unfold on radio and television, Kranz’s mantra during Apollo 13 became the title of his book: Failure is Not an Option.
“The crisis lasted the best part of almost four days, and that was maybe where the world’s attention was able to be focused upon this particular event more than some of the other missions we focused on.”
By using the lunar module as a temporary lifeboat, Lovell and his crew were able to slingshot around the moon and limp back to Earth. They touched down in the Pacific Ocean to the excitement – and relief – of millions, making the mission what NASA called a “successful failure.”
But returning safely also meant ending a dream and not completing a goal. Neither Jim Lovell nor Fred Haise would ever walk on the moon.
“Years later when we decided to write a book about the story of Apollo 13 – I got the feeling that yes, the flight was a failure,” Lovell said. “But in another aspect it was a triumph in how people can take an almost certain catastrophe – working together, figuring out solutions to crisis that we didn’t plan for or train for and get this spacecraft back home.”
Lovell’s book about the experience, Lost Moon, was the basis for the 1995 Apollo 13 Hollywood blockbuster featuring actor Tom Hanks as Lovell, Kevin Bacon as Swigert, and Bill Paxton as Fred Haise.
“I think the movie and its exposure that way has obviously added hype to become a little bit of folklore at this point,” Haise said.
“The Apollo 13 movie was actually a godsend because it gave the young people who weren’t even born at the time a chance to find out what was really happening back then,” Lovell said.
“Sometimes stories that we see in movies that are based in reality you sort of have to increase the drama,” said Andrew Johnston, vice president of astronomy and collections at the Adler Planetarium. “This one was a real drama. It was not clear that these guys were going to be able to get home alive. That’s why it makes such a good story and why it grabbed people’s attention.”
It’s a story that the planetarium highlights in its Mission Moon exhibit showcasing equipment from Apollo 13 donated by Lovell, who visited the Chicago planetarium himself as a young boy. Now, Lovell hopes his story and experiences inspire a new generation of explorers who visit the Adler.
While an Adler Planetarium event to celebrate Apollo 13’s 50th anniversary has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, the celebration is moving online, where visitors to the Adler and NASA social media sites can see and hear highlights – digitally - of the U.S. space program’s successful failure.