Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 14:13 EST (19:13 UTC) from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the Service Module (SM) upon which the Command Module (CM) had depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to make makeshift repairs to the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970, six days after launch.
The flight passed the far side of the Moon at an altitude of 254 kilometres (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 travelled from Earth. The mission was commanded by James A. Lovell with John L. “Jack” Swigert as Command Module Pilot and Fred W. Haise as Lunar Module Pilot. Swigert was a late replacement for the original CM pilot Ken Mattingly, who was grounded by the flight surgeon after exposure to German measles.
Launch and translunar injection
The mission was launched at the planned time, 02:13:00 PM EST (19:13:00 UTC) on April 11. An anomaly occurred when the second-stage, centre (inboard) engine shut down about two minutes early. The four outboard engines and the third-stage engine burned longer to compensate, and the vehicle achieved very close to the planned circular 100 nautical miles (190 km) parking orbit, followed by a normal translunar injection about two hours later. The engine shutdown was determined to be caused by severe pogo oscillations measured at a strength of 68 g and a frequency of 16 hertz, flexing the thrust frame by 3 inches (76 mm). The vehicle’s guidance system shut the engine down in response to sensed thrust chamber pressure fluctuations. Pogo oscillations had been seen on previous Titan rockets, and also on the Saturn V during Apollo 6, but on Apollo 13, they were amplified by an unexpected interaction with turbopump cavitation. Later missions implemented anti-pogo modifications that had been under development. These included addition of a helium-gas reservoir to the centre engine liquid oxygen line to damp pressure oscillations, an automatic cut off as a backup, and simplification of the propellant valves of all five second-stage engines.
The crew performed the separation and transposition manoeuvre to dock the Command Module Odyssey to the Lunar Module (LM) Aquarius, and pulled away from the spent third stage, which ground controllers then sent on a course to impact the Moon in range of a seismometer placed on the surface by Apollo 12. They then settled in for the three-day trip to Fra Mauro.
Approaching 56 hours into the mission, Apollo 13 was approximately 205,000 miles (330,000 km) from Earth en route to the Moon. Approximately six and a half minutes after the end of a live TV broadcast from the spacecraft, Haise was in the process of closing out the LM, while Lovell was stowing the TV camera. Houston flight controllers asked Swigert to turn on the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans in the Service Module, which were designed to destratify the cryogenic contents and increase the accuracy of their quantity readings. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a pretty large bang, accompanied by fluctuations in electrical power and the firing of the attitude control thrusters; the crew initially thought that a meteoroid might have struck the Lunar Module. Communications and telemetry to Earth were lost for 1.8 seconds, until the system automatically corrected by switching the high-gain S-band antenna, used for translunar communications, from narrow-beam to wide-beam mode.
Houston, we’ve had a problem.
Immediately after the bang, Swigert reported a “problem”, which Lovell repeated and clarified as a main B bus undervolt, a temporary loss of operating voltage on the second of the spacecraft’s main electrical circuits. Oxygen tank 2 immediately read quantity zero. About three minutes later, the number 1 and number 3 fuel cells failed. Lovell reported seeing out the window that the craft was venting a gas of some sort into space. The number 1 oxygen tank quantity gradually reduced to zero over the next 130 minutes, entirely depleting the SM’s oxygen supply.
Because the fuel cells generated the Command/Service Module’s electrical power by combining hydrogen and oxygen into water, when oxygen tank 1 ran dry, the remaining fuel cell finally shut down, leaving the craft on the Command Module’s limited-duration battery power and water. The crew was forced to shut down the CM completely to save this for re-entry, and to power up the LM to use as a lifeboat. This situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but had not been considered a likely scenario. Without the LM, the accident would certainly have been fatal.
Crew survival and return journey
The damage to the Service Module made safe return from a lunar landing impossible, so Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz ordered an abort of the mission. The existing abort plans, first drawn up in 1966, were evaluated; the quickest was a Direct Abort trajectory, which required using the Service Module Propulsion System (SPS) engine to achieve a 6,079-foot-per-second (1,853 m/s) delta-v. Although a successful SPS firing at 60 hours ground elapsed time (GET) would land the crew one day earlier (at 118 hours GET, or 58 hours later), the large delta-v was possible only if the LM were jettisoned first, and since crew survival depended on the LM’s presence during the coast back to Earth, that option was out of the question. An alternative would have been to burn the SPS fuel to depletion, then jettison the Service Module and make a second burn with the LM Descent Propulsion System (DPS) engine. It was desired to keep the Service Module attached for as long as possible because of the thermal protection it afforded the Command Module’s heat shield. Apollo 13 was close to entering the lunar sphere of gravitational influence (at 61 hours GET), which was the break-even point between direct and circumlunar aborts, and the latter allowed more time for evaluation and planning before a major rocket burn. There also was concern about the structural integrity of the Service Module, so mission planners were instructed that the SPS engine would not be used except as a last-ditch effort.
For these reasons, Kranz chose the alternative circumlunar option, using the Moon’s gravity to return the ship to Earth. Apollo 13 had left its initial free-return trajectory earlier in the mission, as required for the lunar landing at Fra Mauro. Therefore, the first order of business was to re-establish the free-return trajectory with a 30.7-second burn of the DPS. The descent engine was used again two hours after pericynthion, the closest approach to the Moon (PC+2 burn), to speed the return to Earth by 10 hours and move the landing spot from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. A more aggressive burn could have been performed at PC+2 by first jettisoning the Service Module, returning the crew in about the same amount of time as a direct abort, but this was deemed unnecessary given the rates at which consumables were being used. The 4-minute, 24-second burn was so accurate that only two more small course corrections were subsequently needed.
Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the “mailbox” rig improvised to adapt the Command Module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the Lunar Module, which took a round cartridge
Considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure was required from the crew, flight controllers, and support personnel for the safe return. The developing drama was shown on television. Because electrical power was severely limited, no more live TV broadcasts were made; TV commentators used models and animated footage as illustrations. Low power levels made even voice communications difficult.
The Lunar Module consumables were intended to sustain two people for a day and a half, not three people for four days. Oxygen was the least critical consumable because the LM carried enough to re-pressurize the LM after each surface EVA. Unlike the Command/Service Module (CSM), which was powered by fuel cells that produced water as a by-product, the LM was powered by silver-zinc batteries, so electrical power and water (used for equipment cooling as well as drinking) were critical consumables. To keep the LM life-support and communication systems operational until re-entry, the LM was powered down to the lowest levels possible. In particular, the LM’s Abort Guidance System was used for most of the coast back to Earth instead of the primary guidance system, as it used less power and water.
Availability of lithium hydroxide (LiOH) for removing carbon dioxide presented a serious problem. The LM’s internal stock of LiOH canisters was not sufficient to support the crew until return, and the remainder was stored in the descent stage, out of reach. The CM had an adequate supply of canisters, but these were incompatible with the LM. Engineers on the ground improvised a way to join the cube-shaped CM canisters to the LM’s cylindrical canister-sockets by drawing air through them with a suit return hose. NASA engineers referred to the improvised device as the mailbox.
Another problem to be solved for a safe return was accomplishing a complete power-up from scratch of the completely shut-down Command Module, something never intended to be done in-flight. Flight controller John Aaron, with the support of grounded astronaut Mattingly and many engineers and designers, had to invent a new procedure to do this with the ship’s limited power supply and time factor. This was further complicated by the fact that the reduced power levels in the LM caused internal temperatures to drop to as low as 4 °C (39 °F). The unpowered CM got so cold that water began to condense on solid surfaces, causing concern that this might short out electrical systems when it was reactivated. This turned out not to be a problem, partly because of the extensive electrical insulation improvements instituted after the Apollo 1 fire.
The last problem to be solved was how to separate the Lunar Module a safe distance away from the Command Module just before re-entry. The normal procedure was to use the Service Module’s reaction control system (RCS) to pull the CSM away after releasing the LM along with the Command Module’s docking ring, but this RCS was inoperative because of the power failure, and the useless SM would be released before the LM. To solve the problem, Grumman called on the engineering expertise of the University of Toronto. A team of six UT engineers, led by senior scientist Bernard Etkin, was formed to solve the problem within a day. The team concluded that pressurizing the tunnel connecting the Lunar Module to the Command Module just before separation would provide the force necessary to push the two modules a safe distance away from each other just prior to re-entry. The team had 6 hours to compute the pressure required, using slide rules. They needed an accurate calculation, as too high a pressure might damage the hatch and its seal, causing the astronauts to burn up; too low a pressure would not provide enough separation distance of the LM. Grumman relayed their calculation to NASA, and from there in turn to the astronauts, who used it successfully.
Re-entry and splashdown
As Apollo 13 neared Earth, the crew first jettisoned the Service Module, using the LM’s reaction control system to pull themselves a safe distance from it, instead of the normal procedure which used automatic firing of the SM’s RCS. They photographed it for later analysis of the accident’s cause. It was then that the crew were surprised to see for the first time that the entire Sector 4 panel had been blown off. According to the analysts, these pictures also showed the antenna damage and possibly an upward tilt to the fuel cell shelf above the oxygen tank compartment.
Finally, the crew jettisoned the Lunar Module Aquarius using the above procedure worked out at the University of Toronto, leaving the Command Module Odyssey to begin its lone re-entry through the atmosphere. The re-entry on a lunar mission normally was accompanied by about four minutes of typical communications blackout caused by ionization of the air around the Command Module. The blackout in Apollo 13’s re-entry lasted six minutes, which was 87 seconds longer than had been expected. The possibility of heat-shield damage from the O2 tank rupture heightened the tension of the blackout period.
Odyssey regained radio contact and splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean, 21°38′24″S 165°21′42″W, southeast of American Samoa and 6.5 km (3.5 nm) from the recovery ship, USS Iwo Jima. The crew was in good condition except for Haise, who was suffering from a serious urinary tract infection because of insufficient water intake. To avoid altering the trajectory of the spacecraft, the crew had been instructed to temporarily stop urine dumps. A misunderstanding prompted the crew to store all urine for the rest of the flight. The Lunar Module and Service Module re-entered the atmosphere over the South Pacific between the islands of Fiji and New Zealand.
Analysis and response
NASA Administrator Thomas Paine and Deputy Administrator George Low sent a memorandum to NASA Langley Research Center Director Edgar M. Cortright on April 17, 1970, (date of spacecraft splashdown) advising him of his appointment as chairman of an Apollo 13 Review Board to investigate the cause of the accident.
The second memorandum to Cortright from Paine and Low on April 21 established the board as follows:
- Robert F. Allnutt (Assistant to the Administrator, NASA Hqs.)
- Neil Armstrong (Astronaut, Manned Spacecraft Center)
- Dr. John F. Clark (Director, Goddard Space Flight Center)
- Brig. General Walter R. Hedrick, Jr. (Director of Space, DCS/RED, Hqs., USAF)
- Vincent L. Johnson (Deputy Associate Administrator-Engineering, Office of Space Science and Applications)
- Milton Klein (Manager, AEC-NASA Space Nuclear Propulsion Office)
- Dr. Hans M. Mark (Director, Ames Research Centre)
- George Malley (Chief Counsel, Langley Research Center)
OMSF Technical Support
- Charles W. Mathews (Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Manned Space Flight)
- William A. Anders (Executive Secretary, National Aeronautics and Space Council; ex-astronaut)
- Dr. Charles D. Harrington (Chairman, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel)
- I. Pinkel (Director, Aerospace Safety Research and Data Institute, Lewis Research Center)
- Gerald J. Mossinghoff (Office of Legislative Affairs, NASA Hqs.)
Public Affairs Liaison
- Brian Duff (Public Affairs Officer. Manned Spacecraft Centre)
Activities and report
The board exhaustively investigated and analysed the history of the manufacture and testing of the oxygen tank, and its installation and testing in the spacecraft up to the Apollo 13 launch, as documented in detailed records and logs. They visited and consulted with engineers at the contractor’s sites and the Kennedy Space Centre. Once a theory of the cause was developed, elements of it were tested, including on a test rig simulation in a vacuum chamber, with a damaged tank installed in the fuel cell bay. This test confirmed the theory when a similar explosion was created, which blew off the outer panel exactly as happened in the flight. Cortright sent the final Report of Apollo 13 Review Board to Thomas Paine on June 15, 1970.
The failure started in the Service Module’s number 2 oxygen tank. Damaged Teflon insulation on the wires to the stirring fan inside oxygen tank 2 allowed the wires to short-circuit and ignite this insulation. The resulting fire rapidly increased pressure beyond its 1,000-pound-per-square-inch (6.9 MPa) limit and the tank dome failed, filling the fuel cell bay (Sector 4) with rapidly expanding gaseous oxygen and combustion products. It is also possible some combustion occurred of the Mylar/Kapton thermal insulation material used to line the oxygen shelf compartment in this bay.
The resulting pressure inside the compartment popped the bolts attaching the 13-foot (4.0 m) Sector 4 outer aluminum skin panel, which as it blew off probably caused minor damage to the nearby S-band antenna.
Mechanical shock forced the oxygen valves closed on the number 1 and number 3 fuel cells, leaving them operating for only about three minutes on the oxygen in the feed lines. The shock also either partially ruptured a line from the number 1 oxygen tank, or caused its check or relief valve to leak, causing its contents to leak out into space over the next 130 minutes, entirely depleting the SM’s oxygen supply.
The board determined the oxygen tank failure was caused by an unlikely chain of events. Tanks storing cryogens, such as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, require either venting, extremely good insulation, or both, in order to avoid excessive pressure build up due to vaporization of the tanks’ contents. The Service Module oxygen tanks were so well insulated that they could safely contain supercritical hydrogen and oxygen for years. Each oxygen tank held several hundred pounds of oxygen, which was used for breathable air and the production of electricity and water. The construction of the tanks made internal inspection impossible.
The oxygen tank was redesigned, with the thermostats upgraded to handle the proper voltage. The heaters were retained since they were necessary to maintain oxygen pressure. The stirring fans, with their unsealed motors, were removed, which meant the oxygen quantity gauge was no longer accurate. This required adding a third tank so that no tank would go below half full.
All electrical wiring in the power system bay was sheathed in stainless steel, and the oxygen quantity probes were changed from aluminum to stainless steel. The fuel cell oxygen supply valves were redesigned to isolate the Teflon-coated wiring from the oxygen. The spacecraft and Mission Control monitoring systems were modified to give more immediate and visible warnings of anomalies.
- Mission type: Manned lunar landing attempt
- Operator: NASA
- COSPAR ID: 1970-029A
- SATCAT no.: 4371
- Mission duration: 5 days, 22 hours, 54 minutes, 41 seconds
- Apollo CSM-109
- Apollo LM-7
- CSM: North American Rockwell
- LM: Grumman
- Launch mass: 101,261 pounds (45,931 kg)
- Landing mass: 11,133 pounds (5,050 kg)
- Commander: Jim Lovell (fourth and last spaceflight)
- Command Module Pilot: Jack Swigert (only spaceflight)
- Lunar Module Pilot: Fred Haise (only spaceflight)
- Gene Kranz (lead)–White Team;
- Glynn Lunney–Black Team;
- Milt Windler–Maroon Team;
- Gerry Griffin– Gold Team.
- CM: Odyssey
- LM: Aquarius
Start of mission
- Launch date: April 11, 1970, 19:13:00 UTC
- Rocket: Saturn V SA-508
- Launch site: Kennedy LC-39A
End of mission
- Recovered by: USS Iwo Jima
- Landing date: April 17, 1970, 18:07:41 UTC
- Landing site: South Pacific Ocean, 21°38′24″S 165°21′42″W
- Reference system: Geocentric
- Flyby of Moon (orbit and landing aborted)
- Closest approach: April 15, 1970, 00:21:00 UTC
- Distance: 254 kilometers (137 nm)
Docking with LM
- Docking date April 11, 1970, 22:32:08 UTC
- Undocking date April 17, 1970, 16:43:00 UTC
- CSM Odyssey 63,470 pounds (28,790 kg);
- LM Aquarius 33,490 pounds (15,190 kg);
- Perigee: 99.3 nautical miles (183.9 km)
- Apogee (parking orbit): 100.3 nautical miles (185.8 km)
- Inclination (Earth departure): 31.817°
- Period: 88.19 min.
The Apollo 13 mission was to explore the Fra Mauro formation, or Fra Mauro highlands, named after the 80-kilometer (50 mi) diameter Fra Mauro crater located within it. It is a widespread, hilly selenological area thought to be composed of ejecta from the impact that formed Mare Imbrium.
- April 14, 1970 UTC
Oxygen tank explosion
- 03:07:53 UTC; 173,790.5 nm (321,860 km) from Earth
- CSM power down, LM power up: 05:23 UTC
Closest approach to Moon
- April 15, 1970, 00:21:00 UTC; 137 nm (253.7 km)
- April 17, 1970, 18:07:41 UTC .
- Crew was on board the USS Iwo Jima 45 minutes later.
By courtesy of Wikipedia.org