“Okay, Houston we’ve had a problem here. This is Houston, say it again please. Uh, Houston we’ve had a problem.” That 7 seconds of audio has been immortalized throughout time, history, and culture. Even if that was your first time hearing the original audio, you’ve definitely heard the quote “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That’s astronaut Jim Lovell, commander of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. But did you know the context of that quote? What the actual problem is? Did you know just how close Apollo 13 came to being the worst disaster in the history of space exploration? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history, you won’t be able to stop thinking about. “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” It’s a household expression at this point, often used as comic relief when experiencing mundane, everyday problems. Here, listen to it again. “Okay, Houston we’ve had a problem here. This is Houston, say it again please. Uh, Houston we’ve had a problem.”
The voices sound surprisingly calm, almost bored. There’s nothing to suggest the severity of the actual situation. You see the problem they're referring to is an explosion aboard the Odyssey spacecraft as it hurtled towards the moon, around 200,000 miles away from Earth. This problem launched the Apollo 13 mission into do or die, figure it out as you go along, reinvent it from scratch as fast as you can, no room for error, but also no one has any idea what they’re doing, dire situation. But the men you hear in that audio clip, they don’t actually know that yet. So let’s back up.
In April of 1970, NASA launched the Odyssey spacecraft as part of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. This was the third attempt to land men on the moon. The first, and probably the most famous was the Apollo 11 mission. This is when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon and Neil uttered those ultra famous words (audio clip). Yeah, that one. There was a third man with them, Michael Collins. He was the command module pilot, so he stayed on the main spacecraft, Columbia, while Neil and Buzz headed to the moon on the lunar module which was called Eagle.
I know there’s a whole conspiracy theory about whether or not the Apollo 11 mission, or any of them really, ever landed on the moon. There’s a whole group of people out there that believe it was all fabricated. I don’t buy into this. According to the Institute of Physics, quote “every single argument claiming that NASA faked the moon landings has been discredited.” And I’ve linked their website with more details about that if you want to know more. But, you know, to me it seems almost more impossible to pull off faking it than it does to actually land on the moon in 1969. Over 400,000 people worked, in some capacity, on the Apollo missions. There is no way you could keep that many people quiet about it for this long. It’s just, no, sorry guys.
Anyway, moving on. After Apollo 11 in July of 1969, they sent Apollo 12 in November which also successfully landed on the moon. And then April of 1970, they want to have another go with Apollo 13. So they assembled a crew. These are not massive crews aboard the spacecraft. It’s a very confined space so it’s a 3 man crew. Same as Apollo 11, same as Apollo 12. Same exact setup. So for this particular mission, we’ve got commander Jim Lovell, lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and the command module pilot was supposed to be Ken Mattingly but he was replaced last minute. He had been exposed to measles and they couldn’t very well have all the astronauts come down with a deadly illness 200,000 miles from Earth. So Mattingly was replaced by a young, fairly green astronaut named Jack Swigert. This was Swigert’s first mission into space. Actually, that’s the first voice you hear in the Houston we’ve had a problem clip. Swigert says “Ok Houston we’ve had a problem here,” but the guy on the ground doesn’t understand so he asks him to repeat it. That’s when Lovell jumps in. So we have Lovell, Haise, and Swigert. They are the Apollo 13 version of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.
Now, the mission is called Apollo 13, okay, but the spacecraft is called Odyssey. So there’s really 3 parts, or modules, as they’re called. And I have a diagram of this whole shebang on my instagram @historyfixpodcast if you need to see it. It’s not at all what you’d think it would look like. First there’s the command module. That’s Odyssey. That’s where the astronauts are as they’re traveling to and from the moon. It’s kind of shaped like a little cone and it’s pretty tiny. Swigert is the pilot of the command module, so he’s driving that part. Attached to that is the service module which has like engines and oxygen tanks and other crucial gear like that. It looks like a tin can. That’s attached, like behind the command module, behind the astronauts backs as they’re sitting in the command module. And then there’s the lunar module. It was called Aquarius. This is the part that actually lands on the moon. Lovell and Haise are planning to land this bad boy on the moon while Swigert hangs back in the command module. So the lunar module or “lem” is attached in front of the command module, like attached to its nose basically. It kind of looks like a virus. So really the whole thing kind of looks like the tin man’s head with a virus on his hat. And most of it is the service module. The places where humans can actually be, the command module and the lunar module are really tiny. Like, you could not be claustrophobic as an astronaut. Go ahead and rule out anyone with claustrophobia. They need a new what I want to be when I grow up dream, for sure. Astronaut ain’t happening. It’s so so much smaller than what I was picturing. I don’t know what I was thinking, like the Millenium Falcon or Enterprise from Star Trek where it’s just like this massive open space with futuristic lounge chairs. No. Not at all.
So that’s the crew and the spacecraft in a nutshell. But there are hundreds more people working this mission from the ground in Houston, Texas. There’s the flight director. He’s the head man. He’s in charge of the whole mission. Apollo 13 had 4 flight directors that traded out shifts cause, you know, this is taking multiple days so it can’t just be one guy he has to like eat and sleep and stuff. There’s the capcom which stands for capsule communicator. This is the guy who actually gets on the radio or whatever they’re using to communicate. He’s the one talking to the astronauts. He’s Houston. Also, more than one guy trading out shifts. Then there’s a bunch of other engineers and smart people behind the scenes that I’ll introduce as needed.
So they take off on April 11th. Take off? Is that what you call it? Blast off? They leave Earth, on April 11. Launch! They launch on April 11. 56 hours later, it’s now April 14th. They are well on their way to the moon, about ⅘ of the way there. They’re probably getting pretty excited to complete the mission. Lovell had been part of the Apollo 8 mission back in 1968 but that one didn’t actually land on the moon. So I have to imagine Lovell and Haise are nervously excited for their impending moonwalk.
They’re just about to turn in for the night when they get one last request (audio clip). “We’d like you to stir up your cryotanks.” So cryotanks hold liquid oxygen. They power Odyssey’s fuel cells and provide oxygen for the crew to breathe. Stirring them up apparently makes it easier for the crew on the ground to get an accurate reading of how much is left in the tanks. It’s a fairly routine request. So they like flip a switch or whatever which activates a fan in the cryotanks that stirs up the liquid oxygen that has settled to the bottom of the tank. But when they do this, they hear a huge bang (explosion sound) and the whole spacecraft shutters.
Now initially, Lovell looks at Haise. He thinks Haise is playing a prank on them because he is a bit of a prankster. Just a few minutes ago, he had opened some pressurized valves which made a loud noise, startling Lovell and Swigert. Which, if it’s me up there, I’m like “dude, so not funny. Like do not eff around with the spacecraft and expect me to giggle about it. We are literally hurtling through space right now in a tin can. Can we not?” But Haise’ face says it all. This is no joke. That’s when Swigert makes that call to Houston and Lovell jumps in “we’ve had a problem.”
They actually misquote this in the 1995 film, Apollo 13. Tom Hanks says “Houston we have a problem.” That’s actually the phrase that’s been immortalized. But Jim Lovell really said “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” And I find this interesting because it changes the whole meaning of the phrase. “Houston we have a problem” means there’s still a problem, an ongoing problem, it’s happening right now. “Houston we’ve had a problem” means a problem happened, an isolated incident in the past, but it isn’t still happening, it isn’t still affecting us. In reality, Tom Hanks version is more accurate because they do still have a problem, a very big one. But I think Lovell’s phrasing, and Swigert’s phrasing before him, kind of shows their unwillingness to believe or accept that there’s still a problem. Because the consequences of that are unthinkable.
Back in Houston, a guy named Sy Liebergot is tasked with figuring out what the heck just happened. Liebergot was the electrical environmental and consumables manager on the Apollo 13 mission. It’s an important job but he’s not like the top dog or anything. He was only 32 years old. He swings into action trying to diagnose the problem. At first, there are so many errors popping up, he doesn’t think the data he’s getting is accurate. He thinks it’s an instrumentation error, not an actual physical problem with the spacecraft. He’s like “everything’s fine, the sensors are all just going crazy for some reason” Unfortunately that’s not the case.
In this audio clip, the capcom on duty, Jack Lousma, gets more info from the astronauts. So they know there was a bang and that they’re now venting some gas into space. Liebergot hears this and he’s like “umm, okay, this is more than an instrumentation error.” And he finally figures it out. They’ve lost an oxygen tank. Because, you see, what happened was, there was a bit of faulty wiring in one of the cryotanks and when they stirred it up, as they had been asked to do, it created a spark that, in an oxygen rich environment, caused an explosion. That’s the bang they heard. That was an oxygen tank exploding in the service module. They can’t really see the service module, it’s attached behind them remember, so they don’t really know the extent of the damage. What they do know is that the fuel cells are shutting down and the spacecraft is losing power. Yikes.
So, without really knowing the extent of the damage, they start troubleshooting basically with process of elimination. They’re shutting off different valves to see if any of it helps. It doesn’t. Now, there was a rule, a law that could not be broken, that if they shut off one particular valve called a react valve, they had to abort the mission. If the react valves were shut off for any reason, they could not land on the moon. That was decided ahead of time. There was no wavering from that and everyone knew it.
So it gets to the point, this poor Liebergot guy has to make this call. And I find this super interesting. Remember, Liebergot is not like the top guy on this mission. That’s the flight director. The flight director is in charge. He’s the boss. During the mission, not even the president of the United States can overrule the flight director. But NASA has this really interesting model for basically the chain of command. So typically, in any kind of work environment, there’s basically a corporate ladder, right? Like, for example, coming from a teaching background, if I want to make a decision for my classroom, like say I want to teach a certain curriculum. I first have to go ask permission from my principal. Then she would have to go ask like the director of elementary education or whatever for our district who would go to the district superintendent then it goes to the department of public instruction, the state board of education, and finally to the state superintendent and then I don’t even know, the governor, the US Secretary of Education, the president, whatever. There’s a chain of command and final decisions are usually made by the people at the top.
That’s not how NASA does it. In their model, the decision is pushed down the chain of command, all the way down to the person who knows the most about whether or not the decision should be made. The person actually in the field who knows intricately the possible advantages and disadvantages, the consequences of that decision. It makes so much freaking sense. And I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to work in a school, in a classroom where every decision, everything is controlled by people who have never ever worked in a classroom. They’ve never taught a day in their life. And yet, they’re gonna make the right call about how things should be done in your classroom? It doesn’t make any sense. So NASA, brilliant. I wish this would catch on in other fields.
So it’s all up to 32 year old Sy Liebergot. Do they flip the react valves to possibly save the mission which would make landing on the moon impossible? So by saving the mission you’re also ending the mission? It’s a tough call. Liebergot later admitted he thought about just getting up and walking out of the room. And I can’t blame him. That thought would definitely cross my mind too. But there are 3 lives at stake here. He has to make the call. He decides they need to close the react valves. The flight director Glynn Lunney just asks him “are you sure?” They all know it means aborting the moon mission, and Liebergot is just like “yep.” They radio it up to the astronauts “close the react valves.” They respond the same way “are you sure?” “yep.” The disappointment had to have been crushing, a crushing blow. When you’ve trained this hard and long, you’re about to achieve your life’s goal your dream of walking on the moon and it’s all just taken away with 4 words “close the react valves.”
But honestly, they can’t fixate on it for long. They’re still drifting out into space remember? They close the react valves and… nothing. It does nothing. They have to get these guys back to Earth. Disappointment about canceling the moon landing quickly turns into a race for survival. Power to the command module is failing. They decide to use the lunar module like a lifeboat. It’s an idea NASA has toyed around with, but they’ve never actually executed it or even figured out how they would execute it, until now. The lunar module is like its own mini spaceship. It has its own engines and oxygen and food and supplies, but it was only made for 2 people - Lovell and Haise. They were going to fly it to the moon. But they all 3 have to fit in it now. That’s a problem, more than just spatially, because they also have to make the resources - food, air, water - meant for 2 men stretch to 3. Also, their proposed flight plan back to Earth is going to add an extra 2 days to the journey, doubling the amount of time the lem was supposed to support just 2 men. So we have an extra man and double the time. It’s not adding up.
Let’s pause to talk about that flight plan for a minute. They basically have 2 options. Option 1, they fire the engines to power them back towards Earth. This is called a direct abort. They just zoom on back. But to do this, they would have to ditch the lunar module which is basically their only lifeboat. Option 2, they go around the far side of the moon, using the moon’s gravity instead of their engines to propel them home. Because, honestly, they don’t even know if the engines will work at this point. They don’t know the extent of the damage in the service module. This is called a free return trajectory. It would allow them to keep the lunar module but it adds 2 days to the return trip. Those 2 days are a blessing and a curse. The engineers on the ground need that extra time to try to figure out how to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in their condition, cause that’s a whole thing. But also, remember, they don’t actually have enough oxygen in the lem for 2 extra days and an extra whole person. But ultimately, that’s the flight plan they choose to go with, the one where they go around the moon first and they’ll just figure that last bit out as they go.
So as soon as that decision is made, one of the 4 flight directors, Gene Kranz assembles a team called the “tiger team.” He takes them to a back room to try to figure out how to make this work. How can we make the lem support 3 men for 2 extra days. He tells them quote “I don’t give a damn about the odds and I don’t give a damn that we’ve never done anything like this before. This crew is coming home.” I freaking love it. It gives me chills. This is just a bunch of nerds, you guys. The most badass bunch of nerds, ever. Further proof, my friends, that nerds are officially cool now.
And here’s some more proof. Back out in space, Lovell, Haise, and Swigert are getting ready to hop in the lem. But before they can switch over to driving that instead of driving the command module, they have to program it basically. They have to switch the guidance numbers over from the command module to the lunar module. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure what guidance numbers are but it doesn't really matter, they just need to switch them over and they only have like 15 minutes to do it because power in the command module is dying rapidly. Lovell is the best at math so he takes on the task. He has a slide rule, which I had to Google, it’s basically a primitive calculator, like a mechanical calculator, and pen and paper. That’s it. So he’s up there feverishly crunching numbers. This is extreme mathing, right here, a race against time to save them from certain death and I’m sure it’s just dead silent, just the sound of Lovell’s pen scratching the paper, the slide rule, sliding, I have no idea what a slide rule sounds like but I feel like it would make a noise like, sching, I don’t know.
So he does the calculations, then he asks Capcom to check his math (audio clip). So they get the lem up and running and they all pile in but they have to keep it attached to the command module, they can’t re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in the lunar module, it wasn’t designed for that. They’ll have to get back on the command module at some point. They’re still trying to figure all this out. This is just the epitome of winging it. No one has ever tried to fly the lem while it was still attached to the 2 other modules. The lem is tiny and super lightweight so it’s hard to fly with the big ol, tin man’s head attached. Lovell basically has to relearn how to fly it. Now, remember Fred Haise was actually the lunar module pilot but Lovell is the commander so he’s taking control of things at this point. He gets them on course towards the moon, they slingshot around the far side of the moon, traveling farther from Earth than any man ever has. This is actually the second time Lovell breaks that record - farthest man from Earth. He did it with Apollo 8 and now he’s done it again with Apollo 13. They curve around the moon’s gravity well and are hurled back towards Earth.
Conditions inside the lem are not great. They are having to seriously conserve power and water to make the 2 and a half day trip back to Earth. To make it last, they have to cut their power usage down to 12 amps per hour. That’s about the amount of power used to run car head lights. So to do this, they shut off the lights, take the computer offline, and turn off the heat. Which, y’all it’s real cold in space. Temperatures in the cabin of the lem hovered around 38 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s like 3 degrees celsius for my international folks). Now, they're in like space suits and stuff but, still, it’s very uncomfortable. Not only are 3 grown men crammed into a cabin designed for 2, they’re also freezing cold, dehydrated because they’re only drinking the bare minimum amount of water to try to make it last, and extremely sleep deprived. Remember, they were just about to go to bed when that call came in to stir up the cryotanks. Now it’s been 24 hours and still none of them have slept. They actually put tape over certain switches that would be disastrous if accidentally flipped because they didn’t entirely trust their cognitive abilities at this point. They didn’t want to accidentally flip a wrong switch in a sleep deprived haze. And I feel this so deeply after living through 2 newborns and basically not sleeping for more than like 45 minutes at a time for months. Sleep deprivation is no joke. It messes with you mentally so hard. The mental toll of not sleeping is worse than the physical.
The guys on the ground back in Houston are concerned about their lack of sleep too. (audio clip). But, I mean, could you sleep in those conditions? I don’t think I could. Lovell responds and is basically like “yeahhh, but how much oxygen is left? Cause we’re not trying to fall asleep and never wake up.” So Capcom tells them how many hours they have left (audio clip). Which, you know, everyone knows isn’t enough. It’s not enough hours. What they’re really concerned about is the carbon dioxide level. You breathe in oxygen and you breathe out carbon dioxide, CO2. If you breathe in too much CO2, you suffocate. You can’t live off CO2. So the lem is fitted with CO2 scrubbers that chemically extract CO2 from the cabin so they don’t suffocate. But remember, this was only designed for the CO2 being exhaled by 2 men, not 3 men. So they are rightfully worried that CO2 is building up too much and that, if they fall asleep, they will die, basically. The scrubbers can’t keep up with 3 men on board. And they’re right, unfortunately, this is a very real problem.
There’s another set of CO2 scrubbers in the command module. So easy solution right? Just pop those suckers into the lunar module and you’re good to go. Well, no, unfortunately it’s not that easy. The scrubbers in the command module are a different shape than in the lem. One is cylindrical and one is rectangular. It’s a literal case of round peg square hole, a major oversight by NASA admittedly, but they never expected to have to do this. So the nerds on the ground spring into action to try to figure this out before the guys suffocate on their own breath.
All they have to work with is materials the astronauts up in space actually have access to. They have their space suits, clothing, duct tape, packaging from food, water bags, not much. 60 guys back at mission control are all messing around with these materials in a back room, trying to find a way to direct the air from the lunar module, through the command module’s wrong shaped scrubbers and then back into the lunar module. This is like the ultimate STEM challenge and time is of the essence. If they don’t figure this out fast, someone is going to suffocate. They finally rig something up that seems like it will work using a piece of cardboard, a plastic bag, a hose from a pressure suit, duct tape, and a sock. Now they have to convey specific instructions to the crew on how to build a replica of this up in space. They can’t send them pictures or video or anything, it’s just audio. Here you can hear Capcom relaying directions to Jack Swigert who is building the thing (audio clip).
Swigert pulls it off, he builds it in around an hour. They connect it and fire up the CO2 scrubbers in the command module and… it works. The CO2 levels in the lem drop. So now they can breathe. They aren’t in immediate danger of suffocation. But if this hadn’t worked, I mean it’s unthinkable. But everyone had to have had these possibilities running through their heads. The CO2 scrubbers in the lem were designed to maintain CO2 levels for 2 men. 2 men could survive, not 3 men. They had to have all known, in the back of their minds, that the only other solution was for one man to sacrifice himself to save the others. One of them would have to have gone back into the command module, sealed himself in there, and just willingly suffocated so that the other 2 men would make it. It really is unthinkable. But luckily, the duct tape, plastic bag, sock apparatus works and they are good on air, for now.
Another, major problem is still looming, though. They have to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. This is not an easy thing to pull off, even when everything is functioning properly. On the way back from the moon, you’re basically free falling towards Earth, being drawn in by Earth’s gravity, which is just falling, after all. So by the time you reach Earth’s atmosphere, you’re traveling at around 25,000 miles per hour. But, to re-enter you have to slow down to around 17,000 miles per hour very quickly. This takes a massive amount of rocket fuel which they did not have at this point. So they have to re-enter the atmosphere without slowing down. They can’t slow down, they don’t have the fuel to do that. There’s a very specific set of maneuvers they have to do instead, in a period of just a few hours to re-enter the atmosphere without slowing down. This involves jettisoning (is that a word?) jettisoning the service module, see ya, powering the command module back up and getting back into that, and then they have to jettison the lunar module.
So it’s go time, they jettison the service module, releasing it from the command module, and as they do, they watch it drift off into space and they finally get a look at the damage from the explosion. It’s bad. It’s way worse than they were expecting. They relay this to capcom (audio clip). One of the side panels on the service module was completely gone all the way up to where it connected to the command module. That’s a potential problem. The damage is way too close. If it affected the heat shield on the bottom of the command module, they’re screwed. They don’t bother even discussing this possibility because, if that’s the case, there’s no way of fixing it. Basically, as the command module re-enters the atmosphere, it’s going so fast that the heat shield around it instantly turns into plasma and breaks away. Without the heat shield, or with a damaged heat shield, the astronauts inside the command module would be instantly incinerated upon re-entry. They have no way of knowing whether or not this is going to happen but they don’t have a choice either way, they have to re-enter the atmosphere and just see what happens.
Okay so the service module is gone. Now they have to power up the command module again. The lunar module cannot survive re-entry. They have to be in the command module for this. No one has ever attempted to re-power up a command module mid-flight before. Also, remember they have like no power so, they have to get real creative here. For the past couple days, Ken Mattingly has been down in a simulator trying to figure out how to do this successfully. Remember Mattingly was supposed to be the pilot of the command module on this mission but he was exposed to measles and replaced by Jack Swigert last minute. Now he’s serving as capcom, talking Swigert through how to power back up the command module, which he literally just figured out how to do like a minute ago. But it works, they’re powered back up, they’re back online, now they have to jettison the lunar module.
This is another problem. Normally this is done using pyrotechnic charges to like blast the lunar module away so that it doesn’t just drift right back and collide with the command module. But no one wants to risk using the pyrotechnic charges. They don’t think that’s going to work. So they need to figure out exactly how much air to leave in the tunnel between the two modules so that when they detach the lem, it will be pushed away and not collide with the command module. Here’s where the nerds save the day again. It’s the middle of the night, they call up some professors at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies and they’re like, “You gotta help us, get up, grab your calculator, or your slide rule or whatever, figure out exactly how much air we should leave in the tunnel and let us know as soon as possible.” And they figure it out. These guys are like super hero math nerds, they freaking figure it out, half awake, in the middle of the night. And then I picture them showing up the next morning to teach a class, or whatever, at the university just like “phew, these kids have no idea.” Gah, teachers are so cool.
Anyway, they do this, they leave the right amount of air in the tunnel, they detach the lem and it heads away from them, exactly as they hoped it would. It’s time to re-enter the atmosphere. It’s just Lovell, Haise, and Swigert in a battery powered command module, no idea whether the heat shield will work or not. They’re in rough shape. Swigert has accidentally spilled precious drinking water on his feet which are freezing. Haise has a kidney infection from dehydration. They’ve all lost weight. They are hungry and tired and so cold. At this point it’s been 3 and a half days since the explosion. The entire world is watching through a live video broadcast. They’re families are all huddled around their TV together, like they’re watching the Super Bowl except they’re really watching to see if their loved one is about to be instantly incinerated or not.
They all know that the Odyssey will lose communication with Houston as it re-enters the atmosphere. That’s just what happens. It has to do with the ionization of atoms, yada yada, doesn’t matter but they know they’re going to lose communication. They know when they’re going to lose it and they know how long they’re going to lose it for. The very last thing they hear from Odyssey is Jack Swigert’s voice, and sorry I can’t find this audio, just a transcript but he says quote “I know all of us here want to thank all you guys down there for the very fine job you did… I’ll tell you - we all had a good time doing it.” It’s clearly a sort of goodbye in case the heat shields fail which is a very real possibility. And then they lose communication. At the time when they should be hearing from the crew again. There’s nothing. Radio silence. Then, at around 1 and half minutes behind schedule, so a very tense 1 and a half minutes I would imagine, Jack Swigert’s voice finally breaks through (audio clip). They did it. They made it. The heat shield worked. Parachutes deploy, lowering Odyssey slowly into the water near Hawaii where they are brought ashore and the entire world sighs a sigh of relief. Everyone working at mission control is just ecstatic, they’re clapping and shaking hands, they bust out cigars. They did it. They brought them home. It was a near impossible task and they somehow pulled it off. I have like a 10 minute YouTube video linked in the description with some live footage showing that super tense radio silence period during re-entry as well as the actual splash down and everyone’s relief and excitement if you want to see this in real life. It’s pretty amazing.
Despite their absolutely heroic efforts to save these men and bring them home, NASA is pretty highly scrutinized after this. They figure out that it was that faulty wiring in the oxygen tank that triggered the explosion. And they follow that wiring all the way back to learn why it was faulty. How could this possibly happen? Well it all came down to some mishandled equipment. Before Apollo 13 launched, they tested the oxygen tanks at Kennedy Space Center in Florida but they had trouble emptying one of the tanks. So they used an electric heater to boil off the rest of the oxygen. This took about 8 hours and, though they didn’t realize it, it caused significant damage to the electrical systems in the tank. It basically melted away the insulation that protected the wiring. So then later when the astronauts tried to stir up the contents of that tank, the wire sparked, igniting the oxygen and basically blowing up the service module. During a congressional hearing, they also want to know why the CO2 scrubbers from the command module were a different shape than those in the lunar module. No one had a good answer for this. Neil Armstrong, who was present, simply remarked “maybe we should change that.”
But all this drama doesn’t stop Apollo 14, 15, 16, and 17 from successfully landing on the moon. Eventually though, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 are called off. The risks just don’t seem worth additional moon landings at this point. Politicians worry about how a possible space tragedy would affect voters and NASA is concerned about the future of the agency if something disastrous were to happen.
I don’t like to focus on what went wrong though. Yeah they really blew it when they boiled that oxygen tank for 8 hours and then popped it on the spacecraft. I like to focus, instead on what went right with Apollo 13, because that’s the real story here. It’s absolutely incredible what they were able to pull off. This is a story of human ingenuity like no other. The stress, the pressure, the quick thinking, the resourcefulness, the team work. It’s beautiful. And their voices sound so calm in the audio recordings. They all just kept their composure so well, it’s really remarkable. These are very special people who can do these jobs. I couldn’t do it. I’m like “space is cool but being alive is more cool.” But, despite their composure and sheer genius ability to work through seemingly impossible problems, these are just people. They are humans, naturally imperfect. And yet, to pull this off, they performed at perfection level. It’s so inspiring because it illustrates what humans are really capable of. We’re amazing. You’re amazing.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from NASA, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Smithsonian Magazine, the Institute of Physics, and a Short History of podcast episode about Apollo 13. Links to all these sources, as well as that YouTube video I mentioned can be found in the show notes.