Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon

On the anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, we explore the facts behind this historic and awe-inspiring story.
Donovan Alexander
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The Apollo 13 mission was immortalized in the 1995 Ron Howard film for a good reason. The NASA launched 1970 mission to the Moon was a near-disaster scenario, a reminder of the dangers of human spaceflight. Yet, even more so, the mission is a beautiful reminder of how humans can persevere in a dire situation against all odds.

On the anniversary of this miraculous mission, we found it to be only fitting to take a look back at the Apollo 13 mission and look at how the quick thinking of three astronauts prevented a disaster. Let's set the stage for the year 1970. 

1. The Apollo 13 mission was supposed to be the third landing on the Moon.

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Apollo 9 Splashdown Source: NASA

The year was 1970. The United States had come out as the official victor of the intense space race. Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the American people to get men on the Moon by the end of the decade. NASA's response to this challenge was the Apollo program. The space program eventually did just that and much much more. Throughout the Apollo program, there have been a total of 11 space flights, with 12 astronauts walking on the Moon between 1968 and 1972. You know of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 as it is the most historic, putting humans on the Moon for the first time in history. 

On that fateful day in July 1969, with more than 650 million people watching Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin jumped-started the next chapter in our mission to the stars. Immediately building off the success of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA went ahead and launched the Apollo 12 mission that same year on November 14. The next mission, Apollo 13, would make its way to the Moon in 1970. Here is what you need to know about Apollo 13, one of the more famous and inspiring lunar missions.

2. The astronauts prepared extensively for the Apollo 13 mission.

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Source: NASA

Preparing for a mission as an astronaut is no joke. You need to be ready for the multidisciplinary challenges and tasks at hand while in space. The expectations for the Apollo 13 crew was no different. In short, the Apollo 13 crew underwent well over 1,000 hours of mission-related training. The goal for NASA was to provide the astronauts with more than five hours of practice for every hour of the mission's ten-day planned duration, while each member of the prime crew also spent about 400 hours in simulators.

3. James Lovell was already the most traveled astronaut in history. 

The crew of the Apollo 13 mission included commander James Lovell, lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and command module pilot John "Jack" Swigert. By the young age of 42, Lovell had an impressive resume prior to the Apollo 13 launch. He had already participated in three Apollo missions, including the Apollo 8 mission, the first mission to circle the Moon in 1968. Even more so, the Apollo 13 commander had already flown two Gemini missions. In total, Lovell had an impressive 572 spaceflight hours under his belt.

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4. NASA wanted to get more information about the Earth's early years. 

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Source: Wikipedia

The objective of the Apollo 13 mission was straight to the point. NASA's end goal was to have the team land on the 80 kilometers wide Fra Mauro crater on the Moon. For the uninitiated, the Fra Mauro crater is the worn remnant of a walled lunar plain and is part of the surrounding Fra Mauro formation. Why land here? It was believed at NASA at the time that Fra Mauro formation contained materials near its basin that would give researchers insight into the Moon's early history.

However, this same dating information would not only provide data about the Moon but could potentially shed light on the Earth's early history. Due to the issue with the Apollo 13 mission, the Fra Mauro crater became the landing site of the Apollo 14 mission.

5. The Saturn V rocket was almost identical to the same rockets used in the Apollo 8 and 13 mission.

The Saturn V rocket that was used to carry the Apollo 13 crew to the Moon was a beast. Numbered SA-508, and including the spacecraft, the rocket weighed 2,949,136 kilograms. Nevertheless, the SI-IC stage engines thrust generated about 440,000 fewer newtons than the Apollo 12's. The vehicle itself was the heaviest flown by NASA, as it was said to be visibly slower to clear the launch tower than earlier missions.

6. The Apollo 13's mission had to be aborted. 

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Source: NASA

So, this is where the story gets crazy. The Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11, 1970, was going well until everything was not. On April 13, about 320,000 kilometers away from Earth, the crew began experiencing severe problems. In short, an oxygen tank exploded 56 hours into the flight, forcing the team to abandon their mission, switching their mission priority to merely making it back to planet earth safely. The chances were not in their favor. 

7. The Odyssey command module was damaged, so the Apollo 13 crew used the Aquarius lunar module to get home.

For the uninitiated, the Apollo 13 spacecraft was made up of two independent spacecraft joined by a tunnel. These spacecraft included an orbiter dubbed the Odyssey, and a lander called the Aquarius. On the way to the Moon, the Apollo 13 crew lived on Odyssey. The explosion crippled the mission leaving the Odyssey fatally damaged. The team in space and back on Earth was forced to work relentlessly together to come up with a solution as quickly as possible. Eventually, they decided to use the Aquarius to get back home safely. However, it was not easy.

8. The Aquarius had no heat shield to protect itself. 

The Aquarius Lunar module was not even supposed to be turned on until the crew was close to landing on the Moon. This created a tremendous challenge for the Apollo 13 crew. Haise and Lovell worked endlessly to quickly get the Aquarius up and running in less time than designed. Another challenge in this situation was the fact that the Aquarius had no heat shield to protect itself on its drop back to Earth. To combat this, Swigert remained in the Odyssey, shutting down all systems in the Odyssey before they reached Earth as they would need it prior to landing.

9. They made it home safely, but the trip back home was a difficult and miserable one.

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Mission Control Celebrates Apollo 13 Splashdown Source: NASA

The Apollo 13 crew performed a crucial burn to point the spacecraft back towards Earth and get themselves home. However, the crew had to preserve the power of the Aquarius, forcing them to power down any nonessential system in the spacecraft. This made the trip back home a miserable one. Cabin temperatures dropped quickly to 38 degrees Fahrenheit and condensation formed on all the walls. Some food became inedible, and the crew had to ration water. Even more so, the Aquarius was cramped, only designed to hold two people at a time. Thankfully, the experts at mission control were able to help the crew with daily tasks. 

On April 17, the sleep-deprived crew scrambled to get the Odyssey powered up five hours before the splashdown. Even with the craft covered in cold water, the skills of the crew, mission control, and safeguards put into place from previous missions helped the Apollo 13 crew land safely in the Pacific Ocean near Samoa.

10. That famous saying "Houston we have a problem" came from the Apollo 13 mission, sort of. 

The phrase "Houston we have a problem" is used in pop culture across the world. However, it has its origins in the Apollo 13 mission. However, the phrase was worded slightly differently. After the explosion in the spacecraft,  Swigert famously uttered the lines, "Houston, we've had a problem.". However, in Ron Howard's 1995 film about the Apollo13 mission, he had the phrase changed to "Houston, we have a problem."

11. The general public was unimpressed. 

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Fred Haise Source: NASA

Perhaps it was all the hype surrounding the Apollo 11 and 12 missions the year prior? We had already technically won the space race and had made it to the Moon twice. The Apollo 13 mission was not making the big headline seen by its predecessors. Nevertheless, history has shown (and Ron Howard) how heroic and awe-inspiring this story is as well as its importance to humanity's history.

12. Critically acclaimed film director Ron Howard depicted the Apollo 13 mission in 1995.

Speaking of the film, if you want to check out a depiction of the troubled space mission, you should watch Howard's film. Boasting an impressive 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and starring the enigmatic Tom Hanks, Howard was committed to keeping the film as accurate as possible to the real-life story. It has been reported that the talented director shot weightless scenes 25 seconds at a time, in NASA's zero-gravity jet, dubbed the Vomit Comet. He even made his actors work in almost freezing temperatures.

13. You can relive the Apollo 13 mission. 

Houston We Have a Problem: 13 Facts About the Near-Disaster Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon
Source: Apollo 13 in Real-Time

If you watch the film and want to compare it to what really happened, be sure to check out the "Apollo 13  In real-time website". This interactive webpage takes on a real-time journey of the Apollo 13 mission using the historical transcripts, video footage, and even audio recordings. In fact, the website contains about 90% of the documents and footage that exist surrounding Apollo 13 as well as 7,200 hours of audio

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