Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Apollo 13

What happened on Apollo 13?

On April 13, 1970, a damaged coil caused an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks on the moon-bound U.S. spacecraft, leaving astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise in a disastrous situation. The explosion damaged the fuel cells as well the craft’s heat shield, which was needed to protect the vessel upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had experienced a previous disaster—in 1967, when three astronauts died in a fire on the launch pad—mission control had not faced anything like this before. And no Americans had ever been lost in space.

After hearing a loud bang and seeing an oxygen tank empty, the Apollo 13 astronauts reported to mission control at the Johnson Space Center, “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The ensuing real-life drama proved that to be an understatement. The crew moved into the craft’s tiny lunar module, designed to keep two men alive for just two days. With the astronauts four days from home, NASA engineers had their work cut out for them. Among other measures, the temperature in the module was lowered to 38 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve oxygen and electricity. The world was waiting and watching as the module splashed down in the South Pacific, just barely ahead of the failure of the oxygen. All three astronauts survived the disaster, which came to be known as the “successful failure.” Apollo 13 never reached its destination but, despite the odds, made it back to Earth safely.


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