The Explosion That Brought Failure, Success and Fame

The Result of the Explosion that Forced The World to Remember Apollo 13

President Kennedy Challenges Nation Before Congress May 25, 1961

On This Date in History:  The manned space program at NASA currently has an uncertain future as the Space Shuttle program winds down.  In sharp contrast, in the 1960’s the United States made manned space missions a national goal.  Just a few weeks after Alan B. Shepard, Jr.  became the first American in space, President Kennedy on May 25, 1961 set the bar high by saying that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.   When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the space program.  I sometimes wish that I had followed through on my boyhood dream of being an astronaut when I grew up.  In my college years, I won many a bar bet on any trivia question relating to space exploration.  When Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. (Buzz)  Aldrin, Jr.  set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 the Guinness Book of World Records says that about a third of the global population watched in television.  That was Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 followed and by the time Apollo 13 lifted off on April 11, 1970 the American people, along with the rest of the world, seemed to give a collective yawn.

Picture Perfect Liftoff April 11, 1970

No one really noticed when the time of the launch on that day took place at 13:13 NASA time, or 1:13 pm CST.  More critically, no one at NASA had any concern over oxygen tank #2 in the service module.  According to NASA, “The No. 2 oxygen tank, serial number 10024X-TA0009 had been previously installed in the service module of Apollo 10, but was removed for modification (and was damaged in the process of removal). The tank was fixed, tested at the factory, installed in the Apollo 13 service module. and tested again during the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDT) at the Kennedy Space Center.beginning March 16, 1970. The tanks normally are emptied to about half full, and No. 1 behaved all right. But No. 2 dropped to only 92 percent of capacity. Gaseous oxygen at 80 psi was applied through the vent line to expel the liquid oxygen, but to no avail. An interim discrepancy report was written, and on March 27, two weeks before launch, detanking operations were resumed. No. 1 again emptied normally, but No. 2 did not. After a conference with contractor and NASA personnel, the test director decided to “boil off” the remaining oxygen in No. 2 by using the electrical heater within the tank. The technique worked, but it took eight hours of 65-volt DC power from the ground-support equipment to dissipate the oxygen. Due to an oversight in replacing an underrated component during a design modification, this turned out to severely damage the internal heating elements of the tank.”

"Houston, We've Had a Problem"

For years the main television networks in America had cut into regular programming to show broadcasts from space.  But, less than a year after Armstrong and Aldrin had put their footprints on the moon, network executives had determined that the public would rather watch their favorite tv show than watch the astronauts.  So, when the Apollo 13 crew broadcast live a few minutes short of 55 hours into their mission, no one saw the 49 minute broadcast from space which concluded with flight crew leader James A. Lovell, Jr say goodnight.  Within 15 minutes the networks scrambled to break into the programming as suddenly they thought the public would be interested. On this date in 1970,  nine minutes after Lovell bid farewell, that oxygen tank number 2 blew up and that caused oxygen tank number 1 to fail.  The goodship and crew was in peril as they were some 200,000 miles from earth.  Lovell called home, giving the infamous understatement of the century, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”  

 Jerry Woodfill makes the case of Divine intervention regarding the timing of the explosion.   He was mission Warning System Engineer and suggests that the time of the explosion was about the only time it could have happened and still gave the opportunity to spare the crew.  Now that is an interesting take on the incident that deserves some consideration.  Perhaps worthy of less examination are what might be regarded as those interesting coincidences of history.  Over time people have made numerous assocations of the third Apollo mission to put men on the moon with the number 13, though some are a stretch.   It departed on April 11, 1970 at 1:13 pm Houston time.   Never mind they launched on east coast time.   Anyway, 1:13 pm is 13:13 in 24 hour clock time. April 11, 1970 can also be written as 4/11/70. Four plus One plus One plus Seven plus Zero equals 13.   Or you can say 4+11+70 = 85 and 8+5 =13. Their last television broadcast was on April 13. They entered the moon’s gravitational field on April 13 and were scheduled to land on the moon on April 13. The failure of the number 2 oxygen tank occurred on Apirl 13th at 3:08:53.555 UTC which in the eastern time zone would be 9:08:53:555. 9+8+53+555=625 and 6+2+5 =13.   If the explosion that caused the damage had occured on earth, it was supposedly estimated to cost $13 million to repair the damage.  Seems like someone had a lot of time on their hands to have discovered all of this.

Splashdown Was Welcome Sight to the World and Mrs. Staple

If you saw the Apollo 13 movie, then you know that the crew made it home safely.  Back in those days, it was unusual  to have a TV set in the classroom but they wheeled one in to ours.  I remember Mrs. Staple being all emotional when we saw the Command Module floating to the sea under the 3 large parachutes.  Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise was assigned to be the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 18 but it was cancelled along with two other missions, leaving Apollo 17 as the last manned moon mission.  Command Module pilot  (John) Jack Swigert went on to be elected to Congress but died of cancer before he could take his seat.  Jim Lovell became one of America’s most experienced astronauts having logged over 715 hours in space during the Gemini and Apollo programs.  Lovell said in a 2009 published article that funding the space program would be a great part of the stimulus:  “One part of the stimulus could be the space program,” he said.  “First of all it’s a creative program, it creates taxes individual and corporate taxes, all the money is spent here on Earth, not one cent up there in space.  It brings technology that spills over to the private sector.  That’s what happened all through Gemini and Apollo and the private sector now is affected by computer technology and electronic components that were speeded up by our being in space, and that could continue.”

Haise, Swigert and Lovell After Returning from Successful Failure made them more famous than if it ran smoothly

Now, Lovell is certainly qualified and worthwhile to get his opinion on all things space related.  But, the flight experience of John Young eclipses even that of Lovell.   And, of all the moon missions, aside from Apollo 11, no one remembers anything about Apollo 12-17 except 13.  Why? Because it was the successful failure.  It was dramatic.  It’s as if the 5 missions that put 10 additional men on the moon did not matter to the public.  Maybe the TV executives were right; the public had lost interest.  And with the cutbacks at NASA today, it would seem that the government is losing interest as well; that is a mistake.

Weather Bottom Line:  High pressure will drift to the east and temperatures will begin to warm slowly.  Friday evening a little front will come through that will bring a chance of rain or maybe some t’storms but nothing too earth shattering.  That will leave us with a great Thunder Over Louisville weekend though temperatures will be a bit cooler with highs in the mid to upper 60’s, which is closer to where they are supposed to be this time of year anyway.


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