This Day

17 April - Apollo 13 returns to Earth

On this day in 1970, with the world anxiously watching, Apollo 13, a U.S. lunar spacecraft that suffered a severe malfunction on its journey to the moon, safely returns to Earth.

On 11 April, the third manned lunar landing mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise. The mission was headed for a landing on the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon. However, two days into the mission, disaster struck 200,000 miles from Earth when oxygen tank No. 2 blew up in the spacecraft. Mission commander Lovell reported to mission control on Earth: "Houston, we've had a problem here," and it was discovered that the normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water had been disrupted. The landing mission was aborted, and the astronauts and controllers on Earth scrambled to come up with emergency procedures. The crippled spacecraft continued to the moon, circled it, and began a long, cold journey back to Earth.

The astronauts and mission control were faced with enormous logistical problems in stabilising the spacecraft and its air supply, as well as providing enough energy to the damaged fuel cells to allow successful re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Navigation was another problem, and Apollo 13's course was repeatedly corrected with dramatic and untested manoeuvres. On 17 April, tragedy turned to triumph as the Apollo 13 astronauts touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

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