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The Rescue of Apollo 13

 Fred W. Haise, Jr. working inside the Apollo 13
A NASA picture shows astronaut Fred Haise working inside the Apollo 13 lunar module after the explosion of the ship's oxygen tanks on April 13, 1970 (Getty).

Let’s face it, the Ice Road Truckers are not superhuman. When you drive in conditions of heavy snow, black ice and poor visibility, accidents are bound to happen. Fortunately for them, there’s help on hand.

Jamie Davis is the head of a rescue crew that help truckers in British Columbia, Canada. When the truckers run into trouble they call Jamie and he and his team come to their aid. Whether it’s wrecks or rescues, you can watch it all on Highway Thru Hell on BLAZE.

The amazing job Jamie and his team do quite rightly deserve all the credit that they get. It takes courage, confidence and incredible skill to swan into a desperate situation and steer it to safety.

We love rescue stories. Why? Because they are acts of humans going above danger to save something, and there is no greater example of that than of Apollo 13.

Space travel is a frontier of epic proportions. It’s a place that humans can’t survive in and yet thanks to NASA we have explored plenty of it. While a common thought is that NASA’s finest moment was Apollo 11 and the Moon Landing of July 1969, there is an increasing belief that Apollo 13 may have rivalled it.

By April 1970, space travel had reached international fame that would have made The Beatles jealous. JFK’s promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade was complete, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin household names and heroes of American life, but that didn’t stop NASA and their brave astronauts from heading back into the unknown.

Apollo 13 launched on the 11th of April 1970, with the aim to land on the moon. The crew, consisting of James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, had got off to a fine start. But, after 55 hours, 54 minutes and 53 seconds, when the ship was some 105 thousand miles from the earth, they heard a ‘pretty large bang.’

It was at this point those famous words were spoken, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” (often misquoted as “Houston, we’ve got a problem”). Out of the window, Lovell reported seeing “a gas of some sort” venting into space. Their oxygen tank had blown up.

The oxygen tank was responsible for everything from breathing to feeding fuel for power. With the vital lifeline on the brink,  the aim was no longer to land on the moon, but instead it became a rescue mission. The three skilled astronauts and those at NASA HQ sprang into action in a bid to get the crew back to earth safely.

A Back Up Oxygen Tank

Fortunately, the team had two crafts with them. Odyssey was the command vehicle they were travelling in, and Aquarius, designed another for the Moon landing, which also had its own oxygen tank. Knowing the priority was to return to Earth, the crew safely shut down Odyssey and quickly moved into Aquarius. 

However, the small cabin was not designed for such a journey. The ship was built to support two astronauts for two days, but now it was needed to support three for four days.

Houston worked out that there was enough oxygen on board, and that if all unnecessary electrical devices were turned off, there would be enough power in the battery. But this tactic caused a rapid decrease in heat which turned the cabin into a freezer.

Another major issue was the lack of a sufficient air purifier to last the journey. Mission control stepped in and devised a makeshift device that allowed for safe breathing in the cabin. It took the astronauts around an hour to build the device out of plastic bags, cardboard, parts from a space suit and a lot of tape. "The contraption wasn't very handsome, but it worked," Lovell remarked.

Flying in Aquarius the team continued their course back to earth, but at this point they were some 2,500 miles from missing Earth and they needed more power. To make their destination, the team fired Aquarius’ landing engine several times. With the pressure of imminent death surrounding them, it worked, and the team began their descent home.

Returning to Earth

The last part of rescue saw the crew leaving the Aquarius craft with fully charged batteries that could be used in Odyssey. In the command vehicle, they could safely reenter the earth’s atmosphere and survive the high temperatures.

After four days of surviving through intuition, skill and teamwork the crew safely returned in the Pacific Ocean. It was April 17th, six days after the mission was launched.

Despite failing to reach the moon, the mission was one of the most watched of all time. From the news breaking to the reentry, the world followed its journey every step of the way on the television, the radio and in newspapers. It was 24-hour news before 24-hour news.

Like all good rescue stories, it was tense, exciting and ultimately heartwarming, and in the case of Apollo 13, the rescue itself proved that space could be popular post the moon landing.