Tag Archives: Apollo 13

Astronauts Without Borders

Once upon a time not so long ago, the United States and Russia had a high-profile meeting that was a top news story. Unlike today though, this was not a shady circumstance that cast doubt on the inner dealings of each respective government, but rather helped to improve the relationship between two nations that had been engaged in a constant and bitter show of one-upmanship with nuclear proliferation. I’m talking about the Cold War. Nevertheless, 42 years ago on this date, July 17, 1975, the United States and Russia, then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, set aside their differences, at least as far as the scientific community was concerned. As the preeminent superpowers of the world and the leaders in space exploration, the US and USSR arranged for an historic high five within the vacuum of space.

Contrary to what silly stories of moon crab monsters would tell you, there actually was an Apollo 18 mission. NASA had launched seven manned lunar landing missions with its Apollo program, successfully landing six of them (Apollo 13 had a bit of a snafu).  However, the final moon mission, Apollo 17, was not the last time a Saturn V rocket shot an Apollo craft into orbit. Apollo 18 was launched in conjunction with the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19.

After there establishment in orbit, the two craft were lined up and then linked up, marking the first time that two craft from different countries and space agencies docked. The mission was orchestrated to serve as practice for potential rescues in the future.

The ABC coverage is pretty good at explaining the mission, but here’s the link if you want to watch the docking without the newscaster speaking.

Leave it to the men and women who work in science and especially the students of space to show us how meaningless political squabbles can be. We are all one species on the same Earth, and it is missions like this one that help us to realize that no matter whether we are on opposite sides of the world, or floating above it, we are at our best when we work together to advance our mutual pursuit of greater understanding of our place in space.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, launch them into my inbox at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun.

I’m sure I’ve written that before and I don’t care,

Alex

Houston, We’ve Had a Successful Failure

Ahhh, it feels good to hear those Imperial alarms again. As you have probably seen, considerably fewer times than I, the trailer for Rogue One, the first stand-alone “Star Wars Story” dropped last Thursday. As usual for a Star Wars anything, it is now being over-scrutinized and debated with wild predictions and opinions abounding and flooding around one another until the almost two minutes of primary source material they stem from is drowned out by the impassioned chattering. Speculation aside, what we do know about the upcoming film is that it centers on the theft of the first Death Star plans by a group of rebels led by Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who appears to have become a scrappy badass following her divorce from Stephen Hawking. It will be interesting, and I believe fun too, to see what glimpse we get of the Star Wars universe from the perspective of people who are (to the best of our knowledge thus far) not Force-sensitive. Although, there is endless imagining about how this film and its characters will relate back to the trilogies, especially the one that just started up a few months ago. My favorite fan idea yet from an entertainment standpoint is that Jyn is potentially Rey’s mother, and plenty of fans have done the simple math to determine that this is possible, as is the chance that Jyn and Luke could have crossed paths and maybe done a little more sometime after that second Death Star was taken care of. I guess J + L = R, huh? The truth is that we don’t have enough to even determine who anyone outside of Jyn and the familiar face of Mon Mothma are inside the film, save for the recently announced return of the Sith lord who is the most recognizable character in a Star Wars movie, or perhaps any other movie.

I pray that Rogue One will not be a disaster in space, but even if it is, it will not be as bad as any of the real-life space-based disasters that have occurred. Back in January, I wrote about the worst week in American space history and touched on some other outer space incidents that had casualties. Today marks the 46th anniversary of the launch of the most well known space mission besides Apollo 11, and the only planned lunar mission that failed to reach the moon: Apollo 13.

As the Mythbusters and many before them have routinely stated about the endeavors of science, failure is always an option. However, while the failure to complete a mission is acceptable under the right circumstances, there is a level of failure that NASA has never tolerated: the loss of human life without doing their absolute damnedest to prevent it. NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz’s words following the death of the Apollo I crew made this crystal clear.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and CompetentTough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

Mission Control, with Kranz as their Lead on spaceflights, never let up in their goal of bringing everybody back safely, but then they didn’t have all that much trouble in six of the seven missions that had a crew that was moon bound. However, that one exception, Apollo 13, was more than enough unforeseen difficult for the entirety of the Apollo program all wrapped up into one nightmarish mission.

If you have read the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 co-written by Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and journalist Jeffery Kluger, or seen the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 that is based off of Lovell’s book, then you already are aware that America’s love for space flight, while not as dramatically dwindled as they make it seem in the movie, is not as strong as it was when we were racing the Russians at every turn (and frequently losing). Ironically, the suspenseful circumstances of the outer space calamity the craft ended up suffering reinvigorating public interest. The Apollo program did not slow up in the wake of Apollo 13’s near disaster; in fact it improved the crafts and procedures for future mission. Yet it could have come to a much sooner and more tragic close had Mission Control and the astronauts not worked out how to get the damaged craft back home. The popular movie does a good job of telling the story behind the spaceflight, but in case you’re not familiar with the details, it goes like this:

What did NASA Change After the Apollo 13 Disaster?

So faulty wiring in a fan meant to stir oxygen inside a pressurized tank caused the O2 to ignite and blew up most of the crew’s oxygen supply, thereby crippling the Command Service Module (CSM) and forcing the three astronauts to utilize the Lunar Module (LM) – the craft that was meant to pop on down to the moon – as a sort of lifeboat, something that NASA did make preparations for when they first developed the Apollo program. The extra space allotted for such a contingency only helped the astronauts to a point, though. They had a few major concerns to address before they could return home. First, they had to conserve power and fuel by shutting most everything down. Then, the crew had to utilize the moon’s gravity to slingshot back around toward Earth to avoid having to fire up their probably combustible engines.

This chart (from the “Apollo 13” Wikipedia page) shows the circumlunar trajectory taken by Apollo 13 over the course of its spaceflight.

The tricky part was that they would not survive in the time needed to make it back unless they managed to bring down the CO2 levels in the cabin. That is where Mission Control made good on Kranz’s vow.

How Mission Control Saved the Apollo 13 Crew

The personnel in Houston worked a necessary miracle by jury-rigging a CO2 filter out of materials available to the astronauts. The beginning of this process is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Obviously Mission Control pulled through and the three astronauts, Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, all survived their trying journey that taught many lessons for future missions. Ironically, the only other astronaut to ever go into space again from the Apollo 13 crew was Ken Mattingly who was on the original crew, but replaced by Swigert after it was suspected Mattingly had contracted measles. Tom Hanks, who played Lovell in the film adaptation, voices Lovell’s thoughts and the fate of some of the major players on the Apollo 13 mission at the end of the movie. He also salutes and shakes hands with the real-life man he plays at about the 1:20 mark of that clip.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about the Apollo program and this mission in particular there is no shortage of books, like Lovell’s Lost Moon, and documentaries, as well as the film I referenced. I encourage you to also look into the other missions that do not get nearly enough attention compared to the first moon landing and this near catastrophe, although it is understandable how the event that is oft regarded to be the greatest achievement in human history and the tricky operation a year later that most at NASA consider to be their “finest hour” garner more notice. If you have any questions, comments, or topic suggestions, feel free to leave them below or submit them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Until next week, keep reaching for the stars.

Ex Luna, Scientia,

Alex