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What Went Wrong on Apollo 13?

April 2, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

It was supposed to be the third-ever moon landing. It turned into a rescue mission.

For nearly 56 hours after the Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11, 1970, it looked to be the smoothest flight of NASA’s Apollo program so far.

The spacecraft ferrying astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise to their planned lunar landing had traveled just over 200,000 miles from Earth, and was approaching the moon’s orbit.

Just before 9 pm on April 13, the crew wrapped up a TV broadcast in which they had given a tour of the spacecraft and talked about how they were managing weightlessness. “This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening,” signed off Mission Commander Lovell, a captain in the U.S. Navy with three other missions (including Apollo 8) under his belt.

Less than 10 minutes later, after a routine maintenance task went awry and caused the spacecraft’s oxygen tanks to explode, what was supposed to be the U.S. space program’s third landing on the moon turned into a desperate race to save three astronauts’ lives. Working around the clock from Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, NASA flight controllers and engineers improvised a series of innovative procedures to bring Lovell, Swigert and Haise safely home on April 17, marking a successful conclusion to one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the U.S. space program.

READ MORE: See Photos of How Astronauts Trained for the Apollo Moon Missions

Missed Warning Signs

Apollo 13 lifts off for the moon on April 11, 1970 with Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise aboard. Two days later, with the spacecraft well on its way to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded, scrubbing the lunar landing and putting the crew in jeopardy.

View the 15 images of this gallery on the original article

In order to power the fuel cells that provided most of the electricity used during the flight, the Apollo spacecraft carried two tanks of liquid hydrogen and two tanks of liquid oxygen. NASA’s subsequent investigation revealed that the No. 2 oxygen tank onboard Apollo 13 had been accidentally dropped during maintenance before the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, causing slight internal damage that didn’t show up in later inspections.

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