At 200,000 miles from Earth, astronaut Jack Swigert and his crew aboard Apollo 13 found themselves in an undeniably perilous situation aboard their spacecraft when an explosion tore it apart.
Before real-time computers took up entire rooms, NASA engineers at Grumman and TRW (both heritage Northrop Grumman companies) employed a smaller computer to keep their mission on schedule.
On January 27, 1967, during a routine test of the command module, an electrical fire broke out, trapping three astronauts inside. This incident resulted from various factors and was ultimately catastrophic for NASA and their first Apollo mission.
Astronauts were about to embark on what’s known as a “plugs out” test – an exercise simulating a spaceflight countdown sequence and designed to test whether crewmembers could safely evacuate in case of emergency during countdown. For this demonstration, pressure suits, strapped in seats and accessing oxygen and communication systems were needed – until fire broke out in their capsule and shut it down prematurely.
An electrical arc began when an insulator on one of Grissom’s wires under his command couch was accidentally touched by a metal screw, sparking off fires across his command module. While his wires were coated with Teflon compound to reduce spark propagation, its spark still reached neighboring conductors and caused fires that spread swiftly throughout it.
Fire quickly spread throughout the capsule, producing smoke and heat so intense that emergency teams were unable to gain entry. Five minutes after Chaffee made his call for assistance, both Grissom and White had died of asphyxiation.
After the tragedy, NASA conducted a comprehensive reevaluation of all safety procedures. After 16 manned Mercury and Gemini missions without fatalities, officials realized they may have become complacent about ensuring astronaut safety. To address this, major modifications were made in the design of Apollo spacecraft; including improving its hatch to open more easily; eliminating flammable materials; replacing pure oxygen atmosphere with an oxygen-nitrogen mixture; and altering its design significantly so as to increase astronaut comfort.
One major cause was that the accident test wasn’t classified as hazardous flight test; therefore, emergency teams weren’t present to help in case of disaster. A fire crew from nearby launch tower test room had been present but wasn’t equipped to handle what became an explosion-based fire in capsule (Freiman and Schlager 1995).
The accident was a profound shock to America and all those involved with NASA who participated in its project, especially those close to it who felt devastated by the deaths of three crewmembers who had dedicated themselves so closely to the mission. Memorial services were held across America for them, with patches from their spacecraft even being left on the moon by 1969’s Apollo 11 crew. Furthermore, this incident caused major changes to future NASA spacecraft designs such as outward opening hatches for easier escape; less hazardous nonflammable materials being substituted and thus helping reduce fire risk during launch operations and lunar landings; also helping prevent potential fire risks during launches or lunar landings and subsequent landings on moon.
On December 21, 1968, when Apollo 8 launched on December 21, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell embarked upon their historic voyage aboard the first Saturn V rocket designed to carry humans into space. Once launched into orbit they fired their third stage to break away from Earth’s orbit – an essential step toward 1969 Moon landing mission, but their journey wasn’t without obstacles along the way.
The Lunar Module (LM), however, had been delayed by various problems – Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation was experiencing serious financial difficulties while their new lunar module had yet to be tested in flight. With deadlines fast approaching and no LM available NASA management decided that Apollo 8’s crew should still journey into lunar orbit without it.
This was an ambitious plan: it would be the first mission ever to leave low Earth orbit without an operational lunar module (LM), and while Apollo CSMs were intended to transport astronauts directly from low Earth orbit to the Moon without needing the LM.
American team were delighted when, by February 1969, their Lunar Module (LM) was finally completed and CSM could complete its mission successfully. Bill Anders’ photo captured by CSM from orbit showed us all how humans could travel into space safely while returning safely back home again – something many had thought impossible just a decade earlier.
Borman and Lovell spent the next six days inside a CSM, which consisted of a conical shell fitted with both service module and command module components at one end and communicating with Honeysuckle Creek, the control center that would monitor their mission. Houston would play Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass on uplink during quiet periods; to keep spirits high they read passages from scripture as well as banter with each other.
On Christmas Eve, astronauts had an opportunity to share their journey’s impressions with the public via public broadcast. Borman described life on the far side of the Moon as being “vast, lonely, forbidding”, while Lovell thanked Earth for providing a grand ovation to space.
On December 27, 1969, the astronauts returned to the CSM and shortly after it jettisoned its service module, it accelerated its descent through Earth’s atmosphere at 11,000 metres per second, Lovell radioed mission control that the spacecraft had been cleared for landing. When Lovell received approval to proceed with landing operations from mission control he told mission control “go for landing” before landing safely in the Pacific Ocean. With Apollo 8’s success the US had taken back control in space exploration from Soviet Russia while in 1969 Neil Armstrong set foot on Moon as humanity took one more step toward living on another world.
After the success of Apollo 8, NASA set its sights even higher with a 10-day mission that would qualify the lunar module, demonstrate docked and undocked spacecraft maneuvers, as well as test other systems. Commander James McDivitt, command module pilot David Scott and lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart’s crew had to practice transferring between modules as well as make full lunar orbits before returning back home safely.
As was the case for previous missions, this launch went smoothly. Soon after leaving Earth orbit, astronauts performed various tests and calibrations before beginning transfer into lunar orbit. Unfortunately, however, an issue with the Lunar Module’s ascent engine prevented its automatic ignition on schedule; however, a manual fire shortly before noon provided a solution to this problem.
The astronauts then initiated the second stage of their lunar orbit, which involved them reorienting themselves and firing the lunar module’s descent engine for the first time. It was a dramatic moment; Scott temporarily lost control as his lunar module went through a wild gyration before they managed to recover it; nonetheless, this incident demonstrated just how dangerous missions like these can be and it is fortunate no one was injured during it all.
Soon, the lunar module and command module were brought together for their initial encounter, firing their ascent and descent engines simultaneously while docked to S-IVB. Astronauts also practiced pitch-and-roll yaw maneuvers before conducting a spacewalk without using capsule-based life support systems.
At the conclusion of their 10-day flight, the astronauts were eager to return home. Following a safe splashdown, they were picked up by helicopter and transported aboard USS Guadalcanal for final boarding and transport home.
Within hours, the crew would return from its 151-day mission – costing NASA $340 million and one of the costliest missions ever launched by NASA – with NASA declaring it successful and declaring a victory.
Since Apollo 13’s successful launch, all Apollo programs had been successful with one exception – its failed launch of Apollo 13. A select few astronauts landed and orbited on the moon; John Young and Eugene Cernan on Apollo 9, Jim Lovell on 8 and 13 (rescued Apollo 13 midflight after oxygen tank explosion midflight), Fred Haise on 13 (which Lovell flew again later), Lovell solo resuming Apollo missions when needed; unfortunately none ever made it onto the lunar surface, while Lovell alone got back out after that midflight rescue attempt! But the successes of the Apollo program were significant enough that many still regard space with reverence today.