February 19, 2021 | Rachel Ramlawi

Celestial Facts About Apollo 13, The Disaster In Space

The Apollo 13 lunar mission was to be the third attempt to land men on the moon, but it almost ended in disaster when an explosion rocked the ship. The mission is famous for the tireless, dedicated efforts of the flight crew and ground control to bring the astronauts back home. Failure wasn’t an option, and fortunately, the flight crew made it safely back to Earth narrowly avoiding disaster. Here are 24 facts about the Apollo 13 flight.

Apollo 13 Facts

1. Back Me Up

Apollo 13 was astronaut Jack Swigert's first mission into space. Despite the fact that he had been an astronaut since 1966, he hadn’t actually flown a mission. He’d been support crew for the Apollo 7 and originally was back up for Apollo 13. He joined the crew of the Apollo 13 when astronaut Ken Mattingly had been exposed to German measles and NASA doctors took him off the mission.

Apollo 13 was also another crew member's first mission: Fred Haise. He’d been back up for Apollo 8 and 11. Gotta imagine they both pictured their first missions going a lot differently.

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr

2. Captain My Captain

Mission commander Jim Lovell had been to space more than a few times, in fact at the time of the Apollo 13 he was the guy who had been to space more often than anyone else, clocking in 572 hours in space. He’d been on Apollo 8, which circled the moon, and flew in two Gemini missions, which circled the Earth.

1970s FactsWikimedia Commons

3. Double Spaceship

The Apollo Spacecraft was a mash-up of two different spacecraft, connected by a tunnel. It was a mishmash of the Odyssey orbiter and the Aquarius lander. The crew was supposed to be living in the Odyssey as they went to the moon, and then the Aquarius was supposed to do the obvious. Needless to say, that's not exactly how things worked out...

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

4. Far From Home

Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. By April 13, the mission started to go awry. 200,000 miles away from Earth, mission control noticed that there was a low-pressure warning from the hydrogen tank.

Apollo 13 FactsWikipedia


5. Gas Problems

As the low-pressure warning came on, mission control decided to run a routine procedure called a “cryo stir.” A cryo stir is when you resettle the hydrogen using a heating system and fans to help circulate the gas and keep it from settling into layers. As mission control started this procedure there was a shake on the Odyssey, then, even more troubling, the oxygen pressure fell and power disappeared.

Apollo 13 FactsWikipedia

6. Houston We Have A Quote

The famous line in Apollo 13, “Houston we have a problem” was actually “Houston we’ve had a problem,” when the astronauts on the actual spacecraft contacted mission control. Yeah, a problem was putting it lightly.

Apollo 13 FactsShutterstock

7. Investigate The Problem

NASA investigated the incident on the Apollo 13 and found that there were exposed wires in the oxygen tank due to manufacturing errors. A manufacturing error on a spaceship is bad enough, but even worse, technicians had examined the craft before taking off and said it was ready to go. They were wrong. That night those exposed wires sparked and caused a fire inside the Odyssey, destroying one oxygen tank and damaging the spacecraft.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

8. Quick Switch

To survive, the crew devised a plan. They’d jump over to the lander Aquarius—which they would need to boot up much faster than it was designed for—and they’d switch back to the Odyssey for the descent back to Earth. Aquarius at least had life support systems for the crew, it just didn’t have any heat shields. Haise and Lovell rushed, trying to get the Aquarius booted up.

Meanwhile, Swigert worked to shut down the Odyssey so they’d have enough power to boot it back up to come home to Earth. Just another day at the office, right?

Apollo 13 FactsWikipedia

9. Cold Space

To make sure they could preserve power on the way back to Earth, the astronauts powered down non-essential energy sources, including heat. As you can imagine, space is absolutely freezing. With no heating systems to warm up the Aquarius, those poor astronauts had to endure those frigid temperatures for four days until they made it back to Earth.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons


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10. Hungry In Space

As the power shut down, some of the food became inedible. While flight director Gene Kranz tried to shift some power off the controllers to try and preserve food, ultimately the astronauts had to ration their food and water. Even in just the four days it took them to get back to Earth, the entire crew lost weight from the lack of food.

Apollo 13 FactsWikipedia


11. Space Sick

In the four days from when the Apollo 13 mission started to when they made it back to earth, Fred Haise developed a kidney infection. Take it from him: Drink water every day!

Apollo 13 FactsPicryl

12. Back Home

All three astronauts made it safely home, splashing down on April 17 in the Pacific Ocean. A miracle, all things considered, as the team didn’t even know if the Odyssey's heat shields still functioned after the explosion.

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr

13. Future Missions

The near-disaster of the Apollo 13 mission forced NASA to make major changes for all future space missions. These changes included: Another cryo oxygen tank that only supplied the crew, removing the cryo tank fans and wiring, removing thermostats from the cryo tanks, changing the type of heater tube in the cryo tanks, including lunar module descent battery, and adding water storage bags.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

14. To Future Moon Missions And Beyond

Apollo 13 crewmember Fred Haise later got the nod to command Apollo 19 moon mission, though it ultimately never launched due to budget cuts at NASA. He did pilot the Enterprise space shuttle during its test flights though. It’s true what they say, you can’t just let one little near disaster in space that could have killed you keep you from getting back out into space.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

15. From NASA To Washington D.C.

The people of Colorado later elected crew member Jack Swigert to serve in Congress. Sadly, he passed from bone cancer before he could take his post.

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr

16. Movie Deal

Jim Lovell co-wrote Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 with Jeffrey Kluger. While the book was about the entirety of Lovell’s career, it did (for obvious reasons) focus a lot on the infamous space flight in Apollo 13. This is the book that motivated Hollywood to make Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks.

Forrest Gump factsApollo 13, Universal Pictures


17. And The Oscar Goes To

The film Apollo 13 based on the Apollo 13 mission received nine nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It only won two of the nine, Best Film Editing and Best Sound, but hey, do you have any Oscars? I thought not.

Apollo 13 FactsShutterstock

18. Surprise Appearance

Lovell made a brief appearance in Apollo 13 towards the end of the movie as the Captain of the U.S.S. Iwo Jima. He might be the only man to play two different parts in his own life story.

Apollo 13 FactsApollo 13, Universal Pictures

19. Bright Side Of The Moon

If things had gone according to plan, the Apollo 13 mission would have landed on the bright highlands of the moon. This was a change from the previous two moon missions which had landed in the darker lunar maria.

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr

20. Testing Testing

The oxygen tank that blew up during the flight suffered damage during testing, but it turns out the builders didn’t realize it until it was too late. Oops!

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr

21. Moon MacGyvers

When the astronauts hopped over to the moon lander Aquarius, there wasn’t enough of the carbon-dioxide-scrubbing chemical that would make the air breathable for three men. NASA only designed the lander for two people at most. The astronauts had to make their own carbon dioxide adapter out of spare parts.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

22. Off By A Few Thousand Miles

When the oxygen tank blew, the Apollo 13 wasn’t on a flight path that could get it right back home. In fact, it was on a flight path that would miss the earth by 2,500 miles altogether. Mission control had to fire the lunar module’s landing engines extremely precisely to get the astronauts on the right trajectory to get back to Earth.

Apollo 13 FactsFlickr


23. Mission Of Firsts

While the Apollo 13 mission wasn’t going to be the first mission to put people on the moon—that distinction goes to Apollo 11—it was still a mission of a few different firsts. It was the first aborted Apollo mission, and the first time anyone used the lunar module to provide emergency life support and propulsion back to Earth.

Apollo 13 FactsWikimedia Commons

24. Smooth Start

The first few days of the mission actually went really well for the Apollo 13 crew. Down at mission control, they actually told the astronauts up in space that, "Spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we're concerned, Jim. We're bored to tears down here." Way to jinx the flight, mission control...

Apollo 13 FactsWikipedia

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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