What the hell is that, you ask? Well, it’s the morbid fear of the number 13. Yes, the morbid fear. Morbid being defined as pathological. If you were suffering from triskaidekaphobia on April 11th, 1970 at 13:13 Houston time when Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Kennedy Space Center in Florida, you might have been overly concerned, if you were a space junky too. But when the third Apollo mission to the moon suffered an onboard explosion on April 13th, you probably were experiencing some morbid fear for the safety of the astronauts.
But you didn’t have to be suffering from trisaidekaphobia to experience that. Almost everyone did during the next four days. The explosion was followed by the famous transmission from the spacecraft that was now gyrating out of control, “Houston we’ve got a problem.” But what Swigert, the Command Module Pilot, really said, was “Houston we’ve had a problem.” The problem was they lost two of the three fuel cells which powered the spacecraft. More importantly the explosion ruptured one of the main oxygen tanks on Apollo 13, causing another to lose pressure quickly. Within 3 hours the command module “Odyssey” had lost all oxygen stores, all power, water and use of the propulsion system.
They turned to the LEM, the Lunar Excursion Module “Aquarius”, attached to the nose cone of the command module, as their lifeboat. Something that it was not designed for, had never been simulated, and they flat didn’t know if it was even going to work. The lives of Jim Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise hung in the balance.
Most of you probably know the story of the doomed mission from the 1995 film “Apollo 13”. If you haven’t seen it, (I’ve seen it at least 20 times) you should rent it today (Or let me know, I’ll loan it to you). Ron Howard, co-producer and director of the film, said in a pre-release interview that he couldn’t believe no one had ever made it before. The story was powerful. We were all riveted to our seats for four days waiting and watching them sling-shot around the moon, head back to earth, and land safely in the Pacific. Because of the “free return trajectory” they had to use to return to earth, they are probably the three men in the world that have traveled the farthest from earth.
Once the astronauts were safely home, the investigation began to determine the cause of the explosion. Of course, no one was willing to take sole responsibility for basically sending Apollo 13 into orbit with a small bomb on board. That was, through a series of pre-flight incidents, exactly what they did. A small fan inside the tank, used to stir the contents to get a more accurate reading, surged in voltage and ignited the liquid oxygen in the tank. Oxygen used, not only for breathing, but to power the fuel cells. And ultimately it was all traced to an accidental dropping of the tank in 1968 before it was installed in the System Module.
In an interview before the release of the IMAX version of the film, Ron Howard said, “I almost like to think that it’s the karma of the Apollo 13 crew – their story was kind of swept under the carpet, and in fact it was such a noble triumph. Their story lives on and on and on…”