Apollo 13 pin

Apollo 13 pin

This pin is from the Kennedy Space Center and Failure is Not an Option is a quote from the movie Apollo XIII. The statement was never made during the actual rescue.

Explanation by Jerry C. Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) Apollo 13

As far as the expression “Failure is not an option”… Kranz never used that term. In preparation for the movie, the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on “What are the people in Mission Control really like?” One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” I immediately sensed that Bill Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem”

The Apollo spacecraft was made up of two independent spacecraft joined by a tunnel: orbiter Odyssey, and lander Aquarius. The crew lived in Odyssey on the journey to the moon. On the evening of April 13, when the crew was 200,000 miles from Earth and closing in on the moon, mission controller Sy Liebergot saw a low-pressure warning signal on a hydrogen tank in Odyssey.

The signal could have shown a problem, or could have indicated the hydrogen just needed to be resettled by heating and fanning the gas inside the tank. That procedure was called a “cryo stir,” and was supposed to stop the supercold gas from settling into layers.

Swigert flipped the switch for the routine procedure. A moment later, the entire spacecraft shuddered around the startled crew. Alarm lights lit up in Odyssey and in Mission Control as oxygen pressure fell and power disappeared. The crew notified Mission Control, with Swigert famously uttering, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” (The 1995 movie “Apollo 13” took some creative license with the phrase, changing it to “Houston, we have a problem” and having the words come out of Apollo 13 commander James Lovell’s mouth.)

Much later, a NASA accident investigation board determined wires were exposed in the oxygen tank through a combination of manufacturing and testing errors before flight. That fateful night, a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, ripping apart one oxygen tank and damaging another inside the spacecraft.

Since oxygen fed Odyssey’s fuel cells, power was reduced as well. The spacecraft’s attitude control thrusters, sensing the venting oxygen, tried to stabilize the spacecraft through firing small jets. The system wasn’t very successful given several of the jets were slammed shut by the explosion.

Luckily for Apollo 13, the damaged Odyssey had a healthy backup: Aquarius, which wasn’t supposed to be turned on until the crew was close to landing on the moon. It didn’t have a heat shield to survive the trip back to Earth, but it could keep the crew alive long enough to get there. Then, the astronauts could switch to Odyssey for the rest of the trip home.

Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot Aquarius up in less time than designed, while Swigert remained in Odyssey to shut down its systems to keep power for splashdown. The crew now had to balance the challenge of getting home with the challenge of preserving power on Aquarius. After they performed a crucial burn to point the spacecraft back towards Earth, the crew powered down every nonessential system in the spacecraft.

Without a source of heat, cabin temperatures quickly dropped down close to freezing. Some food became inedible. The crew also rationed water to make sure Aquarius—operating for longer than it was designed—would have enough liquid to cool its hardware down.

On Earth, flight director Gene Kranz pulled his shift of controllers off of regular rotation to focus on managing consumables like water and power. Other mission control teams helped the crew with its daily activities. Spacecraft manufacturers worked around the clock to support NASA and the crew.

It was a long few days back home; the entire crew lost weight and Haise developed a kidney infection. In the hours before splashdown, the now exhausted crew powered up Odyssey (which had essentially been in a cold soak for days, and could have shorted out if they were unlucky). Then, they prepared for splashdown, not knowing if the explosion had damaged the heat shield.

Lovell, Haise and Swigert returned safely to the Pacific Ocean on April 17. The spacecraft design was reconfigured with better wires and an extra tank, and subsequent missions did not face the same problem. Although Apollo 13’s design problems left a mark on NASA’s reputation, today it also stands as a shining example of how NASA solved a life-threatening problems in space.

Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor

Location: 13-C1