What an amazing, incredible, horrifying experience. See, for those of you who don't know, Apollo 13 was incredibly close to being an absolute disaster. In 1970, when the mission launched, we (America) were experienced in this whole spaceflight thing. We thought we knew most things that could happen. The first craft intended as a manned Apollo Mission (it was named Apollo 1 after the fact) caught fire on the launch pad during a test countdown; it killed everyone inside (astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee) and severely damaged the vehicle.
We learned from our mistakes. Apollo 7 became the first manned Apollo flight. By the time Apollo 13 was launched, we had 6 successful manned Apollo missions behind us (as well as manned flights from other programs, like Gemini), we were getting the hang of things, so to speak.
Apollo 13 the movie was based both on the historical events of the flight, and the book Lost Moon by Astronaut Jim Lovell (the character played by Tom Hanks in the film).
Yeah, about that flight. Ever hear of Murphy's law? SO many things went wrong that it's utterly astounding that the astronauts made it back alive. An experienced and cool-headed flight crew, an incredibly determined and resourceful ground support and a little luck got them through.
Fifty-five hours and fifty-five minutes into the flight, one of the two oxygen tanks blew up. The explosion caused the 2nd tank to also fail and begin losing oxygen. The flight was 200,000 miles from Earth. Two fuel cells (out of three)also failed as a result of the explosion.
Let me just say that this movie didn't need any made-up drama (as moviemakers often insert into historical pieces) to make it interesting, and from all that I've been able to tell, it didn't manufacture any. The astronauts could see their oxygen being vented into space, through the portal window. The mission was clearly a failure, and there was every chance that the three men would die there in space, from lack of oxygen, 200,000 miles away from home; the command module could become an endlessly orbiting crypt. Remember a few posts back when I was talking about the comfort of religion vs. the utter aloneness of events? This situation, I imagine, was one of those sudden realizations of that isolation.
They didn't despair, they rallied. With the invaluable help of the ground crew, they planned & executed emergency procedures that might get them back home. They shut down all but the most essential power systems. Shut down the computer. Powered down the command module. Moved from the command module to the lunar landing module. Waited.
It was cold. It was mostly dark. Condensation formed on all the internal surfaces, so it was also wet. Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton in the movie) developed a serious urinary tract infection (probably from the urine collection device in the suit, which was not designed to be worn as long as it was). He was in pain; bleary and feverish. They had to ration water, and to try to stay hydrated, they ate only wet-pack foods. By the end of the ordeal, the three astronauts would have lost 31.5 pounds between them; a NASA record.
The discomforts and concerns were not only physical. With all the condensation in the cabin, there was a fear of wet and/or arcing wires behind the panels. It was unknown whether or not the command module could be restarted when they needed it. Calculations for oxygen and fuel were based on spotty information; it was by no means certain that either would last long enough for earth re-entry. There was concern that the conditions would cause the heat shield to crack. They would wait nearly four days to find out.
More problems: the carbon dioxide in the cabin of the lunar module was building; the filtering system had never been intended for such extreme and continuous use. They had to build a makeshift replacement filter using the carbon dioxide filter from the command module (a different model), and duct tape that was on board.
The cast of the movie did an incredible job of portraying what it must have been like for the crew (both on board and on the ground) of the Apollo 13 mission. The filmmakers are to be commended for their very close attention to detail and historical accuracy.
The story has a happy ending: Apollo 13 made it home. The mission was termed a "successful failure" by NASA, because a disastrous situation was turned around, and we were able to learn some very important information through the experience.
I am left, once again, with the question - Why aren't americans more hyped about the space program? While it continues, it constantly struggles for funding and approval...which bogs down the speed of progress we could be making.
Dammit, when do I get to go live on Mars???