The “Successful Failure”

Apollo 13’s Mission for Survival

The phrase “Houston, we have a problem” has been adopted into everyday life. It is a clever way of saying: “Uh-oh.” This phrase originated nearly 25 years ago on April 13th, 1970, when the Apollo 13 spacecraft experienced an accident. One of the primary oxygen tanks in the command service module, the Odyssey, malfunctioned and exploded. The immediate result was an oxygen leak, which caused severe damage to the spacecraft. This prompted the crew to use the now-famous line.

James “Jim” Lovell Jack Swiggert and Fred Haise, astronauts aboard Apollo 13, had hoped for a successful trip into space. However, this explosion ruined any chance of a flawless moon landing and turned the mission into a fight for survival. Swiggert and Haise moved from the command module to the lunar module, the Aquarius, which they used as a lifeboat to transport themselves around the moon and back to Earth.

During this journey, the crew experienced difficulty due to their limited supply of oxygen. They also lacked electricity because oxygen supplies fuel cells, which then generate electricity. Because of this low oxygen quantity, any non-essential systems in the spacecraft had to be shut-off. Mission control then helped the astronauts use numerous systems and equipment in ways they were not designed to be used.

Though the crew was fatigued, they could not sleep because of the near-freezing temperatures inside of the spacecraft. It became harder for them to focus and function normally. With tremendous amounts of will power and inspiration from the ground teams, the crew was able to land successfully in the southern Pacific Ocean on April 17th. The flight lasted about 143 hours, or just under six days. The survival of all three astronauts against the odds led Jim Lovell to describe the mission as a “successful failure.”

After this incident, the Apollo program was temporarily shut down. During this time, changes were made to the systems’ design to ensure that an accident like this would never happen again. Similar to the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo program returned from this time-out safer than ever before.

Although the legacy of Apollo 13 may be a huge mishap in the eyes of some, others regard it as one of NASA’s finest hours.

[Source: Moon & Moon: 50 years of new frontier]