Vivid images of rockets blasting, oxygen tank leaks, and a futile scramble for survival during the Apollo 13 mission captivated the audience in Bailey Hall last night.
Captain Jim Lovell was the last scheduled speaker for the Cornell University Program Board’s spring semester. In a talk entitled “Apollo 13: A Successful Failure,” Lovell reminisced about his experience on the mission.
“Lift-off was on April 11, 1970 at 13:13. Right then, I should have know something would go wrong,” Lovell said.
The goal of the Apollo 13 mission was to land on Fra Mauro, a crater on the moon. The plan had to be aborted when an explosion occurred on the space ship and the astronauts had to act fast to save their lives.
The other crew members were John L. Swigert, Jr. and Fred W. Haise, Jr.
The first problem during the flight occurred when one of the engines shut down after takeoff.
“We were going to go to Earth orbit. The center engine shut off two minutes earlier. Something [a complication] always happens — people don’t know that when they see it [on T.V.],” Lovell said.
The astronauts turned off the engine and the mission continued using the other four rockets that were still working.
“We had enough power, enough fuel. We had a switch [to turn off the engine]. If it went on longer, it would have incinerated our other four engines,” he said.
The spaceship followed a free return course, which is a safety plan enabled so that crew members of any mission can return to Earth safely if anything goes afoul.
Yet, according to the control center’s observations, the ship had drifted off course.
Members of the control center team responded, advising a different flight plan to the moon.
Even with these two complications, the crew members were still in control when yet another problem occurred. This catapulted the crew into a precarious situation.
“I was coming from the tunnel to the mother ship and there was a bang. We didn’t know what happened,” Lovell said.
When the crew had been aboard the ship for 55 hours, the heaters to the oxygen tanks exploded.
“A light came on. Something was wrong with the electricity. Two other lights came on. Two of the fuel cells failed. If you lose one fuel cell, the moon thing is called off. There will be enough energy to get you home [with only one fuel cell],” Lovell said, commenting on the implications of the lost power.
He then looked at the oxygen tanks and saw that the crew member’s air supply was dissipating fast.
“There were two huge liquid oxygen tanks in the surface module. I read the quantity gauge on the tank, and it was empty. I looked at the other and it was going down,” he said.
“Pretty soon, we would be out of oxygen. Since we used it to make electricity, to power the fuel cell, we would [soon] be out of power.”
The mission crew was 90 hours from Earth, and it had to make a trip around the moon in order to make it back home.
Their only chance for a safe trip back was to use the lunar module, which was designed to hold two people for 48 hours. The Apollo 13 mission had three members.
“Haise and I climbed to the lunar module to see if we could get home. I knew that we were in trouble,” Lovell said.
Audience members were awed by the crew’s bravery.
“It was pretty amazing. I’m impressed about how they could keep their wits about them and be optimistic,” said Karla Stucker ’02.
The control center devised plans to save the crew members. The crew was to use part of the remaining energy to blast the rockets once they rounded the moon. Thus the lunar module would return to the safety course.
The control center team devised procedures in record time on Earth and gave the instructions to the crew members before they lost radio contact when they rounded the moon. Lovell attentively listened, but the other crew members were concerned with other matters.
“They were looking at the moon. They had cameras in their hands and were going to take pictures of the moon. I said that if you don’t get home, you won’t be able to develop them!” Lovell said.
“The computer with all the stars, the navigation, had to be shut down — it used too much electricity. We had only the radio,” Lovell remembered. “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”
With all the devices turned off, the temperature dropped to 34 degrees Fahrenheit.
One student liked Lovell’s speaking style while he described the mission’s crisis.
“It’s different from watching a movie, to actually hear it from him,” said Shaun Goh ’02. “It’s inspiring to hear a hero talk about his experience.”
Using one of the crew mates’ watches, the astronauts timed the rocket blast accurately. Within fourteen seconds the blast was over, and the ship returned to the free return course.
“I wouldn’t be here in Ithaca if we weren’t successful,” Lovell said. “Procedures that took weeks to be developed were developed in hours.”
Once the men reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, they landed in the Pacific Ocean. A flotation device was brought to them and they were rescued by a ship.
Their rescue was televised, and 55 nations had offered water recovery assistance for the mission.
Lovell is thankful for all the people who aided in his survival.
“I should not be here to talk about it. Why am I here? I’m here because of a dedicated group of people in the control center. They dealt with problems they never heard of,” he said. “There is always a bit of luck involved.”
Many students enjoyed the lecture.
“It was very much like a story-telling thing, which I liked,” said Jillian Gray ’04. “I have more respect for astronomy now.”
Goh was also inspired by the talk. “I will definitely read more on astronomy,” he said.
“I think that the audience got a very positive presentation and he could tie his experiences into everyday life,” Stucker said.
Lovell concluded his speech with inspirational words to the audience.
“There are three types of people. There are people who make things happen, people who watch what happens and people who wonder what happens. If you want to be successful in the future, you have be one of the people to make things happen,” he said.
Archived article by Kelly Samuels