Deep Dive into History: Apollo 13

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Monday, Apr 11 2022 by

After President Kennedy’s challenge to send Americans to the moon, the entire country was caught up in the space race, and Americans were the first to reach the moon on July 16, 1969. In less than a year, there was a second successful trip, and a third planned.

The Apollo 13 mission never made it to the moon, but the expedition that launched on April 11, 1970, captivated the attention of America as it suffered catastrophic damage and the crew and ground support worked to bring the spacecraft back to earth.

On the anniversary of the expedition, let’s look back at the events and locations of that heroic mission.

Mission Control, Houston, Texas

“Houston, we have a problem” is one of the most popular modern-day catchphrases. Jim Lovell was talking from outer space to Mission Control at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, when he uttered this phrase (actually he said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” but it was slightly muffled on the intercom).

After a routine fuel test resulted in catastrophic damage to the spacecraft, Lovell, Fred Haise, and John Swigert had to abort their plans to walk on the moon and instead just hope they could return to earth. The three highly-trained astronauts worked with the ground crew to figure out exactly how the crew could use gravity, inertia, and the little remaining fuel they had to make it home to earth.

It was from this Mission Control building in Houston that countless engineers, scientists, and mathematicians worked tirelessly for five days to ensure the crew returned safely to earth. The building is still used for NASA and space-related work.

Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center (Birds Eye)
Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The mission launched from NASA’s Operational Launch site, which was later renamed the Kennedy Space Center for the man who inspired and supported the pursuit of spaceflight. Here, visitors could watch the launch from a safe distance, far from the massive heat and flames from the burning fuel that launched the craft into space.

Kennedy Space Center (StreetView)
Kennedy Space Center

Cape Kennedy Shuttle Launch Complex, Florida

It’s from this area that Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches took off. The complex has dozens of launch sites, and Apollo 13 was set up on LC 39-A. This launch site is still used. In fact, SpaceX launches Falcon 9 rockets regularly from the exact same pad that launched Apollo 13.

Visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can also see rocket launches. If you want to see a rocket up close (about seven miles away for safety), this is the place!

Cape Kennedy Shuttle Launch Complex (Google Maps)
Cape Kennedy Shuttle Launch Complex

Saturn V Rocket, Huntsville, Alabama

The astronauts were launched into space by the massive force of the Saturn V (five) rockets, the engineering marvel that changed the world. Much of the research and development for the rocket were conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

On the 30th anniversary of the project, a full-scale replica was put on display outside the Center. The 363-foot rocket is still on display, garnering visits from space history buffs from around the world.

Saturn V rocket (Google Maps)
Saturn V rocket

Saturn V Rocket, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

An original rocket, not a replica, is on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Visitors can walk under the massive rocket and get a feel for just how much work, and energy, went into getting astronauts safely to the moon and back.

Saturn V rocket (StreetView)
Saturn V rocket

Command and Service Module on Display, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

After the astronauts realized they had a problem, they worked with the ground crew at Mission Control to find a way to survive the unthinkable. They quickly moved from the larger command module into the tiny lunar module, which was designed only for two people to take a short trip to and from the moon. Instead, the three men spent five days in the cold, cramped container as they worked to come home.

Looking at this Apollo-designed module helps people visualize just how risky the endeavor was, and how much the men endured in outer space.

Apollo Command/Service Module (StreetView)
Apollo Command/Service Module

USS New Orleans

Before the days of space shuttles, astronauts were launched on top of rockets, situated in spacecraft. They had enough fuel and power to navigate in outer space and launch a return to earth. Using calculations and careful planning, the crew would be able to predict their landing location. Navy ships would wait in the area to retrieve the heroic space travelers. After flying more than half a million miles to the moon and back, they could predict their landing within two miles!

The Apollo 13 crew, after surviving a five-day ordeal, splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, and was picked up by the USS Iwo Jima. On site for support was the USS New Orleans. This ship picked up the crew from Apollo 14, and was used in the movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks.

USS New Orleans (LPH-11) amphibious assault ship (Birds Eye)
USS New Orleans (LPH-11) amphibious assault ship

Home of Astronaut Jim Lovell, Chicago, Illinois

Jim Lovell was already an experienced astronaut when he was assigned to command the Apollo 13 mission. He and two others were the first men to ever reach the moon. They circled the moon on the Apollo 8 mission, in preparation for the Apollo 11 space landing. He also flew on two Gemini missions.

Jim’s calm demeanor and ability to lead the crew helped them return safely to earth. After retiring from NASA, Jim and his family eventually moved to Lake Forest, on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois. Now 93, Jim still lives in Illinois, for at least part of the year.

In 1994, Jim wrote a book that was quickly turned into the captivating film Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton. This film helped revitalize interest in space exploration, and reminded people everywhere of what the astronauts went through on their harrowing journey through space.

Jim Lovell's House (Birds Eye)
Jim Lovell's House

Tonight, perhaps you can look at the moon and stars, and reflect on what a wonder it must be to leave earth. Take a moment to appreciate all that Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, as well as the countless men and women on the ground, went through, and how fortunate they were to make it back to tell their tale.