In the mid-1950s, America began working towards putting satellites into space as part of the International Geophysical Year program. Those plans were suddenly accelerated when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into space on October 4, 1957. On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 which contained the first passenger into space, a dog named Laika. Unfortunately, Laika did not survive the trip into space.
The United States was already deep into the Cold War with the Soviet Union for world dominance and the launching of the first two satellites took the Cold War into the cold of outer space. Then Sen. Lyndon Johnson opened hearings on America’s space and missile programs, on November 25, 1957.
The US quickly reacted and launched our first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. On February 6, 1958, the Senate Special Committee on Space and Aeronautics was formed. On April 2, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower forwarded a draft of a piece of legislation that called for the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). On July 29, 1958, Congressed passed the bill and Eisenhower signed it and NASA was officially born.
[Just a personal side note: During this time, the US developed a series of rockets, including the Vanguard. At the time, my dad, Willie Jolly worked in a Navy plant in East St. Louis as a spray painting foreman. He and his crew were the ones that spray painted much of the Vanguard rockets that were later launched into space for test purposes. Back in the 1950s, us kids thought it was pretty cool knowing my dad’s work was launched into space.]
On August 19, 1960, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 5 which carried two dogs, Strelka and Belka. They were the first living beings to travel into space and return to earth alive. This was followed with the successful launch and return of the Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, making him the first man in space.
Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, America successfully launched and safely returned Alan Shepard, making him the first American in space.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech before a joint session of Congress, calling for America to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. You can listen to Kennedy’s speech here. The space race with the Soviet Union was official and the two nations would vie to be the first to have a person orbit the earth, walk in space and even to send the first the woman into space but the moon was the grand prize.
In 1966, the Soviet Union embarrassed the US by being the first to land a spacecraft on the moon. Their Luna 9 touched down on the moon on February 3, 1966. It wasn’t until June 2, 1966 that America’s Surveyor 1 touched down on the moon.
1967 was the first year of disaster and loss of human life for both America and the Soviet Union. On January 27, 1967, American astronauts Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White were killed before their launch when their command module was suddenly engulfed in fire. On June 2, 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed upon his return to earth when the parachute of his Soyuz 1 space capsule failed to deploy, crashing him and his capsule into the earth.
In 1968 the Soviet Union again embarrassed the US and NAS by being the first to have a spacecraft orbit the moon on September 15, 1968. The Soviet Zond 5 was an unmanned craft. However, in December 1968, the US jumped ahead of the Soviets by being the first to have a manned spacecraft, Apollo 8, orbit the moon and safely return to earth.
1969 was quite the year. At beginning of June, I graduated high school. Less than two months later, on July 20, I was laying on the floor in front of our old black and white television, manning a 7in reel-to-reel tape recorder. I carefully placed the two microphones in front of the TV speakers and watched as Apollo 11 safely touched down on the surface of the moon. Then I watched as astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and stepped down on the surface of the moon. I will always remember hearing his now famous statement: ‘That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.’ I add the [a] in brackets because Armstrong later said that’s what he actually said.
In November 1969, NASA launched Apollo 12 for a second landing on the moon. Astronauts Charles Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon were tasked with a number of scientific projects and experiments before returning back to earth on November 24, 1969. Momentous as their mission was, Apollo 12 has more or less fallen into the shadows of the missions before and after it. Before was Apollo 11 and the first men on the moon. After it was Apollo 13 and the disaster in space.
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 lifted off the earth on their mission to the moon. On board were astronauts James Lovell, Jr., John Swigert, Jr., and Fred Haise. Their mission was to land in the Fra Mauro area of the moon.
Problems developed soon after liftoff when the astronauts noticed an unusual vibration at the five and half minute mark into the flight. Then the center engine of their rocket shut down two minutes early. In order to compensate for the loss of thrust, the other four engines were kept burning for an additional 34 seconds over the planned burn time. Even then the third stage rocket had to burn for an additional nine seconds in order for Apollo 13 to reach orbit.
On this day, April 13, 1970, Lovell told a live television audience:
“This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we’re just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius (the LM) and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey (the CM). Good night.”
Nine minutes later everything changed with the No. 2 oxygen tank exploded. The explosion caused No. 1 oxygen tank to also fail. The three American astronauts had just lost their normal supply of electricity, light and water. Worse yet, they were 200,000 miles away from the earth.
According to one source:
“The message came in the form of a sharp bang and vibration. Jack Swigert saw a warning light that accompanied the bang, and said, ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ Lovell came on and told the ground that it was a main B bus undervolt. The time was 2108 hours on April 13.
Next, the warning lights indicated the loss of two of Apollo 13’s three fuel cells, which were the spacecraft’s prime source of electricity. With warning lights blinking on, One Oxygen tank appeared to be completely empty, and there were indications that the oxygen in the second tank was rapidly being depleted.
Thirteen minutes after the explosion, Lovell happened to look out of the left-hand window, and saw the final evidence pointing toward potential catastrophe. ‘We are venting something out into the- into space,’ he reported to Houston. Jack Lousma, the CapCom replied, ‘Roger, we copy you venting.’ Lovell said, ‘It’s a gas of some sort.’ It was oxygen gas escaping at a high rate from the second, and last, oxygen tank.”
The crew was forced to leave the command module and take refuge in the lunar landing module. However, it was only designed for 45 hours of use and it would take up to 90 hours to get the crew home. There was sufficient oxygen, but not water. Houston Control calculated that with rationing the water supply, the astronauts would run out of water about five hours prior to re-entering the earth’s atmosphere which calculated to be about 151 hours away. Consequently, the crew limited themselves to only six ounces of water a day, which is only ¾ of a measuring cup.
Another concern was being able to remove carbon dioxide from the lunar module. The canisters in the lunar module were designed to remove the carbon dioxide emitted by two people for up to two days. The module now contained three people for a duration of four days. To make matters worse, the canisters in the command module had totally different configured canisters than the ones in the lunar module. After only a day and half in the LM, warning lights went off, indicating dangerous levels of carbon dioxide. With the help of Mission Control, the crew were able to use plastic bags, cardboard and tape to make the canisters in the command module work in the LM.
The hardest task of all was figuring out how to bring the three astronauts home safely. For one thing, the LM was not designed to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and if the astronauts remained in it, they would be burned alive. Secondly, the navigational system the astronauts used had to be altered due to all of the debris from the explosion in the command module. Thirdly, the astronauts had shut down most of the systems on board the command module and Mission Control had to figure out how to power it back up quickly enough for re-entry.
Since the command module had been power off, it was extremely cold. When the astronauts re-entered it and started the power up, water droplets started forming on every surface. Everyone knew that if water was forming on the visible surfaces that it most likely was forming on the inside surfaces of the all of the panels and controls which could cause short circuits and other problems. One of the astronauts reports that when the command module decelerated during re-entry that it rained on them inside the module.
On April 17, 1970, the crew jettisoned the LM just hours before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. To the cheers of the entire world, Apollo 13 safely splashed down in the Indian Ocean and was recovered by the USS Iwo Jima.
Later investigations revealed that oxygen tank No. 2, had initially been installed in Apollo 10 but was removed before launch for maintenance or modification. In the processed the tank had been dropped and rather than take chances on it being damaged, a new oxygen tank was used in Apollo 10. The dropped oxygen take was later inspected and deemed undamaged. What the inspection failed to discover is that an internal fill line had been damaged when the tank was dropped, but that internal damage was undetected.
During one of the tests of the oxygen tank, the testers tried to purge the liquid oxygen out of the tank but the damaged fill line prevented it from happening. They resorted to heating the tank up high enough to turn the liquid oxygen into gaseous oxygen that would then empty from the tank. In doing so, the testing team hooked the tank’s heating system to a 65-volt DC system for eight hours. The tanks heating system was only designed to connect to the spacecraft’s 28-volt system. The extra voltage caused the tank to heat to over 1,000ºF. Since the tank’s internal thermometer only registered as high as 80 ºF, no one realized just how hot the tank got or what else was damaged by the intense heat. NASA believes that the overnight superheating of the tank damaged the Teflon coating that insulated the internal wires and that when electricity was applied to them, they ignited the liquid oxygen inside the tank. Not knowing this then, the tank was later installed into the No. 2 tank position on Apollo 13.
Sources for the above includes: Space Exploration: Timeline; The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress; Apollo 13 oxygen tank explodes; 45 years after Apollo 13: Ars looks at what went wrong and why; How Apollo 13’s Dangerous Survival Mission Worked (Infographic); Apollo 13: Facts About NASA’s Near-Disaster; Apollo 13; Apollo-13 (29); The Birth of NASA; Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs, 25 May 1961; Apollo 12.