On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert on what was supposed to be the third U.S. mission to the moon. Fifty-six hours into the flight, an explosion inside a liquid oxygen tank rocked the ship.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Swigert reported to Mission Control.
At once the spacecraft began to lose power. Lovell looked out a porthole and saw a catastrophe in the making. “We are venting something . . . into space,” he radioed.
The ship was losing oxygen used to generate power. The spacecraft was dying – 200,000 miles from home.
To save power in the Command Module, the astronauts squeezed into the frigid Lunar Module and used it as a lifeboat. Their best shot at getting home was to loop around the moon and swing back toward Earth. On their current path they’d miss the planet by 4,000 miles. They fired the Lunar Module’s engines to put them back on course.
The next three days became a race to solve one problem after another. When carbon dioxide threatened to kill the astronauts, they rigged air scrubbers with tape, plastic, and cardboard. They didn’t trust the ship’s damaged system to navigate, so they steered by the sun and Earth. To save coolant water, they drank only six ounces a day.
As they approached Earth, they climbed back into the Command Module and separated from the rest of the ship. “There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing!” a stunned Lovell reported, looking out a window.
Mission Control feared the capsule’s heat shield had been damaged, but on April 17, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the Pacific just three miles from the carrier Iwo Jima. A failed mission had turned into one of NASA’s finest hours.