Apollo 13, SM jettisoning
April 17, 1970. A view of the damaged Apollo 13 service module (SM), photographed from the lunar and command modules following SM jettisoning. The Moon is visible behind the service module. (NASA)
Recap: Apollo 13, The Flight That Failed

April 13, 1970. An explosion in space set off a race to get three astronauts back to Earth. SkyNews and The RASC partnered to present this talk on the mission.

SkyNews and The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada marked the 50th anniversary of the explosion on board Apollo 13 in conversation with an expert on the subject and one of the mission’s crew.

In an online presentation on April 13, Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise joined Mississauga Centre RASC president Randy Attwood, detailing the problem-plagued mission and its place in the memories of millions. Haise answered questions from the audience, while Attwood spoke about the mission, which was the third launched to land two people on the Moon. Both spoke about the problems that occurred on its third day of flight and the race to get the astronauts home alive.

“There’s lots of different issues they had to work on in real time,” Attwood said. “There wasn’t a binder that they could go to, to figure out how to get people home.”

The online event was the first in SkyNews’ and The RASC’s Speaker Series, bringing space science and astronomy experts to screens through online talks and Q&As.

The rundown

Attwood — who is former president and executive director of The RASC and has attended shuttle launches and landings as a journalist and photographer — noted the Apollo 13 mission took off the afternoon of April 11, 1970.

What’s it like to be in the seat, strapping in before the launch?

I’ve tried to give analogs for anybody in sports. Say they were in football. It would be right before the kickoff, when the game’s about to start. You know, you’ve prepared and you’ve worked and trained for a long, long time to do this. Now the day has finally arrived, you’re going to get to do what you’re trained to do.

– Fred Haise, Apollo 13 lunar module pilot during the Q&A

Attwood noted that three days after launch, on April 13, there was an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks.

“At that point, it took [mission control] a couple of hours to decide they were in big trouble,” he said. “They decided to power up the lunar module, use it as a lifeboat, abort the landing, go around the Moon, and get the astronauts home.”

Attwood noted that various burns, firings of the lunar module engine, were required to get the crew on the right trajectory and speed up their return. As well, mission control had to figure out how to deal with a buildup of carbon dioxide on board, while astronauts Haise, Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert had to endure a cold, dark environment on the spacecraft.

There was not a lot of chit-chat. We talked about the food, when we were getting ready to try to eat, and how cold it was and what best to eat.

I gave up on, call it, the ‘normal food’ for most of my four days. I lived off another area of the pantry — that was the snack food. So I ate mostly cookie cubes, bread cubes and peanuts.


Fred Haise, Apollo 13 lunar module pilot during the Q&A

Attwood also spoke about what was going on in mission control, its structure and how it communicated with the Apollo 13 crew in space.

April 14, 1970. A group of six astronauts and two flight controllers monitor the console activity in the Mission Operations Control Room during the Apollo 13 mission. At the time this picture was taken, the moon landing had already been cancelled, and the crew were in trans-Earth trajectory attempting to bring their damaged spacecraft back home. (NASA)

Attwood also showed details of the command and service modules and the lunar module. He said when the explosion happened, the crew were about a day’s journey away from the Moon. One option at that time were to turn around immediately and head back to Earth.

“But they just didn’t have the capability to do that,” he said. “But they felt that they had enough consumables to essentially go around the Moon and come back.”

April 17, 1970. A view of the damaged Apollo 13 service module (SM), photographed from the lunar and command modules following SM jettisoning. The Moon is visible behind the service module. (NASA)

Haise also spoke about his time working on NASA’s space shuttle program, and even spoke about his experience flying “ALT,” or flying the space shuttle’s Approach and Landing Tests.

It controlled well. It was obviously a fly-by-wire type system, so the nature of its handling qualities, we call it, was obviously greatly affected by the software control system designer, and what algorithms were in the software and the computer, and that kind of thing.

And it did fly well. It flew better, in fact, than a trainer. Like a shuttle trainer or aircraft, which supposedly could emulate the real shuttle.

Fred Haise, Apollo 13 lunar module pilot during the Q&A

April 17, 1970: Apollo 13 crew members were welcomed aboard the USS Iwo Jima after splashdown. (Crew, from left): lunar module pilot Fred Haise, command module pilot John Swigert, and commander James Lovell. (NASA)

For information about upcoming Speakers Series talks, click here.

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