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Monday, April 19, 2021

Explained: What was Apollo 13’s mission to the Moon, what went wrong?

While Apollo 13 did not land on the lunar surface, it was able to return photographs that it took when it looped around the Moon.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 15, 2020 1:54:24 pm
Astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise just before reentering Earth. Image: NASA

On Saturday, NASA marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 crewed mission to the Moon – known as “a successful failure” as its crew were able to pull off a safe return despite the spacecraft enduring an explosion.

Apollo 13 was NASA’s seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third that was to land on the Moon.

What was Apollo 13’s mission?

Apollo 11 and 12 – the previous two missions – had landed on lunar maria– the dark patches on the near side of the Moon which provide comparatively easier landing abilities. Apollo 13 was supposed to make a more challenging landing near the Fra Mauro, a crater which was formed as ejecta from the impact that formed the Imbrium Basin.

Conducting experiments at the Fra Mauro formation would have provided greater insights about the Moon and the Earth’s early geological history.

As part of its mission, Apollo 13 had to install a seismometer that would measure lunar seismic activity, equipment that would measure protons and electrons of solar origin on the Moon, and measure debris accumulation, among other objectives.

Explained: NASA’s Artemis mission, and the Indian American in its new astronaut cohort

What went wrong with Apollo 13?

The Apollo 13 mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on April 11, 1970, aboard the Saturn V SA-508 rocket. Its crew consisted of astronauts James Lovell Jr, Fred Haise Jr, and John Swigert Jr.

Two days into the mission, an explosion caused the oxygen tank in the service module to fail. Following this, astronauts Haise and Lovell famously radioed mission control at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, “(Haise:) Okay Houston– (Lovell:) I believe we’ve had a problem here.”

To which the Space Centre replied, “This is Houston. Say again please”. To which Lovell reiterated, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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After an hour, mission control had the lunar landing aborted, and announced an alternate mission in which Apollo 13 would swing around the Moon before returning to Earth.

The crew then had to move to the lunar module and were forced to make a heroic emergency re-entry. After enduring gruelling conditions aboard the spacecraft, the astronauts were able to return to Earth on April 17, landing in the South Pacific Ocean.

While Apollo 13 was in space, it caused excitement in many corners, and countries including America’s major rival, the USSR, expressed solidarity and promised cooperation. French, British, and Soviet warships moved to the rescue in the planned recovery area for Apollo 13.

While Apollo 13 did not land on the lunar surface, it was able to return photographs that it took when it looped around the Moon.

In 1995, the aborted mission inspired a successful Hollywood film with the same name starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard.

NASA’s crewed missions to the Moon

After Apollo 11, the successful crewed mission that made Neil Armstrong the first human to set foot on the Moon, NASA sent six more missions between 1969 and 1972.

Of these, five succeeded (Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) at landing humans on the lunar surface.

The six missions in total that were able to land on the Moon returned with a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.

Don’t miss from Explained: Where NASA could go next — Venus, moons of Jupiter, Neptune

The missions landed 12 astronauts on the Moon’s surface, all of whom were men. By 2024, the space agency plans to send the first woman and the next man aboard the Artemis mission.

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