This month, we celebrate the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission. This mission was supposed to make history as the third to land on the Moon, but instead, it left a much greater impact. When an oxygen tank failed, it was up to NASA and Apollo’s three-person crew to improvise a solution to get everyone home safe. This mission demonstrated that even in the face of danger, when people work together, they can accomplish incredible things.
As I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “One of the most unifying human qualities is creativity.” It was creativity that brought people from all around the world together to save the crew of Apollo 13. Their teamwork showed what humanity can achieve when we work together towards a common goal, and the lessons learned from this mission taught people the power of innovation. Keep reading to learn more about the power of creativity and how it brought the crew of Apollo 13 home safely!
Apollo 13 mission emblem
Image credit: NASA
Apollo 13: The Mission
Apollo 13 is one of the most well-known space missions in history. It was the seventh crewed Apollo mission and was commanded by Jim Lovell. Lovell served alongside command module pilot Jack Swigert and Apollo Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise. While Lovell was a veteran astronaut, Apollo 13 was the first mission for Swigert and Haise, and it sure put all their training to the test!
NASA’s Apollo Program
NASA’s Apollo program began in 1961 and was dedicated to landing the first humans on the Moon. It was the United States’ third human spaceflight program, preceded by Project Mercury and Project Gemini. Project Mercury capsules could carry one crew member, Project Gemini’s could carry two, and the Apollo spacecraft could carry three.
The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three main parts:
- The command module, which carried the astronauts from launch to landing.
- The service module which supported this Command Module and contained a service propulsion engine and a fuel cell power generation system.
- The Apollo Lunar Module, which was designed to land on the lunar surface with two astronauts and then return them back to the command module after they completed their mission.
In total, there were seventeen Apollo missions, and ultimately, twelve astronauts stepped foot on the Moon. These missions were momentous in space exploration and each made history in their own right. However, these accomplishments didn’t come without trial, error, and hard work, and they wouldn’t be possible without the remarkable team rallying behind them.
The Mission of Apollo 13
Before Apollo 13, there were seven crewed Apollo missions. Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 were the first and second to land on the Moon, and Apollo 13 was meant to be the third.
On the lunar surface, Apollo 13 was set to conduct numerous experiments to study the composition of the Moon.
After months of testing and preparation, the mission launched on April 11, 1970, from the John F Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The command, service, and lunar modules were carried on board a Saturn V rocket. The Command and Service Module was nicknamed Odyssey and the Apollo Lunar Module was nicknamed Aquarius. These spacecraft carried Jim Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise on a mission meant to last four days. But after technical failure two days in, the mission went on to be much longer.
Disaster Strikes Apollo 13
These famous words were uttered by Jim Lovell as he reported an explosion in the spacecraft to NASA. The second oxygen tank had blown up, and as a result, the regular supply of oxygen, water, and electricity were shut down. Odyssey, where the astronauts were living, was leaking oxygen and losing fuel cells at a rapid pace as the spacecraft flew farther and farther from Earth.
Just minutes before, Lovell had been conducting a routine task in which he turned on the fans in the fuel and oxygen tanks. This was meant to stir the oxygen to avoid it separating into layers. Unknown to the astronauts, inside the second oxygen tank, there was a damaged wire. When the fans were turned on, the wire caused a spark and started a fire. Soon after, the tank exploded and severely damaged other equipment in the area.
Mission Control Center during Apollo 13 splashdown
Image credit: NASA JSC
Apollo 13: Creative Thinking Saves the Day
When disaster struck Apollo 13, the crew found themselves trapped 200,000 miles away from Earth. The worst was feared as NASA faced a crisis they had never dealt with before. Scientists from around the world needed to come together and think creatively in order to bring the astronauts back home safely.
The explosion aboard the spacecraft presented numerous problems. The crew now faced a severe shortage of oxygen, water, electricity, and light. Temperatures dropped drastically, hitting a low of roughly 38 °F, and food became inedible. Oxygen vented out of the spacecraft at a rapid pace, and attitude control thrusters were damaged by the explosion and unable to stabilize the spacecraft. Life support systems were inoperable and in order to conserve resources for reentry, Command Module systems needed to be shut down. These systems helped the spacecraft operate, navigate, and support the astronauts, but the ones that were nonessential were turned off until it was time to return home.
In order to survive, the crew had to transfer to Aquarius, the Landing Module meant to land on the Moon. They moved to this part of the spacecraft quickly, around an hour after the explosion occurred. However, this spacecraft was only designed to support two men for two days and lacked a heat shield needed for reentry. Scientists and engineers needed to figure out how to solve each of these problems and conserve limited and damaged resources.
The first problem NASA teams needed to work out was what flight path the astronauts could take home. With limited supplies, conserving time was of utmost importance. However, taking a shorter path was a riskier approach, and no one wanted to take any chances. Due to this, mission control decided to guide the spacecraft on a longer route – traveling around the Moon before heading back to Earth – and they came up with creative ways to conserve supplies.
This new flight path would take four days. For this duration, the astronauts transferred to stay in Aquarius, which scientists reconfigured to support the three of them. One system they created was a “mail box.”
Apollo 13 Lunar Module “Mail Box”
Image Credit: NASA
This arrangement took lithium hydroxide canisters from the Command Module to get rid of carbon dioxide from the Landing Module. This “mail box” was made solely out of a plastic bag, a spacesuit hose, cardstock, and duct tape and successfully kept carbon dioxide levels down for the duration of the flight.
To deal with issues of food and water, the crew had to ration what they consumed. Each astronaut was limited to six ounces of water per day (that’s about half a standard plastic water bottle!), and they lost a total of 31 pounds during their mission. Their intake was strictly monitored because not only did the astronauts need water, but the spacecraft did as well. Water helps cool machinery down and prevents any further damage caused by heat exposure.
The temperature in the spacecraft, which dropped to 38℉, was also an issue. Lovell and Haise put on the boots they were supposed to wear when they walked on the Moon. Swigert didn’t have a pair (because he was never supposed to walk outside the spacecraft) so instead, he had to put on extra clothing to keep warm.
While conditions were rough, everyone came together to make sure the astronauts made it back home alive. NASA teams worked round the clock to improvise solutions to help the crew stay safe during their four-day journey home, and ultimately, they were successful. On April 17, the astronauts splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean. They were successfully picked up by American ships, but two ships from the Soviet Union were also present at the site in case more help was needed. Haise suffered from a kidney and urinary tract infection, but the crew had otherwise made it back home unharmed.
President Nixon and Apollo 13 crewmen
Image credit: NASA JSC
Apollo 13: The Legacy
What could have been a terrible failure turned into an important moment in history. Apollo 13 demonstrated the power of humanity and how, when great minds come together, people can accomplish extraordinary things. The lessons we learned from Apollo 13 have changed both the space industry and the world of science.
When the astronauts began their descent back to Earth, countries around the world were ready to pick them up. Soviet Union ships were at the landing area ready to offer assistance, and multiple other countries offered resources as well, including France, Uruguay, and Burundi. Years prior, many of these countries had signed the International Agreement for the Safe Return of Astronauts, which said they would take any and all needed steps to rescue astronauts in distress. This agreement exemplified the power of international collaboration.
Tens of millions of people everywhere watched Apollo 13’s splashdown, united in their concern for the crew As Jack Gould, a reporter for the New York Times, put it:
“The venture, which came so close to tragic disaster, in all probability united the world in mutual concern more fully than another successful landing on the moon would have.”
Change in Mission Design
While this mission was a close call, the experience helped NASA make improvements to their spacecraft and ultimately learn. For subsequent Apollo missions, oxygen tanks were redesigned, thermostats were modified, and stirring fans were removed. Emergency water and batteries were added to the Command Module, and another oxygen tank was added so that one would never go below half full. This third tank was set up so that it could be isolated from fuel cells and the other oxygen tanks if an emergency arose. Furthermore, all electrical wiring was upgraded to be lined with stainless steel and monitoring systems were changed to detect and alert the crew of anomalies sooner.
The Power of Space Exploration
As evident with Apollo 13, space exploration has the power to bring the world together. Scientists and engineers everywhere gave their all to help rescue the three stranded astronauts. In their efforts, they developed innovations and technologies that revolutionized spaceflight. The creative solutions they came up with have assisted people everywhere, not just astronauts, and have had lasting impacts on our lives.
Apollo 13 demonstrated the power of teamwork as people achieved things that had never been done before. While the mission didn’t fulfill its intended goal, it was by no means a failure. Without the lessons we learned from Apollo 13, we would not be able to achieve the things we have today.
The Power of Creativity
Apollo 13 showed us just how powerful creativity is. Creativity can turn failures into extraordinary successes, but none of that would be possible without people’s hard work and dedication. To learn more about the importance of creativity in achieving your goals, check out my new book, Dream Big!: How to Reach For Your Stars. Inside, I share my advice for chasing after your dreams, developing your creativity, and discuss important habits to develop that’ll help you get there.