As we approach the 50th anniversary of one of the most amazing and, honestly, miraculous chapters of the United States manned spaceflight program, it’s worth looking at some perspectives that may have only been considered from a popular culture angle.
Apollo 13 had been intended as the third lunar landing mission, but it was aborted when damaged wire insulation inside an oxygen tank on the Service Module caused an explosion that vented the tank’s contents. The crew was forced into the Lunar Module for the duration as Mission Control formulated new plans to get the stricken vehicle and imperiled crew back home to Earth. This could easily have been the most tragic event in the history of the space program, effectively ending all future efforts. But, these men and women in both the MCC and across the country were able to solve the unprecedented problems that they faced and ultimately guide the crew safely to splashdown.
I would be surprised if any reader of my blog hasn’t seen the outstanding “Apollo 13” movie, released back in 1995. In that movie, some liberties were taken with the actual events, but honestly – they were relatively small and only served to make the movie better, without being so factually incorrect as to change the historical events. There were even a number of them that were so miniscule that only those of us with an MCC background would have even noticed.
In the movie, though, one of the most dramatically prominent spoken lines (and actually the tag-line) was from the actor Ed Harris portraying White Team Flight Director Gene Kranz emphatically stating that “Failure Is Not An Option!”
But, Gene never said that.
(When two of the script writers interviewed Bostick), they asked “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?”Jerry answered “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”Only months later did Jerry learn that when they got in their car to leave, (one of the script writers) started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.
Apollo 13 has been described by many as a “successful failure”, but that unfairly projects the concept of failure (and even some of the blame) onto a large group of men and women who had nothing to do with the hardware situation that almost doomed the crew. Mission Control and all of the support personnel rose to the challenge of this literal life-and-death scenario. They turned what could have easily been the loss of Apollo 13 and her crew into one of the space program’s finest examples of teamwork, dedication, unique solutions to previously unknown problems, and ultimately – a successful resolution.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and I’ve blogged quite a bit about that and the influence it had on me. Now that we’re rapidly approaching 50 years since Apollo 13, it only seemed logical to write something about it, too!
As a former FDO myself, I’m fortunate enough to be in contact with Jerry, and he allowed me to reblog his thoughts about the experience of this event from within Mission Control. Enjoy.
by Jerry Bostick
White Team Flight Dynamics Officer
Some have called Apollo 13 a successful failure.
Since I have an aversion to the word “failure”, I say it was a very demanding situation with a very successful outcome.
If there was ever a mission that proved the worthiness of Mission Control, it was Apollo 13. We were faced with problems that we had never seen before, had no Mission Rules and had not simulated. But it wasn’t Mission Control that saved Apollo 13. In addition to the flight crew and thousands of others around the world, it could be said that the astronauts were saved by several miracles followed by an act of God.
The first miracle was that the problem happened at about the perfect time in the mission. Any earlier and there would not have been enough consumables (power, air, water) to last until getting back to Earth. Any later and they would be separated from the Lunar Module, obviously eliminating it as an immediate rescue vehicle.
Another miracle was that we were able to reprogram our computers in the Control Center to do a docked maneuver using the Lunar Module Descent Propulsion System, targeted for a return to Earth. We did docked maneuvers in Earth orbit on Apollo 9, but they were just timed burns with no specific target. Within about 1½ hours, IBM wrote and installed a program in the Real Time Computer Complex that allowed us to do that. In a similar amount of time, TRW did the same in our offline computer system, the Auxiliary Computer Room in the office wing of the control center.
The Lunar Module flight controllers also began work on another miracle; how to make a vehicle designed to accommodate two people for two days now support three people for twice that long.
Another miracle, perhaps even more amazing, was being able to power up the Command Module after it had been completely turned off when the astronauts got into the LM. That was my greatest concern, but I was confident that the systems flight controllers would figure out how to do it.
The act of God was that all of these miracles came together and saved the flight crew.
Teamwork among flight controllers and with the astronauts, the engineering community and the spacecraft contractors, was the best I have ever seen. Each group had seemingly impossible tasks to complete and they accomplished those tasks without interference from the other groups or management.
Even though we all knew Jack Swigert from his time in the Control Center as a Capsule Communicator, we had only a short time to run simulations with him after his assignment to the mission. An illustration of this situation was that when he first reported “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, I wasn’t sure how serious the problem was. But then when Jim Lovell repeated the same words, it was obvious to me, just by the tone of his voice, that is was a very serious problem.
Again, in my mind Apollo 13 was not a successful failure.
It was a very demanding situation with a very successful outcome.
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