How NASA saved Apollo 13

Failure was not an option for the return of this three-man crew, one of the most dramatic rescue missions in history.


The Service Module was severely damaged by an exploding oxygen tank.

The following is an excerpt from our feature on ‘NASA’s Greatest Achievements’ in our latest issue. To read the rest of the article check out issue 6 of All About Space, on sale now.

Despite six successful lunar landings, the story of Apollo 13 is perhaps second only in notoriety to that of Apollo 11. The successful return of this seemingly doomed crew was testament to NASA’s quick thinking and technical expertise.

Apollo 13 launched in the afternoon of 11 April 1970 with apparently no problems, despite a minor engine malfunction on the Saturn V rocket, and just a few hours after launching it was on its way to the Moon as healthy as the rest of the lunar missions.

55 hours into the mission on 13 April 1970, at a distance of 320,000 km (200,000 miles) form Earth, something suddenly went wrong. 93 seconds after being asked by mission control to turn on the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, the astronauts heard a loud bang followed by fluctuations in power and firing of the spacecraft’s thrusters.

Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell caught up with the story upon the crew's safe return.

The problem was the second oxygen tank of the Service Module, which had exploded following a short-circuit in the wires to one of the stirring fans. With limited power available, and life-essential resources running out, the crew used the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. The possibility of landing on the surface of the Moon was now impossible, and the primary mission was aborted by Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Owing to its proximity to the Moon, the decision was made to swing Apollo 13 around the Moon to return it to Earth. Four days after the accident first occurred, and with survival hanging by a thread, the crew successfully splashed down on Earth on 17 April 1970. Their safe return was celebrated around the world, and the lessons learned from this mission allowed for the continued success of the next four lunar missions.

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