Fifty years ago today, a Saturn V rocket blasted off from Cape Kennedy Spaceport. The destination of the three-man crew–astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert–in the command module perched atop the rocket was the Fra Mauro Highlands on the moon. They never got there. A faulty wire in the service module’s oxygen tanks sparked during a routine stirring operation, and the resulting explosion forced the deactivate of the service module’s engines and the reliance on the lunar excursion module as a de facto lifeboat, as NASA shifted from a lunar landing to an earthbound rescue operation. Even though the mission’s stated purpose of landing on the moon was a failure, the space agency’s brilliant work in overcoming one obstacle after another in order to bring the three astronauts safely back to Earth was one of the great success stories of teamwork and technical know-how in history. The mission was Apollo 13. You may have heard of it.
Here’s an article from Space.com about the Apollo 13 mission, and here’s an excerpt, profiling mission commander Jim Lovell, from Andrew Chaikin’s wonderful book about the Apollo moon missions, A Man on the Moon:
At age forty-two, Jim Lovell was the most traveled man alive. With three spaceflights under his belt, he had racked up 572 hours and nearly 7 million miles, more than any other astronaut or cosmonaut. For many men that would have been enough, but not for Jim Lovell. From the day he joined the astronaut corps in 1962, his ultimate goal had been to command a lunar mission. Command was even more important to Jim Lovell than landing on the moon, and most veteran astronauts felt the same way. When [Frank] Borman turned down Deke Slayton’s tentative offer to fly the first lunar landing it had everything to do with the fact that he had been the commander of Apollo 8. If Lovell had any disappointment about his commander’s decision, it vanished when Slayton assigned him to lead Neil Armstrong’s backup crew. Within weeks after Armstrong’s team came back from the moon, Lovell and his crew were training for their own landing.
By the spring of 1970, most of Lovell’s colleagues from the second astronaut group had moved on to other things. Neil Armstrong had disappeared into the world of postflight P.R. that greeted him on his return from Apollo 11; it seemed unlikely that he would fly again. Jim McDivitt had traded the demands of flying Apollo missions for the equally demanding job of preparing for them, as manager of the Apollo Spaceflight Program Office in Houston. Tom Stafford, though, still on flight status, had replaced Al Shepard as chief of the Astronaut Office, and wasn’t scheduled for another mission. And Frank Borman had begun a new life as a vice president with Eastern Airlines. One day Borman came by for a visit while Lovell was in the simulator, and he seemed glad to be free of the training grind. “Jim,” he said, “aren’t you tired of this? I wouldn’t want to go through this again.”
Lovell couldn’t have felt more differently. This was his seventh time around, counting the stints on backup crews, and even now his appetite for spaceflight was undiminished. He himself described it as an addiction. He could have gone on until NASA said he was too old to fly ano more, but he know that when he came back from Apollo 13 he would face a long wait, perhaps several years, before he flew again. Well aware of the astronauts still waiting for their first flights, he decided he would not get back on line for a fifth. Apollo 13 would be a great finale to a long spaceflight career.
Like every commander, Lovell wanted his mission to stand out, but he couldn’t see why people would remember the third lunar landing. And that was fine with him. He wanted badly to land on the moon, and he was glad for the chance to make a contribution to science. The Apollo 13 mission patch read “Ex Lune, Scientia”–From the moon, knowledge–and Lovell thought of that when he christened his lunar module Aquarius, after the god of the ancient Egyptians who brought life to the Nile Valley (not to mention the popular song from the Broadway musical Hair). The command module Odyssey, meanwhile, took its name not only from Homer’s epic work but from Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction vision of space travel. When Lovell was back on earth, he would find irony in odyssey’s dictionary definition: a long voyage with many changes of fortune.