HOUSTON, April 13, 1970 (UPI) -- The Apollo 13 astronauts today blasted their crippled spacecraft onto a safe course home after narrowly escaping death in a mysterious explosion, possibly caused by meteoroids.
The trio aimed for a splashdown at 12:13 p.m. Friday in the South Pacific Ocean near New Zealand. Earlier, space agency officials at the control center considered bringing them down in the Indian Ocean as early as 1 p.m. Thursday because the astronauts were operating on meager supplies of oxygen and power.
As the spacecraft traveled at 1979 mph shortly after noon today, the astronauts planned to loop the moon at 7:22 tonight-a maneuver designed to put them on the return trip home.
Controllers at the mission control center said James A. Lovell, 42, John L. Swigert, 38, and Fred W. Haise, 36, were performing with cool precision in the life-or-death drama in space. Their chances of survival are "excellent," they said.
The explosion last night rocked the command ship when it was 205,000 miles from earth and eliminated plans to land on the moon. The astronauts struggled for three hours to control their tumbling spacecraft and take steps to conserve the vital oxygen supply and electrical power necessary for the emergency ride to earth.
When their moon-loop course was set, Haise returned to the command module and Lovell and Swigert remained in the lunar module.
The crucial head-for-home maneuver came at 3:43 a.m. today when the astronauts fired the powerful landing engine on the lunar module Aquarius for 31 seconds to switch to a trajectory that will carry them around the moon and back to a return into earth's atmosphere.
"It looks like a good burn and now our only concern is to get those guys home," said Frank Borman, commander of the Apollo 8 moon orbit flight.
Had that pivotal burn failed the men of Apollo 13 would have been marooned in space, zipping thousands of miles past earth with no chance of rescue. They would have died within a week, when their oxygen supply expired.
The pilots sped on toward the moon on a course that would take them around its far side -- 151 miles from its jagged mountain peaks -- and then home.
"Hey, I want to say you guys are doing real good work," said Swigert after everything was under control.
"So are you guys, Jack," replied ground communicator Jack Lousma.
The explosion apparently ruptured one of the ship's fuel cell power generators and an oxygen tank, rapidly spewing oxygen into space. Without that oxygen, the generators could not run and the command ship was powerless except for batteries that will be used for the re-entry into the atmosphere.
Lovell, the first man to venture into space four times and also make a return voyage to the moon, calmly barked commands to his crewmen and they responded like veterans during the most harrowing space emergency ever encountered by Americans.
As soon as they were back on a good trajectory, the astronauts found time to worry about sleep. Controllers told Haise to sleep for six hours while Lovell and Swigert maintained a watch.
Lovell, commander of the space mission, is a Navy captain. His fellow astronauts are civilians. Swigert is a former Air Force fighter pilot and Haise is a former Marine Corps and Air Force fighter pilot. Haise at one time was a test pilot at the Lewis Research Laboratory in Cleveland.
"I think their chances are excellent at the moment, assuming the lunar module continues to operate," said Christopher C. Kraft Jr., deputy director of the manned spacecraft center. He referred to the module as a "lifeboat."
The astronauts' plan is to loop the moon, then, as they swing out on the other side, fire Aquarius' big landing engine to speed their return to earth. This maneuver is scheduled for 9:39 tonight.
Apollo 13's service module was dead, apparently ripped by a meteoroid impact or an explosion of some kind, but the three seat command module was intact and the lunar module latched to its nose was working normally.
The astronauts had 48 pounds of oxygen in their lunar module. Apollo spacecraft Manager James A. McDivitt said that "is more than adequate." Engineers calculated the three men would consume six to eight pounds of oxygen a day and they had about 3 1/2 days to go at the time.
Aquarius also had six batteries-designed to support men on the moon and in lunar orbit for two days -- and McDivitt said this too was enough "to do the whole mission."
"I think we'll have to be very frugal on how we use it," Kraft added. "This is as serious a situation as we have ever had in manned spaceflight."
Once the astronauts approach earth's atmosphere, they will return to the cone-shaped command module, jettison the lunar module and the crippled service module and use the command module's own batteries and small oxygen supply to return to earth.
The lunar module, with no heat shield, will be incinerated when it hits the earth's atmosphere.
The problem struck like a thunderbolt shortly after 10 last night, just after the three pilots had stage a lengthy, good-humored telecast that showed the insides of the lunar module that was soon to be their savior.
"Houston, we've got a problem," reported Swigert matter-of-factly.
In rapid succession, a series of reports from the three crewmen indicated that the command ship Odyssey had lost half its electrical power and was rapidly losing all the oxygen that powers the ship's fuel cell generators.
The pilots reported hearing a "bang" and feeling a jolt when the emergency warning lights flashed on. A few minutes later, Lovell reported an oxygen gauge was reading zero.
"It looks to me, looking out the hatch, like we are venting something into space," Lovell reported. This caused the 48-ton tandem spacecraft to start a gentle tumble the pilots found difficult to control.
Officials said they had no idea what happened to the service module, but Dr. Harvey Nininger of Sedona, Ariz., one of the world's foremost meteor experts, said the ship may have been hit by a meteoroid.
McDivitt added weight to that theory when he said, "It was something that appeared to be quite violent that occurred in bay four. And if it were struck by a meteoroid, that would be violent."
Ground controllers at first tried frantically to save the hardluck mission. But it soon became apparent the Odyssey's supporting service module had been severely damaged by the mysterious failure. In three hours it was dead.
Lovell and Haise quickly turned their attention to the lunar module and fought to control the ship's tumble so they could use its lunar landing guidance equipment to steer the pilots back home.
"Why the hell are we maneuvering," barked Haise when the big tandem spacecraft rolled and bucked as it continued to speed toward the moon.
"I can't take that doggone roll out," replied Lovell, a veteran of the Apollo 8 lunar orbit flight that did not have a lunar module along. Later the pilots managed to activate the lunar lander's control rockets and settle the ship down.
The pilots reported a large amount of debris, apparently from the service module, hanging in space near the lunar module and this interfered with their efforts to make navigation sighting on stars.
Apollo 13 was launched from Cape Kennedy Saturday after Swigert was substituted at the last moment for Thomas K. Mattingly, who doctors feared would come down with the German measles this week.
The first two days of the mission went without a hitch, and Apollo 13 appeared to be moving smoothly toward a landing on the moon tomorrow night. Lovell and Haise were scheduled to explore a hilly stretch of lunar terrain for the first time.
It was America's fifth flight to the moon. The next mission, Apollo 14, is scheduled for launch Oct. 1.