ABOARD THE IWO JIMA, April 17, 1970 (UPI) - America's brave but jinxed Apollo 13 astronauts came safely back to earth today, their stricken spaceship coaxed a quarter million miles home by the lander meant to have put them on the moon.
The Odyssey command module bearing James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise plopped down in the South Pacific four miles from this pickup ship at 1:08 p.m. EST and jet helicopters moved into snatch up the bone weary men.
Millions around the world held their breaths as they watched on television the happy ending to a space-age drama that almost ended in tragedy when one whole side of the service module was blown away by a mysterious explosion Monday night.
The astronauts radioed they were OK as they splashed down about 600 miles south of the Samoa Islands.
With power, oxygen and fuel for the command ship snuffed out 205,000 miles from earth the three astronauts had to turn to their awkward four-legged lunar lander Aquarius. They cut it free only an hour before they plunged into the fiery cauldron of re-entry in the earth's atmosphere at more than 25,000 mph.
"Farewell, Aquarius and we thank you," Lovell said as their live-saver drifted away.
"She sure was a good ship," said Swigert, the rookie who joined the crew as a substitute when Thomas K. Mattingly was exposed to the German measles and grounded two days before launch.
The spacecraft landed upright, floating on its broad, flat bottom, and recovery helicopter one reported it was "riding comfortably." Swimmers were deployed in the water near the bobbing capsule.
At splashdown controllers and the Mission Control Center in Houston burst into applause as they did earlier when the command ship was first sighted.
A closeup TV view of the capsule showed it was charred black by the re-entry, but it appeared in excellent condition. Its conical side gleamed silver in the bright sun.
Apollo 13 entered the earth's atmosphere at 12:53 p.m. EST.
"I know all of us here want to thank all of you guys down there for the very fine job you did," said Swigert.
"Welcome home," Mission Control told the crew just before Apollo 13 hit the atmosphere.
Tracking stations reported losing communications signals from Apollo 13 at 12:53 p.m. EST, about a minute earlier than planned. This radio "blackout" was caused by the buildup of electrically charged gases around the spacecraft at it sliced into the top fringes of the air.
The spaceship's deceleration as it dived into the thicker layers of the atmosphere built up an estimated force on the astronauts equal to more than five times the pull of gravity.
The astronauts first words after the radio blackout ended came from Swigert at 12:59 p.m. EST.
"OK, Joe," he said when the Control Center told Apollo 13 ground forces were standing by.
Two 16-foot diameter nylon drogue parachutes popped out of the cone-shaped end of the seared spacecraft at 1:02 to begin its final landing sequence. Apollo 13 was about 23,000 feet above the ocean at the time.
"We can see the drogues," said Swigert.
The capsule's three big orange and white main parachutes were deployed at 1:03 p.m. to lower the charred spacecraft into the sea.
Three minutes before the spacecraft hit the ocean, a cloud of orange smoke was emitted from the spacecraft. This was fuel dumped overboard as planned.
The three astronauts, on exact course but "damned fatigued" after four days of coaxing a crippled spaceship a quarter million miles from the moon, cut free at 11:43 a.m. from the Aquarius whose power, oxygen and engines had saved them.
Earlier they jettisoned that shattered section and saw in astonishment one entire side had been blown off in the near-disaster that had spoiled America's third attempt to put men on the moon.
"There's one whole side of the spacecraft missing," Navy Capt. Lovell reported. "The whole panel is blown out."
Added Haise: "It's really a mess."
Lovell said "A lot of debris" was hanging on to the side of the service module. Its big engine appeared damaged.
The commander revealed all the men had taken a stimulant, dexedrine, before the final hours of split-second operations.
"Well, you can't say this week hasn't been filled with excitement," Lovell told ground controllers.
"Yeah, James," Joe Kerwin replied. "If you can't taken any better care of spacecraft than that, we may not give you another."
The day began on an optimistic note for the spacemen.
They switched on the batteries of their chilled re-entry capsule and they worked. That was at 6:30 a.m. and 50,783 miles to go.
With their lunar lander Aquarius still attached and supplying live-saving oxygen, the astronauts swiftly built up to a speed of 24,385 mph before slashing into the earth's atmosphere.
Lovell told communicator Jack Lousma:
"I'm looking out the window now, Jack, and that earth is really moving in like a high speed freight train."
Lovell also looked back wistfully at the shrinking moon.
"I'm still looking for Fra Mauro (the scheduled moon landing site) and Cone Crater (the crater the astronauts had hoped to inspect)," he said.
"You're going the wrong way, son," said Chief Astronaut Donald F. Slayton.
Ten hours before re-entry, the astronauts reported the spacecraft was so cold that it was hard to sleep. Ground controllers urged them to try anyway so they would be rested for the critical return.
"Well, we'll take it easy and we'll try to sleep, but it's just awful cold," replied Swigert. "It's just too cold to sleep."
"We'd like to figure a way to get a cup of coffee up to you," said Slayton. "It would taste pretty good wouldn't it?"
In Capetown, South Africa, Apollo 13 was visually sighted easily today from the 40-inch Royal Observatory telescope, a science officer said. He described the sighting as a "large pinpoint of light."
The three astronauts were eager to get back home, and the latest plans called for them to arrive by Air Force jet at Houston Sunday morning after spending tonight on the Iwo Jima.
"Are the flowers in bloom yet in Houston?" Lovell asked during a little moment interrupting preparations for the crucial re-entry process. Controllers replied they were not.
Lovell, 42, is the first man to venture into space four times and the first to make two trips to the moon. He said before launch Saturday that this was to be his last space flight.