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Twenty years ago this Friday the 13th, the Apollo...

By WILLIAM HARWOOD UPI Science Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Twenty years ago this Friday the 13th, the Apollo 13 moonship, launched at 13:13 Houston military time two days earlier, was rocked by an explosion that triggered one of the most dramatic crises in the history of manned spaceflight.

The tense life-and-death drama began at 10:08 p.m. EDT on April 13, 1970, when an oxygen tank in the Apollo 13 service module suddenly blew up as the spacecraft and its three-member crew were hurtling toward the moon some 205,000 miles from Earth.

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The flight began two days earlier when commander James Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise blasted off atop a giant Saturn 5 rocket at 2:13 p.m. EDT April 11 from the Kennedy Space Center to kick off the third manned lunar landing mission.

'The first two days we ran into a couple of minor surprises, but generally Apollo 13 was looking like the smoothest flight in the program,' Lovell wrote in 'Apollo Expeditions to the Moon.'

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'At 55 hours 46 minutes (into the flight), as we finished a 49-minute TV broadcast showing how comfortably we lived and worked in weightlessness, I pronounced the benediction: 'This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening. ... Good night.''

Nine minutes later, oxygen tank No. 2, mounted in the Apollo service module directly behind the manned command module, exploded, which caused the No. 1 tank to fail as well.

'OK, Houston, we've had a problem here,' an obviously tense Swigert radioed mission control in Houston.

'This is Houston,' replied astronaut Jack Lousma from the control center. 'Say again, please.'

'Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt,' Lovell said, indicating a loss of electrical power.

So began one of the most engrossing dramas ever played out on the high frontier.

'We came to the slow conclusion that our normal supply of electricity, light and water was lost and we were about 200,000 miles from Earth,' Lovell recalled. 'We did not even have power to (swivel) the engine so we could begin an immediate return to Earth.'

It quickly became apparent that the only way the Apollo 13 crew could survive would be to power down the command module and to use the lunar module's life support systems during a long loop around the moon for an emergency return to Earth.

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Less than two hours after the initial bang of the explosion, the astronauts began activating the life support system of the lunar module Aquarius.

The major task facing the astronauts and engineers on the ground was to figure out a way to make Aquarius's air, water and power supplies last longer than planned. The lunar lander was designed to operate for 45 hours, and it would take twice that to make it back to Earth for a successful reentry aboard the command module.

Air was not a problem and the astronauts were able to conserve water, food and electrical power, using the lunar module's descent engine to aim the coupled spacecraft back toward Earth for a successful re-entry.

But it was close.

'I did, of course, occasionally think of the possibility that the spacecraft explosion might maroon us in an enormous orbit about the Earth -- a sort of perpetual monument to the space program,' Lovell wrote. 'But Jack Swigert, Fred Haise and I never talked about that fate during our perilous flight. I guess we were too busy struggling for survival.

'Survive we did, but it was close. Our mission was a failure, but I like to think it was a successful failure.'

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