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Apollo 13's 50th anniversary recalls NASA tragedy turned triumph

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Apollo 13's 50th anniversary recalls NASA tragedy turned triumph
The Apollo 13 lunar mission crew were Commander James A. Lovell Jr. (L), command module pilot John L. Swigert Jr. (C) and lunar module pilot Fred W. Haise Jr. File Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., April 10 (UPI) -- The 50th anniversary of Apollo 13's launch on Saturday recalls a NASA tragedy that turned into a triumph of training and innovation.

The third attempt to reach the moon ended with a serious explosion on the spacecraft as it neared the celestial body. That set off a series of emergencies on board, including rising carbon dioxide, electrical power shortages and the possibility of being stranded.

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With teams of experts on the ground making crucial decisions through the horrific experience, the three astronauts returned home safely on April 17, 1970.

"The major TV networks, by Apollo 13, had kind of lost interest," NASA chief historian Bill Barry said in a phone interview this week.

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"But after the explosion, suddenly there was a whole lot of interest. Everyone was asking, will NASA pull off? Will the astronauts make it? It really did pull people together," Barry said.

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He said a highlight of the goodwill that followed was a message from Russian cosmonauts expressing concern and best wishes despite the Cold War.

Footage and recordings of entire Apollo 13 mission can be viewed in real time at the Apollo in Real Time website, which was designed by NASA software engineer and historian Ben Fiest.

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The astronauts on Apollo 13 were Jim Lovell Jr., Fred Haise Jr. and Jack Swigert Jr. Lovell and Haise were to have walked on the moon.

Lovell, 92, and Haise, 86, have spoken at many events over the years about the harrowing mission. Swigert died of respiratory failure in 1982 at age 51, seven weeks before he was to start his first term as a U.S. congressman.

The anniversary comes as NASA's construction of a new moon rocket was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. The space agency has acknowledged that might delay its first test launch, with a goal of returning to the moon by 2024 for the first time since 1972.

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"It's amazing to me that it's been 50 years. It's time we go back to the moon," said retired NASA lead flight director Milton Windler, 88. "With Apollo 13, the thing that stands out most to me is the amazing team effort that went into bringing the astronauts home."

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Windler recalled being at Mission Control in Houston when the explosion occurred. As one of four flight directors for Apollo 13, he slept at Mission Control for three nights during the crisis to help out.

The explosion set off a lot of alarms and warning lights on the ground and in the command module, whose call sign was Odyssey, Windler said. But a similar thing had happened just months before when lightning struck Apollo 12 less than a minute after liftoff, and the rocket turned out to be fine.

"We knew there was a problem, but you don't know how bad it is right away," Windler said. "But people quit thinking about landing on the moon fairly quick and started thinking about survival."

Jerry Woodfill, another engineer at Mission Control, was responsible for the alarm systems on the spacecraft.

"I looked at the console and I saw the screen flicker, and I thought that's unusual," said Woodfill, now 77. Then a few minutes later, I heard, 'Houston we've had a problem.'"

When carbon dioxide began to build up, another alarm went off. Woodfill at first thought the alarm might be malfunctioning.

But he checked the data and informed colleagues that a real problem existed. He then became part of the team that had to help the astronauts cobble together a filter to keep the gas from rising to levels that could kill them.

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"We were trained in all the systems so well, I was confident we could help," Woodfill said.

The mission wound up using the lunar module, whose call sign was Aquarius, as a rescue ship to fly back to Earth.

Today the innovative solutions used during Apollo 13 are studied as part of NASA's Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program, said Mike Ciannilli, the program manager.

"They started prioritizing very quickly what had to be done, protecting resources on board, preventing any more accidents," Ciannilli said.

He said some of the accident's biggest lessons related to time management during an emergency, the importance of good communication and diversity of opinion.

"You can learn from success or failure. When it comes to Apollo 13, we're still learning from both, and that's why you often hear it described as a successful failure," Ciannilli said.

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