Apollo 13: A successful failure

James Lovell-by Christophe Cheroret

By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Duct tape. Don't leave home -- or earth -- without it.

Commander James Lovell of Apollo 13 told a packed audience at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center Wednesday night the obstacles the crew and ground control for Apollo 13 had to overcome to return safely to earth after an accident. An explosion onboard the space capsule led to astronaut John "Jack" Swigert telling flight control director Gene Kranz words he will never forget: "Houston, we have a problem."

Lovell, Kranz and Fred Haise, who was also on the Apollo 13 mission, told their first-person stories as part of Fort Hays State University's Sebelius Lecture Series. Lovell thought the mission was jinxed from the start.

"To me, the 13 mission was plagued with bad omens, bad luck," he said.

A liquid oxygen tank was dropped on the floor during testing, delaying its use from the Apollo 11 mission to Apollo 13. That damaged liquid oxygen tank caused the explosion. "It was a bomb ready to go off," Lovell said.

Four days before the launch on April 11, 1970, astronaut Ken Mattingly was exposed to the measles. He had never had them and was replaced on the mission by Swigert.

"It put a damper on us, emotionally," Haise said.

Lovell's wife even wondered if maybe her husband shouldn't wait to fly on Apollo 14 and skip the 13 mission.

The liquid oxygen tank accident occurred on the 13 mission's third day. At first, Kranz thought the problem was an ordinary electrical glitch. But when he heard the report that there was venting from the capsule, he knew it was something far more serious.

"This was when I and the entire team went into survival mode," Kranz said.

Now the mission was to get the three astronauts safely home. That's where duct tape played its role in NASA history.

Carbon dioxide was building up in the lunar module, where the astronauts retreated after the accident. Canisters in the command module which would alleviate the problem were square, and they needed to fit in a round hole. Mission control devised a way for the astronauts to make the canisters fit using a cardboard cover from a manual, a piece of plastic, an old sock and duct tape.

Duct tape, "don't leave home without it," Lovell said to laughter from the audience.

As the astronauts approached the moon before sling-shotting back around toward earth, mission control wanted to go over the checklist. Haise and Swigert had other ideas. They had their cameras ready.

"I said, 'If we don't get home you won't get (the pictures) developed,' " Lovell remembered saying. "They said, 'Jim, you've been here before; we haven't.' " Lovell had flown on Apollo 8, the first flight to the moon.

Kranz detailed what it took to get the astronauts back to earth on April 17, 1970, and Lovell followed with an understated summation that made the audience laugh.

"Well, we got home OK," he said. "Otherwise, Kranz would be here by himself."

Get home, indeed. The mission was called a successful failure for getting the astronauts home safely.

Swigert died at age 51 in 1982, shortly after being elected to Congress in Colorado. Lovell is 88 now, while Haise and Kranze are both 82.

Ron Howard produced the movie "Apollo 13" about the mission. It was mainly accurate, the astronauts agreed.

As for the future of current-day NASA, it's up in the air.

"NASA would like a lot more money, and I would like to see them get a lot more money," Haise said. He added that public opinion and lawmakers on NASA's side is the key. "It's that simple. You can't go anywhere without the right budget."

America has what it takes to continue to explore the heavens, Kranz said.

"I believe what our nation will dare, our nation will do," Kranz said. "The books on space have already been written. The technology is there with young, talented people capable of doing that. What we need is the national leadership, the will to do it."

After a 90-minute talk Wednesday, there was a short question-and-answer period. The last question came from a young boy who asked, "Did you think you were going to die?"

After the audience erupted in laughter and applause, Lovell talked of the need to stay positive. Right after the accident, the media said there was a 10-percent chance of returning safely, Lovell said.

"As the time went on, (we) kept working, solved one crisis after the other, the thoughts about the percentage kept going up," Lovell said. "You have to take a positive attitude. You can't think of the (alternative)."

Then it was time to go. First one, then another, and another audience member rose out of their seats. Then everybody gave a standing ovation.

The three American heroes smiled and waved as they ambled off stage into the dark night, where -- if you looked into the sky -- you could see the moon, beckoning.

Photo caption: Commander James Lovell of the Apollo 13 mission at a reception on campus prior to the lecture. Photo by Christophe Cheroret of Life in Portrait.

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