Apollo Program Part 3: "Houston, we've had a problem."
1961. At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Just weeks later, the United States launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepherd. ‘All systems are go!’ He was welcomed home as a hero, but President John F Kennedy knew that if the United States was to overtake the Soviet space programme, it needed a bolder mission. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
As Kennedy addressed congress, the United States had just fifteen minutes of human spaceflight experience. No one knew if a moon landing was even possible, let alone in just nine years. It would be an unprecedented engineering and scientific undertaking, marked by heroism, and tragedy. The incredible task of landing an astronaut on the Moon would be known as the Apollo Program.
On the 20th of July, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. But now that President Kennedy’s goal had been accomplished, interest in space exploration began to fade. NASA’s budget was slashed. There would only be resources for six more lunar flights. But in its final chapter, The Apollo Program would make its greatest scientific discoveries, and face the deadliest perils of spaceflight. ‘I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.’ ‘This is Houston, say again please?’ ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’
Apollo 11 landed safely, but it completely missed its intended landing site. NASA’s plans for lunar exploration relied on its ability to land astronauts at precise points of scientific interest. It would be up to Apollo 12 to attempt a pinpoint landing. Apollo 12 would aim to land next to the Surveyor 3 probe, which had been on the moon since 1967. If NASA could hit this precise target, they’d prove that a pinpoint landing was possible.
Apollo 12’s crew was Mission Commander Pete Conrad, Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon, and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean. They were a tight-knit crew, who drove matching gold corvettes to work at Kennedy Space Centre. Conrad and Gordon had already flown together on Gemini 11, and all three men had been stationed at the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. But their mission almost didn’t make it into orbit. As the countdown reached zero,
huge thunderclouds loomed overhead. The colossal Saturn V rocket and its exhaust trail were acting as a gigantic lightning rod. Two lightning strikes shut down the service module’s fuel cells, and knocked out the command module’s guidance system. But nobody had seen the strikes, all they could see was a barrage of errors and warnings.
‘I got three fuel cell lights, an AC Bus light, a fuel cell disconnect, AC Bus overload 1 and 2, Main Bus A and B out.’ In Mission Control, flight director Gerry Griffin was moments from calling an abort. But a young flight controller named John Aaron was able to interpret the chaotic data, and come up with a solution. With no time to explain, he relayed an obscure instruction to the crew: CAPCOM: ‘Apollo 12, Houston, try SCE to Auxiliary, over’ Conrad: ‘NCE to Auxiliary?’ CAPCOM: ‘SCE. SCE to Auxiliary’
The command was so obscure that neither the flight director or Conrad had any idea what the it meant. But in the Lunar Module Pilot’s seat, Alan Bean understood Aaron’s solution. He switched to a set of backup electronics that had escaped the lighting strike, and the mission was back on track. ‘I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.’ The problem had been diagnosed and fixed within moments, it was a testament to the rigorous training of the astronauts and mission control staff. The crew of Apollo 12 continued their journey to the moon, and made a safe landing. Comin down at two, Pete, you’ve got plenty of gas, plenty of gas, babe.
He’s got it made! Contact light! When Pete Conrad stepped foot on the lunar surface, his first words lacked Neil Armstrong's gravitas, but he more than made up for it with his delight. ‘Whoopee! Man that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me. I’m going to step off the pad… Ooh is that soft and queasy…' As he looked around the landing site, he saw that their mission had been accomplished. ‘Guess what I see sitting on the side of
the crater.’ ‘The old surveyor, right?’ ‘The old surveyor, yes sir.’ ‘It can’t be any further than 600 feet from here. How about that.’ Apollo 12 had made its pinpoint landing next to the Surveyor 3 Probe. It was located in Oceanus Procellarum. Also known as the Ocean of Storms. Now, NASA had sent astronauts to the Moon
four times, including two successful landings. But if lunar flight was starting to look routine, the next Apollo mission would be a terrifying reminder of the dangers of spaceflight. The third lunar landing attempt marked a shift in the Apollo program. Previous missions had largely been test flights of the spacecraft. Apollo 13 would focus on scientific discovery. It would land at the Fra Mauro highlands, whose ancient terrain could provide insight into the origins of the solar system. Adapting a motto from the US Naval Academy,
the mission patch features the words ‘Ex Luna, Scientia’ - from the Moon, knowledge. But before the crew of Apollo 13 reached the Moon, a disaster would leave them fighting for their lives. The Mission Commander was veteran astronaut Jim Lovell, who had travelled further and spent more time in space than any other astronaut. Between his Gemini 7 flight with Frank Borman, his Gemini 12 flight with Buzz Aldrin, and his trip around the Moon on Apollo 8, he’d spend 572 hours in space and travelled almost seven million miles. He was joined by two rookie astronauts - Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly. But just two days before launch, Ken Mattingly was grounded after being exposed to German Measles, and replaced by another astronaut, Jack Swigert. Swigert was considered an excellent pilot,
but the last-minute change was a difficult blow for a crew that had trained so intensely together. This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we’re just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. The Apollo 13 crew had just completed a live TV broadcast on their way to the Moon. But
it went no further than mission control. With public interest in the Apollo Program fading, no US TV network would carry their show. As the astronauts packed away their camera equipment, there were a few housekeeping procedures to take care of. “13, we’ve got one more item for you when you get a chance, we’d like you to stir up your cryo tanks.” The command and service module was powered by three fuel cells that generated electricity by mixing hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen was stored as a very cold liquid
in two storage tanks. In zero gravity, the temperature and density of the oxygen could become uneven in different areas of the tank, which made it difficult to measure how much was left. The solution was to stir the liquid oxygen with a fan. During a ground test just a few weeks earlier, a heater inside oxygen tank number two was accidentally left on, and its interior was baked to over 500°C. This damaged the teflon insulation around the wires leading to the fan.
When Jack Swigert turned that fan on, electrical current arced across the wires, starting a fire. The pressure of expanding gas turned the oxygen tank into a bomb. ‘Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ ‘We’ve got more than a problem’ ‘This is Houston, say again please?’ ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’ As the staff at mission control frantically tried to understand what had happened to the spacecraft, Lovell glanced out the side window of the Command Module. ‘It looks to me that we are venting something. It’s a gas of some sort.’ Their second oxygen tank had also been damaged
in the blast, and was bleeding its contents into space. Soon there would be nothing left for the astronauts to breathe, let alone to generate electricity. There was one chance for survival. Apollo 13’s lunar module, Aquarius, had oxygen, fuel, and a descent engine that could be used to put them on a course back to Earth. The astronauts had no choice but to use it as a lifeboat. The crew shut down the Command Module to preserve it’s tiny reserve of battery power for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and all three of them climbed into the two-person Lunar Module.
Conditions were cramped and bitterly cold. NASA staff worked around the clock to solve countless engineering and navigation problems that put the astronauts' lives in constant danger. One of the most serious problems they faced was stopping the astronauts from being poisoned by their own exhaled carbon dioxide.
The Lunar Module used round canisters of lithium hydroxide to filter carbon dioxide from the air, but there were only enough of these canisters to support two astronauts for two days. The command module used a similar system, but those canisters were square-shaped. Fortunately, to provide an emergency backup, NASA had developed a procedure during preparation for Apollo 8 to build an air purifier using a lithium hydroxide canister and items found in the spacecraft. The makeshift device was made of cardboard, tape and an astronaut’s sock, but it worked perfectly, and removed the poisonous carbon dioxide from the cabin’s atmosphere. Having survived the flight back to Earth, the crew faced re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. They climbed back into the Command
Module and jettisoned Aquarius, which wouldn’t survive re-entry. 'LM Jettison' 'Farewell Aquarius, and we thank you.' The Command Module had been powered down and left in freezing conditions for days. Its heat shield might have been cracked when the oxygen tank exploded, or its parachutes might have frozen solid. The astronauts were expected to be out of contact with Houston for four minutes during re-entry. But four minutes passed, then five, with no word from the crew.
But after six agonising minutes… Odyssey re-appeared. The astronauts had survived. Apollo 13 failed to land on the Moon. But against all the odds, and through incredible determination and ingenuity, NASA brought Lovell, Haise and Swigert home safely. The mission became known as the ‘successful failure’. Apollo 14 would see the unlikely return of one of America’s original space heroes: Alan Shepard.
Launching aboard a tiny one-person capsule, Shepard became the first American in space in May 1961. ‘Oxygen is go, all systems are go!’ He was due to command the first mission of Project Gemini, but he began experiencing bouts of extreme dizziness and nausea. He was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a disorder of the inner ear. There was no known cure, and it seemed he would never be assigned to another spaceflight. Shepard was appointed Chief of the Astronaut
Office, overseeing crew training and mission planning. Outside of NASA, he also made a small fortune investing in real estate, banking and oil drilling. But he was determined to fly in space again. In the summer of 1968, he underwent an experimental and risky surgical procedure to correct his disorder. Now, Shepard would return as the
commander of Apollo 14. But Shepard’s struggles continued. The mission was almost overcome by glitches on the way to the moon. After launch, the docking mechanism between the Command Module and Lunar Module wouldn’t engage. Before Lunar descent, the computer tried to
abort the landing and had to be re-programmed mid-flight. Finally, the landing radar stopped working just as the crew were approaching the surface. But Shepard had come too far to be stopped by glitches. With the support of mission control, he and his crew overcame these problems and made a perfect landing, the closest yet to their target. Over the course of two Moon walks, Shepard and his lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell ventured further from their lunar module than any previous astronauts. They climbed steep terrain, investigated ancient craters, and gathered more rock and soil samples than Apollo 11 or 12.
With his mission objectives completed, Shepard brought out a golf ball that he’d smuggled in the pockets of his spacesuit. Using his sampling tool as a club, he teed off next to the Lunar Module. ‘Miles and miles and miles’ The final three missions were the most scientifically productive, and they were equipped with advanced hardware. Their upgraded lunar module had enough supplies to support astronauts for three days. New space suits and backpacks enabled Moonwalks as long as seven hours. And the new lunar rover allowed astronauts to explore much larger areas of the Moon’s surface.
Meanwhile, the command module pilot conducted extensive surveys of the Moon from orbit, using a new suite of cameras and scientific instruments. Dave Scott, on his third spaceflight, was the commander of Apollo 15. The crew made one of the biggest geological discoveries of the program, when they unearthed a chunk of anorthosite, a piece of the Moon’s primordial crust, 4.5 billion years old. Apollo 16 Apollo 16 was commanded by John Young, who had already flown to the Moon on Apollo 10. The Lunar Module Pilot was Charlie Duke, and the command module pilot was Ken Mattingly, who had lost his place on Apollo 13 just days before the launch, and was finally getting his chance to fly in space. Young and Duke spent three days on the lunar surface, travelling great distances with the aid of the lunar rover.
But now, budget cutbacks had brought the Apollo Program to an early end. Apollo 17 would be its final flight. On December the 7th, 1972, Apollo 17 prepared to depart. It was the only night launch of a Saturn V. The rocket’s blazing exhaust plume lit up the sky at Cape Kennedy. The final mission was commanded by Gene Cernan. His command module pilot was Ron Evans, and the lunar module pilot was Harrison Schmitt.
On this final mission, Schmitt represented a first. A professional geologist, he was the only scientist astronaut to walk on the Moon. Apollo 17 landed at Taurus-Littrow, the most geologically complex site yet visited. Cernan and Schmitt spent a total of 22 hours walking on the Moon. They travelled 19 miles across its surface. And they collected more scientific data than any other mission. But
after three days on the Moon, it was time to leave. Cernan and Schmitt would be the last humans to walk on the Moon in the 20th Century. But as the Apollo program came to an end, NASA was preparing for new adventures in space flight. The first US space station - Skylab - would launch in 1973, aboard an Apollo Saturn V rocket. In 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union flew a joint mission - the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It was the final flight of an Apollo spacecraft, and the symbolic end of
the space race. 1981 would see the first flight of the Space Shuttle. The mission was commanded by Apollo astronaut John Young, and it ushered in the next era of spaceflight. But for the Apollo Program, 1972 was the end
of the road. As Cernan climbed into the lunar module at the end of the mission, he bade farewell to the Moon, and shared his hope that humans would soon return. 'As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God-willing, as we shall return. With peace and hope for all mankind.'
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