The Real Apollo 13

After watching Apollo 13 for the gazillionth time, I finally went on the Internet and read up some more. Here’s a great longish 3 page article that sheds new light on the complexity of the rescue mission. Here are a few points I found interesting:

  • Unlike the film, the real crew didn’t figure out that the oxygen tank had exploded for quite some time. They just had wildly erratic readings, and couldn’t figure out a cause.
  • One problem with the mission was that they were launched to take a non-free-return trajectory. In other words, they wouldn’t whip back to the Earth in a relatively accurate fashion (as previous missions had done). That’s partially why they needed to do the burn.
  • Actually, although Mission Control seemed to be doing a lot of improvising, in fact, the module was built in precisely such a way to allow improvising. They knew that a certain percentage of switches would fail, so they factored in a lot of alternative paths.
  • One special problem was getting the engines/computer to start on descent. Without power they had nothing to “start the motor with.” They had to improvise on that.
  • The flight planners had actually run through several of the ideas in previous simulations, so they were not exactly flying blind. Even the idea for the astronauts to manually fly the controls by using a fixed point of reference on the moon came from a previous mission.
  • Speaking of technical documentation, in fact they kept a long catalog of all the procedures necessary to accomplish their complicated technical maneuvers.
  • Here’s an account from some of the people at Mission Control.
  • I live in Houston and my family was actually good friends with someone in Mission Control during Apollo 13 (who died a year or so ago). I never knew about Apollo 13 until the movie came out, so I hadn’t a chance to ask him to tell, but at his funeral many of his colleagues talked about that mission and others.
  • One wonders how easy it would be to go to the moon these days. Parts are cheaper, technology has evolved to a point where we have many technical solutions. And yet because the urgency has declined, astronauts would probably need to fly at a tenth or even a hundredth of the original cost. For Apollo 13, there was a lot of brainpower in Houston able and willing to solve these technical mishaps. These days, I’m not so sure that brainpower exists in the number that it existed in the 1960s.

Great read! And yes, a great exciting movie!

A slight excerpt:

The principal problem NASA had with these neophytes was “one of self-confidence,” explains Kranz. “We really worked to develop the confidence of the controllers so they could stand up and make these real-time decisions. Some people, no matter how hard we worked, never developed the confidence necessary for the job.” Those not suited for mission control were generally washed out within a year.

Now Kranz feared his controllers, battered by the events of the last hour, would lose their nerve. What happened next was a spectacular moment of leadership. “It was a question of convincing the people that we were smart enough, sharp enough, fast enough, that as a team we could take an impossible situation and recover from it,” says Kranz. He went to the front of the room and started speaking. His message was simple. “I said this crew is coming home. You have to believe it. Your people have to believe it. And we must make it happen,” recalls Kranz.

In the Ron Howard movie, this speech was “simplified into ‘Failure is not an option,’ ” chuckles Kranz, who never actually uttered the now famous phrase during the Apollo 13 mission. Still, Kranz liked it so much, because it so perfectly reflected the attitude of mission control, that he used it as the title of his 2000 autobiography.