Thursday, 9 April 2020

Recollections of Apollo 13 on its 50th Anniversary

Comet Bennett C/1969 Y1 (Pinterest)

The second Monday of April in 1970 was like many days during that time of my life - a day of classes in my junior high school in Edmonton, Alberta, followed by a monthly evening meeting of the Edmonton Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at the University of Alberta. The topic that evening was Galaxies and Cosmology.

My thoughts that day likely involved looking forward to the third Apollo landing on the Moon, which was supposed to take place two days later on Wednesday evening, followed by two Moon walks the next day. Apollo 13 and its crew had launched from the Kennedy Space Center the previous Saturday. Because two Apollo crews had already visited the lunar surface, public interest in this flight had fallen off, but I looked forward to the landing just the same.

When I got home from the RASC meeting, my parents greeted me with surprising news: Apollo 13 was in trouble and wouldn’t make it to the Moon. There were only three television channels in Edmonton at the time, but the CBC had pre-empted its programming to follow the saga of Apollo 13 following an explosion of an oxygen tank in its Service Module. The coverage continued into the early hours of Tuesday through the first major engine firing that got the crippled spacecraft on its way home to Earth.

I wasn’t often up at such a late hour, and I took advantage of the time to go outside and enjoy the clear skies that night that had darkened after moonset. A special treat awaited me: high in the sky was Comet Bennett, which could be found at that time of night with the naked eye. It was my first comet. It turns out the Apollo 13 astronauts were due to observe the comet during their flight, but that plan was abandoned due to the life-and-death struggle the astronauts faced. 

That same night near Osoyoos, B.C., two employees of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory were testing the quality of observations available at a site atop Mount Kobau, which had been under consideration for a major new telescope. Frank Younger and Ernie Pfannenschmidt took a number of photos along the path of Apollo 13 as announced by NASA. One of their photos showed a fuzzy object resembling a globular cluster that was actually the cloud of oxygen that resulted from the explosion on Apollo 13. Other observers had caught the cloud, but none of their images matched quality of the photo taken by Younger and Pfannenschmidt, who I got to know years later in Victoria.

Image of Apollo 13 cloud from Mount Kobau. 

The next day Apollo 13 swung around the Moon, and television networks provided wall-to-wall coverage of Apollo 13’s return to Earth through the week. On Friday, April 17, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert made it back to Earth in their spacecraft while a gigantic audience watched on TV, including much of my school.

The story of Apollo 13 was nearly forgotten after some time, but 25 years later the feature film Apollo 13 directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks hit the theatres.  It told the story of how controllers in Houston figured out how to keep the astronauts alive in their Lunar Module lifeboat far beyond design specifications during the long days between the explosion and the splashdown.

Now another 25 years have gone by and the film version of Apollo 13 still endures as arguably the best feature film made about space exploration. And today there are two more ways to appreciate the first crisis in deep space involving astronauts. 

Both follow productions created for last year’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The BBC World Service produced a series of podcasts called 13 minutes to the Moon outlining that mission, and now it is releasing a new series under that name telling the story of Apollo 13 in riveting detail. See www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2

In 2015, NASA software engineer Ben Feist created an amazing website called Apollo 17 in Real Time, which followed every moment from liftoff to splashdown of the final expedition to the Moon in amazing detail using every photograph, film and video of the mission, complemented with tapes obtained from the Mission Operations Control Room in Houston. Last year Feist repeated the feat for Apollo 11, and now Apollo 13 in Real Time is live on the web. See apolloinrealtime.org 

The story of Apollo 13 is a powerful reminder of the dangers astronauts faced when they flew to the Moon, and of the ingenuity exhibited by the young engineers who supported that flight in Mission Control in Houston when faced with a highly unexpected and dangerous situation.

With Jim and Marilyn Lovell, 2016.


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