Apollo 13 was "successful failure": commander

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Sun Apr 11, 2010 8:02am EDT

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - It's been 40 years since Apollo 13 safely returned to Earth after a oxygen-tank explosion prevented the spacecraft from landing on the moon and put its three-man crew in danger.

Four decades later, NASA and the surviving two astronauts, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, are celebrating an aborted mission that turned potential disaster into a successful recovery.

"A 'successful failure' describes exactly what 13 was - because it was a failure in its initial mission -- nothing had really been accomplished," Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, now 82, told Reuters Television in an exclusive interview.

But he hailed the nerve-racking mission, which had gripped the world in April 1970, as "a great success in the ability of people to take an almost certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery."

The 40th anniversary of Apollo 13 is being celebrated on Sunday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,

At the time of the oxygen-tank explosion two days into the mission, Lovell, Haise and fellow astronaut Jack Swigert were not initially aware of the seriousness of their situation.

"Well, when the explosion occurred and we sort of found out and assessed on our own that we weren't going to land on the moon, the first thoughts were one of disappointment," said Lovell. "We didn't realize the significance or the danger."

But soon Lovell realized that so much of the spacecraft was virtually useless and he spoke to mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas those now-famous words: "Houston, we've had a problem."

"The two fuel cells, or the three fuel cells, failed," Lovell said. "The two oxygen tanks failed. We lost communication. We lost the use of our computer for a while. And consequently we had never really practiced for that."

For five days, the crew of Apollo 13 and mission specialists on the ground dealt with crisis upon crisis, rationing food and water, dealing with a loss of cabin heat and even using the Lunar Module as a so-called "life boat" during the return trip to Earth.

"We always were able to solve a crisis as it came up some way, jury-rigging, or doing something to keep our spacecraft going, and finally for a safe landing," Lovell said.

The Apollo 13 crisis -- later made into a motion picture starring Tom Hanks -- captivated the nation.

Large crowds gathered at New York's Grand Central Station to watch the astronauts' successful splashdown in the Pacific and the hero's welcome for Lovell, Swigert and Haise aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima recovery ship.

In the end, Lovell never landed on the moon during his 11-year career as a NASA astronaut.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (6)
dailynews0727 wrote:
Did man really land on the moon or did the great Howard Hughes help the US Gov’t. film what looked like a moon landing? The US was in a tight race with the USSR regarding the space programs and not to mention the COLD WAR was in effect to… It makes a person wonder what the truth is. If we went once, then why hasn’t any gone back, especially considering all the numerous trips that have been made to space since. ???

I think the space programs are just another waste of the Peoples money, and a big waste at that.

Apr 11, 2010 9:34am EDT  --  Report as abuse
beanbowl wrote:
As one astronaut said, if we faked it once, why would we fake it again? and again? and several more times. Don’t forget–we didn’t land on the moon once; we landed six times. Why fake it more than once?

Why haven’t we been back? Different priorities with different presidential administrations. Emphasis last 30 years has been in building a space station and science experiments in space, rather than go back again to the moon. i think we’re making a mistake in abandoning even the ability to launch to earths orbit–in the future, I think space will become far more valuable than it is now, for communications, military, energy reasons.

Apr 11, 2010 12:00pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
wgraham wrote:
For those who humor themselves in speculating on the notion of not landing on the moon should wonder how a multi faced reflective device was placed on the moon and is still used to verify the distance of the moon, the quality of the laser measuring device used as well as the speed of light. Futhermore, any dying person who had knowledge of such a fantasy would have cashed in on a story of such nature by now.Like the UFO, reality and beliefs don’t always converge on the same point.

Apr 11, 2010 12:18pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.