• Aeryn Avilla

The Successful Failure: 50 Years since Apollo 13

Updated: Mar 24

Fifty years ago today, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise took off to the moon on Apollo 13. It was the twenty-third manned US spaceflight and the twenty-ninth manned spaceflight overall. It was to be the third manned lunar landing, but an explosion in the service module prevented Lovell and Haise from landing in the Frau Mauro region of the moon.

The Apollo 13 mission insignia. The horses depicted are from a painting by Lumen Martin Winter, the patch's designer, that hung in a hotel. It was also the last patch to use roman numerals. Ex Luna, Scientia, is latin for "from the moon, knowledge," and is borrowed from the US Naval Academy's motto (NASA)

The commander of what would become one of the most iconic space missions of all time was Jim Lovell, a veteran of two Gemini flights and one Apollo flight. He had previously served as pilot of Gemini 7 in 1965, command pilot of Gemini 12 in 1966, and command module pilot of Apollo 8 in 1968, making him one of the first people to fly to the moon. The lunar module pilot was Fred Haise, a rookie astronaut from NASA's fifth class. Originally, Ken Mattingly was the mission's command module pilot but only two days before launch he was replaced by Jack Swigert. The original prime crew was actually Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Ed Mitchell, who were all bumped to Apollo 14.

Lovell, Swigert, and Haise after the Apollo 13 mission (NASA)

The command/service module of Apollo 13 was named Odyssey after the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to Lovell, it was also chosen for its literal definition: a long voyage with many changes of fortune. The lunar module was named Aquarius after the constellation Aquarius, the bringer of water. It is commonly mistaken to be taken from a song of the same name by the group the 5th Dimension from the musical Hair.

Apollo 13 was to be the second H mission, which was meant to demonstrate precision lunar landings and explore specific areas of the moon with more emphasis on science and geology than the previous two landings, Apollo 11 and Apollo 12. It launched from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, at 2:13 pm EST. Some of the superstition surrounding the mission came from the moment of liftoff, which in military time in Houston was 1313. During launch, the center J2 engine of the second stage failed to ignite, but this presented no problems. In fact, for the first two days the mission was going smoother than any other of the Apollo program.

On the night of the 13th, shortly after the crew ended a TV broadcast about living and working in space, the command/service module's oxygen tank #2 blew up, which caused tank #1 to fail as well. This was indicated by a loud bang and a vibration, and it was at this point that Jim Lovell famously said, "Houston, we've had a problem." Warning lights then indicated the loss of two of the three fuel cells. One oxygen tank was completely empty and the other was rapidly decreasing. Lovell saw that the oxygen was being vented out into space. Mission Control told the astronauts to shut down the CSM and use the lunar module (LM) as a lifeboat. Though the LM was designed to support two men for two days, there was enough oxygen from the fuel cells and spacesuit cartridges to support three men for four days. After about a day, however, the carbon dioxide had built up to a fatal level. Mission Control devised a filtration system, now called the "mailbox". This scrubber is just one of many tangible representations of the tremendous team effort that was the Apollo program.

The "mailbox" inside Aquarius (NASA)

The crew had to perform a burn to place the spacecraft on a free-return course, which is when a spacecraft uses the moon's gravity to slingshot itself out of lunar orbit and back on the path to Earth. This is usually performed in the command module but now had to be done in the lunar module. When the crew had reached the moon, Jim Lovell became the first person to fly to the moon twice. A few hours before reentry, Swigert had to power the command module back up, a task that had never before been done. Flight controllers back in Houston worked tirelessly on the procedures for doing so, taking into consideration the consumption of power as well as the near-freezing temperature of the cockpit and the condensation on the walls. Afterwards, the crew jettisoned the service module and photos such as the one below showed one whole panel missing from the side.

Roughly three hours later, the crew jettisoned Aquarius and prepared for reentry. Lovell recalled that the acceleration caused condensation on the panels to fall like rain. The Odyssey hit the water in the South Pacific at 1:07 pm EST on Friday, April 17.

Astronaut recovery (NASA)

Jim Lovell retired from NASA in 1973. He is now ninety-two years old. Jack Swigert retired from NASA in 1977 and pursued a career in politics. He was elected to Congress for the state of Colorado but died of cancer before he could take office. He was fifty-one years old. Fred Haise was slated to command Apollo 19 but the mission was cancelled in 1970. He flew some of the approach and landing tests for Space Shuttle Enterprise and retired from NASA in 1979. He is now eighty-six years old. The Odyssey is now on display at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Quick Facts

Commander: James A. Lovell

Command Module Pilot: John L. "Jack" Swigert

Lunar Module Pilot: Fred W. Haise

Backup CDR: John W. Young

Backup CMP: Thomas K. Mattingly

Backup LMP: Charles M. Duke

CSM Callsign: Odyssey (CM-109)

LM Callsign: Aquarius (LM-7)

Launch Vehicle: Saturn V

Launch Date: 11 April 1970

Launch Site: LC-39A, KSC

Landing Date: 17 April 1970

Recovery Carrier: USS Iwo Jima

Pop Culture

The mission was depicted in the 1995 film Apollo 13 and the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger wrote Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which was inspiration for the movie.

Author's Note: Thanks for reading and please like and share this post!


  • Dunbar, Brian. “Apollo 13.” NASA, NASA, 29 Mar. 2017, www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo13.html.

  • Lovell, Jim, and Jeffrey Kluger. Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. The Easton Press, 1994.

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