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Five Things You Didn’t Know About Apollo 13

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There’s a scene during the climax of Apollo 13 when, after it has become obvious the crew will survive until reentry, two science reporters are discussing the trajectory the Command Module must travel to prevent from skipping off the Earth’s atmosphere — or burning up in it. “The re-entry corridor is in fact so narrow,” says one reporter, “that if this basketball were the Earth, and this softball were the Moon, and the two were placed fourteen feet apart, the crew would have to hit a target no thicker than this piece of paper.” Portraying this reporter is Time senior writer Jeffrey Kluger who, having co-authored the book on which the film was based, probably knows as much about Apollo 13 as the three men who flew it.

1. What really caused the explosion? It was a multiple series of failures, says Kluger, “the first of which had to do with the fact that the oxygen tank that blew up wasn’t going to be on Apollo 13 — it was supposed to be on Apollo 10.” During the Apollo missions a fair amount of equipment was swapped between the spacecrafts depending on what was ready for flight. When the Apollo 10 oxygen tank was being removed, the chain slipped and it dropped back down about an inch, which eventually lead to a crack. Such a crack, says Kluger should have been “inconsequential. They checked the tank and said it was fit to fly. But had there not been that one-inch shelf drop, this probably never would have happened.”

2. What was the likelihood of an accident occurring? The Command and Service module are made up of 5.6 million different components. That means that even if the ship were operating at 99.99% efficiency, there were still 5,600 components that could break down. But “there was so much redundancy built into these ships that even if something breaks, something else picks up, and if both of those break something else picks up,” explains Kluger. “It was fantastically improbable that the accident happened the way it did.” Even more improbable was that it happened when it did: Had the accident occurred while the Lunar module was on the Moon, there would have been no way to pull the ship out of Lunar orbit. Had it happened on the way back, the LEM would have already been jettisoned, thus the crew would have had no lifeboat. Had it happened when they were closer to Earth on their way out, they would have had much farther to travel and would likely have exhausted their supplies.

3. Did NASA have contingencies if the crew had died? There was a great fear during the Apollo missions that if a crew were to die orbiting either the Earth or the Moon, there would be no way to retrieve the craft and it would essentially ruin the space program: “How could you ever look up at the moon again and know that there was this orbiting mausoleum?” Kluger posits. “Jim [Lovell] told me he suspected, and later confirmed, that NASA was working on return trajectories so that if there hadn’t been enough oxygen and they died, the spacecraft would be targeted so that it would essentially burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

4. Did the movie exaggerate any details? “The only part of the movie that made Jim wince” says Kluger, “was the scene where they’re doing the manual burn — though he understood it was necessary.” While it is true that Jim Lovell controlled the craft’s pitch, Fred Haise controlled the yaw and Jack Swigert counted down the seconds, it was a much more subtle burn than the movie depicts. “It was a constant amount of tweaking,” says Kluger. “If the burn had gone like in the movie, they would have blown off to Jupiter.” But the exceedingly long blackout while the ship was reentering Earth’s atmosphere? Not an exaggeration. “I’ve asked Jim why the reentry took longer than three minutes, and nobody knows with absolute certainty,” says Kluger. “His assumption is that the trajectory they were coming in on wasn’t quite what they thought it was.”

5. How did the lunar module makers feel about NASA using it as a lifeboat? Describing the relationship between the makers of the LEM, Grumman, and the makers of the Command Service Module, North American Rockwell, Kluger says, “Toward the end of the mission, when it started to seem clear they were going to make it home OK and people could start to be a little light about it, the people at Grumman sent North American a towing bill.” Listed on the invoice was a towing fee (“$4 first mile, $1 each additional mile, total charge $400,001.00”), battery charge road call (“Customer’s jumper cables, $4.05”), oxygen (“$10.00/lb, total $500.00), and sleeping accommodations for two (“no TV, air-conditioned with radio, modified American plan with view, additional guest in room at $8 per night”), all of which after a 20% government discount amounted to $312,421.24.

For a complete schedule of Apollo 13 on AMC, click here.

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