From Apollo 13 to COVID 19, American spirit lives on

April 19, 2020
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The archived weather report reads broken clouds 20,000 feet, visibility 10 statute miles, temperature 76 degrees Fahrenheit, and a southeasterly wind of 10 knots.

In other words, a beautiful spring afternoon and a great day for a launch. And so it was that at 19:13 GMT (2:13 pm EST), a Saturn V rocket carrying CSM-109 – call sign “Odyssey” – and LM-7 – call sign “Aquarius” lifted off from Launch Complex-39 Pad A at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Florida destination Frau Mauro area, the moon.

On board James A. Lovell Jr., Commander, Fred W. Haise Jr., Lunar Module Pilot, and John L. (Jack) Swigert Jr., Command Module Pilot.

For them a perfect launch sending them on their way to the trip of their dreams. For the American public just another Saturday.

In the just nine months that had passed since the magic of Apollo 11 and Armstrong’s “one giant leap” Americans had already turned their gaze back from the stars and back on their earthly activities. Even though this was only the third flight to send men to the surface of the moon, manned space flight had already become “routine”.

So routine that a special television broadcast from space had not only not been carried live by the three national television networks, mission control in Houston was so relaxed that many were already watching a baseball game.

But that dream trip was shattered when just a few minutes after ending their broadcast Houston control asked for a routine cryo-stir on Odyssey’s oxygen tanks. First came the flipping of switches, then came the last minute and a half of normal.

Normal that ended with a loud bang, and the transmission from Jack Swigert “Okay, Houston we’ve had a problem here”. Eight seconds later CAPCOM (Houston) asks “This is Houston, Say again, please.” To which Lovell responds seven seconds later “Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus under-volt.”

At 55 hours, 55 minutes and 35 seconds into the mission and the spacecraft over 200,000 miles from Earth, the mission of Apollo 13 changed from making Jim Lovell and Fred Haise the fifth and sixth men to walk on the moon to a singularly focused goal of just getting them back alive.

With their oxygen supply venting into space and no way to stop it their only hope was to use the lunar module and its oxygen supply as a life boat to get around the moon and then transfer back into the crippled command module for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

But the lunar module was only designed for two men, not three. If something wasn’t done the crew would die of carbon dioxide poisoning from their own breath. Odyssey had extra CO2 filters but they were square and the Aquarius system required round.

It was literally, how do you put a square peg in a round hole?

Somehow the engineers in Houston had to design a fix that would allow attaching a square scrubber to the circular opening used by Aquarius. After hours of torturous trial and error, tube socks, spacesuit hoses, the cover of a flight manual, and yes that ever famous duct tape all came together into an improvisation that NASA engineers called the “mailbox”. With carbon dioxide already reaching dangerous levels and CAPCOM radioing step by step instructions the crew managed to assemble the contraption in the dead of space. Saving their own lives and preserving for all of history a happy ending to NASA’s most “successful failure”.

The record shows splashdown at mission elapsed time of 142 hours 54 minutes 41 seconds and “Crew egress” 27 minutes later. It had been over three and a half days since that “loud bang” turned what the public had prematurely deemed routine into a “please God bring them home safely” drama that reminded each and every American once again that there was absolutely nothing “routine” about space travel.

With the moon landing scrubbed, Apollo 13 was technically a failed mission. Yet the historical record tells of a moment in time in the last half of the 20th century when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, the minds of NASA joined with the determination of their crew to deliver to the ages a tale of how ingenuity, perseverance, and yes, the American spirit, refused to capitulate to what at the time was a situation nothing short of hopeless.

Fifty years ago it was Apollo 13 that focused this nation on life and death. Today it is COVID 19.

I refuse to believe that the spirit of then will not see us through today as well. And that fifty years from now, another writer will be recalling that time when “ingenuity, perseverance and yes, the American spirit, refused to capitulate.”

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the April 19, 2020 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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