Click here for the account in Spanish.
The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) website featured the Apollo 13 rescue story among the site's AMAZING STORIES . To see and hear this testimony, click here for a six minute clip of Jerry's 700 Club documentary.
For a wealth of material examining behind-the-scenes events in the annals of manned space exploration, click on the link Space Acts.
Several years ago, Academy Award winner Tom Hanks appeared with Director Ron Howard at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The purpose of the visit was an on-site view of the actual sets where the April 1970 rescue of the near tragic Apollo 13 mission originally played. Their movie,(a cinematic version of astronaut Jim Lovell's book called "Lost Moon") would dramatize the riveting space rescue.
The day the Hollywood duo visited NASA's virtual reality, graphics, and animation laboratory, my usual work place, I was elsewhere. As the lone over fifty year old NASA person among the twenty-five to forty year old "youngsters", I was especially disappointed about being absent. Had the opportunity arisen, I might have shared a script entitled: "What REALLY Happened to Apollo 13."
On the night of April 13th, 1970, when Apollo 13's command module's oxygen tank exploded, I monitored the position of warning system engineer. As a 27-year-old Rice University graduate electrical engineer, my experience with spacecraft alarm systems was but four years. Yet, like most of the NASA team, I knew the workings of the command ship and lander more intimately than any E.E. course taken to earn my B.S. degree.
Most remember the climax of the four day rescue as the safe splashdown in the Pacific after a compelling triumph of human ingenuity, brilliant acts of real time engineering, and courageous perseverance by Apollo 13's three crew members. The real story is so much more. It begins with an audience of, perhaps, two billion people. Television, radio, and the newspapers alerted the world to the grave situation. Countless millions looked heavenward, both silently and audibly praying for a safe return of the three American astronauts. Last week, I noticed my wife wearing the bracelet with the medallion bought at the space center exchange store shortly after the successful 1970 rescue. The large coin pictured praying hands with the words "APOLLO 13...And The Whole World Prayed."
Many might regard such a commemorative of the rescue as the "spiritualizing" of a dramatic event for religion's sake. I would agree, had I not found a majority of evidence to the contrary.
Think of it: The oxygen tank explosion might have occurred as Apollo 13 stood powered on the launch pad. Likewise, the electrical short circuit could have ignited the oxygen tank after lunar landing. In the former scenario, the fiery destruction of the launch pad would likely have ended America's will for manned space exploration for a number of years. In the latter case, three men's lives would certainly have ended in April of 1970. But when did the explosion occur? The moment came shortly after check-out of the life saving lunar lander, allowing previous time before utter disaster struck. An unrehearsed script seemed to be guiding the drama.(Click here for a very detailed discussion of this information which includes new revelations about the rescue of Apollo 13 recently uncovered. April 19, 2002)
A few minutes after 9:00 PM, April 13th, 1970, I heard the now-famous original words in my headset, "Houston, we'd had a problem." Almost simultaneously, a number of alarms blinked on the TV monitor I viewed. FUEL CELL, DC BUS, and others appeared. No fuel cells meant the command module, the mother ship, would soon die. When emergency resuscitation failed, the lunar lander's presence became as critical as any of Titanic's lifeboats.
When the crew heard the explosion's thump-like sound, they wrongly thought the lander might have collided with space debris. Suspecting a hole might exist in the lander, they attempted to close their route to safety by closing the lander's hatch in order to preserve air. The hatch would NOT close!
Again, an unseen author had scripted an implausible event... A NASA designed mechanism failing the simplest of functions: Closing a hatch.
Additionally, mission control's navigators wrestled with guiding the mangled assemblage back to Earth. A grave challenge arose when the crew attempted to sight stars with their space sextant. Debris from the exploded oxygen tank enshrouded the spacecraft, obscuring a clear view of star markers. The lunar lifeboat was virtually "lost in space" as the popular TV series of the era depicted Space Family Robinson.
Again, an understudy appeared. A neighbor of mine working for the TRW Corporation on navigational software daydreamed in 1968 about unusual navigational scenarios. He wondered, "What if the stars failed to shine?" Into his mind came the response, "There would be the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon."
Moments later, he devised a celestial steering program using these three points in space. As an added refinement, he included the position of the Earth's terminator line (where night meets day) for fine tuning. Forgotten until the crew peered into the fog of the exploded refuse, the program worked perfectly.
The New York Times reported special prayer services, and the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution urging prayer. Prayers were said at the Chicago Board of Trade, and prayers for the Apollo 13 crew sounded at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Pope voiced his hope that the crew's lives could be saved before thousands convened at St. Peter's Basilica. What evidence indicates an impact from the outpouring of prayer?
Consider the situation with the drained command module's batteries. As the crew abandoned the mothership for the relative safety of the lunar lander, too much electrical power was spent, draining the command vehicle of power for reentry through Earth's atmosphere... Which meant the crew was going to perish.
An emergency call to the lunar lander's power manager summoned him from bed to the space center.
In route, a plan came to mind, a way of jumper-charging power from the lander's large batteries into the reentry capsule's smaller cells. Fearing he might forget the procedure, the power manager recorded it on paper soon after arriving at the space center. Applying the jump-charge plan to the simulation computers resulted in a negative response. Mission control's power profile program correctly judged the approach inadvisable.
As the world prayed, the crew applied the jumper-charge. Despite the fact that one of those four large batteries exploded during the rescue, a very sobering moment, the jump-charge succeeded. Miraculously, that malfunctioning battery healed itself continuing to produce power throughout the mission. The crew would be able to deorbit in the command module.
Then there was, perhaps, the greatest challenge ...how to make the square CO2 filters which were in plentiful supply substitute for the round CO2 filters in the rescue ship. Only enough round filters were on board for two men for two days. The trip back to Earth would be four days for three men. As a result of prayer, a solution was forthcoming using of all things - DUCT TAPE which someone had stowed on board. Prayer and duct tape can even make a square peg fit into a round hole to save three men's lives. [Click here for more about fitting Apollo 13's square filter in the rescue ship's system.]
While the astronauts worked the reentry check-list positioning switches, the final scene of Apollo 13's rescue opened on three separate stages: in the Pacific Ocean, at Mission Control, and at a small school in the eastern U.S.
A hurricane loomed near the Pacific Ocean landing site. The Mission Control weathermen advised the "retro-officer" to move the landing site. Besides the hurricane, the retro-officer dealt with a second uncertainty. The command module and lander were drifting in an unexplained manner. If the drift continued, the accuracy of landing would be in doubt.
In order to compensate for the unexplained drift, the retro-officer had the crew fire the rescue ship's main engine and thrusters. If the drift continued and it was not dealt with, reentry could face two fatal consequences. Too shallow an entry angle would mean the capsule would skip off Earth's atmosphere just as a stone skips across a pond if thrown at too shallow an angle with the pond's surface.
The other fatal alternate if the entry angle was too step would be a fiery dead as a result of the capsule burning up due to extreme heating resulting from friction with the Earth's atmosphere.
Nevertheless, despite the peril, early that morning into an elementary school class room rushed a 14-year-old girl exclaiming, "Teacher, I heard on television that even if our astronauts land safely, they may be lost in a big storm!"
The girl and her 13 classmates were unique children, none had an I.Q. above 80. While the "retro"considered the weathermen's advice and the mysterious drift, the special education class struggled with the difference between the value of a nickel, a dime, and a quarter. Nevertheless, seated around a table with their teacher, fourteen pairs of lips, and the teacher's, silently voiced prayers for three men's lives as part of their morning quiet-time... That the one who calmed the Sea of Galilee would calm the water, move the hurricane elsewhere, and help the astronauts land safely.
A thousand miles away, in Houston, the retro experienced an inner assurance that he should hold fast to the original splashdown site, that the hurricane would move elsewhere, that the drift of the spacecraft would cease. As Apollo 13 approached Earth, the storm altered its course, slowly moving many miles from the splashdown site, and suddenly, Apollo 13's drift STOPPED.
Because power was limited, the gyros which control accuracy of reentry could not be warmed-up for the needed 24 hours. Ground tests showed a short warm-up would make them inaccurate, but there was no other option. Only a few hours warm-up was possible. Despite considerable odds against Apollo 13 landing safely and accurately , the reentry and splashdown were among the most precise of the entire Apollo program!
If I were to script the closing scene of "Apollo 13," I would show cigars being lit amidst jubilant cheering in Mission Control. Next, I would picture the smiling astronauts on the deck of the carrier Iwo Jima. Finally, a closing picture would be of those 14 school children singing the song the Pilgrim's brought to America..."Praise God from whom all blessings flow... Praise Him all creatures here below..." Because, according to the letter I received from their teacher, that is exactly what they did. For me, this would capture the spirit of what really happened to Apollo 13.
If you would like to know how the Apollo 13 rescue impacted my life, click here.
Note: Since 1972, I have often shared the above story before various groups. It has been a popular program for professional, church, and civic groups. I refuse any compensation for speaking or travel expense (as long as the meeting is less than 75 miles from the Johnson Space Center where I am employed). The program is not a NASA sponsored endeavour, i.e., it is my outreach alone to encourage those who would like to hear WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO APOLLO 13. The format of the program is now a multimedia show which I narrate. It lasts approximately 35 minutes.
Click here for a news article by a local reporter who attended the program and wrote a story about it for his newspaper.