Apollo 13: The Hero’s Journey as Successful Failure

Apollo 13 is now remembered by NASA as a “successful failure.” Find out how the crew narrowly escaped death, becoming heroes along the way.

It’s hard to realize now how close together all the moonshots were in the days of NASA’s Apollo program. As children, time seems to pass much more slowly.

School years and summer vacations seemed to last forever. Similarly, my recollection of the Apollo missions feels as if they took place over a decade or more.

In fact, all of the manned Apollo missions only lasted from the fall of 1968 to the end of 1972. The seven planned moon landings all happened over a brief three and a half years.

50th Anniversary of the Ill-Fated Apollo 13 Mission

So I was a little taken aback to realize that the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission had already arrived. It feels like I just finished a story about the landmark Apollo 11 mission. The two planned lunar landings were only nine months apart.

I made a resolution not to deal with the technical aspects of the Apollo program in that first story. There were plenty of great feature reports in the media covering all of that in great detail and with far more expertise than I could bring to the task.

Instead, I talked about the role that the first moon landings had on the culture of my generation. The astronauts were the new legendary heroes, and their missions were our equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail.

Missions What Joseph Campbell Called “Hero’s Journeys”

The missions became what Joseph Campbell called “hero’s journeys”, but unlike legends and fairy tales, these stories weren’t fictional, and we got to see them as they happened. We watched them every step of the way on that other miracle of the space age – television.

Apollo 13’s story is very different from the one we tell about Apollo 11. Most of the crewed moon shots, including Apollo 11, were virtually flawless triumphs of technology and human determination.

Apollo 13 was a different version of the hero’s journey. NASA now refers to it as a “successful failure” and that too has made it an archetypal myth of its own kind.

By the Third Lunar Landing, Things Felt Routine

By the time of this third planned lunar landing, things were starting to feel routine. We all knew the stages of the mission; the liftoff and stage separation, the docking with the lunar module and breaking orbit, the descent, the moonwalks themselves, the raising of the flag, the liftoff from the moon, the re-docking with the command module and the re-entry and splashdown.

Everything after the April 11 launch in 1970 was following the same set pattern. After about 56 hours, the crew were roughly 200,000 miles from Earth and approaching their planned objective.

So far, it had been the smoothest moon mission to date. There were so few issues that capsule communicator or “capcom” Joe Kerwin remarked that, “The spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we are concerned. We’re bored to tears down here.”  

“Houston, We’ve Had a Problem Here”

The disaster came suddenly. As soon as Jack Swigert flipped the switch to resettle a hydrogen tank, an oxygen tank in the service module ruptured. The whole capsule started shaking and Swigert uttered the legendary words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

In a sense, the years of training put in by Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise would now all be for nought. Mission control aborted the lunar excursion, meaning that Lovell and Swigert would never set foot on the moon’s Fra Mauro highlands.

In another way, the Apollo 13 astronauts would now have to draw on every ounce of training and experience they could muster to make it home in one piece. Our heroes experienced what Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey calls “the moment of despair.”

Hero Discovers an Inner Power that He Doesn’t Know He Has

The quest is never easy and there is always a point in the story where hope seems lost. Our hero must discover an inner power that he doesn’t know he has if he is to keep the faith and redeem the quest.

Moon shots are a huge team effort and so there is not one hero to the Apollo 13 story, nor three, but thousands. The resources to work out the solution to this crisis rested on the staff back home in mission control as well as the flight crew inside the spacecraft.

One oxygen tank was gone, and another was leaking. Because the spacecraft was powered by fuel cells, the command module Odyssey lost its light, electricity and water supply. Lovell could see the oxygen drifting off into space from his cabin window.

Lovell Could See the Oxygen Drifting Off into Space

Both mission control and the flight crew agreed that they would have to use the lunar module Aquarius as a lifeboat. Since they wouldn’t be landing on the moon, the lunar module had plenty of oxygen for the return trip.

If the crew reduced their power consumption by 80%, there was just barely enough electricity to make it back. As in all survival situations, their main issue was water.

Crew Lost 32 Pounds Over the Course of the Mission

The crew rationed their water to just six ounces a day and food was also in short supply. Among them, they lost 32 pounds over the course of the mission.

Meanwhile, mission control rewrote the flight procedures. The astronauts would now need clear instructions on how to power up the command module without overloading the circuits.

They also devised and tested a jury-rigged C02 filter contraption to adapt the lunar module’s lithium hydroxide canisters. The crew then had to build and install it out of odds and ends available in the space capsule to start removing carbon dioxide from the lunar module.

Asked Who Was Piloting, the Crew Replied, “Newton!”

In his book, Myths To Live By, Joseph Campbell mentions a quote from the Apollo 8 crew, which also happened to include Jim Lovell. At one point, asked by mission control who was piloting the spacecraft, the crew replied, “Newton!”

Campbell found it apt that they were referring to Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of physics about inertia. Having fired their engine correctly, there was nothing to disturb their vessel in space and it simply maintained its course and speed with no intervention from the astronauts.

Newton was about to play a role in a much greater piloting challenge. Once Apollo 13 had rounded the far side of the moon, the crew had to execute a five-minute rocket burn to make it home in time. The lunar module engine wasn’t designed for this task.

The Burn was Perfect, Varying by Less Than Half a Degree

The team had to figure out how to steer manually during the burn using a sextant and the sun. Despite the impediments, their final alignment after the the rocket fire was virtually perfect, varying by less than half a degree from their target. Newton could take over from there, and their momentum carried them all the way back to Earth.

Once that ordeal was over, flight director Gerald Griffin recalls, “I remember the exhilaration running through me: My God, that’s the last hurdle – if we can do that, I know we can make it.” Together, the heroes had found a way to redeem the journey.

Removing that obstacle didn’t make the trip home any more pleasant for the astronauts. Cutting back the electricity meant losing most of the heat. 

Crew Lacked Food and Water and Couldn’t Sleep 

The crew lacked both food and water and they couldn’t sleep because the temperature fell to 38˚ F. Command module pilot Fred Haise developed a severe urinary tract infection.

That ordeal coincides with the stage in Campbell’s hero’s journey called “homeward bound.” The journey home is still fraught with challenges and this is where our hero purges himself of any unresolved issues remaining from the moment of despair.

Once they drew near to the Earth, the crew moved back into the command module for re-entry. The rushed written procedures to power up the command module were flawless.

Rushed Written Procedures to Power Back Up Were Flawless

It was only when the crew released the command module from the service module that they realized the extent of the damage. They could see that an entire panel was blown off, and the wreckage was dangling randomly out into space.

We know now that the problem in the Apollo 13 service module was an electrical design flaw. The heaters for the oxygen tanks were upgraded to run at a higher voltage, but the thermostats weren’t modified to support this. 

The thermostats seem to have welded shut with the higher voltage. That led to an electrical fire. which set off the explosion in the oxygen tank. Had this happened while Lovell and Swigert were on the moon, all three men would have been stranded.

Had It Happened at the Moon, They’d Have Been Stranded

Later Apollo spacecraft didn’t use thermostats for this. They also had higher capacity batteries in the lunar module and water bags in the command module.

The April 17 re-entry went smoothly, the command module splashed down, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean near Samoa and the crew boarded the USS Iwo Jima. Haise recovered in sickbay and then the crew received an even more ecstatic hero’s welcome than the Apollo 11 team had enjoyed.

The final stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called, “the champion’s return.” Our hero is transformed by all of the experiences of the quest, addresses the problems in the community that prompted the quest and finds a new role there.

Subsequent Missions Offer Less Captivating Stories

By the time Apollo 13 launched, people had gotten used to the idea of landing on the moon. We all remember the heroes of Apollo 11, but subsequent missions offer less captivating stories.

Apollo 13 is the exception to that. It was precisely because things went horribly wrong that the mission and crew have become iconic.

Jim Lovell put it this way, “I’m very proud of 13 even though I didn’t land on the moon. That was a disappointment for me, but then a lot of people landed on the moon. And if 13 was a very successful flight, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today.”

“If 13 Was a Successful Flight, I Wouldn’t Be Talking to You”

Lovell has a point. For example, one of the reasons I was surprised to hear about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13 is that nobody bothered to mention Apollo 12. I doubt that we’ll see celebrations of Apollo 14 through Apollo 17 either, in spite of all their accomplishments.

The true heroics of the Apollo program entailed triumph over adversity. The Soviet Union had put the first satellite and the first cosmonaut into space.

The United States responded to those early humiliations by becoming the first to put a man on the moon. Apollo 11 was NASA’S first, and greatest, triumph.

Apollo 13 Is as Remembered and Admired as Apollo 11

Even so, we remember Apollo 13 with at least as much admiration, because of a second triumph over adversity. In the face of what seemed like certain death, NASA worked the problem, found the solution and calmly got the crew home.

The lesson we all can learn from the Apollo story is that it’s not what happens to us that determines our fate. The real test of character is how we respond to it.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
NASA
50 years after Apollo 13, Commander James Lovell sees the mission’s failure as a triumph
Myths To Live By
ASA Discovery Program – 4 Bids to Explore Solar System
The Gift of the Apollo 11 Story

Human Computer Katherine Johnson Passed on at 101

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