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April 11, 1970: "Houston, we've had a problem."
The launch of Apollo 13.
The Apollo 13 mission to the moon was an interstellar nightmare that showcased humanity’s ability to survive and adapt under intense pressure. At this time, the eyes of the world were fixated on a drama unfolding on television as an American spacecraft was losing oxygen, food, and power thousands of miles above the Earth’s surface. Despite the odds, the astronauts made it home and as a result space exploration received a renewal in media popularity compared to when the Apollo 12 mission occurred. But the dangers and risks were also reinforced. At a time of great civic upheaval, the U.S. had a feel-good story to reflect on.
A series of cascading failures characterize this specific mission to the moon in April 1970. One of the original astronauts became sick with rubella (due to a lack of immunity from German measles) and could not go on the mission. Another issue in the run-up to the launch was a broken oxygen tank that was dropped before testing, however, it didn’t seem too damaged, so it was used. During testing, this tank wouldn’t release oxygen, which goes towards regulating the service module, so scientists used heat to remedy the broken part. But it left the oxygen with frayed wiring that eventually caused a spark to evolve into an explosion.
One of the other factors of the explosion was the fact that the manufacturer of the internal thermometers (that regulated the temperature of the oxygen tank) didn’t get the memo about a change in voltage for the Aquarius (the service module). Originally it was 25 volts, but a later decision made it 65. Thus, creating the conditions for an unaccounted-for energy jolt on top of the faulty wiring. This all happened before the launch, and it would cause the explosion that the celestial travelers became aware of upon suspecting a leak.
With the damage done to the service module, major components of the spacecraft (oxygen, propulsion, and power) were compromised, thus making the crew move from the command module to the lunar module, which was meant for the moon landing only. The lunar module had 45-hour lifetime and the astronauts needed at least 90 hours to land in the Pacific. So, using energy was something that had to be parceled for the most important aspects of the return journey.
Another reason the crew moved to the lunar module is because it had oxygen packs for moonwalking that were now desperately needed. Also, the space pilots were wary about the functionality of the service module's propulsion systems (due to the explosion) and the direction they would go in the event of doing what is essentially a space U-Turn. So instead, the crew had to navigate around the moon and then use the lunar module to break off from the rest of the craft at the exact right time to land in the ocean at the correct angle.
The crew was successful thanks to Capsule Communication at the Houston base of NASA (CAPCOM) took shifts and stayed up at all hours to communicate with the crew (when they weren’t revolving around the moon with no communication) as well as making calculations with the astronauts to land as safely as possible. The crew cut their diet down to one-fifth of their normal intake and also viewed dehydration as the cost of doing business with the grim reaper (as in bidding for more life). One crew member received a urinary tract infection.
The crew landed in the South Pacific and the pilots with families were reunited. Years later, the events of this week in 1970 were transformed into a popular film with Tom Hanks playing Jim Lovell, Bill Paxton playing Fred Haise, and Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert.
Today, space travel is still a popular enterprise even though the private sector side seems inaccessible to many with normal incomes. This is especially true for space tourism. Critics often look at the budding, but privatized, space industry as billionaires plotting to escape a dying planet. The critique is very much in tune with modern trends of wealthy people choosing to be less accountable for keeping the Earth safe, fair, and sustainable for those less fortunate (who are harmed by earthly structures the billionaire space pioneers benefit from) despite an accumulation of resources.
However, the space race was also an outgrowth of a time when idealism and grand expectations guided public life in a far greater degree than today. President John F. Kennedy’s aspiration of reaching the moon by the end of the 7th decade of the 20th century was one part. People believed their civic participation (through NASA), and the various entities that power America could achieve an end to poverty, racism, climate disasters, and man’s age-old yearning to be a part of the stars.
The fact that now we have a vocal portion of the population commenting on privatized space-based events (financed by obscenely wealthy people) as merely a show of wealth is also a testament to the changes in our civic culture and sense of American promise. NASA is still a large part of space travel and engineering. The agency still has its eyes on Mars.
In a global sense, there are also concerns about space travel sponsored by China’s government is part of a blooming competition between the globe's two major power centers. For now, China is still a generation behind the Western participants.
Perhaps, reaching the final frontier can be an incubator for hope regarding America’s purpose. Still, we live in a time where glaring inequality can mire hope and positivity.
Now I’m going to rewatch a film my mom and I absolutely adored.
The lunar module was only built for two passengers and the cannisters in the cabin weren’t absorbing enough carbon dioxide making the rising levels dangerous for the three astronauts. The crew had to build more cannisters out of cardboard and parts of the lunar suits.
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