Stratford Guild - January 2018

Apollo 13 - 'Mission Failure or Mission Success' - A talk by Phil Whitemore

At our January meeting Phil gave a riveting account of this eventful mission which, at the time, kept the world on the edge of its seat.

Imagine hurtling through the cold vacuum of space miles from planet Earth, with only the voice of mission control as a link to home and an occasional distant glimpse of Earth through a small window in the spacecraft, without knowing if you would ever set foot on it again.

That was the reality for astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise who had launched from The Kennedy Space Centre a few days earlier. Their mission would have been the 3rd Apollo to land on the Moon, but from the start there were problems. Ken Mattingley, who should have been the Apollo 13 Command module pilot, had been exposed to German measles and therefore was replaced by John Swigert 3 days before the launch. In the event, Mattingley never did develop measles. 

Apollo 13 blasted off on April 11th 1970 on the top of the enormous Saturn V rocket. A few minutes into the launch an "anomaly" occurred and one of the 2nd stage motors shut down 2 minutes early. Fortunately, the remaining four engines and the 3rd stage motors burned longer compensating for the shortfall, placing them in an orbit 100 miles above the earth ready for the manoeuvre that would set the spacecraft on a heading for the Moon. 

After travelling for 2 days 8 hours and at over 200,000 miles from Earth, mission control requested that the crew "stirs" the liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks which provide the fuel for the generators, which produce electrical power for the spacecraft. Shortly after the "stir" a large bang was heard followed by a loss of power, prompting the famous quote “Houston we’ve had a problem.” One by one each generator failed leaving only the limited battery power of the command module (CM). 

To conserve power for re-entry all equipment in the CM was switched off, the crew transferred to the landing module which had oxygen and water for survival on the bitterly cold journey home. As they approached Earth the crew became concerned that because of the cold conditions condensation would form in the command module causing electrical failure. In the event the CM powered up without problem.

After flying around the back of the moon several corrections to the Earth approach trajectory were made so the CM didn't burn up or bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere.

During re-entry communication with mission control wasn't possible. Imagine the relief of the crew and mission control as the parachutes deployed and they gently floated into the Pacific. 

The mission didn't achieve its objective of landing on the Moon and, from that viewpoint it was a failure, but it was a success for human ingenuity, endurance and bravery over adversity.

Our next meeting is on Wednesday 14th February (7.15pm for 7.30pm start) when our speaker Fred Swift will be telling us about ‘A Year in the Life of a Beehive’

Steve Mayall