Apollo 13: Astronauts recall tense moments on stricken spacecraft (The Apollo 13 lunar module photographed from the command module just after the lunar module was jettisoned, about an hour before splashdown © AP)

Apollo 13: “We never got to a point where we said, ‘Well, we’re going to die’”

Surviving crew members Jim Lovell and Fred Haise never made it to the Moon but hailed the teamwork that enabled them to return safely to Earth.

Two of the astronauts who successfully returned to Earth after a near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission still consider the aborted trip a success 50 years after the world watched their ordeal on television.

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Jim Lovell and Fred Haise are still able to talk about the drama which spawned a Hollywood movie although the third crew member, Jack Swigert, died in 1982.

Although they never made it to the Moon after their oxygen tank ruptured on 13 April 1970, Mr Lovell and Mr Haise insist they are not superstitious and both use 13 in their email addresses.

“I’m still alive. As long as I can keep breathing, I’m good,” mission commander Mr Lovell, now 92, said from his home in Illinois, USA.

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A half-century later, Apollo 13 is still considered Mission Control’s finest hour.

Mr Lovell calls it “a miraculous recovery”.

Mr Haise, like so many others, regards it as NASA’s most successful failure.

“It was a great mission,” Mr Haise, 86, said.

It showed “what can be done if people use their minds and a little ingenuity”.

As the lunar module pilot, Mr Haise would have become the sixth man to walk on the Moon, following Mr Lovell onto the dusty grey surface.

The oxygen tank explosion robbed them of the Moon landing, which would have been NASA’s third, nine months after Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity’s first footsteps on the Moon.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has robbed them of their anniversary celebrations.

Festivities are on hold, including at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where the mission began on 11 April 1970, a Saturday just like this year.

Mr Haise, who still lives in Houston, marks what he calls “boom day” every year on 13 April.

Astronaut Jim Lovell, inside the Apollo 13 lunar module © AP
Astronaut Jim Lovell, inside the Apollo 13 lunar module © AP

Mr Lovell, Mr Haise and Mr Swigert, a last-minute replacement, were almost to the Moon when they heard a bang and felt a shudder.

One of two oxygen tanks had burst in the spacecraft’s service module.

The tense words that followed are the stuff of space, and movie, fame.

“OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” radioed Mr Swigert, the command module pilot.

“This is Houston. Say again, please”.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Mr Lovell cut in.

View of NASA Mission Control during the Apollo 13 mission, at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, April 1970 © NASA/Interim Archives/Getty Images
View of NASA Mission Control during the Apollo 13 mission,© NASA/Interim Archives/Getty Images

Mr Lovell reported a sudden voltage drop in one of the two main electrical circuits.

Within seconds, Houston’s Mission Control saw pressure readings for the damaged oxygen tank plunge to zero.

The blast also knocked out two electrical power-generating fuel cells and damaged the third.

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As Mr Lovell peered out the window and saw oxygen escaping into the black void, he knew his Moon landing was also slipping away.

He shoved all emotions aside.

“Not landing on the Moon or dying in space are two different things,” Mr Lovell explained, “and so we forgot about landing on the Moon.

“This was one of survival. How do we get home?”

Apollo 13's astronauts will employ new techniques to rid themselves of the lunar module and service module just prior to entering the Earth's atmosphere © Bettmann/Getty Images
Apollo 13’s astronauts will employ new techniques to rid themselves of the lunar module and service module just prior to entering the Earth’s atmosphere © Bettmann/Getty Images

The astronauts were 200,000 miles from Earth.

Getting back alive would require calm, skill and, yes, luck.

“The explosion could not have happened at a better time,” Mr Lovell said.

Much earlier, he said, and the astronauts wouldn’t have had enough electrical power to make it around the Moon and slingshot back to Earth for a splashdown.

A blast in lunar orbit or, worse still, while Mr Lovell and Mr Haise were on the surface, “that would be the end of it”.

“I think we had some divine help in this flight,” Mr Lovell said.

The aborted mission went from being so humdrum that none of the major TV networks broadcast the astronauts’ show-and-tell minutes before the explosion, to a life-and-death drama gripping the entire world.

As flight director Gene Kranz and his team in Houston raced to come up with a rescue plan, the astronauts kept their cool.

It was Mr Lovell’s fourth spaceflight, his second towards the Moon as part of the Apollo Programme, and the first and only one for Mr Haise and Mr Swigert.

Marilyn Lovell, with her children Jeffrey (in front), and Barbara (behind Marilyn) among unidentified family and friends, watch television at home during the Apollo 13 crisis, Houston, Texas, April 18, 1970. Astronaut Jim Lovell is commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which was been forced to abort its lunar landing after an onboard explosion © Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Marilyn Lovell, with her children Jeffrey (in front), and Barbara (behind Marilyn) among unidentified family and friends, watch television at home during the Apollo 13 crisis, Houston © Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Dark thoughts “always raced through our minds, but silently. We didn’t talk about that”, Mr Lovell said.

Added Mr Haise: “We never hit the point where there was nothing left to do. So, no, we never got to a point where we said, ‘Well, we’re going to die.’”

The White House, less confident, demanded odds.

Mr Kranz refused, leaving it to others to put the crew’s chances at 50-50.

In his mind, there was no doubt, no room for failure — only success.

“Basically that was the name of the game: I’m going to get them home. My team’s going to get them home. We will get them home,” Mr Kranz recalled.

Gene Kranz never said “failure is not an option” © Michael Wyke/AP
Gene Kranz never said “failure is not an option” © Michael Wyke/AP

For the record, Mr Kranz never uttered “failure is not an option”.

The line is pure Hollywood, created for the 1995 movie Apollo 13 starring Ed Harris as Mr Kranz and Tom Hanks as Mr Lovell.

The flight controllers went into crisis mode.

They immediately ordered the command module Odyssey shut down to conserve what little power remained, and the astronauts to move into the lunar module Aquarius, now a lifeboat.

Kevin Bacon (L) as Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, Tom Hanks (C) as Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell and Bill Paxton (R) as Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise as seen in the Hollywood movie Apollo 13 © Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Kevin Bacon (L) as Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, Tom Hanks (C) as Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell and Bill Paxton (R) as Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, as seen in the Hollywood movie Apollo 13 © Eric Robert/Sygma via Getty Images

One of the low points, Mr Lovell said, was realising they would be cramped together in the lander.

“It was designed for two people for two days. We were three people for four days”.

The carbon dioxide overload, from breathing, threatened to kill them.

The interior of the Apollo 13 lunar module with the “mail box”, an ad hoc device which the crew assembled while in space to remove carbon dioxide from the air © NASA/AP
The interior of the Apollo 13 lunar module with the “mail box”, an ad hoc device which the crew assembled while in space to remove carbon dioxide from the air © NASA/AP

Engineers scrambled to figure out how to convert the square air-purifying canisters in the dead capsule into round ones that would fit in their temporary home.

Their outside-the-box, seat-of-the-pants solution, using spacecraft scraps, worked.

But it was so damp and cold that the astronauts could not sleep.

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Condensation covered the walls and windows, and the temperature was close to freezing.

Dehydrated and feverish, Mr Haise had the roughest time during the six-day ordeal.

Despite the sky-high stress, Mr Haise recalls no cross words among the three test pilots.

Apollo 13 patch
Apollo 13 mission patch

Even Mr Swigert fit in, despite joining the crew a scant three days before liftoff.

He replaced command module pilot Ken Mattingly, who with his crewmates had been exposed to German measles, but unlike them did not have immunity.

Rumours swirled that the astronauts had poison pills tucked away in case of a hopeless situation.

Mr Lovell dispelled that notion on page one of his 1994 autobiography, Lost Moon, the basis for the Apollo 13 film.

Apollo 13 astronauts treading water as they await their recovery helicopter © Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Apollo 13 astronauts treading water as they await their recovery helicopter © Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Splashdown day finally arrived 17 April — with no guarantees.

The astronauts managed to power up their command module, avoiding short circuits but creating a rainfall inside as the spacecraft decelerated in the atmosphere.

The communication blackout lasted 90 seconds longer than normal. Controllers grew alarmed.

Finally, three billowing parachutes appeared above the Pacific.

It was only then, Mr Lovell said, that “we knew that we had it made”.

Apollo XIII Astronauts Motorcade in O'Connell Street, Dublin, 13/10/1970 © Independent News and Media/Getty Images
Apollo 13 Astronauts Motorcade in Dublin, Ireland 13 October 1970 © Independent News and Media/Getty Images

The astronauts had no idea how much their cosmic cliffhanger impacted the world until they reached Honolulu.

President Richard Nixon was there to greet them.

“We never dreamed a billion people were following us on television and radio, and reading about us in banner headlines of every newspaper published,” Mr Lovell noted in a NASA history.

The tank explosion later was linked to damage caused by electrical overheating in ground tests.

Apollo 13 “showed teamwork, camaraderie and what NASA was really made of”, said Columbia University’s Mike Massimino, a former shuttle astronaut.

In the decades since, Mr Lovell and his wife, Marilyn, of nearly 68 years have discussed the what-ifs and might-have-beens.

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“The outcome of everything is, naturally, that he’s alive,” she said, “and that we’ve had all these years”.