Leadership, Initiative Brought Apollo 13 Home

Leadership, initiative and the great minds at Mission Control brought Capt. James Lovell Jr. and his two shipmates back to Earth safely in 1970.

Lovell, the keynote speaker Sunday, was captain of the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission. The mission, which was supposed to be the third lunar flight landing, took off at 13:13 CST on Saturday, April 11.

“Right then, I should have known something was going to happen,” Lovell said.

Not only did something happen, several things kept on happening. Soon after launch, one of the engines on the second stage rocket shut down two minutes too soon. Lovell said if there had not been a safety switch, the engine and the ship would have disintegrated.

“Almost every flight has some sort of crisis,” he said, “an experiment doesn’t work, something goes wrong. We thought, ‘Now we’re safe. Our crisis came at the beginning of this flight. Now we’re in good shape.’”

On day three of the flight, just after a national broadcast that was roundly ignored by the networks—Lovell said he heard a hiss and a bang and the ship started rocking. At first, nobody knew what was happening. Mission Control told the astronauts that something was wrong with their electrical system and two fuel cells—which provided both oxygen and power—had died. The landing on the moon couldn’t happen now and even a return to Earth was looking iffy.

“I looked up at the instrument panel, my eyes happened to focus on an instrument that told me the condition of two huge liquid oxygen tanks stored way back of the spacecraft,” Lovell said. “One needle read zero. When I looked at the gauge on the second tank, the needle started going down ever so slightly. … That’s when the old lead weight went down to the bottom of my stomach.”

Lovell said he looked out of the left side and saw gas escaping from the rear of the ship. The second and last oxygen tank was leaking. Without it, they would lose the last fuel cell, all electricity, the propulsion system and even breathable air.

“We were in serious, serious trouble,” he said.

The ship had lost all power to its command module, the ship that was supposed to take them home. They had to transfer over to the lunar module, which had no heat shield for re-entry, skin thin enough to punch through with a fist and was designed to support only two people. There were three astronauts.

Lovell said the astronauts used the lunar lander’s engines to position the command module for re-entry. After almost missing the Earth and nearly suffocating due to an air scrubber failure, the crew finally made it home, splash landing in the Pacific Ocean “a couple of days early.”

“So what’s the moral of this story?” Lovell asked. “I shouldn’t really be here—200,000 miles out, no oxygen, no electrical power, going in the wrong direction. … I’m here really because of those characteristics—good leadership, initiative, trying to figure out ways of solving problems. … Lots of things the people on Earth (at Mission Control) thought about were worse than the situation we were in, but they kept working. That’s why I’m here.”

Lovell said one thing kept the astronauts huddled inside that little module in the inky blackness of space going.

 “You have to have a positive attitude in anything that you want to do. We had that on 13,” he said.

“There was never any talk in 13 about not getting home. Every time we had a crisis—and they’d come up one after another—we’d try to figure out how to get over that crisis. It’s like playing solitaire. You keep pulling up a card and as long as you place the card someplace, the game keeps going. It’s only when you pull up that card and there’s no place to put it that the game has ended. That did not happen on Apollo 13.”