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Talking E: The Real Heroes of Apollo 13 – The Engineers Who Saved the Astronauts’ Lives

September 8th, 2011

In 1970, the near-disaster of Apollo 13 was turned around not by astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, but by a team of well-trained engineers on the ground.

When Swigert (not Lovell) reported to mission control that “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” a team of life-support systems experts at the Johnson Space Center swung into action to help initiate one of history’s most famous rescues.

In 2005, the Apollo 13 Crew Systems Division, led by Robert “Ed” Smylie, received the first ever Great Moments in Engineering Award for their life-saving efforts. Smylie accepted the award on behalf of his team at Space Center Houston.

“It was certainly crucial, the problem we solved,” Smylie said later. “If we did not have a solution to the problem, then the crew would not have survived.”

What Happened?

Two Apollo missions had successfully landed on the moon before Lovell’s crew blasted off on April 11, 1970. But as the spacecraft was nearing the moon, an external oxygen tank overheated and exploded, crippling the electrical system. Two of Apollo’s three fuel cells, a primary source of power, were also lost.

Any hope of a lunar landing was instantly abandoned, and Mission Control moved into rescue mode. The mission became a race to get the astronauts back to earth safely.

The Race Was On

The astronauts were forced to retreat to the cramped lunar lander attached to their command module capsule, to preserve enough electrical power for the trip back to Earth. The first challenge for Smylie’s team of engineers was how to keep the air in the lunar module cleansed of the carbon dioxide the three astronauts were exhaling. There was a very real risk of the astronauts running out of oxygen.

Working in a short timeframe, the engineers had to use materials that would be available to the astronauts on their spacecraft. They ended up using rugged plastic cut from a garment stowage bag, cardboard from reference manuals, a sock and of course, duct tape, in the gadget they developed to cleanse the air in the lunar lander. They also incorporated canisters designed exclusively for use in the command module.

Astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert would have died without the engineers’ quick thinking, said John Schneiter, president of GlobalSpec, the New York company that presented the Great Moments in Engineering Award. The engineers on the ground had to figure out a solution, then tell the astronauts how to make the fix. “They had to make it right the first time,” Schneiter said. “It had to work, and son of a gun, it did.”

Haise said the device was tricky to build, but it worked. “Had someone not figured that out, we wouldn’t have survived… We had confidence the right people had been brought in and would work it out,” he said.

To outsiders, it looked like a stream of engineering miracles was being pulled out of a magician’s hat as mission control identified, diagnosed, and worked around life-threatening problem after life-threatening problem to bring the Apollo back to Earth. But what happened behind the doors of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston wasn’t a trick, or even a case of engineers on an incredible lucky streak. It was the manifestation of years of training, teamwork, discipline, and foresight.



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