Apollo 13: Remembering 'A Successful Failure' [Slideshow]

"Houston, we've had a problem here." That's the actual quote from Jim Lovell, uttered on April 13, 1970, after an oxygen tank exploded on the Apollo 13 spacecraft. The explosion left a crippled spacecraft with little water or power, no chance of completing its mission to visit the moon's surface and only slim hope for returning safely to Earth. Miraculously, NASA engineers solved the problem and brought the crew safely back home on April 17 - 44 years ago.

The story of Apollo 13 is a tale of courage, tenacity, inspired improvisation and technical acumen, but it is also part of an enormous manufacturing and technology story. The Apollo program was the final leg of a space program challenged by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon in a decade.

The Apollo program, according to a 1973 NASA report, cost $25.4 billion, or approximately $135 billion in 2014 dollars. Other estimates put it at more than $170 billion. The project costs included research and development, as well as 15 Saturn V rockets, 16 command service modules and 12 lunar modules.

NASA noted that fabrication of the Apollo command and service modules posed "many fabrication problems."

"Solution of these manufacturing problems required application of skills in such areas as advanced electronics, fire retardant organics, plastics and cryogenic insulation, welding and brazing, adhesive and diffusion bonding, and machining, plus design and development of many tools and fixtures."

In fact, NASA noted, "almost all of the tools and fixtures used in fabrication and assembly of the command and service modules were designed especially for the Apollo program."

Amid this massive technological undertaking, a mismatch between a new power supply and a thermostat eventually led to an electrical probloem that caused the No. 2 oxygen tank on the spacecraft to become a bomb waiting to explode - and it did.

As the following slides show, the most remarkable part of the Apollo 13 story was not the historic engineering feat involved in creating the craft, but the inspired effort by the NASA team to bring their three crew members back to earth safely. In fact, the mission was deemed a "successful failure" because of the rescue.

On April 17, 1970, the crew returned to Earth. They received a hero's welcome, but the near miss helped fuel ensuing decisions to curtail missions to the moon. In many eyes, with Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, the space race was mission accomplished.

Of course, the Apollo 13 flight has been presented a number of times on film and television, with the best-known example the 1995 movie "Apollo 13," directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. Here is the most famous clip from the film:

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.