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Now You Can Join Apollo 13's Astronauts in Real Time

Now You Can Join Apollo 13's Astronauts in Real Time
The Apollo 13 crew before launch, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A simulation on overcoming the worst of times, from a space accident 50 years ago

Nayanika Mukherjee
March 28 , 2020
04 Min Read

"Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here”.

Sounds a bit off? You’re probably more familiar with the phrase Tom Hanks used in 1995 space drama Apollo 13.

Hanks played Jack Swigert, the command module pilot of Apollo 13, who along with Fred Haise and Captain James Lovell, was one of three astronauts on NASA's third mission to the moon.

Apollo 13 launches from the Kennedy Space Center in 1970

These were Swigert’s original words when he first heard a ‘large bang’ aboard the spacecraft. They were echoed by Lovell moments later. The crew soon realised that their oxygen tanks had malfunctioned, which starved two fuel cells. Mission control forbade them from entering lunar orbit unless all cells were operational, and with debris surrounding the spacecraft, they couldn’t use the stars for navigation.  

In what can only be called the most careful case of jugaad, the Kennedy Space Center guided them on using the lunar lander (which had enough oxygen) to return home. If the accident had happened on the original return journey, when the lander was already abandoned, the astronauts would have certainly died. 

Mission Control Operations Room, with astronaut Fred Haise on screen. This was the last TV transmission en route to the Moon before the accident

You can now relive Apollo 13’s journey to the moon and their critical, lifesaving innovations with a new website that was launched this year. Apollo 13 in Real Time is a mission experience portal designed by Ben Feist, a NASA contractor, who spent eight months gathering historical material surrounding the flight. And Feist’s been pretty thorough.

The website has captured around 90 per cent of the documents and footage from the mission, including transcripts, pictures of the Earth and from inside the command module, and 7,200 hours of audio recordings from mission control. Just to put it in perspective, that’s 300 days of space talk. 

Part of the site's interface. It's quite detail-heavy

Timing is everything here, and the site’s been curated to make you feel like you are one of the astronauts working through the crisis. The photos and videos appear as they were taken—Earth as a distant crescent, the Moon’s craters close enough to touch—and chat logs show every bit of human warmth amid the frigidity of space: 

046:44:36 - Lovell > It might be interesting that just after we went to sleep last night we had a Master Alarm and it really scared us. And we were all over the cockpit like a wet noodle.

046:44:45 - Kerwin > (Laughter) Sorry, it wasn't something more significant. I've also got a procedure for you on that H2 tank; simple thing after you get done stirring up the cryos.

046:44:59 - Lovell > Okay.

046:46:55 (Music)

046:47:10 - Kerwin > That was beautiful. What was it?

046:47:16 - Lovell > A little of 'With Their Eyes on the Stars' to wake up to.

046:47:24 - Kerwin > Sounds like all the comforts of home. Have you guys got a flower on your breakfast table?

046:47:33 - Lovell > Yes. Jack!

When you first enter the site, there’s an option to watch the launch (‘T-minus 1m’) or directly join the crew’s progress according to your timezone and how it would correspond to their time of day in 1970.

A navigation bar at the top of the website splits the experience into ‘Countdown’, ‘On the Way to the Moon’, ‘Problem’, ‘Returning to Earth’ and ‘Recovery’, with game changing moments marked as and when the astronauts discovered them. Milestones and commentary urgently take you through every step of the accident, and a declining graph shows the crippling levels of oxygen.

A commemorative stamp from Fujeira, depicting the Apollo 13 crew, from 1972

We spent a solid three hours studying the photos taken on board and the crew’s audio logs with mission control. As you can imagine, there was immense hardship on the journey back home—three men fit into a lander for two, and suffered through limited power, a freezing cabin, water shortages and the chance of carbon dioxide poisoning, until safely splashing down into the Pacific Ocean. Around 40 million Americans watched the re-entry, their interest in the space programme renewed, albeit a bit cruelly. 

Poignant yet inspiring, Apollo 13’s perseverance has much to teach us about working through adversity and cramped quarters. The mission anniversary is coming up on April 11, when we’ll still be under a lockdown. Here’s to a nice bit of positive escapism?


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