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Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 13 Two Months from Launch

John Uri |
February 12, 2020

The Apollo 13 prime crew of Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly and Lunar Module (LM) Pilot Fred W. Haise, and their backups John W. Young, John L. “Jack” Swigert and Charles M. Duke, continued to train for their 10-day mission that included a landing in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. Engineers continued to prepare their Saturn V rocket and spacecraft at the launch pad for the April 11, 1970 liftoff, completing the Flight Readiness Test of the vehicle on Feb. 26. All six astronauts spent many hours in flight simulators training for the mission, while the slated Moonwalkers practiced landing the LM and rehearsed their planned excursions.

One of the greatest challenges the astronauts faced during a lunar mission was completing a safe landing on the lunar surface. In addition to time spent in simulators, Apollo mission commanders and their backups trained for the final few hundred feet of the descent using the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) at Ellington Air Force Base, located near the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston. Used to simulate the flying characteristics of the LM, Bell Aerosystems of Buffalo, New York, built three copies of the LLTV for NASA. The first vehicle, LLTV-1, was lost in a crash in December 1968. Apollo commanders trained using LLTV-2 until managers cleared LLTV-3 for flight in January 1970. Both Lovell and Young completed several flights in February 1970. Due to scheduling constraints with the LLTV, the LM pilots trained for their role in the landing using the Lunar Landing Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia. Haise and Duke completed training sessions with the Lunar Landing Research Facility in February.

Left: John Young after an LLTV training flight. Middle: Charles Duke practices LM egress during a KC-135 parabolic flight. Right: Duke rehearses unstowing equipment from the LM during a KC-135 parabolic flight. Image Credits: NASA

The Moonwalking astronauts also rehearsed the spacewalks they planned to conduct on the lunar surface. During parabolic flights aboard NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, which simulated the low lunar gravity, the astronauts practiced exiting from the LM and descending the ladder to the surface. On the ground they rehearsed the Moonwalks, setting up the American flag and the large S-band communications antenna, and collected lunar samples. Engineers improved their spacesuits to make the expected longer spacewalks more comfortable for the crew members by installing eight-ounce bags of water inside the helmet to provide them with a way to remain hydrated.

Left: James Lovell (at left) and Fred Haise set up equipment, as well as the American flag and the S-band antenna. Middle: Lovell (at left) and Haise practice collecting rock samples. Right: Young (at left) and Duke train in collecting rock samples. Image Credits: NASA

During their near 34 hours on the lunar surface, Lovell and Haise planned to conduct two four-hour spacewalks to set up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP), a suite of four investigations designed to collect data about the lunar environment after the astronauts’ departure, and conduct geologic explorations of the landing site. The four ALSEP experiments included:

The Charged Particle Lunar Environment Experiment (CPLEE) designed to measure the flexes of charged particles;

The Cold Cathode Gauge Experiment (CCGE) designed to measure the pressure of the lunar atmosphere;

The Heat Flow Experiment (HFE) designed to make thermal measurements of the lunar subsurface;

And the Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE) designed to measure any moonquakes, either naturally occurring or caused by artificial means.

The HFE required the astronauts to drill into the Moon’s surface to bury the sensors up to a depth of three meters. A Central Station provided command and communications between the experiments and scientists on Earth, while a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator provided power to the experiments using the heat produced by the radioactive decay of the plutonium-238 fuel element. The astronauts planned to deploy and retrieve—after about 20 hours of exposure on the lunar surface—the Solar Wind Composition experiment, a sheet of aluminum foil that would collect particles from the solar wind for analysis by scientists back on Earth.

Left: Haise (at left) and Lovell practice lowering the ALSEP experiments from the LM. Middle:  Lovell (at left) and Haise practice setting up the ALSEP experiments. Right:  Lovell (left) and Haise practice drilling for the HFE. Image Credits: NASA

With one lunar mission just two months away, NASA continued preparations for the following flight, Apollo 14, then scheduled for October 1970 with a landing that would target the Littrow region of the Moon, an area scientists believed to be of volcanic origin. Apollo 14 astronauts, Commander Alan B. Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart A. Roosa and LM Pilot Edgar D. Mitchell, and their backups Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans and Joe H. Engle, spent much of their time learning spacecraft systems in the simulators. Accompanied by a team of geologists led by Richard H. “Dick” Jahns, Shepard, Mitchell, Cernan and Engle participated in a geology expedition to the Pinacate Mountain Range in northern Mexico between Feb. 14 and 18, 1970. In addition to learning the volcanic geology at the site, the astronauts practiced using the Modular Equipment Transporter (MET), a two-wheeled conveyance nicknamed the “Rickshaw,” to transport their tools and samples once on the lunar surface.

Left: Apollo 14 astronauts (left to right) Gene Cernan, Joe Engle, Edgar Mitchell and Alan Shepard with geologist Richard Jahns in the Pinacates Mountains. Right: (From left to right) Shepard, Engle, Mitchell and Cernan train with the MET, accompanied by Jahns. Image Credits: NASA

The release to scientists of the lunar material that the Apollo 12 astronauts returned from the Moon’s Ocean of Storms in November 1969 followed a less formal process than the Apollo 11 samples. Although some scientists preferred to receive their samples in person, as occurred with the Apollo 11 samples, NASA began send most of the Apollo 12 material via certified mail on Feb. 13, 1970. In all, 139 U.S. and 54 international investigators in 16 countries received 28.6 pounds of material in the form of rocks, chips, fine material and thin sections, comprising a total of 1,620 separate samples. The scientists analyzed the samples for mineralogy, chemical composition, physical properties, and biologic and organic studies, reporting their results at the second Lunar Science Conference in Houston in January 1971. Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon and Alan L. Bean, accompanied by their wives and NASA and State Department officials, departed Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base on Feb. 16 for their 38-day Bullseye Presidential Goodwill World Tour. They first traveled to Latin America, making stops in Caracas, Venezuela, Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile, and Panama City, Panama, before continuing on to Europe, Africa and Asia.

 Left: Mailing out Apollo 12 lunar samples. Right: Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean ride in a motorcade in Lima, Peru. Image Credits: NASA

Early 1970 saw several significant management changes at NASA. Administrator Thomas O. Paine announced on Jan. 27 that he appointed Marshall Space Flight Center Director Wernher von Braun as deputy associate for planning at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., responsible for planning NASA’s future programs. Von Braun’s deputy, Eberhard Rees, succeeded him as Marshall’s director. On Feb. 13, NASA established a Space Shuttle Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center, naming Robert F. “Bob” Thompson as its chief. The small office initially concerned itself with developing requirements for the reusable space vehicle. President Richard M. Nixon, meanwhile, gave the official go-ahead for space shuttle development in 1972. On Feb. 24, NASA officially renamed the Apollo Application Program, designed to use leftover Apollo hardware to place an experimental space station into Earth orbit, as the Skylab Program, naming Kenneth S. Kleinknecht as its chief, who replaced Thompson. At the time, NASA planned to launch the Skylab orbital workshop in late 1972, followed by three astronaut crews staying aboard for 28, 56 and 56 days.

Left: Wernher Von Braun. Middle: Robert Thompson. Right: Kenneth Kleinknecht. Image Credits: NASA

News events from around the world in February 1970:

  • Feb. 6: The National Basketball Association (NBA) expands to 18 cities, with teams in Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston and Portland.
  • Feb. 11: Japan becomes fourth nation to put a satellite (Osumi) into orbit.
  • Feb. 13: Black Sabbath releases the first heavy metal album.
  • Feb. 21: Jackson 5 make a TV debut on “American Bandstand.”
  • Feb. 26: The Beatles release the “Beatles Again” album, better known as the “Hey Jude” album.
Location of the planned Apollo 13 landing site on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA
Location of the planned Apollo 13 landing site on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA
Plot of the first spacewalk at Fra Mauro. Image Credit: NASA
Plot of the first spacewalk at Fra Mauro. Image Credit: NASA
Plot of the second spacewalk at Fra Mauro. Image Credit: NASA
Plot of the second spacewalk at Fra Mauro. Image Credit: NASA