RoundupReads Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 13 One Month to Launch

Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 13 One Month to Launch

by John Uri | 2020-03-11

One month remained until the launch of Apollo 13, NASA’s third planned lunar-landing mission. The prime crew of Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot Thomas K. “Ken” 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 with a scheduled launch date of April 11, 1970.

During the mission, Lovell and Haise planned to make a landing in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon to conduct geologic surveys and set up scientific experiments during two spacewalks, while Mattingly would remain in lunar orbit to conduct photographic surveys of the Moon. In a change from previous lunar missions, the Saturn V rocket’s S-IVB third stage — used to propel the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and toward the Moon — would be sent on a trajectory to deliberately impact the Moon rather than sent off into solar orbit. The impact of the rocket stage would be detected by the seismometer left behind by the Apollo 12 astronauts and provide information about the Moon’s interior. Similarly, the LM’s ascent stage would be sent on an impact trajectory once no longer needed, after the astronauts had returned from the lunar surface.

Left: Ken Mattingly describes his lunar orbit trajectory to reporters. Right: Apollo 13 astronauts (left to right) James Lovell, Mattingly and Fred Haise hold their mission patch following the preflight press conference. Image Credits: NASA

On March 9, first Mattingly, and then the entire crew on March 14, met with the press to describe their planned mission in detail and answer reporters’ questions. Mattingly described a major change from the two previous lunar landing missions: Once in lunar orbit, the Service Module’s propulsion system would perform a descent orbit insertion burn, placing the Command and Service Module (CSM), still docked with the LM, into an elliptical 8-by-66-mile orbit. This maneuver would conserve LM propellant for the descent, improving the chances for the needed pinpoint landing for optimum science results. The astronauts displayed their mission patch, which included a painting of three horses symbolizing the three crew members and their mission name and number. Instead of their names, the patch bears the Latin motto “Ex Luna, Scientia,” meaning “From the Moon, Knowledge,” stressing the increased emphasis on scientific return from the mission. The crew revealed the call signs for their spacecraft they planned to use during the mission — Odyssey for the CSM and Aquarius for the LM.

Left: Map of the Apollo 13 landing site in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. Right: The plaque with the astronauts’ signatures that was mounted on the leg strut of their LM Aquarius. Image Credits: NASA

One of the greatest challenges astronauts faced during a lunar mission entailed 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 near the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, later renamed NASA’s Johnson Space Center. On March 9, Lovell completed demonstration flights of the LLTV for assembled reporters and afterward answered their questions.

Apollo 13 Commander Lovell at the controls of the LLTV during a training flight. Image Credit: NASA

The U.S. Navy and NASA designated the USS Iwo Jima as the prime recovery ship for Apollo 13. Under the leadership of its skipper, Capt. Leland E. Kirkemo, Iwo Jima’s sailors and U.S. Navy Frogmen began training for the recovery of the crew and the spacecraft. Procedures to maintain biological isolation of the crew to prevent any possible back-contamination of Earth with lunar pathogens remained essentially unchanged from Apollo 12. Although scientists found no evidence of lunar microorganisms in any of the Apollo 11 and 12 samples, because Apollo 13 would visit a different area of the Moon, and out of an overabundance of caution, managers decided to maintain the quarantine procedures. Following splashdown, a Frogman would briefly open Odyssey’s hatch and hand the crew members clean overalls and respirators. Once properly attired, the astronauts would egress onto life rafts to be lifted, one by one, onto a helicopter using a Billy Pugh net and transported to the Iwo Jima. Along with a NASA flight surgeon and an engineer, the three astronauts would enter the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) awaiting them on the ship. After offloading at port in Hawaii, a transport plane would carry the astronauts in the MQF back to the MSC, where they would enter the Lunar Receiving Laboratory to complete their three-week quarantine.

Left: Sailors aboard the USS Iwo Jima practice recovery operations with a boilerplate Apollo capsule. Right: Frogmen and sailors practice recovery operations with a boilerplate Apollo capsule.

Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon and Alan L. Bean, accompanied by their wives and NASA and State Department officials, continued their 38-day Bullseye Presidential Goodwill World Tour. After stops in Latin America, the group made a rest stop in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands before continuing on to Europe. Cities visited there included Lisbon, Portugal; Luxembourg; Copenhagen, Denmark; Helsinki, Finland; Bucharest, Romania; and Vienna, Austria. The tour continued on to Africa, with stops in Rabat, Morocco; Tunis, Tunisia; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Tananarive, Malagasy Republic. After that, it was off to several stops in Asia before returning home to the United States.

Left: Pete Conrad (left) presents a national flag of Romania, flown to the Moon aboard Apollo 12, to President Nicolai Ceausescu in Bucharest. Right: Conrad (foreground at left) presents a national flag of Tunisia, flown to the Moon on Apollo 12, to President Habib Bourguiba in Tunis.

News events from around the world in March 1970:

March 5 – The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty went into effect after being ratified by 47 nations. 

March 5 – John Frusciante, rock guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is born in New York City.

March 7 – A total solar eclipse passed along the U.S. Atlantic coast region. 

March 10 – France made the first successful launch of its new Diamant-B rocket from its new space center in Kourou, French Guiana, placing the DIAL satellite into orbit.

March 11 – Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani end first Iraqi-Kurdish War.

March 15 – The Expo ‘70 World’s Fair opened in Suita, a suburb of the Japanese city of Osaka.

March 18 – Queen Latifah is born as Dana Elaine Owens in Newark, New Jersey.

March 30 – Secretariat, an American thoroughbred racehorse and Triple Crown winner in 1973, was born  at the Meadow Stud farm in Doswell, Virginia.

March 31 – After 12 years in orbit, Explorer 1, the first American satellite, burned up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere

Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell speaks with reporters assembled to cover his LLTV flight. Image Credit: NASA