Failure Is Not An Option

Drawing of the Apollo 13 Service Module. The spherical No. 2 oxygen tank is shown in the middle.
Drawing of the Apollo 13 Service Module. The spherical No. 2 oxygen tank is shown in the middle.

An oxygen tank exploded in the Apollo 13 service module during a flight to the Moon on April 13, 1970. The blast caused an immediate loss of oxygen, electricity, and navigation control. But at the time of its sudden rupture, none of the astronauts or NASA mission controllers were aware of the flaw. Until the splashdown of the three-man crew on April 17, the American space program worked every avenue to ensure the safe return of their astronauts.

On Monday, Blastr released a YouTube user’s audio-visual recording of NASA communications between Mission Control in Houston and the Apollo 13 spacecraft. (Video below) The dialogue and technical speak is tricky to follow, and you have to sort out the many voices of engineers, astronauts, and the flight director. This crisis was unique, in that the distressed crew was physically between the Earth and the Moon, and they lacked answers to ensure their survival. NASA is not just a few guys bobbing around in space:  NASA is an army of highly trained specialists working around the clock to perfect (and correct) the systems and procedures that direct every mission. What you’ll find impressive from the 1970 recording is the cool and controlled way that ground personnel labored to identify problems and make a plan to salvage the spacecraft and protect the crew.

Their collective teamwork, discipline, intelligence, and skill in finding “workaround” solutions is described in Failure Is Not An Option, a must-have book on the history of Mission Control by flight director Gene Kranz.

NASA’s technical background on the oxygen tank and what happened on the inside of the Service Module can be read here.

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