Apollo 13 remembered 45 years later

James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, left, and Fred Haise, an astronaut on the mission, acknowledge applause at a reunion of the mission in Oshkosh, Wis. At right is flight director Milt Windler. (Photo: Bob Collins/MPR News)

America has a love affair with one of its most spectacular failures — the aborted moon mission of Apollo 13 in which astronauts and NASA invented a solution to an insurmountable problem, literally on the fly.

Last night in Oshkosh, people who declared that “failure is not an option,” joined the surviving two astronauts — Jack Swigert died in 1982 — celebrating its 45th anniversary.

“It might be the last time America agreed on a single goal,” interviewer David Hartman said. And that’s a bittersweet comment because everyone on stage last night is now an old man. But they were once the swashbuckling kids who had the right stuff. The average age of a NASA employee during Apollo was 28.

Commander Jim Lovell, who also uttered a pretty famous line — “Houston we have a problem” — said his spaceship “took off at 1313 central standard time and I should’ve realized something would go wrong.”

Lovell wasn’t supposed to be on the flight. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, was but NASA thought Shepard needed more training because he’d been grounded with an inner ear problem for several years after his famous spaceshot.

This is a story best understood by remembering the technological times of 1970.

“The onboard computer was about one-tenth of a megabyte,” astronaut Fred Haise said, noting today’s cars are much more sophisticated than the ship that carried him to the moon.

The astronauts scrambled to the lunar lander, and powered their ship down to just 300 watts as they swung around the moon like a slingshot headed for home.

“It was like a ‘not in my backyard’ thing,” flight director Milton Windler said. “Everyone said we should conserve power but no one wanted their systems turned off.”

“The mother ship was never supposed to be shut down; there was no plan for how to do it,” Haise said.

It’s been 45 years, and the attempt to master a failing technology is still stunning.

The story has been told, of course, by the Tom Hanks movie. Lovell took issue only with a scene in which Swigert and Hayes had a fight. “It didn’t happen,” he said.

And Haise said a scene in which earth bounced around in their window during a critical orbit burn also didn’t happen. “The earth didn’t move 1 degree,” he said.

Photo: Associated Press

“We had the second most accurate splashdown of the Apollo program,” Hayes said of the safe return, a tribute to a moment in history that actually became American history.

“I was obviously disappointed,” said Hayes, who was to be the sixth human to walk on the moon. “But I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity I had.”

Lovell said Apollo 13 was the best thing to happen to NASA. “It brought out the teamwork, it brought out the leadership. Things were getting awfully routine,” he said.

“The world came together in a unified way,” Haise added.

“Too bad it didn’t last.”

Related: Remembering Apollo 13, NASA’s Most Famous ‘Successful Failure’ (NPR)