Terror in Space: Apollo 13


By: Nathan Chandler

6 Min Quiz

Image: Wiki Commons

About This Quiz

The Space Race of the 1960s resulted in the triumphant moon landing by Apollo 11. But not all of NASA's missions went quite so smoothly. How much do you know about the terrifying ordeal that was Apollo 13?

NASA launched Apollo 13 in 1970. What was the purpose of the mission?

In 1970, NASA sent Apollo 13 soaring into the sky towards the moon. It was the organization's third manned moon mission.


Why was one of the crew members replaced just days before launch?

Charlie Duke, one of the backup astronauts, caught rubella from one of his kids, and Duke exposed the other crew members. Astronaut Ken Mattingly had never had the virus, meaning he was more susceptible to getting sick -- so he lost his spot on the mission.


Astronaut Ken Mattingly was supposed to be the command module pilot on the mission. Who replaced him?

It was a crushing disappointment for Mattingly to be removed from the crew, but a dream come true for Jack Swigert, who was moved from backup to active crew member. Days later, Swigert may have been cursing the fact that he was onboard.


The mission encountered a problem two days after launch. What happened?

It was every potential NASA nightmare rolled into one singular event -- an oxygen tank exploded, damaging the craft and sending the crew and ground control into full emergency operations.


How many manned Apollo missions were there BEFORE Apollo 13?

There were six manned Apollo missions prior to 13. Those previous experiences played heavily into the entire team's efforts to save the crew.


Who was the commander of Apollo 13?

James Lovell was a backup commander for the first manned moon landing (Apollo 11) and finally got his chance to attempt a moon landing with Apollo 13. He was in command during this ill-fated mission.


Prior to Apollo 13, Commander Lovell had how much experience on space missions?

Lovell was NASA's most experienced astronaut. He'd already flown three space missions and logged nearly 600 hours of spaceflight time. But his biggest challenges came as part of Apollo 13.


After the oxygen tank exploded, Jack Swigert famously said what to mission control in Houston?

A movie about the incident took poetic license with the phrase and turned it into, "Houston, we have a problem." But in reality, Swigert said, "Houston, we've had a problem." And the problem was very, very big indeed.


Much later, NASA figured out what caused the explosion. What was the cause?

A manufacturing defect meant that there were exposed wires in one of the oxygen tanks. Testing should have caught the problem before the mission, but the issue went undetected. The men were left virtually stranded in space thanks to the catastrophe.


After the explosion, which problem did NOT occur?

The men did have backup lights to help them see. But they lost most propulsion and much of their power. Their water and oxygen supplies immediately began dwindling.


Why did the command module begin losing power after the explosion?

The command module relied on a blend of hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. With much of the oxygen supply gone, electrical power levels quickly began dropping.


With power and oxygen in the command module dwindling, what did the crew do?

The spacecraft had a lunar module intended for the moon landing. The crew shut down many of the command module's functions to conserve power and then huddled in the lunar module to stay alive.


The lunar module was equipped with oxygen to keep the men alive. What critical feature did it lack?

The men needed a way to return to Earth, but the landing module had no heat shield to protect them during re-entry. Their only hope was to stay alive in the landing module and then somehow keep the command module working long enough to get home.


What was the name of the all-important landing module keeping the men alive after the explosion?

Odyssey was the name of the command module -- Aquarius was the lunar module. Without Aquarius, the men would have died soon after the explosion.


When the explosion occurred, the men were 207,000 miles from Earth and zipping away from their home planet at what speed?

The men were aboard a wounded spacecraft, hundreds of thousands of miles from home and going in the wrong direction -- at 2,100 mph. For any normal human, the situation would be terrifying. But the astronauts didn't panic.


The men were instructed to burn the engines to adjust their course. What would happen if they didn't burn the engines for the precise amount of time?

Burn the engine for the wrong duration and the craft would miss Earth. And then the men would drift off into deep space … forever. Fortunately, that didn't happen.


Before the explosion, Swigert contacted ground control with concerns about which matter?

Swigert was in a joking mood when he mentioned that he forgot to file his federal taxes before blasting into space. It wasn't long before the light-hearted mood took a dark turn.


Part of the situation was broadcast on television.

Just prior to the explosion, the men were on live television. But the cameras weren't used again following the accident, in part because the men needed to conserve as much power as possible.


The power shortage meant that the heating systems couldn’t keep both modules warm. How cold did the command module get?

The abandoned command module dropped to about 39 degrees -- not freezing, but cold enough to cause condensation, which could have potentially resulted in all sorts of electrical problems.


As the situation deteriorated, the men realized they needed more lithium hydroxide, which served which purpose?

Carbon dioxide is a natural (and toxic) byproduct of human respiration. The men needed more lithium hydroxide to keep carbon dioxide levels under control. Otherwise, they'd run out of breathable air and then die.


The lunar module was low on lithium hydroxide, but the command module had plenty of the precious gas -- why couldn’t the men simply use the command module's supply?

The lunar module's construction wasn't compatible with the tanks on the command module. To fix this issue, ground control improvised an ingenious solution using found parts, and the astronauts successfully tapped into the command module's supply.


Why was Fred Haise in physical pain during much of the ordeal?

Haise developed a painful urinary tract infection during the mission -- a fact that made a terrifying mission just that much more difficult. The infection occurred because he wasn't drinking enough water.


The lunar module was designed to keep just two men alive for about 50 hours. In the end, it had to keep three men alive for how long?

The lunar module was never meant for three men. They were forced to stretch water, oxygen and battery power for 90 hours in order to survive the ordeal.


Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction even before the devastating explosion.

The explosion wasn’t the mission's first problem. During the launch, one of the booster rockets shut down early, forcing the craft to compensate using its other boosters. No harm, no foul, at least until the oxygen tank blew up.


As the men readied for re-entry, they had which concern?

They worried that the explosion might have damaged the craft's heat shield. If the shield wasn't working properly, the craft could break apart and kill the men inside as they scorched their way through dense atmosphere.


What other problem affected the crew before re-entry?

The normal procedure called for separating the lunar module from the command module before re-entry. The problem? There wasn't any power to do so, meaning the men had to find another way to detach.


A group of engineers on Earth was ordered to devise a brand-new way to separate the two modules. How much time did they have?

Six engineers had less than one day to invent an entirely new way to separate the modules, knowing that the lives of three men depended on their ideas. Incredibly, they concocted a plan to pressurize the tunnel between the two modules, an act that successfully separated them and gave the astronauts a fighting chance to survive.


After the men successfully separated from the other module, they finally got a view of the explosion damage. What did they see?

When the men saw the enormous blast holes on the side of the service module, they probably wondered how they were still alive. The module was devastated.


As the craft re-entered Earth's atmosphere, the tension was unbearable. Ground control expected about 4 minutes of radio silence due to atmospheric conditions. How long did the silence actually last?

Ground control waited … and then waited some more. Five minutes after radio silence began, they wondered if the craft had been destroyed on re-entry. Then, nearly seven minutes after radio silence began, they finally received a transmission that the men were still alive.


After the men were safe on Earth, what did Commander Lovell have to say about the mission?

Lovell called Apollo 13 "a successful failure." Although the moon landing failed, the mission showed how ingenuity and improvisation could be critical aspects of space travel.


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