Page last updated at 06:50 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 07:50 UK

Apollo 13: Nasa's finest hour?

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News


Lovell's memories of Apollo 13

The Apollo 11 mission which set Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on to the surface of the Moon in July 1969 was arguably humanity's finest endeavour.

But to many the Apollo 13 mission was no less heroic - and, if anything, an even greater achievement.

Astronauts Jack Swigert, Fred Haise and their commander Jim Lovell were trapped in a spacecraft low on power, water and rising carbon dioxide levels.

Were it not for the ingenuity of the engineers at mission control and the bravery of the astronauts themselves, the three men would have died in space.

I have a dim recollection of the Apollo 11 mission. But as a seven-year-old I do have clear memories of Apollo 13. I remember how the world was gripped by the unfolding story of the astronauts trapped in space.

If I'd waited for some miracle I'd still be up there
Jim Lovell
Apollo 13 Commander

Normally, when my Dad turned on the news, it was my cue to leave the room. But during those dramatic days in April I, like millions of others, followed every twist and turn of the story of Apollo 13 on the radio and TV news bulletins.

For that fateful week in 1970, a world that had already become complacent about Moon missions was once again at one.

Forty years later, I had the opportunity to speak to the Apollo 13 Commander, Jim Lovell. My first thought was that he was nothing like Tom Hanks, who played him in the Hollywood film about the mission. But that was in a good way. He came across as kindly, whereas I'd expected "steely".

But as I spoke to him, it was clear that beneath his gentle exterior he had lost none of the focused strength that had helped him bring back his crew back to Earth. He told me that his first thought was how to fix the problem and get home.

"If I'd waited for some miracle I'd still be up there."

From l-r: Lovell, Swigert, Haise pose for their crew portrait (Nasa)
From l-r: Lovell, Swigert, Haise pose for their crew portrait

Lovell and his crew worked with the engineers at mission control to get to grips with the problem.

"One of the news broadcasters gave us a 10% chance when my wife happened to hear about it she was kinda worried about it," he told me.

"But as we worked our way through solving one crisis after another, our percentage of success increased".

The word "epic" is often overused. But the story of Apollo 13 deserves to be part of humanity's mythology to guide future generations.

"I think one of the things that showed the people of the world was that even if there is a great catastrophe, good leadership and teamwork, initiative and perseverance - these things make for getting an almost certain catastrophe into a successful recovery," he said.

Apollo 13 service module (Nasa)
An explosion tore away a protective cover on Apollo 13's service module

Lovell himself is humble about his own role. But even as he speaks matter-of-factly about what the astronauts were thinking, it's clear that this was a time when heroics were more common. These were extraordinary men capable of extraordinary things.

"The chances (of success) were low - but so long as we could still keep breathing - as long as we had the lunar module as a lifeboat we kept charging (ahead with the rescue plan).

"Our philosophy was: had we not been successful, we would have continued to broadcast our indications of what went wrong, what's happening - either until the last battery had died or the last bit of oxygen was gone."

And speaking of the scrapping of Nasa's current plan to return to the Moon, Lovell believes it is a temporary setback:

"Mankind is meant to explore. There is a certain group of us that live on the edge to do that sort of thing. And I think over the years regardless of budgets up or budgets down I think people will find a way of eventually going to Mars, not in my lifetime probably, but we will set foot on Mars one of these days."

Infographic (BBC)

Jim Lovell will be best remembered for his leadership of the Apollo 13 mission. But that's not his own enduring memory:

"Although everybody looked at Apollo 13 the high point of my space career was Apollo 8 - the first time we saw the far side of the Moon and the first time we saw the Earth as it really is, as a small body that you realise that everything you have ever known is down there."

In December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to leave the Earth and orbit the Moon. Lovell and his fellow astronauts were the first humans to see the Earth and a fragile beautiful blue planet shining in the desolation of space.

Humanity's conflicts seemed petty from this perspective. The need to protect its delicate ecosystem seemed pressing. It was a sight that moved the astronauts to read from the Bible's book of Genesis to the people of the Earth.

This was Lovell's passage:

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

"And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

"And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

"And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

For that moment in time it seemed that humanity was united and saw what the astronauts saw.

It was a moment that Lovell believes changed humanity for ever: "We were able to read something that was the basis of most of the World's religions, so we were hoping to get the people together."

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