Wednesday, July 24, 2024

On This Day In Space: April 17, 1970: Apollo 13 returns home from aborted moon mission

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On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 returned to Earth after narrowly avoiding a deadly disaster in space. This was supposed to be the third mission to land on the moon.

Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise launched on April 11 and were two days into their trip to the moon when an oxygen tank exploded, and NASA had to abort the mission. When the astronauts called mission control to report the incident, Swigert uttered the famous quote, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” 

Related: NASA’s Apollo 13 Mission of Survival in Pictures

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(Image credit: NASA)Image 2 of 8

View of Mission Control Center during Apollo 13 Splashdown (Image credit: NASA/JSC)Image 3 of 8

The crewmembers of the Apollo 13 mission step aboard the USS Iwo Jima, after splashdown and recovery operations in the South Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970. Exiting the helicopter from left to right are Fred Haise, James Lovell and John Swigert. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)Image 4 of 8

At April 18, 1970 post-mission ceremonies, President Richard M. Nixon and the Apollo 13 crew pay honor to the United States flag at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. Nixon presented astronauts Jim Lovell (seen here saluting the flag), Jack Swigert (right) and Fred Haise (left) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Image credit: NASA)Image 5 of 8

A large crowd of onlookers watches President Richard M. Nixon bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team — the highest civilian award. (Image credit: NASA)Image 6 of 8

After hours of peril from the apparent explosion to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the Apollo 13 astronauts made it back to Earth safely as the command module splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970, at 2:07 p.m. EDT (1807 GMT). The capsule splashed down only 4 miles (6 km) from the prime recovery ship. The three astronauts were safely transported by helicopter to the USS Iwo Jima. (Image credit: NASA)Image 7 of 8

After the successful splashdown of the Apollo 13 command module and the three astronauts on board, crew from the USS Iwo Jima hoisted the spacecraft out of the water. (Image credit: NASA)Image 8 of 8

At the Missions Operations Control Room in Houston, two flight controllers oversee consoles as they watch the Apollo 13 command module drop through the sky toward the south Pacific Ocean with three NASA astronauts on board. Behind the camera, a large crowd of people gather to watch the splashdown and recovery operations from the control room. (Image credit: NASA)With the service module running out of oxygen, they opted to use the lunar lander as a lifeboat. Because the oxygen was also used to power the spacecraft’s fuel cells, they were also running out of power. They shut down all nonessential systems and turned down the heat, and spent four cold, miserable days heading back to Earth. 

They had to go back into the service module for reentry, and they didn’t know if their heat shield had been damaged by the explosion. Luckily they survived reentry and safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

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Hanneke Weitering is an editor at with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos. 

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