Chapter 10: The return

The Trinity

The Return 

Houston, we’ve had a problem (James A. Lovell).

Ask and you shall receive (Mt 7:7).

On April 11, 1970, the seventh manned mission in the US space program, Apollo 13, was launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2016). The astronauts on board the mission were James A. Lovell, jr., Commander; Fred W. Haise, jr., pilot of the lunar module, Aquarius; and John L. Swigert, jr., pilot of the command module, Odyssey (National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], 2009). The mission was intended to be the third lunar landing attempt and Apollo 13 was set to land in the Frau Mora highlands of the moon (US Congress, 2010). But the unexpected took place.

Two days into the mission, which had been characterized by uneventfulness and being “bored to tears” (NASA, 2009) as reported by the capsule communicator, John Kerwin, the second oxygen tank on board the service module exploded after it had been stirred as part of routine maintenance procedures. The explosion resulted in the failure of the first oxygen tank. The mission of Apollo 13 became crippled.

Critical supplies of electricity, light, and water were lost aboard the spaceship. The oxygen supply started being vented out into space in an uncontrollable manner at a high rate per second and the fuel cells started to die. The entire Sector Four panel of the service module had been blasted away by the explosion and wreckage was hanging out. Aquarius became a ‘lifeboat’ for the crew, despite having been designed to hold no more than two men for just two days[1] (The New York Times, 1970). The astronauts were 200,000 miles away from the earth. 

Limited power, limited and decreasing availability of drinking water aboard the Aquarius and the Odyssey, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the interior of the Aquarius, became factors of significant concern in the survival and return of the astronauts (NASA, 2009). Stringent measures were put into place to try and conserve as much power, water, and breathable air as possible, until the crew could be returned home to earth. Makeshift repairs became the order of the day. The astronauts became dehydrated and lost a total of 31.5 pounds in weight – almost 50% more than any other crew of the Apollo missions. Sleep was not possible except for a few brief periods, because the temperature inside the Aquarius had dropped to 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

The main question for everyone became “How to get back safely to earth?” (ibid.). Both in space and on the ground, the fear and anguish was that the astronauts would never return (Arnold, 1970a, b). The Parisian newspaper Le Monde ran the headline: “The whole human race is participating with them in the agony of their return” (ibid.). Developing emergency return procedures were written out by flight controllers in just a few days, with considerable ingenuity and under extreme pressure. However, there remained the unsolvable problem of the heat shield (NASA, 2009). No one knew if it had been damaged or otherwise in the explosion, and whether it would hold up during the re-entry of the Odyssey.

The astronauts had a three-minute window in which to attempt to make a correct re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and re-acquire signal with Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Just three minutes; no more, no less. During this re-entry window, there would be a communications blackout between the command module and Mission Control due to the ionization of the air.

In the meantime, the Odyssey was caught up in unexplained drift. If the re-entry angle of the command module was too shallow on the one hand, the capsule would bounce off the atmosphere of the earth. If the re-entry angle was too steep on the other hand, the capsule would come to a fiery end from the extreme heat resulting from friction with the atmosphere. A hurricane was also looming near the intended splashdown site in the Pacific Ocean.

The US Senate and the US House of Representatives[2] passed a joint resolution calling upon the American people to cease whatever they were doing at 9:00pm Eastern Time and “join in prayer [to God] for the safety of the astronauts” (Arnold, 1970b; NASA, 2004). They also called upon businesses nationwide and the mainstream media to pause and observe a silent minute of prayer at the same time. Pope Paul XVI offered Masses at the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City. He told a general audience of about 10,000 people that “We cannot forget at this moment the lot of the astronauts of Apollo 13. We hope that at least their lives can be saved” (NASA, 2004). An “outpouring of prayer” (Arnold, 1970b) resulted both in the US and throughout the world.

Masses and special services asking God for His divine intervention were held at thousands of churches and synagogues across the nation and elsewhere, regardless of religious denomination. Special services were held on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Prayers were offered at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

The governments of France, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom offered to help the US government with the recovery operations. Other nations offered their ships. The Premier of the Soviet Union at the time, Aleksei N. Kosygin, told the US government that “I want to inform you the Soviet Government has given orders to all citizens and members of the armed forces to use all necessary means to render assistance in the rescue of the American astronauts” (NASA, 2004). The television newscaster, Walter Cronkite, declared, “Perhaps never in human history has the entire world been so united by such a global drama” (Federer, 2015).

Pray, serve, and hope, everyone did across the globe and they did this without preference; without cease. And God – the God of miracles – responded.

On April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 took six minutes (instead of the regular three minutes) to re-enter the atmosphere of the earth[3] and re-acquire signal. The communications blackout lasted from 142:39 to 142:45, according to the log of the flight director, Gene Krantz (Pappalardo, 2007). The heat shield held and all three astronauts returned to earth alive and unharmed nine minutes later at the splashdown site in the Pacific Ocean. They were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima. The prayers of millions of human persons worldwide had been heard.

On April 19, 1970, President Nixon gave public thanks to God for the safe return of the crew of Apollo 13:

“When we learned of the safe return of our astronauts, I asked that the Nation observe a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving . . . This event reminded us that in these days of growing materialism, deep down there is still a great religious faith in this Nation . . . more people prayed last week than perhaps have prayed in many years in this country . . . We pray for the assistance of God when . . . faced with . . . great potential tragedy” (American Minute, April 19).

The principles, words, and morale of the Apollo 13 mission hold true to this day. May the glory be given to God, now and forever, by all human persons of goodwill.
[1] It had to hold three men for almost four days.

[2] Both the House and the Senate were controlled by the Democrats.

[3] Lovell later reported that he had no explanation for how the extra three minutes had occurred in relation to the window for re-entry, without fatal consequences ensuing for the crew.