Behind the Scenes of Apollo 13
Apollo 13 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida as an audience watches.
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13—manned by Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module pilot John L. Swigert, and Lunar Module pilot Fred W. Haise– launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida into space. Though the crew reported a slight engine miscue during launch, Apollo 13 appeared well on its way towards completing another historic lunar landing.
A day prior to launch, President Nixon called the three astronauts of Apollo 13 at Cape Kennedy from the Oval Office and wished them well in their courageous endeavor. Aware of the astronaut Thomas K. Mattingly’s unfortunate removal from the mission just three days prior to launch due to his exposure to German measles, President Nixon graciously took the time to contact him to express his sentiments. The President would not be attending Apollo 13’s launch, but the call nonetheless lifted the astronauts’ spirits. In his place in Florida was Vice President Agnew and the President’s personal guest, German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Three days later, on the day he was also hosting the Prime Minister of Denmark in the East Room for a formal state visit, President Nixon was notified by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Chief-of-Staff H.R. Haldeman that Apollo 13 experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure. After calling a meeting with several of his assistants, the President dialed NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine at Mission Control Headquarters in Houston, Texas.
Paine informed the President that one of the two oxygen tanks aboard the service module of Apollo 13 had ruptured, causing a rapid buildup in pressure which appeared to subsequently damage other areas of the service module. At this point, the crew and Command ruled out any possibility of executing a successful lunar landing. Since the crew was already well into their route towards the moon, Command decided, with the consensus of the crew, that Apollo 13 would have to complete its rendezvous with the moon instead of initiating a difficult mid-flight abort. The safest option available would have the crew use the gravitational pull of the moon to return the ship to Earth.
With knowledge of the severity of the incident, President Nixon cancelled all afternoon appointments and made an impromptu visit to the Goddard Space Center in Maryland for a further briefing.
The President left the White House at 4:39 in the afternoon of April 14 for the Goddard Space Center, accompanied by his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic policy adviser John D. Ehrlichman, and Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. After being greeted by Dr. John F. Clark, Director of the Goddard Space Center, the President received a situation report, led by Collins, on the flight of Apollo 13.
The President speaking with Dr. Clark at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland on April 14, 1970.
The following memo references the Goddard Space Center visit and demonstrates some of the concerns the President had for not only the pilots in space but for the flight directors on the ground, who were making the difficult decisions.
Since the moment the critical incident aboard Apollo 13 occurred, President Nixon and his staff worked diligently to remain well-informed of the situation. As reflected in this administratively confidential memo regarding control of information about Apollo 13, the White House sought to consolidate its information sources and through its contacts, provided a status update for top personnel.
It was at this time that President Nixon began to think of the messages he needed to convey to the public. In a memo dated April 15, 1970 at 5:45pm, presidential aide Dwight Chapin advised Haldeman of the necessity for a contingency plan in case disaster struck the Apollo 13 crew.
In the case of disaster, Chapin as well as astronaut Frank Borman agreed that the President should go to Mission Control Center to reaffirm his support of the Apollo program. They also believed that the President should visit the homes of the fallen astronauts to pay his personal sympathies. They suggested that the President posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 crew, albeit done at a later and more agreeable time. Though none would hope for these suggestions to become reality, the administration nonetheless had to prepare for all possibilities.
At the behest of President Nixon, his speechwriters prepared contingency remarks for response to messages received at the White House regarding the Apollo 13 mission. Below are these remarks, prepared for the outcomes in which the astronauts did and did not land safely:
The magnificence of space travel garnered the utmost respect even among adversaries. Amid the urgency of the Apollo 13 crisis, several foreign countries conveyed messages of support to the United States. Perhaps the most intriguing support came from the Soviet Union. Below is the Russian-language original of the April 15 letter from Chairman Kosygin, written to President Nixon offering Soviet assistance in the rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts.
William Anders, executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council and a former astronaut, was the primary liaison for the President and his staff. He set up what amounted to be a White House information center communicating all status reports to the White House. Below is a report he compiled for White House staff, dated April 16, announcing that no new problems had developed since the oxygen tank explosion.
With the Anders memo, it was beginning to look more likely that the crew of Apollo 13 would limp its way home safely. Well-timed firings of the lunar module engine coupled with precise course corrections positioned Apollo 13 on a path towards successful re-entry. On April 17, the day Apollo 13 was scheduled to safely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, Collins and Anders met with the President in the oval office and briefed him on the aspects of a successful re-entry.
Former astronauts William Anders and Michael Collins brief the President on Apollo 13’s final leg in its tumultuous journey.
At 1:08 pm, April 17, 142 hours 54 minutes and 41 seconds after launch, Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. A heart-wrenching drama had ended in jubilation.
President Nixon, Kissinger, Collins, and Anders watch in anticipation Apollo 13’s re-entry.
President Nixon immediately telephoned the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, the aircraft carrier tasked with retrieving the Apollo 13 astronauts from the Pacific Ocean, and spoke briefly with the exhausted men. After the phone call, the President delivered a statement to the nation.
For much of mankind the reaches of space had never seemed so infinitely remote as they did when Apollo 13 was crippled nearly a quarter of a million miles from earth, headed toward the moon.
With Astronauts Lovell, Haise, and Swigert safely back on earth, a surpassing human drama that gripped the world for 3 1/2 days at last has a happy ending. Their safe return is a tribute to their own courage and also to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those on the ground who helped transform potential tragedy into a heart stopping rescue.
From the beginning, man’s ventures into space have been accompanied by danger. Apollo 13 reminds us how real those dangers are. It reminds us of the special qualities of the men who dare to brave the perils of space. It testifies, also, to the extraordinary concert of skills, in space and on the ground, that goes into a moon mission.
To the astronauts, a relieved Nation says “Welcome home.”
To them and to those on the ground who did so magnificent a job of guiding Apollo 13 safely back from the edge of eternity, a grateful Nation says “Well done.”
The following day, April 18, President Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon set out aboard Air Force One for Houston to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 mission operations team. During the ceremony, the President acknowledged how crucial the ground team acted in bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back home safely.
We often speak of scientific “miracles”—forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence. The men and women of the Apollo 13 mission operations team performed such a miracle, transforming potential tragedy into one of the most dramatic rescues of all time. Years of intense preparation made this rescue possible.
Soon after, the President and First Lady flew to Honolulu, Hawaii, to award the Apollo 13 pilots the highest civilian honor. To them, he affirmed the world’s faith in space exploration and its appreciation of the Apollo 13 mission:
Your mission served the cause of the space program because of what you did. It means that future manned flights to space which will be made by our space program will be safer. Your mission served the cause of international understanding and good will.
I think I can truthfully say that never before in the history of man have more people watched together, prayed together, and rejoiced together at your safe return, than on this occasion.
You did not reach the moon but you reached the hearts of millions of people on earth by what you did.
Finally, your mission served your country. It served to remind us all of our proud heritage as a nation; to remind us that in this age of technicians and scientific marvels, that the individual still counts; that in a crisis, the character of a man or of men will make the difference.
President Nixon awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to (from left to right) Fred W. Haise, Jr., James A. Lovell, Jr., and John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr.