Moments of terror submerged in technical glory of Apollo 13

January 08, 1995|By Douglas Birch

The Apollo astronauts were a team of chisel-jawed Ah-mur-i-cans, the best test pilots of the richest, most powerful nation in history.

They shot into space atop rockets the size of office buildings, spun around the moon and plopped onto its surface, leaving bootprints on soil devoid of any other form of life. They traveled in hideously complex, experimental craft. And they rushed to beat a deadline set by a martyred president, who promised they would explore the lunar landscape by 1970.

Why, then, did these first voyages of discovery to our cosmic next-door neighbor seem so tedious? How did NASA take mankind's greatest adventures and often make them about as exciting as watching someone fix a copying machine?

Well, consider this snatch of dialogue from the nonfiction book "Lost Moon," written by astronaut James Lovell and Baltimore native Jeffrey Kluger.

It's April 1970. Mr. Lovell and two other astronauts are 200,000 miles from Earth, two days into the Apollo 13 mission. An explosion rocks the spacecraft, and its electrical systems begin shutting down.

"Hey, we've got a problem here," says astronaut Jack Swigert, pilot of Apollo 13.

"This is Houston, say again please."

"Houston, we've had a problem," says Mr. Lovell, flight commander. "We've had a main B bus undervolt."

That's astrojock jargon for a loss of power that, unfixed, threatened to silence, blind, choke and finally freeze the three astronauts like giant Popsicles.

The ship continued to rock and roll in the aftermath of the explosion. Did anyone scream, "We're all going to die"?

No. Astronaut Fred Haise said, "We've had a pretty large bang . . . "

"Roger, Fred," says Houston.

A pretty large bang?

These guys would make Gary Cooper sound like Roger Rabbit.

Why so deadpan? By temperament and training, the astronauts were cool in the face of terrifying risks -- the better to think themselves out of a jam, of course.

But there were other reasons. One was that the astronauts were wired for sound, taped and monitored. Hundreds of people might be listening. If the networks were plugged in, the audience might swell to millions of people worldwide.

The astronauts even had to be careful of what they thought. One of the dramatic moments in "Lost Moon" is when Mr. Lovell rips off his chest the harness of sensors recording his heart and respiration rate.

He's afraid that, if the spacecraft fails, controllers could eavesdrop on his last terror-filled minutes as recorded in their readouts. But the act also serves as a symbol of what the book is about. Separating the man from his machine. The human being ripping free of the cold grip of technology.

So when an explosion tore through his spacecraft, James Lovell reported a "main B bus undervolt."

This was the challenge for the authors of "Lost Moon." They had to conduct some emotional archaeology -- to document the danger and translate the jargon and get inside the heads of the astronauts, of their families and the hundreds of others involved. To scrape the dust of time and technospeak away from the drama of that perilous voyage.

They succeeded.

Mr. Lovell and Mr. Kluger, a graduate of the University of Baltimore law school and a writer for Discover magazine, pored over video and audio tapes of the astronauts in the capsule, of their communications with the ground and of the discussions among controllers in Houston. Through extensive interviews with most of the surviving players, the book recounts what the astronauts, their wives and colleagues were thinking during the flight.

What they uncovered was the rich texture of the flight.

Take an inadvertent comment by Mr. Lovell.

As the damaged capsule approached the moon, he told Mr. Haise: "Freddo, I'm afraid this is going to be the last moon mission for a long time."

The commander thought he was muttering privately to his crewmate. He didn't realize that the switch on his microphone was flipped, so that his words were broadcast to the world.

NASA was "jolted" by the comment, the authors write. An astronaut expressing doubts! "[D]oubt in the mission, doubt in the program, doubt in the Agency itself. For NASA, it was profanity of the highest order."

Why? Probably because the underlying message was: What are we doing here in the first place? This previously unspoken doubt haunted many of the later moon missions. It was not an issue NASA wanted an astronaut to raise.

Another vivid moment: As planning began for Apollo 13 to jettison the damaged portion of the spacecraft, called the Service Module, astronaut Jack Swigert was gripped by the fear that he would push the wrong button.

The button to jettison the Service Module was right next to another one to jettison the lunar lander, which was then being used by the astronauts as a kind of lifeboat. They were docked with the lander, drawing on its power and oxygen supplies. There was an open passage between the two.

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