Astronaut relives perils of Apollo 13

Fred Haise recounts mission in talk at community college


When astronaut Fred Haise talks to audiences about his experience on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in April 1970, he likes to quote a number to his audiences: 400,000.

That is the number of people who worked on the Apollo program, including contractors and subcontractors, he told listeners at Howard Community College this week.

"Very few people appreciate the number of people who worked on the program," he said. "They have no idea what it took."

At the lecture Tuesday, which was part of HCC's celebration of its opening in 1970, Haise talked about the team effort involved in all of the Apollo missions. That was especially true when they had to bring the Apollo 13 crew home after a malfunction in an oxygen tank caused an explosion that damaged the ship, emptied the fuel cells and depleted the oxygen supply.

With guidance from the ground, the three astronauts on board survived for four days in the lunar module - the vehicle intended to land on the moon - with limited systems and supplies and returned safely to Earth.

Haise said that when they had to power down the main ship "it had me worried for a little while," because there was no backup plan for that contingency.

But, he said, he knew there was a team working on the ground to solve the problem. "They got less sleep than I did, many of them."

Haise began his talk with clips from the 1995 movie Apollo 13, which brought the mission to life for many people who were too young to witness it.

Haise, referring to actor Bill Paxton's depiction of him, said, "I am now best remembered as the astronaut who threw up in space."

He said that the film captured the technical details well, and it was certainly dramatic. "After a while, it had me worried about how it would end," he said.

But mostly, "They carried through one theme very well ... a team working together under the right leadership to make sure [we returned safely]," he said.

Haise also shared some historical footage of the mission and talked about the space program at the time.

He said of all the Apollo flights that involved a lunar module, Apollo 13 had the second-least number of things go wrong, even though it had the most serious problem.

Astronauts go through thousands of hours of simulated flights that involve solving problems in the mission, he said. For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, "handling things that don't work right is the name of the game."

Haise also explained that when he went to the moon, NASA computers had no chips. The machines on the ground were hand-wired and housed in huge cabinets with spinning spools of tape.

The computers on the Apollo craft had less than one-tenth of one megabyte of memory, he said. "You've got more than that ... in your cell phones today."

Haise trained as a backup commander for the Apollo 16 mission, and would have gone into space on Apollo 19, but the program was canceled before he had the chance.

He went next to business school and then joined the project office for development of the space shuttle. He commanded the first test flight in which the Enterprise flew on its own.

Despite the notoriety of the Apollo mission, Haise said that early shuttle flight "professionally, was the highlight of my career."

Haise spent 17 years working for Northrop Grumman Technical Services, where he became president of the Space Station Program Support Division before retiring.

Haise said today that NASA faces difficult questions about how to use its resources in the coming years.

Haise, drawing on an analysis he credited to astronaut Neil Armstrong, said the Apollo program benefited from four things: a perceived threat (in 1970, it was concerns about Russian technological superiority), strong national leadership, no other large project vying for funding and technology to make advances possible.

"I don't see those things aligned right now," he said.

But, he said, space exploration is vital to the survival of the human race. Not soon, but someday, humans may need to live somewhere other than Earth, he said. "That should be the ultimate goal of why we have a space program."

After his presentation, Haise signed autographs and posed for pictures with members of the audience. Among them was Glaci Hines of Columbia, who earned a degree in aerospace studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after Haise spoke at HCC several years ago and encouraged her to attend.

Her husband, Ty Hines, is an amateur astronomer who said, "I'm on cloud nine. He's an icon of the icons."

Earlier in the day, Haise spoke to an HCC physics class, providing a welcome change of pace for the students.

Amy Lynne Bers of Ellicott City said she enjoyed Haise's encouragement to "follow your passion."

"We don't talk about that in our classes," she said. "We're sitting in class, doing all this work. We have to think, what are we doing this for."

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