Episode 503: Apollo 13: Explosions, Starvation, and Duct Tape

Released Friday, 31st July 2020
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On this episode of the Sofa King Podcast, we look at the infamous flight of NASA’s Apollo 13. Made famous for a new generation by the film of the same name, this was one of the most important moments in all of space flight. A critical error on the way to the moon led to the three astronauts cramped into a small lunar lander built for 2 passengers the whole way home. They were low on power, venting oxygen, couldn’t scrub the CO2 from the air, were starving (their food was frozen and dried), and one of them was sick with an infection. How did they survive? This was the 13th Apollo mission, and many said that is the number of bad luck. Well, maybe. The Apollo missions were created by John F Kenedy as a race to the moon to help win the Cold War, and after Apollo 11 landed on the moon (or didn’t, depending on your beliefs), there were still a bunch of Saturn V rockets left over. NASA used them for more missions to the moon, and Apollo 13 was to be the third mission that would land humans on the lunar surface.

The crew was commanded by James Lovell and included the pilot of the lunar module Fred Haise, and pilot of the command module John Swigert. They were 200,000 miles out when they made a news broadcast for the folks back home. Nine minutes later, an alarm sounded related to a hydrogen tank. They went to mix the tank, so it wouldn’t freeze, and the ship suddenly buckled and shuttered.

There had been an explosion. They lost two oxygen tanks and were venting a third, and they had to make quick, hard decisions to try and make it around the moon and back to Earth.

Ground control came up with miraculous secondary uses of technology to keep them fed and breathing. But it was freezing cold since there wasn’t enough power to run a heater. They were losing weight due to lack of food and dehydration, and one of them caught a kidney infection due to lack of water (they needed to preserve the water for critical ship functions). So, how did they calculate the return burn of the engine to get them home after their equipment was destroyed? How did duct tape help save the day? What became of the astronauts? What happened to the Plutonium that was in the wreckage that made it back to earth? Why did one company require a towing bill for bringing part of the ship back from the moon? Listen, laugh, learn.

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