Apollo 13: Misconceptions and myths endure

April 17, 2020 marks 50 years that NASA's ill-fated Apollo 13 ended with the recovery of all crew members. "Houston, we have a problem…" is just one detail about the mission that is inaccurate.

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When NASA's third planned lunar landing mission, Apollo 13, lifted off on April 11, 1970, there was no reason to assume it would go down in history as the greatest "successful failure" in space exploration history.

56 hours into Apollo 13's flight, the activation of its oxygen tank stirrers caused a short circuit resulting in a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the number two oxygen tank and quickly drained the first, leaving the three men on board without a source of fresh air.

Fuel cells on board also failed, leaving James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise adrift, heading toward the moon, and with little chance of survival.

Survive they did, touching down in the south Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970, with all three men safe and sound.

Myths and misconceptions about the mission have continued in popular culture in the years after Apollo 13's near-deadly mission, with several having their origin in the 1995 film "Apollo 13." 

The film was praised for its technical accuracy, but there were two things that happened in it that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, have persisted in popular consciousness.

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

"Houston, we have a problem…"

The emotional impact of such uncertainty coming from the mouth of mission commander James Lovell is easily one of the most memorable statements in film history—who hasn't quoted it at some point?

But that's not what was said, or who said it. 

In reality, when a warning light came on after the initial explosion, pilot John Swigert said "OK, Houston, we've had a problem here." When asked for clarification, Lovell then repeated "Houston, we've had a problem." 

It was never said in the present tense, but, to be fair, the mythical version is far more suspenseful.

There would have been no deep space loss of the capsule

It has long been held that, had Apollo 13's crew failed to correct their trajectory, they would have hurtled into deep space, lost forever. Simulations run in 2010 proved otherwise.

Had the astronauts not fixed their course they would have missed Earth on their first go-around, but entered into a massive 350,000 mile orbit that would take them back around Earth and toward the Moon, where they would pass approximately 30,000 miles outside of the Moon's orbit.

At 30,000 miles the Moon's gravity would have had enough pull to alter Apollo 13's course and point it straight at Earth, where it would eventually enter at an angle that would cause it to incinerate in the atmosphere. 

The model predicted it would have taken until late May 1970, for Apollo 13 to burn up in orbit, making it a very grim outcome had things happened differently.

There's no easy way out in space

Writing about the mission, James Lovell said there were several ill omens leading up to Apollo 13's launch, many of which he chose to overlook, "and I must share the responsibility with many, many others for the $375 million failure of Apollo 13. On just about every spaceflight we have had some sort of failure, but in this case, it was an accumulation of human errors and technical anomalies that doomed Apollo 13."

One thing Lovell said the crew didn't discuss was the possibility of being marooned in space. "Jack Swigert, Fred Haise, and I never talked about that fate during our perilous flight. I guess we were too busy struggling for survival."

Once home, Lovell was bombarded by questions, and reasonably so. An odd one stuck out to him, and it bears repeating here: There's no backup option for doomed astronauts in space.

"Since Apollo 13 many people have asked me, 'Did you have suicide pills on board?' We didn't, and I never heard of such a thing in the 11 years I spent as an astronaut and NASA executive."

You can learn more about Apollo 13, and the tech behind it, at TechRepublic. Check out our 50th anniversary gallery of Apollo 13 images, another gallery celebrating the software, hardware, and coders behind Apollo, our long form article about the unsung heroes of Apollo: The coders, and follow our NASA and space Flipboard for the latest space tech news.

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Fred Haise (left), Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell on April 10, 1970, the day before the Apollo 13 launch.