Geek Trivia: One for the money, two for the tow

How much was the "towing bill" presented to NASA contractors by the makers of the Apollo 13 lunar module?

The character of human beings is often measured by how they deal with crisis. Case in point: The Apollo 13 disaster, which saw a trio of American astronauts fighting for their lives aboard a crippled spacecraft tens of thousands of miles away from Earth. NASA administrators and scientists worked tirelessly to get Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert home -- and the manner in which NASA dealt with this daunting task is often viewed as a textbook example of successful crisis management.

For example, NASA didn't dwell on the cause of the oxygen tank rupture, but merely how to deal with it. As soon as Lovell radioed in his famous understatement -- "Houston, we've had a problem" -- every available expert was brought in to solve that problem. This meant establishing available assets, not bemoaning what was lost. Those assets largely comprised an almost entirely undamaged Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which could serve as a lifeboat once the Command Service Module (CSM) had to be abandoned. More importantly, the explosion had occurred very early in the mission, when the LEM and the CSM had a maximum store of supplies that could be called upon to help the astronauts survive the impending four-day ordeal.

Following the establishment of assets, NASA set about to apply those assets to reach the goal -- three astronauts safely returned home. Despite the fact that the LEM was only intended to keep two men alive on the lunar surface for two days, it had enough oxygen to support a trio for four days, as the cabin would not have to be repressurized after moonwalks. Instead, the astronauts had to jury-rig carbon-dioxide scrubbers to keep the abundant air clean for the extra duration. The LEM's landing thrusters also had to be used to make course corrections, and electrical power had to be conserved, so heating was shut down and communications were kept to a minimum.

These ingenious endeavors saw Lovell, Haise, and Swigert home safely. When the astronauts' return was assured, NASA and its associates actually indulged in another time-honored tradition of successful crisis management: a little post-gallows humor. North American Rockwell, which built the LEM, got a jab in at Grumman, which built the damaged CSM. The former sent the latter a "towing bill" for aid rendered to its craft and passengers, complete with itemized calculations for a final (though not inconsiderable) sum.


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