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Apollo 13 panel
The Apollo 13 panel, moderated by David Hartman (left), at EAA AirVenture last month. (credit: E. Hedman)

Apollo 13 splashes down in Oshkosh

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It has been 45 years since Apollo 13 survived an in-space explosion that could have led to tragedy. Instead, it became one of NASA’s greatest triumphs. EAA AirVenture commemorated the 45th anniversary of the mission with a presentation to an enthusiastic at this year’s event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Hosted by David Hartman, former host of Good Morning America, the panel included the two surviving members of the crew, James Lovell and Fred Haise. It also included Bill Reeves, a lunar module flight controller; and Milt Windler, the Maroon Team Flight Director.

I am one of those old enough to remember the drama of the Apollo 13 mission. Unlike most of America at the time, I was not bored with flights to the Moon.

I wondered as I started this article what to write about, when this story has been told so many times, including the movie Apollo 13: what can I relate that is new? Rather, what I can offer is a recap of the key moments of this evening and what the experience of being at this presentation was like.

I am one of those old enough to remember the drama of the Apollo 13 mission. Unlike most of America at the time, I was not bored with flights to the Moon. This was a mission that, until the explosion onboard, didn’t get nearly as much media attention as the previous missions. I guess the “been there, done that” syndrome had already set in with much of the country. That all changed the moment the explosion in one of the three oxygen tanks happened. The whole world paid attention for the rest of the mission.

While Lovell and Haise are well known to most space enthusiasts, the other two panelists are probably less familiar to readers. Bill Reeves graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in electrical engineering in 1967, got a job right out of college developing electrical systems on the lunar module for the Apollo missions. By the time Apollo 13 flew he was one of the lunar module flight controllers for the mission. He continued on with NASA until 2001 in various aspects of the Space Shuttle program, including serving as flight director for several missions. In 2001 he joined United Space Alliance.

Milt Windler was a flight director for five Apollo missions (8, 10, 12, 14, and 15) in addition to the Apollo 13 mission. He was the lead flight director for Apollo 13 and all three of the Skylab missions. He worked on the Space Shuttle on Remote Manipulator Systems operations from 1973 to 1978. He was the recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and part of a group that received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During the evening presentation, guided by Hartman, panelists told several stories about the events roughly in the sequence they happened during the mission. Some of the stories were outside of the scope of the Apollo 13 mission, but helped provide the background for the mission. It was an entertaining and informative evening that made me feel a bit in awe that I was in the presence of legends.

Jim Lovell related the story about being on Apollo 8, the first human mission to lunar orbit, when they were the first to see the far side. He said that he, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders were like three schoolkids in a candy store window looking at the far side. I can imagine these three as young kids with their noses pressed against the window glass saying “wow” at the same time. He also mentioned looking at the Earth and then holding his thumb up, hiding it, and thinking how it covered everything he ever knew. To me this is at the heart of why humans explore. It is why I always want to see what is over the next hill. I think this is the core of human nature that allowed humans to rise to where we are today.

Lovell added that, looking back, Apollo 13 was the best thing that happened to NASA because it showed the world what they could do.

The panel talked a bit about the inaccuracies in the movie Apollo 13. One of the inaccuracies was the scene where they are doing the course correction burn while approaching Earth. In the movie they are showing the very shaky view of the earth out of the window. This scene is wrong in two ways. First, the burn was perpendicular to the path to Earth and all they could see out the window ahead was the blackness of space. The second thing wrong was that telemetry said that they varied from the direction they needed to point by less than a degree. There was no wild shaking.

Another inaccuracy in the movie was the argument between Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. It never happened. Ron Howard said he needed the argument to show stress. Other inaccuracies were scenes where Ed Harris playing Gene Kranz in situations that actually happened with Milt Windler, who was on shift as the flight director. Directors assume the audience can’t follow or relate to too many characters in a two hour movie.

Fred Haise talked about what it was like right after the explosion. He said there were no books for the situation. There was no procedure for powering down the mothership. Yet, he said there was no panic and no arguments. When you hear about how the crew and the support people on the ground worked together to save the crew you marvel at what they accomplished. After the explosion, everything that had to go right did. The creative thought by the key people involved that made it so was absolutely amazing. This tells me NASA did a very good job of selecting the crews and the people on the ground with the best of our species expanding our presence even temporarily into the universe.

In summary, Fred Haise said he was extremely disappointed he didn’t get to land on the Moon, but looks back and thinks he is extremely fortunate to be alive. Jim Lovell said that without the explosion there would have been no movie, and we would not know the phrases “failure is not an option” and “Houston we have a problem.” He added that looking back it was the best thing that happened to NASA because it showed the world what they could do. Bill Reeves added that, for a short time, the adventure unified the world.

For a mission numbered 13 that launched at 13:13 Central time and suffered bad luck, it became a legendary adventure because of great skill and composure by the people involved. To be at a presentation by this remarkable team is a rare privilege that I am grateful to have experienced. This is a good example of the kinds of things you can witness at EAA AirVenture. That is why I plan on attending frequently in the coming years. Even better yet, you need to make the journey to witness events like this for yourself.