Note: To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, for 13 days, Universe Today will feature “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13,” discussing different turning points of the mission with NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.
After Flight Director Gene Kranz and his team in Mission Control had ascertained the true peril the Apollo 13 crew faced following the explosion of an oxygen tank in the Command and Service Module, they next faced a big decision. What was the best way to get the astronauts back to Earth? Do they get them home as fast as possible, or as safely as possible? The final decision they made likely saved Apollo 13.
“Immediately after the explosion, some recommended a faster return using the powerful service propulsion system (SPS), the engine designed for the retro burn into lunar orbit and the subsequent firing to propel the crew homeward to Earth,” said NASA Engineer Jerry Woodfill.
Using these engines to execute a direct abort burn would allow the crew to turn the spacecraft around, come around the front side of the Moon and be back to Earth within a day and a half. This was the quickest option, but it meant using the SPS, which were very near the area that had exploded on the CSM. No one knew if the engine had been damaged, too.
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The risk of using using the lunar module’s descent engine was an unknown. If it failed or blew, or if the burn wasn’t executed perfectly, the crew could impact the Moon.
The other option was to go completely around the Moon on a so called free-return trajectory, which would take between four to five days to get back to Earth. But would the crew have enough consumables to survive that long?
This flight plan, too, called for an engine burn to set the spacecraft on the correct path back to Earth. But should they use the SPS engine, which was designed for this maneuver but could be damaged, or use the use the descent engine on the Lunar Module, which had never been designed for this type of use?
In his book, “Failure is Not an Option,” Kranz said it was purely a gut feeling that made him choose to take the long way – to go around the Moon and use the descent engine on the lunar lander rather than the CSM.
“Later, Gene Kranz shared he felt a foreboding about using that engine,” said Woodfill. “Nevertheless, even the use of the lander’s descent engine had some risk. The system was not expected to be fired more than once on a lunar mission. It was designed for descent from lunar orbit to landing. To use it for both Apollo 13’s mid-course correction burn (to return to the free-return trajectory) and a subsequent firing to accelerate the journey home amounted to a second firing.”
With the first burn of the LM engines working as hoped, the crew swung around the far side of the Moon (some records indicate Apollo 13 traveled the farthest distance from the far side of the Moon, making them the crew that traveled the farthest away from Earth), Mission Control considered a second burn.
Without the second burn the ship’s trajectory likely would have successfully returned the crew to Earth approximately 153 hours after launch. This provided less than an hour of consumables to spare, a margin too close for comfort.
After a much discussion and calculating, the engineers in the Mission Evaluation Room (MER) and Mission Control determined the LM’s engines could handle the required burn. So, the descent engine was fired sufficiently to boost their speed up another 860 feet per second, cutting the flight time to 143 hours – which provided a better margin for survival.
But what if the SPS engines had been fired? We will never know for sure, but Woodfill said the final photo taken of the damaged command ship after jettison from the reentry capsule appeared to show a slight deformation of the SPS engine nozzle. He believes the SPS panel adjacent to the exploding O2 tank severed the four horns from the mast of the hi-gain communication antenna system. Likely, the shrapnel from the devastating impact with those four dishes ricocheted into the SPS engine bell compromising its use. A hole in the engine’s thrust nozzle would have been catastrophic.
“The fiery bazooka-like blast of the explosion might have cracked the heat shield and damaged critical parts of that engine,” said Woodfill. “The engine’s systems were adjacent to the tunnel-like chimney located in the center of the service module. If the nozzle was deformed, surely, there would have been a potentially fatal consequence of its firing, akin to the loss of the Challenger resulting from the failed solid rocket (SRB) engine.”
Woodfill said that likely, the use of the SPS would have triggered the caution and warning combustion chamber high temperature alarm. “And its use might have made Apollo 13 a fiery meteor-like streak of light never to reach Earth,” he said. “Though a successful firing would have landed the crew days earlier in the Indian Ocean, the peril was too great.”
Tomorrow, Part 5: Unexplained Shutdown of the Saturn V engine
Other articles from the “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13” series: