13 Things that Saved Apollo 13

On the night of April 13th, 1970, when the oxygen tank in Apollo 13’s Command and Service Module exploded, a 27-year-old engineer named Jerry Woodfill sat at his console in the Mission Evaluation Room at Johnson Space Center, monitoring the caution and warning system he helped create for the Apollo spacecraft.

“It was 9:08 pm, and I looked at the console because it flickered a few times and then I saw a master alarm come on,” Woodfill said, talking from his office at JSC where he has worked for almost 45 years. “Initially I thought something was wrong with the alarm system or the instrumentation, but then I heard Jack Swigert in my headset: “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” and then a few moments later, Jim Lovell said the same thing.”

And so began the most perilous but eventually triumphant situation ever encountered in human spaceflight.

2010 is the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13, and Universe Today had the chance to talk with Woodfill about his role in Apollo 13, a mission which many believe should have ended fatally for astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. But it didn’t, and the mission has come to be called a “successful failure.”

What things were responsible for that success – the overcoming of odds – to rescue of the crew?

Since Woodfill was there in the thick of the action, he has some ideas on how to answer that question. But also, for the past 40 years he has studied the Apollo13 mission in intricate detail, examining all the various facets of the rescue by going through flight transcripts, debriefs, and other documents, plus he’s talked to many other people who worked during the mission. Fascinated by the turn of events and individuals involved who turned failure into success, Woodfill has come up with what he calls “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll share Woodfill’s insights and discuss each of those 13 turning points. What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13!

But for today, besides giving our readers a preview of what is to come the next 13 days, we’ll take this opportunity introduce you to Jerry Woodfill.

Jerry Woodfill working in the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room. Credit: Jerry Woodfill.

While attending Rice University on a basketball scholarship, Woodfill was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech delivered at Rice. Woodfill turned in his basketball shoes and focused on his studies of electrical engineering, hoping to become part of the space program.

He came on board at NASA just in time to work on helping to build the Apollo spacecraft.

“I spent years working with contractors, engineers, flight controllers and astronauts on the caution and warning system, or the alarm systems for both the lunar lander as well as the command ship,” Woodfill said.

He compared the alarm system to the lights that come on in an automobile when the battery is low or the generator isn’t working. “We had to come up with the best means of telling the astronauts they had a problem. We had to make sure the alarm system worked right. ”

Woodfill said that like most of the NASA team, he knew the workings of the command ship and lander more intimately than any of his college courses would have required, but that prepared him for any problems that might arise.

The Mission Evaluation Room. Credit: Jerry Woodfill.

During the Apollo missions Woodfill worked in the Mission Evaluation Room, which is NOT the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) or “Mission Control” as it is known. MER was in a building adjacent to the Mission Control building. Woodfill has written a webpage detailing the difference between the MER and MOCR.

“We were an unsung group,” Woodfill said. “We were there for mission support. We weren’t flight controllers, but we were experts. For other missions that were routine we didn’t play that big of a role, but for the Apollo 13 mission, we did play a role.”

Woodfill tends to downplay both his role and the importance of the MER. “Comparing the 1970s era MER to the Mission Operations Control Room would be akin to comparing the Queen Mary to a weekend boater’s cabin cruiser,” he said. “Likewise, comparing my role in the rescue to Gene Kranz and Glen Lunney’s would be more incomparable.”

For a truly unbiased opinion, however, Chapter 11 of Jim Lovell’s book “Lost Moon” (renamed Apollo 13 after the movie of the same name came out in 1995) details how important the people in the Mission Evaluation Room were. Yes, the “MER-men” were important!

While many may say the way Apollo 13 turned out was luck or a fortuitous turn of events, Woodfill said he tends to lean towards providence.

Over the next 13 days, perhaps we’ll find out!

And if Woodfill’s name is familiar to Universe Today readers, you may recall how he found the “lost” lesson plans of the teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, and brought them “back to life” so to speak, as they are now being used by many teachers and Challenger Learning Centers.

Listen to an interview of Jerry Woodfill that I did for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

Additional Articles in the “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13” that have now been posted:

Part 1: Timing

Part 2: The Hatch That Wouldn’t Close

Part 3: Charlie Duke’s Measles

Part 4: Using the LM for Propulsion

Part 5: Unexplained Shutdown of the Saturn V Center Engine

Part 6: Navigating by Earth’s Terminator

Part 7: The Apollo 1 Fire

Part 8: The Command Module Wasn’t Severed

Part 9: Position of the Tanks

Part 10: Duct Tape

Part 11: A Hollywood Movie

Part 12: Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

Part 13: The Mission Operations Team


Your Questions about Apollo 13 Answered by Jerry Woodfill (Part 1)

More Reader Questions about Apollo 13 Answered by Jerry Woodfill (part 2)

Final Round of Apollo 13 Questions Answered by Jerry Woodfill (part 3)

Never Before Published Images of Apollo 13’s Recovery

Fate of Apollo 13 Crew Might Have Been Much Different Than Originally Thought

When the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft returned to Earth following their aborted moon mission in 1970, no one really knew if the command module would come in at the proper angle to avoid burning up in the atmosphere or even skip off the atmosphere and be bounced out into space. If the CM did skip off, the crew might be destined to spend a fatal eternity out in space. Or would they? Author Andrew Chaikin, who wrote the Apollo chronicle “A Man on the Moon,” asked Analytical Graphics lnc. (AGI) to do a computer simulation of what would have happened, and they found things could have been much different than originally thought. Watch this video, narrated by Chaikin to find out.

April 2010 will be the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13.
Continue reading “Fate of Apollo 13 Crew Might Have Been Much Different Than Originally Thought”

Apollo 13 Pictures

Apollo launch

Here are some Apollo 13 pictures. You can make any of these pictures into your computer desktop background. Just click on an image to enlarge it, and then right-click and choose “Set as Desktop Background.

Here’s a photo of the Apollo 13 mission launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. It launched on April 11, 1970, just a few days before its accident in space, which has been turned into a popular movie.


This is an image of the Apollo 13 re-entry capsule returning to Earth, slowed by three large parachutes. Because of the accident, Apollo 13 kept its lunar lander attached to the Command Module for the entire trip around the Moon and back to Earth. They jettisoned it at the last minute just before re-entering the atmosphere.

lifted aboard a helicopter

Here’s a photo of the Apollo 13 capsule floating on the ocean after its landing. You can see command module pilot John L. Swigert Jr being lifted up by a helicopter.


And here’s a photo of Commander Jim Lovell being lifted up into the helicopter. He was the last of the three astronauts lifted up to safety after their capsule landed in the ocean.

command module

This is an image of the Apollo 13 command module, which was normally used by the astronauts through the mission. Their command module had to be powered down to save power so they had to use the service module after the accident.

We’ve written many articles about Apollo 13 for Universe Today. Here’s an article about what really happened on Apollo 13, and here’s an article about the Apollo 13 launch.

If you’d like more information on Apollo 13, here’s a link to NASA’s Apollo 13 mission page, and here’s more information on the accident.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the NASA capsules. Listen here, Episode 124: Space Capsules.

What Really Happened on Apollo 13?

Apollo 13 crew reflects on the mission from David Meerman Scott on Vimeo.

Hear the story of what really happened on Apollo 13 from two of the astronauts who were on board, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise. Lovell provides great detail on the history of the oxygen tank and why it exploded, and both Lovell and Haise have some great stories to share about the flight, movie inaccuracies and more. Thanks to David Meerman Scott from Apollo Artifacts who took this video at the Kennedy Space Center at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation event on November 6, 2009.

Also on Apollo Artifacts, check out a video of short speech by Neil Armstrong who gave a tribute to the Apollo 12 crew at the flight’s 40th anniversary gala on November 7, 2009.