50 Years Ago: How Simulators Saved Apollo 13

While Tele Vue Optics Inc. is CLOSED due to Covid-19 we’ll post items of interest to our readers on the blog from time-to-time.
A Note from Al Nagler
I’d like to thank Susan Sherwood, director of TechWorks! (www.ctandi.org) for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew.
I’m honored to be a part of the team she assembled to help restore the Lem simulator optics, which I designed at Farrand Optical Company, a sub-contractor to Grumman, working with GP-Link.
The simulators were used to train all the Apollo mission astronauts for moon landing — and played an important role in saving the Apollo 13 astronauts — as told in the following narratives.
Apollo simulators image courtesy of NASA.

The greatest untold story of the Apollo 13 mission is that of the spacecraft simulators.Gerald Griffin, Apollo Mission Control Flight Director

Apollo 13 was the third attempt to land astronauts on the Moon. The landing site chosen was north of Fra Mauro crater, on the opposite shore of Mare Cognitum from where Apollo 12 had landed five months earlier. It may be hard to believe now, but no major television network covered the launch of the 363 ft (110.6 m) tall Saturn V rocket as it slowly lifted off Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970 at 2:13 p.m. EST. Trips to the Moon had quickly become blasé in the public imagination and only the Center staff, spectators, and people living on the Space Coast turned their heads to follow the crew as they began their journey into space on a tail of flame.

Apollo 13 mission patch image and description is courtesy of NASA. Apollo, the sun god of Greek mythology, was represented as the sun, with three horses driving his chariot across the surface of the Moon, symbolizing how the Apollo flights have extended the light of knowledge to all mankind. The Latin phrase “Ex Luna, Scientia” means “From the Moon, Knowledge.”

The initial part of the mission was indeed uneventful for Commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise. But at about 55 hours, 55 minutes into the mission, Swigert calmly radioed flight control in Houston, Texas with the famous words: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The crew had felt a loud bang and were losing electrical power. His understated tone didn’t trigger any urgency until Commander Lovell looked out the window and told Houston the ominous news. “It looks to me, looking out the hatch, that we are venting something.” He repeated this for emphasis, stumbling over his words: “We are venting something out into the —  into space.” It was late in the evening of April 13, 1970 when the blasé faded and the news networks began to pay attention to the drama 210,000 miles (330,000 km) from Earth.

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