On April 11, 1970, when James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise climbed aboard the Apollo spacecraft they thought would take them to the moon, Americans felt that if they hadn’t tamed space, it was at least familiar territory. After two successful lunar landings, the nation had every expectation that the third one would be smooth sailing. But when Swigert stirred the craft’s oxygen tank 56 hours into the journey, a tremor shook the module that rippled throughout the entire world, as the three men quickly realized their chariot to the stars could soon become their tomb. Their spacecraft was crippled. They wouldn’t be making it to the moon, and they very likely wouldn’t be making it back home.
While humanity turned its eyes toward the astronauts hanging precariously between life and death, a small army of engineers, statisticians and more mobilized to come up with a plan to get the men back to Earth alive. The challenge of their task cannot be overstated. The spacecraft NASA launched into space consisted of two modules: Odyssey, where the astronauts were to live as they traveled to the moon and back, and Aquarius, the craft designed to land on the moon. Faulty wiring in one of Odyssey’s tanks caused an explosion when the astronauts performed a routine stirring of the tank’s contents, robbing their fragile home of most of its power and heat.
Flight Director Gene Kranz and others rallied to come up with a plan that allowed the astronauts to activate the dormant Aquarius and use it as a temporary shelter. Mission control calculated a flight plan that involved using a combination of the moon’s gravity and a fuel burn to direct the spacecraft home, while the astronauts huddled in the crippled Odyssey and prayed the craft’s heatshield wasn’t damaged. During the return trip to Earth, the astronauts had to shut down all of Aquarius’s nonessential systems to prevent the module’s electronics—which weren’t designed for long-term use—from burning out. Cold, hungry and dehydrated (almost all of their water supply was being used to cool down Aquarius’s systems), the three travelers lost a great deal of weight and one of them, Fred Haise, developed a kidney infection.
On April 17, 1970, the entire world held its collective breath as the crew crowded into the Odyssey and began their descent to Earth. Fortunately, the damaged module’s heat shield held and protected the crew inside from a fiery death. Forty-five minutes after splashing down in the South Pacific, all three astronauts were safely aboard the recovery ship Iwo Jima. Thanks to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of mission control, what could have been one of NASA’s darkest chapters had a happy ending.
This article appears in Newsweek's Special Edition, Amazing Miracles.